Week 2 – Not Telling

I’d just like to start by saying that I was one of the people who hadn’t had Mulholland Drive explained to them in any detail up until last week’s class, and far from ‘ruining’ the film, having the film bluntly explained to me was almost the highlight of the film experience. What had been an entertaining but ultimately meaningless chain of events in my head was retroactively made into one of the most interesting and sad stories I’ve heard in a long time.

Also for the whole class I was like this:

And yes, I know, I’m not appreciating how amazing it would have been to figure it all out for myself. That’s practically the point of the movie, after all… but why is that? Why does David Lynch not want me to understand the story he’s telling as he tells it?

Or, to state it a little less dramatically, what I’m interested in this week is the balance of what we tell the audience and what we don’t. Traditionally in film everybody’s working really hard to tell the audience things. Actors do subtle little things with their faces so the audience can tell what their characters are thinking. Cinematographers line up shots and light things in such a way as to tell us how a scene ‘feels’ or what mental state a character is in, without anyone having to say it. Editors manipulate time and colour and a million other things – and if it’s done well, the audience gets it.

Conversely, watching Mulholland Drive, it becomes abundantly clear that David Lynch doesn’t want me to get it. The clues are all there, but they’re positioned in such a way as to be invisible to a casual first-time viewing. It’s the equivalent of a DOP shooting the entire opening sequence of a film in an apartment three streets away from where the scene actually takes place. You infer the action of the scene via a code hidden in the bricks that make up the wall that consumes the entirety of the frame, and the key to that code is only flashed up for a 500th of a second in the middle of the closing credits.

I understand why Lynch is doing this. Mulholland Drive, on first viewing, is a mystery that thrives on this sense of confusion. The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clues allow for a film that’s genuinely surprising, and the puzzle makes the final revelation of the narrative that much more rewarding for the viewer. It also allows the audience to construct their own versions of the events that transpire – Lynch actively avoids canonizing any one interpretation of the film.

All these advantages, but at what cost? How many people are going to miss out on this brilliant story, just because Lynch is playing hard to get? I’ll be honest, I almost definitely would never have figured this film out on my own. I was a defeatist. I’d seen Eraserhead, I figured I’d already danced this dance, and I didn’t even attempt to ‘solve’ the film as I watched it. I toyed with the idea that it was all an abstract metaphor for Hollywood, but even that theory – seemingly bullet-proof in its vagueness – got shot down after Diane woke up (my main theory at that point became that the laws of reality within the film had been shut down by the opening of the blue box, which in retrospect was fantastically backwards…)

I suppose the question is, how much effort can we ask of our audience? This, of course, depends on the audience in question, and maybe that’s the answer. David Lynch made a film for the people who would go the extra mile, pause the movie in the middle of the credits and de-code the bricks. ‘Calling all artsy film-geeks,’ he shouts from the hills of Hollywood. ‘Every lonely bastard who’s tired of knowing exactly how the film will end. Everyone who knows ‘knowing everything’ is overrated. Here’s a film, just for you.‘ It’s admirable, really. Maybe not new, but definitely new-er. It’s something that’s not boring.

But that just brings me back to the question that I suppose I’ve been chasing this whole rant. If we say ‘Good job David, you made a brilliant film that refused to talk down to its audience. Fight the power!’ … what are the implications of that? If ‘not telling the audience’ is a virtue now, how far can we push that? How little should we tell them? How much do we leave open to interpretation? Is ‘Mothlight’ the greatest film of all time?

In the end I guess it’s all about balance. You choose how much to tell and how much to not tell. What to show and what to hide. Depends what you want and who you want your audience to be. Nothing revelatory in that, I just thought it was something to think about.

… also seriously, if anyone has a reading of Eraserhead that makes the same amount of sense as the one we got in class for Mulholland Drive, please tell me. Love the movie, thought it had amazing atmosphere, really stuck in your head… But what was with those big piles of hair? And why did they turn his head into erasers? It just… yeah. I know there’s something to do with the fear of becoming a father, but if anybody knows more to it than that…

I feel like there might be a whole new movie hiding in there.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey, 9985182


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