The Graduate (1967), dir. Mike Nichols

thegraduate

The Graduate is one of the greatest films ever made. Landing with Embassy in summer 1965, The Graduate was a major success, opening in 950 cinemas and grossing $35 million dollars; Nichols won an Oscar for Best Director. In a 1968 press release, producer Joseph E. Levine described the film’s success as “like an explosion, a dam bursting”, predicting the film would become “the highest-grossing film in motion-picture history”. But The Graduate was equally shaped by the experimentation emerging from the French New Wave, on the cusp of the emergence of New Hollywood amid transformations in technology, film schools and American counterculture. As Mark Harris explores in Scenes from a Revolution: The Birth of the New Hollywood (2009), aging executives and the commercial failure of big budget family friendly musical spectacles like Doctor Dolittle left room for new voices. But as Nicholas Godfrey writes, many of New Hollywood’s lesser-known works display “formal and thematic adventurousness that far exceeds the ambition of the films now typically identified with the New Hollywood canon”, offering “stylistic maximalism” and “politicised self-critique”; the influence of Godard is “difficult to perceive”, accounting to a “general loosening of intellectual shackles”.

The Graduate was shaped directly by its period. Nichols had directly engaged with the Civil Rights Movement: as he tells in Mike Nichols: An American Master (2016), he performed with Elaine May at Selma, recalling the 20,000 marchers and people fainting. Jacob R. Brackman describes in his illuminating New Yorker piece the “national nervous breakdown”. In his 1987 audio commentary for the Criterion laserdisc, Howard Suber notes a scripted deleted scene with Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) hitchhiking.

“Why aren’t you there?” the man would have asked, again and again, referring to, but significantly never mentioning the word “Vietnam”.

“Because I’m here,” Ben would have replied.

As Frank Rich notes, the characters are “uniformly upper-middle-class (or wealthier) and white”; Benjamin never smoked pot and doesn’t fear the draft; Berkeley’s students are “unreconstructed frat guys” from “the Eisenhower fifties”. Brackman offers a different picture, celebrating the film’s “look of today”, arguing the Berkeley students aren’t from a “dozen years ago”. But as Harris writes, “Eisenhower was barely out of office when Webb had first gotten the idea for his novel” (2009:122); Doris Day and Reagan were considered for the Robinsons.

Upon release, The Graduate created a cultural conversation. As Harris describes, “the film’s release marked the first time in many years that so many American moviegoers had felt the direct sting of a generational insult” (2009:381), becoming a hit amid college students and baby boomers, no longer relying on the epics and musicals their parents chose for them (2009:382). As Suber notes, what was new was “how many people there were”; Braddock’s peer group had increased by 60%, the amount of college students doubling. Writing in Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner notes students at Columbia University in spring 1968 “took turns sneaking out of the occupied president’s office to go see The Graduate”. But some objected to the lack of radicalism; as Brackman comments, the “subversive message” is that you “cannot sustain an opposition to America”; youth must “find someone to submit with”.

A 21 year-old graduate from Williams College, the same college author Charles Webb graduated from, Benjamin Braddock conduits the anxieties and uncertainties of drifting in an uncertain world. According to Harris, Nichols saw Braddock as “Holden Caulfield’s literary descendant” (2009:50), over a decade after The Catcher in the Rye (1951). As screenwriter Buck Henry tells Harris, him, producer Lawrence Turman and Nichols saw themselves as the “protagonist of the book” (2009:119). But Hoffman’s casting was controversial: speaking in American Film in 1979, Levine thought Hoffman was a “plumber who had come to fix the leaks” (2009:276). Hoffman returned to New York registering for unemployment (2009:311). Speaking in a 2007 commentary with director Steven Soderbergh, Nichols described Hoffman’s as “organic”; he never contemplated “changing anything” in the industry of stars.

Benjamin’s awkwardness and isolation is rarely captured on film. Hoffman “worried about his ability to manufacture nervousness on camera”, shaking through “the entire movie” (2009:311). In a deleted scene from the screenplay, Benjamin is shown giving his valedictorian speech (2009:291), but Nichols introduces Benjamin as an emptier slate. In the opening, we pan out from Ben upon the airplane, as the intercom announces their descent. He stands in isolation, down the escalator against the white wall; luggage reiterates his isolation, asking if the tags match, when Ben has no match of his own. At his parent’s house in Pasadena, this isolation becomes pronounced. Family friends list off awards and accolades: a track star, the college newspaper, debating club. Mr McGuire attempts to seduce Benjamin, suggesting a career in plastics. Suber notes a deleted scene from the screenplay where a “miniature set” depicted mute adults as “giants” hosting a dinner party. But his life is his own. The camera moves through upstairs, drifting through like Ben. Production designer Richard Sylbert achieves genius in Benjamin’s room: a fish tank, dartboard, model ships, sailboats and a globe, juxtaposing an outgrown childlike sense of play and yearning for escape; a framed picture of a sad clown in the corridor reflects his inner state. In reflections upon the glass aquarium, Buck Henry sought to convey “the disaffection of young people for an environment that they don’t seem to be in synch with” (2009:314).

But perhaps one of the most well executed elements is its use of the family pool as communal space. In his commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols recalls conflict with Turman over the scene in the wetsuit, wanting to create an image of Hoffman as a “creature in the corner”. Shot through an Aeroflex camera, we follow Benjamin through first person perspective, forced into the water by his parents. As Suber parallels, both The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) encased its protagonists in “technological apparatus”, focusing on “deep, aspirated breathing” to reflect “a combination of terror, isolation and imminent suffocation”. The Graduate is built by images; as Harris notes in Scenes from a Revolution, Sylbert wanted a “colder, more muted palette” that “refract[ed] Los Angeles through a prism of East Coast amusement”, photographing “every ostentatious new faux-whatever mansion with a swimming pool” in Beverly Hills they could find. One deleted scene from the script panned out in a helicopter to reveal 30 identical homes and pools. Speaking in a 2007 audio commentary with Katharine Ross, Hoffman comments he “had been born into a generation not dissimilar to this”, his father a Depression baby embracing materialism and consumerism; Nichols and Hoffman wanted to depict drowning around the “worship of objects”. Benjamin must negotiate his relationship with his parents: he sits by the pool sunglasses on, unable to see their faces. As he shaves by the mirror, steam engulfing the room, his mom pries into affairs; learning to shave, but still cutting his thumb. Over breakfast, his mom mixes pancake batter, acting as a clear family construct; suggesting he get with Elaine (Katharine Ross). At the suggestion of marriage, his mom lets out an excited screen; as the phone is picked up, the toast pops, right on cue.

Benjamin exists within a liminal space, without purpose: he sits in his bedroom watching TV over a beer, needing to get off his ass. Benjamin has expectations of what life has in store for him, but cannot put his finger on it; as Nichols tells Soderbergh, those “who expect wonderful things have serious problems”. Author Charles Webb remembers his mundane existence before the film’s release, stocking perfume in a Pasadena department store, working as a shipping clerk and in life insurance. The disillusionment of Benjamin extends beyond the generational sense of loss of 60s youth and an unclear path in life; as Harris writes, Nichols realised Benjamin was a “Jew among the goyim”, “a visitor in a strange land” (2009:319), mirroring his adolescence as an immigrant from a German mother and a Russian Jewish mother growing in Berlin. As Nichols recalls in An American Master, he attended a “special Jewish school”, remembering “Blackshirt kids taking my bike”. As his boat from Germany departed, he stood as he listened to Hitler’s “unintelligible” speech. Speaking in Vanity Fair, Nichols remembers the Bremen landing in New York, shocked by a “delicatessen with Hebrew letters” and “Rice Krispies and Coca-Cola”. Hoffman experienced anti-Semitism through his childhood and casting, living in “anti-Semitic neighborhoods” in L.A., returning to those same neighbourhoods where he felt aware “of how different I looked from them” that he’d escaped in New York.

Pursuing a secret sexual relationship with family friend Mrs Robinson (Anne Brancoft), Benjamin adopts a pseudonym as Benjamin Gladstone. Nichols underlines neat juxtapositions through his awkward comedy: elderly couple pass at the hotel entrance, a vision of the age that will meet him one day; crossing between contexts, the clerk (screenwriter Buck Henry) asks if he’s “having an affair”; the party mistakes him for a porter. Benjamin’s sexuality is covert: communicating with Mrs Robinson over the payphone asking for the room number; taxis and guests crowding around the booth. The immaturity of his rite of passage is a mess of contradictions; the act of booking a hotel room is a sign of status and adulthood, devalued by his inability to interact with hotel staff. In the Soderbergh commentary, Nichols comments the young man/older woman formula is a “classic situation” and how “most guys started their sex lives”; it “happens again in every generation”. Driving in his red Alfa Romeo across the sunset bridge, moving through trees, green lawns and night gives a feeling of freedom. We speed through the climax, running out of gas and running out of breath.

Both Mrs Robinson and Benjamin negotiate power dynamics. As an older woman, Mrs Robinson has power and allure. During one scene in rehearsal, Hoffman describes “break[ing] the scene” as both him and Nichols cracked up; he “stood against the wall” and “started banging my head”. Benjamin’s relationship has foundations within immorality, but Mrs Robinson never acknowledges her own power, victim blaming and twisting Benjamin into a “rapist”, becoming increasingly acidic. Dave Grusin’s score underlines their generational difference, utilising a jazzy music cue. But Benjamin looms over with the upper hand, decrying her to Hell as a “broken down alcoholic”, their relationship the “sickest, most perverted thing that ever happened to me”. When he tells Elaine it’s all over, it “was just something that happened”. The stresses and anxieties of the past become just another anecdote.

Mrs Robinson’s coercion should not go unacknowledged. As Ben takes her home at night, it’s under the guise of protection, feeling safe with the light on; she offers a drink attempting to seduce him; violates his own private space; she enters the room naked, appealing to her own desires. She asks Benjamin if he would like her to “seduce” him, throwing back Ben’s question as though appealing to his desires. Surtees and costume designer Patricia Zipprodt are immaculate in using setting and outfit to reflect character, from Mrs Robinson’s black dress to leopard skin coat; she sits on her black sofa watching TV with bourbon, greenery overgrowth behind her; Sylbert wanted to literalise the image of Robinson as a wild beast. In the commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols points to the fact he had “months and months” to prepare, allowing thought to be taken into strap marks visible on Mrs Robinson. Mrs Robinson still has her story: the cigarettes she smokes, her fractured marital relationship, her tears as Nichols moves out from her crying face, her abusive scream as Ben tries to tell his own story. Her husband’s initial brief interactions with Benjamin communicates perfect dramatic irony and comic timing, giving Benjamin relationship advice on women filled with assumptions, suggesting he “ought to sow a few wild oats” and that he has to “fight ‘em off”; Benjamin responds with emotionlessness. As Mrs Robinson recalls the conception of Elaine in the back of a Ford, Benjamin must deal with the reality of Elaine’s age and the nature of their relationship. Nichols creates suspense: as he confronts Elaine about his relationship with her mother, Mrs Robinson’s head appears in the doorframe, foreshadowing Jack Torrance’s murderous rampage in The Shining (1980). In his commentary, Suber emphasises Mrs Robinson’s and Benjamin’s separate narrative arcs: Ben’s narrative is a comedy, ending in “integration and fulfilment”; Mrs Robinson experiences tragedy, ending in “alienation and frustration”. Mrs Robinson is a narrative function as the active agent and aggressor; at the pivot, Benjamin “seizes control” of “destiny”.

Elaine is introduced from the beginning: in Mrs Robinson’s bedroom, a picture of Elaine sits behind them, watching in in plain sight. The 60s bought its own wave of films about love, sex and relationships; The Graduate is but another lens to express values about sexuality and relationship politics, positioning marriage as a rite of passage. As Hoffman notes in his commentary with Ross, Benjamin’s dates with Elaine carry a 1950s vibe, going to a drive-in burger place; as he describes, they’d be “Republican kids”. Benjamin is rebellious, driving across the curb; taking her to a stripper. On the Boulevard, Nichols captures a documentary quality, moving past young teenagers through a long lens. Elaine’s presence allows for a different environment in which to view these characters: the study halls and sports halls of the University of California, shot over 1 day without permission in the Berkeley campus. But Benjamin and Elaine have little chemistry; Benjamin has few date ideas besides coffee; he stares at her across campus through a fountain. Elaine’s relationship with Carl becomes a perfect Redford stand-in: blonde, inoffensive, walking through the zoo as Benjamin stalks her. Marriage carries uncertainty: Ben’s conversation with his parents about his intention to marry is a masterpiece in comic diffusion, stressing his “half baked idea” is “completely baked”, before admitting “she doesn’t like me”. In bed, as he asks her, tired and asleep, yawning and embracing; she tells him “I don’t know”. Their screwball comedy-esque wedding has become the centrepiece, shot with a focus on close-ups as Ben screams for Elaine. The final scene parallels Elaine’s earlier departure on the bus, Ben running runs after her. They sit in silence, uncertain of their future. As Nichols tells in the Soderbergh commentary, the ending was “created by my unconscious”; rather than laughing, they look terrified and upset. As Nichols concludes, his “definition of shooting a movie” is to shoot “until something happens than no one could have predicted”.

Benjamin’s relationship with Mrs Robinson opens a question around what sex represents. In the age of the production code, sexuality was repressed, but as the production code tore itself apart and foreign cinema pushed boundaries, The Graduate allowed shock cuts to the breasts of a stripper substituting for Bancroft. As Stanley Kauffmann wrote in a contemporary review in New Republic, the “moral stance” is “refreshing”, accepting “a young man might have an affair with a woman and still marry her daughter”, though “[m]oral attitudes” are “getting stricter and stricter”. As he concludes, beyond the “moral revolution” of “contemporary American fiction” from decades ago, cinema makes these statements “intrinsically new and unique”.

Mrs Robinson realises it’s his “first time”, stressing it’s “nothing to be ashamed of”. Benjamin’s inexperience plays in subtle movements: unable to take hangers off the rail, touching her breasts, undoing her zip, but without devolving into lewd sexuality. In the bedroom, Surtees uses shadows; Benjamin kisses Mrs Robinson, inhaling smoke. Nichols took advantage of Hoffman’s experiences: he asked him when he first had “any action at all” (a junior high production of The Jazz Singer, performed in blackface) (2009:294) and his struggles buying rubbers from a female clerk (2009:310). In the novel, Benjamin spent three weeks on the road post-graduation, admitting to his father he slept with a few prostitutes. By removing this backstory, Nichols elevates Benjamin’s awkward inexperience around sex to a place of greater universality; more people have had bad, awkward sex or should expect bad, awkward sex than have slept with prostitutes. Nichols was caught between two uneasy places: an industry of sex comedies that, as Harris writes, featured “as little sex as possible” (2009:313), and a film under Levine that didn’t feature sex, with Levine suggesting an arthouse poster with Hoffman and Bancroft naked (2009:361). Writing in the Vanity Fair piece, Turman recalls novelist Calder Willingham’s “vulgar” draft of the screenplay, incorporating “gratuitous homosexual and man-woman sex.” Benjamin seeks human connection within a relationship that cannot allow it: he wants to “liven up a little conversation”, before finding there’s nothing to talk about. As Kauffmann writes, the film’s “sexual dynamics” allow Benjamin to “assess and locate himself in every aspect” in identity formation, beyond the “sexual sphere”.

Perhaps one of the most important elements is the soundtrack, using a selection of songs by Simon & Garfunkel. But The Graduate isn’t a Simon & Garfunkel film, without the commercial backbone of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) though still promoting an artist and album in the process. Though some films play best in silence, a good soundtrack isn’t just interested in the charts, but in consistency. Simon & Garfunkel’s split might still feel tragic, but their 6 years together produced gems; my parents grew their relationship together to Simon & Garfunkel, and did the same to their kids.

The recurring theme of The Sound of Silence, cutting between the blackness, the pool, water and reflections, reflecting Benjamin’s “deep depression” of his “emotional suicide” of “fuck[ing] Mrs. Robinson” (2009:360), and its return in the final scene, and Scarborough Fair during the montage at the zoo, are incredible beyond words. During the final race to the church, Simon riffs along, in the zone. As Hoffman recalls in his commentary with Ross, Nichols told Hoffman the film has “no second act”; the “second act is Simon & Garfunkel”. As Nichols tells in his commentary with Soderbergh, Paul Simon “was so clearly Dustin’s voice” because his voice was still “searching”. Nichols had listened to Simon & Garfunkel as a morning ritual (2009:358), the duo receiving $25,000 and reaching the top of the billboard.

Having trained in theatre, Nichols embraces the theatricality of cinema in his attention to performance and small details, through 3 weeks of rehearsals (2009:290) and 100 days of shooting. Speaking in An American Master, he recalls being stunned when he first saw A Streetcar Named Desire and the power of its performances. But The Graduate is equally made by visuals, with freedom to move and shoot from a long distance that would continue through New Hollywood in films like The Panic in Needle Park (1971). Surtees pays close attention to the sun and rain, reflections upon the hotel table upon Benjamin’s meeting with Mrs Robinson and in the car window, and the dimmed lights as Elaine’s father confronts Benjamin. Kauffmann enthused of Nichols’ formal effects: his “expansion and ellipsis”, “subjective time” in sound editing and the “balletic”, “quintessential rhythms” akin to Kurosawa. As Brackman enthused, Nichols was like “a child who has been given a great many presents at once”, discovering the “camera will do all sorts of remarkable stunts at his bidding.”

Speaking in in the commentary with Soderbergh, Nichols cites the long takes and filled frames from A Place in the Sun (1951), and Preston Sturges’ endless shots where it felt “like something really happening”. Speaking in An American Master, Nichols rejects the notion of auteur theory. Nichols argues “French guys with cigarette ashes all over them” had “misunderstood the whole thing”, whilst “ignor[ing] our greatest directors”. As he concludes, whilst “[o]ne man can’t make a movie”, the film itself has to “come from one mind”.

When I first watched the film aged fourteen, the same year I watched Metropolis (1927), Modern Times (1936) and Seven Samurai (1954) for the first time, I was transfixed by how radical its filmmaking style felt. But I’d already been introduced much earlier: in The Simpsons (1989-present) episode Lady Bouvier’s Lover (1994), the closing scene in the church is transposed with Grampa and Jacqueline Bouvier, complete with a parody rendition of The Sound of Silence. The Graduate has lived on in the popular consciousness: Saving Face (2004) modelled its final act on the church in The Graduate, using the same tropes to explore 21st century Asian American lesbian identity and generational love. The Sound of Silence has become one of the most precious memes. But The Graduate’s power has never left.

Advertisements

Song to Song (2017), dir. Terrence Malick

songtosong

Terrence Malick’s recent works have struggled to find audiences for their experimental tendencies, but though experimentalism implies lack of narrative, experimental cinema often retains narrative even as structure is manipulated to its limits. Song to Song’s lyrical, expressionistic structure relies upon fragmentation, built by editors Rehman Nizar Ali, Hank Corwin and Keith Fraase in rapid fire. Malick attempts to mirror the temporality of life: experienced one way in the moment, another way through emotion, another way within memory.

Manipulating time is never purely aesthetic, but cinema’s core. Malick’s world is in motion, rarely using locked off camera except to emphasise the stillness of nature and the city: trees, mountains and overbearing glass windows stand still, gliding through living rooms in Steadicam. In the music festival, we open on mass crowds, tackled to the mud with sheer fury of motion; later, we glimpse assembled crowds at a football stadium and a church conference.

Malick builds a cacophony of voices between primary characters interspersed throughout. Faye’s (Rooney Mara) voiceover reflects upon time past, but grounds no present, lacking indication of when she is speaking. Only a Day of the Dead festival gives any clear indication to time within the film itself, moving through what could be many months. We move through the mundane: people on Segways riding through the park, or driving in the car. Cinema’s tendency is to simplify narrative for convenience, turning complexity into something straightforward and tangible. But though act structures might seem natural, life is lived through moments and spaces in-between, just as film is fused by iconic images and dialogue. Where narrative is manipulated, beauty can be found. Malick refuses to conform to the tenets of romantic drama: there’s no beautiful, affirming first date, or break-up leading to reaffirmation of love. Sexuality becomes a dance between kisses and flirtations, glimpsing fidelity and infidelity in the before and after: cause and effect.

Sound transcends physical space: sound designer Will Patterson drowns out diegetic sound, overtaking dialogue and music itself, hearing passing cars, crickets, birds and wind at a visceral level. Malick overwhelms us with the enormity and smallness of life, moving small moments and lives through a wider canvas of the progression of time. Through memory, we imagine life as linear, moving from point A and B: partners, jobs, moods, locations, events. But in complexity, we forget how time passes: we move between fluctuating and conflicting emotions without clear rationale, unsure where the next moment will take us. Memory rarely follows the right order: a flash of one time prompts another time, itself triggering something that happened before or after. Malick attempted this best in The Tree of Life (2011), moving from rural life in the 1950s to the immensity of the universe, simultaneously discarding the creationist story of Eden whilst witnessing the beauty of intelligent design and the work of God’s hands.

Rather than linear narrative progression, Malick draws thematic and emotional parallels. We hang within space itself, gravity no longer a hindrance, holding upon the slow movement of clouds from a cockpit window, floating in a reduced gravity aircraft. We move between colours and clothes, BV (Ryan Gosling)’s hair dyed blonde in some scenes. Malick seems almost as radical as Eisenstein and Vertov: remembering film editing and time as open, beyond the confines of formulas, audience expectations and studio profitability.

As a medium, film is directly tied to time. All film is manipulation, combining fragments of scenes and performances and layers of screenplay and dialogue to attempt to form something cohesive, seeking to engage us within a screen present regardless of narrative framing. Shot in 2012, we feel immediate separation. Rooney Mara is closer to The Social Network (2010); Portman closer to Black Swan (2010); Gosling closer to Drive (2011); Fassbender closer to X-Men: First Class (2011). In one scene, gazing upon an extract from a silent film, we’re reminded of the temporal distance inherent within film. Film depends upon distance: ideas formed years (or decades) ago, screenplays written years ago, production often lasting years; rehearsals, filming and editing. When a film is released, or rediscovered, might be considered the most important aspect, but even this is far from essential. Malick has only made a handful of films, preferring to allow time for things to develop.

Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, Song to Song combines multiple visual aesthetics. Scenes carry a home movie quality as a representation of the normal and everyday, as though nothing cannot be filmed. We witness animals through the fish eye lens of a GoPro, but Malick combines the film with some of the most beautiful cinematography put on screen.

Set against the music scene in Austin, Texas, Austin is deeply personal to Malick, a portrait of a city he knows to his core. But Song to Song isn’t directly about the struggles of being a musician: instead, music acts as a unifying background. We intersect along fragments of songs and artist cameos, including instrumental, classical, faith-themed pieces, Lykke Li and Die Antwood, the most bizarre soundtrack in film history. Neon Indian writes on a whiteboard with Faye at a party. At the festival, Duane (Val Kilmer) saws an amplifier in half and throws a sex doll around before being dragged inside a car. Flea and Iggy Pop appear in cameos. Patti Smith acts as a mentor to Rhonda (Natalie Portman), waxing philosophical as she beautifully and sorrowfully reflects upon her life. Smith’s presence affords an aura of documentary, blurring lines of fact and fiction, our protagonists embodied as real people within a real music scene.

Gosling’s performance as singer/songwriter BV provides an interesting point of comparison to La La Land (2016). BV is never entirely likable or charming: he treats women with a sense of sexual ownership, drawing an X on Faye’s body in red marker pen, later hooking up with Amanda (Cate Blanchett) in Freudian conflict. He cares for his dad, confined to his bed in sickness, struggling to reconcile his mum’s feelings about his relationship with Faye. But BV also has innocence and vulnerability: record producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) manipulates him, owning rights to his work and never standing by his side. In his black suit, Cook acts as the Devil incarnate, living a life of gluttony. Though he treats the vase of ashes by the pool with respect, Cook engages with visceral sexuality, staging a threesome with prostitutes and between Faye and Rhonda, naked women diving into the pool at the party.

Women become a sexual object: Faye’s naked body becomes a centrepiece to the party covered in food to eat off. Mara may be the film’s best part, purely for the power and strength Mara puts into every role ever given, one of the most underrated actresses of recent years. Performing on stage, Faye excels. Like Therese in Carol (2015), Faye has a queer edge: she feels initial hesitance to making out with Zoey (Bérénice Marlohe), but rediscovers intense sexuality, masturbating her and moving with each others hands. Malick’s women aren’t faceless, but with goals and desires: Rhonda wants to be a teacher, working as a waitress in a bar in a pink uniform. Rhonda attempts to reject Cook’s advances, but is ensnared by his destructive lifestyle.

Malick’s approach to cinema relies upon intense spirituality. Even Song to Song’s approach to time feels spiritual, removed from the dimensions of linearity. Malick’s spirituality allows for a sense of the emotional beyond the grounded. Patti Smith holds onto her wedding ring, still feeling the presence of her late husband, Fred, within the physical object. Rhonda’s goal of becoming a teacher is paralleled by a prostitute Cook hooks up with, forced into a line of work she doesn’t want to be in, holding onto the memory of her husband tattooed onto her, as she prays this is all part of God’s plan and she will get out of this and find fulfilment. Each protagonist is spiritual in a certain way: in voiceover, Faye reflects on the moment she realised she has a soul, having found the word embarrassing, laying her hand upon a religious icon; Rhonda attends a conference and a blessing with her dog; BV performs hymns on his piano. In a scene of mourning, we feel the immensity of the world around and intensity of emotion, moving overhead from the car park with a sense of isolation. Malick’s spirituality is tied to nature, touching down upon the water, moving across mountains and gazing upon birds in the sky, mirrored by the intricate mobile in the bedroom.

Where George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg became household names of New Hollywood, Malick still exists on the outside as a singular voice, recruiting big names for experimental cinema that transcend limitations. Though Song to Song might polarise, it is never not interesting. Malick’s approach to cinema demands to be seen. Song to Song may be the most beautiful portraits of our experience with life in recent years, interested in far deeper questions than entertainment, but reaching into the core of our souls.

Mulholland Drive (2001), dir. David Lynch

mulholland_dr

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.