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: Duet for Cannibals Is an Intriguing Mix of Pastiche and Parody
Susan Sontag’s debut film serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of her more well-known written work.3
Writing on Persona for Sight & Sound in 1967, Susan Sontag rhapsodized about Ingmar Bergman’s unorthodox handling of narrative, praising his decision to utilize the story structure as a “thematic resource” rather than a means of dispensing a coherent plot. “Images and dialogue are given which the viewer cannot help but find puzzling,” she wrote, “not being able to decipher whether certain scenes take place in the past, present or future; and whether certain images and episodes belong to ‘reality’ or ‘fantasy’.”
Two years later, after securing funding from the renowned film production company Sandrews, Sontag made Duet for Cannibals, her own attempt at capturing a slipstream-like roundelay of events, and in Swedish no less. Like Persona, her directorial debut hazards a similar bid for the arrangement of narrative as “variations on a theme,” and while the results aren’t quite on the same level as Bergman, they represent a respectable, effort on Sontag’s part to both break down narrative convention and advance her own personal ideas.
The story deals with a baroque series of escalating mind games between Bauer (Lars Ekborg), a famed German leftist living in exile in Stockholm, and Tomas (Gösta Ekman), his young assistant. Taking on the position from a mixture of politically sympathetic curiosity and financial desperation, Tomas and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, Ingrid (Agneta Ekmanner), is put under heavy strain. This worsens as Bauer demands more and more of his time, forcing him to take up residence in his apartment, to better serve at his beck and call. Things only get more confusing when Ingrid herself enters the fray, paired against Bauer’s unstable Italian wife, Francesca (Adriana Asti), in a rectangle of dysfunctional connection.
Embarking on its own Bergmanesque fantasia, the film slips freely, often confusingly, between realist and surrealist crosscurrents. In one memorable moment, Tomas and Ingrid go on a boating date that ends abruptly when he spots his employer on shore; he leaps out of the boat to join him, leaving Ingrid behind on the water. The occurrence of such disjunctions itself becomes a form of comedy, as scene after scene quavers between straight-faced severity and utter absurdism. At one point, Tomas’s frustrating encounter with one of Bauer’s dictaphone recordings segues into a head-to-head dispute, the characters’ interpersonal borders proving as porous as those of the film itself. Instances like this prove Bauer’s complete mastery over his domain, promoting the possibility that this entire enterprise is some kind of twisted attempt to cuckold himself, ensnaring his novice employee by using his vivacious wife as bait.
His actual intent remains mysterious, establishing him as the cryptic on-screen analogue to Sontag’s destabilizing formal approach. Whether we’re witnessing the tectonic plates of text and subtext colliding roughly with one another, or just an elaborate gag at the expense of viewers primed to expect impenetrable, pretentious weirdness from their Euro art cinema, is never entirely clear. The film’s ultimate liability, in fact, is that it can’t seem to decide if it’s doing pastiche or parody. It’s clearest thematic throughline remains the metaphorical transfer of horrid, self-serving behavior—disguised as rigorous intellectual purity—forced down from one generation to another. Qualities of the older couple become imprinted upon the younger, in an unnerving mode that mixes the scholarly and the familial, with a marked sexual undertone that seems requisite to this kind of boundary-pushing experimentation.
Yet the sort of theorizing that Duet for Cannibals demands is bound to inevitably draw inquisitive viewers toward the type of analytical over-examination that Sontag railed against in “Against Interpretation,” one of her most famous essays and the basis of much of her work from this time period. The most plausible, and rewarding, explanation may then be that her directorial debut represents a cross-medium introduction of this theory of sensual liberation into the cinematic bloodstream, antagonizing viewers as a further nudge to lay off the heavy textual lifting. It’s a lesson that may hold even greater relevance today, when the internet allows every inch of any given film to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb.
It also doesn’t hurt that Duet for Cannibals is frequently hilarious: An acidulous, dry humor runs beneath its formal provocations, from Bauer slowly spreading shaving cream over his car windshield to obscure the view inside, to a toned, briefs-clad man holding a handstand through the entirety of a pivotal dramatic scene. In this regard, the film feels ahead of its time, while totally leftfield in others. An interesting, if tonally inconsistent, experiment, it serves as an intriguing cinematic extension of its maker’s more well-known written work.
Cast: Gösta Ekman Jr., Lars Ekborg, Adriana Asti, Agneta Ekmanner, Stig Engström Director: Susan Sontag Screenwriter: Susan Sontag Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 105 min Rating: NR Year: 1969
Review: The Good Liar Is Ambivalent to Both Genre and History
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow.2.5
An airport novel of a movie, Bill Condon’s The Good Liar is efficient and consumable, if a bit hollow. For the most part, the film successfully marries the levity of con-artist hijinks, the suspenseful ambiguity of a Hitchcockian romance, and the heightened realism of a postwar spy adventure. But like so many pulpish mysteries, its resolution fails to neatly tie up these elements, and though it’s never especially difficult to anticipate at least the general direction in which the plot’s twists are taking us, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours, held together by strong performances and an unpretentious presentation.
For reasons dictated by the protagonists’ ages and historically specific backstories, The Good Liar is set in 2009. British retirees Roy (Ian McKellan) and Betty (Helen Mirren) first meet on an online dating service, initially going by the respective pseudonyms of Brian and Estelle. Once these initial, foreshadowing lies have been dispelled, the two begin an adorably tepid romance, all handshakes and polite compliments. Betty hesitantly invites Roy over to her place when the restaurant where they planned to meet turns out to be closed. They watch Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the two have a cordial debate about whether the film’s ahistorical representation poisons the minds of the young.
Of course, the Roy that Betty knows is a lie: Hardly a retiree, the octogenarian is an active, high-level financial scammer. We’re acquainted to Roy’s alter ego as he abandons his cane and strides ably into a strip club—a shot presented in low angle so as to capture some gratuitous nudity on the dancers’ raised platform. Roy proceeds to a private booth, where he and his partner in crime, Vincent (Jim Carter), are meeting with a pair of investors (Mark Lewis Jones and Stefan Kalipha) they’ve planning to scam out of their money. This subplot will eventually spill over into the main romantic plot, though through a more circuitous route than expected.
If, with its “exposed breasts connote shady dealings” rhetoric, this introduction to the seedy Roy lands a bit too hard, McKellan’s performance is more successful in threading together the multiple sides of the man. Even before Roy’s criminal associates start alluding to his dark past, McKellan suggests the weight of a troubled history in his character’s actions. He communicates a sadness and resentment that isn’t manifest in the dialogue, even as Roy takes evident pleasure in the money scams he runs on investors and, eventually, on Betty.
The Good Liar is the type of neatly fabricated mystery in which every emphasized detail will prove to be significant, so when Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey), explains that his dissertation topic is the Nazi architect Albert Speer, one can guess that WWII will play some role in the resolution of Roy and Betty’s romantic arc. When Betty suggests a continental vacation—first stop, Berlin—it’s fairly obvious that a confrontation with Roy’s shrouded war history is in the mix. Still, the final third of the film proves to be more deeply rooted in ‘40s Germany than even the pointed discussion of Speer suggests, but don’t look to the film for any particular insight into wartime Germany or the experiences of the “greatest generation.” Here, the war serves mostly as a dramatic facilitator of final twist rather than a lived experience.
Eventually, Betty, who, as the duped party throughout, comes off as far less intelligent than the former Oxford professor she’s meant to be, gets some narrative agency. But it comes so late, and in the form of a twist whose general outlines we can sense from very early on, that it hardly avoids feeling tokenistic. Playing the part of sweet Betty, fooled into all manner of duplicitous arrangements with Roy, Mirren has comparatively little to do. At times, you may expect the film to become a kind of geriatric Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but the expected turn comes too late for Betty to really get in on any action. Unlike Inglourious Basterds, with which it self-consciously contrasts itself, The Good Liar isn’t interested in a challenging remix of either genre or history—content instead with mild, safely conventional entertainment.
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Nell Williams, Phil Dunster, Laurie Davidson, Jóhannes Kaukur Jóhannesson Director: Bill Condon Screenwriter: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 109 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters Spreads the News, Without Embellishment
Haynes’s film intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate.2.5
Todd Haynes’s Dark Waters is the sort of film that may win awards and plaudits, even as it’s poised to be overlooked for its craftsmanship. Haynes and screenwriters Mario Correa and Matthew Michael Carnahan communicate their story—a true one about the ways corporate greed can lead to irreparable health crises and environmental damage—without an ounce of pretense, which also means that they risk making it seem indistinguishable from other recent topical films like Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. Yet while it doesn’t rewrite the book on the legal thriller genre, Dark Waters also intermittently hits upon a few original ways of representing its ripped-from-the-headlines mandate. Faint praise, perhaps, but this film aims to spread the news rather than bask in its own glory.
In 1998, Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), a farmer from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attempts to enlist Cincinnati lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) to file suit against DuPont. The chemical company, it seems, has been dumping toxic chemicals in a landfill near Tennant’s farm, polluting its creek and killing its livestock. As an attorney for a firm that defends corporations, Bilott initially refuses the case but eventually goes to bat for Tennant: Bilott grew up in West Virginia and becomes emotionally invested in protecting the land he loved as a child.
In the course of his investigation, Bilott discovers links between cancers and birth defects in the Parkersburg community and Dupont’s unregulated manufacture and disposal of PFOA (or C8), an indestructible chemical prevalent in many everyday household products. Yet what should be an open-and-shut case of corporate malfeasance and corruption drags on for years due to Dupont’s legal maneuvering, which costs Bilott his health and many of Bill’s clients their patience and social inclusion in Parkersburg, a Dupont company town to its core.
Dark Water’s strong suit is its central performances. As Bilott, Ruffalo provides a bristling tension in exploring the grey area between moral conviction and obsession as the lawyer’s selflessness borders on single-mindedness. And a scene-stealing Camp uses his bulk, not to mention a convincing rural drawl, to impart various shades of frustration, outrage, sadness, and disillusionment in the face of Tennant’s near-helpless situation. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, can only do so much in the role of Bilott’s wife, Sarah, who seems to exist only to criticize others, be it her husband for his tunnel vision or his senior partner, Tom Terp (Tim Robbins), for taking Bilott’s self-sacrifice for granted. Given Sarah’s intriguing backstory (she gave up a career in law to become a housewife), as well as Haynes’s predilection for exploring complex women, her characterization feels especially thin.
More important, perhaps, than any of these characters is West Virginia itself. The state isn’t featured often on film, which is a shame since it possesses an abundance of natural beauty. Of course, you won’t see that in Dark Waters, as Edward Lachman’s cinematography evokes the spoilage of that beauty by employing sickly, desaturated blues and greens, especially in outdoor winter scenes where you can practically feel the despair emanating from the screen. In this sense, the film harkens back to Haynes’s Safe, where toxicity appeared to suffuse the protagonist’s ordinary surroundings. The environmental details of Dark Waters reinforce the depth and expansiveness of Dupont’s crime, so that by the time John Denver’s signature “Take Me Home, Country Roads” ironically, if inevitably, plays during one of Bilott’s deflating drives through Parkersburg, Haynes has made the audience feel that this isn’t some remote, godforsaken hamlet, but rather the entire polluted planet.
Still, the best parts of Dark Waters may make you wish that there was more of Haynes in it. The filmmaker hasn’t written one of his own projects since the outstanding Mildred Pierce miniseries, but whereas Carol and Wonderstruck at least continued the director’s thematic and aesthetic preoccupations in their investigation of outcasts searching for romantic and familial connections, Dark Waters feels relatively faceless. Aside from its color scheme, there isn’t much in the film that’s particularly or uniquely cinematic; this is a dramatic rather than a visual showcase, and one often confined to legal conversations in generic offices, meeting rooms, and courts of law. But perhaps it’s to Haynes’s credit that he lets the drama speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to embellish it. After all, the point of this film is to depict how an enormous human and environmental tragedy initially affects a small community, with Tennant, Bilott, and Parkersburg suffering the full-force C-8 blast first and hardest.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Bill Camp, Anne Hathaway, Tim Robbins, Bill Pullman, Victor Garber, Mare Winningham, William Jackson Harper, Louisa Krause Director: Todd Haynes Screenwriter: Mario Correa, Matthew Michael Carnahan Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 126 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Charlie’s Angels Has Good Intentions but Lives in La-La Land
All the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal the film’s creative conservatism.1.5
As a minor cultural institution, Charlie’s Angels has, in all its TV and film incarnations, operated as a kind of Rorschach test: Fans see it flying the female empowerment flag by bringing women into the traditionally male detective genre, while critics by and large view it as a symptom of feminist backlash, objectifying its stars in the service of campy male fantasy. Now, by diversifying its cast and placing a female writer-director, Elizabeth Banks, at its helm, the new Charlie’s Angels attempts to remove all political doubt: These Angels are woke and answer to no man, not even one issuing orders from a speaker box. The intention is pure, but in the end, the emancipatory aims of this reboot exist only in la-la land, its feminism failing to resonate beyond the cynicism of corporate rebranding.
Mostly remembered as a montage of iconic images, the 1970s Aaron Spelling-produced TV series was actually a bore, its success depending solely on the charisma of its lead actresses; the two early-aughts films, both directed by McG, were 100% cheesecake, hypersexualizing its actresses in what amounted to glorified music videos. The new Charlie’s Angels moves well and at least puts forth a semblance of reality, with a few moments hinting at the tense, moody spy thriller it might have been. Yet the dominant strain of its DNA is the Generic Action Movie, and all the feminist virtue-signaling in the world can’t conceal its creative conservatism.
The plot centers on the usual stuff of spies and saboteurs. Not yet an official Angel, Elena (Naomi Scott) works for a company that’s run by an Elon Musk type (Sam Claflin) and creates an electronics product that possesses deadly potential. When her superiors bury her report on its risks, Elena enlists the Angels—Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska)—to help blow the whistle. But sinister parties, of course, want the gadget for themselves, and most of the film consists of a series of car chases, break-ins, and stakeouts as the Angels pursue the MacGuffin in the name of global security. Speaking of global: Charlie’s private investigation firm is now an international business, with multiple Bosleys leading their own teams of lady spies. And in a first for the franchise, our Angels’ Bosley is played by a woman (Banks).
Indeed, the film has a female-led, rather than female-focused, bent. Having nothing to do with the story, the opening credits sequence features a celebratory montage of girls from around the world, and the finale and end credits reveal Charlie’s agency to be run by women, a far cry from the TV series’s patriarchal framing: “Once upon a time there were three little girls…now they work for me. My name is Charlie.” Banks’s coup de grace “twist” on the Charlie’s Angels formula is diversity in casting, as the Angels are played by one out actress and two of color.
Stewart is the film’s most potentially interesting presence. In the opening scene, Sabina seduces a bad guy by wearing an ultra-femme disguise that includes a cascade of flowing blond hair, and when removing it to enter fight mode, she reveals a dyed, short-cropped butch ‘do. Yet the rest of the film fails to develop the code-switching possibilities of her character or anyone else’s. There’s a slew of nearly preternatural wardrobe changes (at one point, Sabina dons a jockey’s outfit for some reason), but that’s been par for the course in the world of Charlie’s Angels since the Ford administration, with much of the franchise’s appeal residing in the material fetishism attendant in an endless game of dress-up. Like their predecessors, these Angels look glamorous and gorgeous while fighting crime, and while Stewart’s queerness may qualify her objectification, and actually makes her more of a subject (as when she sneaks a lascivious peek at an attractive woman), it’s only in a relative sense. Overall, her on-screen appearance is lensed as much for exploitative pleasure as vicarious admiration.
One major appeal of the Charlie’s Angels properties is seeing men consistently underestimate the physical and intellectual capability of its female leads. But because she dares nothing visually or dramatically original, Banks prevents the Angels from exhibiting unique or surprising traits. The Angels’ bios are strictly single-line affairs: Sabina is rebellious and sarcastic, Jane is steely and professional, and Elena is goofy and wide-eyed. And all of them quip and banter in similarly sitcom-ish rhythms. Ultimately, Banks believes it’s enough that queer and brown women perform the same suspense-free action set pieces and combat choreography that their white male counterparts have performed since time immemorial.
In contrast to McG’s films, which took place in the realm of a live-action candy-colored cartoon, the world of this Charlie’s Angels vaguely resembles our own, giving Banks the opportunity to show what real—or at least real-er—women can do in seriously intense and perilous situations. But save for a few stressed situations and unique notes (such as Luis Gerardo Méndez’s Q-like Saint, who’s both the Angels’ weapons expert and their health advisor and spiritual guru), this film is so much disposable entertainment. It’s too frenetic, tongue in cheek, and impersonal to extend its vague feminism to true individualism.
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Noah Centineo, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang, Luis Gerardo Méndez Director: Elizabeth Banks Screenwriter: Elizabeth Banks Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 118 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Soundtrack
Interview: Lauren Greenfield on The Kingmaker and Threats to Democracy
Greenfield discusses how the film relates to her body of work and the warnings Americans ought to heed from it.
When it comes to documenting stories about the dark underbelly of wealth in contemporary society, Lauren Greenfield is like a moth drawn to a flame. A photographer by trade who has ventured into documentary filmmaking, Greenfield broke out in 2012 with The Queen of Versailles, a “riches-to-rags” tale of how billionaire Florida couple Jackie and Robert Siegel attempted to build an American equivalent to Versailles. Their absurd ambition amounts to their folly as construction kicks off at the height of the Great Recession and strains their precarious finances, leaving the mansion unfinished. Greenfield continued this theme in her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth, a companion film to her monograph of the same name that follows multiple less bombastic tales of how an unfettered pursuit of opulence and glamour results in deep emptiness.
Greenfield’s new documentary, The Kingmaker, began with her interest in another powerful symbol for the hollowness of wealth and power. In the Philippines, former First Lady Imelda Marcos evicted the native population of Calauit Island, located in the Calamian Archipelago, and replaced the inhabitants with African animals. Though the regime of her husband, Ferdinand E. Marcos, fell and drove the family into exile and disrepute, the animals remained. Generations later, the creatures’ inbreeding and the general disarray of the island’s ecosystem appears to be a fitting testament to the corruption and incompetence of their rule.
And yet, once Greenfield began to sit with the octogenarian Imelda Marcos, she found a subject spinning an alternate story, as well as a populace willing to believe it. The Kingmaker portrays the unfolding of a terrifying period in the history of the Philippines of how a political dynasty can rewrite the history of human rights abuses and corruption in order to return to power. While events continue to unfold in the country, the necessary forces and people are in place to pave the way for Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, to assume the presidency in 2022.
I spoke with Greenfield prior to The Kingmaker’s premiere at DOC NYC to discuss how the documentary relates to her body of work as a whole as well as the warnings Americans ought to heed from it as a similar political dynamic to the one in the Philippines develops stateside.
You’ve said elsewhere that you liked Imelda on a personal level, but much like The Queen of Versailles, The Kingmaker itself remains a little ambiguous so the audience can come to their own conclusions about the subject. How do you finesse that ambiguity in your filmmaking and in the editing process?
It’s a little bit different with Imelda Marcos because I came in knowing the history. I was more interested in the paradox between the fact that when you’re with her, she’s kind and generous and personable, versus the terrible consequences of the huge human rights abuses she was complicit with. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I think she’s nice, let’s let the audience come to that conclusion.” I felt journalistically, ethically, and historically that I need to give the audience the information so they could see that what she was doing was telling untruths. So they could see that she was an unreliable narrator. That’s why, when I realized that about her, I brought in other voices that the audience would instinctively feel are credible.
It’s a little bit of a different journey because, in the beginning, you’re sucked into her personality, which is lovely and charismatic, and I wanted people to see that. It was the key to her political success. But, even by the end of the first act, when you know she’s depopulated an indigenous population to bring in the animals to her pet project island, I think you can’t abide by that anymore. By the time you hear about martial law and torture, you’re not thinking she’s nice anymore. Jackie Siegel was another journey because you start out thinking she’s horrible, and then you end up kind of rooting for her. For Imelda, I wanted to show her humanity, but it’s a paradox of how can a human do these terrible things and not feel any remorse.
When you started filming Imelda, you thought maybe the film would become a redemption story? At what point did you begin to realize that wasn’t going to play out?
I was still hoping for it, even at the very end—that maybe she’d have some kind of revelation. I thought there’d be a moment where she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t see it that way.” But looking back now, I was being naïve. Of course, this is not her first rodeo. She’s talked to the press a million times. During the election, I realized they were just going to lean into their story. There was a TV interview that Bongbong did, and the reporter said, “Are you going to say you’re sorry? Are you going to say you’re sorry for martial law?” That’s what people really wanted, for him to apologize. And he said, “What do I have to apologize for? Should I apologize for the roads? The infrastructure? The building that happened during that period? If I hurt somebody, I would apologize, but what do I have to apologize for?” When I heard that a few months into the election campaign, I realized they were going to lean into the story, into their rewriting of history that those were the good times, and they weren’t going to apologize. It’s kind of a Trumpian move: never apologize, never say you’re wrong, just say, “It was good, it was great!” And then people will eventually believe you.
Isn’t the film, at least for Imelda, a redemption story? She’s restoring honor to the family name and, in doing so, putting some power behind their wealth, which has become a little toothless in the absence of actual clout.
Well, she is trying to whitewash history. That’s her goal, politically, and it’s why she chose to participate in the film. She wants to put out her version of the Marcos legacy. That’s not what I meant by “redemption story.” I meant her having a moral moment of realizing she’s done something wrong. She does tell herself that she’s doing something good. I do believe she thinks she’s doing good, and that she believes her own story.
Everyone tells themselves a story of their life that makes sense, but the difference between the visions of grandeur of people like Imelda and Jackie Siegel and the average person is that they can manipulate reality to become their fantasy using wealth.
Her story helps her survive. It pushes her to keep going. Deep down, she feels like she’s doing the right thing. If she felt like she was doing terrible things, it would get in her way. It’s a strategic story that helps her live with it and get a young electorate on board for a comeback.
I found it a little difficult to discern toward the end: Does Imelda and the rest of the Marcos family see the contradictions in boosting a candidate like Rodrigo Duterte, who runs against the perceived corruption of a system only to re-legitimize a self-dealing former dynasty? Or is the irony completely lost on them?
I’m not sure that there’s a lot of irony there. Even though he pretends he’s one of the people, working class, talks trash, and swears, he’s actually from a place of privilege. There’s also a lot of corruption going on in this government. When Bongbong was campaigning, he also said he was going to go against corruption. That’s what everybody says. The reality is that Duterte’s father was in Ferdinand Marcos’s cabinet. Duterte looks up to Marcos. He’s threatened martial law. He likes the idea of the strongman. So, I think that they’re pretty aligned.
I was more surprised that Bongbong would align with Duterte because Bongbong was Western-educated and has the veneer of a legitimate politician, so I was surprised that he would go with somebody responsible for so many street killings. But, at the end of the day, it’s political. They made an alliance that’s helped them both. They could give Duterte support for becoming president, and in return they got the hero’s burial that Imelda has wanted for decades. Duterte backed the sister, Imee, for senate, and she won—as did every candidate that Duterte backed. Going into the next election, Duterte’s backing is extremely important.
A thread through your work is that people suffering from the adverse effects of wealth tend to cast themselves as victims in their own stories. From your experience, do you think that narrative holds any water? Or is it just a survival technique?
Yeah, I don’t think we need to shed any tears for Imelda. What I’m trying to do here, and in Generation Wealth, is to focus on the one percent and look at how it affects everybody else. That’s the important thing: looking at the long-term consequences of the Marcos regime and how the abuse of wealth and power affects everybody else. I came in looking at that through the animal island, but that’s really symbolic for how the Philippines was hurt by how the Marcos family, in taking five to 10 billion dollars, hurt development, created persistent poverty, and made the people vulnerable to bringing back another strongman and supporting people like Bongbong Marcos, but especially Duterte. Benigno Aquino, the president when I was filming and son of opposition leader Ninoy Aquino, said his father told him you can’t have democracy when you’re hungry. That’s what we see in the Philippines, democracy being threatened because people’s basic needs are not being met.
It almost feels like we’re doomed to live in a plutocracy forever.
That’s the irony. That’s what was so sad. It’s also similar to Trump, as people’s needs were not being met, so they voted for change only to have somebody who’s really on the side of the wealthy. It’s ironic that these people get brought in by the support of the working class. But in the Philippines, you’re not even talking about the working class. You’re talking about deep, deep poverty where people are getting money, food, or clothing in exchange for votes. And especially without proper information, the history not being taught in the schoolbooks or not as many outlets of independent journalism, it’s very hard for a democracy to thrive.
You’ve noted that Imelda is yet another adherent of the “dictator chic” style—the gauche, in-your-face extravagance that attracts aspiring autocrats from Trump to Saddam Hussein. As someone who observes the intersection of wealth and aesthetics, do you have any theories about why this phenomenon cuts across the globe?
In a way, that was a little bit more of what I looked at in Generation Wealth. There’s an aspirational nobility that people with power want, like being a king or a queen. You see that in the portrait of Imelda at the beginning of the film and in some of the commissioned portraiture she did—and, for that matter, some of what the Siegels did. You can see the love for gold that Trump has. I think it’s an association with nobility, especially for the nouveau riche and people who are ambitiously climbing their way up.
As someone who’s studied and documented wealth across the world, what do you make of this moment in America where it seems like a large portion of the country worships an opulent, self-proclaimed wealthy leader and another large portion finds inspiration in politicians who are rallying people against the idea of concentrated wealth?
Well, I definitely think we’re at a really precarious time at the moment, because the amount of inequality we have right now is dangerous for any society or democracy. And dangerous economically. We have this myth of the American dream where anyone can go from rags to riches. I think that’s what’s standing between us and revolution, even though many people are not sharing in the spoils of our economy. It’s because of this “keeping up with the Kardashians” mindset. In Generation Wealth, I looked at how in the space of a generation, people went from “keeping up with the Joneses,” their neighbors, to keeping up with the Kardashians, these ultra-wealthy people they see on TV. It’s so unrealistic, and yet there’s this deep myth in the culture that you can become that one day, through a reality show or whatever it is. Obama called that out more than two decades ago when he was a lawyer. The thing about Donald Trump is that people think they can be him one day, or maybe their child can be him. There’s this illusion that keeps people accepting the status quo.
And then I think there’s a waking up happening, particularly among young people, that that’s not going to happen, and that there’s some real rot. The game is rigged, and what they’re telling us is the goal—being rich—isn’t actually making people happy. Especially on the millennial side, there are signs of people waking up and wanting something different. The problem is that the culture and corporate capitalism are so slanted toward keeping the status quo. Just money in politics, for example, and the disinformation from social media. We saw it in the Philippines, we saw it here, we saw it with Brexit. That’s the thing Andy Bautista [former head of the Philippines’ Presidential Commission on Good Government] keeps telling me about the Philippines: If you have money, you have speech because you can put forward lies on social media and convince people of that. And it’s kind of like that here as well.
Review: The Hottest August Is a Rich Patchwork of Discontented Voices
Brett Story’s documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division.3
Throughout The Hottest August, director Brett Story asks her interview subjects—a collection of mostly working-class, outer-borough residents of New York City—for their feelings about the future. More interesting than these people’s answers are the way their faces change as they process the question, invariably morphing into an ironic smirk. From there, the responses are despairing, even at their most hopeful, as nearly every subject answers with a summation of their career goals or their desire to earn more money.
Our collective failure to reckon with the onward march of climate change and vulture capitalism is the often unspoken subject of this structuralist documentary, which was filmed over the course of August 2017. Though Story makes her themes clear in a voiceover narrative (recited by Clare Coulter) that combines the director’s own writings with those of Karl Marx, Zadie Smith, and Annie Dillard, the people in The Hottest August have other things on their minds. A college student who works at a call center for wealthy investors describes herself as an “entrepreneur,” while a man driving a food truck has to move out of his apartment the following day without having found a new home. Periodically, the artist Ayodamola Okunseinde wanders the streets as a character he calls “The Afronaut,” clad in an Afro-futuristic spacesuit designed to encourage others to consider their own futures.
Even without this surreal image, the film’s photography (by Derek Howard) has an alien vibe, emphasizing humans that look rather small amid the buildings, beaches, and blockades they navigate every day. Apart from a ‘20s-themed costume party on Governor’s Island, a few public parks, and, of course, a subway car, most of the landscapes in The Hottest August are weirdly underpopulated. This is appropriate for a film that seems equally inspired by Chris Marker’s sci-fi-inflected essay films and Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer, and also for a work that must invariably address the gentrification of New York’s neighborhoods.
The middle- and upper-class New Yorkers glimpsed in The Hottest August are most often seen peering through windows or standing in desolate corporate courtyards. Gridlike compositions of air-conditioning units are dotted with running flat-screen televisions or films projected onto white walls. The public square is hard to locate, and Story finds them where she can: a Black Lives Matter rally where black speakers address an overwhelmingly white crowd; a Staten Island cop bar where politics are deemed verboten until one ex-police officer goes on a rant against a mythical welfare queen; a recreational softball league that descends into a near brawl; or the beach, where most of the subjects Story talks to are underemployed.
Near the beach in the Rockaways, one small home has been raised multiple stories on stacks of wooden pallets. Those closest to the water ignore post-Hurricane Sandy evacuation notices and dismiss climate change as Al Gore’s ploy to get rich and speaking with certainty that the hurricane’s status as a “100-year storm” means that they’re safe for another century. That’s not the most immediate delusion to be found in The Hottest August, which spends a few scenes with working-class Italian-American couple who gradually express their frustration with a diversifying neighborhood, culminating in an actual “I’m not racist, but” monologue.
Where Story’s previous film, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, meticulously depicted how the tentacles of mass incarceration creep into civic life, The Hottest August is a more loosely guided snapshot of generalized resentment. People are mad at the rich, who they also want to be. And then there are those clever enough to seek to profit from the ambient rage of the era: an entrepreneur who runs an industrial space where clients can destroy everything in sight, or a hipster from a VR company who barely believes his own bullshit about the automation revelation yielding a universal basic income where all will be free to do as they please.
With The Hottest Summer, Story puts on display a New York City that’s very different from the one depicted in Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights, where every corner and office is teeming with representations of active, often progressive political and social discourse. While there are moments of grace and whimsy in here (a woman on a bench texting next to a duck, a smart young skateboarder who rides Story for interviewing some loudmouthed teens in the same park), the documentary represents a city ground down by inequality and division, where millions of selves who have by and large given up on one another.
Director: Brett Story Distributor: Grasshopper Film
Review: I Lost My Body Finds Poetry in Tracing Life’s Uncertainties
It focuses equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable.3
Naofel (Hakim Faris) has a small birthmark between the knuckles of his right hand’s pointer and middle fingers. This would be the appendage’s most distinctive characteristic if not for the fact that, after being severed from Naofel’s body, it develops a will of its own. Throughout I Lost My Body, the hand skitters around of its own accord, using its fingers to crawl out of the hospital lab where it was kept following Naofel’s grim accident. Jérémy Clapin’s animated film chronicles the journey of that hand through, among other places, the rooftops and gutters of Paris, into a river and across a highway, in an attempt to reunite with its owner, dodging animals and cars along the way.
Do hands have memories? Naofel’s right hand certainly seems to. As the wayward appendage propels itself through the air with an open umbrella or flicks a lighter to fend off a bunch of subway rats, flashbacks recall the young man’s troubled, lonely life. He feels adrift, barely present in a world that seems only to have harsh words and unhappiness for him. He’s at odds with the relatives who took him in after the death of his parents in a car accident, and his half of a shared room is unfurnished save for the mattress placed directly on the floor. He works as a pizza delivery boy, but he isn’t a particularly good one, as he’s often late and, in one scene, scatters his pizza boxes into the street after crashing his bike into a car.
Many of I Lost My Body’s flashbacks foreground Naofel’s hand as though presenting its perspective. People and objects loom above it, its digits taking up wide swaths of the frame as they cling with insect-like precision to boxes or hold a microphone in their grip. Tight close-ups capture the fingers tapping random objects or emerging from the sand, and there are even POV shots of the hand peeking out from a dumpster or prodding the plastic bag it’s wrapped in. These sequences are a great showcase for the film’s subdued, naturalistic, and, above all, detail-rich hand-drawn animation: We see fidgeting fingers grabbing onto a locker door, a pigeon laboriously nudging the hand out of a gutter, and Naofel penciling lines onto blocks of wood that he’ll later trace over with a saw in his woodworking apprenticeship.
The metaphor at the heart of the film seems deceptively obvious: disconnection from the world and other people, literalized through a hand severed from its rightful body. But Clapin complicates that metaphor every step of the way, as in a flashback where Naofel’s father explains to him that, in order to catch a fly, the boy must aim where the fly will be rather than where it is. But knowing how to catch the fly doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier to accomplish, and the film’s depiction of fate follows a similarly unpredictable trajectory.
Through images of loneliness, as in a wooden igloo cobbled together on a rooftop, I Lost My Body builds an atmosphere of isolation and, above all, uncertainty. Because while Naofel takes his father’s advice to heart, his own attempts to live unpredictably, ahead of fate, do not always work out for him. His infatuation with Gabrielle (Victoire Du Bois), initially so stirring as they close their eyes to listen to the rain and the wind from separate ends of an apartment intercom, goes in a few stalkerish directions. She rejects him for being a creep, and Naofel ironically comes to find fulfillment not in a relationship, as he had hoped, but in the woodworking he initially took up only to impress Gabrielle. I Lost My Body finds poetry in tracing life’s uncertainties, focusing equally on moments of shared connection and incidental loss until the two feel indistinguishable, as one part of a delicate whole.
Cast: Hakim Faris, Victoire Du Bois, Patrick d'Assumçao Director: Jérémy Clapin Screenwriter: Jérémy Clapin, Guillaume Laurant Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: The Report Is Noncommittal on the Moral Morass of the Dubya Era
In the end, it can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s flawed human fabric.2
The moral morass of the George W. Bush era is surveyed and scrutinized in writer-director Scott Z. Burns’s The Report, a true-life docudrama that bears all the visually monochromatic, thematically jaundiced hallmarks of Burns’s collaborations, as screenwriter, with Steven Soderbergh. Burns even manages to slightly best his mentor with his second solo feature. Compared to Burns and Soderbergh’s most recent joint effort—the feeble, scattershot Netflix-produced satire The Laundromat—The Report zeroes in on its incendiary sociopolitical subject with laser focus. That still doesn’t mean it adequately challenges preconceived notions about an especially dark period in American history.
The film’s title refers to the Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program, a 6,700-page document that took a long, hard, and unflattering look at the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 use of detention and torture—or, in politico parlance, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Daniel Jones, the committee’s lead investigator, is the protagonist, and he’s played by Adam Driver with a reserved sternness and solemnity that’s occasionally leavened by full-throated flashes of righteous indignation. Jones is all work, no play, and it’s evident that Burns intends this forbearing crusader as an audience surrogate. Yet Daniel mostly remains a cipher, a human enigma attempting, with Sisyphean effort, to expose and unravel the most sadistic and inhumane institutional practices.
It can be fascinating, of course, to watch a film that’s purely about process, revealing of the ways that those tied to an operation come off as cogs in a Moloch-like machine. And it helps, at least initially, that Driver is so good at conveying a total single-mindedness. When Jones looks around the cloistered, colorless basement office that will serve as headquarters for his investigation, he’s like an artist glancing at a blank canvas. For Jones, the swamp isn’t something to be drained, but to dip his brush in. And he’s painting a picture for an audience that, for the most part, is likely to undercut and minimize his efforts.
Burns is clearly reappropriating and remixing cinematic lessons learned from Alan J. Pakula’s starry Watergate exposé All the President’s Men. Jones’s boss, senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, letting her wig do most of the acting), assumes the role of Ben Bradlee-esque overseer. Archival footage of many of the big names in the torture debate (such as Dubya and Dick Cheney) is peppered throughout. And there’s even a paranoia-tinged encounter between Jones and a Deep Throat-like figure played with nauseated edge by Tim Blake Nelson.
The margins of The Report are filled to the brim with character actors doing creditably yeoman work, among them Corey Stoll as Cyrus Clifford, Jones’s pragmatic lawyer, Jon Hamm as chiding National Security Adviser Denis McDonough, Ted Levine as officious C.I.A. Director John Brennan, and Matthew Rhys as a New York Times reporter desperate for a scoop. Elsewhere, Maura Tierney and Michael C. Hall, as a pair of ideologically adaptable bureaucrats, headline the sections of the decade-plus narrative that detail the nitty gritty of the enhanced interrogation program, waterboarding most definitely included.
Cinematographer Eigil Bryld shoots these latter sequences with a sickly green-orange tinge that one supposes is meant to convey ethical queasiness. Whereas the scenes featuring Jones and his team poring over papers and presenting their findings to functionaries in various stages of outrage (or not) tend toward the icy blues or the ultra-high-def neutrality of a David Fincher production. Ever-shifting color temperatures aside, The Report is rarely stimulating. Its conscious detachment from the events it portrays proves not so much analytical as noncommittal. The closest it comes to picking a side is a tossed-off moment in which Jones throws some scowling shade at a TV commercial for Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was rather unconvincingly sold during its release as a work of objective nonpartisanship.
It’s strange, then, that Burns tosses a flagrantly uncritical bone in The Report’s final scenes, as John McCain, often held up as a model of principled dissent, is shown passionately decrying the United States’s torture program on the Senate floor. As in many a Hollywood production about American transgression, Burns ultimately can’t help but sentimentalize the better angels that supposedly reside in the land of liberty’s monumentally flawed human fabric.
Cast: Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Tim Blake Nelson, Corey Stoll, Maura Tierney, Jon Hamm Director: Scott Z. Burns Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2019
The Best Stephen King Movies, Ranked
We’ve compiled the best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Stephen King is one of the most influential of all contemporary writers, an artist who followed Richard Matheson’s example in wedding irrational horror with the surreal minutiae of everyday American life. The most distinctive elements of King’s remarkably vast bibliography—his exacting and uncanny empathy for working-class people and his loose, pop-culture-strewn prose—are rarely accounted for in the dozens of films that have been made from his novels and stories, which often predictably emphasize his propulsive plotting. Consequently, these adaptations often resemble routine genre films with a smattering of King’s dialogue, which sounds better on the page than when performed by often self-conscious actors who look as if they’d rather be anywhere than trapesing around a simulation of King’s beloved Maine. But a number of excellent films have been made from the author’s writing, either by doubling down on the neurotic naïveté of the author’s Americana or by striking new ground, recognizing that a good film needs to be a movie, rather than a literal-minded act of CliffsNotes-style embalming. To commemorate the recent release of Cell, we’ve compiled the 10 best feature-length adaptations of King’s work, excluding the countless, mostly mediocre TV adaptations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on July 8, 2015.
10. Stand by Me (1986)
Those who accuse Stand by Me of indulging shameless boomer nostalgia are missing the point, as that’s precisely what the film is about. Director Rob Reiner dials down the violent hopelessness of King’s source material (the novella The Body), but still emphasizes the cruelty and loneliness that mark four boys’ coming-of-age odyssey to see the corpse of a young man nearly their age. The film is framed as one of the grown boy’s remembrances, as he attempts to spin his unreconciled feelings into the more tangible stuff of…coming-of-age fiction. At times it’s hokey, and, yes, the soundtrack does some major emotional heavy lifting, but the feast of excellent acting compensates greatly, particularly by Wil Wheaton, Kiefer Sutherland, and River Phoenix. Stand by Me remains one of the best adaptations of King’s more sentimental non-horror writing, and it’s far superior to preachy, insidiously insulting staples like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
9. Creepshow (1982)
Still one of the great comic-book movies in that it approximates the actual tactile act of reading and flipping through a magazine, ideally on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a can of soda by your side. George Romero directed from King’s original script, which pays homage to EC comics like Tales from the Crypt and The Vault of Horror, and the filmmaker displays a visual confidence and tonal flexibility that’s reminiscent of his Dawn of the Dead. The bright, deep, and garish cinematography is both beautiful and disturbing, enriching King’s gleefully vicious writing while providing a framework for the lively performances of a game, celebrity-rich cast. The film straddles an ideal line between straight-faced seriousness and parody, particularly in the unnerving climax of a story in which we can hear the pained gurgling of aquatic zombies.
8. Silver Bullet (1985)
A creepy drive-in horror movie that throws a werewolf into a boy’s sentimental coming-of-age tale. Based on King’s slim Cycle of the Werewolf, which was released with gorgeous illustrations by artist Bernie Wrightson, Silver Bullet weds evocative imagery with spare plotting that allows each scene to breathe, giving the film an nightmarish free-associative energy. There are several boffo sequences, particularly when the werewolf seizes a man’s baseball bat, his paw shown to be beating the man to death from below thick fog, or when the wolf is outsmarted by the protagonist, one of his eyes blown to pieces by a bottle rocket. Speaking of the monster, the movie has one of the great wolf designs, which suggests a huge, bitter, upstanding bear with a terrifying snout. The human identity of the creature is a great, characteristically blasphemous King twist.
7. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Five years after her career-making performance in Misery, Kathy Bates returned to Stephen King territory with Dolores Claiborne, which, like the book, disappointed nearly everyone for not being a typical horror story, instead combining the traditions of martyred-woman melodrama with gothic mystery. Critics, who only seem capable of praising melodrama when it’s directed by one of their pre-approved canon placeholders (like Nicholas Ray or Douglas Sirk), also turned their noses up at Dolores Claiborne, and it’s a real shame. Both the novel and the film get at the heart of King’s preoccupations with sexism and classicism, spinning a fractured narrative of a mother, her daughter, the man who nearly ruined their lives, and the all-encompassing pitilessness of aging. Yes, the film is behaviorally broad, but this broadness is utilized by the reliably underrated director, Taylor Hackford, as a form of catharsis. And Bates’s performance as the titular character is positively poetic. Her delivery of a monologue about Dolores’s work routine particularly locate the weird, qualified dignity of thanklessness, reveling in the pride and transcendence that can be wrestled from menial-ness. Perhaps more than any other film on this list, Dolores Claiborne has the feel of King’s voice.
6. Misery (1990)
No one performs King’s dialogue like Kathy Bates. She embraces and owns the moving cuckoo logic of his best orations, understanding that they’re almost always rooted in class anxiety. The most disturbing quality of Misery, both the novel and the film, is the fact that we relate to Annie Wilkes, psychotic “number one fan” of author Paul Sheldon (superbly played in the film by James Caan), more than we do her victims. Bates is so intimately in tune with Annie that we feel for her when she fails to impress Paul, somehow temporarily forgetting that she’s holding him hostage and torturing him. Annie is yet another of King’s unleashed nerds, a repressed soul seeking actualization, but she isn’t sentimentalized, instead embodying the ferocious self-absorption that fuels obsession, leading to estrangement. Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter William Goldman regrettably trim King’s most ambitiously subjective material, but they compensate by focusing pronouncedly on the cracked love story at the narrative’s center.
Review: Last Christmas Wears Its Sloppy Heart on Its Kitschy Sleeve
There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.1.5
Multiple times in Last Christmas, Kate and her immigrant parents (Emma Thompson and Boris Isakovic) say that they hail from the “former Yugoslavia,” a rather outdated and strangely non-specific way of referring to their origins. When Kate comforts an Eastern European couple on the bus after they’re accosted by a Brexiter, they excitedly but vaguely ask her, “You’re from our country?” At this point, Last Christmas has begun to sound downright evasive, and you may wonder if the filmmakers even know where Kate’s family is supposed to come from. To screenwriters Bryony Kimmings and Emma Thompson, such details would appear to be extraneous to this anti-Brexit Christmas Carol. Merely tacking an affirmation of immigrant rights onto a familiar Christmas narrative about selflessness requires little more than an evocation of a general Slavic-ness about the characters.
Another element that Paul Feig’s film keeps pointedly indistinct is the nature of a recent illness that the twentysomething Kate (Emilia Clarke) has endured. Clearly depressed in the wake of a major health event, the aspiring singer is ostentatiously selfish, exploiting what remains of her friends’ and her boss’s good will. Currently homeless, she travels with a roller suitcase from crash pad to crash pad, drinking heavily, bringing home one-night stands, and openly flirting with customers at work. Kate is employed full time at a Christmas shop in London whose wisecracking owner (Michelle Yeoh) goes by the name Santa. At one point, Santa expresses distress at Kate’s haggard, disheveled state because she doesn’t want the young woman to drop dead. “I don’t have enough tinsel to cover your body,” she worries.
The grounds for Santa’s concern that a woman in her mid-20s may be killed by the lifestyle lived by many Londoners in their mid-20s is left open because its ultimate reveal three-quarters of the way through the film points toward one of the silliest twist endings in recent memory. We only learn what happened to Kate when she reveals the scar from an operation to Tom (Henry Golding), the beautiful, saintly man she begins seeing after finding him bird-watching outside the Christmas shop. Suffice it to say, Last Christmas is “inspired by” the Wham! song of the same name, specifically one line—and one line only—from its chorus.
Kate loves George Michael—one imagines she feels a bond with the late singer, the son of a Balkan immigrant himself, though the filmmakers leave this unexplored—and thus Last Christmas attempts to remake some of his most well-known songs into seasonally appropriate tunes. Obligatory montages to “Faith” and “Freedom” speed us through parts of Kate’s Tom-facilitated rehabilitation from cynical wastrel to Christmas-spirited patron of the homeless, though these segments are brief, cutting off the songs before we realize they have absolutely nothing to do with the jolly Christmas vibes that the film attempts to give off. Even “Last Christmas” is only heard in snippets, lest we realize that the song’s lyrics have little to do with seasonal giving and charity, and everything to do with regret, hurt, and resentment.
Last Christmas counts on our absorbing the sugary sound of Michael’s music but none of its substance. This is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw, and it’s not unrelated to its evasiveness regarding Kate’s origins and its simplistic affirmation of liberal outrage at Brexit. There’s a lack of concreteness about the story and characters—true from the beginning, but particularly after its last-act reveal—that render its reiteration of Christmas lessons utterly toothless.
Besides the general sound of Michael’s music, Last Christmas clearly draws influence from classic Christmas-themed films like It’s a Wonderful Life and The Shop Around the Corner. Such films, though, earned their Christmas miracles and holiday moralizing by grounding their stories in a sense of the community created by bonds between fully realized characters. Clarke works hard to make the messy, perpetually flustered Kate relatable, but the film surrounds the character with a community as kitschy and false as the trinkets she sells in Santa’s shop.
Cast: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Emma Thompson, Michelle Yeoh, Boris Isakovic, Lydia Leonard Director: Paul Feig Screenwriter: Bryony Kimmings, Emma Thompson Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 102 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video
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