October 1, 1990

The Unblinking Eye: David Lynch and Mark Frost Chronicle America

<em>The World's Most Celebrated Carnival</em> from a different angle

American Chronicles, David Lynch and Mark Frost's new half-hour documentary series on the Fox Network begins and ends with a huge unblinking grey eyeball. It's a memorable logo, perfectly suited to the Lynch-Frost Productions ' concept that this show is about thirty minutes of non-judgmental videotape, about the alternative to investigative television journalism's quest to expose rather than record. Lynch and Frost have even come up with a term to define the form American Chronicles will be attempting. They call it "docu-poetry''.

The pilot, Farewell to the Flesh, is written and directed by Mark Frost, and it takes on the annual Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans. It's a tough episode to pull off, for a variety of reasons. One of the unavoidable difficulties of the show will be contending with the shadow of Twin Peaks' weird originality. From the looks of the first half-hour, American Chronicles is aiming towards a sweeter, more traditional tone. (The show's narrator, for example, is a rather mainstream selection by Lynch­ Frost casting standards: actor Richard Dreyfuss, sounding as if he were reporting for duty as Sebastian Cabot.) But who can blame a viewer for anticipating something considerably eerier once they've heard of the marriage of this production team and a two-week event best known for drag queens, confetti and liver-busting quantities of alcohol?

Also, there is the hardship of coming up with fresh footage of Mardi Gras, an event which has been ex­ haustingly recorded in every form of media.To be fair, American Chronicles occasionally succeeds. One unforgettable piece of videotape captures a paganistic chicken-killing ritual. And I still can't decide which part will remain most indelible to me: seeing a live chicken being force-fed beer, watching the bird skitter drunkenly around a yard as it is chased by an equally sloshed pack of men, or witnessing it being casually swung by the neck as if it were a feathery noise-maker. But as for the lengthy montage of women baring their breasts, well, it doesn't come off as ground-breaking television. Mostly, it reminded me of those chesty biker chicks who lift their tee-shirts in every other photo layout in motorcycle magazines.

Ultimately, what is exciting about American Chronicles is wondering where its group of young writers and producers—Chappy Hardy, Debra M. Gussin, Jan Falstad, Robin Sestero, Greg Pratt, David Jones, Marlo Bendau, Ellen Switkes and Ruben Norte—might take things. Gambling on interesting but relatively unknown directors like Lesli Glatter helped keep Twin Peaks fresh. Perhaps American Chronicles' new crew—most of whom have had extensive experience in television documentaries—will show what happens when they are given free reign to explore their medium.

American Chronicles is primarily Mark Frost's series. Frost is usually associated with the writing and directing he did on Hill Street Blues, and for The Believers, the bughouse thriller about Santeria. But, in the late seven­ ties, while living in Minneapolis, Frost spent two years doing television documentaries for the Public Broadcasting System. His most celebrated piece was the Road Back, a documentary which he wrote, produced and directed about "a not terribly successful boxer who had a very interesting life."

 

First of all, what is a "docu­-poem "?

It's something that David (Lynch) and I came up with in discussion. We wanted a different way to describe what we were doing. People have fairly rigid notions in their heads about the term "documentary." They think it's going to be 60 grim minutes about a welfare mother. But the documentary form can be every bit as funny and joyful and as interesting in terms of storytelling as fiction. Look at a film like Roger and Me. For my money, that was as good a film as any that came out last year.

 

What is there about "docu-poetry" that distinguishes it from traditional documentary filmmaking?

The idea is to create a very lyrical, visual style that lets the pictures tell the story. That's what I hope will be the tone of the series. And there is a voice-over narrator, but no on-camera narrator. No one comes barging in to dominate the screen.

It's the narrator as a social anthropologist from outer space who is visiting. Not that this is ever stated. But he is a guy who is never personified, but filled with wonder at what he sees. He is the voice of that traveller that takes us wherever we're going. The perspective is that we're recording interesting behavior.

 

Where did the idea of American Chronicles come from?

I love the documentary style. I think it's a wonderfully entertaining film form which has, in the last fifteen years or so, fallen into disrepair. There are a lot of really great filmmakers out there who can't get arrested because there's no money in documentary films. I thought it would be interesting to try to update the form and create something that's a little bit newer and more geared towards the attention span of the modern viewer—to do that on a weekly basis.

 

How did you apply this approach towards Mardi Gras?

The Mardi Gras celebration is a vast and extremely varied experience, so what we tried to do was create this very big tapestry. I had four crews down there for a month. We did over 40 interviews, shot over 90 hours of tape. And tried to capture the experiential feel, and a certain amount of history, so that people understand what Mardi Gras is. I think most people have no idea. We also wanted to give people as much as we could the experience of Mardi Gras, which is a phenomenal experience.

 

Ironically enough,you didn't use any of the interviews. Why?

It was more interesting just using the narrator and the visuals.

 

Originally, you spoke of using the innovative radio dramatist joe Frank as the narrator. What happened?

We tried a version with him and we couldn't get the network to approve him. They were, uh, adamant about not using him...they felt he didn't bring enough animation and color to it. Joe's very good. But his range is somewhat narrow in terms of expressiveness. They thought that was a hindrance to letting the piece invite you in.

 

What will be some of the other topics you'll focus on?

We are going to try and focus on quintessentially American events, people and places. By this, I don't mean flag-waving patriots, just people who are really interesting and vivid. Somebody like Frank Zappa, who has been part of the American music scene for 30 years, and who is continually expanding his horizons and the horizons of his music. Other events we might want to cover in interesting ways might be the Kentucky Derby or the Indianapolis 500 or the Super Bowl. Then there'll be times when we go very small scale and do a portrait of a small town or of an unusual occupation.

We've already done a Miss Texas beauty pageant. We've done a 25th high school reunion in Elmhurst, Illinois. We just finished a portrait of Manhattan from nightfall to dawn. We're going to do a portrait of a Marine boot camp.

 

What were you looking for in the way of segment producers?

We've hired a staff of producers who will also direct their own pieces. You know, a bullpen of producers who are constantly turning over stories. I decided not to go in the direction of using film directors. We wanted people who've been in the television racket for awhile. The people we hired were ones who were working in that area for a long time, but usually under quite a bit of restraint. And always with a certain amount of frustration about what they could or couldn't do. So we very carefully hand-picked a group of writer-producers to go out and do basically what they've always wanted to do. And have never been able to before.

 

How do you work on getting a consistent tone?

Through meetings. The scripts are the most consistent factor. Then, you work on getting the tone·right. That's what you really talk about most.

 

Did your Twin Peaks experiences affect the making of American Chron­icles in other ways?

Only in the sense that just because people have always done things in a certain way doesn't mean that that is the way that they have to be done. I encouraged all of our cameramen to shoot things in vivid and interesting ways that were not necessarily ways that they'd been asked to shoot things before. These were all experienced guys who'd shot for networks before. But we told them, "Let's attack things differently. Think of yourself as a cinematographer out there, not a newsman. You 're not gathering news, you're creating impressions..."

 

Meaning?

For instance, shooting an interview. Instead of setting up a close-up on the guy's face, they let the camera wander around the room. Show us the person's environment, show us the details that tell us about who this person is. Shoot it through a flower, through the back of a chair. Don't feel like you're locked into a talking head. We shot all the interviews that way.

I'd suggest that when we were driving around between shoots to open the door of the van and shoot out the side of the car. So we've got a lot of footage of some very interesting drive­ bys that really give you a feel for the place.

 

So you were willing to run the risk of having cameramen come back with footage you couldn't use?

Well, we would meet at the end of every day during the first week and review footage and refine the idea of what we were going for as we went along. We would say, "This is good...this is bad...this is style...this is not..." And by the end of the first week everybody had really nailed it. Also, we tried to pick really good people who we'd either worked with or knew people who worked with them. They all turned out really great.

 

Can you talk about a couple of the cameramen you've hired?

Mark Falstad is one of them. He's one of the best- known "A" cameraman for all the numbers shows—60 Minutes, West 57th Street, 20/ 20. But he's also a trained cinematographer, has done work with film. Mark has a great eye. He is the kind of guy who has shot so many things that this was just sort of a chance to let him loose. I tell him, "You're not following around a priest during his rounds...Just go out and make some poetry with your camera, find images that really work for you..." The same goes for Van Carlson, who had done countless episodes of shows like Eye on LA. and recently toured through Eastern Europe with Frank Zappa, recording his visit to Czechoslovakia and Russia. A hundred years ago, Van probably would have been a painter. He just loves to paint with his camera. (Van and Mark) both contributed heavily to the style of the show.

 

The videotape quality on American Chronicles is surprisingly lush. What kind of camera did you use?

It's Sony's CCD—this new Beta­ Chip camera. I think there's only about 30 of them in the country. The latitude that you 've got in terms of light and depth of field is greater than it's ever been before. And the quality is getting closer and closer to film—not quite there yet, but damn close. That innovation is really what allows us to do a show like this.You couldn't do a show like this on film. You couldn't afford it.

 

How much did the pilot cost to make?

The New Orleans thing cost about $400,000. The rest of the episodes are budgeted at about $250,000. Normally, we'll only use two camera crews.

 

The Fox Network is an interesting home for American Chronicles. The series has a sweet tone. Do you think the point was to introduce something different into a format that made its reputation with its edgy programming?

I don't know. This is the show that we sold them. They paid for the mileage.

 

ABC used Twin Peaks to give them the image of being the arty network. Do you think that Fox is aiming for the same kind of prestige?

Possibly. But they committed to this show before Twin Peaks had gotten any critical acclaim. I don't think they were doing piggyback on something that hadn't happened yet. I can't speak for their motivations. I think they're in the business of trying to get successful television shows on the air. And they've had plenty of critical hosannas with The Simpsons. Maybe that takes some of the pressure off.

 

The First episode of American Chronicles will air September 8th on the Fox Network. Margy Rochlin is a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine and Interview Magazine. She also is a contributor to National Public Radio.

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