Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lynch Week- Mulholland Drive Is Cinema

by James Hansen

The first David Lynch film I saw was Mulholland Drive in late 2001. I don’t know why it was playing where it was playing, or why I went to see it instead of something a little more usual, but it was the happiest accident I have ever been a part of. It was, and is, the film. I'll play this post nice and close (to my heart), just like in the movies.

As our faithful readers probably know, most of the writers of this site grew up in Kentucky where arthouse films (even mainstream arthouse) didn’t exist. But I still distinctly remember the ones that I saw, and they continue to stand out for one reason or another. The town where I grew up had one movie theater that had one screen. When Titanic opened in 1997, it stayed for 3 or 4 months. I saw it four times. Not because I loved it (although I was young enough to get into the action sequences, and make fun of girls for crying over Leo) but because I loved movies and there anything else to see. With Netflix now, things seem to be much better, but I still have plenty of friends and know people who have similarly frustrating movie going areas. Every once in a while, though, our town would have a sort of break through. I remember seeing The Blair Witch Project and being driven home through the woods and up a winding hill to my house. The film was scary, yes, and, in my view at the time, shockingly independent. Shortly thereafter, I started borrowing video cameras from friends who had them and making short movies of my own, whether for school (creating sequels or spins on classic works) or for fun (creating my 2002 magnum opus- a brutally long 70-minute sequel entitled Cats 2: The Magical Misfit. We wrote original songs and everything!!!) I remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon miraculously playing in our town and counting 35 people who walked out once they discovered it had subtitles.

Then, a year later, I was on a Christmas trip to visit my father who lived around Dayton, Ohio. I was already “the movie kid” and it was my turn to pick the movie. So, off went my pastor father, stepmother, 14 year old sister, and myself to see Mulholland Drive at a dollar saver cinema. I don’t remember why it was at a dollar saver as a new release, or how I convinced my parents it was a good idea. I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into. We had watched R-rated movies for a long while, so ratings were never a big deal. I guess we all figured it would just be another movie. It had great reviews, mild Oscar buzz, and sounded interesting. I was already interested in movies, but Mulholland Drive was something uniquely mysterious, baffling, and altogether wonderful. My family harshly disagreed, as you might imagine. I don’t know what it was with the film, but it made something click. It is, almost without question, what got me into film production (I even made an Mulholland Drive inspired short film in college, my best one, that made it into a festival and was entitled The Sylvia North Story...any other crazy fans out there who know the reference?), which eventually morphed into academic film studies. I rarely have problems critiquing films in retrospect, but, for me, Mulholland Drive is so personal and vastly important that discussions remain as allusive as the film itself. Difficult as it is, I’ll trudge forward here in an attempt to codify that which has kept itself at a distance.

I analyze and think about Mulholland Drive much differently now, which is what 6 years of undergraduate and graduate school in film studies will do. At the same time, I still understand why I responded to it in such a way. For me, cinema, as a sort of all encompassing art form, should never be limited by one thing or another. I have met plenty of people working in theaters who think films are all about the story. If there is no story, then it is a waste of time. But to make this requirement seems highly reductive for a form that has access to so many different things. Perhaps stories are what more people can connect to, but should we then forget that cinema is a different form that has multiple possibilities within the realm of narrative? Can’t the form (by which I do not mean pretty cinematography) highlight and strengthen aspects of the narrative or story? Maybe I expect too much from cinema. The current banal set of Oscar contenders certainly has me thinking so. Cinema, though, allows everyone to see stories, to follow narratives, to listen to arguments in a different way than other forms. Without using the complete form, however, there is something that will always be missing. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t enjoy plays put on film, comedies shot with no sense of style, or stylish movies with no sense of narrative. It does mean, though, at least for me, that they aren’t the strongest examples of what cinema should be.

Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, contains everything cinema should be. It refuses a simple classification and purposefully entrenches itself in and refutes any kind of simple “norm” it sets its parameters within. The same can be said for most of Lynch’s work, which is likely why I have continued to respond to nearly all of it. (And this, for the record, is not to say Lynch is the auteur of these works. If anything, it is precisely the established codes of Hollywood that inform Lynch’s films in such a manner that makes them work. But we can save my complains and arguments against the auteur “theory” for another day...)

With an expansive visual sense placed in the classical Hollywood schemata and with story threads that imbed a collective sense of narrative moment and emotional connection, Mulholland Drive embeds itself within two different worlds of cinema. Its rhythms and movements often shift from classical editing into an elongated style for certain scenes that require something unexpected, a la Betty’s audition scene with the older man – one of my favorite scenes of all time. Watch how the scene gradually changes its tone – not just in the wonderful performances, but in the camera movements, the editing, the sound. It’s a perfectly simple scene right in the middle of the most “normal” part of the film, but it illustrates the significance of every aspect of the cinematic process. It’s something that Lynch, an experimental director who has made a mark for himself in Hollywood while simultaneously critiquing the hell out of it, understands and executes to perfection.

In his wonderful book on the LA avant-garde, The Most Typical Avant Garde, David James analyzes the importance of Hollywood film to avant-garde cinema. Its a difficult position to take for sure, and, while I have my reservations about it on whole, there is certainly a point to be made and contemplated in regards to this within an historical perspective and for modern artists as well. Lynch clearly comes to mind, and the mark is made especially clear in Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE. As confounding as some people find the films, typically on the grounds of them being impenetrable and nonsensical, which I think comes partially from their dialectic of two totally different cinematic mindsets, Mulholland Drive is invested in its story (personally, I’ve never had a problem “figuring out” its narrative although there are certainly elements left to grapple with) but it is also an immersive visual and sensual experience very much dedicated to the notions that Hollywood was founded on. Moreover, the use of Hollywood and the experience of actresses serves as a device that opens up the avenues of realization that come with such a complex work.

The film and its characters search for a form of success and understanding in the world they have become entrapped within – quite a similar experience as the one the audience goes through. Lynch never places the film in a superior position to the audience, dangling vague questions with no answers for the audience to become frustrated by. Although some viewers have apparently seen it in this manner, Mulholland Drive is one of the few films that matches the audience step for step and understands the experience it presents. This is underscored perfectly by the wonderful Club Silencio sequence, where the maestro explains his tricks, the experiences, and the ideas behind Silencio. When the audience is confused, so are the characters and the visual style will often match this unbalance. When there are moments of clarity for the audience, it becomes clear to the characters at the same time. Sometimes it may be a trick, but there is distinct cry of reality embedded within this experience that breaks through in the form of the opera. Llorando, indeed.

Lynch may be some sort of mad puppeteer who constantly plays with a number of ideas, but he ensures that everyone can follow if they are willing to give themselves to the experience. The complexity might be difficult to handle, but, from the first time I saw it, it was something I longed to analyze, if not understand, explore, if not discover, and comprehend, if never completely. Mulholland Drive was something I happily gave myself to and have continued to look for while never looking back.

Here's a low quality video of the audition scene, in case you forgot how amazing it was...


The Film Doctor said...

Excellent appreciation, James, although I had hoped that you would explain more of the latter third of the film. Along with Elephant Man and Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive is one of Lynch's best. I wonder how you would compare and contrast the treatment of LA culture in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.

Tony Dayoub said...

What's amazing about this film is how good it is given it's difficult birth. This started off being a pilot for a new series for ABC who had some success with Twin Peaks in 1990. When the network decided not to buy it, Lynch asked if he could have it back and create an ending for it which, if one knows the movie, roughly starts at around the time of Rita's seduction/Club Silencio.

Now if anyone has seen the European version of the Twin Peaks pilot, he/she can understand why I thought that Mulholland would feel disjointed. And I guess if the subsequent series would have happened, maybe it would have, as characters get firmly entrenched in one's mind after seeing them develop over the course of a series.

But this movie feels complete in a fully organic way. It is definitely one of Lynch's best.

BTW, it is criminal that one can only select one favorite Lynch film in your poll.

Tony Dayoub said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed Howard said...

What a great appreciation of one of my favorite films, nice job James. I'm with you in that this film is deeply personal to me, and was a similarly catalytic experience in terms of my appreciation of cinema. This film is also going to be the subject of the next conversation between James Bellamy and myself at the House Next Door, so I'm very excited about that.

James Hansen said...

FilmDr- We can get into the last third in the comments for sure. If I got into all of it in my article, it would have been pretty monstrous. I just kept writing and finally decided to keep it less reviewy and more along the lines of appreciation. I'd be happy to tackle some explanation/theories here though.

Tony- The background with the pilot is a fascinating story (and one I probably should have mentioned). I actually have a version of the pilot that I got from some website. It claims to be the actual pilot, but, of course, no one can confirm anything. I certainly think it probably works better as a movie without all the clarification, but a series would have been amazing. And sorry for limiting the poll. It's a horribly tough call for me too, but if I let myself choose multiple answers I would have picked like 6 of them! I wish you could only let people pick 2 or 3, but its either one or all of em.

Ed- Thanks for the comment. I look forward to the discussion at House. We're planning a convo about INLAND EMPIRE later in the week, so be sure to swing back by for that.

James Hansen said...

I'll come back and say more later, but I think the treatment of LA culture in MD and IE is actually pretty similar in terms of content. Where it changes is in style and execution. Whereas MD starts as a bubbly, colorful look at much of Hollywood, it turns much more dark in the last third – and the last third, I think, informs where IE begins and what it explores. That darkness and death at the end of MD is matched in IE by the darker, grainier tones of digital video, extreme close ups, and the Axxon N. room/theater. Even though I think IE does have a story to follow (to some extent) everything gets overwhelmed by the pre-established status. (You know what whores do? Yes. They fuck.) You know what happens to boys who wander out in the world? Evil finds them and follows them. This early mythology told by the crazy woman/fortune teller sets up the idea that everyone is trapped already...something that becomes apparent throughout MD. And I think a lot of it has to do with creativity, performance, and passion in LA.

Those are just a few quick thoughts. I'll try and say more later, perhaps.

Chuck W said...

Great write up, James. You've actually made me reconsider my opinion on this film somewhat. If you asked me last night, Mulholland Drive would probably be fourth on my list of favorite Lynch films (which might seem low--but remember, this is Lynch we're talking about). I am now reevaluating that opinion, thanks to your enthusiasm. It might give Inland Empire a run for its money.

It's been six years since I last watched Mulholland Drive--and to be honest, I think I am in a position to appreciate it more now than I was then. I remember watching it, all alone, in a darkened empty theater in BG; the experience was a bit overwhelming. But it is far too challenging and rich a film to be digested without multiple viewings. I believe it might be high time that I revisited this film--maybe a double feature with Inland Empire.

I can't wait to explore the intertextual connections between MD and IE. I look forward to it.

Brandon Colvin said...

MULHOLLAND DR. was rather formative for me as well, although it was my second Lynch film - after ERASERHEAD. I remember watching it with my step-dad at the tender age of 14 and being so completely mind-boggled and intellectually/emotional wracked that I didn't know what to do with myself. I ended up watching the film about five times in a week until I got a solid grasp and I think that at this point I've probably seen it close to 12 times. I'm going to mention one specific part of the film (coincidentally, dealing with THE SYLVIA NORTH STORY, James!) in my piece on TWIN PEAKS for Friday.

As for ranking the Lynch canon, I'd have to say it's in the top 4 features. ERASERHEAD, INLAND EMPIRE, BLUE VELVET and MD all kind of rotate in and out of the the top 4 places, though ERASERHEAD is always #1.

That being said, I think the first 14 episodes and the final episode of TWIN PEAKS, as a whole, are just as good, if not better than the aforementioned films.

Tony Dayoub said...

If we're going to rank, allow me to share my favorites:

1. Blue Velvet
2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
3. Mulholland Drive
4. The Straight Story
5. Lost Highway
6. Hotel Room Episode #3

Inland Empire is one I have to sit with for a while.

And I love the same eps you do, Brandon, of Twin Peaks but with the exception of the episodes he directed, it's tough for me to assign him as auteur on that series, since Mark Frost carried so much of the show-running duties while Lynch was out shooting and promoting Wild At Heart.

As you can see I prefer Lynch when his proclivity for strangeness is restrained a bit. A little of it goes a long way for me. Plus I like seeing his notion of a "real world" more than a "surreal world". The Straight Story is still considerably off-kilter for being a G-rated Disney film.

James Hansen said...

I dunno if I can rank too well (although I finally decided MD is #1, and my top 4 are likely the same as Brandons) but I certainly agree in regard to THE STRAIGHT STORY. It's a really great film and gets lost in the shuffle most of the time. It has some real complexity that some of the "showier" films are slightly lacking, I think. Glad to see it in your tops, Tony.

Anonymous said...

From Ryan L...

It was, perhaps for me, the first confoundingly-brilliant thing I'd seen as well. I remember just SOBBING during the Silencio scene and having no idea why. I became obsessed with the movie if only to find out why my emotional response was so intense.

Love love love it. And love your reflections above. Although we had plenty more screens in Colorado Springs than in Moorehead, it was still all Titanic and bad Ben Stiller movies. You know very well that Pleasantville was my disembarkation, but Mulholland Drive confirmed it in college.

Joel Bocko said...

An excellent write-up. Damn, every blogger is so young...I thought I was one of the younger ones, but I think I may actually be older than both guys - definitely older than Brandon if he was 14 when MD came out...

This is one of my favorite films of all time, and I voted it as my favorite Lynch film. I think it's also the best film I've seen from the past decade.

Brandon Colvin said...

Yeah. I'm only 20.

James Hansen said...

I fear giving away my age at the cost of veteran's respect who will turn their nose up at young'uns. I expect the intelligent writing (and GD expensive-ass Master degree) trumps that, but I'm still weird about it. Alas, let's just say I'm a few years older than Brandon, and will officially consider myself as mid-20s come my birthday this year. Chuck's our oldest writer...old old old. You've been outed! :)

Anyways, I agree that MD is the tops of the decade. And with only one year left in that competition, I don't see anything topping it.

Meeg said...

Mulholland Drive is so amazing! I think the best testimony to this is that I know lots of people who don't like Lynch's experimental stuff but who still enjoyed Mulholland Drive.

The story is just so compelling even though it doesn't make logical sense.

The first time I saw MD, it was on television in this neighborhood bar in the middle of the afternoon that I was hanging out in waiting for a friend. I was so sucked in by what I saw that I knew I had to watch the rest of it and see what happened/what was going on.

This might not be a popular opinion here, but because of this I think Inland Empire can never catch up to Mulholland Drive. MD is still experimental, nonlinear, oneiric, subconscious, but it also manages to hold you at the edge of your seat throughout the entire movie and to entertain people. There's not many experimental films that can do this.

Anonymous said...

thanks James--nice appreciation of my favourite film by far.

one quibble I would introduce is that I think its narrative is far less straightforward than most aficionados believe (i.e. I've written reams--in dialogue with others--about the problems with the "Wizard of Oz" in reverse interpretation)

wonderful blog too--I'm glad I found it!


Anonymous said...

The first time I watched Mulholland Drive I was 15 and had the flu. The delusions meshed with the surrealism so strongly I barely had any idea what was going on.

5 years later it's still one of my favorite films.