Sunday, April 16, 2017

Film art

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2002)

Mulholland Drive recently became one of the few movies in the last few years I’ve paid to see twice (the others being, if memory serves, Magnolia, Bamboozled, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, YiYi and The Wind Will Carry Us – this must evidently be a personal recent pantheon of sorts). In all these cases, the second visit was immensely worthwhile, maybe more with Mulholland Drive than most. Of course, the film is famously hard to figure out, so that’s no surprise. But I think it’s worth repeating here, for those put off by the prospect of confusion, that it’s one of last year’s best.

Mulholland Drive again

In a second viewing, knowing how many of the film’s secondary elements end up as pure loose ends, I concentrated from the outset on the character played (brilliantly) by Naomi Watts, and saw more clearly how the film’s first half represents a fantastic, desperate rehabilitation by that character of her grim Hollywood experience.

One of the keys to this is the passivity of the character played by Laura Elena Harring – she has no name, no memory, only a minimal agenda, and Watts seems at times almost to move her around like some kind of big doll. Their love scene is pure joyful seduction. Meanwhile, the filling of the lead role in director Justin Theroux’s film is the subject of impenetrable conspiracy and deviousness – while it might hurt to lose a role that way, it’s also an effective rationalization for failure.

With such a rewriting of her sad facts, Watts reimagines defeat as victory. In the second half (what I take to be the “real” world of the film), she’s lost control over herself, her career and her relationship with Harring – this section is suffused with her powerlessness and frustration. At the very end, it struck me that the weird old couple who appear first as her benefactors and later as her tormentors are probably her parents, or at least a representation of whatever developmental trauma brought her to this point: her dream necessarily begins with safely repackaging them into benign idiots. In total, this is a much sadder impression than I came away with first time round.

I’ve always been unsure about Lynch’s work, although I loved The Straight Story (but then, of course, that’s his most atypical film). Mulholland Drive is one of the rare movies that makes me want to go back and revisit all its maker’s previous work. But I suspect I’ll still find Lost Highway and Wild at Heart and the others a little lacking, because I think they miss the profound human tragedy that gives Mulholland Drive its shape. Narratively, the film is as confusing as anything you’ll see at the multiplex, but in so many other ways, it’s more deeply coherent than almost anything else out there.

More awards

No, you’re not imagining it – every year, they have more awards shows than the year before. This year the American Film Institute (“Advancing and preserving the art of the moving image”) established its own gig. Unlike the usual five nominees, the AFI had ten – a surprisingly well-rounded list including Mulholland Drive, Memento and The Man who Wasn’t There. Unfortunately, the televised award show was undermined by most of the winners choosing to stay away. And then, at the end, they gave the prize to Lord of the Rings.

The citation on the AFI’s website is as follows: “Lord of the Rings taps the mythical forces of American film to bring life to J R R Tolkien’s rich literary legacy. Never losing sight of the “human” elements of this first book in his trilogy, the scope of the film sets the standard by which future motion picture epics should be judged.”

So there you go – presumably that’s the measure of what most advanced and preserved the art of the moving image in 2001. Even by the AFI’s own account, it sounds as much about commerce as art. Anyway, I think this kind of recognition stamps Lord of the Rings as the most overrated movie of last year. I concede that I like it less than anyone else I know, and I’m sure it’s a treat for fans of the book (I haven’t read it – it’s always seemed to me the archetypal activity for which life is too short). But on its own merits, the film is a stuffy, plodding, monotonous bore.

Lord of the Rings

For sure, the film’s “scope” is real, with some magnificent landscapes and individual sequences. At times, it does indeed evoke slightly greater psychological complexity than the average action epic. But it doesn’t have much panache, and it’s hampered by deadly seriousness. The Harry Potter film has been criticized for being overly faithful to the book and creating little artistic personality of its own. But even if that’s true, the film nails the giddy thrill of a world just below the surface of our own, so close you could scratch it, yet bursting with marvels. Lord of the Rings starts off with a voice-over cumbersomely defining the rules of its universe, sticks with those rules throughout, and never winks at the audience. If you can surrender your mind to all that stuff about magical rings and kingdoms of elves, then you’re fine. But it’s relentlessly self-contained – you wait in vain for any thematic or metaphorical payoff that might be any good to you once you step back into the real world.

And however well-executed the physical elements may be, it still comes down to the same cliffhanger escapes, battles in which each hero slays about twenty of the other side, the same visual and aural fireworks. The current movie is just the first part of a trilogy, but at the end of it I felt as if I’d watched three films already. Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be back for the other two.

As for the American Film Institute, since 1973 it’s given out a life achievement award. The first recipient was John Ford, and in the early days the award recognized as many great directors (Hitchcock, Capra, Welles) as actors (Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, James Cagney). But it’s four years now since any director won, and this year’s recipient is Tom Hanks. He’s 45 years old! What about David Lynch, Robert Altman, Francis Coppola, Arthur Penn? Well, given that the last two winners were Harrison Ford and Barbra Streisand, it’s clear that the assessment of “life achievement” is a hell of a lot more popcorn-driven than it used to be. If you ask me, they’ve sold out to the cult of celebrity – and to their desire to get a big audience for the televised banquet. Is the art of the moving image really at a point where it owes more to Tom Hanks than anyone else, and where Lord of the Rings is its finest embodiment? Don’t believe it for a second.

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