– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.
MATCH CUTS: I discovered Mulholland Dr. the weekend it came out, I was 20 years old, and visibly shaken after the screening. It was one of the first films where I was completely taken with the “feeling” of the film, even if the narrative itself wasn’t clear. This feeling got under my skin like no other film, and it’s only gotten more pronounced with the passing years. It’s something about Lynch’s cutting indictment of Hollywood, the abuses, compromises, and the manipulation. It’s the best horror film of the last twenty years, and it’s because there is so much left up to the viewer.
THE FILMIST: I saw Mullholland Dr. only recently – which is strange, because it’s one of his most well-received films of that last fifteen or twenty years. And, I think it does the film kind of a disservice to talk about it in terms of narrative or plot, even though there is one, of sorts, because – as you mentioned – this is a film that seems to deal in the evocation of certain emotions that burrow themselves up deep in your veins, festering and brooding, and it’s only later when we start to search for the ‘method behind the madness,’ if I can go ahead and use a cliche’. I described The Fall as a ‘fever dream,’ and I think that label fits this film to a ‘t,’ as well – but, it’s something more urbane, something more harsh.
M: Well, this is a fever nightmare, and absolutely devastating when you think about the degeneration of hope, connection, and trust, and this film is not about narrative at all, but the construction of mood from the ground up. The shadows really come to mind, and the music, how it supports the menacing glances of the actors. Everything stems from this desire to provoke emotion, provoke a reaction from the disjointed collection of horrific moments.
F: I think what springs to mind immediately is the beginning of the film, which is almost a series of completely disjointed images – the dancing crowd, the faces, the quick, loud flashes of noise and light during the car ride. There’s no real logical sense to it ostensibly, like most of Lynch’s more experimental works, but – it’s driving at something, what we’re not sure of, but we can feel it in our throats.
M: I’ve heard theories that it’s the jitterbug contest Betty supposedly won, but it really doesn’t do it any justice to try and explain anything. It’s the fact that Lynch is giving us these images that are supposed to be positive, or at least jovial and safe, but driving this intense darkness into them, the overlap of the images, the diabolical movement of the bodies and faces. Then, the darkness of the shot behind the limo. You’re right, Lynch is leading us somewhere very disturbing.
F: And, then there’s this whole business with a ‘blue key,’ behind everything else. What are your thoughts on this particular element of the film, hoss?
M: Well, I’d venture a guess that the key unlocks the darkness of reality. The first half really promotes this connection between Rita and Betty, and that key really reveals the flip side of the dream, the nightmare where Betty turns into this downtrodden waitress, envious, unsuccessful, and completely self destructive. But the film is all about identity, and much like Inland Empire, this film shows how Hollywood deconstructs identity, changes it for it’s own good, for it’s own profit, which is the ultimate destruction of human complexity. It breaks a person down to the surface, something that can be manipulated forever.
F: Quite so – you know, one of the most interesting interpretations of the film I’ve read so far is that the stories of Rita and Betty take place in parallel universes that just kind of intersect and bounce off of each other, every so often – but then, I suppose that’s as likely as the whole film just being one big dream sequence is.
M: And it’s great that the film doesn’t limit this approach to Betty and Rita, and the feeling is like an infection rampaging through Hollywood in general, tainting the director especially. THis film is the epitome of mood.
F: Yes, indeed – I’ve also heard the same thing applied to Diane and Betty, as well, and Diane and Carmilla. It’s like an ever-moving kaleidoscope of potential relationships and reflections, through colors and shadow.
M: The film is a revolving mirror, just like you said, but it changes with each viewing, which is very unique in film these days. Sometimes I really connect with Betty (the obvious choice), but at other times I see the pain in the supporting characters’ eyes, or the true evil in the Cowboy’s facial expression. It kind of depends on what mood you the viewer are in.
F: In the great pantheon of modern filmmakers, Lynch seems kind of like an impish trickster god of some kind, constantly dizzying us with his own unique brand of mysticism. With this film, he seems to have done so even in regards to his actors and actresses – when you read interviews with them, Naomi Watts, Melissa George, and everybody else, it’s obvious that the film appears as willfully obtuse to them as it does to us. And, perhaps that’s the great indicator that this isn’t just a collection of cheap parlor tricks, but a genuine experiment. Lynch laughs like a madman, above everyone else.
M: Yeah, Lynch is always working toward unearthing something awful within the mundane, like the brutal murders in Twin Peaks. But with Mulholland Dr., his target is the very art of performance, the very core of Hollywood’s power. So the terror resides in popular trends, shifts in consciousness, manipulations of imagery, something that the folks of Twin Peaks might see at the drive in. But there’s a direct connection between the two, and it’s in the human nature that Lynch is dissecting, that something evil is just around the corner (like the bum outside of Winkies), or just beyond the shadow (Cowboy).
F: Yes, indeed.
M: It’s what makes him such an interesting director. The fact that he takes his love for Classical Hollywood Cinema, and slices it to pieces with this unnerving twist of the screws. There are certain scenes in Mulholland Dr. that freak me out every time, like the “There is no Band” moment. That everything we enjoy in life, including actual relationships, might just be an act. A facade for disappointment, for horror, for all the elements we can’t bring ourselves to stare right in the face.
F: Exactly. His is a filmography of disillusionment revealed under the coverlet of our day-to-day existence – which is, by itself, a scary train of thought; his films are, in the best way, like those people on the bus who believe that our modern culture, our relationships to each other, even our own personalities, have no meaning – which is a notion that just frightens the bejesus out of me, for some reason or another. Although, you know what this film reminded me of, the first time I sat down and watched it? It wasn’t “Twin Peaks,” despite the strong relationship between the two both on a trivial level (with this film’s intended origin as a TV pilot, and so on) and on a narrative level – but, “Wild Palms,” that early 1990’s TV Show with Jim Belushi, what with the criticism you’d brought up against Hollywood and the media, and the imagery feeling strikingly similar.
M: I haven’t see that, but it’s definitely apparent here. I also find it really disturbing when Betty/Diane envisions the old people as small ants, laughing maniacally and dancing, which invariably drive her to shoot herself.
F: Frightening stuff.
M: A lot of people around the Web have been talking Watts’ performance up as possibly the best of the decade. i’d agree with that since she is equal parts snake and lamb, innocent and aggressor, hers is such a layered incarnation of pain and anguish, but also hope and unrequited love. To be able to achieve those polar opposites in a performance is amazing.
F:: Indeed it is – I wish she’d done more stuff working on this level, because she pulls it off here with considerable aplomb.
M: I’ll admit that this film is tough to write about, but watching it again for this project, it reminded me what brilliant filmmaking represents, guiding the viewer down a corridor of emotions, a tunnel of possibilities. Modern films tend to force us to look a certain direction, but Lynch opens doors for the viewer, into all these different, terrible, beautiful places.
F: It’s an intriguing film, certainly – and, it’s got its own reserved spot on my epilogue post, after all these machinations are finished.
M: Excellent, why don’t you lead us to a much more happier place with your selection.
F: Indubitably. When Happy Feet was first released, I had no real inkling of what it was about, and no real interest in it until I’d noticed George Miller’s name down below – you can chalk this up to the intentionally misleading ad campaign, which really was quite bad, as many others have written about. But, the finished film was anything but – Miller’s taken what is an essentially throw-pillow concept and found a way to take it for all of its potential resonance, turning it into something societal, something epic and spanning. It’s something much in the same mythological vane of his previous films, especially the second and third Mad Max movies, and Babe 2 – and, astonishingly, he’s found a way to make a dancing penguin not look completely and unintentionally silly. That alone is an amazing feat, I’m sure you’ll agree.
M: Absolutely, I completely dismissed this film when it was released, but caught up with it on DVD. I remember watching it three times in one weekend, having been blown away. It’s one of the few films that poses questions within a children’s narrative, about the world, the environment, the future of this planet, these grand questions that kids and adults alike need to consider.
F: Yes – viewing it as a children’s film, Miller seems to have returned to what was the true intent of that particular genre of film, not of a movie that leaves a stagnant impression on a young viewer, but one that grows with him or her, whose implications become gradually more and more obvious as the viewer gets older, much like Don Bluth’s initial Land Before Time film, or any of those other considerably morally complex animated fables of the seventies and eighties. It’s a shame that that we hadn’t the opportunity to compare and contrast the film with Pixar’s WALL-E, a couple of weeks back. That would’ve been interesting, I think.
M: It respects the viewer, both young and old. It’s essentially an origin story about a savior, but it’s an ideology born of joy, dance, and subversion, something that keen adults really respond to.
F: It’s interesting you mention the ‘savior’ aspect of the story, because that’s one I’ve heard a lot about, of late – Davey Morrison, a writer for The Examiner whose followed our respective posts and discussions from start to finish, wrote a paper on the film just recently examining it from that same angle, comparing the overall arc of story and Mumble’s character to The Pharisees and Jesus, and all of that. It’s an interesting take, one I can agree with in the context of the film’s focus on the religious aspect of the penguins, and it’s even more interesting when one looks and sees that there are even some people who’ve gone in the completely opposite direction, seeing the main character as a sort of “atheist maverick for our times,” to quote The New Statesman.
M: It’s an angle I haven’t really address in my own writing about the film. I’ve focused more intently on the use of landscape in the film, and the juxtaposition of the natural order of things with the chaotic clutter of the human world. But Miller seems to grasp genre here better than any of this other films. I teach this film for my Film Analysis class because it contains every major genre, representing the musical obviously, but the romance picture, the action film, the adventure, and even elements of Horror, most notably the Zoo sequence, which is just damning from so many angles.
F: And, it ties them together so cogently that there’s barely a hair over-turned. It’s interesting how well Miller’s kinetic shooting style seems to lend itself to the musical form – outside of the film’s true-blue chase sequences, the Boogie Wonderland scene that marks the midpoint of the film, the ‘contact’ sequence near the end, and so on, all really extend the same kind of focus on rhythm and lyricism that was at the center of his Mad Max films. Or, the first two, at least. Speaking of juxtapositions, Miller’s reflective use of tone in the film deserves mention, as well – moving from light-hearted into the mythological, and so on. What were your thoughts on it?
M: It balances all of the things you mentioned, so well that it seamlessly becomes this incredible synergy of genres. But I’ve always flocked to Miller’s use of sky, mountains, snow, sand, all the elemental aspects of this film and Mad Max, and Babe 2. How often does the light blue sky frame Miller’s heroes? He has a wonderful grasp on the connection between environment and character.
F: In this film more than the others, I think, because the environment seems to actually become a character in the film – much like the use of the desert in the third Mad Max film, and in the second to a somewhat lesser extent. Or, if not a character, then a reflection of the characters, themselves – subtle clouds in foreboding moment of sorrow, golden hues in moments of awe at the ships down below.
M: Yes, and when they crash against each other, like in the moment when Mumble and the Amigos try and cross the tundra, the wind blowing them backward, it’s just a virtuoso moment, and the film is chalk full of them.
F: That’s probably my favorite scene in the film, more than the ‘contact’ sequence or the zoo scene, or the Huddle near the beginning – because, really, when you get right down to it, it’s a battle to move from the left to the right of the screen, complicated by the machinations of the wind and blizzard around them. It’s one of those scenes where Miller’s mythic intent becomes obvious, in the best way, I think.
M: I also adore the moment after they’ve skied down the slope, caused the avalanche, and Mumble is under water, and he sees the gigantic Tractor sinking to the bottom of the ocean, disappearing into the darkness. He knows something is wrong, and it’s the instinct that drives Mumble. To change it.
F: That’s one of the best examples in the film of Miller’s creative use of tone, I think. One of the things I found so fascinating about the film, and it’s one of the reasons why I like to think of it as Watership Down‘s spiritual brethren, is that there’s an almost anthropological attention to detail given in sketching out the culture of these penguins. It’s very stark, and imperative, I think.
M: It’s wonderful that the film ends with this wave of dancing penguins, this complete glorious celebration of the cycle of life. You can’t help but root for a film like that.
F: Oh, certainly – Miller’s a great follower of Jung and Campbell, all of those cats, and I don’t think I’ve seen a better example of the ‘Reconciliation of the Two Worlds’ stage than that final moment, following immediately after the dreamlike montage of the world’s response – beautiful stuff. It’s intriguing to think of where he might end up going with a sequel, which has been in production for several months, by now.
M: Ha. that’s what I was just thinking. I can’t wait to see how he continues the saga. I mean what “conflict” could be more crucial than the continuation of nature.?
F: Well, I hang out at a lot of French film forums, and all of that. They’re all great admirers of the film over there, and some of the ideas they were tossing around were things I wouldn’t mind seeing – some kind of investigation into the implications left at the end of the film between Mumble and the Elders; perhaps some kind of giant, mass penguin exodus; or, more intriguingly, a resuscitation of the dead ‘penguin alien’ plotpoint they cut out of this first film at the last minute.
M: It will be great to see an expansion of the visuals as well. Something maybe the advances in technology could help achieve. I love that Miller is getting creative freedom.
F:This may turn out to be his most prolific period as a filmmaker yet – certainly his most productive in a long while.
The poster for Happy Feet was created by designer Anton Ville, who worked on the film as a concept artist. A disclaimer so I don’t get sued, or anything.