Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

The Fantasy of Reality: David Lynch and the ’00s by Adam Balz

The Fantasy of Reality: David Lynch and the ’00s by Adam Balz Earlier this year, after Steven Soderbergh flew to Cannes to premier Che – his four-hour, ever-beguiling art-house homage to the late Marxist revolutionary – and watched as all four hours of it were received with an unappealing mixture of awe and confusion, he took to the microphone at a press conference and said, “I find it hilarious that most of the stuff being written about movies is how conventional they are, and then you have people upset that something’s not conventional.”

That is, in a proverbial nutshell, the paradox of Hollywood: filmmakers like Soderbergh work to appease the audience’s desire for something fresh and innovative – and, at the same time, exercise their own creative impulses – only to be stopped by the very same audience, which balks and falters in the shadow of anything unfamiliar and, therefore, uncomfortable. After all, these formulas work – they rake in millions of dollars every year – so why try something new and untested? This mixture of hesitancy and disappointment is a recipe that has borne a majority of the mediocre pictures that work their way from studio to cinema every year.

And yet, who’s really to blame for this? The producers and studio heads, perhaps – after all, they have the rubber stamps, the big names, the bank accounts – though they make their lives on what is commercially viable, and most of these art-house films are not. Or maybe it’s those directors who, even with reputations overflowing, refuse to push back in even the slightest way, reducing themselves to shoot-and-edit machines who will not risk a large but interesting failure. Or maybe it’s solely the audience—those same people who cry out for originality while saying just the opposite with their wallets. We are all nervous, ten-dollar critics who delight in the mundane because, when faced with the other option, it’s better than spending our valuable time and money on a gamble. For most of us, a movie isn't something that just happens – it becomes a part of our daily, even weekly routine, and we construct entire events around it, from dinners and drinks to family celebrations. Who wants to lose an entire evening of fun and enjoyment because a ninety-minute film is too strange and different?

Mulholland Drive, released in 2001, was more than just famed director David Lynch’s freshest mind-kick. It was a cocked and loaded shotgun being pointed directly at everyone associated with Hollywood and its output: the directors who will not step outside their comfort zones; the actors and actresses who cry for originality but stick with monstrous paychecks; and especially all those millions who gathered around the box office, wallets in hand, and chose the familiar distraction, thereby feeding the monster. Each scene in Mulholland Drive is a work of art unto itself, castigating Hollywood and its slew of unquestioning directors for their addiction to formula by running that very formula through a critique of star-struck Hollywood dreams. It is Lynch manhandling a slab of rich, dead meat – flipping it, cutting it, inspecting every bloody ounce – before shoving every last speck into a grinder. The noxious outcome – a mixture of reality and fantasy – reduces Hollywood cinema to a surreal sideshow in which everyone and no one is truly in control—control over themselves, control over their art, and control over their fate.

The film opens, appropriately, with a car crash. A limousine stops along Mulholland Drive, and its female passenger – an actress – is told to exit the vehicle at gunpoint. At the same time, a car careens into their lane and tosses the limousine onto the shoulder in a burst of sparks and fire. The collision renders the actress amnestic, and without anyone to call, she begins to wander the Hollywood Hills in search of... something. At the same time, an aspiring actress named Betty Elms arrives in Hollywood and takes up residence at her aunt’s house. Betty has dreams of being a star, but only now, after winning a contest in her small hometown, does she have the opportunity to have everything she’s always wanted. When Betty and the actress finally meet, we are offered one of the film’s most important contrasts—between Betty, who relies almost solely on fantasy, and the unnamed actress, whose lack of memory forces her to live completely in reality. It’s Betty who, in a need to give the actress a name, christens her Rita after Rita Hayworth.

What follows is a series of surreal, almost otherwordly trips through the offices and back alleys of Hollywood, all of which seem disconnected and irrelevant at first. There is the meeting between a director and two ominous men – studio heads, perhaps, or mobsters – who proceed to stare, spit out coffee, and force their own actress on the up-and-coming filmmaker. There is the dark room in which a wheelchair-bound man gives commands to one of those two men, the mysterious and eyebrow-less Cowboy who talks to the filmmaker, and the appearance of Billy Ray Cyrus as the lover of the young filmmaker’s wife. There is also Betty’s audition, which does not look promising at first – her practice reading with Rita is an abysmal disaster, so much so that both women devolve into cliched fits of laughter – but ends up being one of the film’s most hypnotic scenes.

All of which is intentional—clear examples of Lynch’s true skills coming through. Betty is us, an embodiment of our own far-fetched dreams of stardom. She is the personification of every elementary-school child who takes the stage at a Christmas pageant, gets a laugh, and wants to be in movies; every young dancer who, on nothing more than a note of encouragement from an instructor, decides she is going to perform in sold-out shows; every small-town boy or girl who knows without a doubt that, yes, someday they'll leave behind this culturally starved home of theirs and find everything they've always wanted in the arms of Hollywood. She is a small-town girl who, after winning a simple dance contest, thinks she can do everything, even act in big-budget pictures. It’s these far-fetched dreams of hers – of ours – that are shattered with merciless and haunting beauty when Betty and Rita visit Club Silencio, a hidden little theatre where chalk-faced performers haunt the stage. The emcee summarizes everything when he says, “No Hay Banda. And yet we hear a band" – a suggestion that, even when there is nothing, our mind can still offer us something, anything, even a life as a movie star. If we want fame, there is fame. If we want money, there is money. If we want to rescue the helpless damsel in distress, just as Betty does, then there is suddenly a stunning damsel in the greatest of distresses. Following the emcee’s introductions, a singer takes the stage and begins crooning “Llorando" before collapsing. But even after she hits the stage, unconscious, her voice remains in the air, singing, stronger than ever. When the camera cuts to Betty and Rita, both women are crying. They know this is not real, that they are not truly together in bliss. Soon enough, we realize that, too.

Appropriately, Mulholland Drive came at the start of a decade destined to be all-consumed by reality television, each program more horrifyingly exploitative and pointless than the next. They were – and still are – circus sideshows in which those without any semblance of talent or self-respect parade before cameras overcome by delusions greater than themselves. Contestants on these programs – most of them, anyhow – believe that this is their ticket to stardom, to love, to fame, to fortune, and to any dozen or so aspirations in-between. They live in seclusion – houses, islands, even kitchens and fashion schools – for months on end, pulled along by little bands playing loudly in their heads. They eat disgusting foods, wear ridiculous clothes, perform dangerous stunts, and all under a false sense of progress—an idea that their lives will be made better by what they're doing.

The irony is that these realities have themselves become formulaic, so much so that new phrases – “I didn’t come here to make friends,” for example, the sure indicator of a reality show’s requisite villain – and situations have entered the popular culture lexicon. It all encompasses everything wrong with these so-called attempts at capturing, creating, and depicting “reality:" they are cutthroat, take-no-prisoners craving for fame, money, or love. They will not go away any time soon, which leads me to think that, much like Lynch predicted almost a decade ago, this will end only when the fantasies come crashing down – when the hundreds of Betties are suddenly drawn away from the flourishing lies in their minds to discover that they're nothing more than failed, vindictive people surviving off unimportant and long-ago events.

There was an Associated Press article a few weeks ago that pointed out how, after almost ten years, we the collective population of the world still had no official name for this departing decade. The eighties gave way to the nineties, and the nineties gave way to...what? The zeroes? The double-ohs? The naughts? I, for one, could care less what this decade will be called twenty or thirty years from now. It doesn't really matter. The fact that this decade, all ten excrutiating years, will be known forever by two large, looming zeroes – two towering symbols of nothingness – seems more than appropriate.


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