July 7, 2014

LAW AND MORALITY IN WILLIAM WELLMAN'S WEST - IL CINEMA RITROVATO

by Marc van de Klashorst

 
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A few weeks ago, actor/director Tommy Lee Jones premiered his new film The Homesman in Cannes. A Western, a genre of which Jones is a noted fan, telling the tale of a single woman who, with the help of the titular character played by Jones himself, transports three mentally disturbed women from Nebraska to Iowa. Several reports commended the film for the revisionist, but probably correct, approach of showing that the West was built on acts of violence, cruelty and selfishness, mainly portrayed by Jones' character. This play for lower and questionable morals is in sharp contrast with the way the West, and especially its morals, were portrayed in the genre's heyday during the forties and fifties.

One of the programs at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna this year focused on the work of William A. Wellman. This Massachusetts native, respected but generally not counted among his era's greats, was a director whose career spanned several genres. His forays into the Western included some of his most acclaimed films, and give us an interesting look at how the ideas of law and morality and the image of the righteous hero have become engrained in our collective memory of how the West was built. Two of Wellman's Westerns, Yellow Sky (1948) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), both aim to teach us an important moral lesson through their perhaps not unflappable, but righteous heroes.

Yellow Sky tells the tale of Gregory Peck's James Dawson, the leader of a gang of bank robbers. After a successful heist, James leads the men's flight across blistering salt flats to the small town of Yellow Sky. Unfortunately for them, it turns out to be a ghost town, its only inhabitants an old prospector (James Barton) and his granddaughter Mike (a very young-looking Anne Baxter). Not exactly welcomed with open arms by these two, James' crew form a tense relationship with their hosts, who provide them with food and water while their horses get a few days of rest after the gruelling walk across the flats. A cat-and-mouse game ensues between James and the independent, headstrong Mike. At one point, James attempts what can only be seen as rape, though Mike single-handedly manages to fend him off. Later, James deduces correctly that Mike and her grandfather have been successful in their prospecting, and the crew decides they have the upper hand and can make a play for the gold. They propose a 50-50 split to the old man, and he reluctantly agrees. The robbers dig up the gold, but are surprised by a large group of Apaches at night. The Apache leaders visit the old prospector, and James and his men suspect he sold them out to the Native Americans. When James confronts him with this, the old man explains that he in fact struck a completely different deal with the Apaches, promising to help them with an issue with their reservation. The rest of James' crew is not convinced, even if James is, and they want to take off with all of the gold instead of the agreed one half. The morally correct James, however, wants to honour the original deal, and the conflict between James and the rest of his gang makes him and Mike unlikely, but not unexpected, allies against the rest of the band of criminals. Of course the ones on the moral high ground decide the conflict to their advantage, split the gold, and live happily ever after. In one of the final scenes, James and one other robber that switched sides during the final gunfight revisit the bank they robbed at the beginning to return the money they stole. In the last scene, Baxter's reverse feminist trajectory is completed when Peck buys her a hat that transforms her into the stereotypical Western love interest, all the more peculiar given the attempted rape mentioned earlier. The moral of the story is that the hero redeemed himself by staying true to his word, and any flaws and earlier mistakes are forgiven because of his honesty.

The Ox-Bow Incident does not explicitly include a love interest, unless she ended up on the cutting-room floor. Henry Fonda's Gil Carter and his friend Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into town looking for Rose Mapen, with whom Gil has a history. It turns out the young lady has moved to San Francisco, but about a third into the film she is introduced after all, arriving on a stagecoach with a newfound husband. The former history between the two is played up again, and even explicitly alluded to by the new husband, but this is, rather bafflingly, Rose's last appearance in the film. Wellman is not interested in male-female relationships in this one, though the reason to set the character up as he does is puzzling.

But character development is certainly not the focus in this film: the story revolves around a posse being formed after news of an alleged murder and cattle theft against a nearby rancher is brought to town. Most members of the posse are caricatures, with Jane Darwell's Jenny Grier an extremely grating example. Some townsmen plead for justice to be served, but most are just out for blood. The chase is on, and after a while the posse catches up with the three suspects: Donald Martin (Dana Andrews), who says he rightfully acquired the cattle from the rancher (without being able to produce a bill of sale, though); a dimwitted old man (Francis Ford); and Juan Martinez (a young Anthony Quinn), who at first does not speak English, but turns out to perfectly master the language after all (as well as not being who he claimed to be). A lot of evidence, though mostly circumstantial, is brought up against the three men, but they maintain they are innocent. Martinez tries to escape but is caught, and the rancher's gun is found on him. Again the posse is divided: some urge that they bring the men back to town to investigate the matter and let justice run its course, others want to hang the trio on the spot. Donald is allowed to write a final letter to his wife and children. When the posse's strongest supporter of justice, Davies (Harry Davenport), reads this letter, he is convinced the men cannot have done what they are accused of. He urges Gil to read the letter too, in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the inevitable. Gil refuses, and the three men are hanged. Shortly after, the sheriff meets up with the posse, and it turns out the three men were indeed innocent. Returning to town, Gil decides to read the letter after all, and sure enough the letter is a sermon for justice and morality, both of which were just spat upon by these men. Even if the audience (at least in 2014) were already aware that these men made a terrible mistake, here it is underlined by what becomes a righteous speech by Fonda (even if in the words of another character) hammering home the morally correct message of the film. The whole film seems to exist just to deliver that final scene, and it renders the tone of the film preachy, far more so than Yellow Sky.

The interesting contrast between the two films is that in Yellow Sky initial bad deeds are washed away by good deeds that come from a strong moral code of what is right and wrong in the central character, flawed as he may be. The central character in The Ox-Bow Incident, even if he was among the seven posse members that chose justice over lynching, is not allowed that relief, and is made to suffer for the immoral choices of the majority. He is less flawed than his counterpart in Yellow Sky, but had he chosen to read the letter he could have prevented the drama (at least that's what the film aims at). Still, both James and Gil are inherently good men who rise above their flaws. This is not an uncommon pattern in older Westerns and their typical hero-versus-villain stories, which leads to the general perception that civilization was brought to the West through the virtues of such good and moral men. From the sixties on this image has gradually been changed by films that challenged this notion, but the genre dwindled for quite some time. Only in recent times has the genre had a bit of a revival, but these days the central characters are more nuanced and given shades of sometimes deep grey. Even Jones' Briggs in The Homesman can be seen as a traditional Western hero in a general way, but some of his actions late in the film tarnish this early impression of a grumpy but ultimately good-natured man. Neither Peck's James nor Fonda's Gil would ever go as dark as this character does. Heroes doing unthinkable deeds were simply inconceivable in Wellman's West. In essence, these films were morality tales that fit genre staples around issues of right and wrong. They might as well have been sword-and-sandal films or stories about knights and kings, but the forming of the West is such an integral part of the American psyche that it was more logical to use it to frame these moral issues. Unfortunately, it tainted our view of those early frontier pioneers so much, that films that paint a more balanced but realistic image of the old West are seen as exceptions.

The myth of the Western hero was fed by films like Wellman's, and it has taken us decades to deconstruct this myth. Morality is hard to find in The Homesman, and having a sense of what's right and what's wrong and living by it is certainly not rewarded. In another, more contemporary Western, the Coens' No Country for Old Men, another Tommy Lee Jones character laments that he cannot understand evil anymore. An unwritten code seems to have been broken. But in his own film, Jones contends that this evil has existed for a long time, and that law and morality as William Wellman portrayed them never really existed.

 

July 2, 2014

DO BIGHA ZAMIN - IL CINEMA RITROVATO

by David Acacia

 
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Western cinephiles are often very cynical: films that are emotional and sensitive in nature may be called "manipulative" or "emotional pornography." It is likely that if Western audiences were familiar with Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin, they would leave with a similar response.

With an exception in its spirited song-and-dance sequences, Do Bigha Zamin is largely reminiscent of Italian neo-realism (it is said that after Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves played at the 1952 Bombay Film Festival, Bimal Roy was inspired to make this film). Dualistic in genre, Bimal Roy expertly reconciles the melodramatic thematic developments with its realist tone. There's an enormous amount of scope in this project, and it culminates in boldness.

Do Bigha Zamin tells a story of a poor family of farmers who must take drastic measures to save their farm. Once their region finally sees rainfall, after years of drought, their landlord aspires to build a mill that would stimulate the economy of their town. When Harnam comes to Shambu with a proposition to buy out his huge debt in exchange for building on his property, Shambu refuses, telling him that his only livelihood is working what little land he has. Harnam takes this to court, and Shambu is given the opportunity to pay off his 235-rupee debt in three months, or lose the farm and all of his assets to Harnam.

Realizing that he cannot afford to pay what he owes from his meagre crop yields, Shambu decides to move to Calcutta for the next three months, to find employment and send money back to his pregnant wife Parvati, who will stay at home to care for Shambu's gravely ill father. Against Shambu's wishes, his young son Kanhaiya sneaks onto the train to Calcutta, and after a fruitless confrontation, Shambu agrees to let him accompany him. On arrival, they immediately have trouble finding employment for Shambu, and are forced to spend their first night in the streets, and are robbed of their few possessions as they sleep. The next day, in a singular stroke of luck, they manage to find a room to rent and Shambu is able to find work as a rickshaw puller, and before long Kanhaiya is able to earn money polishing shoes. Over the next three months, this family becomes victims/perpetrators of a plethora of social issues, faced with poverty, starvation, injury, illness, theft, child abuse, and even attempted rape.

Sixty years later, this film is timely in its depiction of Indian culture. Over 10% of suicides in India are farmer suicides, often motivated by monsoon failure, high debt burdens, genetically modified crops and the modernization of India. At a glance, Do Bigha Zamin's bleak tragedy after tragedy may seem contrived, when in fact, it should be a sobering eye-opener. Those who live in Western societies where they are unlikely to experience much real tragedy in their lives would do very well to realize how privileged they are, and films as ambitious as Do Bigha Zamin can certainly ameliorate ignorance and passivity.

 

 

June 29, 2014

THE ONLY SON - IL CINEMA RITROVATO

by David Acacia

 
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For the second year, Bologna's classic film festival, Il Cinema Ritrovato, has included a section "Il Giappone parla!" where 35mm prints of early Japanese talkies are projected. Last night, Yasujirô Ozu's The Only Son opened this series.

The Only Son tells the story of Tsune, an impoverished widow, and her sacrifices and hardships to put Ryosuke, her only child, through university and college, so that he can have a better life. Only, once he moves to Tokyo, he discovers that the competition is so tough, and the only work he can find is a night-school teaching position with a meager salary. After not having seen him for years, his mother comes to visit him in Tokyo, to discover that he is now married, with a child, in a small, modest home. Ryosuke and his wife make plenty of sacrifices themselves now, borrowing money from their friends and selling their possessions, so that they can show her a good time.

As her visit with them is wrapping up, he admits to being ashamed and disappointed with his life, and asks her how she feels. She tells him that she is not disappointed, though she accuses him of complacency, and giving up too easily. The last four scenes are really interesting, taking one step forward, one step back; one step forward, one step back. After a neighbour's small child needs to be hospitalized, Ryosuke gives the child's mother some of what little money he has. Seeing this, Tsune tells him how pleased she is with the wonderful man he has become, and how ultimately this is what matters, more than anything. In the next scene, Tsune has returned to Shinshu, her hometown, and Ryosuke and his wife discuss if they think his mother was happy with the trip. He tells her what a disappointment he thinks that he was, but it's given him the motivation to go back to school and try to still make something of his life. Meanwhile, back at work in Shinshu, Tsune is seen telling a co-worker what a great man he is, and how he has a lovely wife. Yet, the final shot of her depicts her sitting down, dejected and defeated by what has become of their lives.

There's a complex duality in how Tsune treats Ryosuke. On one level, once she sees that he is a person with character and morals, she takes great pride in that. Up to the point where Ryosuke tells his wife of his shame, there is nothing that Tsune does or says to suggest that she feels disappointed, and it appears that Ryosuke's feelings of guilt are just the typically human response of ignoring reassurance: his own saboteur, he chooses to listen to the louder voice of his feelings of inadequacy. Yet, though his perception of the extent of Tsune's discontent is exaggerated, there is a sense of dissatisfaction with him. While she loves him, and realizes that he has made her proud, as a good parent, she's only ever wanted the very best of circumstances and luxuries for him. And, after having toiled, working herself past the point of exhaustion in hopes of giving him a chance to succeed, how his life has turned out is not quite what she had hoped.

All of this begs an interesting question: other than feeling depressed anytime he is cognizant of how his achievements fall short of dogmatic societal expectations, all indications point to Ryosuke's happiness. Ozu spends so much time providing little details that suggest that Ryosuke's life is, in actuality, not that bad: while he may not be rich, Ryosuke has a very close relationship with his wife, and it seems like they manage. That Ryosuke and Tsune are so dubious in their behaviour and attitudes regarding how they define their success seems to indicate that Ozu is not willing to accept society's definition of prosperity without a struggle.

In a troubled global economy, where brilliant students finish school only to find employment in menial jobs that require less than their intelligence can accommodate, Ozu's film - made nearly eighty years ago - is just as relevant now as it was in 1936. This is a sign of why Ozu is truly such a master: whether bemoaning a system that deprives its people, or describing a parental-filial relationship, his was an eye always sensitive to subjects with the potential to endure throughout posterity.

 

June 21, 2014

DAVID LYNCH LOVES LAURA DERN (and vice versa) - SIFF NOTES 2014

by Steve Striegel

 
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After an exhausting 25-day run, the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival (America’s largest with 452 films screened this year) came to a close earlier this month with Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age epic Boyhood grabbing the lion’s share of the festival’s Golden Space Needle awards. Linklater’s episodic, observational film won more competition prizes than any other in the fest’s forty-year history, taking Best Film, Best Director, and Best Actress for Patricia (Lost Highway) Arquette, who edged out Juliette Binoche in Norway’s 1,000 Times Good Night. Linklater’s twelve-years-in-the-making Boyhood is fast becoming the darling of 2014’s festival circuit, and appreciative Seattle audiences sold out every screening, applauding enthusiastically at the end of this sprawling journey of everyday American life.  (See my colleague Jonathan’s in-depth review here.)

While I’ve long been a fan of Richard Linklater’s unique body of work, and Boyhood is indeed something very special, for me the highlight of SIFF 2014 was the appearance of David Lynch’s muse Laura Dern to accept the festival’s Outstanding Achievement in Acting award. After an hour-long discussion with film critic Elvis Mitchell, Dern’s second collaboration with Lynch (the Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart) was screened, and that Wizard of Oz-inspired l'amour fou remains as colorfully twisted as when it premiered at Cannes a full twenty-four years ago. The onscreen pairing here of Dern with her mother Diane Ladd (as Lula and Marietta Fortune, respectively) is one of the great mother/daughter cinema duets put on film (they'd work together again in Lynch's Inland Empire). The fact that Ladd was also nominated for an Oscar as Marietta makes their collaboration all the more wonderful. Still, the heart of the film is the red-hot chemistry between Dern and Nicolas Cage and their characters’ undying passion, able to overcome all obstacles Lynch throws in their way before the film’s ecstatic Love Me Tender finale.

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Before Laura Dern was presented her appropriately bizarre Dale Chihuly-designed glass award, Hollywood’s most fearless actress was introduced to the Egyptian theater crowd in a meandering, heartfelt speech by her longtime friend, Seattle’s own Eddie Vedder. “It’s hard to know where to begin, because of the depth of her work, the width of her work,” effused Pearl Jam’s frontman. “It’s wide, it’s high, it’s well-rounded, it’s jagged, it’s forceful, it’s gentle, and I don’t think there are any colors on the palate she hasn’t used.” Continuing in a musical vein Vedder added, “Wild at Heart is a classic album. Blue Velvet is a classic album. My favorite of all is Citizen Ruth, an unbelievable classic album. Laura is able to do this thing to be on the edge and take us with her. Laura Dern … she can play.

The statuesque Miss Dern strode onto the stage, accepted the unwieldy cone of glass, then sat down with Elvis Mitchell to discuss her uniquely varied career. Being raised by two intensely talented parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, Laura was completely at ease on movie sets from the start. While her parents were making films with the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese and Hal Ashby, around that time Laura made her first screen appearance at the ripe age of seven, eating an ice cream cone in the background of a scene from Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (for which her mother received her first Oscar nomination). They shot the scene nineteen times, so lucky Laura got to eat a total of nineteen ice cream cones. “Are you okay, you didn’t get sick?” asked Scorsese. When Laura replied that she was just fine, Scorsese went up to Diane Ladd and said, “You see this kid? She ate nineteen ice creams and didn’t throw up … this girl needs to be an actress!” Laura then laughingly explained that later when her parents would try to discourage her from taking up acting, she would trot out Scorsese’s words time and time again until they finally, helplessly relented.

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Laura Dern’s fearless, vanity-free approach to acting fully began to blossom under the direction of perhaps the finest living film artist working today, the great David Lynch. Lynch (shockingly) has made only ten feature films, and Dern has starred in three of them. When Elvis Mitchell asked how she and Lynch first connected, Dern reflected on their first meeting regarding her eventual Blue Velvet role. “I came in, I was just turning seventeen. He asks about your life. We talked for about twenty, thirty minutes and then he said, ‘Yeah, you should be in this, you’re the person I should be working with.’ ”

“I didn’t believe it!” exclaimed Dern. “It was the only time I’d gotten a part without reading for it. But he looks for a quality, not performances. He doesn’t have an understanding of what he wants until he’s there, but he knows what he needs for the storytelling, which is really interesting and illusive … just like David.” Elucidating on what she feels makes a great director, Dern continued, “You know that there’s a boundarylessness that they’re looking for in the actor. You know they’re going to push you to places you wouldn’t feel safe to go, which is what interests me so deeply. And I think other than my childhood, probably David Lynch has been the greatest influence in that area for me because he creates an enormously abstract world, but the only way he feels that his film is served is if you’re perfectly authentic. If you get enormous, it doesn’t work. And so you have to be incredibly disciplined for David, which is really amazing.  I mean it’s amazing in a very tight plot-driven script like Blue Velvet. It became more complicated a journey for myself and Nic Cage [in Wild at Heart]. And then Inland Empire, a film we made really over the course of three years, was the craziest acting lesson of my life.”

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Following up on this thought, Elvis Mitchell interjected with an aside about how he’d been driving down Hollywood Blvd. at the time of Inland Empire's release and happened to spot David Lynch sitting on the side of the road with a cow in front of a Laura Dern for Best Actress banner. Dern laughingly expanded on the incident. “David felt offended by how much money it took to try to get your movie made, and that all this money that could be going toward making more movies was being spent on campaigns for actors, campaigns for movies, and advertisements. He’s a user of the internet, and was very early on. So he’s like, ‘How can we utilize this?’”

At this point Dern broke into a flawless David Lynch impression and continued, “ ‘You know what? Here’s what we’re going to do … you’re going to star in my next movie, and we’re going to do NO advertising!’ ”

“That sounds amazing, David!” Dern jokingly replied.

“ ‘There’s no script!’ continued Lynch. ‘Even better … you’re going to play ALL the people in the movie!’ ” to which Dern could only reply, “Great!” Continuing on in Lynch’s trademark mid-western accent Dern twanged, “ ‘And you’ll never know who they are or what they’re doing. I’ll just tell you where to go when we’re on the day. But I am going to do a campaign for you because you’re great in this movie, Tidbit!’ ”

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“And then I heard a rumor that David Lynch was on Hollywood Blvd. with a cow on a leash, in a director’s chair with a sign that said ‘Laura Dern for Best Actress’. And it went all over the internet and people were like, ‘What’s Inland Empire? We should see that!’ So I guess it worked!” Dern laughed.

At that point, Mitchell opened up the discussion for questions and I jumped right in with a follow-up on Inland Empire, which I consider to be Lynch’s masterwork and one of the greatest films of the past few decades. I explained how I’d been fortunate enough to attend the Northwest premiere of the film seven years earlier, and speak briefly with Lynch after the sold-out screening. It took many additional viewings for me to tease out the film’s inherent meaning (and who knows, I may be totally off base there as well), but I thought it an important opportunity to get Dern’s perspective on her work in this truly amazing film.

“It took me about four viewings after that screening to really wrap my mind around the film, and I think I actually have (call me crazy)!” I said. “I was curious, I know it was subtitled ‘A Woman in Trouble,’ but to me it became ‘A Soul in Trouble,’ and how that soul travelled through many different women, eventually to a nirvana-like state of love with the beautiful climax where the boy runs in to embrace his mother. To me [in comparison] it spoiled most other movies because it had so many layers, such depth, and each time I get so much more out of it. I was wondering if Mr. Lynch instructed you on how many different characters you played, any clue?”

Dern seemed quite flattered when I added that I felt her performance in Inland Empire to be one of the greatest I’d ever seen on film, and replied, “Okay, first of all, if you’ve seen Inland Empire four times, you should be up here. You’re amazing! And I will now try to memorize what you’ve just said, and pretend that I know what the movie’s about and just repeat your words, because that was so very beautiful. I know that for David it is about transcendence, so I think you speak beautifully to something he’s deeply interested in. You know, as we see in all of his movies, he’s deeply interested in the deep darkness and how we can transcend into lightness. It’s a very common theme in the films I’ve been privileged to be part of.”

Circling back to my initial question, Dern answered, “I think I played four people?!” It’s an indication of the trust she places in Lynch that to this day she seems a bit unsure as to the number of characters she inhabited, much less the definitive meaning of the film. But by design, Lynch has created his masterpiece without supplying any concrete answers. He’s stated repeatedly that all interpretations are valid, and yet … the Nancy Drew in me wants to continue to seek out answers. Lynch in his films encourages such questioning, and it is one of the qualities that makes them most alive. Inland Empire’s eventual meaning is ever-changing and organic, but the experience of the film, and the questions (not answers) it offers up are where its ultimate value lies. “I had an incredible journey,” Dern concurred. “One that was terrifying, but also an amazing opportunity."

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The genesis of Inland Empire, according to Dern, was an outrageous monologue Lynch first wrote for her from which the rest of the film eventually sprang. “The core of it,” Dern explained, “is a seventy-minute take of me telling the story which is sort of the centerpiece of the movie. And in the movie, they’ve cut together clips and pieces from the monologue. But what he wrote was eighteen pages, and he came to my house with a yellow legal pad and said [again in her best Lynch-speak], “ ‘Memorize this!’ ”

“Are you kidding me?” a dumbfounded Dern replied. “I’m a nursing mom … I can’t remember anything!

“ ‘Oh shut up. Stop complaining!’ ” Lynch demanded. “ ‘Just memorize it and come to my house at 4 o’clock.’ ”

“So I tried my best and I showed up at his house,” Dern said, before realizing that she may have offered up too much information. “I’m not supposed to say that we shot it at his house, because of permits…” She laughed. “Anyway, we got the mood just right … Peter Deming, our amazing DP, set some lights with David and we did this seventy-minute take, which is the craziest story and the craziest writing I’ve ever read/acted/anything in my life! But in a way, from it everything else was able to find itself, including a movie for him. So I’m still trying to find my way [with the film]. I’ve got to see it again!” That should soon become easier as Mitchell mentioned that an upcoming Special Edition of Inland Empire will be released which will include the entire seventy-minute monologue as an extra. With their upcoming blu-ray release of Eraserhead just announced, one hopes that it will indeed be Criterion who will handle all of the long-overdue upgrades to Lynch’s oeuvre. I, for one, cannot wait.

But even more exciting was what Laura Dern alluded to as we shared a few words after the discussion. I asked whether she had any upcoming plans to further the collaboration with her beloved maestro David Lynch, whereupon she flashed a mischievous smile, and said that Lynch was in the process of creating one of his craziest films yet, and that she’d most definitely be involved. That was rockin' good news indeed, and all I really needed to hear to cap off a great 2014 SIFF and a beautiful afternoon spent in the company of the radiant, profusely talented Miss Dern.

 

 
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