Written by movies  |  22. October 2001

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 Mulholland Drive 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. Mulholland Drive 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. To give Mulholland Drive 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 Mulholland Drive 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 Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks is prevalent in Mulholland Drive. In Los Angeles, Mulholland Drive suggests, the blood and sleaze that are repressed in suburbia live out in the open. Mulholland Drive 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. Mulholland Drive 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. "I don't like to think about people in terms of ethnicity," writer-director Danis Tanovic said. "I think you can tell more about someone from the kind of music he listens to." It's certainly not a new notion. It was advanced, in fact, in Jean Renoir's 1937 masterpiece, Grand Illusion. But Tanovic's film No Man's Land, a Spotlight Film at this year's Hamptons Film Festival, makes the idea feel fresh. And now more than ever, it's relevant. No Man's Land is a black comedy chronicling one day on the front lines in Bosnia. Two men -- one Bosnian, one Serb -- form an uneasy near-friendship when one ends up on the other's side of the front. The film is excellent at establishing tensions -- ethnic, spatial, and man-to-man. No Man's Land builds gradually, but by the end, you can't take your eyes off it. The film would unbearably depressing if it weren't for its dark comedy. The humor makes No Man's Land an heir to Three Kings -- and M*A*S*H before it. The film could be viewed as the unofficial centerpiece of this year's Conflict-and-Resolution films series, which focused on films from the former Yugoslavia. Tanovic's shorts showed in one of the programs. No Man's Land would be the best film I saw at this year's festival were it not for Roger Ebert's master class on Citizen Kane, the best event I've attended at any festival. Ebert, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of Ebert & Roeper and the Movies (a spin-off of his famous Siskel & Ebert show), paused at nearly every shot to discuss Orson Welles' cinematic wizardry, the film's history, or the film's value in history. He referred to the program as "democracy in the dark" because anyone could ask a question or comment on the scene. We learned, for instance, that none of the pictures of Xanadu in the opening newsreel match architecturally. Throughout the film, the right of the screen represents the future and the left represents the past; Thompson, the reporter investigating Kane's life, is always seen on the right of the screen, in what Ebert called the "witness's position." Low-angle shots make people seem taller or shorter than they really are, an effect that Welles and his cinematographer Gregg Toland use to show power status. The snow globe that shatters in the opening scene actually comes from Susan Alexander's apartment. And best of all, the rear-projection during Susan and Kane's picnic in the Everglades was taken from The Son of Kong. If you look closely, you can see pterodactyls. The master class was the equivalent of a film-theory course in three sessions. For film lovers, it was the surest bet at the festival. The annual Conversation With event, in which a surprise filmmaker talks with an -interviewer (this year and last, New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell), ended up being a conversation with Montauk resident Julian Schnabel. Schnabel, perhaps best known for his paintings, has made two films, Basquiat (1996) and Before Night Falls (2000), the latter of which was part of the festival's series of films about Cuba. Schnabel talked a great deal about his approach, which involves a lot of last-minute decisions about dialogue and camera placement. The feature-film winner of the Golden Starfish, American Saint, was a mostly improvised road movie about a waiter who travels from New York to L.A. to audition for the part of Jack Kerouac in a film. American Saint also won awards for screenwriting, cinematography, and best first fiction feature (a.k.a the Perrier "Bubbling Under Award"), thereby sweeping all categories it was eligible in -- unprecedented at the festival. The movie was the biggest bore I saw during my three days of moviegoing. Improvisation doesn't work well on film because it leads to rambling. On the screen, where everything is pre-packaged, improvisation is considerably less exciting than it is on stage. As for the award-winning shorts, "Vessel Wrestling," a claymation film chronicling the journey of a ball of pubic hair, was, well, weird. "Member" shows that director David Brooks, who worked in commercials for 10 years, will be the next Michael Bay. The new film from Mimic's Guillermo Del Toro, The Devil's Backbone, was both an emotional miscalculation and the most artificial ghost story since What Lies Beneath. The Business of Strangers was one of those hard-boiled three-character movies about the psyches of business-types. A movie like this needs a good script and good performances. The performances it had (from Stockard Channing and Julia Stiles), the script and idea it did not. The documentary Mule Skinner Blues made fun of its subject for an hour, then lost focus and became more endearing.

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