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Dark Neon

"If the American director has only one masterpiece it is 'Blue Velvet'; if we grant him two, the second is 'Mulholland Drive'"

Manuel Arias Maldonado

Dark Neon
Manuel Arias Maldonado

Manuel Arias Maldonado

Catedrático de Ciencia Política en la Universidad de Málaga y colaborador habitual en prensa y medios culturales.

During an extended academic visit to New York in the spring of 2017, I had the chance to see Blue Velvet at a cultural centre in Brooklyn that was a stone’s throw away from my apartment. That must have been the third or fourth time I stepped inside the luminous gloom of David Lynch’s film, which for some reason Dino de Laurentiis agreed to produce in 1986, despite the monumental box-office flop of Dune two years before. But if that experience as a viewer has lingered in my memory, it is because of the surprising reaction on the part of the audience I had beside me: young urbanites with a hípster look who were laughing their heads off throughout the whole picture. It didn´t matter what was on the screen, whether it was a neighbour keeling over in his garden or the psychopath played by Dennis Hopper hitting the singer played by Isabella Rossellini or  the young Kyle McLachlan taking a beating to the tune of Roy Orbison: everything seemed funny to that disconcerting group of viewers. I confess I have never figured out why they found everything so laughable; was it a kind of receptive infantilism on their part, a kind of nervous laughter when faced with the soul’s abysses or had they seen something in the film that I still have not seen?  It’s not that Blue Velvet is lacking in humour: a fine irony runs through it from beginning to end. But that audience’s mirthful reaction didn´t seem to have much to do with it; you’d think they were watching a comedy. And Blue Velvet may be many things, but it is not a comedy.

This explains why I felt some relief, a few weeks ago, when I saw the film again in a theatre and met with no trace of those gales of laughter. In the context of a release by Avalon Distributors, the worthy Cine Albéniz of Malaga [Albéniz Cinema in Malaga], put Mulholland Drive on the billboard for a few weeks and added to it a cycle devoted to David Lynch: every Thursday one of his films was showing. Personally, I regret that Inland Empire, his last film in the strictest sense of the word, was missing; it’s an enigmatic revision of Mulholland Drive that is crying out for greater consideration. But one can only be grateful for the chance to see these works again in the delightful darkness of a theatre —somewhat spoiled these days by the emergency lights and the screens of mobile phones here and there — and on the big screen. In the case of Blue Velvet, besides, we were able to see the restored version, in image and sound, which was supervised for the Criterion Collection by the director himself: these are golden days for film buffs.

And so, the audience gathered in the Albéniz Cinema, among which there were many young people, maintained silence.  It was, in fact, a serious and attentive silence which is not so common any more; the mystery of the plot conceived by Lynch unfolded before spectators who were taken aback by the intensity of human passions and interested in the unknown quantity of their motivation. It’s the theme of the film, which is for the rest made explicit many times throughout: the strange savagery of the world underlying everyday apearances. Not only do the characters say that the world is strange: they themselves emerge from the darkness into the light —Laura’s Dern’s sudden appearance in the middle of suburban night is unforgettable— and they are bent on practicing risky exercises in voyeurism from which they emerge wearing a halo of false innocence. But the silence on the part of my fellow citizens was stimulating for another reason, too: a small crowd confronted the complexity of human behaviour at a time —our own— in which public consensus is bent on suppressing it. Faced with the puritanical moralizing in our collective conversation, in which the voices are many that call for the art of cultivating pedagogical virtue, Blue Velvet  represents the opposite: a journey to the dark side that Lynch executes with a sovereign mastery of  form and a disconcerting ability to trouble us with his images without failing, for all that, to reassure us.

In that sense it is striking that the film contains so many of the stylistic hallmarks that crop up again and again in the director’s later work. There you have the night shot of the highway taken from the front of the car, during the trip in which the delinquent, Frank Booth, beats up the young Jeffrey Beaumont; the images of fire, almost abstract in nature; the appearance of the singer Dorothy Vallens, naked and bruised, which recalls the survivor of Twin Peaks returning from the woods; the two employees in the hardware store, one of whom is blind and nonetheless unerring in the use of the cash register, who recall the two brothers who are mechanics in The Straight Story, and so many other representatives of the excentricity of that inland America the director loves so well; the cheap room where  Franks’s partner Ben’s henchmen pass the time, is a lot like that room where the humans with rabbit heads in Inland Empire live. What I didn´t remember is that the film was so like Hitchcock: there are elements of Rear Window in its sustained intent to dig into others’ lives and the suspicion that the American Dream hides a nightmare that cannot be repressed. But there are also the Herrmanian outlines of Angelo Badalamenti’s music, the way in which the names of streets are filmed, the fascinating solidity of the “bad guy” in the film and that appearance by Laura Dern that goes back to Judy/Madeleine’s in Vertigo. It’s not that Lynch is Hitchcock or that he has fallen under his spell the way that Brian de Palma does in almost all his films or Jonathan Demme does in Last Embrace; he’s just sensitive to his influence. And couldn’t we apply to Lynch what André Bazin so famously said of the English director, that for him every shot is like a threat or an anxiety-ridden wait?

Having said this, Lynch’s personality asserts itself forcefully throughout a film that he himself has written and which manages to maintain a tone that hovers between literality and irony. Jeffrey’s young mother watches TV movies that feature a pistol or a murderer climbing the stairs and doesn’t realise that her son is involved in a murky story that belies the idyllic appearance of Lumberton: that city where the sound of a tree falling to the ground after being felled serves the radio announcer as a way to mark passing time. In the same place where healthy-looking, high school boys are playing football and the iconography —from diner to convertible car— goes back to the idealised 50s, a disturbing mobster is keeping Dorothy Vallens’ husband and son kidnapped in the company of grotesque henchmen.  There is an unforgettable moment when that mobster, called Ben, played by Dean Stockwell, a child actor in the Hollywood in the late forties, takes a microphone—throwing light on his made-up face—and lip syncs a song by Roy Orbison —another one of Lynch’s weaknesses; it is directly related to what the film is narrating: In Dreams. Isn´t the film by any chance Jeffrey’s dream? When it is all over the young man wakes up from his nap in an armchair in the garden and finds himself among members of his family in a climate of domestic contentment. But when he greets his father, whom we assume to be in rough shape after the stroke he has at the beginning of the film, he finds him cooking a barbecue in the company of his father-in-law and without a trace of illness. And if you look closely, it is not even certain that Jeffrey’s father is really his father, as we had been introduced to him at the beginning of the film, though maybe —I have a still from the film at home and I can´t even tell for certain from that—he is one of Frank Booth’s gangsters. The one who is played by Jack Nance, the lead in Eraserhead and the local from Twin Peaks who discovers Laura Palmer’s corpse.

Whether it is a dream or not, the idea that it could have been a dream constitutes one of Lynch’s ironies.  For it seems implausible that the people involved in this story of perversity and violence should emerge unscathed from events. However, that is the impression given by the epilogue, in which the family reunites and Dorothy Vallens gets her son back, while the sun shines on the roses and the firemen greet the neighbours: they act as if nothing had happened to them or as if everything were now resolved. I think Lynch is talking about life, about cinema, about the American dream: we feign normality, we have a vermouth on leaving the theatre where we have been shown a crime, we tell ourselves a national tale that covers up all the atrocities committed by our founders. And when we have a robin before us, as happens at the end of Blue Velvet, we see a goodness in the creature that the insect caught in his beak belies. It is all big smiles, nonetheless: a happy ending that ironizes over the Hollywood tradition of happy endings.

Oscuros neones 1

Fotograma de Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, does not have a happy ending. First released twenty years ago, it is a fascinating film: if the American director has only one masterpiece it is Blue Velvet; if we grant him two, the second is Mulholland Drive.  Originally conceived as a television series, of which only the pilot was filmed, whose provisional montage was rejected by the ABC network, the movie could only be made thanks to Alain Sardé, a French producer of some stature who has worked with Kusturica, Godard or Polanski; French participation explains, incidentally, that the wardrobe was designed by the French designer, Agnès B, a film buff who has financed the release of Eric Rohmer’s Complete Works on Blu-Ray, thus becoming an admirable patron of the arts. I wish we had someone in Spain who would feel prompted to bring out Luis Buñuel’s work.

The film takes up the author’s usual themes and, just as in the case of Blue Velvet, could be categorised as generic neo-noir or post-noir. Nonetheless, it adds something that wasn´t there in Blue Velvet and which will return in Inland Empire: a reflection on Hollywood and cinema itself as a maker of mythologies. Paradoxically, only a lover of classic cinema could have made Mulholland Drive, whose very title evokes a geography as literal as it is fantastic: a narrow highway on which to project our fantasies, just the way they have been fed by the Californian dream factory. And so the sentence spoken by Betty (Naomi Watts) refers to a real event and nevertheless has metaphoric resonance: “There was an accident in Mulholland Drive.” And with that accident the film begins, adopting the point of view of an omniscient narrator who metes out the information given us as if it were a puzzle: we see what the person telling the story wants us to see, without cleaving to the point of view of one single character, despite the fact that the film can be understood as the product of a single tortured mind. None of this is evident at first sight: you have to see the film at least a couple of times to begin to make sense of it. But you don´t have to make all the details fit in either; that is in all likelihood impossible.

It all begins with a limousine that goes up Mulholland Drive: a beautiful woman (Laura Harring) who seems to be an actress or a model is driven up the Hill by a chauffeur and his co-pilot. Another vehicle, further below, darts up the road; they are youngsters who have come out to party and we understand that something terrible is about to happen. Then the first car stops and one of the men gets out, carrying a gun that he is going to use to shoot the woman; before he can go through with this crime, the crash occurs which the woman will survive. Badly shaken by the impact, she backs away from the scene and ends up inside an apartment —located on Sunset Boulevard, it is stressed —belonging to a lady who is going away on a trip. There she meets Betty, the owner’s niece who has come up from the country with the idea of trying her luck in the movies. Lynch is eloquent on introducing her, revelling in the clichés of the story of her transposition as a model from the country’s heartland to the Hollywood mecca: we see images of semi-professional dancers, triumph in a beauty contest, palm trees stretching to the heavens to compose a promise of worldly success. But, already, in Betty’s arrival at the airport, something unsettling  makes itself felt; the old pair who have helped the aspiring actress calm her nerves during the flight burst into evil laughter once they have seen her off, as if they had spun a trap for her whose nature we cannot fathom.

From that moment onward, the story we are apparently being told has Betty trying to help Rita once she has come across her in her apartment: this unknown woman cannot recall clearly who she is or how she came to be there. In order to learn the real story we will have to wait, even though there are hints of it at certain points in the narration,  during which characters file past us whose significance is initially unclear: the doings of  the young film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) and of the mobsters (the musician Angelo Badalamenti among them) who finance his film and who want to impose the leading lady on him; the story of the incompetent hitman who tries to steal an address book; the friends who have coffee at Winkie’s, a diner that one of them associates with a nightmare, a subject to which we will return. In this first part, the film’s TV origins are evident and not always in a good way.

Meanwhile, the story of Betty and Rita unfolds as a mystery to be unveiled by its leading actors. Rita is the name Betty has given to the woman from the accident, who does not remember her own name and takes that of Rita Hayworth from off  a photograph of the Hollwood star in the bathroom of the apartment. Just like her, she becomes a blonde when circumstances require a change in image: in The Lady of Shanghai, filmed after their divorce was final, Welles had his exwife Hayworth become  a platinum blonde, which goes so well with her personality as a femme fatale. Thus the Hollywood references abound: the small apartment complex where Betty lives recalls the one where the screenwriter played by Humphrey Bogart lived in that bitter fable of the film industry titled In a Lonely Place.  The superintendent is a lady named Coco whose Oriental look would not have been out of place in RKO productions; and the reproach that Coco herself makes of her neighbour for her dog’s excrement recalls the complaints over the murdered dog in Rear Window. To cap off this series of reminiscences, a clairvoyant calls by mistake at Betty’s home and foresees misfortune in the middle of the night. In fact, the protagonists themselves take their inquiries as if they were part of juvenile adventure: “It will be like in the movies!”, says Betty, enthusiastically. It is as if Celine and Julie Go Boating, that extraordinary comedy by Jacques Rivette, had gone awry; Betty and Rita don´t know that they are playing with fire. Viewers in the golden age of cinema also went to the movie theatres in all innocence, without knowing that a sharpened knife was waiting for them on the other side of the shower curtain.

Lynch builds a strong visual contrast between the earthly Betty and the divine Rita. This allows him to assign a symbolic dimension to the attraction that the former feels for the latter, who represents the world of movie fantasy cultivated in the darkness of the theatre, Nonetheless, Betty demonstrates her potential as an actress in the course of an audition that Lynch brings sarcastically to the screen: the young woman from the country gives a lesson to the faded old heartthrob who was planning to take advantage of his sensory  access to the hopeful young actress. Betty, literally, is transfigured  during the performance, following the script of a cheap melodrama; it is the homage Lynch pays to the medium or a warning over its artificiality. Meanwhile, the young director who had refused to accept the actress chosen by the mafia sees his life crumbling around him and decides to let his arm be twisted:  inside a corral illuminated  in the middle of the night by one of those flashing neon lights that crop up all the time in Lynch’s work a cowboy with a Texan accent makes it clear what he has to do.  After this encounter, Kesher agrees to  choose the actress designated in a selection process in which the applicants  sing a pop song —once again— the way it was done in the 50s. It’s the same era Lynch evokes in Blue Velvet: the one that figures in America’s collective imaginary as a golden age of optimism and progress.

Nonetheless, the tone of the film grows progressively darker. After Rita’s hunch in the diner, the two friends come to the conclusion that Rita used to live in one of the apartments, to which they immediately make their way; what they find there is the stinking corpse of a woman whose identity is unknown. That night, after Rita has put no  her blonde wig, they have sex. Thanatos awakens Eros. But Rita wakes up alarmed in the middle of the night and asks Betty to accompany her to a place that turns out to be called Club Silence. It’s an enigmatic theatre where a showman tricked out as a magician repeats that “there is no band” while the instruments sound as he ticks them off. In that same place the singer Rebeca del Río sings a Spanish version of “Crying”, Roy Orbison´s hit about an unhappy love. Betty trembles; the singer faints while the tune —in the era of lip-sync— goes on playing. We are entering the terrain of the fantastic; Betty has found a blue key in her handbag that fits into the lock of a metal box Rita has in her possession and when she finds herself alone in the apartment, she inserts the key into it. Incidentally, it is hard to exaggerate the importance that objects have in Lynch’s cinema; he films them as Hitchcock and Buñuel do: concentrating on them, isolating them from their usual function, investing them with symbolic power. Here, the box opens to reveal part of the enigma: Rita falls into a swoon and the person who wakes up later, in the apartment they have both investigated together, is a deteriorated version of Betty. And the truth begins to emerge: Betty had fallen in love with Camilla, whom we have known as Rita, who leaves her after taking up with Kesher. Unable to accept that break-up, Betty sinks deeper into despair and goes so far as to hire the clumsy hitman that we met earlier so that he will kill Camilla. Once she is back home, Betty is the victim of what seem to be terrible hallucinations, which take the form of the little old people who helped her on landing in Los Angeles.  Assailed by them, she drags herself to the bed and shoots herself. Her corpse is the one that she herself had seen when Rita was with her.

Have we been watching a dream? The disorganization of the narrative elements points to as much: the thesis would seem to be reinforced by a subjective shot that, in the first third of the film, closes in on a pillow. But it is not a dream in the proper sense of the word, but rather a delirium through which an unhappy consciousness tells itself a story with the aim —conscious or otherwise— of alleviating its suffering. The contrast between the fiction that gives shape to the apparent story and the crude facts that make up the real story could not be greater; nonetheless,  the apparent story is constructed with elements provided by the real story. The fantasy is blonde and glamorous; reality is dirty and brunette. A shadow created by the focus light! The arc of narration goes from the fantasy to that reality, which always ends up imposing itself and emerges with all its force during the party that Betty attends after being left by Camilla. There, for example, is Coco: she is Kesher’s mother and not Betty’s landlady. That the engine of the fictionalization should be the emotional devastation caused by the break-up of a love affair, in the context of a failed attempt to triumph in the movies, gives the story a dramatic nucleus that is anchored in a kind of experience  we can all recognise. 

Now, where is this story being told from? And who is telling it? At first sight, of course, it’s about Betty: what is on the set is the fragmentation of her lived experience. Earlier I made reference to the well-known scene in which a man named Dan (the always expressive Patrick Fischler) sits in a diner and tells the story of a recurring nightmare he has that takes place in that very diner: a horrifying figure waits for him outside. The friend he is talking to encourages him to go out in order to see that his fear is unfounded, But the nightmare begins to materialize in this way: the friend greets him from the counter exactly like in the dream, Lynch manages to convey the character’s apprehension with great economy of means, through a subjective shot that homes in on where the supposed creature is hiding. Nonsense! But the creature appears all of a sudden: a kind of gigantic, dirty tramp before whom Dan falls to the floor, shaking as if he were having a heart attack. Is it a real figure or a figment of the dreamer’s imagination? We´ll find out at the end of the film: just before Betty’s suicide, we see the tramp in his corner: at his feet is the little blue box that Betty finds in her bag. And from it come the little old people, in miniature, undertaking their horrific walk to the home of their victim. Are we not, then, by any chance being introduced to the tramp as a kind of demiurge who rules over events from his remote hiding-place? The answer has been given us by Dan at Winkie’s, while he tried to explain to his friend the details of the nightmare that torments him. The figure of his fears is described in an unequivocal way: “He’s the one doing this.” Which is to say: the one who is doing this —to us. Who? The director of the film, of course: David Lynch. And we, of course, allow this to be done to us. 

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