Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Most Hollywood Un-Hollywood Movie Ever Made

Last night, an acquaintance of mine invited me to attend a theatrical screening of a 35mm print of Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch) and I immediately decided this was something I could not pass up. My previous encounter with this challenging narrative, from quite possibly the most challenging auteur to tread the boundary between commercial and arthouse, from both within and outside of Hollywood, simultaneously, was about 10 years ago. A longtime David Lynch fan, I'd always gone out of my way to actively engage with his works, in my own way, finding my own meanings. Then, I kind of got burnt out after Inland Empire (2006, Lynch) and walked away for about 5 years--until last night.

So, I used to try to figure out what Mulhollalnd Dr. was about. Then, I decided that was no use. After returning to this film, 10 years wiser about life and with a recent BS in film production added to my cinematically analytic arsenal, I think I'd like to give another shot at attempting to explain what I think Mulholland Dr. is about--my apologies to David Lynch, as I assume he discourages this type of discourse.
Part 1: Decoding Messages
1A (Follow your dream)--In the 1940s, it was common to hear Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer described as "The Dream Factory." The first shots of the Jitterbug Competition in Mulholland Dr. accompany a POV shot of someone going to sleep, setting up the potential to read the following film as some one's dream.
1B (Sequence between the two gentlemen in Winkie's on Sunset)--This may be a key to decode the entire narrative. The key elements are:
  • One person telling another about a dream they had with the other person in it.
  • That first person then becoming frightened after seeing that the account of the dream scares the listener.
  • That first person then attempting to confront the dream, in reality, and being killed by it.
My conclusion is that this structure is a model for the film in two other instances: The first part of the film (Betty wants to be a star and falls for Rita) and the second part (Diane Selwyn wants to be a star and falls for Camila Rhodes). Now, an important distinction here is that the structure of Mulholland Dr. is one that supports an emotional truth, rather than a conventional realism typically associated with Hollywood movies. Furthermore, the film is ridden with double symbols. Perhaps the most startling discovery for me last night was the scene where Betty and Rita first discover the corpse of Diane Selwyn and run out into the front yard--the photographic effect used is a double exposure--because it suggests that the entire film is an instance of the collision between dream (Betty plot) and reality (Diane Selwyn plot), cinematically expressed as one image exposed onto a film negative that has already been exposed and the perplexing nature of this effect; or, the collision between dream and nightmare; or, the collision between Old Hollywood clichés and New Hollywood auteur riffs; or, the collision between youthful naiveté and aged cynicism.
Personally, I'm currently obsessed with filtering my entire existence through the lens of a paradox--or, the collision between opposing forces.
1C (Hollywood movies and their formal characteristics)--In addition to the significance of where Lynch has employed the double exposure shot in Mulholland Dr., there are other instances of double meanings derived from decoding cinematic techniques and the implicit meaning therein.
Next, there's the old couple, Irene and her companion. For me, they're nothing more than a gratuitous symbol of the language of conventional Hollywood film language from the twentieth century. Consider this: we see them at the beginning and end of the film. They are a coin that shows first, the side of how Hollwood movies communicate a dream--in the car they don't speak, but by how they're filmed, we, the audience, imbue them with meaning (jubilation) because of the slow motion (or, overcranking the shutter speed)--then, second, they show how Hollywood movies communicate a nightmare--again they don't speak, but the fast motion (undercranking the shutter speed of the camera) imbues them with a terrifying, threatening menace.
1D (Hollywood Movies and their formal characteristics, continued)--The scene where we first are introduced to Naomi Watts as Diane Selwyn is a huge turn from the entire narrative thrust up until that point. It's jarring. It's bizarre. It doesn't really make sense. But, Lynch blocks this by intentionally Jumping the 180° Line (the convention established in Hollywood movies whereby spatial orientation through blocking and editing establishes a realistic visual geography for viewers) and actually seems to be the first director I've seen to do so, in a way, suggesting an almost cannibalistic comment he's making about his super un-hollywood Hollywood movie. Sorry, I prefer cannibalistic to meta--I don't like using the term meta too much.
1E (Hollywood Movies and their formal characteristics, continued more)--Lastly, I'll suggest that the opening scene of Betty's idealized image of herself as movie star appears overly white (or technically, burned out--a term in cinematography that means over exposed), implying that the type of "exposure" she seeks is "overblown;" or even that that pinnacle (as Valley of the Dolls hypothesized) of fame is the point at which one falls victim to Hollywood Burnout.
Part 2: Hollywood Burnout
2A (Hollywood Burnout as a model for Betty and Diane Selwyn's respective emotional cores in Mulholland Dr.)--For me, Hollywood Burnout is a symptom evinced in Betty's emotional requisition of her romantic object of desire (Rita). The symptom is, again, getting to the point where attaining your dream destroys your personal identity. The link is that of the realization that it won't last, no matter how desperate you may want it to--whether it be attaining the career of a movie star or attaining a chance to be with the love of your life--because it's all an illusion, albeit one that we believe we have mutually contracted ourselves into, and once we realize it's disintegrating, we often are unable to survive from.
2B (The director, Adam Kesher)--He also suffers from Hollywood Burnout, of the variety wherein he's gone from auteur to commercial hack. A very telling line of dialogue occurs when he's told by a financier, "it's no longer your film."
Part 3: References to Other Hollywood Movies
3A (Part 1, Old Hollywood)--Mulholland Dr. begins with an inventory of Old Hollywood bright-eyed, overly sentimental idealism. And we get all of the most saccharine chestnuts one could imagine: comical references to dog poop and a kagaroo that destroyed a courtyard; slapstick (the entire botched hitman thread is a comment on Hollywood violence because it's all gratuitous and goes absolutely nowhere and has practically nothing to do with the rest of the plot); etc...
3B (Part 2, New Hollywood)--Lynch's over the top lesbian scene is nothing other than Camp of the most intentional type. It's hilarious, not erotic.
3C (Specific references)--I'd always found the line Betty says to Rita before her audition hilarious: "...And don't drink all the Coke!" Anyone remember the line in Showgirls (1995, Paul Verhoeven) where Nomi is off to work and tells her roomate in a similarly overacted delivery: "...And don't eat all the chips!"?
There's obviously a ton more of these, but I'll just limit my observations to Showgirls and The Wizard of Oz (1939, ???Victor Fleming??? and way too many others). One of the biggest narrative devices that helped me understand Mulholland Dr. was that the second part is reality, because Diane Selwyn has obviously awakend from a dream and the people in her reality are versions of characters she'd created in her dream, just as Dorothy had done in The Wizard of Oz. In fact, the exact moment this occurs, Coco (Ann Miller) exclaims to Diane: "So you just flew in from Kansas... is that it?"
This movie is so close to the themes I find most important in films: feminine identity, Hollywood Melodrama, and artifice as a means to achieve aesthetic emotion are the big ones; but also, of course, the illusion of love and its analog, the illusion of movies. Or, as Mulholland Dr. says: "There is no band, but we hear music." Of course, the entire Club Silencio is an analog for watching movies, as important, if not more than the haunted house shown in Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette).
Ahh, these are just a few thoughts off the top of my head that I wanted to jot down while they're fresh. There's no telling what this movie will mean to me in the future, but I'm guessing a lot.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

with mean disdain: Michael Gira, Great American Music Hall, 15mar2012

I had half an idea what I was in for when I bought my first Swans tape. You knew, if you were a record nerd, even if you were just a high-school weenie like me, that the Swans were serious business, scary stuff.

The tape--TIME IS MONEY (BASTARD)/A SCREW, apparently a pair of singles--was as "relentless" and "oppressive" as advertised. I found it exhausting. There was a wall of sound, it was featureless and impenetrable, but everything sounded the same. It seemed perfect that the lyrics in the J-card were all-caps punctuationless blocks of text: no nuance there, either.

It's a safe bet I still have that cassette tucked into one of my half-dozen fossil tape racks somewhere in my storage space; it's a decent bet that I haven't actually played the thing since the years still started "19". But not long after I picked up that tape (and put it down in favor of The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, which had funny samples and sex-free violence) I do remember being struck by the note-perfect cover of "love will tear us apart" and the groany dirge "god damn the sun". (I actually loved that last one so much I went off and wrote my own groany dirge whose first line was "god damn the sun"...)

After that, I was mostly busy cordially kind of ignoring the Swans. I didn't have any particular use for deep-voiced mourning ragers with weird sexual politics and an outsized sense of personal drama, even if they had once been in a powerful and inflential noise band. But enough of Nick Cave: I wasn't that interested in the Swans or in their prime mover Michael Gira for many years.

But, then, a couple weeks back, I was, as is my wont, cooking some vegetarian slop and doing pushups in the kitchen while listening to KALX. There was a longish interview with Michael Gira, and it was a damned compelling interview: most notably, he displayed an actual sense of humor, and I swear at least one time he made a joke at his own expense. I know. I hollered at Noodles to see if she were interested in hitting up the show. Basically ready anywhen to see whatevs*, she speedily acquiesced. Bonus--the oft'-heard-of-him figure Sir Richard Bishop was set to open!

The couple-three Bishop songs we caught were terrific. Improvised guitar noise, atmospheric and still purposeful. And his goth-baiting between-song banter found an appreciative listener with this reporter.

Gira came out slowly. Grey suit, huge Stetson. Deliberate steps around the stage, impossibly lengthy guitar tuning process. Great American security types bustled about, hustling to inform front-row types that "Michael has asked that there not be any phones or cameras".

Michael Gira with Stetson

A couple songs in, Noodles turned and whispered "I'm terrified of this guy." To that point, he'd been incredibly formal, extremely reserved. Just him, some baritone grinding, an acoustic guitar. Not a lot of banter, but a bit. Until the crowd started to want to be a little more part of the show than just party to it. One guy asked "Hey, play a song for my grandpa. He just died." Gira muttered "I'm sorry to hear that." and there it wasn't left, because audience dude had to follow up his mouth with something that led Gira to slowly elaborate "I don't have any special power...I'm just up here doing my work..." followed by what I can only speculate was the least appropriate "song for my recently deceased grandfather" ever written--unless your grandfather was into heavy drugs and bad sex.

I made some crack about wanting to do my own interview with him, just to ask how you handle playing shows for people almost completely devoid of a sense of humor; Noodles trumped me instanter by noting "with mean disdain". Which was robustly confirmed when somebody shouted for Gira to move his massive Stetson off of the mic stand he'd propped it on, apparently blocking somebody's view. "Fuck, why don't you move?" wondered the seated singer.

A few more good songs, served not particularly well by being stripped of ornate orchestration and presented with just a limited voice and a few chords. (One song ripped the chords from "heroin" wholesale--a move I endorse entirely. Gonna steal, steal from the best songs you can find.) More utterly mortifying exchanges. "I got three left..." "(scattered 'AWWW')" "Well, actually, I'm going to go backstage and get a blowjob, then come back out here." "Hey, if you haven't lined up that blowjob yet..."

Later, during an introductory guitar part, he half-smiled through a "Shut the fuck up. No, seriously...shut the fuck up. I'm singing up here." that received some titters, a couple nervous smirks, and me making a thoughtful frowny who's-in-the-right-here face. (Who is in the right? the diva look-at-me guy or the inexplicably yakky drunk shithead?)

Worst was the intro "I wrote this song...for a five-year-old--" "WAS SHE HOT?"

"Fuck you, man. Fuck. You people don't care about me."

Around here Noodles nailed it (again): "This is a good show for an audience of submissives."

Exactly. The songs were mostly fine, though suffering somewhat from a lack of musical variety and a lyrical perspective heavy on will-to-power my-wounds-are-the-worst-wounds egocentricity. Much prefer Gira's style to the aforementioned Cave's, though, and the performance did come with a charisma that absolutely compelled attention even through the not-my-favorite music and frankly icky audience/artist interaction dynamics.

If Gira comes to your town, buy a ticket. Stand up front. Have an extra drink to open up the emotional pores. Leave your phone at home.** Remember that the show isn't actually about you, even though you're there. And enjoy. We sure did.

--Fat, more of a crypto-hippie aging rocker, not so much a goth

*Srsly: I've dragged her to Red Fang, Fucked Up...
**You can go ahead and do that at
all the shows, actually.