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Re-Visiting Lynch’s Panned HBO ‘90s Anthology Series, ‘Hotel Room’


With Lynch’s flagship property, “Twin Peaks,” returning this week, we take a look at the auteur’s messy anthology series for HBO, “Hotel Room”.

“It’s kind of beautiful, though, the dark…”

David Lynch is a director that’s been fortunate enough to have created several influential films and pivotal pieces of art. Everyone’s seen—or at least heard of—Blue Velvet. Dune remains a perpetually interesting footnote for the sci-fi community. Midnight screenings of Eraserhead are still being held in arthouse cinemas. Oh, and “Twin Peaks”—the original binge-worthy television show—is coming back after 25 years in purgatory. Lynch has created these touchstones of cinema, but he’s also a director that has a number of lesser known deep cuts out there, too. There’s his animated web series, “Dumbland”. The bizarre experiment that is Industrial Symphony No. 1. His ABC sitcom, On the Air. But one of the more interesting efforts from the director—one that had tremendous potential but was almost immediately dead and wrapped in plastic—was his anthology series for HBO, “Hotel Room”.

“Hotel Room” basically allowed Lynch to direct an anthology series of one-act plays, with authors like Barry Gifford, Jay McInerney, and David Mamet providing the scripts. This more or less sounds like the sort of prestige dream project that gets announced nowadays over at FX, HBO, or more non-traditional distribution channels, such as Netflix or Amazon. It’s a little funny that anthology is a format that seems to have taken over television during the past few years. It’s very easy to picture this offering from Lynch and his fellow executive producer, Monty Montgomery, being given a second chance with today’s television climate. It simply seems to be something that was ahead of its time back in 1993.

The plan with “Hotel Room” was to initially put together a 90-minute pilot that showcased a few different episodes of the series and how the concept would work week-to-week. After that point, weekly installments would follow. It’s a strategy that HBO had used before with anthology programming (“Tales from the Crypt”, and their planned-but-cancelled “Two-Fisted Tales”), and a strategy that’s actually smart, yet Hotel Room would never move beyond the three episodes that were to make up the pilot. They aired January 8th and 9th in 1993.

Funnily enough, in this 90-minute pilot presentation, Mamet was supposed to be the third writer that rounded things out, but Lynch’s fellow executive producer, Monty Montgomery, was not into Mamet’s script. This was also in 1993, so it was right after Glengarry Glen Ross, meaning that Mamet was at peak popularity at the time, too. In spite of this, Lynch and Montgomery came to Gifford in a hurry and asked him to write a replacement episode on the fly. “Blackout” was written in two days with the only guidelines being that it could be something that people’s grandmothers would be able to watch. Gifford cockily responded with, “I’ll write the play…you guys gag and tie up the old ladies.”

Most anthology series adhere to a set of rules, whether they’re a subtle or pervasive presence to the storytelling. Coming from the preface in Gifford’s published book of teleplays from the series, Hotel Room Trilogy, Gifford explains the loose, albeit still existent rules that governed the series:

“The only rules regarding composition were that the action take place in specific years and be set in a particular New York City hotel room (numbered 603), the corridor immediately outside the room, and the hotel lobby. A bellboy and maid, the only continuing characters in the series, were to be included in the plays at my option…”

While Lynch was instrumental in creating “Hotel Room”, it could often feel like it was Barry Gifford’s series in a number of ways as he was staffed with writing the most scripts. Lynch and Gifford’s friendship is a fascinating one with “Hotel Room” taking place right smack in the middle of their love affair. Gifford and Lynch first crossed paths when Lynch decided to adapt his novel Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula into his film, Wild at Heart. Lynch didn’t enlist Gifford’s duties in helping him write the picture, but the two were eventually getting along so well that he would ask him to help pen the screenplay for Lost Highway. It’s no coincidence that “Hotel Room” riffs on a lot of elements from Wild at Heart as well as ideas that he would soon elaborate on in his next film, Lost Highway. “Hotel Room” effectively acts as the material that helps bridge these two films from Lynch’s library together.

Beyond Gifford himself, “Hotel Room” would continue to act as a homecoming of sorts for many of the usual suspects from Lynch’s acting stable and production crew. There are appearances by Harry Dean Stanton, Crispin Glover, Alicia Witt, and Freddie Jones, who should all be familiar faces to Lynch aficionados. Additionally, many people who have been with Lynch from his start, or shortly after, are collaborating on this with him. The people and talent involved with “Hotel Room” make it a bizarre prestige project of sorts, and all the more interesting. Production design is by Patricia Norris (who had been with Lynch since Elephant Man), Mary Sweeney is editing, Deepak Nayar is producing, Johanna Ray (who’s’ been with Lynch since Blue Velvet) is handling casting, and the series’ score unsurprisingly comes from Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti’s work here is subtly integrated into the episodes, but is still powerful stuff. Lynch’s installments also impressively mix the ambient sounds of trains into the background of the sound mix, too. This is surely a reference to the eponymous hotel of the series being the Railroad Hotel, but it’s another small detail that shows that Lynch is doing a lot more here than it may initially appear.

Interestingly, Peter Deming who’s cinematographer here, would remain Lynch’s director of photography ever since he helmed all of “Hotel Room”. He’s the one behind the camera on Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., Lynch’s Duran Duran documentary, and all 18 of the upcoming episodes of “Twin Peaks”. So if nothing else, “Hotel Room” is still significant for solidifying Lynch’s love with Deming. He’s used once before in the worth-seeking-out “On the Air”, but “Hotel Room” is where he really comes into play for Lynch. Deming talks about how he basically shot each episode of the show as if they were plays, adopting a two-camera set-up and just tackling both angles from the dialogue-heavy pieces. There’s certainly not a ton of room for ambitious creativity here in the camerawork, but that’s not to say that future installments couldn’t have adopted a more chaotic look.

It’s important to note that Lynch also allowed some episodes of the series to operate outside of his control. He was at least clear-eyed enough to want to have other people’s visions in this anthology, rather than unilaterally running the thing. This has become a bit of a problem with recent anthology series, but Lynch is open to sharing the stage. While the Signorelli/McInerney offering, “Getting Rid of Bobby,” is certainly the least interesting of the three produced episodes, it’s still appreciated to get another team’s take on the concept rather than something similar looking from Lynch and Gifford once more.

Each episode of “Hotel Room” begins with a heady introduction that’s supposed to set the scene for the series, but more so comes across as Lynch being too unleashed. The very sort of thing that might have killed this project. The opening narration is pretty cringe-worthy when you break it down. It’s actually a fair distillation of why the project ultimately didn’t seem to work for people. Here we go:

“For a millennium, the space for the hotel room existed undefined. Mankind captured it, gave it shape and passed through. And sometimes in passing through, they found themselves brushing up against the secret names of truth.”

That’s enough to even give The Man From Another Place a headache. Lynch’s opening narration text speaks of hotel rooms being magical, spiritual places that we then try to confine by building hotels around them. The idea of a certain hotel room having primordial, special properties around it isn’t a bad premise for an anthology series. It’d even make for a nice riff on Lynch’s infamous Black Lodge from “Twin Peaks”. I would also totally watch an anthology series that’s just charting different people’s experiences entering the Black Lodge. This isn’t what “Hotel Room” is doing though. Its introduction might speak of a magical place that can bend the laws of physics, but the stories that Lynch and Gifford set out to tell are incredibly grounded and naturalistic (to an extent). This is just a regular hotel room. The whole idea is that anything can happen behind closed doors, no matter how mundane they may be—there’s nearly limitless potential in spite of it being so pedestrian. Lynch’s intro nearly trips over itself with how cryptic it tries to be. Furthermore, Lynch himself is the one reciting the piece, making it feel like it’s just his off the cuff take on hotels. Thankfully, the visuals that are paired with Lynch’s speech are very simple, but make for the perfect sort of eerie title sequence for an anthology series.

The one element from the series that plays into this spiritual concept is the fact that regardless of what year the series is taking place in, the hotel’s maid and bellboy remain the same age. It’s an idea that Lynch admits was influenced by the similarly haunting work that’s explored in The Shining. It’s a minor touch, but admittedly one that goes far and adds an immediately suspicious vibe to everything that you’re seeing.

The three episodes of “Hotel Room” have been discussed briefly so far, but they’re worth breaking down to a greater detail. The first offering, “Tricks” is set in September of 1969 and Gifford prefaces his script with the following important note in direction: “The pace of the play is slow but tense, the actors’ movements almost agonizingly exaggerated, their words deliberate with a kind of mock profundity. The impression should be one or two steps removed from reality.” Accordingly, there’s a very limerick-line cadence to dialogue sometimes. Moe has lines like, “What’s Lou doing here? Doing here now?” which is even repeated more than once. It feels entirely unnatural in real life, but it’s exactly how these sort of bizarre world pieces of art that Lynch is presenting here operate.

The episode also features a lot of well done, modest two-camera setups between Stanton and Freddie Jones. Its slow pace is definitely felt throughout and it just gets to take its time. Shots of drinks being mixed are allowed to breathe and linger, for instance. Whether that means you’re catching your breath or holding it because of the tension over what’s about to happen remains at the episode’s discretion.

Due to the many mind games and levels of manipulation going on in “Tricks,” it ends up feeling very much like a work from Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, or Edward Albee, even though Gifford denies he was intentionally trying to references the playwrights’ works. There’s a gut feeling of dread that’s very reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Vriginia Woolf? where audiences aren’t entirely sure who these characters really are and what their “norm” is. This episode is like Nichols’ famous film, expect now imagine that the effects of LSD are beginning to set in. This sort of energy feels not unlike the Lula and Bobby Peru scene in Wild at Heart. They both set psychosexual manipulation as their focus, but this show lets that awkwardness fester. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out because we don’t know who these characters are. Either of them could be a bad-ass unbeknownst to the viewer. The installment is all about Lynch playing with tension and sorrow between these two loose cannons. You’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Stanton also kills it in the long forlorn monologue department.

“Tricks” is also an episode that’s all about the perils of a decaying memory and the power that can be found in dual identities. The character Darlene is mistakenly called “Arlene,” for instance, and by the end it’s revealed that the identities of Moe and Lou are more or less interchangeable. They exist together. The third episode, “Blackout” similarly is also full of discrepancies of the mind, for both of its characters. These episodes use these tools of repression and psychosis to tell emotional stories, but Lynch pulls from this same bag of tricks for the feature films of his that sandwich “Hotel Room”. Wild at Heart is full of repression that comes courtesy of traumatic sexual assault while Lost Highway manifests the idea in the form of a psychogenic fugue. “Hotel Room” remains amazing, albeit flawed, if only to watch Lynch testing out the waters with these major themes that he’d become so fascinated with in his career.

The series’ second installment, “Getting Rid of Bobby” is set in June of 1992 and as mentioned before, it’s the weakest of the entries. In it, a bunch of women go back and forth on the topics of dating, love making, matrimony, and the other sex—as they ultimately prep one of the women for pulling one over on the titular Robert. Right away this feels much lighter and looser than the other episodes. It also happens to feel the most like a segment from out of Tarantino’s Four Rooms, rather than a Lynch project. That might be a good thing for some people, but many might be let down by this cringe-y episode that fails the Bechdel test before it even gets moving. It’s very reductive in terms of its representation of women. James Signorelli, the director of “Getting Rid of Bobby” is most well-known for directing “Saturday Night Live” for decades as well as helping pioneer their famous fake commercials. He’s a curious addition of Lynch’s that he’d never work with again, but the choice does imply Lynch thinking a little more outside of the box with his directorial selections.

Finally, “Blackout” is set in April of 1936 and it’s the true gem of the series. It’s a poetically tragic installment that looks at Danny (Crispin Glover) and Diane (Alicia Witt), a husband and wife, who attempt to come to terms with the death of their child while caught in a blackout. It’s an interesting offering in the sense that the script is a mere 17 pages long, and yet the longest version of the episode clocks in at 47 minutes. It’s a clear testament to how Lynch can make such a meal out of a simple, quiet scene. He beautifully frames the piece in mostly natural candle lighting, doing his best Barry Lyndon impression, as he just films two people talking, as one drifts in and out of madness.

This is a very theatrical and philosophical production from Lynch. It’s dream-like in its scripting and it’s not meant to feel natural. For one, the episode increasingly uses references to Chinese things to reflect the nonsensical nature of its content, like in the old colloquialism, “None of this makes sense! It’s like it’s written in Chinese!”. This episode takes that phrase literally. Furthermore, as Alicia Witt’s condition worsens, it’s almost like you’re getting caught up in her fever dream along with her. The episode feels like an abstract collection of ideas that are held together by Diane’s lucid hold on reality.

In spite of there being much writing about this oddball series of Lynch’s, details are still surprisingly sparse about what went down behind the scenes and how far along the series was. It’s clear that HBO wasn’t impressed with how the show performed, but Gifford had written five episodes for the show, three of which went unproduced; “Room 584, The Starr Hotel,” “Do the Blind Dream?,” and “Mrs. Kashfi,” the last of which was published with Gifford’s two televised entries. “Mrs. Kashfi was set in 1952 and dealt with a young boy being visited by his dead grandmother who gives him pivotal information that can change his future. It ends on a note of uncertainty and poignantly also involves amnesia, which is central to the bulk of Hotel Room’s episodes and clearly would have continued to be. It’s also a story that’s quite thematically reminiscent of Lynch’s short film, The Grandmother, and might have ended up playing similarly to that.

That brings “Hotel Room” up to a hypothetical episode count of six, but that doesn’t mean that Lynch himself, as well as other writers, hadn’t also penned unproduced scripts (not to mention the one by David Mamet that was turned down). It makes you wonder how far along they might have actually been on the writing side of things, as well as it being regrettable to think about all of those promising scripts that never saw life (David Lynch directing David Mamet? I mean come on). It’s entirely possible that Gifford was just writing these other episodes on speculation that the series would move forward. The writer clearly became enamored with having a platform to write plays, so perhaps episodes like “Do the Blind Dream?” and “Room 584, The Starr Hotel” were just written as an exercise by him to further refine his theater writing abilities.

Now, 25 years after it originally aired, “Hotel Room” has taken on a strange beyond-cult following. It’s significant that Gifford has seen his episode scripts being performed as plays and have gained a further niche following standing on their own merits rather than being a byproduct of David Lynch. Gifford even swears that some of the renditions that he’s seen performed on stage have even been more evocative than the pieces that Lynch put together.

“Hotel Room” has never really seen much of a ceremonious release either. The 90-minute pilot was released on VHS and those in Japan were treated to a fancy Laserdisc version. But that’s it. It’s worth noting that the VHS version of “Hotel Room” is the only place that you can find the slightly longer version of “Blackout,” which never even aired in its expanded form on HBO. Thankfully, until a better copy materializes, the limited series in its entirety is also available on YouTube.

On top of all of this, there are also shows now that are more or less doing the same thing that “Hotel Room” was attempting to do. Some shows leaned into this in subtle ways, but others were doing exactly the same shtick. The Duplass Brothers have an anthology series with an identical premise called “Room 104″ that’s set to premiere this July. It’s surely bound to be more comedic than what “Hotel Room” set out to be. Curiously though, the program is airing on HBO of all places. It makes you wonder why they didn’t just revive their “Hotel Room” property, only with Mark and Jay Duplass now running the reboot.

“Hotel Room” might not amount to Essential Lynch, but I’d say that the two episodes that Lynch helms are collectively more interesting than The Straight Story and the weaker films from Lynch’s library. Depending on what your impression of INLAND EMPIRE is, this might even rank higher than that for you. They both certainly share the same ethereal quality. So while “Twin Peaks” is soon set to be back and kicking everyone’s asses, try thinking about this show for a minute and the times when Lynch was just as quirky and different, but not nearly as on the ball. Sometimes that gum you like comes back in style. And sometimes it just forms a knot in the pit of your stomach.

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