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

A Fatal(e) Excursion: Hanging Out With Film Noir

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I recently decided to venture into providing myself with a cinematic education, simply by watching films. Unsure of where to start, I decided to choose the nebula of film noir. I can’t say why I decided to pick this genre, maybe its my overall fondness for the genre, maybe it was because I had just seen Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, maybe it was because it seems to represent the first significant shift in the entire shift American cinema since the introduction of sound. Perhaps a mix of all three, but the legacy of this genre still lives on, permeating like a virulent strain in the collective conscience of the cine-literate, one of the few genres to have given birth to a ‘neo’ form of itself (neo-noir). It’s knowledge imparts itself on two of my favourite works, Blade Runner and the Japanese Anime Cowboy Bebop. Maybe its simply that its sensibilities, its aura and feel, seem to be absolutely essential to the make up of cinema since then.

So I watched these 11 films for research, in no particular order:

-Gilda                                                                                  -The Maltese Falcon

-The Big Sleep                                                                   -Gun Crazy

– Sweet Smell of Success                                                 -Double Indemnity

-The Postman Always Rings Twice                             – Strangers On A Train

-Sorry, Wrong Number                                                    -The Killers  

-Touch of Evil

Plus four I did not see specifically for this matter, a while ago:

The Lady From Shanghai                                            – The Third Man

Sunset Boulevard                                                           – Notorious

So with that, I’m just going to try and expound on what I learned, listened to and felt whilst I immersed myself in film noir.

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THE INHABITANTS

It’s tough to describe the archetypes of film noir, simply because the characters that populate them are simply so vast and varied. Take the femme fatale, perhaps the most famous contribution to the canon of cinematic text, the raw, firey seductress who entices, entraps, ensnares the protagonist, induces the burgeoning evil laying in the heart of the man by sheer overwhelming sexual desire. On two occasions in the films I saw, the trope/archetype was used to its fullest extent, in Gun Crazy (see here) and in The Killers (see here). In fact, the prime example of this character is Kitty Collins, Ava Gardner’s character in The Killers.

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She’s a temptress, a manipulator, a woman who inflames the passions of the macho men around her, one would perhaps even say caniving, as she ruthlessly manipulates the men around her to find the best deal, and the film condemns and ultimately punishes her, as we watch her plead with her dying husband to falsely absolve her of her crimes so she can get off scott free, and all the characters grinning with perverse enjoyment as she gets her comeuppance, like all woman do in film noir, right, case closed?

Well not really. Most of them are far more complex, and maneuver their ways through the ordeals very differently. I did an earlier post on Gilda and “Sorry, Wrong Number” , but the fate and portrayals of the woman vary wildly. It’s tough to talk about film noir without at least mentioning its internalised misogyny, where female characters are routinely punished or saved, always at the hands of their male perpetrators. But I’d like to put a strike through the idea that because of this, women in these films play second fiddle and are sidelined in favour of the male characters. Honestly the discussions related to the gender politics on this issue are covered in far greater depth elsewhere, and so I’ll move on.

So let’s talk about the men then, always the central characters in these stories. Well the men are the salt of the earth, and they spend their time sparring and fighting with the rich, the crooked and the scum, of all classes. In Sweet Smell of Success, Tony Curtis plays a bottom feeding press agent looking for a good story. In The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart plays a private eye. In Double Indemnity, Fred McMurray plays an insurance salesman while in The Postman Always Rings Twice, John Garfield is simply a drifter, looking for work. Everyone inhabits the roles of the middlemen, the invisible cogs in the machines of the world, men with desperate ambition or wry, jaded world-weariness. Simply put, they were the birth of the post war man, when propaganda films were no longer need to keep morale up, they spoke of the world-weary, to the world weary.They were not good people, but then they often found themselves entangled in webs of villany and treachery, and were forced from innocuous beginnings (being enraptured by the femme fatale usually) into far darker territory.

But to deny their own natures would be disingenuous to the elements at play. They too, are driven by “vaulting ambition” to shocking, calculated acts of murder.I think perhaps, the only two exceptions to this are Carol Reed’s The Third Man, which is primarily about the search for Harry Lime, and unpicking his unscrupulous web rather than the web of the protagonist, and Gun Crazy, where the man is fully exploited by the woman’s more masculine ambition. If anything, the most brutal example of their own nature is in Sweet Smell of Success, as Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) engineers the downfall of a musician who is dating his boss’s sister, the boss (J.J Hunsecker)  played by the singularly terrifying and malevolent Burt Lancaster, in a role that perhaps shows his greatest acting performance. The men are ruthless, controlling, terrifying and insecure at the same time, occupying a schizophrenic spectrum which turns them into monsters.

In fact only the films with Humphrey Bogart, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, does our protagonist manage to avoid becoming a monster, or becoming ruthlessly scarred by the events. Yes, in those two films, Bogart is simply such a gigantic figure that his personality fills the space where the character is, and so we watch, smooth talking, confident and secure Bogart maneuver his way throughout labyrinthine stories with all the confidence of someone who knows he can’t fail. In fact, those films essentially become about the mysteries that surround the characters, rather than the characters themselves. He plays both roles with immeasurable dexterity, his wit and his words filling the void where guns and physical violence would fill in today post-Hays Code film time.  In fact, I think I experienced the shadow of what men would have felt watching him in the time the films came out, simply because he embodies this style of rough around the edges suaveness that is impossible to replicate, only pay homage to (as Godard did).

THE STYLE

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There’s two sections to this, because I feel the second section is worth exploring. The first will be about general stylistic observations of film noir, the second will be about the meshing of auteur directors (Hitchcock, Mackendrick and Welles) bringing their own succinct style to the film noir genre, and how this fusion affects the style.

FILM NOIR IN GENERAL

The aesthetics of film noir are too numerous, intricate and sprawling for me to properly delve into in a professional way, especially since the expertise expounded on this style by numerous writers both online and off. But, I must venture forth.

To understand film noir, you have to understand two things, German Expressionism, and the pulp/crime genre. German expressionism can be summed up by watching Nosferatu (found here), Das Kabinet des Dr. Caligari (found here), and Fritz Lang’s (found here) and Metropolis. Striking visuals and extensive use of shadows. Well as for the pulp/crime genre, it is the spawn of almost every film noir script. James M. Cain wrote the novels of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Raymond Chandler wrote The Big Sleep (while also putting in screenwriting credits in on Double Indemnity and Strangers On A Train), Patricia Highsmith wrote the novel of Strangers On A Train, Ernest Hemmingway wrote the novel of The Killers, Lucille Fletcher wrote the original play and subsequent screenplay of Sorry, Wrong Number. Graham Greene wrote the original novel in preparation for the screenplay (which he also wrote) for The Third Man.

Yes the tendrils of literature extend far and deep into film noir, and its sprawl pops up in perhaps my favourite part, the writing. Simply put the scripts in this genre are of an impeccable nature, the dialogue forced into a position of great standing, since the Production Code at the time would not allow the kind of on-screen menace and violence that we can expect now. Instead, the writers (and by extension, the characters) are bursting with witty one liners, zingers, restrained devilishness, and a style of rapid back and forth that perhaps has never been equaled, with the absolute pinnacles laying in Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s back and forth in The Big Sleep, and the entire script of Sweet Smell of Success, which is easily one of the greatest writing achievements ever put forth on film. Seriously, just look at this scene:

 

Finally it would leave a gaping hole without talking about film noir being literally that, black film. Not only is it shot in black and white at a time when colour film was feasible (John Dall, star of Gun Crazy is also the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, released around the same time), but also everyone by extension, is shrouded in various shades of grey (literally and metaphorically). The suits, the clothes, the hearts, everything is tainted by darkness. The shadows creep all over the films.

AUTEURS IN FILM NOIR

There are four directors in this selection who exert such an indelible presence over their films in this genre, that the work I believe is ultimately warped and transformed to fit into the style of the director’s vision more closely than the rest. These four directors are:

Alfred Hitchcock – Notorious, Strangers On A Train

Orson Welles – The Lady From Shanghai, Touch of Evil

Billy Wilder – Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard

Alexander Mackendrick – Sweet Smell of Success

Now it is always a double-edged sword talking about auteurs, since it largely disregards every external collaboration and pressure put on the creator(s) of any film, but I’m only using their names as shorthand for any and all the creative visionaries behind each of these films.

Billy Wilder exhibits classic noir. In fact, I’d be hard pressed not to find any element of film noir that isn’t in either/both of those films, and would even go as far as to say they are both quintessentially noir.

Hitchcock’s films also exude his influence, providing an almost jarring disconnect from the rest of the canon of largely American influenced film noir, his sensibilities creating the same Hitchcockian style, suspense and latent building of pressure, only exacerbated by characters who are all extremely repressed, the torrents of emotion flowing underneath, only showing in sporadic moments (see the kiss in Notorious, or the fantastical finale of Strangers On A Train). Honestly his films take film noir sensibilities, rather than being film noir. Hitchcock is simply too powerful a force to ever submit to making a generic genre piece.

Likewise with Orson Welles, who’s directorial works in TLFS and Touch Of Evili can only really be described as Wellesian. Heady mixes of cinematic and character bravado are complimented by labyrinthine plots and constant tension, as opposed to suspense.

Finally Mackendrick, who’s film (alongside Welles’ Touch of Evil) was made at the tail end of film noir (Touch Of Evil is the last classically accepted film) and so only shares a tenuous connection to the genre’s staples, the film occupies such an intricate and idiosyncratic space and time, with the lilting and deftly elegant camera work, the blistering script and the phenomenal character work, it helps to mark the film distinctly, a fingerprint over the film which elevates it above genre fare to become something which utilises film noir’s elements and heightens them, elevates them to a film distinct from the trappings of genre.

The reason I wanted to expand on that is to show how film noir was both a genre, and also when utilised by the right people, became spirit like, pervading the senses of a film world without being standard fare (read: hardboiled detective stories and femme fatalies). Strangers On A Train doesn’t even have a femme fatale, neither does Touch of Evil or Sweet Smell of Success.

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CONCLUSIONS

So what did I learn from hanging out with film noir? Well I learnt that everyone is a vicious misanthrope. Besides that, I experienced simply an incredible time in motion picture history, the last hurrah of Old Hollywood before it entered the turbulent 60s and 70s. It’s a testament to the studio system, in part because it’s so unlike the studio system’s traditional image, film noir is not opulent, no sweeping epics. It’s about the nitty-gritty, about shady characters and murder mysteries. It’s about lovers who find their connection in their shared selfishness, bitterness, desperate need to escape their circumstances, no matter how seemingly good or bad they are. The love which drives the rich trophy wife of Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Glenn Ford, is the same as the love which drives hopless drifter John Garfield and small town wife Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice. And all of it is built on the shadows of humanity, the sides we try to keep hidden but motivate us beyond all rationality, our dark desires driving us forth, simply because we’re either in too deep or wish to be there. And simply put, it makes our lives into what the films used to be called, melodramas. Simply put, it adds weight to our wretched lives, as we grasp for things which we think will set us free, only for our own ruinous downfalls to occur because of that very desire.

It’s not nihilism, its tragedy. And it makes for great films, great art.

-Alex

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A Fatal(e) Excursion: Hanging Out With Film Noir