Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010)

"How about a rain check?"
"Well, let's just stick to dinner."

Leslie Nielsen was hardly just that guy in the "dumb movies," as he's so often been pegged. Yeah, his comedy was dumb, but he did dumb better than most, not least because his screen persona was so relentlessly devoted to appearing oblivious to the dumb that occurred around him. Nielsen could hold a straight face better than almost any comedian of his generation, staring blankly at the object of interest while the world in his periphery went to dust. There are few faces in film comedy more iconic to me than Nielsen's. He was as deadpan as Keaton, as unexpectedly capable of dynamic facial expressions as Allen, and as physical as Chaplin. No other actor brought such joy to my youth, and could sustain such a ridiculous posture in the process.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Enter the Void (2009) A Film by Gaspar Noé

Enter the Void is exactly the film Gaspar Noé needed to make to lift himself from the tar-heap of extreme provocation and misanthropy he had burrowed into with his first two features I Stand Alone and Irreversible. It was quite clear that he could not ride this train for too long before being written off completely as a one-note technical wizard, even if the particular world he settled into was utterly unmatched in cinema. Granted, it's not that Enter the Void doesn't luxuriate in a familiar air of dread and nausea, but rather that it does so in ways that are not purely exhibitionist. For the first time, Noé's gross-out, freak-out sensibility feels inextricably bound to the story he's telling, to the genuine emotions he's trying to get across. In other words, the film's unsavory images (which, to be sure, are fewer and farther between than in past work) more often than not grow organically from within the film instead of being injected in for Noé's own perverse, punishing aspirations.

What's more, for all his stunning technical adeptness in the past, he has really outdone himself here with the story of an American drug-dealer named Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) who is shot by police in a drug set-up near his high-rise Tokyo apartment. After this narrative instigator, which comes twenty minutes into the film, Noé depicts Oscar's transcendent post-mortal state by letting his camera literally embody his omniscient spirit floating over Tokyo, slipping in and out of night clubs, apartments, and shadowy alleyways, privy to anything and everything. This first-person perspective, both cosmic and immediate, is what dominates the film, manifesting itself as a "blinking", flesh-and-blood presence in the pre-death "prologue" and eventually dropping in on Oscar's murky flashbacks in shots behind his head that are presumably the visions of his lingering, out-of-body consciousness. It's an unbelievable spectacle of perspective that Noé enables, disorienting and intimate in its impact, and indicative not only of the mysteriousness of the great beyond but also of the spatial and perspectival turbulence that is tied to the drug experience, specifically the powerful hallucinogenics Oscar sells and uses. In fact, drugs and death are being consciously linked throughout the film, not in some didactic, finger-pointing, or premonitory manner, but in a way that locates the otherworldly capacities inherent in both. If that makes it sound like Enter the Void is exalting the obviously dangerous, illegal practice of drug use, well, it is. To some extent. But it's not some prolonged pro-drug ad; Noé's careful to highlight the importance of not enslaving oneself to substances.

None of this should have come as a surprise. It was clear enough from interviews with Noé and trailers that this was going to be at least partly a "drug movie". This nebulous genre, if there even is one, should plunge the viewer into a cinematic approximation of the sensations of taking drugs and, hopefully, say something worth saying about it in the process. As such, Enter the Void is one of the most potent, convincing evocations of the drug experience that I've ever witnessed; it captures the ecstasy, the debilitation, and the paranoia of it with startling firsthand immediacy. (Disclaimer: I don't take drugs, but this experience made me feel like I did.) At face value, the film's tripped-out, 2001-lite visions - lugubrious gyrations of color and movement courtesy of a gargantuan visual effects department, complete with sexualized tendrils swaying about - veer close to the territory of 1990's Windows screen-savers, but they take on a hypnotic power in context largely because Noé is so skillful in getting the audience to believe they are Oscar. Every sudden swoop of the camera feels attributable to a nervous twitch or a paranoid delusion transmitted from Oscar's subconscious, and Brown's clipped, in-your-face internal monologues ("This is the good stuff," "I'm not a junkie," "Wake up") have the unguarded awkwardness of a mental voice.

Following Oscar's encounter with DMT, a hallucinogenic tryptamine existing in the brain but only released during birth, dreaming, near-death experiences, and various other naturally occurring altered states, he is called by his friend Victor (Olly Alexander) who requests he meet him at a club called The Void to sell him some drugs. Noé covers the moment of the phone call to the moment of Oscar's death in one marathon shot spanning the time it takes for Oscar and his drug buddy Alex (Cyril Roy) to descend a never-ending fire escape and meander through the bustling streets of late-night Tokyo, where an escalating tension develops in spite of the casual realism of the sequence. What struck me in retrospect was how little I was aware of and thinking about the technical bravura (all the potential "invisible cuts" aside) as it occurred, because as much as the elaborate, cumbersome nature of the shot is what makes it so incredible, it doesn't call attention to itself. Cutting would seem disingenuous here, and would spoil both the sustained first-person technique and the verisimilitude of the scene. Furthermore, one might call the whole film one long continuous "shot", bound as it is to a complete chronological document of Oscar's state of being, and Noé is constantly discovering ways to fluidly traverse the varying modes Oscar settles into, be it voyeuristic spirit or sentimental occupant of his own memories.

The former, and that which comprises most of Enter the Void's lengthy running time, employs the most groundbreaking stylistic device in a film peppered by various groundbreaking stylistic devices. To communicate Oscar's free-floating, out-of-body state, Noé takes the hyper-literal, Christopher Nolan-esque route and has his camera actually float above the drama underneath, flying across the entirety of Japan's expansive club scene to eventually pause on an individual room where details of interest, both to the narrative and to Oscar's subconscious, are revealed. Where Noé differs from Nolan - whose Inception actually shares much of the exposition-heavy tendencies of Enter the Void (its long-winded establishing of rules is reminiscent of the pat summarization of The Tibetan Book of the Dead in Noé's film, which suspiciously mirrors the narrative blueprint) - is in the fact that his blunt visual excess has real substantive weight to it, eventually taking on a poetry of its own that is exclusive to its function as a narrative crutch. There's a pulsating rhythm to these God's-eye-view angles that is endlessly satisfying (and in some cases, willfully disorienting), especially when Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie indulge in optical tricks like alternating the wideness of the lens mid-shot so that it becomes a kind of drunken expansion of viewpoint, moving from close-up to panorama in order to dwarf characters in their emotional desolation, or when they find endless black orifices (a bullet wound, a drain-hole, a vagina) to enter and emerge from in another space.

It should be clear from reading this how little I care about the ostensible narrative of Enter the Void, and by extension, how negligible it is to enjoying and experiencing the film. I'm not sure if Noé would agree that his narrative is simply an excuse for large-scale immersion in visual and sonic experimentation, because it seems he's unexpectedly genuine and sincere with the human story that keeps Enter the Void's wheels turning, but there's no doubting that it takes a backseat to the phenomenological qualities of the film. Like in Irreversible, the drama is shred-thin and not always very believable or nuanced; Oscar is plagued by a backstory of exile from his parents, who died in a car crash that he miraculously escaped from alive, and from his beloved sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), who has recently reunited with him in Tokyo, quickly becoming seduced by the flashy allure of the city as a maelstrom of drugs, alcohol, partying, and sexual soliciting. Visually, the flashbacks that underscore this traumatizing history are often extraordinarily affecting, but whenever the character's open their mouths, they articulate melodramatic pacts that are designed in such an airtight manner, meant to draw attention to the breaking of these pacts that Oscar's death brings. Oscar and Linda's relationship is never particularly convincing as a three-dimensional familial affection. Noé pays the most attention to their offhand incestuousness, which seems to at least partly fill the void in Oscar's life for a nurturing mother and also continues a very frank Freudian preoccupation throughout the film.

The nexus of Oscar's nostalgic pain, or the scene of his parents' death, is repeated numerous times as the film mounts the various levels of its emotional anguish. If the vision of a massive bus pile-driving a small sedan in a highway tunnel is shocking and devastating the first time, one would expect its power to diminish in ensuing representations, but this is hardly the case. Noé manages to re-insert the scene in instances that feel predictable and yet register a heightened sense of emotional vulnerability and alarm in the audience. It's as if the audience is made one with Oscar's consciousness and post-consciousness, privy to his fractured traumas and aware of the escalating patterns of associations he makes. Moreover, Noé repeats specific scenes, such as his death, from the behind-the-head perspective, as if to examine them from every possible angle. Narratively, there's no justification for all this redundancy, and one might make a case for the film only needing to be, say, 30 minutes to really "do its job", but by mulling over scenes, recycling motifs, and trumpeting seemingly inconsequential details, Noé excavates Oscar's entire being. And the film is nothing if not a totalizing immersion into the mind and body of one person. Noé may not be a dramatist, but the base of bare emotions he works off of here is perhaps the ideal complement to this experiential approach. Enter the Void pushes cinema to its breaking point, wiping away all notions of conventional narrative to become pure experience.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Watermelon Man (1970) A Film by Melvin Van Peebles

Melvin Van Peebles' The Watermelon Man, or, When Brechtian Cinema Goes Bad, is a demented domestic parable that plays like a left-wing sitcom stretched to feature length. Its premise - that of an outspoken bigot whose skin turns black overnight - echoes the simple-minded modern-day comedies of Tyler Perry. These are films that operate under the banal understanding that in order to confront societal inequities one must face them head-on with silly, speculative plots that draw glaring attention to human differences. As a result, they do less to alleviate unfair prejudices than they do to reinforce them, getting across only the vague notion that "things must change" rather than offering up any suggestions or providing any insight into the complexity of such a topic. The Watermelon Man's leading concern is the segregation of Negroes in American society, particularly among the bourgeois white population, so it confronts this situation in the bluntest, most obvious manner: it converts a member from the latter majority to the former minority to give him a taste of the other side, to "teach him a lesson". It's a shame that for its distanced social critique and conscious aesthetic of irritation this falls under the umbrella of Brechtian cinema, otherwise a socially and politically productive form, because Van Peebles only recycles the already prevailing climate of prejudice in late sixties American suburbia with the pedestrian suggestion that it's wrong.

In order to cushion his critique in a polarizing black or white dynamic (literally), Van Peebles villanizes the white folk, lifting the guise of economic prosperity to reveal scheming, heartless individuals beneath. Late in the film, main character Jeff Gerber (Godfrey Cambridge) is confronted by a group of white neighbors who offer him $40,000, then $50,000, then eventually $100,000 to move out for fear that his presence will sabotage the morale of the neighborhood. To remove this supposed parasite from their meticulously contained lives, no price is too high. Elsewhere, this caricature of a white predator is no less pronounced: hordes of townsfolk crowd around Gerber insisting he's a thief with no visible evidence, a white women sleeps with him on the basis of his exotic blackness, and worst, his own wife loses faith in him at the expense of their love and mutual need for each other. All of these scenarios offer variations on the typical manifestations of white supremacy, each over-the-top and unconvincing in their own right. What's more, Van Peebles posits Gerber's transformation as a process of self-actualization. Though Gerber first interprets his black skin as a punishing comeuppance for his rude, unfiltered behavior in the beginning, his blackness eventually resolves itself as a return to a superior moral primitivism, a notion Van Peebles suggests is only alive among the African American race. It's as if the film is governed by the idea that Negroes must teach the white majority to rethink their values, that otherwise the white majority as a whole is doomed to rot in moral and spiritual decay. Sure, some of Van Peebles' observations are correct and worthy of consideration, but not on the kind of cosmic level he employs to launch his indictment.

Before going further, it's important to acknowledge that The Watermelon Man is decidedly not after understatement. It wants to attack loudly, and it doesn't take any measures to disguise it. One might uphold that social problems such as that of racism in 60's and 70's America can only float to the surface of the collective conscience through broad, angry gestures, and to that I tenuously agree. But if this means simplifying social structures so extremely that they cease to feel practical in context of the real world, I think that's a failure that invites hyperbole and caricature rather than measured considerations. Van Peebles is direct and unsubtle in his drawing attention to the negligible values that are assigned to color in society by sporadically adorning the screen with arbitrary filters (red, green, blue, yellow), for seemingly no other motivation than to reinforce what little bearing it has on the narrative, and by extension, on people, or perhaps also to send another shatter through the already dilapidated fourth wall. When Gerber first wakes up black, this device is employed to absurd extent. Staring at a mirror (or more to the point, a glass wall), he shrieks and wimpers while Van Peebles cuts back again and again to his initial outburst of shock, blasted through a gyrating color wheel. Gerber's rubbing his nose on the cinema screen itself, literally prying at the audience to understand his "predicament". In the process, Van Peebles is screaming at the audience with a combination of his disjunctive editing, his overpowering atonal score, and the sheer absurdity of the spectacle.

At a certain point, The Watermelon Man accomplishes a lulling, inoffensive state of redundancy and overstatement. Its points - or in this case, its absolutes - have been sledgehammered home, so the only remaining diversion is to watch this allegorical instrument pass through a deterministic trajectory from impish asshole to moralizing beast of burden, which all culminates in Van Peebles' grotesque money shot of a shirtless Gerber posed in freeze-frame with a spear in a self-defense class. Despite its jolting stylistic qualities, which are ostensibly at one with grand statements, this kind of cinema paradoxically works best when it's not pinned down to a single strand of criticism, when it offers up a slew of fascinating social issues and finds abstract, associative patterns within them. Take Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her, a film Van Peebles could have learned a thing or two from, which mines the new, unsettling parallels between modernization, consumerism, and prostitution in 60's France through a similarly in-your-face aesthetic. The Watermelon Man is not thoughtful cinema but rather trite sloganeering, no matter the good, egalitarian intentions at its core.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ne Change Rien (2009) A Film by Pedro Costa

(This review is referring to a screening at the Harvard Film Archive after which Costa himself spoke.)

"I don't like documentaries. No one likes documentaries."
Pedro Costa

They say great artists don't know how to talk about their work. Or so the cliché goes. Pedro Costa reinvigorates this understanding; not only does he ponderously ramble on about matters somewhat tangential to those inquired about (which must partially be attributed to the language barrier), but in many instances he seems to present notions that contradict or complicate the ostensible motivations and ideologies present onscreen. When Costa half-jokes about a universal distaste for documentaries, one gets the sense that he's referring to a didactic, dry form that he does not concern himself with. That much is clear. However, this offhand comment comes moments before an extended monologue about what he perceives to be a widespread disillusionment with the pleasures of fictional world-building, a lack of ability for contemporary audiences to invest in narratives with the same sense of wonderment and awe that cinema-goers did in the early 1900's. All of this is curious when placed in context of the film in question, his latest venture into the vast gray area between narrative and documentary, Ne Change Rien. Nine out of ten viewers unaware of the exacting cinematic practice of Pedro Costa would call this a documentary, perhaps even an insipid, perplexing one at that, and that same sample would likely agree that Costa had no intentions of creating a skewed kind of "vampire story". This pro-fiction babble is destabilizing coming from a director whose very films seem disillusioned by narratives, fixated as they are on worlds where all stories seem to have evaporated and there is little more to do than tirelessly investigate the strange tendencies of surfaces and people.

But to temporarily decipher Costa's charming hypocrisies, it's at least important to realize that he transforms what is superficially a music documentary into something else entirely, an utterly distinct piece of pure cinema that has a tendency to oppose everything a standard film about music would do. Its central aim is Parisian actress Jeanne Balibar - whose secondary musical career Costa turns his camera towards here - as she alternates between rehearsals with her eponymous trance/lounge/pop group in their preparation for an LP and her work as a singer for a theater production of Jacques Offenbach’s La Périchole. The particulars of this documentation (song titles, names of fellow performers, even the name of the stage production she's involved in) are left unclear in the film, meaning it's certainly not fulfilling as a traditional documentary whose primary goal is to enlighten and inform viewers. It's closer to a film like Ossos, seemingly his most fictionalized Lisbon portrait, where details are scattered and obscured in an attempt to facilitate an enigmatic story delivery. Because Costa creates a longing for details within the viewer through his deliberately incomplete or unexplored segments, a tension is established not entirely unlike that in a narrative film.

Usually this tension is made explicit in the fragmented presentation of individual scenes, where Costa lets his camera linger on a static frame of one performer, or in some extreme cases, just the neck of a guitar in the shadows, while the rest of the music occurs offscreen in an imagined space. If one of the chief concerns of a music doc is to capture the collaborative magic of music-making, Costa subverts it by refusing to show the band in mutual engagement. Yet at the same time, his employment of a mono soundtrack (he only used one microphone, usually beside the camera) is an attempt to harness a greater sense of togetherness. Here the tension between the visual separation and the sonic singularity makes for an odd and disconcerting hybrid, confusing the viewer but also encouraging imagination. What's more, it approximates the phenomenon of multitrack recording, where performers are literally disconnected in a studio but joined in the headphone output. In one revealing scene, Costa shows a sound-blocked booth where Balibar is singing, and it is only when he cuts away to the musicians in the adjacent room that we realize an entire song is being played, as Balibar's intimate, mellow singing gives way to a fuller, more manufactured group sound. Moments like these potently convey the manipulation of the studio recording craft and feel like uncomfortable invasions of privacy.

If the film tails off about halfway through and never fully recovers, it's because its main subject is essentially uninteresting. I realize that this may be a minority viewpoint and that several people have expressed great enthusiasm for Balibar's artistry. I also realize that her unflinching stoicism is deeply in line with the rest of Costa's work, in which figures exists like shadows in an otherwise concrete world. But her enormous ambivalence and, quite frankly, lack of sufficient musical talent became rather off-putting at a certain point. It's as if the music doesn't grow organically from her, like she's endlessly going through the motions, existing in this space and only happening to toss off some utterances under her breath so as to not look like a complete maverick of indifference. This seeming vacancy of mind is evident in one of the film's most trying scenes, when Costa sets his camera down in one never-ending two shot of Balibar and Rodolphe Burger (the guitarist) as they dissect a pulsing bass sample from Curtis Mayfield’s “Super Fly”. Balibar is mechanically repeating the same vocal melody and her lethargic knee-tapping periodically falls out of time. Surely, it doesn't take much to simply follow a beat or search for some variation in phrasing, and I think Balibar's inability to convincingly do so in this scene suggests a fundamental remoteness, a lack of connection with her music. If it's any measure of credibility, I should make it clear that I have had extensive experience as a musician, rehearsing and recording, and it's something I find consistently exhilarating, making Balibar's indifference that much more irritating.

Unfortunately, this is to the detriment of Costa's own rigorous approach. His unrelenting static compositions provide ample time for Balibar to reveal her inner spark, but she remains remote even as her face, made gigantic with Costa's claustrophobic framing, looms over the theater for several minutes. As a study of a person, it's transfixing stuff, but as a study of a performer and performance, only variably does it offer excitement, immediacy, or insight. Balibar aside, the atmosphere in Ne Change Rien is unprecedented; a feeling of late-night melancholy and introspection pervades the film even during its daytime studio performances, when ethereal light sprays in from the few windows, teaming with domestic lamps as the only sources of illumination in the otherwise black, cavernous space. This moody setting is likely what contributes to Costa's vague description of his film as a "vampire movie where the characters play instruments", and it perhaps speaks to the kind of world-building he advocates for. It's a place you get lost in for however long the film runs, and you lose your conception of time. I wasn't watching Ne Change Rien as much as I was living it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My Name is Oona (1969) A Short Film by Gunvor Nelson

Gunvor Nelson's 10-minute short My Name is Oona is an often unfairly forgotten gem of experimental cinema, cloaked to some extent by the works of the bigger names of Nelson's time. Its relatively diminutive stature aside, it's an enormously moving visual and sonic poem about identity that manages to get at the simultaneous excitement and anxiety that comes with a knowledge of one's self. Nelson obliquely posits this knowledge in the film as the sensation of gradually coming to consciousness or waking up, capturing in a stirring succession of incomplete, fragmented images her young daughter Oona's realization of her name and her physical world. Her radiant face is subjected to intense scrutiny, pausing in front of the camera to stare into the lens or glimpsed in candid moments of play, grinning hugely. Equal time is spent reveling in the natural landscape around her, such as the silvery bushes that swoop by a tracking camera or the sun-blasted field where Oona rides her horse. The visual information is delivered only in snatches, interrupted by cuts to black or swiftly excised just before the viewer has a full spatial grasp. This naturally creates an impression of ephemerality, which is representative of both the relationship between Nelson's camera and Nelson's daughter and the fleeting nature of childhood itself.

My Name is Oona is anything but an idealized, utopian vision of childhood and identity. Nelson suggests that these notions are ever-shifting from tenderness to profound apprehension, and the film's rhythm consciously triggers these emotional fluctuations. It does so, of course, through its visuals (stalling momentarily for lovely slow-motion before bursting into kinetic movement) but even more largely through its hypnotic soundtrack, by Steve Reich. Reich works with the raw material of Oona's own voice as she repetitively recites "My Name is Oona." What starts by sounding like an elementary school speech exercise gradually coalesces into a pulsing vocal drone, with Reich overlapping and warping Oona's voice to the point that it takes on a purely musical, rather than verbal, function. After the first climax of sound fades out, the film luxuriates in a minute or two of peaceful stasis while Oona intimately reads out loud the days of the week. Then Reich begins building up another cacophony of competing voices, this time incorporating an even more unsettling, robotic version of "My Name is Oona" that discordantly scrapes against the surrounding cadence, paradoxically accompanying what are likely the film's most liberating images, the silhouette of Oona and her horse galloping through the wind. The competition between these forces is intensely effective, communicating both a fond familiarity with Oona as well as a visceral discomfort. Because the film is more impactful than most feature-length works, and because few artists can demonstrate such an inseparable pairing of sound and image, My Name is Oona is a landmark in poetic cinema.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mulholland Drive: A First Time Viewer's Temporary Catharsis

I had this email exchange with my friend Eric Bolton about David Lynch's stellar Mulholland Drive over the past few days. It was his first time seeing the film (he'd been mulling over a copy of it I lent to him at least six months ago), and he wouldn't consider himself a cinephile or anything, but to my surprise he was enormously impressed by it. Our resulting email chain, though not really formal or all-encompassing in the slightest, is at least somewhat of a cursory examination of the film for a first-time viewer. These are the confounding emotions that are immediately present with Lynch.

EB: I have some questions about Mulholland Dr.

I think I get the gist of it in that the first 2 hours or so are Diane's fantasy as opposed to the terrible life she is shown to really have in the last portion. As with any fantasy, it can't exist completely, parts of reality escape into it and at the end, it comes crashing down to reveal Diane's real life in which she is an unsuccessful actress, and her love is unrequited by Camilla, who she in turn plans to have murdered. Obviously, it's a film that's very open to interpretation, but this is what I got out of it. Keeping that in mind, there were some things I didn't quite get the significance of (if there was any) and was wondering if you could shed some light or tell me what you think the movie "means":

-What was the deal with the blue key given to Diane by the hitman and what did it mean when she saw it on the coffee table? Was it just a signal that Camilla was killed?

-The "face" in the dream, it being shown again behind the alley towards the end, and the box that he has in the bag all really put me at a lost. Any thoughts?

-The theater scene to me was the point where the movie pulled itself apart. I couldn't really pull out any meaning or symbolism from that though. That could be one I'll just need to rewatch, but it was definitely one of the more surreal moments in the film, and seemed to be more visceral than anything.

CL: Realize first of all that David Lynch (the director) is prone to surrealism, i.e he likes to include things that are hard to articulate in literal terms, but contribute something to the overall mood of the work before they have any narrative significance. With that said, I don't think anything in Mulholland Drive is completely "random" or "out-of-the-blue", which is one of the main criticisms of the movie.

The Blue Key: This is a typically bizarre flourish that Lynch likes to include (something that is pretty inexplicable and hard to pin down to one specific meaning - vague on purpose in order to elicit as broad a spectrum of interpretations as possible). The blue box that the key opens is kind of the rabbit hole of Diane's madness I guess, the anchor of reality and fantasy. As you can see, the camera usually enters it when a massive shift in the narrative is approaching. The key is literally "the key" to the different modes Lynch uses in the movie, and the item that triggers Diane's realization of her own delusions and her eventual murder of Camille. I don't think I can really explain this on-the-nose, because with Lynch a "key" is just a playful non-sequitur, since it isn't really the key to anything in particular.

Oh, the creep alleyway guy? That's even harder to give a clear, cohesive reading. But it scared the shit out of you right? In a very basic way, it's emblematic of the fear lurking behind the shadows, where you can't see it, which is in a figurative manner the whole structure of the film. Something is unsettling because we don't quite know what's wrong. Also, notice how the bum is in possession of the box. He (fear, uncertainty) is closely linked to Diane/Betty's transformation. Lynch likes to include the thing with the guy at the diner as an abstract diversion from the main story, which might frustrate some people, but it ties in at least symbolically.

The theater scene might be my favorite moment in the movie, and maybe my favorite moment in any movie in a long time. I also think it's the most important scene in the whole thing, particularly because of the symbolism at work. The performer is not really performing! It's artificial, yet it stills frightens and moves the two women, and the audience. Lynch is playing with the idea of artificiality and Hollywood fakery throughout the whole movie (throwing together random genre elements like Western ("the cowboy"), screwball comedy (the fudged assassination attempts by the hitman), horror (the alleyway guy), melodrama/detective drama (Betty's entire investigation, which is purposely kinda cheesy)). So the theater moment bluntly announces this. Lynch knows the goofy, cliched quality of genre elements, but he also knows how powerful they can be. In this way, the movie is a tribute to the power and allure of the Hollywood machine, and movies as a whole. The theater scene is all about breaking the fourth wall but remaining amazing.

Anyway, if you're interested in further reading, this is one of the most thorough, rewarding pieces on the movie I've read. It's an extremely long discussion between two critics, but it's all pretty accessible reading, and it gets at all of the mystery of the movie better than I ever could.

EB: Thanks for your insight. It was a seriously amazing movie, and has had me thinking about it since watching it. I think the Hollywood stuff in the film is hugely important to it, and while I noticed it, I didn't pay much attention to it since I don't have as deep an affection for it as you do. I'll have to watch it again with all of these things in mind.

And for the record, I really enjoy reading about movies I've seen, and read through the majority of this article. Ed Howard offered some great thoughts, but Jason Bellamy's comments were annoying to read. He seemed to avoid talking about the film at all and instead talked about broader questions. Either way, it was a good read.

CL: Yeah, Ed Howard's one of the better bloggers I know. Extremely intelligent, thought-provoking, and lucid. I like Jason Bellamy too, and I think he raised some interesting points coming from someone who was not as enthusiastic about it, but you're right that sometimes his lack of excitement, or his relatively ambivalent viewpoint, meant he indulged in broader arguments. Either way, there's some amazing stuff in there. You've seen Vertigo right? How about Kiss Me Deadly? Those are very important reference points that they bring up.

EB: I have seen Vertigo, but not Kiss Me Deadly, so all of those references sort of went out the window.

Just watched it for the 2nd time, since I really wanted to see it while knowing the general structure and get a less overwhelming viewing. Still incredible on 2nd viewing. The Club Silencio scene hit a lot harder this time. The way I interpreted it, the man comes out and plainly states that what we see is not real, and that he's able to create his reality by imagination and desire (his calling out of the instruments). This is exactly what is going on in Diane's dreamworld: what we see is all a recording, or in her head, and it's only because she can create a reality in her mind that she sees it, but it is not real. The man's statements terrify Betty and cause her to convulse, but she holds on to Rita and is in turn able to hold on to her dream for just a bit longer. Of course, the singer comes out, it seems like all is back to normal, and then she too proves that it's all a recording, and Betty then finds the key that ends this dream.

After seeing the film again, I think that among many things, it's about both how we see ourselves, how we wish to see ourselves, what we're actually like, and the differences between those. Diane's dreamworld has variable distinctions from her real life. Adam, for example, is not much different. Camilla who was in control of their relationship and generally cruel in real life was in the hands of Betty in the dream, but her general aura was not much different between worlds. Diane sees herself as ambitious, kind, eager for adventure, and talented but under-appreciated as an actress, but while she may strive for those things in real life, she is simply a broken down wreck of a human being. I think Lynch is definitely prodding us in this direction by spending the majority of the film showing how Diane wants to see herself, versus what she's actually like.

It's very difficult to talk about this movie without the proper nouns getting really confusing.

CL: Ha. Yeah, that's why it's easier to simply refer to Naomi Watts or Laura Harring, and I'm sure Lynch wouldn't mind that, as it jibes with the whole subtext of viewers being so immersed in and idolizing towards Hollywood and entertainment.

That's a pretty apt reading there in your second paragraph. You're right to say that deep down it's a character study, and like all character studies, it's effective because it's universal. It deals with actual and perceived selves, and the difficulty of reconciling both. When you get the climactic "versus what she's actually like" thing that you refer to, it's been invested with so much power. The viewer almost wants to deny that it's the real truth because it's so painful and we very well might be convinced otherwise. This speaks to the idea of wanting to really exist as your imagined, idealized self, which is a kind of self that Hollywood manufactures in large doses.

Anyway, I'm glad you saw it a second time right away. I think that's most helpful. And now that you listen to the incredible John Vanderslice tune ("Promising Actress", from 2004's Cellar Door, you can understand his bizarre diversions.