Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Furies of Mulholland Dr.

      The films of David Lynch have quite often compelled and repulsed people in equal measure. The fact that Lynch remains a dedicated student of transcendental meditation offers fleeting insight into what some might term the inherent weirdism of his body of work. It's true: on the whole, Lynch is a weirdly fascinating artist.

I don't know of any true artist who wouldn't fall into the category of odd or offbeat. Lynch fits all of these labels to a T. Rather than explore his innumerable talents in a lengthy discourse, I have decided to focus in on one rather interesting allusion to Greek mythology in his seminal late masterpiece Mulholland Dr. (2001). But not without some requisite background information first.

In a nutshell, the film began life as an open-ended television pilot (along the lines of Lynch's genre bending, supernatural soap opera satire Twin Peaks, 1990-1991) that was soundly rejected by the powers that be. Lynch then decided to keep what he had filmed, add even more implicitly noirish material and release the whole thing theatrically.

above left: Erinyes or Furies (female deities of vengeance) in Dante's 14th-century epic poem Inferno; illustration by Gustave Doré
above right: original theatrical poster art featuring Naomi Watts and Laura Harring

The result was a near resounding critical smash and the darling of Cannes. The finished product truly does represent the best of what Lynch has always offered us as an abstract storyteller and frightmaker. Even while mostly remaining a dark and delirious fantasy, the story still manages to penetrate and peel back the rotten underbelly of the Hollywood star making system.

Preferring to let audiences decide for themselves, Lynch has never been one to reveal his influences and intentions openly (he was pressed to release his official "10 Clues" to help promote the film; though one shouldn't get hung up on the enigmatic details when watching a Lynch film). I still remain mind-blown at the revelation of actor Bill Pullman who admitted that Lynch confessed to him while making Lost Highway (1997) that the whole story was a rumination on the psychosis of the O. J. Simpson murder trials.

While not quite the masterpiece that Mulholland Dr. turned out to be, Lost Highway was nevertheless an engagingly enjoyable ride. For those looking for easy answers or a quick definition of what your average David Lynch film is about, I'm afraid you're going to have to do your own research, at length. That's the joy of a Lynch film, sorting through the opaque riddles and skillful sorcery for yourself.

Mulholland Dr. might best be summed up by the tagline Lynch himself provided: "A love story in the city of dreams". The love story could be that of the two female protagonists or the love that several characters have for the power of Hollywood politics (which Lynch brazenly enjoys satirizing in his inimitably macabre style). If you've ever wanted to truly witness a land of the haves and the have-nots, take a journey to Southern California. Specifically the many facets of Los Angeles and its surrounding communities.

Lynch explores this very theme in a virtuoso way. He first offers us the story of a blonde-haired, bubbly, goody-goody trying to make her way into the movie business. She's filled with all the archetypal fears and anxieties about acceptance and failure but it all just comes a little too easy for her; from the cabbie helping her with her bags at the airport down to the magical casting session she seems to have been handed out of the blue. That is until she meets the dark-haired mystery woman who sends her on a Nancy Drew-like adventure with some very nasty consequences. For me, this is the part of the film that is pure make-believe.

The reality, which is revealed in the final act, is that the bubbly blonde is actually a failed actress with a very troubled soul who has put out a hit on the dark-haired movie goddess who humiliated her and broke her heart. Perhaps the majority of the film was a dream, or a romanticized version of events in the mind of the failed actress, or...well, that's ultimately up to you to decide.

I digress. At the start of the film we are introduced to Betty, the bubbly blonde (played by Naomi Watts) and an elderly couple. We already know Watts is the star of the film but it's the elderly couple that make an instant and somewhat lasting impression on us, partly because their early appearance seems like a parody, and partly because of their strange wordless behavior when left alone to ride off from the airport in a long black limousine (not an uncommon sight in L.A. nor in Mulholland Dr.).

But it is their abrupt and unexpected return at the finale that we have come to dissect today. Without spoiling any more of the indefinite narrative for you, Watt's character (now called Diane Selwyn in the latter reality-based portion) makes some very insidious choices. The old couple return at the end, in a perfectly bizarre and heteromorphic fashion (literally crawling in from underneath a crack in the door), to make Betty pay for her actions. They assault her (and us) with a truly unsettling aural barrage that causes their victim to run screaming in horrifyingly real agony. I've never watched this film with anyone who didn't at least wince or avert their eyes (and ears) momentarily during this scene.

above: The Remorse of Orestes or Orestes Pursued by the Furies; 1862 William-Adolphe Bouguereau 
below: attack of the Erinyes/Furies in Mulholland Dr.
This is the exact purpose and function of the mythological Erinyes, also known as Furies (in Roman mythology). As stated in the epic poem the Iliad, the Erinyes "punish whosoever has sworn a false oath" which is precisely the crime that Betty/Diane has committed. Lynch even makes the allusion more evident by naming the old woman avenger "Irene"; imitating the correct pronunciation of Erinyes.

Of course, in reality, we can only assume that Betty/Diane has simply snapped under the guilt and psychological pressure she undoubtedly feels for arranging the death of the lover who spurned her. There are no real Furies in real life. Are there? There exists, in the pantheon of Lynch creatures, this notion of the boogeyman. In Lost Highway it was Robert Blake's eerily effective Mystery Man; in Mulholland Dr. it's The Cowboy.

These typical Lynchian characters are far too easily dismissed as classic boogeymen. They are, in these instances, more like avenging angels than common demons. They usually arrive on the scene to punish the main character for committing some mortal sin. The Cowboy appears in both Betty's fantasy (to torment the man who we learn comes between her and her lover) and also in the reality sequences unbeknownst to Diane, setting into motion her own comeuppance.

above left: Robert Blake's Mystery Man in Lost Highway
above right: Monty Montgomery as The Cowboy in Mulholland Dr.

It's entirely possible that Lynch, the constant transcendentalist, has injected his nightmares on film with the meditative notion of divinity, or a supreme order to the Universe. This explains why no bad deed goes unpunished in a proper Lynch film. People create evil and it's therefore up to the Universe to preserve its balance. Perhaps it is through creatures (not entirely real or human) like The Cowboy and the old couple (even if only metaphors) who set things right on some type of karmic level. So to speak.

Some Lynchian scholars and budding internet philosophers have gone as far to suggest that the entire film is modeled on Greek literature, with each seemingly random character standing in for a mythological counterpart. I'm not willing to go that far (not yet anyway), but I am certain of one fact: hell hath no fury than a granny scorned.

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