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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Sense and Sensibility

David Lynch once said: "I don't think that people accept the fact that life doesn't make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable." This is a truth past question, I'd say, but how is an artist to make use of this truth? Lynch, whose directing and writing career glows with talent, has developed a mode that serves his perception. He devises films that seem sensible, sufficiently so as to engage us, and then he proceeds to subvert sense. Other artists structure their work in an order that itself pleases us and then use their order as an avenue to fundamental disorder. (There is no larger example than King Lear.) Lynch goes directly to the disorder without the seductions of order. Imagine Abstract Expressionist painting done with realistic figures, and somewhere in this oxymoron dwells David Lynch.

Take, for instance, the very opening of his new film, Mulholland Drive (Universal). A large car is moving along that drive, high above Hollywood. A man in the front seat points a pistol at a dark-haired woman in the back seat. He is presumably about to shoot her, when another car crashes into the first one and everyone is killed except the young woman. Who this woman is we never learn, although we subsequently see a great deal of her. Why the man wanted to kill her we never learn, or how she got the wad of cash in her bag. Our expectation that we will learn these things is exactly what Lynch is out to subvert. All he basically wants to do in this opening sequence is to evoke cinematic responses in us, familiar from film noir, as one might strike familiar chords on the piano that remind us of music we know but that are now plucked out of origin or progression. Sense is not the point: the responses are the point.

Then we see a blonde young woman named Betty arriving in Hollywood by air. She confides in an elderly couple whom she has met en route that she is going to try for an acting career, and they wish her luck. As the elderly couple leave in their limo, they exchange glances of wry compassion. (Much later, I might as well admit now, this couple, reduced to mouse-size, squeeze under Betty's door.) The wouldbe actress proceeds to an apartment that belongs to an aunt who once was in films. When Betty goes into the bathroom, she discovers the dark-haired young woman—a complete stranger to her—taking a shower. Betty phones her aunt, who does not know anything about the other young woman; but that woman is so dazed and helpless that warm-hearted Betty allows her to stay. When she asks the other woman her name, the reply, garnered from a glance at a poster of Gilda on the wall, is Rita.

The synopsis above distorts, because it suggests lively pace and progress in Lynch's style, which, to the contrary, is slow and pictorially inquisitive. He wants to explore sensually and imaginatively every frame he puts before us; he has a fine ally in the cinematographer, Peter Deming, and his real purpose is to provide Deming with related opportunities to realize Lynch's vision. In this respect, Lynch reminds me of Robert Wilson, the theater artist who uses the stage not as a dramatist, but as a painter uses a canvas, and who can fascinate us without an iota of traditional drama and sometimes no shred of theme—other than linked visual organisms.

A story of sorts follows in Mulholland Drive, including Betty's audition for a film role, a lesbian affair between the two women, eccentric visits to eccentric places. The film-industry sequences would be re-runs of all the Hollywood satires we know, except that Lynch is never primarily interested in the satire; he merely wants those scenes, too, to float past us like toy boats on a stream. One of the eccentric visits is to a former film theater, now a club, where a woman sings a passionate American song in Spanish and faints before finishing, while the song continues. Much later, the film returns to this place to end there. The name of the club is Silencio.

Lynch has provided plenty of material for his oneiric, leisurely picture-making, enough to make a film of one hundred forty-six minutes, but no more of that material need be specified. In Mulholland Drive, as in such past films of his as Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet, Lynch challenges our expectations of narrative and credibility by luxuriating in something else—the unexplained, the making of no-sense that (he says) underlies life. Much of the comment on this new film traduces him by praising his ideas, as if the purpose of Mulholland Drive were to castigate Hollywood and to explore the characters of Rita and Betty along with others in the cast. Thus, in my view, they convert Lynch into a failure, because the Movieland stuff is stale and the characterizations are superficial. One of his purposes, I'd venture, is to leave such critical comment high and dry.

Besides Robert Wilson, another comparison. Rainer Werner Fassbinder spent much of his brief, prolific career in making films that attacked conservative structure. Some of them were jaggedly irresistible, but for me his chief achievements were his films Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz. This is not because these pictures were shot and edited in the traditional manner, not because they make obeisance at the altar of Loveliness, but because, like the Fontane and Doblin novels on which they are based, their traditional structures disclose most clearly the theme of much Fassbinder work: hatred of tradition, of bourgeois hypocrisies and cruelties. Lynch, too, has done work that is conventional in form and in loveliness. The Elephant Man dealt tenderly with a human being condemned to inhuman life, and became an assault on received ideas. Even more subtly and beautifully, Lynch's last film, The Straight Story, reached pure spirituality through an utterly vernacular lexicon. In most Lynch films, including Mulholland Drive, his very method is a rebuttal of the audience's expectation of sense. But for me, The Straight Story rebuts this expectation more powerfully because it reveals the insufficiency of traditions through traditional means.

Conference Note. On October 6, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, aided by HBO Films, held a public conference titled "Making Movies That Matter." The moderator was a film critic; the seven panelists were two political writers, two film producers, the former CEO of a big studio, and two directors—Oliver Stone and Raoul Peck, who made Lumumba. We were told that the conference had been planned long before September 11, but of course that black day gave the topic immense weight—and presumably led to the subtitle: "The Role of Film in the National Debate."

The conversation, though lively and sharp, soon devolved into the familiar film dilemma of profit versus gravity. However, all agreed that there was no excuse for any picture, no matter how worthy its intent, to be dull. I wished for someone to mention that the most politicized dramatist of the last century, Bertolt Brecht, had insisted that the theater's prime function is to entertain.

But it was the first part of the discussion, in which each panelist recounted the effect of September 11 on him or her, that contained the most memorable remark—one that, for me, hung over the whole discussion. Most of the speakers said that, as for many of us, that day had changed the world. Not Peck, much of whose life has been spent in Haiti and Zaire. He said quietly that the world had not changed for him. I took this to mean that the world he knows had long held precisely the view that the disaster had smashed into this country—namely that, for reasons that are not always incomprehensible, anti-Americanism is widespread, and terrorism, maniacal and murderous, is one result. Few Americans had been ignorant of these matters before September 11; few Americans had seen their proportions.

I couldn't help hearing Peck's remark as part of the conference topic. More American films are shown around the globe than those of any other country. This fact plus Peck's comment raised a parochial question in my mind to which I wish I had the answer. What—if any—is the connection between the views and attitudes in America's world-inundating films and the dislike of America in much of the world?

This article originally ran in the October 29, 2001 issue of the magazine.