Sunday, February 10

Considering "Mulholland Dr."

I once heard that James Joyce wrote with the intention that, in order for one to understand his works, the reader would have to devote their lives to them. If you think you understand it on the first go around, you are wrong. Mulholland Dr.? Not so different except, assuming you come to it blind and blissfully unaware, you will very quickly realize that you have no idea what is going on. Probably still true after the fourth viewing though you might finally be able to establish a chronology and distinguish between dream/nightmare/fantasy/psychotic episode and reality at that point, though everything else will continue to evade you, all of which makes for a rather interesting contrast to Babel which I had watched the night before. Against the example of Crash, I lauded Babel for not putting it all on the surface, forcing the audience to strain itself a little. To say that Mulholland Dr. strains the audience is like saying a five-minute time-out in the corner is the same as an hour of waterboarding. The initial viewing is punishing in the extreme. There is something that resembles a plot as an aspiring Canadian actress, freshly arrived in Los Angeles, tries to help a wandering amnesiac understand why she has mad stacks of money and a blue box in her purse, but that is frequently interrupted for scenes of completely unrelated characters doing completely unrelated things. A man discovering the monster of his nightmares behind a dumpster, a director strong-armed into casting a specific actress, a hitman bumbling the job and lesbian sex all just kind of happen. Then, with only a half hour separating you from the end, you have to throw all of what you just saw out the window because in a single moment, all those basic elements like plot and character relationships and identities, which you thought you were getting a grip on, are radically altered or straight-up traded for something new. If I had popcorn, I would have started throwing it at the screen and then proceeded to pick it all up and give it another toss because that would have been more worth my time than continuing to stare.

The problem, though, is Mulholland Dr. is an exquisitely crafted film. A compiled score of 81% on Rotten Tomatoes and user of rating of 8.0 on IMDB do little to suggest otherwise, and everything is so precise and absurd that there had to be something behind it all. All of my frustrations were only compounded by the constant feeling that I was so close to understanding it, just a few points too stupid. Other people have had this same feeling but have taken the next logical step in trying to make sense of the whole thing. Sites like Lost on Mulholland Dr. are a testament to this, and I am prone to agree with their deep, involved analyses, some undoubtedly taking more time and effort than a few term papers of mine.

Ultimately, one's response to Mulholland Dr. is dependent upon the attitude coming into it. For a lazy Friday evening with the friends, there is nothing worse. For those willing to fully immerse themselves in it and spend their life trying to understand it, maybe it will catch, but I question that decision. After all the hours of watching, reading and thought,what does Mulholland Dr. offer? It contains no great commentary on life, the universe and everything or the state of modern society. It is no myth the audience can set its life in relation to and there are no heroes one can aspire to be.

Ultimately, it is a psychological profile of Naomi Watts (whose ability to so completely disappear within the three characters she plays cannot be celebrated enough). At the end of it all, we have nothing more than an intimate understanding of a construct of the director's imagination. No matter how subtle and well-developed, she is nothing compared to the infinite depths of the person we pass on the street or sit next to in class. Does Mulholland Dr. allow us to better relate to them in the least? Maybe if they put the same amount of time into it as well, but for the most part, I doubt it.

But that is a terribly functionalist approach to it all and calls into the question the validity of all art, not a position I am eager to adopt.


Emmett said...

Can't Ulysses, which springs to mind because I'm reading it, be classified as merely a psychological profile of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, both of whom are constructs of Joyce's imagination? Isn't Ulysses considered great art?

Does Ulysses really have any commentary on life or grand myths to live by? It's just about one fairly normal day in Dublin.

Is any art up to the standard of portraying the 'infinite depths' of the person across from us? And if not, why do art?

Am I really stuck writing rhetorical questions as criticism?

Chris said...

Seeing as how I've never read Ulysses, I can't really comment upon that. I will, however, admit to what I will now and forever call the Applebyard fallacy in failing to provide a definition for art before attempting to evaluate it. Sounds like a great topic for a future blog post.

Now for a question that will really blow your mind, does it remain a rhetorical question when an answer is provided?