Monday, April 06, 2009

I Don't Like Mulholland Drive (the Film)

"Wait, you're telling me I went through all that mental anguish over a dream? What a cheat!"
-- Darkwing Duck, "Dead Duck"

Mark and I recently watched Brazil, a film I hadn't seen since high school. It was pretty awesome, but the end irritates me. It turns out that, gosh, Sam Lowry has been dreaming his happy, idyllic flight out of the city with Jill, and in fact he's perhaps been hallucinating/dreaming since the moment of his rescue. None of it's true, he's really just gone insane during his torture. I know that there are many examples of this particular trope, but at the time I couldn't help but think of the finale of Newhart, when Bob wakes up and we learn that the entire season has been a dream.

Watching Brazil made me think about Mulholland Drive, a film that I come close to loathing. Perhaps I'd loathe it less if I didn't love Lynch's other films so much, or if friends I love and respect didn't always talk about how great the visuals and non-linear elements of the film are. In general, I appreciate the whole broken dreams in Hollywood thing, and I like convoluted fantasies that conflate/confuse self-image with love object, desire is always a good theme, and I have no problem with a non-linear or non-narrative structure. But but....

I know that Lynch likes to work with cliches, dreamy surrealist fantasies, and dreamy surrealist visuals which ask viewers to try and decide for themselves the relationship between fantasy and reality. However, the relationship between fantasy and reality had better be interesting. Ultimately, I think that's what irritates me so much about the film. When the film really gets nonlinear and the line between fantasy and reality becomes even more porous, the film, for me, becomes boring and rather vapid, not fascinating. I know I'm being subjective, but the characters' fantasy structures are dull.

In fact, from the moment Betty and Rita take off their shirts, Mulholland Drive feels like a postmodern cliche. After a really hot sex scene, Rita puts on a blond wig that makes her look a lot like Betty (hint hint, Lynch may be saying something about identity and fantasy), and they go to Club Silencio where they are told that everything is an illusion. Oooh, deep. Betty becomes Diane, etc. The narrative gets even more dreamy and druggy. Diane's idolizing love for Camilla is as boring as Camilla's shallow indifference and cruelty. Betty gets to have hot sex, Diane can't even successfully jerk off. Camilla is all satisfied and voluptuous. Snore...

Many of my favorite stories, novels, and films play with dream sequences and/or drugs and/or insanity as a way of calling attention to the highly subjective nature of reality and experience--again, perhaps that's part of what irritates me when such sequences feel like cop outs. A random, incomplete list:
  • Young Goodman Brown
  • Haunting of Hill House (Shirley Jackson)
  • The Wizard of Oz (Ok, so I'm no huge WOZ fan, but it's an obvious example)
  • The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari
  • Alice in Wonderland
  • At Play in the Fields of the Lord (Peter Matthiessen)
  • Let it Come Down (Paul Bowles)
  • The Tartar Steppe (Dino Buzzati) and the film version Desert of the Tartars (Valerio Zurlini)
  • Poe and Borges stores are full of dreams and drugs. Gerard de Nerval, etc...
  • Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir)
  • The Last Wave (Peter Weir)
  • Solaris (Stanislaw Lem) also Andrei Tarkovsky's film version. The more recent Steven Soderbergh version is more vague.
  • Turn of the Screw, The Innocents (Henry James)
  • Lots of Philip K. Dick
  • Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Terry Gilliam)
  • Nightmare on Elm Street (Duh)
  • Probably a lot of films by John Cassavetes that I haven't seen
I'm not so interested in hearing about why you think Mulholland Drive is a great film. But I am interested in hearing about your favorite dreamy, druggy films and books--ones that distort reality in ways that more fascinating, interesting, and illuminating than Mulholland Drive.


Michelle Detorie said...

I recently saw _Rosemary's Baby_ and found the way the whole gendered/hysteria/dream thing is used to try to convince her that she *was* dreaming and that, no, of course the devil didn't rape her, to be pretty interesting.

Also, the Buffy season six episode "Normal Again" is pretty great.

I also love _Rebecca_ and _The Big Sleep_. I like _Spirited Away_ too.

You always come up with the best lists!

jeannine said...

You know, the show "Life on Mars" just copped out in its finale in the same way...

What I really love about this post? The way you start off with a "Darkwing Duck" quote.

Elisa Gabbert said...

Fine then, I won't tell you *why* I love _Mulholland Drive_ but I will say that I love it. However I am not normally into movies based on dream sequences and I find many of the David Lynch movies I've seen intolerably boring. In fact I find most movies boring but could watch MD over and over again. Taste is a vast mystery.

K. Lorraine Graham said...

@Michelle--That's the second time Rosemary's Baby has come up on one of these lists. Given your description, it sounds like I'd better see it.

@Jeannine--Ah, good to know that TV series are still using this one.

@Elisa--Ok, ok, if you want to tell me why you love Mulholland Drive, I'd read/listen. There are crows fighting outside my window, and they sound like screaming babies. It's creepy! Taste can be a mystery, but there's usually a pretty good reason for why people are attracted to certain styles. The reasons for why I want to dress like Elvis or an old, stylish, Italian man on a bicycle are totally obvious. Perhaps my reaction to MH is deeply rooted in a psychological narrative of my own personal experience I don't yet have access to. But seriously, why do you love it?

Elisa Gabbert said...

I'd probably have to watch it again to give you a full treatise, but one of the reasons I like it is because the "key" changes halfway through the movie -- I like when a movie or song or poem contains a drastic tone or tempo (or whatever) shift. It's like two blanks for the price of one, keeps me interested, especially since I'm generally impatient for movies to end; this breaks it up and lessens the effect.

Another thing I like about it: the intention, especially in the first half, is very difficult to pin down -- is the bad/over-acting on purpose? Is it funny? Is it scary? (To me it is. I don't like to watch it alone.) With most movies I know *exactly* how I'm *supposed* to feel, but don't. With MD I'm often not sure how I'm even supposed to feel.

I also think there are just some mesmerizing moments. Yes, the "Everything is an illusion" idea being made so explicit is kind of ridiculous, but the fact that after hearing that over and over you still think the woman is really singing is somewhat powerful, I think -- and I just love that Spanish cover of "Cryin'"...

shanna said...

there are two endings to brazil, actually. one is a dream (the commercial release), but the director's cut is different. (it's one of my favorite movies. but i also like mulholland drive, tho it's my least fave lynch. but yeah, the 'crying' cover is smashing!)

K. Lorraine Graham said...

@Elisa--I think the first half of MH is really pretty fabulous, in part because of the scary/funny artificial overacting in the first part. I like tonal shifts too (in poems, in films, etc), but for me the dreamy fantasy of the second half was boring, or perhaps I just felt manipulated. I'll have to reconsider the cover of Crying, though.

@Shanna--The version we saw was, if I remember correctly, the director's cut, which ends with Sam in the torture/interrogation chamber. I never saw the original in the theater, but the first version I ever saw in video must have been the theater version, which ended on the dreamy note of Sam driving away with Jill minus the final scene.

Brazil still remains a favorite movie, even if I am disappointed by the ending. My favorite Lynch film is probably Blue Velvet.

Elisa Gabbert said...

Yeah, part of the problem with a movie that gets less fun partway through to make a point is that the second half is well, less fun. Full Metal Jacket is a similar example. Great movie, but I don't _enjoy_ Part 2, per se.

An Anaphorian said...

I think Bunuel did the best dream use in the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. With a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream within a......
otherwise resorting to a dream to 'explain' for me is unimaginative.

estaiti said...

I'm fairly certain Lynch intentionally used Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon as the framework for Mulholland Drive, which in my opinion is infinitely more interesting (in it's all of 14 minutes) than the feature-length version Lynch ripped off. His inclusion of the KEY is one explicit nod towards her film, but also the overall structure/framework (minus content) is identical.

While I'm on the Deren tip... I can't help but say that Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land, and Ritual in Transfigured Time are three films that I have lived alongside for many years and they are dream-like and brilliant, and what poetry would be if it didn't have words.

Kate Durbin said...

You may already know this, but Lynch originally planned to have MD be a TV series. He filmed a bunch of it, and then when the executives rejected the work, he decided to make it a film. After that he added all the stuff post Rita-Betty sex scene, claiming that the film "always wanted to be that way."

It seems like Lynch always does this flip-flopping thing, where he can't decide between linear and non-linear (for lack of more specific terms) in his films (and season 2 of Twin Peaks for that matter). Or more like he "finds" the film half way through (or "loses" it, depending on how you look at it.

I find the films I *enjoy* most of his are ones like Wild At Heart (totally linear) and Inland Empire (totally surreal). Though the abrupt meshing in films like Lost Highway and MD is interesting too, if ultimately frustrating. It totally ends up feeling like a cheat, a way to not resolve plot points. Maybe if he did it more cleverly it could work...I want to believe it could work somehow!

Elisa Gabbert said...

I found Inland Empire to be violently boring. I've not sure I've ever been so frustrated by a film. Not finishing it was practically an act of protest. Lynch is really a polarizer.