Mulholland Drive (2001), dir. David Lynch

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Following the abstract jitterbug sequence, Mulholland Drive begins its narrative in full force with a road at night. Rita (Laura Elena Harring) is driven through in a limousine, involved in a collision. Mulholland Drive becomes a place of encounter, forming duality between the Valley and Hollywood. As Lynch describes in an interview with Filmmaker magazine:

[I]t’s a mysterious road. It’s rural in many places. It’s curvy, it’s two lanes, it feels old. It was built long ago, and it hasn’t changed too much. And at night, you ride on top of the world. In the daytime you ride on top of the world too, but it’s mysterious, and there’s a hair of fear because it goes into remote areas. You feel the history of Hollywood in that road.

Mulholland Drive, like so many others, is a film about Los Angeles, and about Hollywood. Lynch drew major inspiration from Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film “about Hollywood, but not the whole truth of Hollywood”. In more recent films like La La Land and The Neon Demon (2016), we see the more sinister side of LA’s industry, through Mia’s unsuccessful auditions or Jesse confronting the manipulated, commodified female body. LA is a symbol of a lifestyle and industry.

Lynch injects the city with a sinister character. At night, we see its underworld: its homeless, its lights, the underground Club Silencio. Evoking Koyaanisqatsi (1984), Lynch establishes the city in slow-moving aerial shots, seeing the illusion and anachronism of Hollywood. Until the rise of the studio system in the 1910s and 1920s, the centre of the film industry had been France. Like Las Vegas, Hollywood has constructed a mystique of celebrity and hedonism, but it’s all for show. We see the artifice of sets, turning a recording studio into a four-walled backdrop framed by lights and personnel. Betty (Naomi Watts) asks Rita to show her a tour of the real Hollywood. But there is no real Hollywood – expensive condos, stars on the Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theater – simultaneously tourist destination and label for big budget industry and aesthetic.

Lynch has lived in Los Angeles since his five-year process of producing Eraserhead (1977), yet speaking to NYRock, he rejects the notion of being a part of the Hollywood system. Eraserhead was largely made with funding from the AFI, whilst films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive exist thanks to funding from MK2 and Canal+.

But this has never been a hindrance to Lynch. As we see in The Art Life (2016), Lynch is primarily an artist, feeling a creative feeling” of “freedom in LA. Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a director experiencing difficulties communicating his vision for The Sylvia North Story (2003), may feel like a Lynch analogue, yet Gordon Cole (as Lynch himself) and Agent Cooper speak to his quirkiness more. Mulholland Drive presents Hollywood as business, with suitcases and backroom deals; Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson) watches over as a man in the shadows.

Betty’s actress dream carries artificiality. Arriving at the airport with Irene, moving from Deep River, Ontario, her happiness as Irene enthuses she’ll be watching for her “on the big screen!” carries inauthenticity and naiveté. On the escalator, they pass an idealised painting of the city. In the taxi, Irene and her husband look to each other and smile, laughter given a sinister edge as the camera lingers almost too long.

Auditioning for a role, Betty constructs a persona. Lynch opens on her and Rita rehearsing a script they openly acknowledge as a series of clichés, threatening Rita with a dinner knife. In its intensity, Lynch frames this sequence as though it were a real domestic argument between the two, fooling the audience with the artificiality of cinema. To find reality between actor and character becomes compounded.

Wally’s film is a passion project of the old guard, making his first film in 20 years, rather than celebrating new voices. Betty re-performs her scene, recontextualised from lesbian femininity to male privilege. Woody, performing the role of Chuck, manipulates Betty, using acting as an excuse to gratify his own needs. Betty plays to this, heightening the sexuality whilst delivering words between kisses, eliciting the casting director’s glee. Betty succeeds in Hollywood because she is sexual.

The studio mandates the actress be recast for The Sylvia North Story, judging acting ability through a mere still photograph. As a director, Adam elicits Camilla, turning his star into a wife-to-be, using his directorial power to overstep boundaries to teach her how to kiss an actor on set.

Alongside his explorations of female identity with Dorothy in Blue Velvet (1986) and Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks (1990-91), Lynch uses Mulholland Drive to explore the contradictions of female identity. Identity formation is universal: how we perceive our identity comes from our influences and situation. Betty and Rita carry a duality between two personalities of existence, mirrored by Diane and Camilla later on. Rita is introduced as a blank slate and femme fatale, suffering amnesia following the car crash. Like with Vertigo (1958) and Phoenix (2014), where the male character constructs their idealised woman, Mulholland Drive concerns itself with the oscillation of female form through the figure of Diane Selwyn, actress and waitress.

Lynch’s women are anachronistic, creating a Los Angeles out of time. As Lynch relates to Chris Rodley, LA still carries a sense of the old golden age”. Like our own lives, the present is “elusive”, with “opportunities to relive the past.” In a noir-ish sensibility, Rita adopts her persona after a poster of Gilda (1946), constructing a red dress out of a pair of towels. In The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Rita Hayworth is a sex symbol and something to live for whilst in prison. Yet Gilda exhibits power over her sexuality, in command of her cigarette.

Inescapable from female identity is female sexuality. In Fire Walk with Me, Lynch creates a tragic portrait of teenage sexual abuse, whilst Blue Velvet tackles male dominance and BDSM, yet falls victim to the male gaze. In her essay Desire, Outcast: Locating Queer Adolescence, Clara Bradbury-Rance compares Mulholland Drive to the psychosexuality of Black Swan (2010), through its “sensationalized episodes of lesbian sex” signifying a “climactic transition point from innocence to experience or from disorientation to identity”. Sexuality, in other words, becomes a plot device to coming of age. Betty and Rita’s sexuality never feels authentic, but performance; fallen into it in a moment of ecstasy, with no chemistry beforehand.

As Diane tearfully masturbates, Lynch tries to create a reality of sexuality. Yet where Lynch presents Diane as scorned lover, caught between the conflict of heterosexual marriage, it will never carry the power of the marital conflict of Carol (2015), written by a lesbian and directed by a gay man, Todd Haynes. Lynch’s lesbian sexuality is rarely titillating, yet feels as much a shallow aesthetic as Park Chan-wook’s idealised, painting-esque scissoring and cunnilingus in The Handmaiden (2016), another exploration of paradoxical mistaken female identities. Yet even Park attempts to question his own gaze.

Starting life as a TV pilot for ABC, in spite of its technical and thematic brilliance, Mulholland Drive still carries traces of the television format, feeling like Twin Peaks transposed to Los Angeles. The film is not so much a reimagining but expansion; most of the footage compiled for the 1999 pilot became the finished film. Though Twin Peaks is celebrated today, with a thriving fan culture and Showtime revival, it became met derisively following the reveal of Laura Palmer’s murderer, dropping from 20 to 5 million viewers. As a 1999 New Yorker article documents, although ABC conceived Mulholland Drive as event television and an antidote to the “plethora of sameness”, Lynch became met with setbacks through every stage of production, befuddling executives with the show’s ambiguities.

Whilst admiring the deep worlds and stories of soap operas, Lynch questioned the passivity of television. Executives questioned the age of his leads, whilst wanting to sanitise it of its language, violence, dog shit and cigarette smoking, at odds with desires for accessibility and commerciality, edited down to what Lynch described as a “sad, bad traffic accident”. The network scored the pilot a 3/10.

Though Twin Peaks’ narrative asides may have been criticised by both cast and viewers in the latter half of Season 2, Mulholland Drive’s side-narratives breathe life as an act of worldbuilding, creating an LA larger than the one we know. As Dan and Herb discuss business in Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd, it not only recalls the Double R Diner of Twin Peaks, but the diner sequence of Pulp Fiction (1994). Adam’s marital conflicts, forced out of his house by his wife as he discovers her with another lover, bathing her jewellery in paint in retaliation, adds little to our understanding of Adam as a character, yet its irreverence builds the film. As Joe and Ed attempt to murder Camilla, shooting a woman in the other room, a janitor, vacuum cleaner and blowing an electrical outlet in the process, the film devolves into a comedy of errors akin to the Coen brothers’ Fargo (1996).

Yet Lynch sees no disconnect between these genres. As he describes to NYRock:

[Y]ou’re laughing in the morning and crying in the afternoon, and there’s a strange event after lunch. It’s just the way [life] is.

But the connections go deeper. The surreality of the cowboy prophesising, asking Adam who drives the buggy, is akin to the Log Lady. Mr. Roque isn’t so far removed from Anderson’s other infamous character, the Man from Another Place. Coco feels like an eccentric recurring character. As Dan reveals the fear of his “half-night” dreams of a man round the back of Winkie’s, it recalls Agent Cooper’s prescience of Laura Palmer’s death in Fire Walk with Me. As H. Perry Horton theorises in Film School Rejects, Club Silencio is the Black Lodge – noting the red curtains and an uncredited Sheryl Lee cameo.

Perhaps the greatest parallel is its lack of narrative finality. The blue key to the box is Lynch’s season hook; like with Laura Palmer, Lynch never knew who the murderer was until well into production. Speaking to Filmmaker, Lynch describes reformatting a close-ended narrative as a “beautiful experience”, as the ideas “came out of a kind of darkness and made themselves known.” Lynch’s infinite loop, playing in two halves and persuading the viewer to watch once more like a Groundhog Day (1993) gone awry, reminds us of another 2001 film, Donnie Darko, where time is manipulated beyond narrative comprehension. Twin Peaks continues to ask questions; when we become immersed in the Black Lodge at the end of Season 2, or the garmonbozia in Fire Walk with Me, Lynch doesn’t give answers, but questions. Lynch offers elusiveness; like life, we have no answers.

As Lynch tells Filmmaker, “a mystery is one of the most beautiful things in the world”; like a Hitchcockian detective story, he appeals to our intuition, as our mind constructs its own version of events, rejecting a singular audience experience. Like the red curtains of the performance stage of Club Silencio, Lynch sees the physical setting of the theater as an experience to immerse oneself in.

Through Club Silencio and Angelo Badalamenti as composer, Lynch reminds us of the power of music. As he describes to Filmmaker, film is music, with its own melodies and harmonies. Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish-language performance of Crying in Club Silencio’s cabaret show is shattering, as beautiful and as haunting as In Heaven in Eraserhead or Isabella Rossellini and Julee Cruise’s stage performances in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Just like cinema, music is revealed as a facile construction; there is no band. Yet even when the trick is revealed, it loses none of its power. As Adam Nayman describes in Little White Lies, Mulholland Drive “inhabits its chosen medium while reminding us how ephemeral it is in the end”.

With the revival of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s earlier works have a chance to reach new audiences. Mulholland Drive has been highly celebrated as one of the greatest films of the 21st century. These determinations always seem a little too far for me, forgetting far more radical or affecting films. Yet Mulholland Drive remains powerful viewing, an essential part of Lynch’s canon.

Far from Heaven (2002), dir. Todd Haynes

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More so than Carol (2015), Far from Heaven constructs itself as a technicolor Douglas Sirk film, with a sense of artifice. Haynes doesn’t create a real world, or at least initially he doesn’t; he projects the 1950s of cinema. When Cathy drives, the camera points straight towards her, showing the car window and an obvious rear projection of the street behind her. In editing, jump cuts are often ignored; shots are drawn out, leaving instead extended crossfades. The house feels like a soundstage. The exterior of the bar feels like a studio backlot.

The front and back of the house, where Cathy and her gardener Raymond initially talk, forms a luscious garden of flowers that pop, but it feels plastic and unreal. The deliberate arrangement of colour pops throughout the film, and throughout Haynes’ filmography – during the party, we see a row of women in bright dresses – orange, blue, red. The living room is lit in blue light, drawn in from the window. The bar, where Frank hooks up with another man, is bathed in green, whilst leaving Frank cast in shadows, as if he were the troubled protagonist of a noir film.

Equally artificial is the concept of the nuclear family. We are introduced to an idealised, perfect family – the mother, the father, the son, the daughter and, still within the world of Gone with the Wind (1939): the black servant, silent until spoken to. Gradually, as the film progresses, this is revealed to be an illusion. Frank’s homosexuality comes to light; Cathy begins to speak to Raymond more, and the black community is given a voice. But it tries to re-manifest itself: Cathy and Frank try to continue the image of the perfect family, even when they know it has shattered.

Frank agrees to conversion therapy, even when the doctor warns of a low success rate. Cathy and Raymond attempt to make love, but this doesn’t lead to a heartwarming scene of them kissing in each others’ arms, as the camera pans away to reveal the next morning. Raymond cracks, hitting her and rejecting Cathy’s claims that he is still a “real man”. Going on a New Year’s holiday to Miami, he again tries to suppress his sexuality, before meeting eyes with a waiter, and they later make love in his hotel room. He severs his ties with Cathy; we close with a telephone call where he says goodbye to her, as his male lover waits in the other bed. As with Carol,  love conquers all adversity towards it, even in secret, and still leaving a dangling thread of heartbreak. Here, the heartbreak is with Cathy’s suppressed feelings towards Raymond, as he moves away from town, and in her lost husband and shattered family.

When Cathy helps Raymond collect some things for the garden, Cathy asks him how it must feel like to be the only black man in the room. Frank feels like he is the only gay man in the room. As he undergoes therapy, he silences himself, rarely speaking at the dinner table.

Silence carries the film. Sybil, their servant, rarely speaks except when spoken to. The frame itself minimises her presence: she exists as the back of her head, or just out of shot, as she responds to what is asked of her. Only as the film progresses does she gain more of a voice. She signs a NAACP form, surprised that Cathy is allowing her to. She raises the courage to tell Cathy that Raymond’s daughter was the black girl who was a victim of violence, even though she knows it isn’t her place to. Cathy becomes furious at her for not telling her, and by extension, furious at the system that prevents her from speaking.

Similarly, Raymond is introduced as a silent character. He is a black man walking around in the garden to the horror of the old lady visiting, someone to be afraid of. His colours are muted in contrast to the bright coats of the women, the green of his coat blending into the trees of the garden. As with Sybil, he gains more of a voice, though more quickly. He feels consideration and care for Cathy when she is in distress, more than is socially acceptable. In contrast to Sybil, he is the one who initiates conversations, not Cathy.

Silence manifests not only in situation, but in dialogue. Dinner party conversation talk negatively of integration between between “negroes” and whites, but Cathy shuts this discussion down. When Cathy and Eleanor speak about a magazine article on homosexuality, she feels unable to even use the word. Taboo subjects are still talked about – but in hushed tones. When she is honest to Eleanor about her feelings for Raymond, she is disowned.

Cathy begins to feel like what it is like to be a maligned minority. As a woman, she already feels a degree of social pressure. Yet her interactions with Raymond bring the attention of the entire town – affecting not only her, but also the reputation of both Raymond (forcing himself to move), and Frank’s work life. At the ballet class, mothers cling to their daughters lives to stay away from her. She positions herself as an ally, considering signing up to volunteer for the NAACP’s cause.

Yet Haynes highlights the complexities of the forces of racism. Cathy doesn’t only receive sneering looks from white people, she also feels it from the African American patrons of the black majority pub, confounded by what Raymond is doing. I’m reminded of the themes explored in the second season of Agent Carter (2015-16) between Peggy and Jason, dancing in a bar to sneering looks. Raymond ends up with stones thrown through his window on a daily basis – not by white boys, but black people. These attitudes are reinforced both inside and outside the community.

In another scene, at a hotel in Miami, a young black boy wanders into a whites only pool, before being taken away by his father, as everyone else flees in the direction of the sunbeds. As history tells us of lynchings, police violence, mass shootings, slavery and the march on Washington, we forget about smaller, and younger, attacks. The experience that Sarah undergoes is a subtle manifestation of racism – young boys “teaching her a lesson”, not meaning to throw a stone to her forehead. She is the odd one out to them, cast tiny and in shadows by the frame in comparison to the boys.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005), dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

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C.R.A.Z.Y.‘s DVD cover casts Zac as Ziggy Stardust, yet the film left me with more of a taste to listen to Patsy Cline than David Bowie. As much as it wants to sell itself on its soundtrack, it’s hardly a rock opera with a standout soundtrack.

In a world where Peccadillo Pictures releases a billion trillion queer films, there feels something rote about the film’s narrative. Zac’s father is homophobic, resistant to his son ever being considered a “fag”, obsessed with masculinity and rejecting Zac ever taking on a more motherly role – something he essentially confirms for himself based on small identifiers when he is as young as 7. Later, he kicks Zac out of the house, talking about how disgusting gay sex is, and sends him to a shrink. What’s interesting is a few twists to the cliche: Zac’s mother is defensive, whilst Zac’s father is somewhat nuanced. In one scene, Zac’s parents discuss the possibility their son might be gay, following his sexual encounter with a classmate. Zac’s mother retorts about how she had anal sex many years ago, and not just once. “It’s not the same thing.”

Zac rejects the label, talking to a shrink (who tells him that this was his subliminal way of telling his father that he is gay). But this falls into another cliche trap:

*does something gay*

“I’m not gay”

*compensates by making out with Michelle*

*does something gay*

*compensates by beating up the boy he jerked up with*

*does something gay*

Labelled as a fag, he listens to Bowie, in a scene that seems straight out of Velvet Goldmine (1998). He ends up dating Michelle over several years; a refusal of his gay identity, or an embracement of bisexuality, or rejecting the notion that certain signifiers (even sexual experimentation) denote sexuality.

Yet often it feels like such a generic queer coming of age story, laced with every trope you would expect. There are so many coming out stories out there; I cannot project myself onto Zac with his coming out narrative and crowded household, nor can I project myself onto his nostalgic 1970s influences. I’m left being like “well, his stoner brother has kind of a cute beard”.

Zac is a chameleon of influences, and the mirroring his childhood and his teenagehood and young adulthood quite a lot, most obviously through the unsolved mystery of the father’s broken Patsy Cline record. He listens to records like his father; smokes cigarettes like his brother did when he was a child, adopting a rebellious, masculine image; wears a cross like his mother, not out of faith but out of an anarchistic aesthetic; adopts a haircut like Paul’s because he has a massive crush on him. He practices kung-fu moves like Bruce Lee, and covers his bedroom in posters of Bowie.

But whilst the mirroring of childhood is a strong aspect of the film, the scenes set during his childhood are also the weakest part. Half an hour feels like an eternity, before awkwardly transitioning from his childhood self pissing the bed into a 15 year old Zac. His rejection of Christianity because, contrary to his prayers, he pissed the bed, becomes the formation of his teenage self. This should play as genius comedy, but instead is just incredibly bizarre. Rather than a far less compelling version of Boyhood (2014), the film’s viewpoint should have been teenage Zac, communicating the same information in shorter exposition.

Zac exists within a stylised world, where he can float between the church and a Christmas party in one cut, and dub the choir with Sympathy for the Devil. The stylised world can work, like how Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) removes us from the laws of physics, but C.R.A.Z.Y. is unable to find a balance between serious drama, lighter scenes and Zac’s sense of himself as a dreamer with all the power in the world. Where CGI smoke rings fly towards the moon, or a playground fight is played in fast motion, the film screams the mid-00s, not the mid-70s.

The film’s oddest aspect is its exploration of faith. An exploration of sexuality juxtaposed against an exploration of faith and spirituality could be a very interesting one, but what is executed here just seems bizarre. Zac is essentially the Chosen One, which seems appropriate, given that Hayden Christensen is Canadian himself. Born on the same day as Jesus, his mother expects him to use his great powers to save the Jedi Order, or rather, heal those in need in times of pain. He walks through the deserts of Tatooine, feeling a bond with his mother through the force.

Zac rejects religion as an atheist, but makes bets with God to see if he can make the crossing when the light is red, and make the snowstorm when he could easily get hypothermia. This ‘Chosen One’ mythos feels so unnatural, though his mother’s sentiment at times does feel natural. He still respects his mother’s faith, going to Mass every Christmas with them, and gifting her a book about Jerusalem. But when he goes to Jerusalem himself, it feels odder. We’re never given a clear reason as to why he makes this journey, besides curiosity and to please his mom. He ends up in the gay scene, meeting a man who simultaneously looks both suspiciously like Jim Morrison and like the Anglicised image of Jesus, speaking in English. Jesus walks alongside Zac, appearing to him in the desert as he treks into the abyss, without water, in a journey that makes little sense.

How this has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes is fucking C.R.A.Z.Y.

Elephant (2003), dir. Gus Van Sant

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Elephant is a curious film. A semi-remake of Alan Clarke’s film of the same name, but set as a fictionalised version of the Columbine massacre.

Producing the film for HBO, Van Sant takes full advantage of the TV movie format: the Academy aspect ratio frame, much like the 1:1 frame in Mommy (2014), captures the focus of each individual within their own world, passing by the world of every other person, whose adjacent narratives we view from different perspectives as the narrative develops. Even when we are looking at a group of characters, the focus remains on one person within that group. Because that is the message that high school relays: individual achievement. Universities relay a similar message too. It is the actions of the individual which resulted in the shooting. The way the narrative is told, as a series of vignettes focusing on individual characters and their roles in the hours leading up to the shooting, seems perfect for the film’s division into ad breaks.

This idea of individual achievement questionably stems into effect theory. Eric plays a computer game on his laptop, shooting an endless stream of identical characters (with bloody results), seeing no distinction between them. Later, Alex and Eric compare tallies of how many people they killed – like the number of points on a videogame. But the school system is run in exactly the same way: individuals are graded into numbers and bands of achievements. This isn’t positioned as a solitary motive either: Van Sant ensured that he didn’t tie the characters down to there being an explanation. There’s too many factors: Alex has yogurt thrown at him in class; suffers from mental illness, hearing voices in his head, that goes recognised by nobody; the two boys are left alone at home, unsupervised by parents.

The film criticises how easily obtainable firearms are, ordered online with one-day delivery. When the UPS guy turns up at the door, he doesn’t question why Alex and Eric aren’t at school, just says “lucky you” and thanks them, making no effort to get answers. When John warns people not to go in the school, he’s largely ignored.

But the film also alludes to the shooting as a reaction against homophobia. There’s an often unspoken sense of Bonnie and Clyde between Alex and Eric, barely evident in their mannerisms towards each other, but we see them kiss in a naked shower scene. Some of the victims of the massacre we see taking part in a class discussion over whether you can tell if somebody is gay based on their appearance. We’re never given a sense of these characters being queer (besides the tropes of the loner kid, often channelled into the gay narrative) – thus partly inviting the audience to question what they see, rather than making an immediate assumption of who these characters are.

In part, it reaches to the comedic: Alex plays classical music on the piano, as if an embodiment of the melodramatic Phantom of the Opera. He watches Nazis parading with Hitler on TV with Eric. Yet, from another lens, these are also the qualities of a model student: Alex draws comic book art, plays the piano well and watches history documentaries; he’s the model of masculinity, using logs as a shooting range. He meets expectations set upon him, yet has no way in which to channel these publicly, finding the school environment destructive compared to his home environment, yet isn’t home schooled.

In part, it acts as a mystery. The film doesn’t point us in any immediate direction towards Alex and Eric being the killers, before John sees them entering the school in faux military gear and becomes suspicious. John has an alcoholic father, catching the attention of the principal by arriving at school late; Elias wanders around the park before school, taking photos of a punk rocker couple out of nowhere. It misleads us to question that any of these people could have taken the same path. The idea of a loner turned killer could have been uncomplex and cliched, yet our focal characters throughout the film are loners. Even I can project my high school self onto Alex: being bullied in class; finding the high school environment deafening and so on. But this stops when he shows any hint of intent to massacre. I can project myself onto Elias too, taking photographs and awkwardly walking up to strangers, and onto Michelle, spending her time in the library and feeling body issues.

In many ways, the film’s presentation of high school is mundane. This isn’t the high school of Clueless (1995) or Mean Girls (2004). In many ways it depends upon tropes: the loner, the slacker, the photographer, the jock, the insecure girl, the bitchy girls obsessed about boyfriends, and so on. Yet it deals with these characters realistically, not as cartoons. Because this is what high school is: a mundane bore, where people don’t really learn stuff, and have odd conversations leading in a million different directions (notice that the conversation about boyfriends is only one part of the girls’ conversation).

Much of the film is spent in silence, with characters walking around the school, followed by a one-shot camera in a restricting frame. Yet the mundane can be interrupted in an instant; diverse lives with potential, like with photography, or just a life the same as everybody else’s, can be taken away in a instant.

The Hours (2002), dir. Stephen Daldry

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After having fallen in love with Philip Glass‘ music with Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and Powaqqatsi (1988) (and, perhaps in part, with 2015’s Fantastic Four), I came across the film’s soundtrack on Spotify. I’m sure I’ve come across the DVD before and found reasons to dismiss it. “Meryl Streep is overrated.” Or: “I don’t like book adaptations.” Or: “Is this really my type of film?”

What I discovered was a masterpiece that deserves a Criterion release, provided licensing the rights can be sorted out. Could I go as far as to call this Stephen Daldry’s neglected magnum opus?

Nicole Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf here, but you wouldn’t know it unless you saw her name emblazoned on the DVD cover and Wiki article; with an English accent rather than an Australian or American accent, it doesn’t scream her. In the DVD special features, it’s mentioned that they even went as far to give her a prosthetic nose.

But Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore do a marvellous job. A large theme here is the idea of imprisonment, between Virginia Woolf’s ‘imprisonment’ by her husband, placing her in the country in order to ‘cure’ her suicidal tendencies; the imprisonment of Laura as a housewife in 1950s LA, feeling torn between her son, her husband her and largely uneventful life, imprisoned within a suburban America that suppresses sexuality; the imprisonment of Richard within a darkened room and within a diseased body; the body, where one is never able to leave to explore from another person’s perspective, and is imprisoned within through no intention to be born and to remain within until death.

The meta aspect of the film, stemming from the literary tradition (with its focus on Virginia Woolf as a writer), probably works better in the book than the film itself. Yet it handles translation to film rather perfectly, intercutting each character’s lives with recurring themes and events gloriously alongside Philip Glass’ music, but still taking the time so we get engaged in each life; sequences go on for 10 or 15 minutes within a particular time period.

There is a wonderful sense of visual artistry and symbolism. We are given a sense of the idea of art and writing as a process in motion. There is the writing process, inspired by real life; the process of reading and being influenced to make decisions based on it (which is true – my life has certainly been influenced by what I’ve read, whether in terms of outlooks or finding a point of connection with friends and boyfriends), and then there is the process of adaptation (the last segment with Clarissa Vaughn becomes almost a modern day version of Mrs Dalloway, which was the starting point for Cunningham’s novel before he decided to shift the focus) and creating comparisons with people you know (Vaughn is nicknamed ‘Dalloway’).

The film presents an engaging portrait on life and the art we make.