Toxic Dreams of Hollywood: Mulholland Drive and Maps To The Stars

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There’s something a little schizophrenic about cinema. We take our experiences and influences from the world around us, past present or imagined future and form them into a captured space, a captured time one that is displaced from the actual space and time its occurring in. The film set in Hollywood is not actually the detective’s office, the space ship, the 18th century manor. And when we move into most films (i.e not the avant-garde experimental works) we move into a realm where the words, the performances the details and look of the world that we’re meant to take as being real, sometimes more than reality itself, have all been meticulously designed, written and rewritten, rehearsed and tweaked and refined and sculpted into a sensuous orchestra of sound and image that wants you, desires you to be taken in by it.

And for the cinema goers, those Hollywood dreams mean we watch people perform these highly polished and preened versions of ourselves and who we might wish to be, we watch the regular everyman (or less often woman) snatched out of their existence, usually humdrum and quaint in a way we slightly shamefully relate to. And we watch as they are vaulted upwards, their talents are required or recognised in a way the real world rarely if ever brings to us. Luke Skywalker goes from shooting womp rats in his T-16, destined for a life of obscurity on a desert planet, to the fighter of the greatest evil the galaxy has ever seen. And only he can do it, his special privileged genes mean no one else can take his place. He’s not expendable, and more importantly he’s the only one who can succeed where everyone else will fail. Darth Vader would not be killed halfway through by a stray Rebel laser.

Exceptions to my overgeneralisation are overwhelming, and I’m grateful for it. Hundreds, thousands of films which don’t follow that structure, of focusing only on the extraordinary. But that’s where film can often find its greatest power, its simplest power because everyone deep down wants to be somebody. In a book called The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang, there’s a phrase in it which talks about how the temptation for riches and wealth is not as hard to overcome as the temptation to be important, to have status or just simply be remembered.

He doesn’t agree we should deny that ambition, and neither do I. But ambitions are double-edged swords, the very things which lay in our hearts, burning in our chests at our core can consume us, make us hollow husks consumed by our relentless desire to achieve these goals. And so in a world filled with people who make their living inhabiting other people, who live in a world where they do their best to inhabit a different one, who are the type of people to be attracted to that world and what happens to them? More importantly, why do their dreams get so corrupted by the reality of their world?

Mulholland Drive (2001, Dir. David Lynch) and Maps To The Stars (2014, Dir. David Cronenberg) both have a response to this, and it’s perhaps important to note that these two long revered cult directors (both David’s) have for all their merits been considered outsiders in the highest echelons of the film world. They are cinematic artists, but they are not cinematic businessmen. And yet that put them both in a position to deliver stunningly different but strikingly cutting accounts of the plague in those stars we lionise so much.

WARNING: IT’S ABOUT TO GET VERY SURREAL.


DREAMS

In a film so surreal and entangling, it seems rather counterintuitive to start talking about Mulholland Drive‘s links with reality. It would be a lot easier to talk about Lynch and the subconscious, how his films which purposefully wrestle with not fitting neatly together should best be appropriately attached to one psychological schema or another. This character is a manifestation of this idea, this character’s psychological split represents this idea coming into collision with reality etc. I’m not going to pursue that, other people more knowledgeable in their fields can provide you with those analyses. For me, Mulholland Drive will always occupy this space which grates against its separation and segmenting. There’s no clear indicators as to what’s his version of reality you’re meant to buy into. Sure you can make cases for some parts being “real”, some parts being “dreams or fantasies” but the whole thing blends into such a writhing singular beast that it’s hard to tell where one bit ends and one bit begins, and it was made that way on purpose. A film is a dream, not a copy of the world. It can be close or it can be far away, but those who get so wrapped up in it can end up being ruined by it.

So what am I saying? Well Mulholland Drive‘s is a film where its characters are haunted by their fantasies which haunt them, fantasies of dreamed grandeur and stardom, of nightmarish ghosts and strange conspiracies, of possibly imagined mysteries and possibly “real” kindled romances.  Wrapped in murky illusory shrouds, the people who inhabit the world of Mulholland Drive are illusions and stereotypes which develop along dark and mysterious paths. One of Naomi Watts characters’ Betty, is a “small town girl with big dreams” of becoming a Hollywood actress. Her wooden acting is just a mask for her powerful scene stealing, scene making abilities. Her naiveté and stereotypical “pure wholesomeness” mask her subconscious desire for Rita. Her entire performance is one side of a coin, the other of the broken disillusioned actress Diane.  On the flip side, Laura Harring’s dual performance, one of the amnesic loving fantasy of Rita, the other of the painful achingly cruel fantasy of Camilla, point to an item in this world of near fetishistic obsession, one which torments as much as it brings pleasure.

Beyond this, it’s a realm of bizarre shaded sketches of conspiratorial figures, of actors whose role is not clear to the audience. Figures which populate this strange surreal landscape of movie-making, of the “dream factory”. The whole of the setting literally starts to personify that name, swallowing up its cast in this fractured, distorted dream factory.

What kind of world is this, and who are these people? They’re all on desperate searches, for their dream career, explanations, revenge. They’re all people who play roles, who transform themselves, bend to the wills of those around them and expect the world to do the same for them. And this sun-soaked swamp which swallows them up, is one which presents nothing tangible for the characters to grasp onto. The very form of the film even challenges them, with its sequence of events which seem to occur with no clear beginning or end, scenes matching each other but diverging on different paths. The land of dreams is one which is literally that, one which has no anchor for anyone to grab onto. Entire characters, storylines, scenes and worlds vanish, get morphed and transfigured in the film.

In a world so devoid of all the ropes which tether us to our reality,  how can anyone expect not to be driven mad?

REALITY

Stacking up against Mulholland Drive, it’s strange to talk about Maps To The Stars as being the sane, rational film in this comparison, namely because the film is anything but. In its own fascinating and brutally clinical fashion, Maps To The Stars is just as disorienting, creepy, numbly horrifying and spends a great deal of time blurring the inner psyches of its characters (which are becoming dangerously unhinged) and the “real” world around them.

You could say this is a more in focus look at the world of Hollywood. Although Mullholland Drive is set in Los Angeles, its hard separation from any landscape we might encounter in the real world makes it difficult to bring it down to Earth. Maps To The Stars though, shows what happens when you bring the magnifying glass close to the mud. You see a lot of dirt.

The dreams and desires of its cast are so perverted by the world they live in, that it’s horror of the world it’s looking at lays in its silence, in the lack of noise people make over actions and events a less exposed person might find at least, emotionally difficult. From child deaths to 13-year-old drug habits to cynically motivated publicity stunts involving a dying girl, everything in their world is channeled to serve their own self-interest, to help promote their brand. Every action becomes reconstituted as a transaction which takes place, sex is just a way of getting a part, jobs are just a way to climb the ladder while eating shit, the glamour of the exteriors’ fail to hide the sickly shallow, vapid personalities they express in pissing contests with each other.  Cronenberg and his cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (the Star Wars talk was relevant earlier, since he shot Empire Strikes back, 1980 Dir. Irvin Kerschner) look upon this world like you might look at insects in a glass box. He never makes the mistake of putting us in their shoes. Because their shoes are either empty or filled with shit.

What kind of world is this, and who are these people? These people are haunted piranhas, who would devour each other if they could. The only characters who engender emotion are those who are visibly tormented, either by ghosts as Havanna Segrand (Julianne Moore) is tormented by her dead mother who was a cult cinema hero, and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is tormented by a dead girl who tricks him into strangling his child co-star, or Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska) who is Benjie’s sister, who is humiliated and physically assaulted by her father (John Cusack) and humiliated again by Havanna. She responds by bashing Havanna’s face in with an award and committing suicide in an incestuous marriage ceremony with her brother, one which had set of the chain of events which led to her original separation.

If this reads as convoluted, it’s because it is. In this hermetically sterile world, these people almost operate like a virus, incestuous (metaphorically and literally) breeding with each other and clawing the flesh from each other in an attempt to maintain control. No act, no crime is too big not to be swept under the rug or spun by a PR doctor. And the world they live in? One which enables them, even encourages them. The money sent their way is gargantuan, enabling them to live in worlds divorced from the common reality of most people’s everyday life. Their sterile kingly estates, no matter how luxurious and pristine, trap them in with their own ugliness, their own trauma, their own mind numbing boredom.

In a world where everyone is devoid of what makes human experience meaningful, how can anyone not expect to be driven mad?


HOLLYWOOD

There’s a lot going on under the surface, you don’t need two surreal films by two cult directors to tell you that. But for a world which can turn its lens to every part of the world and beyond, where people can dress up as kings and queens and Zygons and big robots hitting other big robots and orcs and elves and policemen and thieves and on and on and on and on it goes, never-ending the amount of roles to inhabit, of other people’s skin to wear, why does the world that produces these images of our reality seem so ugly underneath? Cinema is the most vain bitch of all the arts, and a tradition which started with Billy Wilder’s seminal classic, Sunset Boulevard (1950) of exposing that dark underbelly that lies beneath cinema’s Mt. Olympus is more alive than ever. Film rarely has enough daring to challenge the people behind the finished product, and maybe it’s why both films you find yourself schizophrenically entranced and repulsed, bored and yet still paying attention, confused and yet disturbingly clear.

After all, you’ve got to be a bit mad to spend your life re-making reality. To spend years performing to a black box, only for people to sit in a dark room and watch things which never really happened. Crazier still to love it.

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-Alex

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Toxic Dreams of Hollywood: Mulholland Drive and Maps To The Stars

El Sur (The South) – Subtle, Temporal Dreams

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For posterity’s sake, this was the first film I watched after watching The Holy Mountain (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973), an audiovisual sublime tapestry of cinema, filled with psychedelic visuals and cinema so abstract you could get lost in it. To then watch a film, a film set mostly in a single house in the North of Spain, about a little girl and her relationship with her father, and the world of the adults kept hidden in all of us, with no flashy visuals or bombastic score. It was what I would define as the other end of the spectrum, a work of cinema so simple on first glance that even a child could understand its mechanics. The dense symbolism of The Holy Mountain is lost on many of its viewers, but El Sur (Dir. Victor Erice, 1983) would most likely not suffer the same fate. It is a story of memories, time and the broken, fragmentary nature of human relationships.

It is a testament to cinema, to the artistic merit, and to Victor Erice himself that the hidden depths in El Sur can evoke just as much wonderment as anything found in Jodorowsky’s film. I don’t want to make a habit of using other films as litmus tests, but I felt it particularly apt at this point. Now let’s talk about El Sur.


It is a deceptively simple film  on first glance. As I mentioned above, the usual spectacle of cinema is absent here. The spaces are limited, representative of their locales without being picturesque, only being transformed by one of the most exquisite uses of lighting  I have ever seen in a film. Most of the story is not actually seen, referring to events from the memories of the past unknown to us and the future as yet unseen. I’m reminded of a screenwriting rule I heard once which said something along the lines of “If this is not the most interesting period in the characters life, then its not worth watching”. Watching this, I’m glad to say that rule could and most likely should be broken. It seems to be a story almost composed of the parts other more conventional narrative technicians would skip, the parts which ask us as an audience to maintain an emotional communication and not much more.  The secrets stay hidden, the faces reveal only what’s on the surface and a hint, an imagining at the depths below.

Make no mistake, though the film is delicate and subtle, it is still undeniably moving and evocative. It contains one of the most beautiful edits I have ever seen, one which my words will do little justice to. I will not spoil it here by crudely recreating with words, but rest assured that it left me quietly stunned. So too the lighting and cinematography, evoking the world of painting, of the rich textured chiaroscuro found in the works of Caravaggio and others. It helps to evoke so much, textures of magic and illusion, darkness and other-worldliness, the passage of time and moods. All of this sounds non-specific, but what else can you take from a film sealed in its own timeless realm? It’s about the timeline of Estrella and her father, everything else submitted to this temporal reality. One of the most impressive things about cinema is its way to manipulate time, to not just place us in a recreated period, but to ignore the usual flow of linear time and re-arrange it as one sees fit, so that the only timeline that matters is the one created by the film. Space and what you put in front of the screen is often to do with your budget, but time is democratic in film, anyone can manipulate it.

It’s a film about people, not about plot. The story is primarily in the eyes of the actors, not in the mechanics of its story.I’m not trying to diminish the conventions of narrative cinema, I’m just trying to explain what I like so much about this film which is showing what can’t be seen, not showing what can be seen or telling rather than showing. It’s a film about the inner worlds we carry around inside of us, constantly and weighing heavy on our minds and souls.  About the frail delicate connections we have, and as we grow as people how they fade rather than change.And the actor required for such a role is always carries such an irony, because you have to act as a inward soul would act, not revealing the extent of their emotions or motivations but withholding the very things at their core which we desperately seek to understand.

Everything about this film is beautifully understated, and once again I find myself in the peculiar position of finding my words to be nothing more than a crude accompaniment to the film itself, and yet feeling very happy about this because its true language is that of cinema, communicating in images and sounds and music and the senses, rather than the written word. It’s a film which feels truthful, by straying closer to evoking the real world we live in, where our stories are not always neatly tied up and resolved, where we skip like a stone along the sea beating the other way, pushing as far as we can against a tide of unknown.

On the cover of the DVD, there is a quote from Pedro Almodóvar, which says “One of the best in Spanish Cinema history”. While I haven’t seen enough Spanish cinema to give my judgement, I can safely say this is one of the most poignant and beautifully melancholic films I’ve had the pleasure of watching recently. The art of subtlety is aptly underappreciated, and you could do a lot worse than spend some time in the presence of the dreams of the South, El Sur.

-Alex

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El Sur (The South) – Subtle, Temporal Dreams