[Written ages ago]
Dir: David Lynch, 2001
Anyway, I watched the Culture Show on Saturday. I don’t know why I do it when Radio 4’s Saturday Review is on at the same time, and is far superior. Let’s face facts: it’s not hard to be superior to a TV show hosted by Lauren Laverne that features ten-minute puff pieces on Maximo Park (a band I saw supporting LCD Soundsystem once, and during whose set I was only being kept awake by my feelings of unadulterated hate. The headliners ruled though). I’m just bitter about the show ever since they bumped Verity Sharp off presenting duties, presumably on account of she didn’t look enough like a startled boy to fit in with the current BBC presenting scene (joke influenced by Charlie Brooker). That reminds me: I must listen to more Late Junction.
The one thing of interest on the programme was that posh arty bloke wandering round an exhibition of David Lynch’s static visual art. It was pleasantly surreal, and he seems to have taken to Photoshop rather well, and he gave good interview. Then Mark Kermode (at least I’m above ‘commode’ jokes. I guess) reviewed Lynch’s new film, Inland Empire. I didn’t stick around to hear it, on account of I like going into films as fresh as possible, and I decided tonight would be the night I watch Mulholland Dr., probably the most extreme example of the films I want to see so much that I never actually watch them.
Being that I do not normally go in for hyperbole, I will allow myself to declare this film both the best and worst American film I have ever seen. Of course, I do not mean this literally (I think the first two Godfather films are better*, and I think Queen of the Damned and the first Harry Potter film are worse**), but it both amazed and infuriated me.
I am not sure why but, despite knowing this was a Lynch film, with all that implies, I was expecting something a tad more normal than what I got. I don’t even think it was a case of The Straight Story lulling me into a false sense of security, as I always saw that as an aberration in his body of work. I reckon it’s mainly just due to various media outlets banging on about how great a film it is, without mentioning how insane it really is.
And it begins normally enough. It actually begins in a very arch and on the nose manner, but I find that pretty refreshing. There are shots of Hollywood, but with an ominous musical tone creating an atmosphere of foreboding. Phone calls are made, and the shot is of a phone ringing, or the back of a man speaking on a phone. It was all so matter of fact that I should have expected it would all implode with the strain of maintaining a straight face.
What Lynch does in twisting the stereotypes of filming Hollywood itself is very interesting. As well as the aforementioned juxtaposition of Hollywood Hills and eerie tones (as though Lynch house composer extraordinaire Angelo Badalamenti had decided to go all John Carpenter on us), the colouration of the film seems to have been an intentional act of usurping the usual Hollywood associations.
While California has been associated with nothing but sun in everything from Baywatch and The O.C. to Arrested Development, early shots in this film break with tradition. When ‘Rita’ first eyed up the house in which she eventually made temporary residence, I first noticed the blatant greyness of the scene. And, in those scenes not set during nightfall, I saw nothing to contradict this feeling.
In fact it was not just the visual tone of the film, but the production values as a whole that impressed me. While I usually start checking chapters and clocks in an agitated manner well before most films have ended, I felt as though I could have happily watched this film forever. Quite apart from the fact that the entirety of the piece seemed to take place in that perfect moment just before the heavens open, and sweet, sweet rain purges the ground beneath, everything else just seemed to click.
I have a fascination for anything Hollywood-based; it’s almost sick. The amount of hours I have spent watching Cribs, The Fabulous Life of…, The Hills et al can be gauged only by secret, room-filling, steam-powered retro-chic computers from the future. Hollywood-gone-bad is even better: the myriad social pratfalls encountered by Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm send me into paroxysms of hilarity and, as physically soon as Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson split, the ostensibly romantic Newlyweds took on a ghoulishly addictive sheen, like a pink, heart-shaped box full of haunted heroin.
Obviously this tale of would-be starlets, mob-threatened directors, horrifically bad nose jobs and shadowy figures was less up my street than it was peering through my bedroom window, flashbulbs a-popping. In fact, the Lynch exposition was comforting in its soft surrealism. The aforementioned archness and shots of phones were to be expected, as was the very small man doling out single-syllable orders while in an otherwise dark, featureless room. The first major reveal of any note that I currently recollect was also a major step in the right direction.
In quite the engaging diner scene (I love diners), a man told another man about a dream he had. It was a bad dream, involving a terrifying face. That off his chest, they leave the diner, turn the corner of the building oh so gradually, when boom! A terrifying face appears and man #1 collapses. We don’t actually see him again until much later in the film, but that’s for much later in this post. In his defence, the face was very scary, and the scene was filmed very much to get that jump reaction from viewers.
The film was so expertly played that I actually relegated this sequence to the back of my mind for the body of the piece. That body, of course, was the tale of Hollywood life at its most mysterious and intimidating. While before I had seen it, my attention had been drawn to the alleged dual leads of Laura Elena Harring (one of the few legitimately beautiful actresses in a vast, characterless ocean of ‘hotness’, and yes, there is a difference) and Naomi Watt. That’s a bit of misinformation as far as I’m concerned: the narrative strand concerning hapless director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is as important and arguably more compelling.
Kesher is rather an arrogant film director who is unimpressed at what seems to be mafia involvement in the casting of his upcoming film. He thinks nothing of rejecting who two shadowy men think should be cast as his female lead. Thankfully, this is only the beginning of a descent into a disturbing downward spiral for Kesher. First up is the little matter of his wife screwing around on him.
Now, upon seeing the other man in bed, I was going to make one of two jokes. The one I decided on was referring to him as a man from 1987. Not great, I’ll admit, but rather accurate given his mullet and attire. The other joke would have been to refer to him as Billy Ray Cyrus; essentially shorthand for the former anyway. Then, when the credits rolled, I saw none other than Mr. Cyrus on the cast list so, as the Bee Gees once sang, the joke was on me. He then gets knacked by Cyrus, gets turned bankrupt by malicious forces, and ends up agreeing to meet a mysterious man who goes by the name ‘Cowboy’.
Of course, cocky Adam Kesher is initially amused at the idea of this ‘Cowboy’, but soon gets very intimidated after a late-night drive to a dark ranch results in The Cowboy persuading him to do the right thing (‘you will see me one more time if you do good. You’ll see me two more times if you do bad’). The ‘right thing’, of course being the casting of that blonde girl from Home and Away in the lead of his new film. This strand ties in with the other major thread when, after agreeing to the casting, he sees the delightful Betty Elms (Watts) and is gutted. That’s the end of that one in terms of linear narrative.
While I love the Kesher story (and not just because I want a pair of his spectacles), the ‘main’ tale is also compelling. In short, a woman (Harring) being driven somewhere is involved in a crash. In a state of amnesia, she wanders into a nearby house, on account of the resident is departing. She meets Betty who, staying at her aunt’s mistakenly assumes the woman is a friend of the resident. Harring’s character, dubbing herself ‘Rita’ on account of a Hayworth poster she spies, eventually explains the real situation, and the two decide to get to the bottom of her mysterious identity. Betty, meanwhile, is a young Hollywood hopeful and we accompany her on a very impressive audition.
So far, so good. Somewhere along the line it all gets a bit lost in its own sense of intrigue. I really have to watch it again, actually, because this is one of those films whose first viewing provides more questions than answers. I am a generous viewer, so I ask not about the coincidence that the owner of the house Rita enters is off on her hols. I do ask about the old couple who Betty befriended on her way into Cali, though, as they turn up later in the back of a car, looking hellishly pleased with something or other.
Anyway, the tale of Rita and Betty playing dual Nancy Drews is an engrossing one, and the part of the film that prompted me to think ‘I could stay in this world forever’. There is much to recommend it: the audition Betty goes on is a scene that draws the viewer in like few others I have seen. Kudos here to the performers for making a segment of a big film feel so intimate; it was almost ethereal in its tone. The exquisite beauty of Harring was a definite boon; there are many actresses in Hollywood displaying a certain ‘hotness’; very few are actually beautiful in a classical, timeless sense. And to think she used to be in Sunset Beach.
Cutting to the chase, I remember watching the bedroom scene, wherein our two protagonists end up getting romantic, and thinking ‘this has to change the relationship’. I knew it was a tipping point of some kind, I just didn’t realise it was the signal for all hell to break loose. I thought that maybe there would be some compromise of either the search for identity of the search for work, and figured on the latter, seeing as the audition story was running into something of a cul de sac.
Instead, it was the moment in which the film – that had lulled us into a false sense of cinematic security with its safe surrealism – plunged into a nosedive into Parts Unknown. While I tried to pay due attention during this closing stretch of utter dementia, will was insufficient. It was just too mad.
From what I can recollect, we saw the scary-faced individual from the side of the diner, and a blue cube. I think one of the main characters actually disappeared into it, or at least the camera (our perspective) did. There was an alternate universe I didn’t pick up on at the time; things like names of protagonists and waitresses being switched. By this stage, I was so overflowing with utter chagrin that my subconscious refused to take any more.
Scenes came and went that mixed characters from the Rita and Kesher arcs, scenes that seemed to jump into temporal points in relationships that were either yet to happen or never to be. The more this frenzied switching, as though Lynch’s work experience kid had bumped into someone in the corridor while holding the script, and had attempted to sort the sheets that had gone flying like a snowstorm of potential paper cuts, so everything had been accidentally muddled… the more I saw of this, the more frustrated I grew with it.
To me, it seemed that what had started out as a wonderful piece of cinema was being besmirched to a massive degree by what was apparently a massive copout. It was almost as if Lynch had started a classic script, but was unable to finish it in that style for fear of taking a misstep and ruining it.
Trips were taken, both before and after the blue cube debacle, to a mysterious club called Silencio (the lip synch performance of ‘Crying’ was another wonderfully moving scene): it was here the film would find what ended up being a fitting conclusion. After this stanza of sheer madness, we end up back in Silencio, as the camera zooms in to a figure in the stalls. As I’m sure I have seen in nightmares about ham-fisted pseudo-surrealist parody, the character uttered the word ‘silencio’, at which point the credits rolled.
It was a maddening anti-climax to what had been about two hours or so of excellent, enigmatic, compelling cinema. Even comedy vignettes such as the botched assassination in which everything that could have gone wrong did so seemed perfectly pitched. I didn’t care that loose ends didn’t seem as though they would meet denouement. But when the downward spiral of quality began, I would see characters from earlier in the film (the diner fainter, for example), and resent their very reappearance.
As I somewhat facetiously stated at the outset, this was both the best and worst film I have seen. For so long it was nigh-on perfect, but it was that soaring into the heavens, to borrow a reference from the most hackneyed of writers’ handbooks, that led to the sun’s proximity to melt its wings, and send it back into the very world of mortality it sought so desperately to escape.
*I know, oh-so predictable.
**Yes, I have actually seen them. Long story.