Laughing at the Movies: Mulholland Drive and the consequences of making a masterpiece

By Nathan Chazan

I went to a screening of Mulholland Drive the other day. It’s a good movie by most people’s reckoning although it’s had the misfortune of being deemed canonically great. When a film becomes great, people start to watch it less, even if they go to see it. When we go to a canonical film, our experience of the work is predetermined to a certain extent by its critical packaging. Even if we avoid spoilers, there’s no escaping Certified Freshness and all its implications. We turn off that curious part of ourselves and seal our emotions in a crate pasted up with quotes and trivia. In the case of a “surreal” movie like those that David Lynch makes, we walk out and tell our friends how weird it was. A film’s reputation becomes a barrier much in the way we create barriers to our unconscious. Sublime expression will always provoke a little tingle in our hearts, some sort of cosmic stirring, and perhaps it’s better (for some) that we never make sense of where that little kick is supposed to push us. After all, it’s nothing new. We’ve been led astray from art by its institutional codification at least since Aristotle decided he knew damn well how tragic theater ought to work.

And Mulholland Drive is nothing if not an unsolvable mystery, the sort that begs for some banal context to be imposed upon it. It’s a conspiracy film about crimes and abuses in the Hollywood studio system, a tragedy revolving around powerful men victimizing aspiring starlets. We begin with many strange and disturbing sights from which a story eventually snaps into place with the arrival of Betty (Naomi Watts), a dame with stars in her eyes landing in Hollywood for the first time, a mythical figure who seems absurd in the new mythical LA of criminal corruption and Reaganomical hucksterism, a fantastic vision of a broken world (i.e. the world as seen in independent films and prestige television). But Betty is a sign representing a pop culture unversed in Hollywood Babylon and thus cannot interpret the signals that the environment she’s flown into is a much creepier, shittier place.

That shittier place is personified by Rita (Laura Harring), an amnesiac who Betty first encounters stumbling naked in her apartment. Rita’s bruised body and broken mind is that of a displaced and disempowered femme fatale whose presence ruptures idyllic normality—some might call this Lynchian. Rita tries to make sense of her past while Betty falls deeper into the muck of her career; thus, they represent two archetypical cinematic images of femininity becoming cognizant of their exploitation. The trauma that Mulholland Drive dramatizes is obviously pertinent in a post-Weinstein film world although the ghastly maleness that certainly haunts the film’s gaze is worthy of critique. The satire of Hollywood Lynch crafts in this movie is bitter and poignant, an articulate and heartfelt rage against the objectification of women. At the same time, Lynch is clearly captivated by this very dream of Hollywood starlets the film attempts to wake us from, a tension which gives the film its energy. It’s an allegory that stares you in the face, clubs you over the head even, as you watch the movie, yet it’s still possible to miss. With the voice of canon buzzing in our heads, we can simply wander through the marshes counting the ways in which this movie is a David Lynch movie, and the things it does that are Great Movie things. There’s a history to the puffing up of Lynch’s films, especially this one, and as with many works we’re told are classic, we sometimes forget to ask ourselves why.

The very designation of Mulholland Drive as a film is itself a creature of marketing since Lynch had originally filmed the first hour as a TV pilot, which was rejected. The second hour of the film was created to reformat the pilot as a feature for the international festival market. This sort of practice of playing the film and TV markets at once isn’t unusual; there’s a feature length version of the Twin Peaks pilot out there originally created for theatrical distribution in Europe (I hear Bob dies in that one), and God knows the deceased direct-to-video market is strewn with countless refitted pilots, beginnings with new endings. Mulholland Drive in fact draws attention to its retrofitted nature in the narrative’s bifurcation. This hiccup in narrative and production is in fact signalled on scene with a pandora’s box literally being opened; what follows could either be considered a flashback or an inversion of the first half of the film with Naomi Watts taking on the role of Diane, a woman who died before the start of the film, while the pre- amnesiac “Rita” becomes a much more sinister figure.

The reversals and ambiguities created by the second act are certainly part of what make the film great, but at the same time this structure, signalled to the audience with all the pomp of a CG tornado in a summer blockbuster, is a “special effect” which communicates the importance of the work to the critics and festival judges, the ones who create lists for the BBC and bestow numbering in the Criterion Collection (Mulholland Drive received spine #779 just last year). Moreover, the movie dramatizes the glamorous woes of behind-the-scenes Hollywood, a schtick that film intelligentsia have been falling over from A Star is Born to Birdman and beyond, though the specifics may be a little sharper than or at least distinct from other examples. And having achieved prestige, a popular auteur such as Lynch also reaches the TV crowd that turned onto his brand name from Twin Peaks, readied by labels of austerity to treat this surreal mystery as a very serious matter, either one for intricate theorizing or sacred reverence (depending on the viewer’s disposition). David Lynch came out of the fine art world, and aside from picking up surrealist and avant-garde methods from the scene, he also shares an adeptness for creating works that navigate audiences of wealthy donors and the so-called general public. Marketing is a part of Lynch’s storytelling.

But great filmmaking doesn’t have to be just the art of the deal. There’s plenty going on in Mulholland Drive that doesn’t fit into a glowing Letterboxd summary, namely the humor carried through charged, deadpan delivery of bizarre declarations; the things people say in this movie ought to be laughed at. The film creates a space where the Hollywood fantasy world and the “real” world—mystical and mundane modes of perception—coexist and interact with one another in a way that is palpably absurd. That push to laugh you feel when that guy with the big ears and the weird eyebrows (you know the one) starts describing his dream in that shite looking diner is a confrontation of your experience of the world. To laugh, to respond to this scene as a provocation of humor might well be a nudge in the direction of a spiritual epiphany, or at least a reflection of an epiphany Lynch has had. Laughter is a breaking thing, a moment of bodily response that takes us out of the story and into ourselves, with the possibility open for us to bring a bit of the story in with us. But the audience I sat with did not laugh at this scene. Nor did they laugh at many of the other funny bits beyond the involuntary titters quickly stifled out of shame. However, I did hear more than a few turn to their friends to comment “this is weird!” Above these comments, the dread specter of the Lynchean whispers, “what you see is peculiar, surrealist, painterly, pure noir,” persuading us so seductively to think that what we see means nothing while reassuring us that the big nothing we digest is significant. In our mumbling silence, art becomes a product. Who was it who said Caesar’s just a salad on the shelf?

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Art by Leo Levy

And yet there was one scene that received uproarious laughter. It’s about halfway through the movie when Betty and Rita make love (or, as I might say in a casual context, when the two finally fuck). In the beginning, people were stone silent, perhaps afraid to laugh at a lesbian scene in 2017, perhaps silencing some other feeling this display of passion before them might have drawn out. But then Betty says three words that had the audience hooting: “I love you.” She says it again. Another wave of laughter. I think I may have giggled a bit myself. It’s an odd reaction if we step back and think about it for a moment—why is it that we treat a moment that clearly deviates from irony in favor of something more tender and raw with such sarcasm?

It’s not that Mulholland Drive is beyond reproach. For one thing, the power of that aforementioned love scene is perhaps undercut by the leering gazeyness of Lynch’s framing. And yet I find it miserable to see waves of laughter seemingly prompted by the very notion of a person saying that they love someone. In a film awash in irony, we as an audience avoided laughter for fear of confronting cynicism. And yet when we were presented with a clear enough reflection of our most tender and beautiful feelings, heightened as melodrama but recognizable and meaningful, we began to hoot. Laughter can be a way to embrace and come to terms with our demons. But here laughter might be a rejection. Could it be that we laugh because we are watching a weird movie? If someone says “I love you” and it doesn’t seem strange, that must be the joke.

I’m not offering a prescription on laughter–laughter’s great, and to be honest I don’t understand it. I’d rather you didn’t talk about dinner plans while an art film’s playing, but generally speaking it just isn’t up to me how you engage with and respond to the big picture before you. Rather, we ought to be concerned with emotion, how we interact with art, how we understand ourselves. Film can be a door that lets our feelings roam free from ourselves from time to time, feelings like “I love you.” Yet much of the time we are encouraged or encourage ourselves to keep that door shut. I think this alienates us from a very true pleasure, a knowledge both intellectual and internal that produces a sort of warmth in us. Our encounters with movies can teach us new ways to feel, but this can only happen if we take the time to learn how to recognize and accept those feelings when they come.

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