Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Furies of Mulholland Dr.

      The films of David Lynch have quite often compelled and repulsed people in equal measure. The fact that Lynch remains a dedicated student of transcendental meditation offers fleeting insight into what some might term the inherent weirdism of his body of work. It's true: on the whole, Lynch is a weirdly fascinating artist.

I don't know of any true artist who wouldn't fall into the category of odd or offbeat. Lynch fits all of these labels to a T. Rather than explore his innumerable talents in a lengthy discourse, I have decided to focus in on one rather interesting allusion to Greek mythology in his seminal late masterpiece Mulholland Dr. (2001). But not without some requisite background information first.

In a nutshell, the film began life as an open-ended television pilot (along the lines of Lynch's genre bending, supernatural soap opera satire Twin Peaks, 1990-1991) that was soundly rejected by the powers that be. Lynch then decided to keep what he had filmed, add even more implicitly noirish material and release the whole thing theatrically.

above left: Erinyes or Furies (female deities of vengeance) in Dante's 14th-century epic poem Inferno; illustration by Gustave Doré
above right: original theatrical poster art featuring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring

The result was a near resounding critical smash and the darling of Cannes. The finished product truly does represent the best of what Lynch has always offered us as an abstract storyteller and frightmaker. Even while mostly remaining a dark and delirious fantasy, the story still manages to penetrate and peel back the rotten underbelly of the Hollywood star making system.

Preferring to let audiences decide for themselves, Lynch has never been one to reveal his influences and intentions openly (he was pressed to release his official "10 Clues" to help promote the film; though one shouldn't get hung up on the enigmatic details when watching a Lynch film). I still remain mind-blown at the revelation of actor Bill Pullman who admitted that Lynch confessed to him while making Lost Highway (1997) that the whole story was a rumination on the psychosis of the O. J. Simpson murder trials.

While not quite the masterpiece that Mulholland Dr. turned out to be, Lost Highway was nevertheless an engagingly enjoyable ride. For those looking for easy answers or a quick definition of what your average David Lynch film is about, I'm afraid you're going to have to do your own research, at length. That's the joy of a Lynch film, sorting through the opaque riddles and skillful sorcery for yourself.

Mulholland Dr. might best be summed up by the tagline Lynch himself provided: "A love story in the city of dreams". The love story could be that of the two female protagonists or the love that several characters have for the power of Hollywood politics (which Lynch brazenly enjoys satirizing in his inimitably macabre style). If you've ever wanted to truly witness a land of the haves and the have-nots, take a journey to Southern California. Specifically the many facets of Los Angeles and its surrounding communities.

Lynch explores this very theme in a virtuoso way. He first offers us the story of a blonde-haired, bubbly, goody-goody trying to make her way into the movie business. She's filled with all the archetypal fears and anxieties about acceptance and failure but it all just comes a little too easy for her; from the cabbie helping her with her bags at the airport down to the magical casting session she seems to have been handed out of the blue. That is until she meets the dark-haired mystery woman who sends her on a Nancy Drew-like adventure with some very nasty consequences. For me, this is the part of the film that is pure make-believe.

The reality, which is revealed in the final act, is that the bubbly blonde is actually a failed actress with a very troubled soul who has put out a hit on the dark-haired movie goddess who humiliated her and broke her heart. Perhaps the majority of the film was a dream, or a romanticized version of events in the mind of the failed actress, or...well, that's ultimately up to you to decide.

I digress. At the start of the film we are introduced to Betty, the bubbly blonde (played by Naomi Watts) and an elderly couple. We already know Watts is the star of the film but it's the elderly couple that make an instant and somewhat lasting impression on us, partly because their early appearance seems like a parody, and partly because of their strange wordless behavior when left alone to ride off from the airport in a long black limousine (not an uncommon sight in L.A. nor in Mulholland Dr.).

But it is their abrupt and unexpected return at the finale that we have come to dissect today. Without spoiling any more of the indefinite narrative for you, Watt's character (now called Diane Selwyn in the latter reality-based portion) makes some very insidious choices. The old couple return at the end, in a perfectly bizarre and heteromorphic fashion (literally crawling in from underneath a crack in the door), to make Betty pay for her actions. They assault her (and us) with a truly unsettling aural barrage that causes their victim to run screaming in horrifyingly real agony. I've never watched this film with anyone who didn't at least wince or avert their eyes (and ears) momentarily during this scene.

above: The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies; 1862 William-Adolphe Bouguereau 
below: attack of the Erinyes/Furies in Mulholland Dr.
 
This is the exact purpose and function of the mythological Erinyes, also known as Furies (in Roman mythology). As stated in the epic poem the Iliad, the Erinyes "punish whosoever has sworn a false oath" which is precisely the crime that Betty/Diane has committed. Lynch even makes the allusion more evident by naming the old woman avenger "Irene"; imitating the correct pronunciation of Erinyes.

Of course, in reality, we can only assume that Betty/Diane has simply snapped under the guilt and psychological pressure she undoubtedly feels for arranging the death of the lover who spurned her. There are no real Furies in real life. Are there? There exists, in the pantheon of Lynch creatures, this notion of the boogeyman. In Lost Highway it was Robert Blake's eerily effective Mystery Man; in Mulholland Dr. it's The Cowboy.

These typical Lynchian characters are far too easily dismissed as classic boogeymen. They are, in these instances, more like avenging angels than common demons. They usually arrive on the scene to punish the main character for committing some mortal sin. The Cowboy appears in both Betty's fantasy (to torment the man who we learn comes between her and her lover) and also in the reality sequences unbeknownst to Diane, setting into motion her own comeuppance.

above left: Robert Blake's Mystery Man in Lost Highway
above right: Monty Montgomery as The Cowboy in Mulholland Dr.

It's entirely possible that Lynch, the constant transcendentalist, has injected his nightmares on film with the meditative notion of divinity, or a supreme order to the Universe. This explains why no bad deed goes unpunished in a proper Lynch film. People create evil and it's therefore up to the Universe to preserve its balance. Perhaps it is through creatures (not entirely real or human) like The Cowboy and the old couple (even if only metaphors) who set things right on some type of karmic level. So to speak.

Some Lynchian scholars and budding internet philosophers have gone as far to suggest that the entire film is modeled on Greek literature, with each seemingly random character standing in for a mythological counterpart. I'm not willing to go that far (not yet anyway), but I am certain of one fact: hell hath no fury than a granny scorned.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Nashville

      Our lives have become dependent on the cult of technology. Rarely a day goes by when we aren't affected, influenced or entertained by the television, or a handheld device of some kind. Have you ever left the house, made it halfway to work before realizing you had forgotten your cell phone? A feeling of dread or panic overcoming you, even for just a moment: how can I make it through the day without my iPhone?

I guess it's just the natural progression of human life on this planet. The films of Robert Altman have always reminded me that once upon a time, people got along perfectly well before the advent of the internet and the smart phone. Nashville (1975), perhaps his true masterpiece, is a testament to basic human interaction. Not just in the way that we relate to one another, but also the way in which we deceive. 

Take for instance the classic car pileup scene. A near carnival-like atmosphere almost instantaneously erupts as dozens of motorists, trapped in their vehicles on the freeway behind the accident, turn the disadvantage into something resembling a county fair or a social mixer. People begin to carhop; an annoyingly shallow reporter from the BBC makes her rounds; a couple bickers and has a falling out; an ice cream vendor sets up shop; people actually talk to one another.

Shelley Duvall
I guarantee you that if Altman had filmed that same scene today (as a comment on American life after the turn of the Century) not only would everyone have stayed put in their air conditioned gas guzzlers, locking themselves in, but they would have immediately began to text the situation to someone, perhaps even the person sitting next to them.

All of the major characters (24 according to Wikipedia) suffer from some form of self-delusion, hypocrisy or phoniness (except perhaps Jeff Goldblum's motorcycle driving hippie-magician). That's not to say that Altman's film is a complete downer. It's actually quite funny without doing, saying or being about anything humorous. The film invokes its own form of irony as it rambles about from scene to scene, character to character, weaving in and out of a meticulously crafted, perfectly controlled and almost delirious narrative that only a mad genius could have concocted.

That madman was of course the irreverent director of MASH (1970) and The Long Goodbye (1973), two essential documents of '70s Cinema in which this master was virtually inventing his own unique style of storytelling via overlapping characters, music and dialog. With Nashville, he perfected it.

Ronee Blakley

In fact, Altman wouldn't produce another surefire masterwork until 1992's The Player and Short Cuts the year after. What really makes Nashville hum is how much feeling it manages to kindle without ever really developing any single character in a traditional sense. Altman uses characters the way van Gogh painted clouds or fields: each seemingly quick-fire stroke adding texture to the overall canvas.

We constantly learn something unexpected about these people as the film progresses. The names of characters in Altman's films aren't important, but by the end we feel like we know something intimate about them all. We also feel like perhaps we have learned something about ourselves in unison.

One of my favorite passages in the film concerns Keith Carradine, who plays a popular singer-songwriter attempting to break from the country/rock trio that made him famous (Carradine won an Oscar for the song he wrote and performs in the film). He's been sleeping with the sole female member of his group, much to the chagrin of the third member who is also her husband. So this recurring thread is not just about how people drift apart creatively and professionally, but also emotionally.

Carradine's character, a certified ladies man, only appears to have his mind on one thing while he's in town: a plain but saintly housewife played by Lily Tomlin whom he has also had an affair with in the past. We never learn more about their relationship, only that Tomlin's gospel singing character is married to a redneck lawyer (played brilliantly by Ned Beatty) with two deaf children. She continually dodges her young lover's calls to her home (especially at the dinner table) but her husband seems aware that something is going on. It's one of those unspoken truths, or the proverbial elephant in the room.


Finally, she accepts an invitation to hear Carradine perform at a small club. She sits in the back but he manages to pick her out of the crowd. He begins to play a new song for all his adoring fans (some of whom he has slept with throughout the course of the film and think that he is singing just for them). It becomes plainly clear that he only has eyes for one. It's his way of getting her to be with him one more time. You can cut the emotional tension in the room with a knife.

As she hurriedly gets out of his bed and begins to dress, Carradine casually picks up a phone (when phones still had cords) and makes a call to another would-be tryst waiting to happen, in full earshot of Tomlin. He's had her and now it's on to the next one. The sad thing is that there's an unspoken understanding between them. It's all in the look on her face, and the dignity she successfully exudes. It's a radiant piece of acting.

Equally radiant is a scene involving Geraldine Chaplin, as that annoyingly shallow BBC reporter, and Dave Peel as the lawyer son of the arrogant local Opry star (played by the great Henry Gibson). Chaplin and Peel are sitting alone at a party and for one brief moment, the flighty journalist seems to be making an actual attempt to connect with someone. With a genuine air, she asks him what his dreams are. He tells her he has always wanted to sing but his father wouldn't allow it.

In a truly touching moment, he begins to croon a sweet little song he has written himself, but her gaze begins to shift away from him ever so subtly as she quickly realizes actor Elliott Gould has arrived at the party. Oh, the dramatic irony. That's the genius of Nashville. And the genius of Altman.