I’m sorry for the lack of content here – I just haven’t been feeling the blogging itch lately, and a lot of my leisure time has been eaten up by my silly drawings. To make up for it, here’s some personal pop culturey nostalgia.
When I was a pretentious teenager I counted David Lynch among my favourite directors. My adult self, on the other hand, quickly developed a knee-jerk reaction against the man’s films. But this, I think, had less to do with the quality of those films than my desire to not be reminded of that awkward teenager. Certainly I’ve never revisited any of them in the past decade – the 80s cheese of Dune being the lone exception. So lately I’ve been thinking to rectify this and see with more objective eyes what this old love is worth (and this also seems particularly timely, given that we’re getting a new Twin Peaks soon). A good way to start off would be Mulholland Drive, which seems generally agreed upon as his best movie, and was the one I watched first.
The short story is that Mulholland Drive is the most gripping movie I’ve watched this year. But it’s interesting to note how the manner in which it grips has changed in the intervening years. Teenage Josh loved trying to piece together the fragmented mystery plot. Adult Josh, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about “what really happened” and was instead drawn in by the showmanship by it all, as if he were watching a really, really good magician’s tricks.
Because, seemingly, “what really happened” in Mulholland Drive is as banal as it is depressing. Most of the movie is the dream/fantasy of a failed actress who has recently killed her former lesbian lover. Upon awaking from the dream, she is so consumed by her guilt that she commits suicide. As a twist ending it’s lame as hell – a sort of emotional sucker punch. But none of this is really presented as a twist ending in the traditional sense of the term; and even the idea that this narrative constitutes the “real” one is itself a contestable interpretation which the final moments of the movie seem to undercut.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Mulholland Drive begins with a woman (Laura Elena Harring) barely escaping an assassination attempt on the titular drive. The manner of escape (car crash) unfortunately renders her amnesiac, and she wanders through Los Angeles in a daze. She quickly crosses paths with Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a Canadian who has recently arrived in the hopes of making a career in Hollywood. She decides to help the woman (who begins calling herself Rita) piece together her identity. Meanwhile, a sort of B plot develops where the shadowy figures seemingly behind the assassination attempt begin pressuring film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) into casting a particular woman in his latest film.
All this describes what could be a pretty standard Hollywood neo noir, but even by the time Mulholland Drive has laid this framework, the rules are already being broken. Seemingly important characters and subplots emerge out of nowhere and trail off; individual scenes oscillate wildly in terms of tone and even genre. The premise quickly turns into this kudzu-like growth pushing itself in incompatible directions. By the time the credits roll, the narrative structure has long caved in and the editing has largely fallen apart.
Some of this is likely an artifact of the film’s origins as a failed TV pilot, and in lesser hands such a convoluted narrative would be a sign that the writer/director has lost grip on the material. But here it becomes an exercise in manipulation as Lynch uses all sorts of Hollywood tropes and cinematic tricks to cajole the audience while also calling attention to how artificial the whole affair is. I mentioned in an earlier post that NieR: Automata’s use of different video game genres calls attention to how those affect the player’s own attitudes, and something similar happens here with all the strange oscillations occurring.
The result is an unusual sort of uncanny, where the events of the movie feel palpably unreal and fake even as you’re emotionally drawn into what’s going on. That the illusion still persists even when it calls attention to itself as an illusion is both a testament to how well crafted it is, and underlines the film’s theme about the primal power that art can exert over us. In recognizing this we come to a deeper understanding of the beauties and dangers of film. A common line of interpretation sees the film broadly as a critique of Hollywood: that the glamor it offers is really just an illusion that covers up the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. There’s definitely a strand of that here, although I think the film is a little too in love with Hollywood for this to be The Point.
Which brings me to another observation. David Lynch has a reputation of being this extremely difficult, avant-garde filmmaker, but he has a pretty popular following – especially compared to someone like, say, Andrei Tarkovsky. And yes, while Mulholland Drive is certainly weirder and more challenging than your usual blockbuster, it’s more traditional than is often assumed. Its narrative tricks aren’t too far removed from what Hitchcock did in Vertigo, and its various homages to classic cinema feel heartfelt rather than ironic. Beyond that, there’s a genuine sympathy extended to its protagonists. It’s a dark and frequently ironic movie, but it doesn’t strike me as cynical.
Not that it’s impeccable. A couple of scenes lean pretty heavily into raunchy territory. Arguably this is part of the movie’s irony: the cheap thrills of fantasy sex vs reality. But it doesn’t get off the hook in that regard.
Anyway, another thing that struck me was the music and sound. Even though I’ve never particularly remembered it for its soundtrack, Angelo Badalamenti’s is one of the best, full stop. It’s a lot of deep, dark synths and strings that manages to sound both ominous and tender, interspersed with some distended jazz/rock sounds that feel very noir. Some of the most powerful moments in the movie come from its use of music. My favourite scene – the Club Silencio sequence – is entirely constructed out of playing upon our understanding of how the soundtrack and the visuals of a movie relate to each other.
In retrospect I have to wonder just how much influence Mulholland Drive has exerted on my tastes, in spite of my best attempts to bury it. Certainly the “Imma mess with your head” approach to storytelling has been a regular theme for me from the likes of Gene Wolfe to Serial Experiments Lain. But rewatching it has led me to conclude that yes, I did indeed underrate it in recent years. It already has a handful of my favourite scenes, and was a downright haunting experience. I’m even wondering if it deserves a place alongside the likes of 2001 and Spirited Away, but I’m still processing it all.
But, dang – to even want to think about a movie this much is a treat. I find it hard to write consistently about movies and other pop cultural detritus because so much of it is like cotton candy; tasty, but evanescent. I don’t know how critics manage to keep churning out review after review. This, however, was some movie magic, even if it had a weird taste.