Monday, June 15, 2015

"MULHOLLAND DRIVE" Might Assassinate Your Speakers


by Joseph Lanza

Those who have yet to see David Lynch's 2001 film Mulholland Drive should be warned of many spoilers ahead.  This is an essay in progress.  There's always more to say...


The early 1960s gave us wonderful and terrifying times.  Kennedy’s “New Frontier” brought at least the semblance of hope.  NASA finally had an iconic American face in the clean-cut John Glenn.  And middle-class America still felt some sense of identity and security, no matter how fleeting.  Lots of American pop stars, likewise, sang through the echoes of chiffon -- vanilla ballads that connoted dreams of wistful romance but often implied some kind of heartbreak waiting to surface.  Two examples are Connie Stevens’ “Sixteen Reasons” (1960) and Linda Scott’s “I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star” (1961) – both of which David Lynch uses in Mulholland Drive to conjure those ideals that once nurtured him but that he eventually came to doubt.



In the above scene, the main character Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) locks eyes with Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a director who will have a devastating effect on her romantic and professional aspirations.  He will take away the love of her life, the raven-haired Camilla Rhodes (Laura Harring). It is an uncanny moment when she vaguely recognizes someone who has altered her destiny, but whom she has yet to place more firmly in her dream. Her facial close-up is ambiguous, though dread and fear seem to register more than anything else. Lynch manages to capture something asymmetrical about Watts' face, at least in some scenes. One eye does appear to convey naive optimism, but the other eye shows foreboding. She senses the horror that is literally knocking on her dream from the start -- until it overshadows the proverbial sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows.



A song from 1960 provides a more telling tale of these early sixties contradictions.  Under the auspices of Mitch Miller, who contributed an echo-laden shimmer to other Columbia artists such as Doris Day in the previous decade, the Brothers Four released “Greenfields.”  Today, many are likely to hear the song and feel nostalgic for the days when it appeared on the Top 40 airwaves.  But the lyrics tell a different story, as they pine for a time long ago and far away that obviously existed before the early sixties. The song's narrator suggests that it was only yesterday, when the world was better because his love did not leave him.  These brokenhearted sentiments are a metaphor for the way many look to the past to imagine when times were better for them personally.

 “Greenfields” suggests nostalgia’s ever-regressing delusion, as people from the sixties wish to go back to the fifties or forties, people of the forties look to the thirties or twenties, Stephen Foster looked further back, and so on.   Bliss and innocence rarely exist in the times when songs about bliss and innocence are popular because, by their nature, they are lamenting a lost past -- but which and whose past?  


Though “Greenfields” does not appear in the film, Mulholland Drive seems dedicated to its warring implications and to a larger picture "when dark clouds hide the day."  Much of Mulholland Drive, many say the first two hours, transpires inside of Diane Selwyn's “dream place,” as she initially envisions herself as a Doris Daydream named Betty Elms (the last name suggesting a beloved tree and a notorious street in Dallas, Texas), arriving into Los Angeles fresh from Ontario, Canada with visions of romance and stardom.


 

And the green fields of trees and vines that surround Los Angeles appear to creep into the characters’ lives, looking less like benevolent nature and more like alien tentacles.   This idea is consistent with Lynch's dream logic.  When we say "Hollywood and Vine" in daily life, we instantly think of the streets.  But in her dream, Diane might be re-interpreting this as a vine or vines encroaching on Hollywood.
 

With the sound of agonized breathing, Mulholland Drive takes us to a pillow, and then through Diane’s dream that continually veers into a nightmare. 



This calls to mind a country crossover tune from 1962: Johnny Tillotson's "Send Me the Pillow You Dream On.”


1962 gave us another country crossover hit that sounded just as wistful but also had a darker edge.  “The End of the World” merged themes of doomed romance with world apocalypse.  There is also a backstory involving another American obsession: the car crash.   

 

Skeeter Davis was inconsolable following the death of her friend Betty Jack Davis, who was her partner in a musical act they called the Davis Sisters. Betty was killed in the same car accident that Skeeter was lucky enough to survive.  And although Nashville producer Chet Atkins suggested she sing it as a typical love ballad, Skeeter could not help but engorge it with deeper, scarier emotions.  By holding back the Southern accent and drawing out the tune with a more generically American little-girl voice, she made it sound all the more tragic.  Such a pretty tune; such horrifying sensations.  And here is an appropriately girly YouTube tribute to the song that coincidentally includes, at one point, images of David Lynch's iconic bird: owls.


Lynch was among those young enough to be taken in by the Kennedy mystique when, while an Eagle Scout and on his fifteenth birthday, he witnessed the President’s Inauguration.  But he also recalls being the first kid in his class to hear about the Dealey Plaza murder -- an event that J.G. Ballard later envisioned as a conceptual car crash, the projectile vomit from a bloody century.  And in the year following the tragedy, three famous death ballads about road accidents and mangled bodies surfaced: Jan and Dean's "Dean Man's Curve," J. Frank Wilson's "The Last Kiss," and the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack."


Lynch invoked vanilla pop memories of the early sixties with Julee Cruise.  Her prom dirges at the Twin Peaks roadhouse are reminiscent of the Paris Sisters and their 1963 release, "I Love How You Love Me."  But Mulholland Drive is Lynch's most provocative contrast of lightness and darkness from the pre- and post-"Camelot" eras.  And as the plot gets closer to the ugly truth behind what tried to be a pretty dream, a songstress, who resembles a prostitute and who has a tear on the side of her right eye that looks more like a gang tattoo, appears at a nightclub called "Silencio" and hollers out a Spanish version of Roy Orbison's 1961 Adult Contemporary classic, "Crying."


Upon arriving at her new L.A. home, Betty reunites with her traitorous lover Camilla.  Only now, Camilla has become "Rita," Diane's wish fulfillment.  Rita is the hapless survivor of both a hit-man and a car crash, who stumbles down the hills at the top of Mulholland Drive to the Havenhurst apartments, where Betty's Aunt Ruth resides, and where she hides and waits for Betty to guide her.

Along the path of this dream, which winds along more precariously than Mulholland Drive itself, Diane bumps into radioactive moments that threaten to reveal the "gawdawful" truth that led this bright-eyed ingĂ©nue to become a fallen angel.  Among the clues is a famous portrait.  Artist Guido Reni supposedly painted the late-Renaissance martyr Beatrice Cenci as she languished in prison for successfully plotting with several others to murder her tyrannical father, Francesco.  Though she had her sympathizers, the tyrants won, and the courts sentenced Beatrice to a beheading.  
 

Since then, Beatrice's doomed-heroine legend has inspired writers from Shelley to Artaud.  The portrait on the wall of Aunt Ruth’s apartment is tastefully lit, color coordinated, and reminding us that beneath the brave gaze of what seems like innocence lurks a great deal of pain -- and a grisly end.  One allegation against Francesco Cenci is that he also sexually assaulted his daughter – a belief that sends many Lynch fans into speculative frenzies about Diane’s sexual past.  This interpretation, however, spins too far from Mulholland Drive’s dream orbit and detracts from another, perhaps simpler, but more compelling reason why the Reni portrait appears.  Theories persist about the girl in the painting being an impostor: that she is another woman whom Reni passed off as Beatrice, creating an illusion that has survived the centuries.  

Assuming Diane has knowledge of this complicated art history (or is this David Lynch's dream of Diane Selwyn's dream?), the portrait signals to us and to her dreaming self that the “Betty Elms” who enters Havenhurst is, like the figure in the painting, a borrowed identity -- not the real fallen angel who is dreaming and dying.  The portrait looms prominently in a scene when Betty convinces the amnesiac Rita (another borrowed identity) to assist her in calling the police to find out if the car accident had indeed occurred on Mulholland Drive the previous night.  Betty inveigles Rita into playing along: "C'mon, it'll be just like in the movies. We'll pretend to be someone else.”


Cagey about explaining his provocative and often-puzzling themes, Lynch invites viewers to play with wild interpretations, many of which are scattered throughout the Internet.  And there's no law against indulging about the movie's themes and subliminal teases.  When the real Camille Rhodes initially appears, for instance, she is in the same place at the back of her Lincoln limo as JFK was in his 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible.  Later, she reappears (in a convertible's front seat) with Adam, even though the car is apparently from the World War II-era and, therefore, on the set of a different film and not the sixties-infused "Sylvia North Story."
 


The nightmare on Elm Street in Dealey Plaza somehow hovers over Mulholland Drive.  Visions of Jackie and her pink outfit might explain why Adam, in several scenes beforehand, gets covered in pink paint.  


Hell, even hints of Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theater enter the picture.


Mulholland Drive is arguably Lynch's most successful attempt at telling the same story he's told in previous films because this time his main protagonist elicits genuine sympathy, no matter how wayward she becomes. Give or take all of these surrealistic connections and interpretations (and despite Lynch's tendencies to pander to "hipsters"), Mulholland Drive has a humanistic core.  The story is about unrequited love, professional rejection, thwarted dreams, and the psychological sewer that even good people fall into when "good things happen" to bad people.

We are seeing these events from the hazy viewpoint of someone who is mixing her personal woes with historical events, pop culture icons (the appearance of Billy Ray Cyrus with his early '90s mullet), and of course, movies. At one point, Betty's successful audition, when she turns a scene that is supposed to be a bitter encounter with an older seducer (played by Chad Everett) into a steamy love match, is reminiscent of a moment in Gilda, when Rita Hayworth's title character swoons over Glenn Ford while declaring how much she hates him.

In an earlier scene when arriving at LAX, Diane says goodbye to a loving, maternal travel companion named Irene, played by Jeanne Bates, who also played Henry Spencer's horny and schizoid future mother-in-law in Eraserhead. Some have read the presence of Irene and her elderly male friend as phantoms from Diane's childhood of sexual abuse, but again, this interpretation grafts too much of Laura Palmer's story onto Diane's.  As terrifying and prevalent as it is in real life, childhood sexual abuse has become a hackneyed plot device in both fiction and in phony autobiographies.  Irene and friend work better as the supportive and approving parental figures who love you when you dream of doing well, but whose attitude can change when things go horribly. They are also the judges at the Jitterbug contest that opens the film, giving her a thumbs-up and then closing with a thumbs-down.


 


Along this dream's meandering path, winding more precariously than Mulholland Drive itself, Diane grates against radioactive corners that threaten to ignite the "gawdawful" truth that led to her suicide.  Along with references to Gilda, Mulholland Drive also pays an indirect nod to another "film noir" favorite, Kiss Me Deadly, particularly its black-box climax that triggers an atomic catastrophe.  Here, it is a blue box that sometimes morphs into a blue van, a blue dumpster, and even at one point a blue book about French decoration.   

 
The blue box unlocks the darkness that Diane’s initial dream tries to avoid, and each time the narrative veers toward forbidden territory, the soundtrack takes on a low, rattling drone that suggests the noises from a Geiger counter.  A particularly ear-splitting moment occurs when the mysterious Dan (Patrick Fischler), a bystander Diane sees during a criminal moment in her real life, and whom she re-imagines as a Lynch-like neurotic, takes his friend, therapist, or possibly lover behind a diner to encounter a monster that lurks behind a wall. At other points in the film, these radioactive noises can be taxing on an average sound system.  So, if you play the film at ample volume, be sure to check for rips in your speakers.



Even if many of us choose to avoid such metaphysical mind candy as the belief in shadow people, bardo states, etheric doubles, or wormholes in time, we can believe in dreams, particularly the disturbing dreams.  Mulholland Drive follows the logic of these dreams and how they intersect, often illogically, with everyday events. 

One day, you can run into an old friend on the street; later that day, you hear the ice cream truck, but decide not to buy ice cream.  But in a dream, your friend becomes the ice cream man holding a dagger, because you’d accidentally cut yourself while preparing dinner.  Then, you walk into room where all of the lampshades change color from vanilla-cream to blood-crimson. And in one of the rooms, a giant, moving plant with tentacles lunges at you because you happened to have fallen asleep while watching a DVD of The Day of the Triffids.  The audio information from the movie about the alien plant invasion seeps into your memory of a telephone conversation you had earlier that morning with someone you've had a secret crush on.  Finally, you are left screaming into the jaws of a carnivorous lily -- and you might never wake up.
 


Friday, January 16, 2015

Twists, Turns, and Plunges from the Distant Past: A Mind-Bending Review of GRAVITY (my 1997 book, not that recent movie).

This Los Angeles Times review of an old book of mine from a long ago and far away place makes my heart flutter and rise as if I'm plunging down the first hill of the Coney Island Cyclone. Please enjoy, if you're so inclined.

Just click the hyperlink, and the ride begins:  http://articles.latimes.com/1997/aug/31/books/bk-27417







Saturday, November 8, 2014

"KISS ME DEADLY" -- In Praise of the Mangler's Cut!



For years, many fans of Kiss Me Deadly, and Robert Aldrich fans in general, regarded this film's abrupt, disorienting, and apocalyptic final seconds to be a bold and creative statement for a movie released in 1955. This original theatrical ending, which was supposedly due to accidental film damage (but maybe not), is better because it is much more brash and ends the way an atomic explosion should.  Instead, the "restoration" (with Mike Hammer and Velda watching it all from a nearby beach) makes the atomic explosion look more like a gas explosion.

Aldrich was known for some abrupt endings and beginnings (think of the crying jack-in-the-box at the start of "Baby Jane"), so appreciative viewers were right to assume that this was the ending the director intended.  I, therefore, thank the projectionist or whoever else enabled us to see this supposedly "mangled" version for so many years.  Sometimes directors don't know best.





Tuesday, June 3, 2014

FOREGROUND FLATLAND (excerpts)


by Joseph Lanza





In 1984, many wondered whether (or how much) George Orwell’s dystopian visions about Big Brother came to pass. That year, the UPC code had tattooed most of our products, cable television spread its multiple channels and 24-hour news cycles into more homes, the infomercial masquerading as news came of age, the B-actor president who scared us about the “evil empire” had his reelection locked up as he waved to his wife from a giant screen at the Republican National Convention, and oh yes, Muzak celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. 

Despite what some might assume, Muzak's golden year was the least Orwellian (i.e., technologically manipulative) of all these examples.  For half a century,  Muzak's melodies wafted through our public spaces to alternately soothe and stimulate our workaday moods, propel our purchasing decisions, and of course, make riding elevators less scary...




The elevator music did not silence the cultural and social upheavals of the sixties and seventies.  On the contrary, it complemented the seismic shifts with its toned-down counterpoint.  While the Beatles hollered out their rock and intoned their psychedelia, as Donovan sang about an electrical banana, and Bob Dylan worked his nasal passages with his paeans of protest, the elevator music songbook expanded – precisely because these artists were leaving melodic trails that were ripe for reinterpretation by the orchestras not only in Muzak’s studios but by a record industry that profited from easy-listening instrumentalists like Percy Faith, Paul Mauriat, and the Hollyridge Strings.  Like the Muzak arrangers, the easy-listening maestros had an uncanny knack for covering pop and rock songs shortly after the originals appeared, revealing tunes that were just as engaging as those from the Tin Pan Alley era.





Then, a Newsweek article from September of 1984 commemorating Muzak’s milestone revealed one disturbing sign of  havoc to come, Muzak’s then-president Tony Hirsh mentioned a new plan to broadcast “original artist music” – or “foreground music.”  This would have jarring consequences.  Instead of encountering an orchestral version of “Mellow Yellow” designed as an unobtrusive background, supermarket shoppers would soon amble through the produce aisle to the sound of Donovan’s actual voice from the 1966 Top 40 record.  With foregrounding, the songs would no longer have a shadow identity; they would instead induce people to listen more actively as if they were blasting the AM radio in their cars... 
 
Foreground music, despite what seemed its opportunity for “alternatives,” created an irony.  As in-store channels expanded and music classifications varied, the customers, underling employees, and public passersby had no choice in the programs.  The decisions were left to the tastes and whims of onsite proprietors...  
  

In contrast, elevator music, for those who took the time to listen, offered an aural depth of field: the opportunity to take in a shadow version of a song we liked or at least recognized.  The original lingered as a haunting memory while the background tune wafted through our minds.  This meant a deep-focused listening: both songs could simultaneously play in our imaginations.   


 
Conversely, with only the foreground, we are in the world comparable to the one Edwin A. Abbott describes in his fantasy story Flatland; in this case, we are stuck in a two-dimensional existence where we cannot conceive of music that exists beyond the hard, egotistical edges of its original recording artists…




The clash of musical tastes that wages from speakers all around us can instead make us feel irritated and, worse, dumb or numb.  I think of those blank, confused expressions on the faces of people on the streets and in subways as they absorb their iPod playlists through ear buds.   They hope to escape the pandemonium by retreating into their little corner of the world, even as their walls close in.  Elevator music, with its unassuming (yet artful) arrangements, was never a threat to individuality, whereas foreground music, when used as an environmental tool, drowns out individuality and flattens us into what many in the advertising and opinion-research fields like to call “psychographic profiles.”  Thinking about the matter from this angle, we can suspect that the less elevator music we hear, the more unreal we become.



(These are excerpts from an essay that appears in the Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics, from Oxford University Press, 2013.)