Reading, Watching 04.30
This is a regular feature for paid subscribers, wherein I write a little bit about what I’ve been recently reading, watching, and/or listening to. I hope you enjoy!
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The late ’80s and ’90s neo-noir revival culminated in 1997 with three outstanding films: Cop Land, L.A. Confidential, and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, which is now streaming on Criterion Channel. (Or actually, maybe it did the following year with The Big Lebowski.) What was going on with this burst of interest in this genre, both as studio fare and among auteurs? In keeping with the theme of my podcast, I want to say it probably has something to do with the end of the Cold War. It’s interesting to note that the noir waves bookended the Cold War, with another resurgence of interest also coming in the stagnation years of the 1970s. After the war, noirs conveyed a confused and traumatized form of consciousness: lonely subjects navigating a dark and shadowy world of moral ambiguity, violence, and disturbing fantasies. While the post-war noirs represented the chaotic and disturbing pre-formation of the Cold War ideological world, the 70s and finally the 90s noirs indicated the growing incoherence and the dissolution of that universe. Social roles—especially the roles of man and woman—and the fantasies associated with them became at once exaggerated and murky. In the place of clear narratives, there’s a series labyrinthine plots, criss-crossed by cynical and self-interested characters. While the other noir revivals all contain varying levels of paranoia, Lynch’s Lost Highway takes this dissolution of subjectivity to its psychotic extreme. What is even going on here? There are lots of recognizable tropes and clichés, but it’s as if they’ve become totally unmoored from the symbolic structure that once gave them a clear meaning. Watching the movie, we are getting a glimpse into psychological refuse and ruins, the hazardous industrial by-product of Hollywood’s dream factory.
In Slavoj Zizek’s short monograph on Lost Highway—barely less confusing and perverse than the film itself—he calls Lynch’s aesthetic “the ridiculous sublime:
Lynch’s universe is effectively the universe of the “ridiculous sublime”:The most ridiculously pathetic scenes (angels’ apparitions at the end of Fire Walk with Me and Wild at Heart, the dream about robins in Blue Velvet) are to be taken seriously. However, as we have already emphasized, one should also take seriously the ridiculously excessive violent “evil” figures (Frank in Velvet, Eddy in Lost Highway, Baron Harkonnen in Dune). … [The seriousness of these cliches] does not signal a deeper spiritual level underlying superficial cliche’s, but rather a crazy assertion of the redemptive value of naive clichés as such.