Lost River Review


Last night I saw Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, and I loved it.  If you are a fan of directors like Nicholas Winding Refn or David Lynch, I think you will like it.  It’s definitely a strange fever dream of a movie, and one I don’t think you would like if you are not comfortable with abstraction.  It’s certainly a late night art house kind of a movie.  The whole thing is visually gorgeous, with vivid colors that explode onscreen.  I kept thinking of describing the movie as looking like “melting cotton candy” while I watched it.  Even horrific images of things like houses burning, are darkly beautiful.

The movies takes place in an imaginary version of American, filmed in the depressed areas of Detroit.  Christina Hendricks, best known for Mad Men, plays a mom that is trying to keep hold of the family home.  In order to make payments she takes a job working in a nightclub, hired by an unsympathetic bank manager who also runs the nightclub at night.  It is later observed that even his one act of kindness, providing employment, have malicious intentions.  The club, a place that looks like New Orleans on acid, excels in acts that are full of mock blood and gore that distract its patrons from real nightmares of their days.  What goes on in the basement of the club is even more sinister.

The other plot line centers around Hendricks’s son, Bones.  Bones trys to help provide by finding useful scrap that can be sold.  In doing this he runs afoul of the local gang lord, Bully.

The plot in and of itself may not sound like much, as visuals, sound design, and dream logic play every bit as much of a role in the proceedings as the story itself.  What the camera sees, how things sound, tell you as much as the dialog and the overall story arc.  This doesn’t mean that the general story arc is not clear, even if there are ambiguities, but the movie is more of a poem than a novel.

The performances of many of the main characters are great.  The characters are more archetypes than fully fleshed out personalities, but in this kind of movie it helps, as it does away with exposition and allows the movie to attain a kind of dream state.  You know who those people are and where they stand in the universe after only a scene or two.  Particularly great is Matt Smith, formerly of Doctor Who, as the psychopath Bully.  Also great is Ben Mendelsohn, who takes a Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet turn at the microphone, as the bank manager/nightclub manger.  Out of the protagonists it is Christina Hendricks that makes the most impact, as she makes the most out of her scenes, and seems visually created to be in this film.  Also great is a cab driver played by Reda Kateb, who makes a strong impression with very little screen time.

There are political overtones in the film, but this is not a political film in any traditional sense.  Kateb’s cab driver talks about the disappointment between how immigrants view this country and the reality that they find here.  One can’t help but be in disbelief of the world that in front of ones eyes, the dilapidated buildings, the seedy gas station, and know that however beautiful it all is in some strange way, due to the colors of the film and its dream like nature, it is equally horrific, especially realizing that this is all filmed in real world Detroit.  The closing scene also is especially meaningful, though I don’t want to spoil it, if one thinks about the symbolism behind it.

However, make no mistake.  This film is first and foremost about creating an emotional experience.  Helped by this is the great music created by Johnny Jewel, and the title song by his band The Chromatics.  Much like Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, which starred Gosling and also featured music by the above participants, the movie has 80’s cinema overtones, even if these overtones are more about how we remember certain movies from that period, less than the reality of those movies themselves.

This movie received many negative reviews and was booed by a large part of the audience at Cannes, where it debuted.  However, I think this movie will gain a cult audience overtime.  I understand how there are people that will never like this movie, as it is very unsettling and requires work on part of the viewer to interpret its many charms.  However, if you love batshit insane movies that deal largely in imaginative visuals and ecstatic emotions, then definitely give this one a try.  Despite all of its obvious debts to other works, it still manages to create a unique and compelling world that is worth spending time in.


Roads Still Yet to be Traveled

I’ve really become interested in electronic music lately.  Some bands that I’ve been listening to lately have been Kraftwerk, Daft Punk, OMD, and Book of Love.  I also love the Knife, though their music fits less moods than the others, as they are more abrasive and confrontational.  I also love the music on Johnny Jewel’s label, especially the band The Chromatics.  I’ve always loved synth pop.  I grew up on bands like New Order.

I’m interested in the idea of people getting emotion out of technology.  Also some of the best pop songs are in this genre.  Bernard Sumner from New Order can write endless melodies that never leave your head.

Although I grew up with bands like New Order, Electronic, and Depeche Mode, some of my current interest has been driven by the films of Nicolas Winding Refn.  He uses this music to great effect in films like Drive, Bronson, and Only God Forgives.  He understands that although this music is very synthetic on one hand, it is also capable of great emotion.

If country and folk music, which I also love, evoke pastoral settings, electronic music reminds me of the city at nighttime.  That’s not to say that electronic music can’t also be pastoral.  Brian Eno’s 70’s album Another Green World is an album that brings nature to mind more often than not.  Kraftwerk’s Autobahn album also has moments like this.  Although I love songs that have a message and am a fan of great lyrics, sometimes music is wonderful when it just creates space for dreams.

Haruki Murakami’s book After Dark creates a surreal dream like version of the city at night.  When I read things like this I often picture certain pieces by Kraftwerk and the Chromatics as being the perfect soundtrack to these worlds.

I grew up as a fan of the pop song.  More recently I’ve begun to be as interested in music that is non verbal.  Music that is non verbal has to create emotion and thought through pure sound.  This can be music that is instrumental or music that has the vocals obscured through production techniques.  Non verbal to me can even be bands that sing in foreign languages, where I can’t understand what they are saying, and the voice becomes just another emotional texture.  Often in electronic music, especially as you see with bands like Daft Punk and Kraftwerk, only a few simple phrases will be repeated throughout a song.  Even though you understand what they are saying it is open to interpretation when combined with the music.  The words become almost just another sound that feeds into the music and vice versa.

Although I write in the pop song format, and it’s still my favorite format, there is something to be said about music that is non verbal.  The human imagination is a powerful thing.  In the place of words we will often find that our dreams take over and place meaning into things that may or may not be intended by the artist.

I’ve mentioned before how David Lynch liked using grainy digital video for the movie Inland Empire, because he wanted the human imagination to fill in the space that the imperfect images left.  I think a lot of electronic music, the kind that is non verbal or almost non verbal, does this same thing.  It allows for interpretation and dreaming on the part of the listener.

Well there are many forms of instrumental music, many of which I love, the sounds created by electronic instruments create a different headspace.  Again it is often, but not always, more urban and futuristic.  Some bands like OMD, who write pop songs and instrumental pieces, create a retro futurism.  It’s like the sonic version of a film noir that takes place in the past and the future at the same time.  One of my favorite albums right now is their album Dazzle Ships.  It is an album full of mystery, ideas, and dreams.

Too often I think people let cultural or tribal things get in the way of exploring new worlds.  People are more open now to new musical experiences than ever before.  Sometimes though, there still exists a certain tribal instinct that gets in the way of people enjoying different forms, based solely on what they might find “cool” or acceptable in their group.   The human imagination can go anywhere and should be given as much room to roam as possible.  Don’t listen to anything but your own gut.  There are many roads still yet to be traveled.