The Exploding Kinetoscope — 10 Favorite Films of 2001
10. All About Lily Chou-Chou (dir, scr. Shunji Iwai, adapted from his Internet novel)
An expose of the secret, violent lives of Japan’s depressed and dyspathetic high schoolers, All About Lily Chou-Chou is about extreme cases of bullying and social pressure, and its horrors are, indeed horrific. But it is not alarmist, scolding or exploitive in tone, and nothing like a Japanese equivalent of Kids (1995), Thirteen (2003) or their blood relatives, Reefer Madness (1936) or She Shoulda Said 'No'!(1949) . Without drawing explicit causal relationships, adolescent crime and suffering seems to flow into these lives as a natural evolution of crashing hormonal tsunamis, willfully clueless failed parenting, and old-fashioned universal postmodern alienation. The subplot of the title — or perhaps it is the axis around which this brutality whirls — is the fandom of J-pop star Lily Chou-Chou (voiced by real pop star Salyu). The children of Lily Chou-Chou inhabit an Internet message board for Lily fanatics, their pseudonymous postings celebrating the music, obsessing over minutia, and expanding, exploring the philosophy of The Ether.
Like the mystical fifth element, Aether, the Ether is the source of Lily’s music and something it conveys; the music rides on the Ether and possesses it. Lily is barely glimpsed on a concert viewscreen late in the picture, the Ether is untouchable but touches the listeners, and the fan discussions take place in the Internet’s nonphysical other-world, a not-place where the teens of All About Lily Chou-Chou express unfiltered passions and experience something like community. Lily Chou-Chou herself and her fansite occupy the absent center of the film, and the beatings, pimping and gang-rape are pushed to the outer edges, Lily spinning in the Ether.
These are not really ironies driven home with any emphasis, that the numbing daily miseries of these disaffected children are less immediate and vital to them than Internet pop music discussion, or that classmate Shiori is forced into prostitution but cannot tell protagonist Yuichi that she like-likes him, or that the unique acts of violence haunting this overgrown field of teen angst occur, for the most part, in missing-time narrative ellipses. Shot on digital video, Lily Chou-Chou embraces the nature of its medium, fits its impressionistic narrative to its form. The image slips in and out of focus, by design or because the camera cannot keep up with movement, or even shifting light. Colors are over or under saturated, always unstable. Detail goes fuzzy or is too sharp, and light plays weirdly with depth and texture. The achronological structure and narrative disruptions by Lily-chat sessions do not serve to impart information in order of maximum effectiveness, but to dislocate, to set audience and characters alike awash on the mournful tides of the Ether.
9. Little Otik (dir., scr. Jan Švankmajer)
Each of Jan Švankmajer’s features is more sophisticated and focused than the last. Otesánek (Little Otik) retells the European folk tale in a modern, dreary Czech apartment building, and in a world where the Otesánek story still exists as a story. The childless Horáks long for a baby, and so (joking? Mocking? Indulgent?) husband Karel digs up a tree stump, carves it into rudimentary baby-shape and presents it to doting Božena as surrogate offspring. Little Otik springs to squalling, flailing life. The stump baby’s appetite and size grow at alarming rate, forcing Karel to haul dripping sacks of meat home from the butcher until the postman’s flesh-stripped skeleton appears beside Otik’s crib.
Working from the same set of primal symbols as the human subconscious, Little Otik is driven by food, sex, drink, death, plants, meat, knives, money, dirt, animals, and body parts (the central and loaded ones: mouths, teeth, tongues, bones, butts and genitals). Švankmajer’s trademark stop motion animation appears in Otik to realize the infant (mercifully, Otik’s scary, animal tongued mouth is the only animated orifice; his knothole anus remains inert, though in the mind’s eye it is not), to illustrate a neighbor’s revulsion to his wife’s cooking (insectoid nails skittering through viscous glop), the subjective view of Alžbětka, the little girl next door, as she is ogled by the neighborhood pedophile (a frenzied appendage unbuttons his pants from the inside as she goggles in disgust), and as blunt-edged television adverts steeped in sex and power fantasy (the funniest is for the Inferno robotic iron, an affectless announcer deadpanning “Inferno Inferno. The rest are rusty pieces of junk”).
Parallels are drawn between a mother’s longing for a child, the baby’s infantile oralism, advertising, sexual lust and hunger. The commonality is desire and consumption. When the Horáks box up Otik in the basement, trying to sublimate and conceal the devouring force, Alžbětka takes pity on the monster baby and tries to mother and domesticate it, but to no avail. Out of options, she does the rational thing and starts drawing straws for which tenant to feed to her ward. But this is no time for rational thinking. True to his card-carrying surrealist ethos, Švankmajer does not trade in messages, morals, lessons or slogans. In Little Otik, to hunger and desire is to ultimately consume and destroy. We are insatiable.
8. Wet Hot American Summer (dir. David Wain, scr. Wain, Michael Showalter)
An edgy next-generation comedy, Wet Hot American Summer flew like a Concorde over the heads of the nation’s middle-aged critical establishment, or perhaps directly into them. The pile-up of critics of fine taste and sophistication explaining why Wet Hot is dumb and not funny (frequently citing gags strong enough that they can’t be killed even in derisive summary; I recall Salon’s reviewer complaining that David Hyde-Pierce is made to exclaim “Fuck my dick!” in surprise) was probably last seen walking out of Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy (1996).
In the post-ironic comedy scene populated by geek chic hipsters and amiable smarty-pants slobs, the heritage of idiot comedy has been reevaluated, and nothing is funnier than very smart people telling very dumb jokes. The highest aim is jokes so dumb, crude, meticulously mistimed that they deconstruct the idea of a Joke itself. WHAS trades in meta/non/and genius material like Paul Rudd as a man so dumb he pronounces the J in “journal” as a hard G, and sentient canned goods defiantly confessing to autofellatio (a lot). What is this stuff doing in a spoof of the summer camp and teen sex comedy cycle of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s? Who has even seen these movies, and do they need sending-up? Are WHAS’s jokes within spitting distance of the cracker-n-condoms barrel comedy of G.O.R.P. (1980) or Computer Beach Party (1985) or whatever it is that is being satirized?
Shifting frame of reference and intention, stream-of-consciousness movement in which one gag’s payoff becomes the setup for the next, faith in the power of extremely specific non sequitur: the rules of comedy for alumni of The State, especially in their purest experiments, WHAS, Stella and The Ten (2007). Stripped of the rock star ‘tude of too many fourth generation sketch and improv specialists, devoid of both sarcasm and sincerity, the basic attitude toward comedy is that if it is funny, it is worthwhile. There are no sacred cows on this plane, and that includes the performer’s perceived intelligence, the dramaturgical soundness of a scene, the tone and “reality” of the entire film. Sometimes WHAS is a parody of summer camp comedies, sometimes a parody of parodies, sometimes just a for-reals summer camp comedy. A passionate, prolonged and relatively explicit gay sex scene exists simultaneously on about 20 levels — as an upending of the heterosexual lechery that pervades teen comedies and their presumed audience, as goofy slapstick, as a straightforward dirty joke, as part of a lengthy runner in which the lovers get married. The stroke of wet hot brilliance is that it is absurd and discordant for a teen sex romp to suddenly lapse into passionate, sincere anything, let alone explore an irrelevant subplot about the romantic lives of gay camp councilors.
In a simpler time, we called this “silly.” Which, fuck my dick, to a comedian ought to be a compliment.
7. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (dir. John Cameron Mitchell, scr. Mitchell, Stephen Trask, from the musical, book by Mitchell, songs by Trask)
A queer theory primer with sing-alongs, Hedwig and the Angry Inch celebrates the heady, scary rush of freedom symptomatic of being stranded high and dry on the rocks of identity discourse, trapped between the Scylla and Carbides of false dichotomies, and forced to make your own place in the world or be rent apart. Our hero is East German expat Hedwig (née Hansel), come to America with a botched sex change operation and a headfull of glam rock dreams, a sort of genius songwriter whose music is swiped and is reduced to playing salad bar joints. Like much LGBT literature, Hedwig is largely a memory and identity piece, the bulk of the (slim but eventful) narrative tracing the rocky path to the rocker’s current gig, trailing superstar/ex-lover/musical thief Tommy Gnosis on national tour, Hedwig playing at Bilgewaters restaurants while Tommy sells out stadiums. Hedwig can’t — or won’t— be torn between or shuffled into normative categories of gender, biological sex, nationality, musical genre (her performance seesaws between showtune revue and ferocious riot grrrl punk), even success and utter failure.
Form following content, writer-director-shooting star John Cameron Mitchell’s original stage show is itself a narrative musical presented in the form of a rock n’ roll performance piece, the story relayed primarily through monologue, neither a traditional musical nor a concept album played on stage. His film dramatizes the plot, and even on miniscule budget bounces around the globe, Berlin Wall to inside an oven to anonymous American motels to mounds of discarded tires to animated fantasia to dreamy symbolic netherworld, with cinematic verve and excitement. The structure itself is queered, refusing movie parade blitz or to betray its stage roots; it is inaccurate to call the film stagey or to deny that it feels very much like songs stitched together by character monologue, and the final reels refuse camp spectacle or comic melodrama and warp into abstracted Jarmanesque symbol-drama.
Ferociously, bottomlessly funny, angry and poignant, Hedwig’s quest for identity, self-knowledge, acknowledgement and love are tinged with overlapping mysticism and religious philosophy, speeding past roadsigns to Gnosticism, Taoism, Surrealism, and, famously, Aristophanes in the Symposium, in syncretic blur. The hunt for the other half of a fractured self, for completeness, is itself spectacularly blown apart if not abandoned by the film’s end. Hedwig stands stripped bare and resplendent before an invisible audience in the void-as-theatre, identity as eternal succession and cycle of event, incident and crisis, sawed and nailed together in endless construction project. Hedwig ends on her own terms and no more incomplete than any creature in the universe.
6. Hannibal (dir. Ridley Scott, scr. David Mamet, Steven Zaillian, from the novel by Thomas Harris)
A medievalist comedy of manners, a grotesque romance and a fairy tale black comedy about corruption, Hannibal is lush, florid and extremely perverted, through and through. After ten years, the entire world hunts Hannibal Lecter, but he flits through fingers, cities, nations with ease, the planet’s population simply too dumb and slow to catch him. Every other character dreams up elaborate, intertwining schemes to catch the mad doctor, but his only worthy adversary is Clarice Starling: she knows him. And so it goes, each manhunter compelled by personal sins and revealing even more, each and every corrupt by nature or circumstance, a network of rot and compromise circling the Earth's crust. And so it goes that Starling is ‘buked and scorned, tested and tried, used and abused by this gallery of venal gargoyles, until only two beasts of unyielding personal integrity are left standing: Lecter and Starling.
Ridley Scott’s eye for opulence and grime provide rich and rotting stage dressing for this operatic manhunt thriller, but his sense of jittery action and peekaboo scares do not capture the elegant air of Thomas Harris’ source novel. Harris writes like he is organizing blocks of time and space into a labyrinthine invisible castle, his characters move through the story as if guided down glass corridors of a maze criss-crossing the globe, linked to some burning, ancient meaning as if pursued by a minotaur. Scott’s film has little of Harris’ fated, antique majesty, and is forced to rework the novel’s cut-crystal, uniformly lunatic plot (hinging as it does on details like Lecter’s sixth finger, excised from Silence of the Lambs). But the state of constant hysteria is alive, and the trade-off is that Scott’s film is funnier.
It was very difficult for an admirer of Harris’ weirdo vision to walk out of Hannibal in 2001 and feel much besides that the most special elements were missing. To streamline the story seems to be to miss the point of the novel’s baroque ornamentation, and absent are some of the more outrageous, exotic tangents — Hannibal’s childhood reminisces of eating his beloved sister, Inspector Giannini’s investigation of the Monster of Florence — and loveliest grace notes — in the book’s best scene, Lecter orders Starling, by letter, to contemplate the cast iron skillet that he just knows she has hanging on the wall. The novel’s finale is its masterstroke of delirium, the romantic union of Dr. Lecter and Clarice Starling. It is practically a defiant slap in Hollywood’s face. Naturally, it had to go, lest Hannibal cause riots and/or wild, unrestrained cheering. The film would be infinitely more audacious if built straight off Harris' blueprint.
As the initial butt-slap sting of adaptation fades, it is truly remarkable how much of Hannibal is still in Hannibal. If there is a scene which does little to further the plot but embroiders it beautifully, it is Lecter’s art history lecture on Dante and medieval depictions of Judas figures: “easy” to cut, and impossible to lose. Hannibal picks and chooses wisely, still bizarre enough to repel more than 50% of critics, still so extravagant and strange that it is not of the same genre as Silence of the Lambs. It is barely a sequel. Scott does find some ingenious cinematic means of capturing the magnetized sensation of the twin protagonists drawn to one another from across the globe. In a dizzying sequence original to the film, Lecter guides Starling by cell phone through the chaotic carnival of Washington’s Union Station, and with deft cajoling, the quarry points the hunter in the wrong direction. He averts her gaze just long enough to spin past on a carousel, just that he may brush his hand against her hair for a split second. The carousel keeps moving.
5. The Man Who Wasn’t There (dir., scr. Joel and Ethan Coen)
In Film Noir Land, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Ed Crane, The Man Who Wasn't There, mostly doesn’t. Postwar malaise is the topic of the day, the same kind that fueled The Twilight Zone. Billy Bob Thornton’s motionless disappearing act performance as the bewildered barber is a marvel of underplaying. It is hard to say if Ed is disaffected or bored, repressed or sorrowful, or just a nitwit. Given his constant internal monologue narration, we are tempted to lean toward the last. Enmeshed in a life-destroying crime plot that covers pretty much every legal transgression, all Ed lifts a finger to do is consider investing in a dry cleaning company because he’s tired of being a barber. For the rest of his sins, Ed’s greatest crime is to fail to speak up while blackmail and murder spiral around him, whether his wife is being railroaded for a murder she didn’t commit, or he is being railroaded for a murder he didn’t commit. Mostly, Ed just watches, but as his slick attorney, Freddy Reidenschneider, speechifies: “There is no ‘what happened. Not in any sense that we can grasp with our puny minds. Because our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the "Uncertainty Principle". Well, they actually call that “the observer effect,” and whether it is applicable outside of physics is debatable. Though it is Reidenschneider’s bullshit-baffle defense for Ed’s wife, it pegs Ed’s crimes exactly. Ed, just being there, smoking, looking —just being alive — mucked everything up.
The visual touchstone that haunts TMWWT is a spinning silver disc. Sometimes it’s a flying saucer; sometimes it’s a dislocated hubcap. The UFO motif (the film is set in 1949, two years after the Roswell incident) infects Ed’s imagination — in the final moments of his Death Row stay, his execution is configured as alien abduction— but he doesn’t seem to know it, not any more than he understands why he is calmed by teenage pianist Birdy’s playing mathematically ordered Beethoven. Ed cannot make heads or tails of what anything means, how he feels, or what’s happening to him, so signs and wonders, though all around him, are lost. He’s the strong silent type minus the strong, history’s most passive protagonist, a man whose spiraling Chesterfield smoke constitutes most of his body language.
4. Spirited Away (dir., scr. Hayao Miyazaki)
An interesting factor in stories about children who (literally or figuratively) dream up (literal or figurative) fantasy lands, enter, adventure, and exit as (literal or figurative) young adults, is that the protagonist generates the Wonderland, Oz, chocolate factory or bathhouse as a form of escapism, but finds that, as Ms. Gale put it, “some of it wasn’t very nice.” Dreams are like that; they turn on you. Hayao Miyazaki’s universally beloved Spirited Away is certainly of this school, as slightly petulant ten-year-old Chihiro wanders into the carnival of the gods, and winds up robbed of her name and employed at a bathhouse for folk spirits. Which means, of course, that all other world animation of the last 50 years has been left in the dust.
Chihiro’s coming-of-age story rests in the shadow of the film’s larger and more abstract theme, a yearning for an older, faraway Japan, less industrialized, war damaged, polluted, and more vitally connected with its roots and terrain. The longing is both justified and too nostalgic, and Spirited Away does not let itself get away with simple answers, pat solution or bitter-heartedness. The towering and impossible bathhouse on the threshold where Chihiro takes residency is a place of ritual purification, but her journey into the heart of native Japanese tradition is riddled with danger, fearsome manifestations, ancient and powerful weirdness. The physical sensations that come with true awe are not so different from mortal terror. The deeper you go, the longer you stay, the more you learn, the more apparent it becomes that the universe’s reservoir of kami is bottomless.
3. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (dir. Peter Jackson, scr. Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Fran Walsh, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien)
In which an Oxford linguistics professor and a low-budget splatter director are tapped to create a worldwide smash popcorn-selling effects spectacle. The effect is that Tolkien’s peculiar conglomeration of Norse myth, religious philosophy and Germanic language deep structure inside baseball is stripped down by Peter Jackson and his invaluable screenwriting partners to a vast and accessible adventure story and its specifically-wrought, human-scale characters. Art directed to the teeth, every New Zealand location is made the subject of a massive art installation, villages of elves and hobbits, towers and more towers all laboriously designed to appear to have sprung out of the dirt. For its look and aura, the Rings films shift wizard-and-dragon fantasy away from heavy metal and airbrush and into the territory of New Age inspirational music and misty watercolor. Totally unaware and/or unrepentant that it is steeped in kitsch, the entire trilogy goes for broke with sincerity.
Tolkein’s technique and structure make a letter-perfect Rings impossible. The exciting events are related in conversation, the narrative flow mired in offstage action, and key ideas at the heart of the story are non-visual... including the effects of, oh, the Ring. The screenplay chooses not to strip-mine the novel but bring it into a more contemporary focus, action oriented, and obsessed with the internal conflicts and emotional arcs of characters. This entails some discerning narrative compression and inflation, but above all requires slight psychological expansion and coloring of Tolkien’s myth-people. The Middle-earth of the novel is here, in vainglorious swooshy tourism film helicopter shots of sparkling New Zealand vistas and in noodling details like carved wood decorations in public houses. Each orc in every pulsating battalion has its own particularized ugly sword.
Jackson’s consistent style has always been subcutaneous cartooning — on the beat cutting, slightly bug-eyed cinematography, emotion pitched larger than life. The attitude is to treat the cinematic apparatus as slight of hand, a Mélièsian magic trick, even when there are no special effects. Despite an elephantine budget and protracted shooting schedule, the production realities are too huge, and the occasional rough and tumble second (third, fifth) unit footage announces itself gracelessly and the post-production panel must make do. The spots where Fellowship is improvisational and the seams show are excellent demonstration of the innate showoffy cleverness underlying the technique, the same bratty intelligence as Orson Welles. Jackson uses everything a camera and a cut can and cannot do, its biases and blindspots, the misdirection and slippery fingers of the device to build an image flow out of a thousand things that are not what they seem. The whole of the Rings cycle contains nearly every picture-making trick in cinema, and creates many new ones. For hours on end, any lapse into clichéd setup, framing, or editing pattern is negated by an overriding dedication to visual invention. As every scene is lavished with attention, as if holy text were being illuminated, the films are emphatic about every moment; it is all equally important, whether a building-sized demon made of glowing charcoal briquettes is attacking or a fat kid in a cornfield weighs his decision to take one step further from home than he’s ever been. The drive to perfectionism means the films get a lot of things perfect... and thus bound to become the standard visual language for filming similar scenes. Lord of the Rings is a wellspring for the movie clichés of the future.
Straight out of the gate in 2001, Fellowship was treated as an instant classic. It has grown into the real thing, a wildly successful film that does something more than spawn catchphrases for a summer. Its dialogue begins to embroider daily speech, the actors’ cadences familiar as a pop singer’s phrasing, providing in-jokes and little wisdoms for a generation. Its plot dilemmas become mental touchstones for our own crises, its images, grandiose and understated, appear on illustrated cards in internal Rolodexes. When one has imbibed too much, stood up too fast, or is feeling powerfully swayed and helpless in the face of a seductive bad choice, consider this picture: Elija Woods’ stubby digits, nails painfully bitten to the quick, compulsively finger the Ring. Head drained of blood, his eyes flutter and his stomach rapidly drops to his hairy rubber feet.
2. The Royal Tenenbaums (dir. Wes Anderson, scr. Anderson, Owen Wilson)
“There's a common loneliness that just sprawls from coast to coast.” – Tom Waits
Wes Anderson is the freshest and finest voice in American comedy to emerge since the heyday of The Simpsons. There is a lot of dazzling filmmaking on display in The Royal Tenenbaums, quite apart from Anderson’s most notorious trademarks. That showy deadpan style, if one has forgotten, includes the detailed shoebox diorama art direction, symmetrical dead-center framing, super-slow motion elongating moments of emotional overload and making time for long snatches of British Invasion folk rock, and elaborately choreographed wide shots in which a dozen actors have to hit marks and enact business to be precisely captured by a slow dollying camera. This hangdog narcotic haze is regularly broken up by the cockeyed syntax of the rule-breaking editing, the axis of action breeched here, a New Wave jump cut there, scenes of physical violence and exuberance barge in with handheld camerawork. These details and strategies do not quite add up to Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt.
“No one in the world ever gets what they want/
And that is beautiful.”
-John Linnell, “Don’t Let’s Start”
In this story of the Tenenbaum family, rich New York intellectuals fallen into various shades of melancholy, everyone's situational details and singular turmoil are first presented as amusing alien artifacts, then like cherished heirlooms. The Tenenbaum children, morose ex-child prodigies become exquisite adult losers, trace their miseries to their father Royal, irresponsible and irrepressible scoundrel. The core cast is stunted but coping with adult emotions, as if surprised to find they have grown up, and have been grown up for a long time. Radiating out from the nuclear family are those extended relationships, friends and lovers, employees and hangers on, all tinted with pastel variants of the Tenenbaum blues. The film is not sapped of joy, the characters are not all despairing. But it is a miniature portrait gallery of extremely specific eccentrics all going through a rough patch, with some particularized, previously unarticulated quality to admire, empathize with or simply recognize at every turn. Whether that is lovelorn Richie Tenenbaum driven to do violence to himself over inappropriate affection (you don’t have to be in love with your sister, nor suicidal), or Royal, seeing himself as brash and impassioned, realizing that he is also an asshole, and it is too too late in life to correct the damage. There is a disparity between who we wanted to be —who we want to be right now— and who we have become. Even the very happy and successful cannot deny it, though it may not haunt us all to the same degree.
A personal aside then, though I don’t do this often, the first time I saw The Royal Tenenbaums its distancing techniques and shadowbox styling must have worked. All I could think was that it was very funny, lovely, and that the characters were fascinating caricatures of types of people I had never seen and doubted actually exist.
But the snowballed structure of the film gives equal weight to throwaway detail (look, Chas Tenenbaum invented his own breed of mice) and shattering expression of emotion. Every other viewing has been different, and some new previously buried moment makes me burst into tears. Last time it was gentlemanly family accountant Henry Sherman, soon to be married into the family as Royal’s successor and opposite, who spends the entire film falling in holes and bearing the brunt of Royal’s verbal abuse. He bursts into the ER after Richie’s suicide attempt, and his only question is: “How can I help?” The Royal Tenenbaums has become one of those special films whose portrait of humanity is so accurate, so emotionally raw that it is becoming too painful to watch.
1. Mulholland Dr. (dir., scr. David Lynch)
The second film director we meet in Mulholland Dr., Wayne Grace (who yes, also shared an X-Files with Michael J. Anderson) as Bob Brooker, instructs Betty Elms during an audition. Established as an industry joke on the downward slope of his career arc, Brooker’s prompting is vague and emphatic (and, reportedly, not unlike the direction David Lynch gives actors). Naomi Watts as Betty pulls an indescribable expression that indicates this is a comic beat about the inscrutable techniques of pretentious directors. But it is the secret that explains Mulholland Dr.:
“It’s not a contest. The two of them, with themselves. Don’t play it for real until it gets real.”
David Lynch produces at least one era-defining/defying/best film per decade, triumphs of personal vision made in the margins of the industry production machine, previously unclassified film creatures which appear as singular anomalies and proceed to disrupt the cinema ecosystem for years after. The pervasive legacy and influence begins with Eraserhead in the late ‘70s, continues through Blue Velvet in the ‘80s, Twin Peaks in the ‘90s (and, less adored but just as seminal, Wild at Heart... can one imagine Kalifornia, True Romance, Natural Born Killers without Wild at Heart?). The Designated Lynch Classic of the ‘00s is Mulholland Dr., the single goddamnedest thing ever to earn its filmmaker an Academy Award nomination for Best Director.
The many entranced by Mulholland Dr. found that the spell lasts long after the final reel. Indeed, the hypnotism virtually begins with Betty Elms’ arrival at LAX, as she steps out of the terminal and soaks up her first rays of Southern California’s peculiar, brilliant sunshine. David Lynch has related a telling anecdote of being a new resident of the city, similarly enthralled by the unreal clarity of Los Angeles’ white gold light, its blasting, color-enhancing quality a beautiful-eerie contrast to the choked grime of Philadelphia. No, with this film that introduces its lead with a burst of sun, stepping out of the theater into the light (sunlight, marquee glow or street lights) does not dissipate the mystery.
For lovers of mystery, the problem with detective fiction is that it does not love mysteries back. It seeks to obliterate mystery; its pleasures are in rendering secrets legible. The sad fact with mystery stories is that they end with no mystery left. Lynch has gradually developed solutions to this conundrum, stories that preserve the pleasures of mystery itself while retaining basic of the shape of rational detective fiction. The feat is greater than simply paying off whodunits without reducing a film to an equation or riddle. The situation is not unlike Lynch’s entire relationship with narrative cinema itself. Narrative trades in the articulated, while Lynch comes to film as an abstract expressionist, mistrustful of over-articulation.
Many admirers of Mulholland Dr. spent 2001 making notes and timelines, sorting clues and developing elaborate theories, seeking to sort the chronology, explain the symbols and solve the mysteries of the film. The quest that fuels its first two acts, as we follow Betty and her amnesiac houseguest Rita as they try to track Rita’s identity, is derailed when the women find a dead body, attend a show at Club Silencio and promptly disappear, leaving behind a mysterious blue box. The game becomes something else, the locating of connections between the story up to this point and the third act, where names, personalities, relationships and circumstances have scrambled. Prevalent theories, in descending order of popularity — sadly, not necessarily in increasing order of outlandishness — include explaining the split between the Betty and Rita Mystery Solvers! section and that in which the leads have transmuted into Diane and Camilla as dream, psychotic delusion, masturbatory fantasy, deathbed reverie, fugue state, repressed memory of sexual abuse or parallel dimensions.
The film encourages these approaches with one beckoning finger, and bats them back with a flyswatter with the other hand. Mulholland Dr. is a rich environment in which to play games, but single-minded clue-sorting theories are literalist and reductive. Too many readings seek to iron out the curves and illuminate the shadows of Mulholland Dr., but even a literalist approach requires the puzzle-solver to evaluate what the film is about, to read it on multiple levels. Conversely, to read the film is to begin positing a theory of its narrative.
Listening to someone else’s Mulholland Dr. theory is like hearing a recounting of their dreams. Fascinating to the dreamer, and no one else really needs to hear it but a therapist. It is also a non sequitur to say it is “wrong.” And though Betty and Diane’s stories call and echo to one another through the blue box (“one chants out between two worlds...”), and signs and signals both underlined and parenthetical fly through the frame, when Diane has her coffee refilled by a waitress whose nametag reads “Betty,” (and here is the secret that explains Mulholland Dr.), no one needs to grope in the dark for meaning and clarity. The sensation of spooky, electric frisson flows directly out of Betty’s nametag and into the theatre.
Like a birdwatcher’s diary, the Mulholland Dr. theorist’s list of clues spotted and jotted is just a record. Besides imposing data that is not there onto the lopsided halves of the narrative, these threads are not knitted up into a holistic view of the film. In a film very much about the dark dazzle of the film image, to say Betty’s story is Diane’s dream, full stop, quite misses that Diane’s reality is no realer than Betty’s or Henry Spencer’s, Norma Desmond’s or Cruella DeVille’s. They dream each other. If Special Agent Dale Cooper famously woke from a dream to declare “my dream is a code: crack the code, solve the crime,” he eventually learns that the dream was something far more. In forwards-backwards-simultaneous time, the wised-up Agent Jeffries would mutter in Fire Walk With Me: “We live inside a dream.” It’s not a contest. The two of them, with themselves.
Betty and Diane do not live in Twin Peaks, they live in Los Angeles. Most often understood as a fable of a would-be starlet’s Hollywood dreams shattered by grim reality, Mulholland Dr. is certainly a bitterly funny portrait of the film industry as Kafka nightmare-fable, but it is not so one-sided nor so acrimonious about the artform itself. At Club Silencio, the emcee tells the audience that though we hear a band, there is no band. Rebekah Del Rio performs a captivating rendition of a Roy Orbison number, and collapses midway as the singing continues, revealing: No hay banda. There is no band. Why should we be surprised or awed, when we have just been told, no hay banda? Why, when standard film production reality is that musical numbers are customarily lipsynched? Was it any less involving a performance? Coming shortly before the film’s splashiest narrative fracture, this is the secret that explains Mulholland Dr.
“Hollywood” is vernacular for the American entertainment industry, and talismanic shorthand for the dream of studio system era Movie Stardom, the whole of the art, business and legend in one monolithic word, as if Hollywood were a single organization, collective mind, and symbol at once. But Hollywood is really a place, and you can go there — live there, even— and discover how strange it is, how wrong it feels, to actually walk on Hollywood Blvd. A clogged-by-day, abandoned-by-night tourist attraction with no attractions, the street is composed of approximately 300 tattoo parlors, smoking paraphernalia shops and stores that sell platform shoes to sex industry workers. The majority of the real, literal, physical Hollywood is a collection of neighborhoods where people walk dogs and eat fish tacos and sit in traffic. That big white sign is a leftover advertisement for a housing development.
There are still post-production houses, DVD mastering companies and film equipment and prop rental houses in the neighborhood. The Paramount backlot is the only remaining major studio production facility in the area (unless, as district zoning would have it, one includes Universal City, which makes no sense). There are television soundstages and landmark movie theatres, none of which do or “mean” what they did when Hollywood was “Hollywood.” It is not accurate to say that Hollywood does not make movies, but neither is it proper to imply that it produces a majority of what we casually designate “Hollywood” product. “Hollywood” is not in Hollywood.
Mulholland Dr. is about both of those Hollywoods. One of those Hollywoods does not exist anywhere. That doesn’t make it less real.
Here is the secret that explains Mulholland Dr.: it is very much like the experience of driving Mulholland Drive at night. The meandering road looks a little wiggly but more-or-less straight on a map, and connects two stretches of US 101 (which, confusingly, shifts alignment and starts running east-west just to be contrary). Mulholland twists up through the Hollywood Hills and Santa Monica Mountains, providing a spectacular Olympian view of both L.A. proper and the Valley, the city glowing below like a gilded lava spill. The road runs along a precipitous drop, occasionally shielded by scrape-covered guardrails. It is so wracked with tight turns and blessed with so few streetlights that one can inch along for an hour and barely get anywhere. Meanwhile, traffic is thin, but residents familiar with the curves will rush by at terrorizing, reckless speed. By night, Mulholland Drive is dark, it is dangerous, and it is extremely pretty.