by Ben Kenigsberg
As a writer-director, David Lynch is like a 10-year-old who starts a jigsaw puzzle, becomes frustrated halfway through, and gives up, leaving all the pieces on the table. I don't mind ambiguity on principle, but Lynch's insistence on abandoning narrative logic shows a real contempt for audiences.
Perhaps every shot in
contributes to a greater meaning -- a message I'm just not getting. But perhaps nothing in the movie means anything. Most scenes are marginally related to others, but each scene could function on its own and make equally little sense.
has so many disparate elements, whether the film has a greater meaning is a secondary concern; by the time the picture is over, you can't tell whether you've seen one movie or six shorts.
Lynch often seems impressed with himself as a stylist, so it's unclear whether he does what he does for a reason or whether he just thinks certain segments are cool. Take a scene where Hollywood studio type orders an espresso for a picky mobster (Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti). Lynch ponders so much over the pouring and drinking of the coffee that it takes on an almost operatic quality. It may be the most important shot in the movie. Then again, maybe it's just funny. There aren't any clues about where to position your attention.
The best scene in the movie, about a hired killing gone terribly, terribly wrong, owes a rather large debt to Quentin Tarantino, given its nonchalant attitude towards brutality. The second-best scene in the movie, involving a meeting on the outskirts of town (a la
North by Northwest
), also benefits from humor, but the characters in the scene -- a film director and, yes, a cowboy -- are more quintessentially Lynch in their absurdity.
Neither scene has any apparent relevance. The film director might qualify as a major character, and the hired killer at least shows up again, but what the killing and the cowboy have to do with anything is beyond me, unless both bits are intended as spoofs. The whole movie looks and sounds as if it were strung together out of noir clichs. You can sense the director smirking behind the scenes.
It's semi-comforting to know that no character in the movie knows what's going on. It's not like we're watching a con act that only we can't understand. The most sympathetic characters in the movie are two detectives. It's not that we care about them; it's just that, when they appear in the opening of the movie, they seem like the only guys who have a chance of figuring this damn mess out. In case you care, after that one scene, they're never heard from again.
They aren't the only ephemeral characters. Two guys walk behind fast-food joint and are attacked by what looks like a hobo covered in soot ... and then disappear from the movie. A vertically challenged fellow with a sinister-looking moustache is painted as a villain in an early scene, but by the end of the movie, I had forgotten him.
If a story is to be found, it's the tale of Betty (Naomi Watts), a nave Canadian who comes to Hollywood dreaming of being a star. When she reaches her apartment, she happens upon an amnesiac woman (Laura Elena Harring) who's using her shower. Meanwhile, there's that director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who's being pressured by the Mafia into hiring a certain actress.
An hour and 45 minutes into the movie, Lynch has his two lead female characters blossom into lesbian lovers. Then the actresses start playing entirely different characters, who happen to be lesbians. Perhaps the character-swapping means something; I'm more dubious about the lesbianism.
the benefit of the doubt, the movie was originally intended as a television pilot for ABC. ABC, understandably, passed, essentially green-lighting Lynch to turn the footage into this behemoth. That
was first written as a pilot -- in which Lynch would start a lot of plots but not resolve anything -- may explain its lack of coherence. But according to Lynch, who spoke at the New York Film Festival, what we're basically getting is the pilot plus additional stuff he shot for the movie. And yes, he insisted, it makes sense. We just have to intuit its meaning, rather than sort it out logically, the way we would a normal movie.
The dark side of domesticity that Lynch explored in
is prevalent in
. In Los Angeles,
suggests, the blood and sleaze that are repressed in suburbia live out in the open.
does a terrific job of imagining Hollywood as a land of sleaze -- a surreal "dream place" (as Betty calls it) seductive enough to tease out a straight-laced girl's inner sexual ferocity and irrational enough to spark violence over the making of a movie.
In a film-class discussion section, I heard the same students I've heard criticize Hitchcock deliver encomiums about Lynch. Say what you will about the Hitchcock -- I happen to think he's just about the greatest director ever -- but his films make sense. There's far more art in fashioning a coherent thriller than there is in putting together a bunch of vaguely related scenes, even if individual bits work.
is every bit as fascinating, absorbing and creepy as Lynch's best work, but it's impossible not to feel used when the lights go up.