Friday, July 30, 2010

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

One in a Million, Babe

written and directed by David Lynch
starring Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring,
Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Justin Theroux

Hollywood has a penchant for supposed self-deflation, like a Warren Beatty who bumbles and snorts and self-deprecates his way to getting killed off every other movie, as if to convince wife-beating rubes in Alsip, Illinois that Being Incredibly Rich and Handsome and Catered To ain't all it's cracked up to be. Occasionally, the industry gives us a Sunset Boulevard or an All About Eve, laying bare the peculiarities of that strange, delicate species known as The Actress. Sometimes, we get a Swimming With Sharks or The Player, if a fucked-over screenwriter or director's got a voodoo doll bearing the likeness of a certain executive on his bedside table.

Usually, though, it's more along the lines of an Entourage or that short-lived TV show with Jay Mohr: a genial self-roasting (which is to say, self-tribute) that takes those dim-bulb actors and barbed-wire power agents into a headlock merely to give 'em a noogie and set 'em loose. Your average film-world power player is far too in love with the line of supplicants he has to step over just to cross the studio lot — daily ego balm for a nerdy schmuck who's likely spent half his life thoroughly ignored. Hand him the satirical blade behind yet another "exposé" of the princess that changed him from a lowly frog and gave him that cushy corner office, and he won't do much more than administer paper cuts.

David Lynch, however, is an outsider even within Hollywood. Foreign finance consistently provides the building materials for his Little Houses of Horrors and, despite the cachet of his name in certain quarters, his fractured narratives filled with backwards-talking midgets, circular endings and weird Americana don't exactly inspire hosannahs in the boardrooms of Culver City and Burbank. "David Lynch" is a name to be dropped, a signifier of personal hipness, proof of one's occasional wading through cinema's artier waters; but certainly no one expanded their swimming pools or bought their BMW's off of Wild at Heart or Fire Walk With Me.

Yet, the ABC network signed the check for about three-quarters of Mulholland Dr. — that is, the fairly PG-rated chunk that concerns perky-beyond-belief aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) as she arrives in Hollywood to stay at her aunt's and discovers "Rita" (Laura Elena Harring), a mysterious, amnesia-afflicted beauty huddling in the shower. Probably, ABC looked at the script Lynch submitted — the quest to uncover a beautiful woman's identity! shadowy gangsters on their trail! a cocky young director having his film taken away from him by possibly the same gangsters! a pair of Dragnet-talking detectives who we'd better hope get to "Rita" before the gangsters do! the friendship between Betty and "Rita" tinged with a blossoming-yet-safely-unspoken sapphic affection! — and thought they'd be getting another prime-time phenomenon on the order of Twin Peaks. Except that Peaks was only a phenomenon until Lynch the Storyteller decided to take permanent residence up his own rectum, at which point the show was consigned to the spirit realm to cavort with Leland Palmer and Killer Bob. Perhaps ABC execs suffered from short-term memory loss. Perhaps Lynch was getting some sort of private revenge with this take-the-money-and-run style of funding for what turned out to be his next theatrical release. Certainly, he couldn't have been shocked when the network took a pass on the pilot he'd shot, using the excuse that Watts and Harring were "too old" to be television stars.

What he did next was figure out a way to tie up the loose ends from the pilot — at least, as much as being David Lynch would allow him to. Then, he decided to drag ashore the clam-licking undertow of melding-feminine-personality dissertations like Persona or 3 Women (Mulholland's clearest influences in that vein) — and, unlike Messrs. Bergman and Altman, Lynch gets my penis' vote for Best Director. Once the narrative was fleshed out to feature length, he released it as his next feature. Which turned out to be both the quintessential David Lynch film and, thus far, cinema's definitive treatise on How The Hollywood Factory Chews Women Up and Shits Them Out.

But David Lynch films don't make any goddamn sense, you say. The majority of Blue Velvet aside, his style is far too self-consciously "weird," its logic too internal and too impenetrable for audiences unaccustomed to fugue states and radiator ladies and B-movie dialogue delivered with heartfelt sincerity and a catalogue of tics and eccentricities we're meant to be entertained by, for their own sake — you say. You took a chance on Mulholland Dr., as the unsuspecting casual moviegoer sucked in by its Best Director nomination and possibly the biggest ad campaign ever attached to a David Lynch film. And you were left racking your Law & Order-fed brain to try and figure out just what the malevolent mystery midget had to do with the mob-connected brothers threatening the callow young film director, and just what all of that had to do with the homeless man-thing living behind the dumpster or Naomi Watts and Laura Harring at the film's center. And, well, those of us who knew better just looked at you with a sort of affectionate mocking tinged with condescension. "Silly rabbit," we grinned as if watching a child finally take to the potty all by herself. "You don't go into a David Lynch film expecting logical story development and clear-cut plot resolutions."

Agreed: Lynch's status as the King of Weird Americana can make his films feel like a glossy new museum of abstract expressionism that's closed to the public, even for fans old enough to have scarfed down cherry pie and coffee at Twin Peaks parties back in the day. Rather like an Alice Cooper concert in the early Seventies, at this point, a David Lynch film simply has to provide the mind-bending freakshow that paying customers have come to associate with his name. In fact, the very David Lynch-ness of a picture like Lost Highway or Inland Empire often strikes me as a test that cineastes feel they have to endure, as if it were an annual renewal date stamped on their own fading coolness — sort of like when you're twelve years old and you tackle that new rollercoaster ride that all your friends are daring you to try, lest you end up the "big fat wuss" of your childhood social circle.

And yet, sometimes music is more than just the same five Zeppelin and Deep Purple cuts on the classic-rock station. You also need a little Throbbing Gristle. You need Krautrock. You need Sun Ra and Primus and David Thomas of Pere Ubu. With Mulholland Dr., Lynch slid from being Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask Replica to David Byrne during the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense phase — "weirdness" as a startlingly tangible metaphor for the inscrutability of the world, as the distorted prism through which the specters that hover over your life's frustration begin, at last, to take on recognizable shapes. Besides which, there's no longer any "straight," linear way to take on the spirit-dampening, compromise-inducing, insanity-fostering assembly line of the Hollywood grind without regurgitating truths that the likes of Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz ate at Chasen's before your parents were born.

Lynch's fever-dream Hollywood is cinema's truest Hollywood, simply because — forget a David Lynch film — Hollywood itself is a world where nothing makes sense, where fantasy is reality for so many of the clueless hopeful just off the bus from Anywheresville, U.S.A., where the ghosts of shattered dreams haunting Gower and Ivar like the smog that once afflicted this town are as quintessential a local experience as couches on sidewalks, pedestrians who refuse to acknowledge crosswalks during rush-hour traffic, and airhead skanks who yammer on about spiritual enlightenment before repairing to a stall in the ladies' room to do a couple of lines and blow the bartender.

"I swear to God, it’s like somebody took America by the East Coast, and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on."*

Identities slip and change and merge and never seem to be fully grounded because that's L.A. Specifically, that's the way of people constantly trying on different masks as they strive to be what they believe each person wants them to be; of people who try on identities like shirts in a Macy's fitting room because they aspire to make a living being different people, because they need different things from different people with different temperaments, as they glad-hand and ass-kiss and schmooze and gently pester and fuck their way up the rear fire escape of the Hollywood food chain. It's a town of bottom feeders all convinced they're the next Brando or Meryl Streep or (God help us) the next Orlando Bloom, and they're fully prepared to kill — be it relationships or friendships or their own dignity — to keep the shards of their increasingly cracked illusions from hitting the floor around them.

When people admit to having thoughts about going back home (quite common chatter in these parts), it's generally not out of a sense of failure, i.e. "oh, I couldn't hack it in L.A." Rather, it's that every transplanted Angeleno comes to weigh the kinds of interactions and relationships that one could have here versus ones that one could have elsewhere — and here, it would largely be based on one's status, on a kind of starfucking, on what people feel they might be able to get for themselves out of being your friend or bedmate. And the question you have to ask yourself is: how fulfilling would that be for me?

Or, to put it the Mulholland Dr. way:

You moved to L.A. to follow your dreams. About five, six years ago. Your Aunt Gladys always told you you should be in movies, and everyone concurred. And you're gonna prove Aunt Gladys right — you're gonna be a big, big star. But lately, it's been tough going. You've been out on audition after audition and you're just not getting the callbacks the way you used to. Sure, you were in soft-focus in the background of a couple of shows on the WB for a few seconds and you were once thisclose to life as the perky new intern on that earnest hospital drama. But by now, your headshot's been passed around more than that "private" video that the guy at the "modeling" agency swore was just for his personal evaluation. Maybe you're not considered a fresh face anymore. Maybe — to the gatekeepers of stardom enthroned in casting offices all over town — you're even damaged goods, at this point.

And so, it's a year and a half to two years now that you've logged as a waitress at Fred 62 or Mel's on Sunset. You're really getting behind on all your student loan payments and credit card bills, and that twelve hundred-a-month studio on Franklin that you're sharing with the two hippie girls you met on Craigslist isn't quite the blast you first imagined it to be. It's not terribly hard to find some spiky-haired indie-band reject or future reality-show candidate down at The Liquid Kitty or The Woods to throw some Stoli-and-Viagra-fueled dick in you and quit returning your texts, but that sweet guy you left back home — the one who took you to meet his parents and paid your Visa and Mastercard bills and hadn't already fucked twelve girls who look just like you — well, his kind's like the American Bison in these parts.

Well, hell, at least, you have a good friend to commiserate and wallow in shared La La Land misfortune with, right? Actually, she's your best friend, your oasis of sanity, your port in the storm, the only person you really feel you know in this crazy town. You met her on — oh, what was it, was it that audition for Real World Huntington Beach? Was it that one NBC pilot? Well, anyway, you've known her for a good portion of your time in town, and truth be told, you sort of bask in her glow every time you're around her — she's that vibrant, that talented, that comforting. That sexy.

Oh, sure, she's had far more success than you have — some medium-profile TV work, a couple of supporting roles in hip indie films — but you don't hold that against her. She's your friend. Oh, sure, she's started seeing that cocky asshole of a director, the guy who thinks he's the next Tarantino or whoever, but you believe her when she tells you that it won't change a thing between the two of you.

And then, she tells you that things have gotten serious between her and Mr. Genius-on-the-Rise, and you can't deny that it hurts. Being cast aside for monetary considerations, for the sake of career — and here, you thought that what you had together meant something. You thought that you meant something. Hell, kid, no one means anything in this town, not when it comes to career aspirations. Surely, you already knew that, right?

Well, now you’re thinking of doing something drastic about it — something to her, that is. Even if your pain and humiliation are the last goddamn things she ever feels in her life. You're gonna make her regret ever recasting your former role in her life. And now, you find yourself in a diner on Sunset, meeting with some shady guy who takes her headshot from you and gives you a key and tells you where it will be. When it's "all done." After which, you find yourself suicidal with regret and you end up recasting your unpleasant reality as a cinematic fever dream in which you're a star on the rise, in which anyone who ever held dominion over you in your waking hours is now the picture of powerlessness, in which you and your Sapphic beau embark upon a quest to discover her hidden identity and fall madly in love — forever and ever and ever and ever. Just like people in the movies. Except that — guess what — the movies lied to you. Hollywood lied to you. This is real life, hon'. And real life tends to gyp you on the happy endings.

Bang. Silencio.

(*Courtesy of the great Harry Lockhart in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.)

©2010 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
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Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License .