Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Lynchbinge 2: No hay pelicula!

(Image: 35 Years of David Lynch)

The first thing I remember reading about David Lynch's ninth feature film Mulholland Dr. (or Mulholland Drive, if you prefer) was in a posting at my internet home-away-from-home, the Mobius Home Video Forum, maybe only a day or two after the premiere at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival. I don't remember which forum member wrote it, or in what capacity he was at the festival, but he was obviously not a Lynch admirer, and he was crowing lustily that the jig was finally up for the director. To paraphrase roughly from memory, Mulholland Dr. was such a fiasco - so hollow and silly a rehash of Lynch's worn-out tricks -  that even the legion of trained seals that always clapped for his latest work would have to finally admit that the emperor has no clothes (I don't think he mixed his metaphors that badly, but the "emperor's clothes" cliche was definitely there).

As it turned out, Lynch went on to take the Best Director prize at Cannes, his third Oscar nomination for same, and to rack up maybe the most ecstatic reviews of his career. Down the road in 2009, at least seven U.S. critics' polls anointed Mulholland the #1 movie of the decade. Just a couple months ago, Sight & Sound magazine's famous once-a-decade poll ranked it at as the 28th greatest film ever (though their directors' poll only put it at #75).

So, yeah. Ha.

(Image: B-Rate Movies Are Best)
Now, of course, this doesn't make that detractor's subjective opinion about the movie any more "wrong," but clearly he overestimated his predictive powers regarding the responses of others. My point is simply that no matter how accepted he becomes in some circles, Lynch remains an acquired taste, or whatever other hackneyed terms you can muster for things that some people just don't get. And not only don't get, but don't get so much that they can't even see what other people see in them. (On the other hand, I can't remember another of his movies about which I've heard/read so many people say, "I'm not normally a Lynch fan, but this one is really good." So who knows?)

Even for an avowed Lynchian like myself, Mulholland Dr. took some work, or maybe time, to fully access. When I saw it in '01, I thought it was good, even very good - certainly his strongest work since the heyday of Twin Peaks eleven years earlier, and more or less the comeback it was being touted as. But aside from isolated passages, it didn't knock me out the way I wanted it to. Now I wish I'd given it a second look sooner - when I rented it a couple weeks ago, watching it twice in one weekend, it sent me into the sort of buzzing swoon all those critics were talking about, as well as moved me to tears and scared me enough to sleep with a lamp on. How many movies can do all that?

The story has much of Lynch's customary off-brand film noir quality while also bringing in new elements, like a meta-commentary on Hollywood life and a layered female friendship at the center. It follows the criss-crossing paths of a wide-eyed aspiring actress newly arrived in Los Angeles from her small hometown, a glamorous amnesiac woman escaping from would-be assassins, and a hotshot young director whose latest production is being manipulated by mysterious underworld forces.  The director's usual wizardry with light, color, sound and music has never operated at a higher level than here, and it also goes places emotionally and narratively that Lynch has rarely tried, and never before with such impact. Not to mention that it put then-unknown Naomi Watts on the map with a razor-sharp, double-edged turn comparable to little else I've seen from a Lynch actress. So now I've mentally catapulted Mulholland to a close second place behind Blue Velvet among the guy's work (if I made lists like that, which of course I don't, because how simple-mindedly reductionist is that, right? - Blue Velvet was #59 on the S&S directors' poll, by the way, not that you care, nor do I, but more about that another time).

If it doesn't make my "Lynch's masterpiece" slot, it might be only because it still doesn't 100% transcend its origins as a rejected ABC TV pilot that sat on the shelf for a while before Lynch shot more footage and reshaped it into a feature. I wouldn't say, "You'd never guess it started as a TV show!" - the stitches are often visible (although Lynch makes them work for him more often than not, particularly when he starts playing surrealist games with the narrative). A couple early scenes of goony, violent comedy amuse mildly but also make a clunking noise; the time-worn "incompetent-hitman-sets-off-a-chain-reaction-of-mayhem" routine, aside from going easy on the gore for the network censors, feel like an outtake from a mid-'90s Quentin Tarantino-wannabe indie. These moments might have been less incongruous in a TV episode interrupted by commercials, but in the more tonally unified Mulholland Dr. that we have, they aren't quite up to the quality of what's around them. Especially since a couple of them feature an inexplicable and mercifully brief bit part for has-been country-pop singer and never-to-be-actor Billy Ray Cyrus.

(Image: Virtual Museum Vallee's Cow Cinema)
Still, I was lost in the movie for the rest of the week, surrounded by a cloud of its atmosphere as I tried to work and carry on normal conversation, feeling like I was about to slip sideways into another dimension, slightly sadder and more horrific than ours but enormously more beautiful. 

Thus, please find following an "About Mulholland Dr." braindump to free up my head for other things. It's studded with fairly heavy-duty spoilers, so if you haven't seen the movie and you have any inkling you might want to, stop here and go rent it. If you're someone who reads this type of blog, chances are better than fifty percent you'll thank me.

-Why did I respond to it so much more strongly the second time around? This is very much a "second time's the charm" kind of film. On first viewing, I was fighting the movie during the third act, when it mutates suddenly into a different, more realistically sordid and depressing, story where the characters I'd gotten to know became different people. It's a rather cruel thing to do to an audience that's immersed in the mystery, larger-than-life characters and exquisite, floating atmosphere of Mulholland Dr. up until then. The second time around, I was able to respond to the tragic power of this section (and of Watts' shattering/ed performance) without hoping in vain the whole time for it to be something other than what it was.

-More puzzlingly, I wasn't as taken on first viewing by the film's classical Lynchisms - the non-sequitur bit characters, the passages of deadpan-spacey dialogue, the air of vaguely supernatural portent and free-floating dread. Were my expectations lowered for the second viewing? Maybe in 2001 I brought with me a lingering resistance to Lynch's tropes left over from his early '90s Rust Age when he seemed to have run them into the ground and much of the cineaste world, myself included, had turned away from him in embarrassment. Part of me still wanted him to dash expectations completely and make something non-Lynchian (of course, he just had in 1999 with the aptly-titled The Straight Story, which I hadn't even bothered to see during its theatrical run, so whatever). 

(Image: Mulholland-Drive.net)

On second viewing, I ate it up like popcorn: the menacing cowboy who strolls out of the L.A. night; the vaguely autistic-seeming gangster with the espresso obsession; the paralyzed studio boss issuing cryptic commands from his dimly lit chamber; the satanic nightclub emcee roaring "No hay banda! There is no band!" as he exultantly admits that the whole act is lip-synched; the droning-rumbling music that undercuts banal or even sunny moments. Maybe I've simply decided that Lynch will be Lynch, and that's more than good enough, especially since no one does Lynch better than Lynch. However, I still think the movie could lose the crazy-psychic neighbor lady who bursts in wailing that "someone's in trouble" and "something bad is happening," who's only one step removed from the hermit in the cabin warning the van full of kids not to drive into those woods at the beginning of a slasher flick.

-Rewatching the "wake up" third act, I can't recall a time Lynch has dealt so forthrightly or touchingly with bitter adult emotions - disappointment in love and in career; the gap between what you dreamed for yourself and what you've become. As is often noted, his stance is usually that of the sensitive child repelled but fascinated by his first glimpses of the weirdness, darkness and cruelty of the wide world, especially where sex and women are involved.

-Lynch has always had a very guy-centric worldview and has often been accused of on-screen misogyny (with some fairness, although that's too large a topic for me to go into right here). It's refreshing that here he offers two women as his main protagonists/audience surrogates, and that he invests so much emotionally in them. In fact, off the top of my head, this might be the first Lynch, outside the Twin Peaks universe, that passes the Bechdel test - i.e., it features at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something besides a man. The "doomed lesbian affair" cliche gets eyerolls from some commenters, but he has more than once described it as "a beautiful love story" and it's clear that for him, the fact that it's between two women is neither here nor there.

(Image: Cristina's Daily Blog
-In light of what comes after, Rebekah del Rio's interpretation of Roy Orbison's "Crying" is almost unbearably sad, and made my eyes all salty and wet on both recent viewings. Everything breaks here, like a glass vase hitting a stone floor in slow motion, but you don't even realize at the time that it's happening.

-I recall Lynch having said his favorite movie is The Wizard of Oz, whose broad structure maps over that of Mulholland Dr. rather nicely. A quick online search shows me that I'm far from the first person to have thought of this. The charmingly obsessive Mulholland-Drive.net goes all out with this observation.

-Just to stake my turf in this particular fan debate, I find the widely accepted "Diane's dream" interpretation to be broadly useful for understanding or at least responding to Mulholland Dr., as well as supported by several carefully placed details within the film. But it's not able to account for everything. And why would you want to account for everything anyway? It does seem that some sort of alternate reality has emerged to subsume the misery of Diane's real life, and that it's a creation of her psyche to some extent. The almost-opening shot in the bedroom puts rather too fine a point on this, perhaps. 

(Image: Horrorphile)

But aside from the fact that the hunt is a fun parlor game, I'm not sure I see a need for a coherent diegetic explanation like "It was all a dream" or "a parallel universe," etc., anymore than I see the need to explain where the orchestra is hiding whenever the music comes in. It's a movie, and a more or less surrealist one at that. Lynch can make anything happen he wants to at any time, and it doesn't have to correspond to anything that could happen in our world, or even any of the standard ways our brains process time, space, causality, etc. The only requirement is that he invest it with some aesthetic or emotional or intellectual force - or all three, as he achieves here.

Which leads me to my closing point - the anti-Lynchian I cited at the beginning is sort of right in a way he didn't intend. Mulholland Dr. is hollow, the way any movie is hollow - it's made of false events assembled in an editing room, false emotions presented by people pretending to be who they aren't, often in false locations just thrown up, all for the purpose of giving us false memories of things that didn't happen. And we know it when we're watching it. The Club Silencio emcee (or "The Magician," as the closing credits call him) proclaims, "It is all... an illusion." He's not only speaking of the acts onstage or of Diane's about-to-burst bubble, but of the shiny, delicate, oh-so-easily-popped bubble of cinema. Lynch, a satanic emcee himself, delights in pulling back the curtain without ruining the power of the act. "Here's your magic trick," he says, "that something so hollow can make us feel so full."

(Image: The Bomb Party)

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