Friday 18 February 2022

The Question in Bodies #37: Parasite Art (i)

“Culture keeps us alive.” I keep saying that. It's one of my saws, a truism that I live by. But as all truisms, it exists in an indeterminate state between universal truth and comforting lie, because while culture does, I think, keep us alive, it can also destroy us. Art is dangerous, precisely because it has such an elemental power to illuminate and transform who we are. And when we make art, when we practise art, it can liberate us, but we can also become lost in it. Art could be described just as easily as a parasite. It keeps us alive in order to feed from us. Art is an infestation.

There is no shortage of movies about great artists, real and fictional – whether they're painters, musicians, dancers, filmmakers or whatever else they might be – and the ambivalent effects that their art has on their lives. These films are framed in different ways. Some show the artist destroyed by their art, but present this as tragic but necessary, the consequence of greatness.

Miloš Forman’s classic Amadeus (1984) is more or less the defining type of this sort of film. Here, distinguished composer Salieri (F Murray Abraham), jealous of being just nowhere near as good as the boorish, immature Mozart (Tom Hulce, in a performance so definitive it pretty much ended his career as a leading man), manipulates Mozart’s life and relationships to destroy him, but cannot efface either the impact or legacy of Mozart’s work. In a darkly funny coda, Salieri sees his own work forgotten even in his own lifetime. He becomes, in his own words, “the patron saint of mediocrities,”and the film serves as a sort of meditation on how some men just have to make art, and the part even the average artists have in furthering the purity and progress of artistic endeavour as a universal thing. Despite Mozart’s misery and folly and Salieri’s descent into a quintessentially Hollywood sort of madness, the subtext of Amadeus is that it is all in some way worth it.

We see similar things happen with Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life (1956) and Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstacy (1964), with the redemptive subtext of art only doubled down on by a pair of classic examples of horrendous Hollywood miscasting. Douglas and Heston habitually played heroes, and Michelangelo’s awkwardness and Vincent’s depression are presented as the characteristics of tragic protagonists. They are geniuses. It is the way of the genius in this narrative to be a difficult and troubled man, and if his behaviour and his ultimate fate is bad, his art is transformative and a universal good.

I gendered that. 

You don’t hear the label of genius applied to women nearly so much, and in the popular imagination the woman who is an auteur neither gets a pass for bad behaviour nor much sympathy for a bad end. And consider: in the languages from which the words are loaned, both genius and auteur are grammatically masculine. We subconsciously expect them to be male. And this blind spot we have feeds into cultural representations of women in the arts, which tend to be very different to how male artists are presented. And this is not to say that there aren’t examples of movies about artists in the Hollywood mode featuring women protagonists – there are always exceptions – but that you’re much more likely to see the Hollywood Artist as a man, and much, much more likely to see a woman as a protagonist in that subgenre of film where art eats the artist alive, with no apparent redemptive subtext.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

It seems somewhat reductive to start with a film like Mulholland Drive. If genres are matryoshkas, trying to fit Mulholland Drive into your nesting doll arrangement is like trying to jam in one of those weird fragile golden eggs with the clockwork movements that plays a faintly eerie music box lullaby.

It is a reasonable contender for David Lynch’s best film (although it’s a lot harder to pick his best film than it is to pick his worst one), and it admits horror, noir, black comedy and more. I think it is an identity horror urtext. I don’t think Lynch would be happy about that. But I don’t need to tell you how good it is. Better and more significant critics than me have praised it. I was moved by it. It stayed with me. I don’t have to say more than that.

Mulholland Drive is circular in structure, and replete with visual metaphors and similes. A woman (Laura Harring) is a passenger in a back of a car that stops on the titular Hollywood street Mulholland Drive, one of the world’s most famous thoroughfares. It is apparent that the men in the car mean to kill her. But a speeding vehicle crashes into the car by chance, killing everyone except the woman, who, concussed and lost, stumbles off down the Hollywood hills to take refuge in an unlocked apartment. The following day, Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives to take residence. Betty, an aspiring actor come to find fame in the land of tinsel and dazzling lights. 

Betty meets the amnesiac woman, who takes the name Rita from a poster of Rita Hayworth, and together they strive to unlock the mystery of who Rita is. Later they fall in love. They are framed initially as the ingenue and the femme fatale, and although they prove that the gumshoe, the third noir archetype, is entirely dispensable, soon it becomes apparent that these are ill-fitting tropes, for the femme fatale doesn’t know who she is, and the ingenue proves at an audition for a film that is never going to happen that she is capable of using her sexuality as a tool of control.

There are subplots. A man questioned at a diner (Patrick Fischler) is haunted by shadowy figures that apparently come for him far too soon. A film director named Adam (Justin Theroux) has a leading actor named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) forced upon his movie – itself a film about a star – by shadowy and threatening forces. Camilla is apparently the target of a hitman called Joe (Mark Pellegrino), whose incompetence would be hilarious if it didn’t account for so many extraneous, pointless deaths. Meanwhile, Betty and Rita are led to the home of a woman named Diane Selwyn. They find her dead. Our heroines go to a sinister nightclub where entertainers are deprived of voices and worked to death on stage.

There is a blue box. When it opens, everything changes. The romantic, genre-tinged excitement of the narrative is replaced by regret, disappointment, sadness, failure. Characters are seen in a different context, a different light. Betty is no longer Betty; she is now Diane. Rita is now Camilla. Camilla is someone else entirely, and the waitress at the diner is Betty. Diane’s career has failed and her love affair with Camilla is over, although Diane has come to terms with neither fact. Diane pays Joe to kill Camilla, although we do not see it carried out. Tormented by tiny, grotesque homonculi creeping under her door in the form of Irene (Jeanne Bates), the apparently kindly elderly lady who travelled with the other Betty to Los Angeles at the start of the film and her companion (Dan Birnbaum), Diane is driven to suicide.

Parts of the final sequence seem to serve as an explanatory if scrambled prologue for the main body of the film, but of course it is not so simple, and the film isn’t a puzzle to be twisted and clicked into a solution like Rubik’s Cube. I think there is a meaning that Lynch intended, and I feel it forms a sort of decade-spanning triptych with Lost Highway (1997) and Inland Empire (2006), films which also play with identity horror, and explore the way that women are destroyed by the structures they find themselves in. 

I have almost no doubt that any answer I might give to the question of Mulholland Drive is not canonically correct, but the point I want to stress is that in the second, more truthful narrative, the young women are interchangeable and all the men are the same. The old women are roughly the same too, but then here, as in Hollywood, women actors who survive to be elderly serve a different purpose. Older male actors get to be sexualised – the prospective romantic lead in the film Betty auditions for is played by a man easily old enough to be her dad, for example – but older women actors only get to retain their sexuality in the context of situations where this is explicitly pointed out as in some way aberrant. But the young women are interchangeable. They could be each other. They in fact are. And this is the case in the real Hollywood. It chews actors up and spits them out, sticking them under the chair like a piece of gum, but tends to be so much more enthusiastic about consuming the women.

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