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

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Not Another New Hope

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We’re back at it again with the films, after a temporary and unannounced hiatus. I’m a little rusty, so you’ll just have to bear with me.

Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story (2016), directed by Gareth Edwards (who depending on your familiarity with cinema, is either famous for making Monsters or for making Godzilla) was not a film I was in any way acquainted with before watching it.I did not like Godzilla (2014), although I appreciated a lot of its aspects. So with my expectations vague and largely absent, and from my previous experience with the over-hyped, under-baked Episode VII (see thoughts here),  I went to a midnight screening on the 14th of December, in IMAX with company.

And in a truly ironic fashion, it was the Star Wars film I had been (mostly) hoping for since last year. A piece which actually told a story that wasn’t just a rehashing of what had come before. Instead of a recycled New Hope, what we got was a film which did as much as it could and possibly more inside the restraints it was under, namely the baggage of being part of the Disney monolith. It manages to carve itself just enough of a niche to feel fresh and distinct, both from the Star Wars saga, and as a film in general.

Spoilers.

Based off of a few lines in the original 1977 film, the story of Rogue One explains how the rebels got ahold of the plans to the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) plays the daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), an Imperial scientist who designs the flaw in the superweapon which is exploited at the crux of the original film. Familiarity with the original Star Wars is needed to really understand the weight of Rogue One, but at this point its difficult to scour the Western world to find people not already familiar in some way with George Lucas’ original space opera.

So Jyn plays out her story, that of the abandoned daughter looking for her father, and the grand story, that of her teaming up with a rag-tag crew of rebels to steal the plans from the Death Star. The characters are honestly very strong, each one (or more often duo), is genuinely well-rounded and three-dimensional, and the very real interactions between them all makes for a film about camaraderie, even if Jyn is our anchor that everything else orbits around. Unlike Episode VII, which wanted to put the focus on the three key individuals, Finn, Rey and Kylo, this film is more than content to allow everyone their own piece of the pie. The characters in this really feel like soldiers in a war, and it has to be the case, since a large part of it involves the darkness of being expendable warriors in a galactic battle. How do you make a story that’s so small in the grand scheme of things feel so big? By creating characters who you care for. And I’m not usually one to go on about British actors, but seeing Riz Ahmed up there, such a world away from Four Lions (2010) really made me happy in a film nerd way. Also Simon Farnaby from Horrible Histories and The Mighty Boosh had the tiniest cameo and I loved it. But enough about British people.

On the other side of this, lays the machinations of Director Krennic (played by one of my favourites, Ben Mendelsohn) and him against both the rebels and the dangers of his higher-ups, a CGI Grand Moff Tarkin (since Peter Cushing is dead which I did not know going into this and so did not realise his entire performance was CGI) and of course, Lord Vader.  While some dialogue on both sides sometimes veers towards the cringe and on-the-nose,  most of the films’ characters manage to chart a course between the stereotypes of action movies and the dangers of just being compared to the gigantic toybox of previous Star Wars characters..

It’s difficult to talk about some of its good aspects, because with a production this expensive and no doubt highly scrutinised, they’re all to be expected. The production and sets are incredibly elaborate, no expense spared and as a result the world just looks gorgeous, half of it digitised to such a high watermark that it really does look beautiful. The cinematography as well, follows in the District 9 (2009) vein, pushing us close into the action, right smack bang in the middle of the conflicts, and as result the battle sequences take on an incredibly powerful and taught tension. The ending sequence in particular, a battle on an idyllic beach world reminiscent of WWII Japanese beach warfare and the jungles of Vietnam is the best example of this, but there’s another absolutely brilliant scene of a rebel ground attack on some stormtroopers, and our heroes stuck in-between which really nails you into the fight. The sound design must rightfully take credit for that too, since its dense, very well layered texture weaves the world into being, especially with a movie saga with such a distinct audio aesthetic.

If anything, what I really want to talk about is how impressed I am with this film’s ability to mine the Star Wars of old, without just giving it a new coat of paint as Episode VII fell victim to. It’s fan service is weaved into the film so that if you don’t follow the canon in-depth, you can still follow the film. Subtle (and not so subtle) nods are jacked into the film, allowing those with the knowledge to perk up and recognise them (a great replication of the rebel sitting in the little tower at the rebel base made me smile), while those who aren’t as familiar will just ingest it as world detail. For all those reviews talking about it being a Star Wars film for the fans (well the one I found) ,  it simply just provides its fan service more organically and subtly than the previous carnival show.

So if the film isn’t another New Hope as the title suggests, well what is it? Well its a lot of things, elements of comedy, heist, personal revenge, family drama, corporate drama, I could go on. I think at its heart its a film about what causes us to sacrifice for our ideals beyond ourselves. It’s also a film which is broaching the technical forefront of the world we live in (resurrecting actors from the dead only continues to blur the boundaries of life and death) and the VFX in the film is extensive, as CGI only continues to get ever more realistic and grandiose in scope. In 10 years we can look back on Rogue One and see how far we’ve come. It’s cast as well, draws from all sides of the human spectrum, and the inclusion of Asian actors in a time when the cinematic market is shifting to a more global revenue shouldn’t be ignored, especially when they are made to be an integral part of the film, rather than a tacky add-on to shamelessly appeal to what the West would deem ‘foreign markets’.

Again, it’s that same core of humanity which drives this film, the humanity of relationships and power and friend and foe. The reason Star Wars is so powerful is that it taps into those great myths and stories we’ve been telling ourselves throughout the centuries, and when done right, a story which felt small in the original Star Wars, only given a few lines of exposition to explain how Luke could triumph, can feel gigantic and monumental in its importance. And that’s what I loved about this movie, is that it made the story on the ground feel big. It acts a memorial to their fictional sacrifice, and the wellspring that it draws that from is embedded in the millions of souls who have fought in battles across history.

Also there’s a bit in it where a ship crashes into another ship which causes it to crash into another ship which then breaks the magic gate which is preventing them from succeeding and its fantastic. And there’s a bit with a blind monk which draws on all those old Japanese movie clichés and it just was great. Go see it.

-Alex

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – Not Another New Hope

Star Wars VII: Another New Hope

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“Centuries of marriage carry centuries of baggage” –The Wolf Among Us (2014)

Spoilers ahead, captain!

Goddamn, where do you even begin. In 1977, at the release of the first film? That was 38 years ago. Almost four decades ago, the film that bit off Akira Kurosawa, ruined the New Hollywood Movement and promptly captured the odd fascination with fables combined with our newer odd fascination with the endless abyss in the sky, arrived on our screens. Maybe start off with Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), the film that both inspired Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and its later, more unloved brother, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace?

Maybe start with the prequels themselves in that case, George Lucas’s frankly hated creations which on one hand, are the beautiful monstrosities which my generation is saddled with, or hell, even begin with LucasArts acquisition in 2012 by Disney, our Endless Fun Inc. corporate overlords. Fuck I mean, what is there to say about this series of movies which genuinely pervade Western culture that hasn’t been said already?

That said, I’ll say some shit about it now.

This film has so much riding on it. In fact, the battle between the light and the dark side seems rather small in comparison to the fight to save the cinema from the baying hordes of Youtube, digitisation of everything and the fact that “why even go to the cinema when you can just Netflix everything in a dead brain binge before you cry and sleep?”

What with celluloid almost hitting its swan song, before being saved by this film’s director (among others), a certain J.J Abrams, and dwindling ticket sales, kept up by tent pole releases, film is in a little bit of a rough patch of sea. What with high production TV, triple AAA video games, and just general heavy real life news, film suddenly looks like an old-timer in a very manic new game. So is this the saviour, the restoring force to the power of cinema, the sudden dragging forth of the realisation that cinema still has a lot to offer?

Honestly, I lean towards yes.

Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens is good. It’s a really really good movie. For kids, it might just be the spark for the new generation to love this space opera. For the old generation of diehards, they’ll be convinced its in good hands. For the general film going public, its excellent and provides genuine thrills.

There is nothing inherently wrong with it. Besides Carrie Fisher being a little hammy, everything in the film works on the level of good. The plot is simple, the acting convincing, the sets well designed and the world beautifully realised.

Oh hang on I just wrote a summary of A New Hope. Except I didn’t.

Man, this film. The second half of this film is A New Hope again. And the first half is just world building for the trilogy. Every character hits every perfunctory note, though props to them not literally re-using the same characters, even if everyone in this series is ruined or saved by their family ties again. They do the Death Star again, but this time its bigger. THAT IS A LITERAL ANIME TROPE. TO DO THE SAME ENEMY AGAIN BUT BIGGER THIS TIME. It apes every part of the old films, extrapolating and mechanically mining them for inspiration and meta-jokes, so much so that they almost do the trench-run again. I’m all one for nostalgia, homage, tipping your hat and dipping your oyster (one of those was made up) but goddamn when I went into this film, last night with a tin bucket of the droids and a Kylo Ren drinking cup from the cinema, I said to my friend, “Wouldn’t this be hilarious if it was just a re-imagining of Star Wars?…Oh god I hope it’s not just a re-imagining of Star Wars.”

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It was. It was a re-imagining of Star Wars. And fucking hell, 38 years of legacy, and this is what they came up with.

But of course! After all, what worked in the past? Star Wars did! So Disney, without a shred of irony, disguised themselves just enough to do Star Wars again. J.J Abrams slipped from fan-fiction into straight up Xeroxing the script and inserting his own lines where necessary. But seriously, this is the most anticipated film release frankly ever! Did anyone expect any different? I did, and so was hilariously blindsided.

I’m not talking Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth” stuff here either, the whole “every story is the same story”, I mean this is really really almost the same story as the original. You would think that after literally partying the Empire away in Return of the Jedi, the Rebels would now be in power, but no, they’re still somehow the underdogs, now affectionately called The Resistance, while all the classic familial tensions and searching for mystics (Luke) to teach them returns. The only thing of course, is that there’s even less meat on this bone, because the original Star Wars worked as its own film, its own enclosed narrative, this film is merely Act 1 in the planned trilogy. So what little is there, is the stepping stone for the new generation, rather than a bold leap forward.

The reason for this, is the stakes. The stakes of cinema rested on this. If this had been a damp squib of a film, if it had divided opinion like the prequels, I would have genuinely feared for the state of film. This needed to be a return to form, the entire business of film rested on it being a resounding success.

And so, in modern cinematic terms it has. It has enraptured critics (currently holding a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), selling nothing short of a bajillion tickets, and pleasing, well almost everyone, every disparate group which is going to be linked by this film and its legacy. And its good! It’s entertaining, It’s funny, very funny, very aware of its history, a few nods cinematically which I appreciated (Max Von Sydow and the guy from The Raid ! HOORAY!). It looks beautiful, no expense is spared and it begs borrows and steals to the point of creative bankruptcy. And I’m okay with it.

When you watch a magician at work, and you see a trick which blows your mind, you become obsessed with knowing how it works. If you find out the way, suddenly you lose interest. Peeking behind the curtain suddenly reveals the hokey lighting and the cracked stage make up. But you know what? What if you learn to love being behind the curtain? What if your knowledge of how the trick works enhances your experience, because you suddenly sit among an audience and realise they are enamored by the trick that appears as magic. And it’s not smug, it’s a genuine happiness and willingness to go along with it, a micro appreciation of the content turns into a macro appreciation of the form.

Star Wars remixed a jidaigeki film into space and the West. And it told a simple fable. It was not subversive or dark. It was an innocent, primal venture into a world of space magic. And it was, at the time, fun. In short, as a movie, it works. And you reap what you sow, and so they have reaped a generation of adults who all grew up with a single favourite story. And as we see here, that has a pretty powerful force.

The Force Awakens, will most likely enrapture a whole new generation to the saga of this space opera, and hopefully with it, to the cinema itself. I won’t be a part of it, but I can stand from the sidelines and appreciate how its done. Because I was once like that too, and for a saga that thrives on nostalgia, isn’t that the best victory?

P.S – The plot of the map searching by a man was done already in Star Wars’ own product, the excellent video game Knights of The Old Republic (KOTOR). Go play that instead or as well.

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Star Wars VII: Another New Hope