WEIRDLAND: Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Permanent Midnight

Friday, May 15, 2020

Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Permanent Midnight

Mulholland Drive (2001is filled with sex, violence, decadence, dark humor and an almost unintelligible plot. David Lynch's films are magnets for perforated misfits who think that his films are celebrating their own decadence and snickering along with them at wholesome, traditional White American values. However, Mulholland Drive, like all of Lynch’s movies, is a categorical indictment of the decadence of modern American society by a man who truly believes in traditional American values. David Lynch would love to live in Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet‘s Lumberton. In Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and The Straight Story, he celebrates the independence, resourcefulness, and Eagle-Scout virtues of ordinary, sincere, straight-arrow Americans. But he knows that their world is constantly threatened by evil forces. These evil forces work through the channels of culture and politics, but they are not merely cultural and political. They are spiritual.

The relationship between Sailor and Lula provides respite from the unpleasant life existing outside of it. It is harmonious, pure, and innocent, while the surrounding world is degraded, violent, and perverse. Wild at Heart breaks down the distinction between the merely private fantasy and the external world, allowing us to see how private fantasies work to shape the external world. Wild at Heart depicts a threat to this romance in the form of Bobby Ray Lemon and Marietta (who hired him to kill Sailor). Lynch concludes one of Wild at Heart’s sexual montages with a lyrical flourish that evokes the 1950s culture he adores: "It was a fantastic decade in a lot of ways... there was something in the air that is not there any more at all. It was such a great feeling, and not just because I was a kid. It was a really hopeful time, and things were going up instead of going down. You got the feeling you could do anything. The future was bright. Little did we know we were headed for a disastrous future."

In Mullholland Drive we see a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed woman, starry-eyed and grinning with joy as she arrives in Los Angeles. Her name is Betty, played by Naomi Watts. Betty has come to Hollywood to be an actress. She is a classic Lynch heroine: an earnest, wholesome, small-town girl from Deep River Ontario. She speaks in the G-rated cliches of old Hollywood. Later we discover that she became interested in acting after winning a jitterbug contest. She is next to an elderly, white-haired woman named Irene. They have met and struck up a friendship on the plane. Irene seems to be from the same wholesome mold. She and her elderly male travelling companion bid Betty goodbye and good luck. Then we see Irene and her friend in the back of a limousine, their faces insanely distorted with cynical, sniggering leers. The man has stereotypically Jewish features. (The actor’s name is Dan Birnbaum.) They are apparently enjoying a good laugh at the expense of this naive, corn-fed shiksa. Later they return as demonic apparitions.

David Lynch and Mark Frost’s first screenplay was based on 1950s icon Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn and Elvis were the Queen and King of Lynch’s fantasyland, and he would honor their spirits in his film version of Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart. Lynch is said to own the rippling piece of red velvet on which Monroe posed for her career-launching nude calendar photo, the cloth emanating the ruddy glow that suffused millions of lustful dreams. The connection in the director’s mind between eroticism and velvet may have triggered the archetype of the crimson curtains draped throughout his work. Lynch and Frost wrote a script called Venus Descending (adapted from Anthony Summers’s biography Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe) which detailed the last months of Monroe’s life. Lynch and Frost consciously honored the spirit of this abandoned project in Twin Peaks, for in both works an outsider-investigator enters a community to delve into the mysterious final days of a beautiful dead blonde female icon (the sleuths of both scripts use miniature tape recorders in their quests). And Marilyn’s poignantly sad descent haunted Lynch for years: In 1990 he characterized her as “this movie actress who was falling down,” words that were like a blueprint for his protagonist Diane Selwyn in 2001’s Mulholland Drive.

I find Plato’s tripartite psychology to be helpful in understanding Wild at Heart. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates argues that the human soul has to be distinguished into three distinct and irreducible faculties: desire - such necessities as food, shelter, sex; reason, which seeks truth; and spirit (thumos), which seeks honor. Plato associates reason with the head, desire with the belly, and thumos with the chest, which is where we feel pride and anger. Thumos is wildness of heart. Thumos is often translated as “spirit,” which makes sense if we understand it as “fighting spirit.” Thumos is also associated with self-sacrifice, since fighting over honor risks death. This is how we know that thumos is different from desire. Desire aims at self-preservation. But thumos is willing to risk self-preservation for honor. Socrates suggests that we can differentiate types of men based on which part of the soul wins out when different parts come into conflict. A man ruled by honor follows it, not reason and desire, when they come into conflict. Whenever men fight when fear or calculation would tell them to retreat, they are ruled by thumos. The thumotic man prefers death to dishonor. Thumos may urge one to fight in hopeless odds, but reason can say no. Desire may urge one to excess, but reason can impose measure.

Sailor Ripley has strong appetites for sex, drink, and cigarettes. But he is primarily ruled by thumos, which becomes apparent in the first scene. He and Lula are leaving a dance when Sailor is approached by a black man named Bob Ray Lemon, who begins verbally picking a fight with the intent to stab Sailor. When Sailor realizes what is going on, he’s clearly not worried about his own safety. He’s signaling that Lemon is crossing a line. When Lemon pulls out his switchblade, Sailor goes into full berserker mode, repeatedly slamming Lemon’s head into a rail and then into the floor, finally hurling his corpse against the wall, its brains spilling onto the floor. Sailor’s reaction clearly set aside all considerations of self-preservation or likely consequences. Reason and desire are totally overwhelmed by thumos.

After spending 22 months in jail for manslaughter, Sailor is released and reunited with Lula. Fearing the interference of Lula’s mother, though, the couple decide to break Sailor’s parole and head to California by way of New Orleans. One night as the couple are passing through Texas, they encounter an accident scene. Two young men are dead. Suddenly a badly injured girl staggers out of the darkness. Sailor and Lula both rush to her aid. They have to take her to the hospital. It is simply the right thing to do. But doing so ensures an encounter with the police, who might learn that Sailor has broken parole. Sailor sees this immediately, but he does not hesitate to help the girl. At this point, Sailor and Lula have less than $100. Practically every other character in this movie is a sociopath whose first instinct would be to rob the dead, but it does not occur to Sailor or Lula.

Another characteristic of thumotic individuals is the value they place on personal loyalty. Sailor speaks fondly of his public defender, who stood by him, but of course the most striking loyalty in the film is between Sailor and Lula. Sailor says that Lula “stood by me after I planted Bob Ray Lemon. A man can’t ask for more than that.” And the loyalty is mutual, for it is quite risky to resume his affair with Marietta Fortune’s daughter. Sailor’s trademark is his snakeskin jacket, which he says is for him “a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom.” Lula says she has heard this line “about fifty-thousand times.” Sailor repeats the line in the very next scene, where he picks a fight with a guy who starts dancing with Lula and who challenges Sailor: “You look like a clown in that stupid jacket.” 

Neither Sailor nor Lula are particularly rational. Lula’s mind seems to move by association rather than reason. As Sailor puts it “the way your head works is God’s own private mystery.” When Lula refers to the world as “wild at heart and weird on top,” the words “on top” could just mean “in addition.” But they could also be in keeping with the physical association of wildness and the heart: wildness is to weirdness as the heart is to the head—“on top.” Thus Lula could be referring to her own proud and irrational character as well. Sailor himself is not too strong in the reasoning department, either, but he at least recognizes the necessity of making better decisions. At one point he declares, “Lula, I done a few things in my life I ain’t too proud of, but I’ll tell ya from now on I ain’t gonna do nothin’ for no good reason. All I know for sure is there’s more’n a few bad ideas runnin’ around loose out there.” 

At another point he promises Lula that he is not going to let things get any worse. Then he promptly lets himself get talked into an armed robbery, which costs him six years in prison and nearly got him killed. He is duly decked. But in the end, it is not reason that saves him but a vision of Glinda the Good from The Wizard of Oz, who tells him, “Lula loves you . . . If you are truly wild at heart, you’ll fight for your dreams . . . Don’t turn away from love, Sailor . . . Don’t turn away from love . . .” If the Sailor Ripleys of the world only had reason to guide them, they’d be pretty much doomed. They need their personal Guardian Angel.

One villain like Marietta is really enough for a film, but in Wild at Heart there is another villian. Half way through the film, Sailor and Lula bump into Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru in Big Tuna, Texas. Peru has been dispatched by Santos and Reindeer to kill Sailor. Bobby Peru is one of the most repellent characters ever brought to the screen. Beginning with the title sequence—an extreme closeup of a match flaring up, followed by a vast, swirling vortex of flames, to the sumptuous opening strains of Richard Strauss’ “Im Abendrot”—Wild at Heart is one of Lynch’s most sensuously beautiful movies: a screen as wide as America filled with strikingly composed images filmed in a way that imbues seedy bars, cheap hotels, and bleak land-and cityscapes with a voluptuous shell pink or sunset or neon luster.

Viewers draw the line in different spots, but virtually everyone who watches this movie thinks “This is too much”—too much weirdness, too much violence, too much blood—well before the final frames. Lynch described Wild at Heart as “a picture about finding love in hell,” but for most people there’s too much hell there to be redeemed by love. My answer, though, is that these are problems with our world, not with Wild at Heart. And because the movie dives so deep into darkness, the ending is all the more satisfying. I have watched Wild at Heart more than 20 times, but in my last viewing I realized that I had never before watched it without wincing or looking away in certain spots. So it took me decades to finally look at every frame of my favorite David Lynch film. I think of all Lynch’s works, Wild at Heart is still the closest to the paradigm of Lynchian perfection, and that should count for something.

Does Wild at Heart have a political message—or at least a political lesson it can teach us? Yes, and it is a conservative one. First, it is a very bleak portrayal of the desire-dominated world created by liberal individualist snakeskin salesmen: a world swarming with criminals and freaks and awash in substance abuse, sexual libertinism, and obnoxious music. It is a veritable Garden of Earthly Delights. We sympathize with Sailor and Lula because we see that they have decent sentiments, but they were so poorly nurtured and educated that they might have been better off raised by wolves. Sailor didn’t have parental guidance because both his parents died while he was a child of cigarette or alcohol related illness, and Lula was raised in the midst of a gang of criminals, one of whom raped her at the age of 13.

Furthermore, neither Sailor nor Lula is particularly good at reasoning, so their desires and their thumos keep getting them into trouble, and in the modern liberal democratic wasteland trouble abounds. Lynch clearly believes that there is a moral order to the world. Sailor and Lula are just too thick to know it by reason. But the moral order can capture their imaginations, shape their sentiments, and set them off in the right direction in the guise of a narrative, namely The Wizard of Oz. In the wasteland, the only myths we have are movies. When the moral order clothes itself in myths, we have religion. Only magic can redeem these characters, and only Christian or sentimentalists would want to. Wild at Heart is grotesque and obscene. But religious art has long employed the grotesque and obscene. Just look at Bosch. Thus Wild at Heart’s ultimate message is: Liberalism is the road to hell, not paradise—and only a Good Witch can save us now. Source: www.unz.com

A new meta-analysis study conducted by Syracuse University Professor Stephanie Ortigue reveals falling in love can elicit not only the same euphoric feeling as using cocaine, but also affects intellectual areas of the brain. Researchers also found falling in love only takes about a fifth of a second. Results from Ortigue's team revealed when a person falls in love, 12 areas of the brain work in tandem to release euphoria-inducing chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and adrenaline. The love feeling also affects sophisticated cognitive functions, such as mental representation, metaphors and body image. Ortigue is an assistant professor of psychology and an adjunct assistant professor of neurology, both in The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. Other researchers also found blood levels of nerve growth factor, or NGF, also increased when falling in love. Those levels were significantly higher in couples who had just fallen in love. This molecule involved plays an important role in the social chemistry of humans, or the phenomenon 'love at first sight.' "These results confirm love has a scientific basis," says Ortigue. Ortigue and her team worked with a team from West Virginia University and a university hospital in Switzerland. The results of the study are published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Source: www.sciencedaily.com

David Lynch thought of hiring screenwriter Jerry Stahl for the second season of Twin Peaks, and Stahl wrote the episode 4 (2nd season) where Donna is doing detective work along with Agent Cooper, and the secret diary from Laura Palmer she comes across reveals many dark details about Laura's other life. Jerry Stahl also appears in a cameo in Inland Empire (2006) playing Devon Berk's Agent. "I did drugs because there was another world, and I wanted to live in it. Because I preferred this Other World to the one I happened to inhabit. Because I could exist in imaginary circumstances with greater ease that I could in real ones", Jerry Stahl writes in his memoir Permanent Midnight (1995). Later, another reflection, "I have done everything, from slashing my wrists to shooting heroin, to stay the good little boy. Because, I see now, on some cringing level, that's all being a junkie was. Forget being cool, forget being underground. It was a way of staying ashamed." His book works as a Ebbinghaus cycle of learning & forgetting memory curve study. Living inside Hollywood's Falstaffian underbelly, the possibility of making a decent life evaporated for Stahl overnight. In Permanent Midnight (1998) directed by David Veloz (one of the screenwriters of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers), Ben Stiller plays the emotionally exhausted Stahl, costarring Maria Bello as an ex-addict who becomes his lover and confidante.

In the novel, Stahl meets Kitty in a rehab centre in Arizona (Progress Valley), where he's bound to pass the 90 days clean program, although he's busy writing unreadable stories at the library stacks and he's expelled of the center when he stops following the rules after two months. In the movie, Jerry and Kitty meet in a more cinematic style while he's working at McDonalds and she asks him for some matches. In the motel, he'll recount his rise and fail story to Kitty as response to her incredulity. In the book, Kitty appears more like a saviour figure, and their relationship is more romantic and tormentous ("I was so in love that it made my heart hurt", "I didn't realize how much I wanted to die until the first time I made love to Kitty. Nor how much I wanted to live". Stahl describes his heroine Kitty as wearing a long white dress and a straw hat with pink ribbons, a renewed femme fatale type.

In David Veloz's film this romantic encounter is instead more of a post-modern love story in development, in which Maria Bello plays Kitty as Stahl's witty counterpart ("You're too darn sad-looking to just be another retard in a pink visor... I get it. You're the angsty, arty, Hemingway type who sold out to Hollywood, hit the needle and ended up in rehab”) to an emotionally distant yet highly ironic Stahl: "Trust me, on smack I was a real stud". Eventually, Jerry Stahl accepts a dark truth about his life: "What is heroin, really, but every junkie's teddy bear? Shooting dope is all about getting warm and fuzzy. Heroin may kill you, but it'll never break your heart, although you're just generating more pain, more penance for the one sin you couldn't help commit. The sin of being born". Source: blogcritics.org

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