Ed Howard: David Lynch is a filmmaker who has haunted my mind since the first moment I saw one of his films. This is especially true of Mulholland Drive I vividly remember my confused, stunned reactions the first time I saw this film. It was in the afternoon, and when I stumbled outside afterward, into bright daylight, everything looked strange, somehow subtly changed. I’d spent over two hours in Lynch’s world, and in the time I’d been lost there it was as though the real world had been infected with Lynch’s unsettling aesthetic. It was a unique experience. I can’t remember another film that shook me up and destabilized me so thoroughly, and I’ve returned to it, and to Lynch’s work in general, compulsively ever since.
Perhaps because they have such a profound, visceral effect on me, I find the precise character of Lynch’s films to be elusive, hard to explain in concrete terms. I’ve never happened across a better synopsis of their effect, though, than the one offered by the novelist, essayist and critic David Foster Wallace. In 1996, Wallace was asked to visit the set of Lost Highway for Premiere magazine, and in response he produced a witty essay that was explicitly not a “behind the scenes” piece but an attempt to come to terms with the ineffable quality of Lynch’s cinema. In the midst of this article is a passage that I want to offer as a starting point for our discussion, since it couldn’t do a better job of encapsulating my own responses to Lynch if I had written it myself.
“David Lynch’s movies are often described as occupying a kind of middle ground between art film and commercial film. But what they really occupy is a whole third different kind of territory. Most of Lynch’s best films don’t really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretative process by which movies’ (certainly avant-garde movies’) central points are understood. This is something the British critic Paul Taylor seems to get when he says that Lynch’s movies are “to be experienced rather than explained.”…
“Nor are they seductive, though, at least in the commercial senses of being comfortable or linear or High Concept or “feel-good.” You almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to “entertain” you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: you don’t feel like you’re entering into any of the standard unspoken/unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of a point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We’re defenseless in our dreams too.)”
Jason Bellamy: I can’t tell if you’ve jumped into the deep end of the pool or the shallow end with that quote, and maybe that says something at the outset about the elusiveness of Lynch. In general, though, I agree with the passage by Wallace, and I surely relate to the destabilizing effect of Mulholland Drive as you described it. That’s Lynch alright. Indeed, we are defenseless to his abstractions. Watching a Lynch film is like waking up in space. We’re so accustomed to A-Z narratives—even if they start at K, flash back to A and then flash forward to T—that we are conditioned to the idea that movies move forward or backward. Lynch is too dynamic for such restraints. His films come at us from above, from below, from the side, from our blind spots, from places we didn’t know were there to be occupied. Whether this is some kind of genius filmmaking mutation, essential for the survival of the species, or some kind of disorder, interesting in its abnormality but ultimately detrimental, is a conversation for later. In the moment, we at least agree on how a Lynch film operates and affects—at least some of the time.
Mulholland Drive is an apt window into Lynch, because for so much of its running time it’s about as conventional as Lynch gets before becoming about as unconventional as Lynch gets. It’s like a boxed set experience in one film. Watching Mulholland Drive again for the purpose of this discussion, I found it to be as captivating and confounding as I’d remembered it. It’s typically inexplicable—not just in terms of plot, but in terms of its overall effect. At the moment, trying to consider the entire film in my mind—a monumental task in and of itself—I vacillate between thinking that it’s the heartbreaking work of a staggering genius and an inauthentic, glossy self-indulgence by an artist who takes himself too seriously. The real answer, I’m sure, is somewhere in the middle. These are not my conclusions. These are the emotions that Mulholland Drive stirs within me. That said, you adore this film. So let’s move away from the big picture for a moment to concentrate on the film itself. I assume you’d call it a “great” film, perhaps even a “masterpiece.” So here’s a challenge: With the knowledge that you’ll have the entirety of this conversation to state your case in detail, for the moment tell me why Mulholland Drive is great … in 250 words or less.
EH: For me, the heart of the greatness of Mulholland Drive is the famed Club Silencio sequence, which provides the blueprint for enjoying (and understanding) the film as a whole. This is the moment where David Lynch steps into the film and announces, “Here I am,” where the magician reveals his secrets. He’s reminding us that we’re “just” watching a movie, that everything we’re seeing is fake, “an illusion,” and yet no less affecting for its artificiality. This scene is the film’s aesthetic and thematic core because Mulholland Drive is a tribute to the beautiful lie of movie magic. The preceding two hours were a mélange of self-conscious genre references (noir, Western, mystery, sexploitation, melodrama, action) but Lynch doesn’t mock or parody these genre clichés; instead he glories in the endless capacity for creativity and emotion still contained, waiting to be unleashed, in even the most hackneyed Hollywood scenario. We see this also in the audition scene, where lame material is transformed by sheer talent into something electric and awesome. It’s this generous quality that I most love in the film, the way Lynch seems to really care about art’s ability to move, change and provoke us. The film is about a young woman who tries to transform herself through an artful act of imagination, and Lynch invites us to care as deeply about her constructs, her imaginary self (or selves), as we do for the glimpse of the “real” her we see in the final half-hour of the film.
JB: And here I thought I’d given you a nearly impossible challenge. I like your encapsulation. Brief though it is, it provides me with a deeper reading of the film than I took away myself based on only limited viewings. More specifically, it takes my seemingly disparate reactions and suggests that, yes, they do fit together in a relatively tidy whole. There’s quite a bit to react to here, but you started with the Club Silencio sequence, and that seems fitting, so let’s continue.
If that surreal display is the “blueprint for enjoying (and understanding) the film,” you might also agree that it’s the linchpin, too. Already to that point, the movie has been typically Lynchian—weird, creepy, somewhat depraved, not to mention vibrant and compellingly oblique—but the Club Silencio sequence is when the LSD hits the bloodstream. In the passage you quoted from Wallace, he notes correctly that we “almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to ’entertain.’” I agree with that, and I’m down with that. Perhaps Lynch simply intends to provoke. Good enough. But this leads me to the first of what I’m sure will be multiple Lynch-inspired philosophical questions:
If we agree that the main strength of Lynch’s filmmaking is its ability to render us defenseless, couldn’t it also be argued that the intentional inscrutability of Lynch’s work is its biggest downfall? Yes, we’re vulnerable to these images, at least at first, but the natural human reaction when violated (made uncomfortable) is to emulate an armadillo and curl into a ball—physically, emotionally or cerebrally. Some would say, “That’s on the audience. If they can’t take it, it’s their problem.” But is that accurate? Lynch might not want to entertain us, and he certainly isn’t out to set box office records, but he does want his films watched, or else he wouldn’t make and distribute them—they could just live in his head. Lynch wants to share. He wants to provoke. He wants to communicate. Yet if he causes a moviegoer to shut down, his/her experience ends before the movie does, as if waking one’s self from a nightmare. After that, the rest of the film is essentially irrelevant to that person. So I guess what I’m asking is this: If Lynch’s style is so discombobulating that it pushes me away before it finishes delivering its message, if it makes me want to give up rather than keep trying, is that a fault of Lynch or of me?
EH: All I can say is, no matter how confounding and inscrutable Lynch’s films can be—and this one is by no means his most inscrutable—I have never been repelled by them, never tempted to “give up.” This is because Lynch’s filmmaking is very modular: he thinks as much in terms of crafting individual moments as he does of the whole film. There’s a reason that he was able to salvage Mulholland Drive from a rejected television pilot by adding new material and making it seem like the film was always meant to be like this. There’s a reason that Inland Empire is able to incorporate ideas and images from Lynch’s digital shorts and experiments (like the absurd Rabbits) and fluidly blend it all into the whole. Individual scenes, like the audition or Club Silencio or the conversation with the cowboy or the creepy Robert Blake phone call sequence in Lost Highway, can stand on their own as self-contained modules, separate from the films that contain them. This approach obviously encourages a very different kind of viewing, one that necessitates taking the film moment by moment, scene by scene, at least at first. (And the hypothetical armadillo-like viewer you mention would still have experienced many of these isolated moments before giving up, and I suspect Lynch would be OK with that.) It’s only later that one realizes there’s actually a story here (even, in the case of Mulholland Drive, a surprisingly straightforward story), that the little pieces start fitting together into something coherent. The first time one watches a Lynch film (other than, naturally, The Elephant Man or The Straight Story), it inevitably seems like just a string of random moments, most of them compelling and moody in their own right but not really logically understandable. It’s only when you return to the films, or even just turn them over in your mind for a while, that what had seemed like randomness and surrealism-for-its-own-sake begins to take on form.
This is why Wallace emphasizes watching a Lynch film as an “experience,” and certainly an active experience. These films undoubtedly require a certain level of complicity on the part of their audiences; if the viewer turns off, refuses to engage, then the film will never mean anything, will never come together in the way Lynch clearly intends it to. On some level, every film (or at least every film worth any attention) requires something of its audience. Lynch asks more than most, but then I’d argue that the rewards of his films are unique enough to warrant this extra effort; you may, of course, disagree.
It’s also probably worth pointing out that Lynch is—despite our and Wallace’s description of his disorienting qualities—often willing to give his audience at least something to hold onto. In many of his films, this something is the comforting presence of Hollywood genre clichés, which Lynch uses in quite a different way from other self-consciously referential directors like Tarantino or the Coen brothers (who Wallace quite convincingly argues were both influenced by Lynch). Lynch deploys familiar tropes and images as a way of suggesting to us that the film is not as random as it might otherwise seem: the Dragnet-style detectives in both this film and Lost Highway, the amnesiac femme fatale with a purse full of money and a mysterious key (what does it open?), the shadowy behind-the-scenes conspiracy, the gangsters and hitmen. Years of watching films in which these things appear have conditioned us to want to decode them, to want to solve the mystery, but Lynch purposefully twists the conventional meanings and gives us something unexpected. The clichéd detectives turn out to be incompetent, the femme fatale and the cheery good girl switch places, and the key seems to open a kind of psychic doorway rather than a physical object: the featureless blue box it unlocks is as nakedly symbolic as the box full of white light in Kiss Me Deadly, one of Lynch’s key reference points in his recent work. As disorienting as Lynch’s recent films have been, by making the Hollywood dream factory his subject, he’s provided at least one crucial stabilizing factor amidst all the surreality.
JB: All true. But let me avoid the particulars of Mulholland Drive for a moment to hit on something you said so revealingly casually: “the first time one watches a Lynch film.” The first time. See, there’s an understanding among film fans educated enough to have an idea of Lynch’s canon that his films can’t be digested in one sitting. In fact, it’s not just understood, it’s accepted. I find this fascinating. First of all, why do Lynch’s films get the benefit of assumed repeat examination? Just to grab a name, let’s compare Lynch to M. Night Shyamalan, as thoughtful (as in well-intentioned) a filmmaker as any. I saw his Lady in the Water just once, but that’s all that I needed to recognize it as a jumbled failure. If I said as much, many would nod their heads and agree without hesitation. If I said the same about Mulholland Drive, I’d likely be told that I need to see it again, that the film can’t be properly appreciated in only one sitting. Well, what if the same is true of Lady in the Water? What if that film has been unfairly panned because most critics and moviegoers only sat through it once?
I want to be clear before I go any further that I support the idea of repeat viewings. I don’t think a film that one has grown to appreciate has lesser value than one that is adored immediately. At my own blog I have championed the idea of reexamining one’s position and being willing to admit initial error. But here’s the thing: If Lynch’s films are so complex that it takes more than one viewing to digest them, to the point that fans of the work might disregard an initial-viewing pan, what are immediate raves worth? In other words, if someone sees the film once and proclaims it a masterpiece, do you trust that reaction, or is it as incomplete as a one-viewing dismissal?
I bring this up because, rightly or wrongly, the vast majority of film debate is based on singular viewings, not just with new releases but with older films, too. Serious film fans don’t bat an eye at reexamining something that challenges them, yet even we don’t withhold judgment of films we’ve seen only once, nor do we always go out of our way to offer the caveat that we might feel differently if we saw it a second time. We trust our instincts, and we should. They are honest. So, to hook back into my previous question: If a Lynch film doesn’t compel me to see it the number of times necessary to fully appreciate it, isn’t that a fault of the film and filmmaker, just like my abhorrence of the idea of suffering through Lady in the Water a second time reflects the failings of that film and its creator? Has Lynch earned this stature with early successes? Does he have to re-earn it within each film, or is it a given at this point? Would Mulholland Drive receive the same flexibility if released by an unknown artist? I’m not so sure.
EH: Here’s the thing: Lynch’s recent films might require multiple viewings to fully understand them, but not, in my experience, to enjoy or appreciate them. As I suggested in my opening, I loved Mulholland Drive the first time I saw it; I was utterly blown away by it. Did I understand it? Not even close. Subsequent viewings revealed layers of narrative and themes that I hadn’t detected the first time. But the sensation of watching the film, the mystery and beauty of its images, the ideas about imagination, fantasy, movies and loss bubbling up through its obscurity, these were all there the first time. The fact that I was compelled to revisit the film a second time—indeed, probably close to a dozen times by now—says a lot about the power of that first experience, that it made me want to return to this film so frequently. I do trust my instincts, and I trust them to know when a film has more to offer me, and when it’s Lady in the Water: Lynch’s films suggest that there’s more there, depths to be mined on subsequent viewings, while the Shyamalan film does not. My instincts might be wrong—it’s perfectly possible that Shyamalan’s film is a misunderstood masterpiece and that Lynch could make a film that would offer me nothing further after the first viewing—but so far, each time I’ve returned to one of Lynch’s films, I’ve discovered something new, something deeper that was only hinted at in earlier screenings.
This is, obviously, just my experience of Lynch, and I gather that you have had a somewhat different one. So, in an attempt to steer us into the substance of Mulholland Drive itself, what did you make of the film on first viewing and (how) have those feelings changed now? You called its plot “inexplicable” earlier, which I don’t think is really true—the narrative is one of the things about the film that started to pop into place for me the second time around—but did its story’s outlines sharpen for you on repeat screenings? What I’m asking is, basically, since we agree that watching a Lynch film is an experience, what is your experience like?
JB: In my initial encounter, seeing the movie upon its release, my brain cramped somewhere during the Club Silencio sequence and never recovered. Even knowing to not expect anything linear from Lynch, I felt convinced that I must have missed something. To that point, the film had indeed been an experience, but a somewhat maddening one in many respects. For example, Naomi Watts’ performance is marvelous, but it takes more than an hour to realize it. She spends the first half of the film acting like someone who can’t act. It isn’t until the audition scene, when her character begins to act, that we realize that, oh, fuck, this has all been a ruse. It’s a juicy ruse, and on my second viewing I adored it, but having not seen Watts previously, I spent the first half of my initial trip to Mulholland Drive genuinely annoyed at her flat, aw-shucks line readings. The joke was on me in the end, but in the beginning the intentionally robotic performance by Watts was a distraction. (Aside: Watts is hardly the only one in this picture whose acting is mechanical, and I’m not convinced that all of the other cases are by design.)
Likewise, I find many of Lynch’s why-the-fuck-not elements to be distractions. Mr. Roque, for example. Perhaps you’ve seen the film enough times to decode his meaning. Or maybe there’s no meaning at all. But for the brief time Mr. Roque is on screen, Lynch pays the kind of attention to Mr. Roque’s oddness that suggests it’s worth paying attention to. And maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just there. I don’t need everything to have an answer, but I have a hard time investing myself to look deeper if I’m convinced that as much as half the time I’m going to wind up in a dead end. It’s not that I don’t respect Lynch’s unconventionality, because I do. But a while back you hit the nail on the head when you said Lynch is a “modular” filmmaker. Indeed, that’s how Mulholland Drive plays for me—like a series of vignettes. Your comparison to Kiss Me Deadly is sound. Your argument that this all makes sense in the end holds water (at least I think it does). And yet to pull this off, Lynch plays the lazy storyteller’s favorite “Get out of jail free” card: It’s all just a dream (or hallucination).
Thus, upon multiple viewings, I see the Club Silencio sequence as both the moment “when the magician reveals his secrets,” to quote you, and the moment when the storyteller resorts to a whopper of a deus ex machina that rescues him from the corner he wrote himself into. I had no idea that Mulholland Drive was a TV pitch tweaked into a film, but it doesn’t surprise me to learn that. Frankly, this doesn’t strike me as the work of an artist with a grand vision. It strikes me as the work of a guy with many ideas that got thrown together. Maybe that’s genius. Maybe it’s jazz. Or maybe Lynch doesn’t know what to make of the larger whole any more than we do. Maybe the episode-by-episode intrigue of Mulholland Drive obscures an unfortunate truth: that it’s as empty at the core as that blue box.
With that latter possibility in mind, my most recent viewing of Mulholland Drive was much more enthralling—much more of an experience—because I expected as much as half the film to be plodding, stiffly acted and ultimately insignificant. Sure enough, it often was. But when I was engaged, wow! It was visceral. And it might surprise you to read this, but the most powerful part of the film for me begins with Club Silencio and carries on through to the end. I’m still not convinced that Lynch has any better idea of “what really happened” than we do, and I find curiosities like the Lilliputian senior citizens crawling under the apartment door to be mood breakers, rather than ambiance enhancers, but I can’t argue with the idea that I’m experiencing the film at that point, rather than just watching it. And that’s special.
EH: That strained, mechanical quality you point out in the performances of Watts and many of the other actors (certainly Laura Elena Harring, Robert Forster as one of the two detectives at the beginning, Ann Miller as the willfully eccentric Coco, etc.) is something that Lynch often seems to be striving for, for better or worse. If anything, it’s even more pronounced in Lost Highway, in which Patricia Arquette and Bill Pullman are practically narcotized in their line readings. You could easily dismiss it as just one of Lynch’s weird tics, but it’s clearly intentional, clearly meant to reflect a certain dreamlike quality to his films—in this case, because the film is literally a dream, but also in films like Blue Velvet where there are no overt dream cues. Even a lot of Twin Peaks was like that. This is one reason why I don’t think “it’s all a dream” is as much of a cop-out here as you seem to think: Lynch has always explored these kinds of dream worlds, even when the events in his films ostensibly “really happened” to their characters.
It’s such a consistent trope of Lynch’s aesthetic, his way of forcibly separating his vision from reality. He wants it to be apparent, even in the way that ordinary people are saying ordinary things, that what we’re watching is artificial, constructed, fabricated, not real. And then, once we’re assured that it’s just pretend, just a fantasy, he hits us with shocking blasts of reality, like Watts’ breathless audition, or the violent sequences in Blue Velvet, or the sight of Laura Palmer’s blue-lipped corpse at the beginning of Twin Peaks. I can understand being put off by the typically Lynchian performances, but I also think that Lynch wants you to feel this way, wants you to be so destabilized that the intrusion of the real will be that much more unexpected and unsettling.
On the other hand, not every little thing Lynch does is imbued with conscious meaning. He is in many ways a very intuitive, visceral filmmaker, and a lot of his best work can’t be explained. One of the dangers of the famous Salon article analyzing the film’s plot is for people to conclude that, OK, now we understand what’s going on in the film, that’s it, it was all a dream. That seems, to me, far too glib in the face of the complexity this film has to offer. While the Salon article is compelling, and coheres with my own impressions of what’s going on in the film on a narrative level, it unfortunately creates the impression that, beneath a tricky structure that needs to be decoded, Mulholland Drive is just a narrative film like any other. I don’t think that’s true. Mulholland Drive isn’t Memento or Pulp Fiction, where time-jumping narrative gimmicks are deployed to obscure what would essentially be a rather traditional story if it were told linearly. This film can’t be told linearly, it’s not a puzzle to be solved, its knots can’t be completely unwound, even if on some level we can say it’s about a scorned, struggling, vengeful actress dreaming that she’s an innocent, talented actress just discovering love for the first time.
I think it’s a mistake to take any of this too literally, and some of the film’s elements are certainly just Lynch’s baroque flourishes: like Mr. Roque and the espresso-spitting gangster (brilliantly played by composer Angelo Badalamenti), both of whom are mostly there to suggest the grand conspiracy that Diane/Betty imagines is preventing her career from flourishing as it should. Did these figures need to be so strange and quirky to fulfill this narrative or symbolic function? Of course not, so maybe you’re right to call them Lynch’s “why-the-fuck-not” moments, but that’s just the way the Lynchian world works: people are always bigger than life, and more often than not derived from Hollywood “types” rather than realistic people. To answer your implicit question above, the “oddness” of many of Lynch’s images and characters are worth paying attention to, not necessarily for any deeper meaning or narrative function, but for their own sake, as outgrowths of Lynch’s unique aesthetic, his warped interpretation of Hollywood generic norms.
JB: See, I don’t disagree with that. But even if one approaches Lynch expecting surreality, the blue key that unlocks Mulholland Drive doesn’t come along until late in a movie that’s just shy of two-and-a-half hours. I think it’s asking a lot of an audience to hang on so long when there’s no guarantee of eventual satisfaction. Remember: Lynchian films might be an experience, but they aren’t always pleasant—and I’m not just referring to his penchant for the macabre. I mean, Billy Ray Cyrus is in the film, for crying out loud, and his acting is no more or less stiff than most of the other actors. Honestly, I don’t even know what to think about that, but I know I don’t find it engaging. Meanwhile, I don’t buy the argument made by many (not necessarily you) that Lynch ultimately “doesn’t care.” Bullshit. Of course he cares. One can’t label the guy an abstract genius who is calculatingly daring and then turn around and say he doesn’t give a shit. But I’ve heard it done before.
Often, discussing Lynch reminds me of listening to a debate among philosophy and English majors high on innumerable drugs (or just pot), who prattle on about this author or that director, who go through their Beatnik phase, who have the whole world figured out. Some never evolve beyond that, but quite a few of them grow up and, only a few years later, look back on themselves and determine that they were full of shit. Usually this is attributed to the arrogance of youth, and that’s part of it, but there’s also this: Try hard enough, and you can project almost any meaning onto almost any thing. I would never imply that Lynch is careless or absent-minded, but then again: The swamp-thing that lives behind the diner … what the fuck? Sure, we can assign it meaning. We can explain it away. We can say that it’s a typically nightmarish vision, perfect for the plot. But, as I previously suggested, that kind of logic opens the door for anything under the sun. The “cop-out” element applies to the dream aspect of Mulholland Drive because under these non-restrictions, Lynch can’t make a wrong move. Everything is permissible, because if it doesn’t make sense it wasn’t supposed to. How convenient.
Having said that, let’s drift into the meta again for a moment by leaving Lynch aside. I’d like to propose that, connotatively speaking, there’s a difference between “suggestion” and “symbolism” in art, and it has to do with our perception of the artist’s intent. For example: At the end of The Graduate, the shot of Benjamin, his arms outstretched, banging on the church window, at least suggests Christ on the cross. That’s as far as I’d go. I see Benjamin, I see his crucifixion pose, and I make this comparison. But if I instead say that Benjamin symbolizes Christ, I’m implying that the director and actor are making a direct and purposeful allusion—that there is conscious intent to evoke Christ. If so, that might change my perception of the scene.
Now, I’m a firm believer that intent doesn’t trump realization when it comes to art. I don’t care what a filmmaker intended to do, I care what he did. So, don’t answer the riddle of the mysterious Anton Chigurh/Sheriff Bell non-confrontation at the end of No Country for Old Men by telling me what was written in the book or the screenplay, or by telling me about footage that wasn’t included in the final cut. None of that applies. The final cut is the final cut, and that’s the story, and that’s the film, for better or worse. Intent, in that context, is irrelevant.
However, as The Graduate scene perhaps reveals, perceived intent often does—should?—have an impact on our reaction to the material. And that leads me here: Ed, hypothetically speaking, what if Lynch himself doesn’t know why there’s a swamp-thing behind the diner? What if it symbolizes nothing? What if it serves no larger purpose? What if Lynch just thought it was a neat idea in and of itself, and so he threw it in there with all the care of a guy picking out his socks. If that were true, if Lynch were an accidental genius as often as a meticulous one, if in fact his films don’t make sense even to him and are just intentionally inscrutable artworks designed to have us project our own unique meanings onto them, would that lessen your appreciation of him as a filmmaker? Would it enhance your appreciation? Hypothetically speaking.
EH: That’s not entirely hypothetical, actually. Lynch often is an accidental genius—or at least an intuitive genius, which isn’t quite the same thing but is close enough. If you asked him to explain his films or specific things in his films, you might get a gnomic “I don’t know” or “Figure it out for yourself.” If he were the kind of guy who’s more inclined to speak openly about his own art (like Lynch worshipper Richard Kelly, who does his work a grave injustice by trying to explain it), you’d probably get a really tortured pseudo-mystical rap that wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying or enthralling as the films themselves. Too-literal explanation is the enemy of art like Lynch’s. To answer your question, I don’t think it matters if Lynch is always conscious of the effects of his films; it’s enough that they’re there. In fact, his films are rich in meanings, themes and images about which Lynch would probably seem pretty inarticulate if he ever tried to speak about them.
But that’s why he works in a visual medium in the first place. Lynch isn’t a writer, or at least not a particularly great one judging by the fragments of writing I’ve seen by him. He’s a painter, and a photographer, and as a filmmaker he’s much closer to a crafter of images and moments than a proper storyteller. Lynch certainly “cares”—he wants to make deeply personal artworks and have people watch them—but he is not inclined towards analytical or explanatory thinking. His films leave a lot of loose ends as a result, things that can’t be rationally worked out the way we expect everything in a good narrative film to be. And his films are also as a result multi-layered and resonant in ways that are not necessarily obvious on first glance, and that might not even be conscious for the filmmaker.
Rather than diminishing these films, however, if anything it enriches them, because Lynch’s subconscious is apparently a deeply fascinating place, and a lot of really incredible things bubble up from the primal parts of his mind. Take, as an example, the story of the director of Mulholland Drive’s film-within-the-film, Adam (Justin Theroux). During the first two-thirds of the film, he has his movie taken away from him, his ex-wife cheats on him with the pool guy, he gets beaten up, covered in pink paint and is hunted by all sorts of shady characters. After the film descends into the blue box and out again, it becomes clear that, on the level of the film’s narrative, all of this is “just” an elaborate revenge fantasy, Diane’s projection of violence and humiliation onto the man who, in “real life,” stole Camilla from her. But what’s striking is that Lynch makes Adam a very sympathetic character. We don’t hate him the way Diane does: we feel for what he’s going through. So the director’s story takes on shadings that are not only different from its narrative meanings, but diametrically opposed to the content of the narrative. Adam, the villain of Diane’s story, becomes instead a secondary protagonist, a stand-in for the audience and, as a filmmaker character, for Lynch himself, working out anxieties about the loss of control, artistic integrity and compromise, and the degree to which our choices and attitudes are really able to affect our lives.
Is Lynch aware that all this is going on with this character? I have no idea, really. But does it matter? It’s all there in the film, working on levels both obvious and somewhat hidden, creating this dense framework of themes and ideas circling around someone who is, after all, a comparatively minor character despite Theroux’s puzzling top billing in the cast. Some of the same things are going on, in this film and its companion piece Lost Highway, with the way Lynch uses the pedigree of the “double film” to inform the psychological subtexts of his own work: the references to Persona and Vertigo that weave through both films, along with the liberal incorporation of recontextualized elements from Kiss Me Deadly. Some of this is clearly intentional (there’s no way that shot of the two women’s overlapping faces in Mulholland Drive isn’t meant to evoke Persona, or that Rita’s transformation via a blonde wig isn’t an overt nod to Vertigo) and some of it is maybe more intuitive. But just because Lynch probably couldn’t write you an essay about how or why he’s referring to these predecessors, doesn’t mean that what’s actually onscreen isn’t interesting and complicated.
JB: I agree. Conversely though, because it’s complicated doesn’t mean it’s interesting or profound, and I think sometimes people are afraid to demand more of surreal art because by its very nature it’s so hard to assess. (How can we tell if art has cleared the bar when we can’t make out the bar in the first place?) Personally, I enjoy being challenged by filmmakers. I don’t want to be talked down to. But I also feel that if a filmmaker creates a work so elusive that it might take two viewings (or more) to make any sense of it (even emotionally), it’s the filmmaker’s responsibility to compel me to keep watching … at least once. Vertigo has that. Kiss Me Deadly has that. The latter is a talky picture that’s full of references to people we don’t know or can’t remember, and yet it’s propulsive. Its ending is arguably more ambiguous than that of Mulholland Drive, and yet the conclusion is rewarding because the journey is so exhilarating (“Calling Mr. MacGuffin…”). My initial experience with Mulholland Drive was different in that for the first half of the film I wasn’t experiencing it so much as slogging through it. Lynch wasn’t compelling me to move forward, I was compelling myself—out of habit and duty. I felt no need to see what was at the far end of the rabbit hole. I just figured that, well, I’m here, so I might as well find out. To put it bluntly, I was bored.
The shift occurred somewhere around the audition sequence, when I discovered that, hold on, this blonde can do more than match her sweater to her lipstick. My interest had been tickled before, but that’s the first moment that held me rapt, that made me sit forward in my seat. Still, as I mentioned earlier, when the Club Silencio sequence arrived, my fragile belief that I might take away something from the film was smashed—perhaps because the magician (Lynch) explained his trick before I even understood his illusion. This is probably my fault. Maybe I was trying too hard to get my bearings, or I wasn’t trying hard enough. I’m still not sure. Regardless, once off the rails, I never made forward progress again, which is a shame because the final 30 minutes or so of the film are gripping and heartbreaking if one can get to them with their wits intact. I still don’t pretend to “get” Mulholland Drive in a literal sense—and, per your previous argument, I’m happy to avoid trying—but emotionally it resonates. Now that I’ve seen it again, that is. After watching the film recently, I have developed a genuine appreciation. I find its best moments haunting. But I can’t shake the knowledge that my second viewing came about only out of a sense of duty, not because Lynch’s film created an itch that needed to be scratched. And I find that damning.
EH: Obviously, I’ve always had a different reaction to this film, even the first time around. But rather than argue our subjective responses to Mulholland Drive any further, I want to dive a little deeper into some of the intertextual elements in Lynch’s films. You mentioned the ending of Kiss Me Deadly. That’s a good example of how Lynch’s references to other films are not just more evidence of his taste for random weirdness, but purposeful distortions of the themes and ideas of earlier films, reflecting the ways in which Lynch’s own concerns branch off from his reference points. In this respect, Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway are closely related in Lynch’s oeuvre, with both films dealing with identity, and especially with characters whose identity and mental space are defined to some extent by Hollywood pop culture. There are also the obvious similarities in the pervasive doubling: Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring each playing women with two distinct identities, just like Patricia Arquette does in Lost Highway, while the earlier film also has the twist of Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty playing, Buñuel-style, more or less the same guy. Mulholland Drive has a few references to Kiss Me Deadly (Mike and Velda’s clenched-teeth embrace re-envisioned in Betty’s audition, and the mysterious blue box), but it’s in Lost Highway that Lynch is most directly cannibalizing Aldrich’s apocalyptic noir: the speed-blurred yellow line of the opening credits, the detectives trailing the hero everywhere, the garage with its overly enthusiastic proprietor (a wheelchair-bound Richard Pryor in Lynch’s version), Mr. Eddy’s hard-boiled dialogue, the pool party. And, most importantly, that recurring image of the exploding house, which can’t help but evoke Mike Hammer’s nuclear comeuppance.
What’s interesting to me about this reference point is the way Lynch tweaks it by running the exploding house footage backwards, so that several times the house reassembles itself from its wreckage, after which the normal forward flow of the film continues. It creates the impression that the cabin is perpetually on the verge of exploding, letting the atmosphere of imminent apocalypse from Kiss Me Deadly’s ending linger over the entirety of Lost Highway. This is consistent with the loop that Lynch creates at the end of his own film, in which the events cycle around to actually cause the beginning of the film: “The End is the Beginning is the End” is not the Smashing Pumpkins song on this film’s soundtrack, but it really should be. Lynch seems to be toying with the ambiguous finality of Kiss Me Deadly’s denouement, which leaves everything pretty much unresolved and yet also suggests that everything (as in, the world) is ending. Lynch takes this one step further, trapping his characters in an endless ouroboric loop that is, in the end, the result of their own actions.
If Lost Highway’s key text is Kiss Me Deadly, Lynch’s Ur-reference for Mulholland Drive is definitely Vertigo, but a twisted, dreamlike variation on Hitchcock’s bizarre masterpiece (but then, I’ve always thought that the second half of Vertigo possibly plays out only in Scotty’s damaged mind as well; is it just me?). The “plot” of Lost Highway, if you think about it a certain way, also maps fairly well onto Vertigo: a man trying to recreate the woman whose death he caused, only to discover that she’s not really dead and may have played him for a fool. Mulholland Drive tangles this story up in further layers by making the hero another woman, Naomi Watts’ Diane rather than Jimmy Stewart’s Scotty. The woman she’s trying to remake is both her lesbian lover Camilla (reborn as beautiful amnesiac Rita, as blank a slate as Kim Novak in Vertigo) and herself, re-imagined as the chipper, promising Betty. Thus, while the scenes immediately preceding the Club Silencio sequence resemble Vertigo in some ways, by cutting Rita’s hair and placing a blonde wig on her, Betty is not really remaking her lover in the image of a dead woman but creating another version of herself. The blonde wig is strikingly similar to Watts’ own hair, and when the women pose in the mirror together the large differences between the two actresses are blurred somewhat. Lynch is blending Vertigo with elements of Persona or That Obscure Object of Desire: two women becoming one. Soon enough, Betty disappears altogether, as if she had finally fused into Rita. Lynch’s camera circles away from her and once she’s offscreen, she’s gone for good, leaving behind only her newly blonde doppelganger.
By playing with Vertigo’s plot in this way, Lynch transforms it from a typical Hollywood narrative in which the man is active and the woman is the passive object of his obsession, into a complex structure wholly constructed by a female imagination. One of the film’s most emotional undercurrents, to me, is the way it turns out to be about a female actress struggling against the Hollywood machine, a subtext that became the actual surface text of Lynch’s next film, Inland Empire. Diane’s acts of imagination don’t ultimately do her much good, but they’re nevertheless moving attempts to find a role for herself, to make herself into someone different.
JB: Believe it or not, I don’t find Mulholland Drive to be any more “twisted” than Vertigo—once all the pieces have fallen into place, of course. What Lynch has done—and this is the brilliance of the film for me—is riff on Hitchcock’s classic while altering our perspective. Vertigo is told in the third-person, but it has two audience surrogates. The first is Scotty, dutifully on the job, trying to solve the riddle of Madeleine’s odd behavior. After Madeleine’s death, however, Judy becomes the surrogate. Why? Because the audience knows long before Scotty that Judy and Madeleine are the same person (Judy’s voiceover reveals as much). Thus, even though Judy is passive, and even though Scotty maintains the demeanor of an investigator (that’s his nature), the audience aligns with Judy in that Scotty becomes the subject of curiosity rather than the examiner of it.
This shift is easy to miss for several reasons, the simplest of which is that most films select their audience surrogates from the outset and never alter them. More significantly, Hitchcock is known for his mysteries, and mysteries are almost always experienced through the eyes of the person trying to solve them. Initially, Scotty is the solver, but not after Madeleine’s death. While Scotty’s constant prodding of Judy can be misinterpreted (or misremembered) as the calculated tactics of an investigator, especially in the shadow of Rope, Scotty isn’t “on the case.” (If he were, he’d be the most clueless detective this side of Inspector Clouseau.) His manipulations of Judy are motivated by something else entirely, something dark within him.
Thus another similarity between Vertigo and Mulholland Drive is that their primary mysteries are redefined once we have the whole picture. Vertigo begins as a mystery about Madeleine before becoming a mystery about Scotty. “How come he can’t see that Judy is obviously Madeleine?” The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t want to. He’s willingly, hopefully and erotically engaging in hallucination to cope with the pain of heartbreak. Which brings us back to Mulholland Drive When Lynch’s film begins, it appears to be a third-person tale. Instead, what we’re seeing is the first-person hallucination of Watts’ “actual” character. Effectively, the first half of Mulholland Drive tells us how the second half of Vertigo would look if seen through Scotty’s eyes. It’s mesmerizing, and daring.
EH: I love your observations about the first half of Mulholland Drive mirroring the second half of Vertigo, but I’m not so sure about Judy being an audience surrogate. She’s just such a blank character, perfectly malleable, able to be transformed into a completely different person on command. This is one of the reasons that I’m tempted to think that the second half of Vertigo is as much of a fantasy as Diane’s hallucinatory Betty/Rita romance. I mean, one moment Scotty is having this baroque nightmare with his disconnected head spinning around, and the next he’s out of the asylum, standing outside of Madeleine’s old building. We never see him leave the asylum, and the rest of the film represents his fantasy of finding Madeleine again, attempting to recreate this magical could-be romance with her, only to find it all falling apart on him, much as Diane’s fantasy begins to crumble as her dream characters begin stumbling closer to the truth. Even if the second half of Vertigo is meant to be taken more objectively, Judy is still a character who is acted upon rather than acting (up until her very final moment, a way out she shares with Diane).
Lynch riffs on Vertigo, as you say, by making Betty and Rita both audience surrogates, both active and sympathetic characters, even assuming Scotty’s detective role. When Betty remakes Rita, she’s not acting on a passive object but helping her friend; it’s an emotional moment that draws the two closer, both physically (they go to bed together soon after) and metaphysically (they’re beginning to merge into one person). In the film’s second half, all of the good will we’ve developed for these surrogates is abruptly tweaked as the characters are reconfigured. This is especially jarring because there are so many appealing surrogates who have suddenly been warped into unrecognizable forms. In fact, Lynch is able to make nearly anyone a compelling audience surrogate. In this film, Adam also fulfills the role, and even the frightened guy in the diner during his one brief scene.
One of the other interesting things about the first half of Mulholland Drive is that Betty and Rita are not just wandering through a mystery story that Diane’s subconscious has concocted to bring the two together: they’re living a Hollywood movie, or more properly an amalgam of all different kinds of Hollywood movies. This goes back to your earlier point about some scenes being simply extraneous weirdness. A lot of the film’s extra little bits seem like detritus left over from all sorts of different movies. So the scene at the diner where the guy with the Fuller brush eyebrows is scared to death by a monster/homeless man behind the dumpster: that feels like it’s been chopped out of horror movie and spliced in here whole. The scene with the mobsters is a great Don Corleone pastiche. The opening jitterbug contest recalls 50s teenage rock n’ roll movies like The Girl Can’t Help It. The scene with the hitman who piles up way more dead bodies than he intended is a really funny Tarantino parody. Someone less sympathetic to the film could easily dismiss this stuff as plot threads that would’ve been developed further in the TV series that Mulholland Drive never became. I can’t do that, because, for one thing, all of it really works within the genre it’s meant to work in: the monster at the diner is genuinely creepy and frightening, the Tarantino scene is hilarious and could probably fit comfortably into any of his films. And by the same token, this genre flotsam is believable as a representation of the mental landscape of a young actress hopeful raised on a few decades of exposure to Hollywood product. This could be anyone’s mind: I can’t count the number of times I’ve had dreams that clearly incorporate big chunks of genre-style plotting and imagery. This meta-commentary on Hollywood dream-making is one of many ways in which Lynch pushes the material of Mulholland Drive beyond its humble TV origins, beyond the relatively simple narrative at its core, into a dazzling celebration of dreams, fantasies, creativity and the possibility of finding genuine sentiment and depth within kitschy artificial surfaces.
JB: Mulholland Drive is dreamlike in its elusiveness, too. I don’t just mean its lack of literal truth. I mean that the best parts go by too quickly. (I don’t know if this is unique, but when I encounter something particularly interesting in my dreams I think, “Wow, this is cool! Slow down! Remember this! Remember this!”) Films, thank goodness, give us the opportunity to go back and re-experience those fleeting fascinations (not that the chapter-free DVD of Mulholland Drive makes it easy). Anyway, it’s interesting that Lynch’s films so often proceed at such a tedious methodical pace, stopping to smell the roses in instances when there are no roses to be smelled, only to then blitz through some of its most compelling material as if to emulate a game show’s lightning round. I understand that the power of Mulholland Drive’s final act is the direct result of all that comes before it—both parts work in harmony. Nevertheless, the stuff of the latter chapters is the film I want to watch repeatedly. To cite one example, Watts’ expression of bitterness and sadness at the dinner party is unforgettable, and worth revisiting. I just wish that it didn’t take so much effort—and for me it’s real effort—to get there.
This discussion has been fascinating for me because I expected that loving Lynch required an angle of approach with which I am unfamiliar. Instead, most of the things you have articulated in describing your fondness of Mulholland Drive are things I at least recognize and in many cases share an enthusiasm for—if not the same level of enthusiasm as you. Clearly I’m conflicted about Lynch, and Mulholland Drive specifically. Focusing on the film: My enjoyment watching it increases upon each viewing, but my dissatisfaction has by no means disappeared. What’s changed is that I have accepted the film’s shortcomings and infuriations so that they are no longer distractions. Like the homeowner next door to the person with the unkempt lawn and detritus covering the driveway, I have begrudgingly accepted the imperfections of this neighborhood, because I have no other choice.
I will always be intrigued and befuddled by the enigma that is Lynch: the way the inexplicable and/or clumsy aspects of his films are revered rather than criticized; the way his abstract style is by its very nature almost impervious to criticism; the way his fans, almost out of necessity, give Lynch more leeway than they would likely grant to any other filmmaker. But I’m glad Lynch is around, taking his boot and kicking through the white picket fence of traditional cinematic storytelling to blaze new trails. Earlier I wrote about the connotative (if not actual) difference between “suggestion” and “symbolism,” and so it’s fitting that any assessment of Lynch comes down to the words we choose. Is Mulholland Drive “modular” or is it “fragmented”? Is it “deliberate” or is it “plodding”? Is it “unconventional” or is it “sloppy”? Is it “surreal” or is it “inscrutable”? Perhaps it’s all these things. All at once. Certainly that dichotomy is what I love about the film, and what I loathe about it.
EH: You’re right that to some extent the words we choose to describe Lynch’s films make a big difference in how we perceive them, and that the same attributes of his work can be described in contradictory and (seemingly) mutually exclusive ways. This might be the case because the films are so definitively non-verbal: Lynch offers few words to tell us how to feel or what to think. He communicates through his images, while much of his dialogue is purposefully mundane and delivered with a stilted quality that keeps us from investing too much in what’s being said. He forces us to find the words ourselves, and as this discussion has suggested, there are a lot of different ways to speak about these films, many of which “feel” right even if they outright contradict other things that also feel right.
This non-verbal quality is a big part of what makes Lynch’s films so disturbing and slippery to grasp. We’re used to having words to latch onto, even in films by the most visually oriented directors. We’re used to a film’s dialogue advancing its plot, communicating its meaning and developing its themes, but Lynch does all of these things almost entirely visually and non-verbally. It’s unsettling and unusual. This is what David Foster Wallace is getting at in the quote I cited at the beginning of this conversation:
“Most of Lynch’s best films don’t really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretative process…The absence of a point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips [your] subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We’re defenseless in our dreams too.)”
Maybe I’m just giving Lynch too much leeway, as you say, but for me the emotional riches of his films are almost always worth the mental effort and commitment it takes to get the most out of them, to reach that open, defenseless state that seems to be necessary to the Lynchian experience. For me, the experience is ultimately, not only worthwhile, but one of the richest and strangest visions in the cinema, and the journey that one takes through these films indubitably comprises a big part of that experience. If Mulholland Drive is sometimes confounding and, yes, inscrutable on initial exposure, it expands and unpeels its multiple layers in fascinating ways over the course of subsequent viewings. What Lynch is offering us is something very much like what your own comments suggest: a dream we can revisit at our leisure, perhaps hoping to someday understand it but mostly just enjoying the opportunity to explore subconscious dream worlds with a clarity and depth that we are seldom able to bring to bear on such submerged mental regions.
EH: Here’s a brief postscript, an aside that came up while Jason and I were conducting this conversation, and that we agreed was too fitting to exclude. During the course of this discussion, I’ve been reading the newest book by the cartoonist Anders Nilsen, called Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes. It’s basically a collection of funny philosophical dialogues between crudely drawn characters who talk about God and robots and creativity and stuff: highly recommended, incidentally, though not quite as highly as Nilsen’s minimalist (and somewhat Lynchian) masterpiece Dogs and Water. Anyway, at one point, immediately after sending off a response to Jason, I continued reading where I’d left off, two-thirds of the way through. I was surprised to find that the characters in the book were more or less continuing our discussion about coherence, abstraction and the thin line between “surreal” and “nonsensical,” complete with references to Lynch (they seem to be talking about Inland Empire). Here’s a chunk of the dialogue between two of the characters, one of whom is a meta-representation of the author while the other is the author’s assistant.
“I know this whole enterprise seems extremely haphazard and without coherence… I just want to reassure the readers out there that at the end all of it will actually make sense. This isn’t meant to be an esoteric IQ test, or an artsy endurance contest. Like that last David Lynch movie…”
“I liked that movie.”
“What? No you didn’t. You complained about it all the way home.”
“That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it…”
“Well, this book, it’ll all be worth it at the end. That’s all I wanted to say.”
“Actually, I don’t mean to contradict you in front of the customers, but I’m not sure that’s really true. I think this might just be a big mess, actually.”
And my favorite bit, a little later:
“I don’t see what people have against artsy endurance contests, anyway.”
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Kajillionaire Whimsically and Sincerely Reflects on Family Ties
Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents Miranda July’s first real flirtation with genre.3
Early in Kajillionaire, the third feature by Miranda July, a building manager explains that “I have no filters!” as he tearfully confronts the cash-strapped protagonists to ask for the rent that they owe. This line works as both a mea culpa and a defiant declaration from July herself. The willfully naïve sincerity of her work has as many detractors as devoted fans, and her choice to give such quirky emotional openness to an incidental character like this is unlikely to change anyone’s mind. However, July’s latest effort also shows potential elsewhere to convince a few of her more world-weary cynics, who might have previously seen cloying self-consciousness where others see a broad humanist perspective.
Kajillionaire is notably more driven by narrative than July’s previous two films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, which were mostly content to observe slices of life, searching for transcendence in the everyday. Here, a more contrived story concerns a dysfunctional family composed of disheveled, small-time grifters Robert (Richard Jenkins), Theresa (Debra Winger), and their introverted daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who see their fortunes change slightly when they encounter worldly and assertive Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). The thirtysomething Melanie finds herself drawn to their criminal lifestyle, as laughably low-key as it might be, and helps them with a new set of scams.
Although its crime-caper structure is worn extremely lightly, Kajillionaire represents July’s first real flirtation with genre, and it’s also the first occasion that she hasn’t given herself a leading role. The multi-hyphenate artist has explored a multitude of perspectives and personalities throughout all her work, but this feels like the first time, at least in her films, that we’re seeing characters who aren’t projections of some aspect of her psyche.
This new focus succeeds in putting her considerable storytelling talents on display more clearly than ever before. Instead of blowing up mundane quandaries and conflicts to an existential scale, as she did in Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, July shows us people who are doing their best to maintain the unconventional daily grind they’ve found themselves on, and they’re all the more relatable for it. And while it would perhaps be a stretch to say that the Dyne clan’s comical grifting has any real-world political relevance, they do seem to be a reflection of their times, particularly in repeated scenes of them going to absurd lengths to avoid the aforementioned building manager’s demands for rent.
Indeed, the precarity and itinerant lifestyle of the central figures in Kajillionaire can be seen as a logical next step in July’s filmmaking trajectory, from neurotic suburban whimsy and confused sexual awakenings (Me and You and Everyone We Know), through urban millennial angst and impending mortality (The Future). There’s a sense of real-world responsibilities and hardships progressively encroaching on innocence and insularity, and the conflict between these two poles also proves to be the emotional core of Kajillionaire.
Childhood, and particularly immature sexuality, has always been a key theme of July’s work. Here, she adopts an interesting alternative perspective, imagining a character who was denied this whole phase of their life. Old Dolio was part of Richard and Theresa’s money-making schemes since before she was even born (one of the film’s best throwaway gags reveals that she was named after a homeless man who won the lottery, in exchange for an inheritance that never materialized). She received none of the traditional trappings of parental affection, being treated more like a respected accomplice and business partner than a beloved child.
Wood’s hilarious, affecting performance convincingly sells this slightly on-the-nose premise. She depicts a woman with a niche set of skills and a shaky sense of pride in her independence, whose repressed emotions are peeking through the surface at almost every moment. When Old Dolio reluctantly redeems a gift voucher for a massage, following an unsuccessful effort to claim its cash value, there’s a memorable shot of her face seen through the hole in a massage table, as this rare instance of physical contact causes a single tear to fall from her eye. Here, July’s underrated visual sense serves to bring us closer to a character, in contrast to the distancing effect of her more Michel Gondry-esque flights of fancy (such as the nightly stream of pink foam that comes through the wall of the office space where the Dynes are crashing).
Toward the end of the film, July provides some more unintentional provocation to the haters, when Melanie points out that “most happiness comes from dumb things.” This is a more direct version of the revelatory aphorisms that pepper her dialogue, and could also be a comment on the atypically conventional way that she concludes Kajillionaire, as Old Dolio finally opens up to a cathartic, hard-won moment of intimacy with another person. Whether you can allow yourself a similar embrace of July’s indigo child energy is still a matter of taste. But, almost two decades on from the heyday of the early-2000s whimsical bohemia that she epitomized, her latest at least functions as a nostalgic reminder of a time when a lot of us could.
Cast: Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger, Patricia Belcher, Kim Estes, Da’vine Joy Randolph, Rachel Redleaf Director: Miranda July Screenwriter: Miranda July Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 104 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Tate Taylor’s Ava Doesn’t Lack for Star Power, Only Narrative Thrills
Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.1
Action thrillers don’t get much more generic than Tate Taylor’s Ava, which tells of a veteran assassin being hunted down by the shadowy organization that employs her. If there’s a twist here, it’s that Ava (Jessica Chastain) is a recovering alcoholic trying to mend her family relationships while fending off attackers after she becomes too careless in the field. But even this thread of family drama is as uninspiring as the film’s thriller trappings. Because Ava never bothers to articulate how its eponymous character’s secret professional life affects her personal life, and vice versa, or even the emotional and psychological toll that such a delicate balancing act must take on her, it’s difficult not to see Ava’s alcoholism as a superficial affectation, a transparent means of making her seem “complicated” as a character.
Ava’s interactions with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), are marked by a sassy repartee that feels inconsistent with the film’s otherwise gritty atmosphere, though the relaxed nature of these moments gives the impression that Taylor is more at ease handling this aspect of the narrative. A music-free and exhausting fight scene between Ava’s handler, Duke (John Malkovich), and their superior, Simon (Colin Farrell), where the sound is amplified to emphasize the brutal physicality of every punching, bone-crunching hit, would make for mesmerizing cinema if not for the fact that the film’s action sequences are borderline incomprehensible, all frenetic camera movement and erratic editing.
Chastain, at least, proves to be a compelling presence, as she admirably tries to elevate the flimsy, one-note material—most notably in later scenes where her subtle expressions convey Ava’s failing attempts to fight back the emotions that are getting the better of her projected stoicism. But the performance isn’t worthy of the film, which is likely to leave audiences wondering how it even managed to attract so much A-level talent. For Ava isn’t only banal, but also, in its half-hearted stabs at novel ideas, seemingly content with its banality.
Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Diana Silvers, Joan Chen Director: Tate Taylor Screenwriter: Matthew Newton Distributor: Vertical Entertainment Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Time Is an Oblique Look at Black Lives Undone by the Prison System
The film reminds us that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.3.5
If you want to argue that the law enforcement, criminal justice, and penal systems in the U.S. are badly in need of reform, a first instinct may be to point to the hundreds of felony sentences that have been overturned in the last few decades due to wrongful convictions. Arguing that a man was justly convicted but nevertheless victimized by the carceral state—getting people to accept a guilty man as a locus of sympathy—is a taller order, but it’s just what Garrett Bradley does, in plain but morally forceful terms, in her documentary Time.
The man in question is Robert Richardson, convicted along with his wife, Sibil, of robbing a credit union in Shreveport, Louisiana on the morning of September 16, 1997. At the time, the couple had four sons, and Sibil was pregnant with twin boys. Considering her situation, Sibil took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 12 years, though she was out on parole after only three-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Robert was sentenced to 65 years without parole.
Bradley doesn’t, and perhaps doesn’t need to, trot out statistics to make the case that Robert’s draconian sentence represents a perpetuation of anti-Black racism. She’s got the receipts: years of home-video diaries that Sibil recorded for Robert as she worked tirelessly to support her family while also trying to secure legal motions for his re-sentencing. All the while, their boys grew up without their father. Time opens with a montage of these home videos, set to Tsegue-Maryam’s whirl-a-gig piano piece “The Mad Man’s Laughter”: Sibil waking the twins for the first day of school; observing them playing in the snow; riding rollercoasters with them; filming them play at a pool party; and giving them lectures on work ethic at school.
At the end of the documentary, we see some of this footage again, of Robert and Sibil’s boys at play and growing up, only this time run in reverse. The camera performs an act that for Sibil and her family is impossible, rolling back the lost years, completing the story’s happy ending. Matching the black and white of Sibil’s home movies, Bradley’s new footage captures the culmination of the herculean efforts that eventually get Robert released after 21 years. But, of course, Robert’s return can’t restore lost time, like the camera seems to.
Bradley’s film gives us glimpses into the status of the family as it stands in the weeks leading up to Robert’s release. Now living in New Orleans, the boys are in the process of striking out on their own. The youngest, twins Justus and Freedom, are diligent college students, and at one point we catch glimpses of one’s poli-sci debate and another’s dedicated French study. An elder brother, Richard, is on the cusp of graduating medical school. “Success is the best revenge,” Sibil muses at one point, as she waits in her office for a call from a judge.
The film’s title evokes “doing time,” but we don’t see Robert actually serving his sentence; instead, we feel its duration in the gap it’s left in his family’s life, and in their words we’re offered an oblique commentary on the history of Black incarceration. “It’s almost like slavery time, like the white man keep you there until he figures it’s time for you to get out,” Robert’s mother avers to the camera. It’s a statement that could serve as a succinct summary of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, though it’s delivered with the extemporaneity and subdued anguish of lived observation rather than with muted scholarly precision.
Bradley’s film is about feeling time, about conveying some idea of what 21 years feels like to someone else. In images of the almost imperceptible movement of clouds over New Orleans, Barrett finds a lyrical metaphor for time’s ineffability—as well as for abiding faith in the eventuality of grace (“God looks over the sparrows, Sibil. He’s going to look over us,” Sibil recalls Robert saying to her after his sentencing). Far more than a polemic against the prison-industrial complex, Time reminds us in eminently cinematic ways that behind the numbers and procedures of a court case are actual lives existing in actual, human time.
Director: Garrett Bradley Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
The Best Horror Movies on Netflix Right Now
These great horror films are currently streaming on Netflix.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Netflix. Budd Wilkins
10. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
9. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
8. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
7. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Calum Marsh
6. Session 9 (2001)
As in real estate, the three most important factors in Brad Anderson’s brooding Session 9 are: location, location, location. The filmmakers have hit upon something special with the Danvers State Mental Hospital, whose sprawling Victorian edifice looms large over the narrative: A motley crew of asbestos-removal workers, led by matrimonially challenged Gordon (Peter Mullan), run afoul of a baleful, possibly supernatural, influence within its decaying walls. Anderson uses to brilliant effect a series of archived audio recordings—leading up to the titular “breakthrough” session—that document a disturbing case of split personality. While the film doesn’t entirely stick its murderous finale, no one who hears those scarifying final lines of dialogue will soon forget them. Wilkins
5. Before I Wake (2016)
Director Mike Flanagan’s Before I Wake hints—in flashes—at a remarkably cruel psychodrama, physicalizing one of the worst and most common fears that orphans share: that they’re awful and unlovable, and therefore undeserving of parents. This fear is similar to the terror that parents have of inadvertently destroying or disappointing their children, and Flanagan unites these anxieties with a ghoulishly inventive plot turn that he doesn’t fully explore. Flanagan is deeply invested in Cody’s (Jacob Tremblay) welfare, to the point of rigidly signifying the various manifestations of the boy’s nightmares, pigeonholing irrationality into a rational framework so as to justify a moving yet literal-minded finale. Chaos could’ve opened Before I Wake up, allowing it to breathe, though Flanagan’s beautiful and empathetic film cannot be taken for granted. Bowen
4. The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead still feels like the punchiest horror flick this side of a Dario Argento giallo. Sam Raimi relentlessly fashions the film’s first half as a creepy-crawly sweat chamber with evil seemingly taking the form of an omniscient, roaming camera, gleefully poking fun at his five protagonists along the way. Despite the signs—the difficult-to-start vehicle, the fallen bridge—no one else believes the woods are alive. Ash (Bruce Campbell), horrordom’s most memorable wuss, and his girlfriend, Linda (Betsy Baker), share an intimate, peek-a-boo moment in which he gives her a necklace, and when he’s later forced to kill her, Raimi takes great joy in referencing this coquettish exchange of affection. Now infamous for its over-the-top gore and cheesy effects sequences, The Evil Dead is most impressive for Raimi’s unnerving wide angle work and his uncanny, almost unreal ability to suggest the presence of intangible evil via distant headlights, bleeding light sockets, and, in the film’s most awesome set piece, a simple game of cards. Gonzalez
3. The Guest (2014)
The Guest is carried by an intense and surprising mood of erotic melancholia. Adam Wingard leans real heavy on 1980s—or 1980s-sounding—music in the grandly, outwardly wounded key of Joy Division, and he accompanies the music with visual sequences that sometimes appear to stop in their tracks for the sake of absorbing the soundtrack. The film is a nostalgia act for sure, particularly for The Hitcher, but it injects that nostalgia with something hard, sad, and contemporary, or, perhaps more accurately, it reveals that our hang-ups—disenfranchisement, rootlessness, war-mongering, hypocritical evasion—haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s, or ever. Bowen
2. Poltergeist (1982)
Tobe Hooper is officially credited for having directed Poltergeist, but it’s co-scripter Steven Spielberg’s fingerprints that are all over this dark-mirror image of E.T. and Close Encounters of a Third Kind, about unseen spirits tormenting a suburban family. It’s structured as an escalating series of reveals, from the frisson elicited by inexplicably mobile furniture on up to third-act hysteria derived from birth imagery, child peril, and the eternal creep factor of video snow in a dark room. Hooper’s Grand Guignol flourishes are occasionally evident, particularly when a paranormal investigator pulls his own face off, but the technical proficiency is all Spielberg’s, as is the abiding interest in families and the influences (supernatural or otherwise) that disrupt them. Abhimanyu Das
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Detective thrillers often concern contests of male ego, involving brilliant investigators who confront physically superior and equally brilliant psychopaths. Often lost among such face-offs are considerations of the lives that are destroyed and ruined over the course of the narratives, as these thrillers exist to evoke and satisfy our own fears and resentments. By contrast, Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs is grounded in the psyche of a ferocious yet unproven female protagonist, whose thoughtful fragility intensifies the film’s violence, invigorating it with a sense of dread and violation. The film is a strange and still novel mixture of coming-of-age character study, murder mystery, and Grand Guignol horror spectacle. Bowen
Review: Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda Is the Eraserhead of Animal Documentaries
In Kossakovsky’s latest, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.2.5
On paper, Victor Kossakovsky’s Gunda, a wordless documentary about the everyday life of a few farm animals—a mama pig, two cows, a one-legged chicken—may suggest a quiet idyll in the vein of the goatherding sequences from Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte. But with its stark, forbidding black-and-white cinematography and dense, unsettling sound design, the film resembles nothing so much as Eraserhead.
The newborn piglets in Kossakovsky’s film, whose faces look surprisingly alien-like in extreme close-up and whose aching squeals can be rather unnerving, even at times resemble the baby from David Lynch’s cult classic. By eschewing the Disneyfied anthropomorphism of Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins and the tidy narrativizing of the Planet Earth series, Kossakovsky refuses to resort to the old cliché that animals are “just like us.” They’re not, really. And in Gunda, common farm animals have rarely seemed so un-human.
Which isn’t to say that we don’t form a relationship with these creatures. Relying heavily on shallow-focus shots often positioned near ground level—and thus close to its subjects’ eyeline—the film gives us something of the experience of being a farm animal: of grazing in a field, caring for a newborn, and aimelessly roaming around a farm. As in his prior work, Kossakovsky trusts his audience to stick with the film through lengthy shots where nothing in particular seems to be happening until, gradually, a miniature narrative begins to emerge. But while ¡Vivan las Antipodas! and Aquarela played out largely in a series of breathtakingly composed long shots that allowed the audience to drink in the scenery of various international locales, in Gunda, Kossakovsky follows the opposite impulse: pulling his camera in as close as he can get to these animals and keeping their environment largely out of frame.
In the film’s harrowing and unusual opening shot, a hog that’s lying down and seemingly in pain is framed by a barn door. Kossakovsky’s camera closes in with a slow Kubrickian zoom, but we don’t quite understand what’s happening here until a tiny newborn piglet emerges from behind its mother. She’s been giving birth, but Kossakovsky treats this usually joyous moment as if it were a death scene. Only by the film’s end do we truly understand why.
Sadly, the rest of Gunda is rarely so meticulously composed. The film’s meandering sequences tend to grow repetitive, only rarely crystallizing into meaningful or memorable form. There’s a tedium to much of Gunda that may be true to the lives of its animal subjects but makes for dull watching after the first hour. The scenes involving the mother pig and her children exert a fascinating pull—particularly the mother’s sometimes brutal parenting tactics, such as when she stomps on the runt of her litter—but the sequences involving the chickens and the cows feel like filler and a distraction from the pigs, who are the emotional core of the film.
As Gunda lurches toward its close, an impending sense of doom starts to hover over it as we begin to realize just how much these animals’ lives are directed, controlled, and circumscribed by human hands. But there’s an unfortunate lack of specificity here that’s rare in Kossakovsky’s work: Though shot across three different countries (Norway, Spain, and the U.K.), the film feels as though it’s all taking place on a single farm, one that could be located almost anywhere. That universality is undoubtedly the point, as Gunda isn’t simply an observational documentary, but one with a message about the cruelty of livestock agriculture. Though the creatures at its center live in relatively pleasant free-range environments, a far cry from the industrial hellscapes denounced by documentaries like Food, Inc. and vividly depicted as essentially a death camp in Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, they’re ultimately objects of exploitation. The human use of animals for livestock is, the film suggests, inherently brutal. If Gunda never subjects us to gruesome images of slaughter à la Georges Franju’s Blood of the Beasts, it nevertheless closes with a prolonged single-shot sequence that’s more heartbreaking than any depiction of the goings-on in an abattoir ever captured on film.
In this sequence, a truck pulls up to the barn where the pigs live and drives off with the piglets, leaving the mama pig in a state of grief-stricken perplexity. For minutes on end, we watch her pacing around, clearly distressed and unable to fathom why her piglets have been taken from her. It’s the kind of viscerally upsetting moment that, as Orson Welles said of Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, would make a stone cry. And if this conclusion doesn’t quite make up for Gunda’s fundamental monotonousness, it does at least lend some shape and significance to the rambling sequences that precede it, calling into question how free these free-range animals really are. By the time the credits roll on the film, we realize we’ve been watching not so much a sketch of the lives of farm animals as a threnody for their deaths.
Director: Victor Kossakovsky Screenwriter: Victor Kossakovsky, Ainara Vera Distributor: Neon Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Werner Herzog’s Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds
The documentary’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science.3
Filmmaker Werner Herzog and volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer team up again for Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, which stands as something of a companion piece to their previous collaboration, 2016’s Into the Inferno. Where the earlier film followed them on a globetrotting game of hopscotch to gaze into the hellmouth abyss of active volcanoes (and obsess over them with a motley crew of visionary scientists), their latest finds them looking to the skies for trailblazers of a completely different sort.
Herzog and Oppenheimer once again dash off to various far-flung destinations in order to investigate the multifaceted phenomena surrounding asteroids and meteorites, with each of the film’s episodes loosely strung together like so many gaudy beads on a necklace. What emerges is the fact that these extraterrestrial entities represent both bringers of life, having conceivably contributed basic organic building blocks to our planet’s primordial inorganic “soup,” as well as harbingers of disaster and death, as in the impact on the Yucatan peninsula that brought about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs.
Indeed, that prehistoric event serves as a sort of epicenter for Fireball, to which Herzog and Oppenheimer return at several points. The film opens with footage from a Day of the Dead ceremony in Mérida, Yucatan—crowds adorned with the requisite black-and-white skeleton makeup—that finds its direct echo at about the midway point when we visit Chichén Itzá and discover a forecourt there that’s decorated with numerous skeletal figures.
The symbolic duality of the meteorite is made most manifest at a stop at the Ramgarh crater in India. At its center stands a 10th-century temple to the god Shiva, whose cosmic dance regulates the cycles of creation and destruction across vast stretches of time. The meteorite’s significance to other belief systems is illustrated by a visit to the Kaaba in Mecca, Islam’s most sacred site. (Here, the filmmakers had to rely on amateur cellphone footage, since nonbelievers aren’t allowed near the shrine.) And at the Wolfe Creek crater, aboriginal artist Katie Darkie discusses taking inspiration from folklore and legends involving the impact site.
The film’s ethnographic bent is balanced out by a healthy dose of hard science. As usual for a Herzog documentary, the focus is just as much on the scientists themselves as it is on their pursuits. We learn all about quasicrystal structures via a jigsaw puzzle, take a tour of the Center for Meteorite Studies with a jittery scientist who’s especially loathe to drop any of the precious collection, and visit the Pan-STARRS Observatory in Hawaii, where scientists monitoring the skies for approaching asteroids excitedly compare megapixel capacities. In perhaps the film’s most rhapsodic interlude, we witness the sheer joy of members of the Korean Polar Research Institute when they discover a handful of meteoritic shards that stand out in stark contrast to the endless white glare of the Antarctic glaciers.
The moment is reminiscent of scenes from Encounters at the End of the World, in which Oppenheimer first appeared in a Herzog production. Nor is this the only callback in Fireball. Descending into a cave at the bottom of a cenote in the Yucatan where the Maya civilization used to inter their dead, we’re instantly reminded of similar ritual usages in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. At one point, footage from the Hollywood blockbuster Deep Impact is incorporated into the mix, in order for Herzog to evaluate it as what you might call disaster poetry.
One of the most striking effects here occurs whenever Herzog and Oppenheimer slow down the film’s often-hectic pace to let viewers ponder the sheer beauty of the imagery, whether that’s painterly rendered details of landscape or the natural splendor of closely observed crystals and minerals. Herzog has always had a keen eye for remote places, and Fireball lets him visit his fair share of them. As ever, his assessments are delivered in his trademark Teutonic deadpan. For instance, he describes the village of Chicxulub, near the center of the Yucatan impact crater, as “so godforsaken you want to cry.” Nor does he have much fondness for its “dimwitted dogs.” Asides like this leaven the visual poetry with some welcome humor.
Visiting Mer Island in the Torres Strait between Australia and New Guinea, Herzog and company are treated to a lovely bit of local lore involving falling stars, as well as the revival of a ritual dance interpreting the tale that hasn’t been performed in nearly 50 years. As day darkens into night, assembled on the slender strand between land and see, the dance reanimates the age-old interplay between the living and their dead ancestors. For a moment, before the screen slowly fades to black, all these elements are held in beautiful balance.
Director: Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: Apple+, Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Another Round Honestly and Poignantly Grapples with Alcohol’s Pull
Thomas Vinterberg’s latest, like The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract.3
There’s a revealing moment early in Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round when high school teacher Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) and his friends and colleagues—Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), Peter (Lars Ranthe), and Nikolaj (Magnus Millang)—are out for a birthday dinner. By this point, the audience knows that Martin is in the throes of a midlife crisis, sleepwalking through his history courses, inspiring the ire of students and parents alike, while regarding his family as little more than roommates. (Throughout, Mikkelsen doesn’t foreground self-pity or defensiveness, suggesting that Martin is too far gone to rouse himself to indignation, hiding under a veil of accommodation.) Because he’s driving, Martin initially resists drinking at the dinner, though his friends talk him into changing his mind, and soon he’s downing a shot of vodka and a few glasses of red wine in quick succession. Mikkelsen shows us the alcohol taking control of Martin in something like real time, his studious reserve vanishing to reveal great waves of sadness, bitterness, and salvation.
Anyone who knows alcoholism knows that face—of completion and fulfillment at the cost of alienation. The poignant terror of the scene resides in how quickly the booze grabs Martin, as if he’s an empty vessel waiting for his charge. In this light, Martin’s prior aloofness takes on new meaning. Though he has many real disappointments familiar to midlife, he was probably a dry drunk who didn’t know it. Over dinner, Nikolaj mentions the Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud, who said that people are born with a blood alcohol content that’s .05 percent too low, and that people should maintain a higher level in order to bring out their potential. We know from Martin’s face that he should stay away from alcohol, but he takes this idea at face value and begins drinking at school. Once the first day is over, he asks Nikolaj for a ride home, claiming that he can’t drive, revealing that he’s begun to experiment with the Skårderud philosophy. We expect Nikolaj to insist that Martin get help, but he and the others immediately join in, claiming that their boozing will be the basis of a future report.
The suspense of Another Round has little to do with whether or not these men will “prove” if day-drinking boosts livelihood. Rather, it’s derived from two nervous mysteries: the question of how long it will take them to recognize this idea for the rationalizing cry for help that it is, and how much damage will be done in the meantime. There’s also a kernel of satire here that one wishes Vinterberg had mined more fulsomely: that the men are taking to the next level a social obsession with alcohol and the various mythologies that we utilize to justify it. Alcohol is still greatly mythologized, associated with virile (masculine) creativity, with great writers and movers and shakers. Martin works the most famous boozers into his lectures, such as Hemingway and Churchill, and his literal and figurative intoxication brings his classes to life. Initially, the theory works, mostly for Martin, but for the other men as well.
In 1995, Vinterberg and Lars von Trier co-founded the Dogme 95 movement, which, broadly speaking, stresses found lighting and parred productions as resistance to the bloat of studio productions. Today, Vinterberg’s films still reflect this ideology, favoring handheld, docudramatic camerawork and few overtly expressionistic frills, which has often seemed prosaically “realistic” in the past. But this aesthetic serves a masterful purpose in Another Round, as his characters are calmly, objectively regarded as they drift further into alcoholism.
Their debauchery is clearly pleasurable in the moment, as benders with friends can be, but the camera is mercilessly attentive to the toll the booze takes—to the confusion, the staggering, the babbling, and especially to the existential pain of a massive hangover after days of being at sea. Overt formal fireworks might’ve glorified this behavior (think of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which equated a prolonged suicide-by-liquor to a stylish, woozy jazz concert), whereas Vinterberg honors the lure and the danger of drinking simultaneously.
Still, it doesn’t require much artistic ingenuity to make the case that addiction is bad. Another Round is elevated by its cast, especially Mikkelsen, who gives one of the greatest, most lived-in performances of his career, and by a nagging ambiguity. Even as booze begins to destroy these men, the film doesn’t entirely refute the Skårderud philosophy. Someone dies, a marriage nearly dissolves, and the other men sober up, which they soon tire of in the tradition of many people who feel incomplete without indulging in their governing habit. They’re happier after returning to booze, and the teachers among them accomplish the mission of energizing their students. Martin, once a dancer, even begins to dance again.
Like every alcoholic, the film’s main characters are nagged by the exceptions to the rule (the Churchills of the world), by the possibility that they can keep their hungers within a certain perimeter. Another Round, like Vinterberg’s The Hunt, is ultimately a parable about breaking a social contract. Martin and his friends break a code by day-drinking, but perhaps they refuted a larger contract by going sober in a world that values casual lubrication. Every recovering alcoholic is intimately familiar with such a contract, which is among the profound challenges of putting the bottle down and keeping it down. One is reminded of that haunting line from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master: “You can’t take this life straight, can you?”
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Thomas Bo Larsen, Lars Ranthe, Magnus Millang, Maria Bonnevie, Susse Wold, Helene Reingaard Neumann, Michael Asmussen, Martin Greis-Rosenthal Director: Thomas Vinterberg Screenwriter: Tobias Lindholm, Thomas Vinterberg Running Time: 115 min Rating: 2020 Year: 2020
Review: Wildfire Vibrantly Entwines Personal and Political Trauma
The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation.3
The archival footage of the Troubles that opens Cathy Brady’s Wildfire constitutes a remembrance of an era that’s barely bygone. Indeed, as celebratory clips of the peacemaking Good Friday Agreement replace images of gunsmoke, fire, and post-bombing rubble, the film smash cuts to more recent news footage about Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border, a reminder that the past, and certainly this one, is never past.
The uncertainty surrounding the border of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland is evident in Kelly’s (Nika McGuigan) belabored entry into the latter at the start of the film. Stopped for a heightened security search, the shabbily dressed woman must empty everything out of her camping backpack and strip before being let go, as well as told that it’s been a year since she was reported missing. Comparatively, her journey to her hometown on the Northern Irish border goes significantly easier, but as she slips into the country, the ease of her passage is undermined by the worry that future crossings could be more fraught.
The legacy of the Troubles and the wider history of British colonialism hangs heavy over the film’s early stretches. Kelly crosses the border next to a sign welcoming people to Northern Ireland, but someone, in a unionist gesture, has spray-painted “One” over the “Northern.” In contrast, she encounters Union Jack flags blowing in the wind as she walks down the street, even a building plastered with a giant loyalist motto: “Prepared for Peace. Ready for War.” Yet these omnipresent reminders of national violence give way to more personal legacies of trauma when Kelly heads to the home of her sister, Lauren (Nora-Jane Noone), who had all but given her up for dead. Lauren has struggled to deal with Kelly’s disappearance, and her return conjures ghosts from their past, including the long-repressed memory of their mother’s death.
The sisters’ denial regarding their family history is reflected in a Northern Ireland working to leave its own past behind. Lauren works for an Amazon-esque company that epitomizes post-national globalism; she spends her days in a warehouse so massive that the end of the building disappears at the vanishing point of the frame, suggesting the storage facility at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. A generational divide also reflects how quickly tragedy is forgotten. Lauren’s younger co-workers came of age after the Troubles, and as such they’re completely removed from its horrors, sniggering at the prosthetic leg of a manager who lost her limb in an explosion as those old enough to remember the constant terror of the time fume at the show of insensitivity. And the sectarian nature of that history of violence is subtly born out in the judgmental whispers about whether Lauren and Kelly’s mother died by suicide, a reminder of the influence still exerted by religion and dogma on people who seem otherwise secular.
Slowly, though, the film’s focus shifts away from its social backdrop and toward the increasingly raw emotions that McGuigan and Noone evoke as they chart their characters’ frayed relationship. McGuigan (who passed away of cancer soon after completing the film) emphasizes Kelly’s wild, fatalistic spirit, as if she had inherited it from her mother, always nervous and casting one eye toward the exit even as she attempts to repair her relationship to her sister. Noone, meanwhile, captures the rage of someone who’s learned to accept the loss of a loved one, only to have that person re-enter their life and reignite all the anger and pain that they learned to compartmentalize. Lauren’s veneer of stability starts to crumble almost immediately, as she simultaneously unleashes her fury at her sister and anyone who dares to gossip about her. The sisters each embody a wildly different response to trauma (flight versus fight), though neither approach truly confronts the underlying tragedies that shaped them.
The structure of Wildfire’s narrative doesn’t emerge out of a simplistic progression from strife to reconciliation, as Brady has Kelly and Lauren follow a realistically erratic trajectory. Indeed, no sooner does Lauren reunite with Kelly than she screams for her sister to leave, only to then share a moment of fond nostalgia before bristling again at the memories that Kelly revives. Mutual and individual efforts to make good are constantly thwarted, while occasional moments of joyous interaction between them speak to a lifelong bond that not even decades-suppressed agony can undo. In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, the sisters suddenly cut loose and dance to Them’s “Gloria” inside a seemingly empty pub, working up an ecstatic sweat before it’s ultimately revealed that the space is filled with befuddled onlookers.
Lauren and Kelly’s tumultuous confrontations with their pasts and each other naturally has echoes in the film’s nods to Ireland’s fraught, and by no means settled, modern history. Yet Wildfire crucially never reduces itself to allegory, instead living through the unpredictable, jagged arcs of its characters as they work toward an understanding of themselves and each other. The militarized social strife that informed Lauren and Kelly’s childhoods is but one piece in a larger tapestry of horrors that must be dealt with, and Brady suggests that it’s only through reconciling personal conflicts that a populace can improve its political future.
Cast: Nika McGuigan, Nora-Jane Noone, Martin McCann, Kate Dickie, Aiste Gramantaite, David Pearse, Joanne Crawford Director: Cathy Brady Screenwriter: Cathy Brady Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: The Truffle Hunters Warmly Regards a Disappearing Way of Life
The film’s reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is delivered with tact and subtlety.2.5
The boom in farm-to-table cuisine over the past decade, in both fine-dining circles and more modest gastropubs, has led to restaurants pointing out on their menus the suppliers and farms from which their ingredients have been sourced. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters taps into this cultural conversation, tracing a line from the food on the plate back to the laborers who harvest it, and yet what it implies is that even with the increased transparency around food sourcing, there remains an essential mystique that must go unpunctured when it comes to certain foods.
Profiling a handful of elderly men from Piedmont, Italy, who pursue precious white alba truffles in the forests of the country’s northern region, the film tries to thread the needle between shining a light on its subjects’ niche trade and not spoiling their secrets. It does so by placing the emphasis on the people themselves over the treasures they dig up, a strategy that aligns the film more with the cine-portraits of Les Blank than, say, Netflix’s Chef’s Table.
Unlike Blank’s nonchalantly matter-of-fact films, though, The Truffle Hunters is shot in a painterly visual style that creates a degree of distance from its subjects. Clearly identifying with and celebrating the expertise of these devoted practitioners and their resistance to nosy profiteers, Dweck and Kershaw seem driven by a desire to enshrine the men in timeless tableaux, the likes of which you might see hung on the walls of a museum next to a Vermeer. To this end they’ve made a lovely film, one teeming with punctilious frames in which everything has been arranged just so. But it also prompts the assumption that the filmmakers took their fair share of liberties with the art direction in the hunters’ homes, which, despite being well within their rights as artists, keeps the film from ever feeling truly spontaneous.
The Truffle Hunters concerns itself with a handful of characters: a few expert foragers; their beloved fungi-sniffing canines; an urban buyer who’s always chasing the suppliers’ elusive secrets; and a crotchety gourmand who samples the delicacies brought his way by other such buyers. Dweck and Kershaw establish a leisurely movement between these different threads, presenting each in the same handsome, methodical manner so as to encourage viewers to draw their own conclusions about the ethics of the buyer-supplier dynamic.
The sequences devoted to the highbrow arena of truffle auctions, where enthusiasts come to sniff and evaluate samples of the earthy substance, are no less detailed in their observation than the passages in the forest and at country homes. But what eventually becomes self-evident is the warmth, self-sufficiency, and camaraderie of the hunters compared to the businesslike aloofness of those on the receiving end of their labor—insatiable careerists who, in a handful of scenes, are shown to barely even evince much pleasure for the food itself.
This reminder of the fragility of agrarian traditions in the face of a merciless profit motive is a welcome one delivered with tact and subtlety, but Dweck and Kershaw occasionally deliver it at the expense of their titular subjects. The highlight of The Truffle Hunters is the hilarious rapport between one persevering scavenger and his grumpy wife, who’s fed up with her husband’s imperiling trips into the woods at night—and for good reason, as several scenes illustrate just how physically taxing the process can be for an ailing body. These sketches of domestic life are rich with lived-in authenticity, and the proximity they grant us to a unique, off-the-grid way of life recalls a similar quality that defines Blank’s films about gumbo sorcerers in the bayou. It’s hard not to wonder how much more of that magic could have been captured had Dweck and Kershaw not bothered to so carefully compose and light their shots.
Director: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 84 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Concrete Cowboy Is Detail-Rich for What’s Basically an Afterschool Special
Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity.
Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy is based on the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club of Northern Philadelphia, where African-Americans teach potentially troubled children to ride and care for horses as a way of avoiding the temptations of the streets. The reveal of this club is gracefully handled by Staub, as the film’s young protagonist, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), is dropped off on the doorstep of his father, Harp (Idris Elba), after his mother has given up trying to rein in the delinquent teen. This drop-off occurs at night, and Harp clearly doesn’t live in the best part of town. Scared, Cole asks a neighbor about his father’s current whereabouts and is directed to the nearby “stable,” which sounds in this context like a bar. Cole follows a street and a slum opens up into a literal stable, carved out of dilapidated buildings, with a field where horses roam while cowboys bullshit over a fire and beer. Staub stages this scene with offhand matter-of-factness, allowing us to feel the magic of Cole’s discovery—of a hopeful place existing where it, by all odds, should not.
Adapted from G. Neri’s 2009 novel Ghetto Cowboy, the film is involving when Staub and co-screenwriter Dan Walser stick to the particulars of Harp and the other cowboys’ lives as well as the general working culture of the stable. The horses are kept behind a brick wall in a building that was once suburban, which is rich in cobwebs that bring to mind Miss Havisham’s mansion in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Before he can ride a horse, Cole must of course pay his dues, shoveling horse shit out of the stable into a dumpster across the street. Staub fashions an entire, richly specific sequence out of this single action, offering a tribute to the pride of diligent work, especially when it’s servicing passion rather than mere survival. Some of the cowboys are also played by their actual counterparts, and their conversation is similarly detailed, rooted in the legacy of Philly and the Fletcher Street club.
Sadly, these details aren’t allowed to dictate the terms of the narrative, existing instead as window dressing for what amounts to an Afterschool Special. Too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to a shopworn conflict: Will Cole turn to dealing drugs or will he stick with the club? We know the answer to that question 10 minutes into the film, and so the perfunctory scenes of Cole riding around and surveying late-night parties and drop-offs feel like an unnecessary distraction from the cowboys. And Concrete Cowboy grows less detailed as it progresses. We’re not told how the cowboys barely subsidize their lifestyle (based on the news, the real-life Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club appears to be more organized, and funded), or if they work other jobs. The cowboys’ relationship to their surrounding community is also glossed over in the film, more or less dramatized by a single celebration sequence.
The delicacy of the film’s early scenes is regrettably missing from other moments that have the potential to be moving. When Harp fashions a special saddle so that a paralyzed cowboy may ride a horse again, we don’t need derivative slow-motion and music to comprehend the poignancy of such a gesture. We also don’t require expository dialogue to tell us that Cole feels excluded in this moment from a father who’s never shown him such generosity, as we glimpse this embittered yet admiring heartbreak in the boy’s face. However, Cole’s wound is cauterized in another wonderful scene, when Harp plays John Coltrane on vinyl and explains to Cole that he was named after the jazz legend. Again, Concrete Cowboy is stirring when it really dives into specificity, avoiding what the New Yorker literature critic James Wood recently defined as our original sin: cliché, which, according to Wood, blocks our apprehension of reality.
Cast: Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Method Man, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Swen Temmel, Byron Bowers, Lamont Fountain, Liz Priestley Director: Ricky Staub Screenwriter: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2020