BY MARK CHRISTENSEN
Director David Lynch,
the boyish wonder of
weird, explores new
realms of strangeness
in his latest film,
Mark Christensen is a Los Angeles-based
free-lance writer whose workappears frequently
in Rolling Stone.
- omeone once said betore meeting David
Lynch, producer and director of the best
weird movie ever made-Eraserhead,
that they expected some nervous, with-
drawn, intense, rumpled little guy with
soup stains splattering his tie and dandruff falling
from his thinning hair like driven snow.
On the other hand, because Lynch was also
director ofone of the most expensive and techni-
cally extravagant films ever made, Dune, you
might expect a space age Otto Preminger. Flam-
boyant, demanding, maybe a bit of a schmuck.
Lynch isn't that either.
What you've got here is your basic tall, blond,
clean-cut auteur in the young Jimmy Stewart
mold. For someone whose movies-Eraser-
head, The Elephant Man, Dune and now his lat-
est, Blue Velvet-represent the quirkiest and
among the most original visions in American
film, it's surprising to shake hands with a chip-
per, enthusiastic man who would look at home
hawking GLT Turbos at a Volvo dealership. Out-
wardly, Lynch's lone bow to strangeness is his
gambit of keeping the collars on his shirts but-
toned. He saves the freaky stuff for the screen.
His latest effort, Blue Velvet, is set for release
this fall, and Lynch had just set up rather modest
digs in a brand new West Los Angeles condo-
minium complex to supervise its birth. New grey
carpet. Stereo on the floor. Two or three chairs.
His fishing pole leaning against walls that are
bare white except for some of his paintings.
That's it. Spare. Normal. Middle America.
But in an age when most mainstream movies
are packaged so carefully that you can smell the
cellophane, Lynch, the writer/director, sticks to
a sideways vision of the world that's radical, pro-
vocative and spooky.
Blue Velvet stars Kyle MacLachlan as young
Jeffrey Beaumont, who returns home from col-
lege following his father's heart attack and who,
walking home from the hospital, discovers a hu-
man ear lying in a field. That's the everyday pas-
toral part. It's from there on out that Blue Velvet
gets, well, how else to say it, unusual?
The film also stars Laura Dern and Isabella
Rossellini as the alternating objects of MacLach-
Ian's affections-Dern as the middle-class
daughter of a local police detective and Rossel-
lini as a kinky torch singer who works at a local
watering hole known as The Slow Club. Rosselini
has had both her husband and son kidnapped by
Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper. He's
blackmailing her in exchange for sex.
Something akin to sex, anyway. Because
Frank Booth is no lovey-dovey conventional
hearts-and-flowers celluloid Romeo. No
way. He's a masterpiece of pure unadulterated
badguyness, a viciously electric scumbag who
s it possible that Johnny Carson may find
himself knocked off his perch as the king of
the talk show, not by Joan Rivers but by a
fast-talking, stuttering computer, Max
Headroom. Max's chiseled good looks and
quick wit have made him a mega-star in England.
Only Madonna adorns more T-shirts than Max.
Currently, Max-watchers in this country have
to be content with his chat show on Cinemax
and his role as the spokesperson for Coke. But
there's more to come.
"Max Headroom really is the face for the
Eighties,'' says Peter Wagg without a trace of
irony. "The reason that he's so good is that he's
really the first character that is right for the cur-
rent generation," Wagg continues. "He's a
computer-generated character, and he appeals
to a generation of people who are growing up
with computers and computer graphics.
Max is also the first literal talking head. That's
it. He may talk about playing golf (according to
his bio it's his favorite sport) but no one has ever
actually seen him do it. And if anyone has a right
to discuss Max, it's Wagg. After all, Max was
Wagg's idea, and he produces Max's show.
But five years ago, Wagg himself had no idea
that Max would even exist. At the time, Wagg
was an ad man who had become the Director of
Creative Services for Chrysalis Records in Lon-
don. As such, he was responsible for the label's
videos (including the first video album, Blondie's
"Eat to the Beat. ") As the sometimes director
and producer of the clips, he found himself, in
those pre-MTV days, in a state of high frustra-
tion. There were clever, innovative videos being
shot, but really nowhere to show them. A clip
show seemed natural. He convinced the label
and London's Channel 4 TV to sponsor a video
program. But a funny thing happened on the way
to the monitor: Max Headroom was born.
"When it all started," says Wagg, still some-
what suprised that it actually has, "I felt there to
be a need for a linking device between the vid-
eos. I wanted to play videos that had never been
seen before and videos that had been banned
from TV, so obviously we needed a way to con-
vey it. ButtI didn't want a human being, because
there was no point to making this just for British
television. It needed to be something that we
could sell internationally, and I didn't think that
personalities would travel well. What might be
great in England wouldn't necessarily go down
well in America but would be okay in Japan and
Australia. I didn't want that.''
The idea of using a sassy, computer-generat-
ed host to keep the whole show moving at a fast
pace came about through some serious brain-
storming with the rest of the team, which had
grown to include former advertising man George
Stone and animators-turned-directors Annabel
Jankel and Rocky Morton. The actual visual pic-
ture of Max is a combination of the talents of
actor Matt Frewer, computer graphics and ani-
mation. Exactly what the special recipe is,
though, Wagg claims is a well-guarded trade se-
cret. "There has to be some mystery to Max,"
Perhaps. But simply because how he's made
is confidential doesn't mean that Max himself
will be a secret in this country for long. Already
Max the chat show host is a hit. He's slick with-
out being smarmy and is cool enough that all six
of last year's guests were pop stars. Artists from
Sting to Duran Duran were lining up to be asked
such hard-hitting questions as, ''What are your
This year Max will be seen with a more diverse
crowd, ranging from Michael Caine to Vidal Sas-
soon. Apparently, most of the guests have a
good old time bantering with Max-except for
Roger Daltrey, who reportedly found being ha-
rassed by a computer monitor a bit hard to stom-
ach and walked off the set.
Starting next spring, however, fans of the pi-
lot-the one-hour show which explained how
ace reporter Edison Carter's brain was cloned
into a computer to become Max-will have a
place to see more adventure stories. Starting
mid-season, with a two-hour movie, Max will
have his own weekly hour-long adventure
show-starring actor Edison Carter.
The show can be seen as pure serendipity.
Originally, there was going to be no story behind
Max They were lust going to put him out there.
"We had Max all ready to go," recalls Wagg,
"and then Andy Parker of Channel 4 said, 'But
why is he called Max? Why does he look the way
he does? Why does he sound the way he does?
Who is he?' So we went away, and primarily
George came up with the storyline."
They gathered together a wickedly funny
group of writers, some patient technicians, and
Max was born. If Wagg and company have their
way, he'll have a long life as well far beyond
the confines of TV.
Can you spell merchandising? Wagg can.
Coke (and stereo shops in England and Toshiba
in Spain) are just the beginning. There are books
(currently three: the picture book of the pilot
show, Max Headroom's Guide to the Universe
and Max Headroom's Guide to Foreigners), a
videocassette of the pilot, computer games, cal-
endars and T-shirts. But according to Wagg,
they aren't just taking the money and running.
Each item is examined, not only for quality, but
also for the "coolness" factor. Max is, after all,
also a rock star- he has a hit song in England
done with the Art of Noise called "Paranoia."
Only over Peter Wagg's dead body will Max
Headroom become this year's "My Little Pony."
"We're not selling out," Wagg insists,"by
having him sell Coca-Cola or by his being in a
feature film. He works on every level. It's always
been important that everything you could ever
see with Max or buy with him on it, deliver. There
is a little rule that the integrity of the character be
maintained. There is so much depth to the char-
acter. This is not just a superficial linking device.
It's on every level: the books, the videocassette,
everything. We did sell the package around the
world," he states.
"Basically, Max is a product. But he's also a
major, multi-national personality. He's a combi-
nation of Johnny Carson and David Letterman.
He's a cult. And the moment we make him a sell-
out and make him superficial, he'll die overnight.
But at the same time there's no reason he can't
go on chat shows or open stores. Because
that's what he is- an image on the screen. Pure
It's unlikely that Max is about to die. His popu-
larity has not yet peaked in England; they just got
their first view at the Story of Max in late sum-
mer, and he's hardly begin to storm the gates yet
here. It seems that the only thing that ould stop
Max now is a power failure.. *
Sharon Liveten writes about music and enter-
tainment for severalnationalpublications.