Saturday, May 21, 2011

An Idle List for a Summer's Day: Best Albums 2000-2009

Out of all of my hardly original “perennial student hipster” interests – literature, film, TV, music – I feel least qualified to talk about music. Luckily, you don't need any qualifications to write a blog post. Unqualification is relative, of course, and I suppose I feel this way about popular music because although it's possible, in a blogging context, to imagine you're turning people on to interesting little-known films or shows or coming up with original theories about literature, everyone in the blogosphere knows about music, and everyone knows more than you do. (Not to mention that the most ignored blogger runs a high risk of having strangers scream at them about facts or opinions when popular music occurs as a topic.) In the context of online culture it can sometimes feel like everyone's a musician or, if not, at least a music nerd. Being neither, I've come to defensively define myself as “a casual music fan.” I've stopped even trying to keep up, which in the online era is impossible. But that's precisely why, when I idly jotted down a list of “best” albums of 2000-2009 today, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the 2000s look like a good decade for popular music in immediate retrospect. Not bothering to keep up means I come to the hot bands an average of 5-10 years late, and so it can seem at any given moment that hardly anything is going on in music at all. On the contrary, great music from interesting artists keeps happening.

It's just not true that the only things that happened in the decade were Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire.

There's also the problem that, from a distance, all hipster bands look more or less the same. (Who the fun are Fleet Foxes, and why should I care?) In the present moment it always seems like there are too many good bands to get into, and none of them good enough to make it worthwhile. That's why you have to wait for one great song to get to you, however it does – whether through a friend's mix CD or recommendation or through the increasingly uncanny wide-casting demographic-targeted playlists (bringing together Justin Bieber and of Montreal, for example) in your retail workplace. Even then, it can take a long time to get through. I can't even remember how or where I heard my first of Montreal song, “Wraith Pinned to the Mist and Other Games,” but I instantly loved it. However, the prospect of getting into what seemed like a generically esoteric hipster band, however catchy their tunes, was too exhausting. It must have been a whole five years later that I heard my second of Montreal song, “Suffer for Fashion,” and only then did I check out Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, desperate for “new” music as I was. The beauty is, of course, that there is time. For some, the arrival of the global consumer/internet culture 21st century has meant developing a denser pop culture filter than ever in order to avoid being overwhelmed by “choices” that can sometimes seem like screaming demands. (Like that kid pull-quoted – apparently approvingly – in a parenting book on how to get kids to read who expressed his anxiety over all of the great books out there waiting to be read, which made him “feel sorry” for them!)

I've also always been pretty recalcitrant when it comes to music hype. I was there for Nirvana (I was 16, in fact), and I sat it out. I did get into Hole, although it took ten years, because early Courtney Love had the same dress sense as me at 17 and had also read Sexual Personae. I loved The Bends, couldn't care less about anything else that Radiohead did, and I did try. Indifferent to The Strokes, much as I like the singles. Indifferent to Arcade Fire, pretty as it all is. I couldn't tell you much of anything about the objective quality of these bands' albums, and unlike Rolling Stone, I'm not going to try. If anything should be allowed to still be entirely subjective, it ought to be popular music. You know, unless it's crap.

So here's my idle list (with very subjective annotations) of 10 best/favourite/whatever albums/CDs/whatever from 2000-2009, which, ignorant and subjective though it may be, at least cheers me up with its indication of the health of hipster pop:

  1. Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? (of Montreal)

Combining the literate art geekiness of Talking Heads, the jingle-pop sensibilities and weird high-pitched delivery (combined with literate art geekiness) of Sparks circa Kimono My House, the tweeness of Marc Bolan (or maybe even Ronald Firbank, even though Barnes's primary literary reference point is the pretty different Georges Bataille), and the Smiths-patented juxtaposition of upbeat pop with wittily depressing (and literate) subject matter, Kevin Barnes is one fascinating fucked-up dude. According to reviews, this is of Montreal's darkest album, documenting Barnes's (temporary, as it turned out) separation from his wife. “I spent the winter on the verge of a total breakdown while living in Norway / I felt the darkness of the black metal bands” Barnes warbles in the opening lines of a song called “A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger” that goes on to cover the territory of Hopkins's Dark Sonnets with fewer Victorian frills and more postmodern understatement. “And through many sleepless nights / I lay praying to a saint that nobody had heard of.” Of course, Barnes has become alienated from his wife, not God, but that's what makes it modern, you know. Ah love, let us be true to one another, etc..

Like Morrissey and David Byrne, Barnes often adopts a naive persona in his lyrics, and one as unique to him and difficult to define in words as theirs. As a nervous breakdown set to catchy psychedelic electronic pop, Hissing Fauna could also be compared to The Associates' Sulk. But the music isn't nearly as moody, and the lyrics aren't easy to catch (or else it's my sucky speakers), so I've got to admit it's the endlessly catchy sonic soundscape that's drawn me into this one, with lyrical rewards to come.

  1. Nux Vomica (The Veils)

And here we have the fascinating Finn Andrews, with psychosexual problems fully able to compete with Barnes's and a powerful sandpaper screech that he can also use as a warm croon. This is the band's second album, and so obviously a masterpiece that its third was bound to disappoint (and did). Whether he's following in the great tradition of UK songwriters who adopt the female perspective (see also Paul McCartney and Jarvis Cocker) in the sparkly, sprightly “Advice for Young Mothers to Be” or evoking his misgivings about sexual maturity in Blakean fashion on the epic “Not Yet” (“I love my little velvet bed / I never want to leave it anymore”), Andrews delivers lyrics as good as anyone's, but it's as a collection of great songs that the album truly impresses. 

  1. The Marshall Mathers LP (Eminem)

A rare “decade-defining” album that I actually got into at the time of its release, perhaps because it was even harder to avoid than Nevermind – and also because, devil's advocate that I am, I had to give this “homophobic misogynist” a chance. Which I did after encountering the singles “The Real Slim Shady” and “Stan” on the radio (getting driven around by my father, since I never play Top 40 radio myself). The first made me laugh, the second made me cry, and both shocked me with a level of literary craft I sure never thought I'd hear on mainstream North American radio. I got into this album at the same time as Live Through This (the latter belatedly), blasting them in my undergrad dorm room, and maybe it was the tail-end of my marriage breakup that put me in the perfect frame of mind for cathartic rage of such proportions. For Em, it was lucky he got out a masterpiece on the second (major studio) album, before fame, and maybe critical hype, messed him up in the bad, talent-obliterating way.

  1. Up the Bracket/The Libertines (The Libertines)

In the digital era the album is really losing its definition, except in the case of masterpieces that clearly stand out from the rest of the band/artist's oeuvre. I ripped these two CDs onto my media player and I couldn't tell you which songs are from which, so I have to list them as a single entity. I surely don't need to rehearse The Libertines' lore here; it's enough to say that if The Smiths, in the 80s, offered a sped-up, homoerotic version of The Beatles' breakup for a new generation, The Libertines gave us one for postmodern times: even faster, even more homoerotic, and even more dramatic. They were also the only band of the decade to have all the elements that characterize a great pop band the way The Smiths did: catchy songs, interesting personalities, entertaining interviews, a vision that the kids cared about (even if those kids were pushing thirty, like me), and a distinct style (rather than looking like one of those kids themselves). I revisit each of these tunes with an unfading joy – the perfect pop tunes with the raw punk delivery that Doherty and Barat opportunistically nicked from The Strokes (but with more desperation and humour) or the achingly lovely, bare-bones melancholic ballads.

  1. Gorillaz/Demon Days (Gorillaz)

Great as Blur was, with their catchy and occasionally gorgeous pop, pretty boy frontman Damon Albarn was overshadowed in the Britpop wars by Jarvis Cocker – more interesting, more charismatic, and a more consistent lyricist who was willing besides to take up Morrissey's mantle as generational spokesperson. Well, overshadowed for me, anyway, when I caught up with Britpop a decade late. So it was to everyone's surprise (or maybe just mine) when Albarn emerged post-Blur and post-Britpop as an adventurous, trend-setting musician's musician, mainly with Gorillaz, but also with The Good, the Bad & the Queen. On the first two Gorillaz albums Albarn came up with a brilliant concept that introduced a lucky new generation to smarter, cooler music that was, however, more than mature and eclectic enough to interest his older fans. And he's still got to have the best pop sensibilities of any musician since Paul McCartney. (And if you “hate Paul McCartney,” you can just shut up, you poseur snob, and clean your ears out.)

  1. We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank (Modest Mouse)

Another contribution (after Kevin Barnes, Finn Andrews, Eminem, and perhaps Pete Doherty) to the male hysteria genre that must have characterized the decade, or at least the indie music by male musicians in it that interested me. Again: perfect pop. This time: with a heavy, almost hardcore edge (as on Nux Vomica, but to totally different effect). Isaac Brock screams himself hoarse about I'm-not-sure-what, but I believe his angst, and enjoy it thanks to the structural clarity of the songs (Johnny Marr's contribution?), which never lose their catchiness no matter how hard, loud, and dark the sound gets. It's odd, I think of myself as a lyrics person, but in all of my favourites choices for the 2000s, except maybe The Marshall Mathers LP, lyrics (to which in most cases I've paid little attention) take a back-seat to the overall sound of the album. Now, if only I had a critical vocabulary for that.

  1. Timespirit of the Times (Jan and Steve)

Shenanigans by two brilliant unknown Canadian musicians who know everyone. This is what happens when a couple of young music nerds get together and make an album as a friendship project. There's a McCartney here, bringing the pop sensibilities, and a Lennon, bringing the monkey wrench (he may throw one at me in thanks for that description), though I can't remember which is which. There's a lot of self-indulgence, and a lot of in-jokery, but the spirit of fun is infectious. It would have been worth the full album price, if it had ever been sold at one, for featuring a song with the most bizarre and complicated pop hook of all time. It took me a full day to figure out how hum it, after which their friend, Donna Linklater of The Billie Hollies, congratulated me. I don't know how you can even get your hands on this anymore, and I think I've lost my promo copy, but maybe Donna does. It's a gem.

  1. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Neko Case)
  2. Lungs (Florence + the Machine)
  3. Back to Black (Amy Winehouse)

Why have I left all of the female indie artists for my final three spots? It seems so unfeminist of me. Maybe pop is just one of those things where being sexually intrigued by the artist helps (YOU THINK?); at least for female fans, since men have traditionally preferred to identify with frontmen/male songwriters. Anyway, I don't know much or have a lot to say about Neko Case, Florence Welch, or Amy Winehouse, only that I agree with the critical consensus that these are three great albums of the decade (and that I'm hoping Winehouse has more great, or even good, albums in her). (I can wait a long time. I'm still waiting for a solo masterpiece from Courtney Love.) They all have great voices (whether bringing it to folk-country, pop-punk, or Motown-blues), and they all have great hair. Case is a notoriously esoteric lyricist, and for me, anyway, the emotive high points of Fox Confessor coincide with relative clarity, where the lyricism of the music and the lyricism of the, uh, lyrics, work together: as on “Maybe Sparrow” and “Hold On, Hold On.” “I leave the party at 3 a.m. / Alone, thank God,” sings Case in the latter song, which appears to be a fairly original tribute to the emotions of being a single girl, in the form of a love song to the devil. I'm not sure that I'm sure I know what she's talking about, but I'm pretty sure I've felt this way anyway.

Honourable mentions: The Good, the Bad & the Queen; The Sunlandic Twins (of Montreal); Arular (M.I.A.); Smooth Sailing and How (Paul Linklater); Fantasies (Metric)

So that's my casual music fan's overview of the 2000s. Which begs the question: RECS?

EDIT: After a small amount of internet investigation I've discovered that Barnes sold "Wraith Pinned to the Mist" to be used in some steakhouse TV commercial. So however I came to hear it (which I still can't remember, though it wasn't on TV), that's WHY I came to hear it. Which means I owe my total discovery of this delightful band to capitalism. Which means that Barnes was correct in his Stereogum rant against the concept of "selling out" when he got backlash for the commercial. How do you get people to notice you? Capitalism. Because not everyone's a musician/music nerd who's going to dig around for obscure gems among the piles of brilliant avant-garde bands out there. Talent is in no short supply; what's in short supply is exposure to interesting things in the mainstream. But, should capitalism introduce the right person to something interesting for a change, they will take note. It's all about the platform. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Sexual Politics of Sunset Boulevard

As a corollary of my Lynch kick, I watched Sunset Boulevard last night for the first time since I was a teenager. Wilder's celebrated film is a Lynch favourite, invoked in both Muholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE, where Norma Desmond's pet monkey and Joe's early quip, "They'll love it in Pomona," contribute to the Asian street girl's absurdist speech about her friend while Laura Dern expires from a screwdriver stabbing. I had remembered the movie as one I never wanted to watch again, although I may have tried it a second time in my early 20s, the most intensive period of my cinephilia. Watching it last night, though, I felt like I'd taken a Proustian shortcut straight back to the emotions of that first teenage viewing, and then I knew why this film that was widely regarded as a Hollywood masterpiece had never been a favourite of mine.

It has little to do with the flaws I perceived on this viewing: Wilder's occasional overkill with the voice-over narration, which often intrudes on Swanson's performance by stating the obvious; and Swanson's overacting and/or Wilder's misconceived direction in the final mad scene. The latter may have made Norma Desmond a camp icon, but it now feels dated and borders on the risible (I still cried). No, what makes the film such painful viewing is that Wilder has created an unlikely doomed, hopeless love story. One of the characteristic features of the screwball comedy (and it goes back to Jane Austen) is the author's unanalyzable skill in making us believe that the romantic couple are meant to be together despite their conflict and wildly different personalities. In ways even more unanalyzable, Wilder does this with Norma and Joe, but somehow in the context of tragic satire instead of romantic comedy.

Why this is painful has little to do with feminist objections that, except when Wilder's forcing her to look or act grotesque, Swanson is an attractive 50-year-old, while Holden, clearly 30, is given the green light to lust after a 22-year-old who's engaged to another man. On top of the age difference, Wilder loads on another reversal of cultural expectations about gender by having Norma keep Joe; and of course the insuperable barrier to any happiness an audience might imagine for them is Norma's madness.

And yet, somehow they're perfect for each other - which is the real reason that their affair is doomed. The typical noir hero, Joe is weak, passive, fatalistic, quasi-suicidal. You just don't believe that he really wants to escape Norma and try to have a normal life where he'd have to support himself and make his way in the cold world (shades of Oedipus?). You don't believe his lust for bland Betty (the source of the heroine's name in Mulholland Dr.?), even though she's set up to be a perfect "healthy partner" for him: a female version of himself, in fact, a clever aspiring writer who lacks the self-belief to write her story without him, as he lacks the self-belief to break away from Norma. You don't believe it in part because Joe doesn't seem to have a spark of virility within him, and also because the viewer can't help but notice that Norma is so much more fascinating than Betty. Her tragedy, her eccentricity, even her narcissism have a grandeur that pulls in Joe as it does the viewer. She's still big; it's life that got small.

Like Edgar G. Ulmer in Detour, then, Wilder creates the perfect doomed noir couple, a twisted version of the ideally suited (although mutually destructive) screwball couple: not an "average Joe" and a seductive femme fatale at all, but an effectively suicidal man and woman drawn together in co-dependency by their worst traits, where the man's conscious resistance is matched by his unconscious accord. There are shades of Wings of the Dove in this story, where Merton Densher is torn between a fascinatingly tragic heroine for whom he feels no conscious physical attraction and the woman he apparently really wants to be with. James amps up the tension by making the latter the obvious femme fatale, fascinating in her own right, sexy, and manipulative; but in the end it's the same story: the noir protagonist doesn't want the sexy woman, so Densher finds a reason to reject Kate and suicidally devote himself to the memory of Milly (with a touch of Jamesian necrophilia). There's little sense in Wings, though, that Densher is "meant to be" with either woman; like all James protagonists, he's meant to be alone. Wilder, on the other hand (like Lynch), is an old-fashioned Hollywood romantic underneath it all. (Norma Desmond - c'est Wilder!)

There are shades of Vertigo, too, in the way that Norma takes over Joe and tries to transform him into her musty, mothball-smelling idea of silent-era glamour: buying him new suits and letting his car get taken away to increase his dependency on her but also because she wants to ride around with him in her own wheels and relive the past. And so there should be a parallel: like Norma, Scottie Ferguson is perma-frozen in the past due to a trauma he can't overcome. (Critics have pointed out that Marnie is the film where the late Hitchcock protagonist finally asserts his virility and gets the girl. True enough, but he only does so by literally imprisoning her and committing rape, and when she agrees to stay with him at the end, after he helps her overcome her childhood trauma, it's hardly an ideal romantic ending: she tells him she prefers him to her only alternative, jail. I would compare the place of Marnie in the Hitchcock oeuvre to The Golden Bowl in James's: James scholars have noted that after several novels of romantic renunciation, in this one, the pure James heroine at last asserts her will and gets her man. Yes indeed, but at the cost of romantic maneuvering that includes "sacrificing" her friend/rival Charlotte to a fate worse than death in the wilderness of America and, a more terrible deed, "sacrificing" her father by separating him from herself. Can innocence compromise itself this much under the Jamesian moral microscope and remain innocent? The ending, too, is ominous, with Maggie reclaiming her husband, who smoothly denies all her fears, at the probable cost of living a life of lies; the greatest sacrifice of all in late James, where the worst fate a character can suffer is being denied the truth.)

The 1950s is remembered as a time in Hollywood when female grotesques were put on parade, from Norma Desmond and Margo Channing to Vivien Leigh's Blanche DuBois (all in two years: 1950 to 1951). Perhaps this was not so much in response to the ageing of the great female stars of the 20s and 30s as it was to the passing of Old Hollywood itself. But looking back, all is not (quite) as misogynous as it seems. Let's remember that Gary Merrill's Bill is devoted to Margo, who's less well-preserved as a 40-year-old than Norma is as a 50-year-old. And we know why, because Davis - never a beauty in Hollywood terms and ageing badly - is, well, Davis: the epitome of glamour, too dignified to ever be anyone's grotesque (except, of course, her own), and larger-than-life. A few years later, in Autumn Leaves, Joan Crawford, fully fifty, is paired with a younger man (33-year-old Cliff Robertson, who looks younger, and acts younger still) who's part-Anthony Perkins neurotic, part-Marlon Brando brute... part male version of Carroll Baker in Baby Doll (also 1956!). Their kinky sadomasochistic relationship produces some distressingly steamy bedroom scenes.

There's even a moment like this in Sunset Boulevard, although if you blink you'll miss it: after Norma and Joe consummate their affair on New Year's Eve (he rushes to her side when he finds out about her suicide attempt, nearly knocking over poor Betty on his way out), Wilder cuts to the morning after, with Joe not-so-subtly diving into her pool, looking darned active and refreshed. Coming out of the water, Holden, who's looked mopey and hangdog for most of the film even in his expensive new threads, reveals a surprisingly Adonis-like chest. Wilder briefly, weirdly, lets the audience occupy a lustful female perspective as we get a glimpse of what he's got to offer Norma.

And let's not forget Douglas Sirk's blockbuster soaps, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, both of which pair young stud Rock Hudson with older woman Jane Wyman. What happened to Wyman, anyway? At one point she looked like this:

By the time she starred in the Sirk films with Hudson, although she's not even 40, with her lacquered poodle cut, pearls, and prim manner, you could easily believe she's 50 (which is what I assumed before looking up her date of birth on Wikipedia). At any rate, only All That Heaven Allows makes an issue of the May-December romance, and as in All About Eve, it's an issue for Wyman (and her middle-class milieu), not Hudson (and his bohemian woodsman Thoreau-reading intellectuals). (I ain't kidding.)

It's true that more often than not, age is an issue in classical Hollywood films with an older woman/younger man pairing, as it is not in all of the 50s films that paired the ageing Golden Age male stars like Grant, Stewart, and Bogart with lovely new faces like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, and Eva Marie Saint. Trying to find recent examples of older woman/younger man pairings in Hollywood film, however, makes you wonder if all that feminism accomplished was to not allow female fears of ageing (and losing one's desirability) to be a subject for movies. Nowadays actresses past 40 like Jennifer Aniston and Nicole Kidman dubiously benefit from advances in plastic surgery, Botex, and a media whipped by feminism into denying (despite what the culture continues to think) that a woman's age matters and try their best to be tight-faced, boob-jobbed, dyed-blonde versions of their 20-year-old selves, only slightly ending up looking like mutants. They're photographed as much as ever, but I don't think anyone watches their movies, where, if they were paired with a younger man, it wouldn't be very remarkable, since we're engaged with them in a mutual delusion, worse than anything suffered by Norma Desmond, that 40 looks the same as 20.

Maybe the last Hollywood portrayal of a "sexy older woman" was Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, after which maybe feminists and everyone else thought they'd won the fight and it never needed to be proven again. But that may have also been the last moment when an actress who started out as a sex symbol was allowed to look like she was ageing. Now female sexual viability past 40 has to look like it's 20 (at least in the movies), and agreeing that older woman can be attractive means denying that there's any difference in appearance between a 20-year-old and a 40-year-old, in a fiendish conspiracy between feminism, Botox, and the media. In retrospect, 1950s Hollywood, where it was admitted, albeit rarely, that an attractive young man might fall in love with an older woman - because she's Bette/Davis Margo Channing, or because he's kinky, or because (like Rock Hudson) he just feels like it - is looking better than ever. Without any Botox.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

David Lynch, Henry James, and Late Style

If I'm going to keep this blog going, I'll have to allow it to reflect my drifting interests, where literature hovers in the background even if I'm currently more interested in film or TV and vice versa. During my silence, I was on a film kick (Maya Deren and Joseph Cornell), then a TV kick (Battlestar Galactica), now I'm on another film kick, soon it'll go back to an author, and so the cycle will continue. At the moment I'm particularly, as I am perennially, focused on David Lynch, a director I pretended to like, but didn't really, as a teenager in rebellion against my middle-classness whose mature tastes were beginning to coalesce. I was as caught up in the Twin Peaks phenomenon as any bright 90s teenager, but increasingly disliked it after the first season, when it turned into a standard soap, and by the end, actively hated it. I still held out hope for Lynch, but it was not rewarded until I gave him “one last chance” after the critical raves about Muholland Dr.. I had been willing to believe the critics that Blue Velvet was a masterpiece (the way I have to take their word about Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey), but I only felt it with Mulholland Dr., which is also the first time I liked a Lynch film, and started developing an admiration-based affection for Lynch himself. I should note that I'm fairly indifferent to Eraserhead and that, perhaps properly, I think Fire Walk with Me is one of the worst films I've ever seen. Most critics agree with me about the latter, but a perverse few regard it as Lynch's masterpiece, and that's the thing about Lynch: even his greatest movies are so often so close to being terrible that it's hard to tell when he's being a genius and when he's being a moron.

But literature hovers in the background here, specifically Bolano and Henry James. Bolano: if Mulholland Dr. convinced me that cinematic masterpieces were still possible, 2666 persuaded me that it was still possible for the novel, too, when I had given up on that medium as well; both in the same decade; both seem unfinished (despite having endings) and unfinishable (not due to the author's failure, but as something inherent to their form); both consist of multiple stories and characters that are abandoned, occurring concurrently in Lynch and successively in Bolano; both are full of many, obvious moments of brilliance and many, obvious flaws that don't matter and that, for me at least, make these intimidating works more human and accessible. Before I read 2666, I didn't think it was possible for a novelistic masterpiece to be influenced by a cinematic masterpiece; for a writer of genius to be influenced by a filmmaker of genius. Bolano's namechecking of Lynch's Fire With with Me suggests that there is an element of influence, not just zeitgeist and artistic sympathy. It was freeing for me to realize that great novelists could take ideas from great filmmakers and use them to rejuvenate the older medium, because I knew that Lynch had become an increasing (unexpected and initially unconscious) influence on my writing over the years; and before Bolano, there were no contemporary novelists to inspire me, the way filmmakers could (although very, very few even of them).

Is This Finally That Henry James Essay I'll Never Write?

Henry James: internet fans of Lynch have noted that Lost Highway, largely dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences at the time, retrospectively looks like the beginning of a trilogy completed by Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE. As such, it differs notably from them in that the protagonist is a man, which makes Lynch's trilogy comparable to the late James trilogy made up of The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl. Like Lynch, James had two big hits nearly out of the gate, with the popular success of his novella “Daisy Miller” comparable to the underground success of Eraserhead, followed by a masterpiece, Portrait of a Lady, as Lynch delivered the eerily fully-formed masterpiece Blue Velvet. The two great talents then went into a long wilderness period characterized by strange experimentation that was not wholly successful, which finally issued in a “late period” flowering characterized by masterpieces that were more bizarre, more baroque, more idiosyncratic, and more self-indulgent than ever.

In a smart review of Lost Highway for Slant magazine, Jeremiah Kipp suggests that audiences and critics failed to respond to the film because unlike the two to follow, it was about “pensive male anxiety” rather than “female hysteria.” One could say the same for the Late James Trilogy, and it neatly explains why, as even James enthusiast Harold Bloom admits (unless I hopefully dreamed this), The Ambassadors seems the slightest and most boring of the three. And the parallels continue: The Wings of the Dove is widely regarded as the greatest of the late masterpieces, and is certainly the most emotional, which seems to be the critical consensus about Mulholland Dr.; while The Golden Bowl, like INLAND EMPIRE, is the most baroque. Both trilogies are about sexual anxiety, but while each male artist warms up to the theme, in the first entry, by giving their own, male, perspective, neither artist nor audience gets really involved until the male artist starts cross-dressing and portraying his own anxiety in the guise of female hysteria. (Is Lynch's obsessive, sadistic fascination in INLAND EMPIRE with shooting Laura Dern's ageing face, haggard by Hollywood standards of youth and glamour, in the most unflattering ways possible a reflection of his own anxieties about ageing; giving the film an extradiegetic relationship to Lynch favourite Sunset Boulevard?)

It's ironic that I should agree with Kipp about the source of Lost Highway's unpopularity when I'm normally resentful of the enormous focus on male anxiety, and male emotion in general, in indie film, which, unlike classical Hollywood film, seems to have so little interest in the female perspective, instead narcissistically feminizing the male to such an extent that no woman is needed – by him or by the film. (If she appears, she's an idealized or demonized projection of the auteur's – or both – with no subjectivity and not even the kind of major dramatic role the noir femme fatale had; and this is true in indie comedy as much as in indie drama.)

Also, it's not true that filmic representations of female anxiety and/or hysteria are favoured by critics and audiences over representations of male anxiety and/or hysteria. Rear Window and Vertigo are two of Hitchcock's most famous and well-regarded films (and you could also include North by Northwest as a comic version); Marnie does not have a comparable reputation, and although The Birds is well-regarded, it's not for Tippi Hedren's performance or character. Noir, an entire genre about male anxiety, has a much higher reputation than the woman's film (which in the same decade, the 1940s, increasingly dealt with female anxiety). And what about that film critic/geek favourite, The Shining – a representation of male hysteria if there ever was one? When male auteurs make films about female anxiety, like Antonioni's Red Desert or Cassavetes's Opening Night, it's usually obvious that the female protagonist is a stand-in for the auteur. Real male empathy with the female perspective, of the kind found in Cassavetes's A Woman Under the Influence, is rare in male auteur cinema. Occasionally you'll get a director who is capable of genuine projection into the female perspective while also using his female protagonists as stand-ins, like (creepily and ironically enough) Roman Polanski. Who, incidentally, is also capable of making a film about male anxiety (Chinatown) or about what might be called male female hysteria (The Tenant, in which, playing his own Polanski heroine, he grotesquely, openly reveals that he was Deneuve in Repulsion and Farrow in Rosemary's Baby all along).*

So why do I find Kipp's explanation of the apparent unimpressiveness of Lost Highway compelling (besides the parallel with The Ambassadors)?

“Did I Look Very Queer?” “Through This Window? Dreadful!”

The source of sexual anxiety is slightly different in James and in Lynch, but surprisingly similar beneath the surface. The Ambassadors is about an asexual man who learns about an illicit affair between a worldly woman and a man he's been sent to “rescue”; The Wings of the Dove is about the unrequited love of the heroine for a man who, she learns, is using her to promote his illicit affair with another woman; The Golden Bowl is about a woman who is unrequitedly in love with her husband, whom she suspects of having an illicit affair with another woman. In all three cases, the main character is in active denial of the affair, even as they voyeuristically pursue knowledge of it. Lost Highway is about a man who suspects his wife of cheating on him and (in one reading) fantasizes that she is a whore, involved in pornography; Muholland Dr. is about a woman who in unrequitedly in love with another woman, who (in one reading) abandons her, awakening enormous anxieties; Inland Empire is about a woman who is having an affair that awakens enormous anxieties, and who (in one reading) fantasizes that her husband is a dangerous monster who is so jealous and possessive of her that he will kill her if he finds out. In the first two cases, the main characters avoid the truth of their emotional situations by actively fantasizing alternative scenarios in which they are powerful and benevolent; what all of the fantasies of INLAND EMPIRE mean is unclear, since the film abandons its premise to give itself over to fragments loosely held together by the idea that they are the heroine's fantasies. In a way, though, The Golden Bowl, too, is more about the heroine's anxiety-generated fantasizing than it is about the soap operatic affair plot (also consciously soap operatic in INLAND EMPIRE), in a way that's closer to “The Turn of the Screw” than anything else James wrote after it.

There are many moments of weirdly close archetypal parallels between The Golden Bowl and INLAND EMPIRE (given how different they are in other details and even in sensibility: Lynch is a surrealist, James is not, though he can hardly be called a “realist” either in his late phase): Maggie, the heroine protagonist of The Golden Bowl, fantasizes (or perceives) that her beloved father, Adam, is murderously jealous and possessive of his wife, Charlotte, the woman who is probably having an affair with Maggie's husband. In one memorable extended metaphor, Maggie imagines him as keeping her on a long silken leash that he yanks and shortens at will, which I was reminded of during the jealous husband's sinister speech to Devon, in INLAND EMPIRE, about the ways in which his wife is “bound.”

Given how much self-indulgent crap there is in both Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE (I suppose you could call it “fascinating filler,” although both films are largely made up of this “filler”), when the things that Lynch does achieve in the two films strikes me, I'm amazed anew. Many critics have commented on the astonishingly erotic – and emotional – lesbian sex scene in Mulholland Dr., which somehow manages to be exploitative and voyeuristic and subjective and intimate at the same time. In Inland Empire, however, Lynch achieves this sort of raw intimacy in a heterosexual context in the sex scene between Nikki and Devon that launches her identity disintegration. But what's intimate and comforting in the lesbian context of Muholland Dr. (even if everything is about to All Go To Hell) is terrifying and alienating in the heterosexual context of INLAND EMPIRE.

Homoeroticism is one of David Cronenberg's overt topics, but one seldom senses it in Lynch. There's the aggressive feminization of Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, echoed by the scene in Lost Highway where the creepy Mystery Man bears down on the protagonist with a video camera (in a reversal of the famous Rear Window scene where the vulnerable, wheelchair-bound, voyeuristic protagonist fends off the attack of the heretofore distanced villain with flashes of his camera). But in INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch puts himself in the position of imagining abject female sexual desire, without any of the voyeurism or objectification that attends the lesbian eroticism in Mulholland Dr.. Which is also what James (who is frequently accused by queer critics of homoeroticism, although I see just as much heteroeroticism in his work, and all of it neurotic) does in The Golden Bowl as one of its most remarkable features, after preparing himself for it by imagining Milly Theale's unrequited love for Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove. At the end (I think) of The Golden Bowl, James presents the reader with the startling image of Amerigo's enormous face, bearing down on Maggie, blocking her view of everything else, and depriving her of her ability to reason. INLAND EMPIRE reproduces this feeling of the oppressiveness of horrifying/erotic faces/presences with its claustrophobic, extreme close-ups (including several grotesque images of Dern's face that take the merged faces at the climax of Persona several steps further into surrealistic horror). Actually, the scene in which Dern confronts that camera with a distorted face that startles her when Lynch cuts to another Dern, pulling her head back in reaction, has its parallel in the bizarre sequence in “The Turn of the Screw” where The Governess starts upon seeing a terrifying face in the window, goes outside to investigate, looks into the window and ends up startling the housekeeper, who is naturally surprised and concerned to see The Governness out there looking in for no discernible reason. Among other effects, the little sequence, which The Governess describes as a “full revolution” or something of the kind, plays with time in a science-fiction-y way: with The Governess now in the position of the monster, and the housekeeper in the position just occupied by The Governess, it's as if, in some sense, The Governess was startled by her own image in anticipation of an act she hadn't yet committed, and which was prompted by... itself. (And INLAND EMPIRE is full of scenes of Dern looking out of windows, although Lynch probably got it from Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon.)

Here's the eerie sequence (I looked up the scene online):

It was confusedly present to me that I ought to place myself where he had stood. I did so; I applied my face to the pane and looked, as he had looked, into the room. As if, at this moment, to show me exactly what his range had been, Mrs. Grose, as I had done for himself just before, came in from the hall. With this I had a full image of a repetition of what had already occurred. She saw me as I had seen my own visitant; she pulled up short as I had done; I gave her something of the shock that I had received. She turned white, and this made me ask myself if I had blanched as much. She stared, in short, and retreated on just MY lines.... I remained where I was, and while I waited I thought of more things than one. But there's only one I take space to mention. I wondered why SHE should be scared.

James, you're such a freak. As much as one can understand what's behind this sequence for James, it seems to have something to do not only with the idea that The Governness's object of horror is herself all along, but that her voyeurism and narcissism extend to a curiousity to know what she herself looks like in a moment of terror. Compare, then, the most horrifying scene in Mulholland Dr., where the heroine breaks into a house and discovers a rotting corpse, which, on the dream reading, is her own, in anticipation of her suicide – and also, in my opinion, a metaphorical rendering of how she already feels inside.

It all makes me wonder if what Paglia (obviously among many others) has speculated is true: male artists, at their deepest psychological level, are feminine, and capable of feeling and representing specifically female emotions and anxieties such as hysteria and narcissism. (The reverse seems to be less frequently true of female artists – maybe because “the artist” is feminine. But now and then you get something bizarre and remarkable like Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, an exact copy of the style of Cassavetes that also seems like a deeply personal film and that deals with what certainly feels like specifically male – in fact, macho – anxiety and hysteria. Although the misogyny is so intense that that part feels female.)

But that still doesn't help me answer the question of why I liked Kipp's theory about Lost Highway and male anxiety.

What Kipp actually says it's that it's easier for audiences to accept female hysteria than male insecurities. The cultural reason for this would seem to be obvious: men aren't supposed to be hysterical. To be fair, culturally speaking, women aren't supposed to have sexual insecurities either. It produces things like the comedy Fatal Attraction and the horror movie Bridget Jones's Diary. The sexually desiring woman, certainly the sexually desiring heterosexual woman, is always a kind of monster, which Lynch fully explores in INLAND EMPIRE. Noir may explore male anxieties, but the noir hero can be weak and tough at the same time. Noir is about the fear of women, and the culture is always more or less okay with that. But although it uses the tropes of a pulpy noir, Lost Highway is about a man's fear of infidelity, which is not a noir theme, and about the protagonist's haunting by the image of a wife (not an Other Woman, although she contains the Other Woman within her) who is unknowable to him. It's pretty rare in fiction for either hero or heroine to be sexually betrayed, although James does it in Wings of the Dove and Golden Bowl. Infidelity and unrequited love are not comfortable emotions for an audience to identify with; in works about infidelity (Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina), the protagonist is normally the cheater, not the cheatee. But a betrayed wife has the culturally acceptable role of being the sympathetic Victorian victim of beastly males; a betrayed husband is nothing. (Hence that great work about male anxiety, Othello, which is nearly unbearable reading. Actually, Shakespeare is pretty great at male hysteria: see also Hamlet and King Lear, and you might as well throw in Macbeth.)

The real reason that The Ambassadors and Lost Highway don't have the same impact as the subsequent works in these late trilogies is that James and Lynch don't put their male protagonists through the same paces as their women. Lambert Strether may be emotionally and psychologically affected by the affair between Chad and Marie, and may be drawn into a noirish web of deceit by Marie's allure, but there's not much question that he is distanced, removed, and incapable of adult sexuality. (The Ambassadors is basically Out of the Past without the affair between Jeff and Kathy.) Isabel Archer of Portrait of a Lady is similarly asexual and in love with no one in the book, although she's sexually drawn to (and repulsed by) Caspar Goodwood and soulmates with her (asexual, again) cousin Ralph. But Milly Theale and Maggie Verver, Victorian angels though they may be, are fully emotionally involved in the triangles they find themselves in (or quadrangles, in Maggie's case, since two married couples are involved, and Maggie and her father's close relationship is what's giving Charlotte leverage with Amerigo). And in Muholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch, it would appear, subjects his central actresses to more emotional torture than Dreyer and Hitchcock combined. In fact, in a YouTube clip of an Actor's Studio interview, I watched Watts describe how Lynch had her masturbate in front of the crew and cameras, and didn't stop filming when she couldn't stop crying. Although it sounds a lot worse than the torture Hitchcock subjected Tippi Hedren to in filming the scene where her character is attacked/raped by the birds, we've come a long way, since Watts was apparently up for the emotional challenge, and in other interviews describes the joy of working with a real artist in a challenging role. And indeed, in an industry in which male actors have typically been more celebrated as actors than female actors ever since Method and Brando, roles that give actresses the chance to act their guts out are few and far between. Nor is there any egoistic scenery chewing in either Watts's or Derns's performance, of a Brando, Pacino, Hoffman, Streep, or Bette Davis kind. There's no sense of an actor showing off, only of a director incessantly demanding primal emotion in scene after scene (particularly in INLAND EMPIRE). (The last opportunity I can think of for an American actress to give a comparable performance is A Woman Under the Influence.)

In interviews that I found on YouTube, Lynch slyly describes the subject of Lost Highway as “a man in trouble,” as he later described the subject of the even more indescribable INLAND EMPIRE as “a woman in trouble.” The trouble is, culturally, we are not as interested in a man in trouble as we are in a woman in trouble. Hitchcock knew this when he said that the rule of drama was to “always put the heroine in danger.” Even in those great, culturally central works of male hysteria, Shakespeare's tragedies, there's always a woman in trouble, usually the pure victim of the hysterical male. The emotions that make this a rule of drama are complicated and disturbing: sadism and masochism (for both male and female viewers, I presume) as well as involvement and sympathy. A man in trouble is a feminized man, and Lynch doesn't shrink from this. Pure, passive Jeffrey is menaced by Frank to such a degree that we fear for him during the whole sequence. But that's a man in physical danger. A man in emotional trouble supposes a neurotic, soap operatic inner turmoil that is not normally the basis of male acting fireworks, although Jeremy Irons's performance in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers – a self-deconstructing masterpiece about male sexual-and-existential anxiety – is a rare example. Cassavetes's very different but equally extraordinary performance in Mikey and Nicky is another; and of course, the ur-example is James Stewart in Vertigo. But Lynch just doesn't have the interest – whether sadistic or masochistic, exploitative or empathetic – to go there with a male performer. So far, at least.

Lynch, Henry James, and Me: Working Methods and Dialogue

One final point of connection between the “late period” works of James and Lynch is the shift in their working methods. James began dictating his novels with What Maisie Knew (1897), and Lynch, with INLAND EMPIRE, switched to digital video. One may speculate that in both cases, the author/auteur sought a way to bring the obsessions crowding their imaginations more directly from their minds to the reader/viewer. (Looking up interviews, I see that Lynch has described his previous working conditions as a “barrier.”)**

Only in INLAND EMPIRE do you begin to see something in Lynch's dialogue that corresponds to James's infamous late period dialogue. Story: I wrote two James stage adaptations, one of The Wings of the Dove (a never-produced commission) and one of his novella The Sacred Fount, as a theatre school assignment. In the first case, I engaged in one of the most perverse and futile activities ever elected by a writer by attempting to figure out the psychological rules by which late Jamesian dialogue worked, in order to reproduce it organically – without reusing any of the novel's actual dialogue. I spent years intermittently working on this, and felt that my adaptation was a failure. (The commissioning theatre agreed, though probably for different reasons.) However, I used what I learned to write my adaptation of The Sacred Fount, a novella in which the characters regularly admit that they're not sure what's going on, and even James's most ardent academic fanboys agree. When my displeased program director complained that despite his intelligence, he couldn't follow what was happening in the play for a second, I felt that I'd finally successfully adapted James. I am immune to being made to feel dumb by James, since nothing can make me feel dumb (except crossword puzzles), but I do sometimes like to give up that irritable reaching after fact and reason and just go on a ride. I haven't thought much about that play since I wrote it, and have no idea if it was a success in any other terms, but when I think of my two characters spitting incomprehensible sentences at each other that even the other character complains they don't understand, the effect, for me, is side-splittingly funny, which is maybe another secret to James and to how he might best be dramatically adapted. Or maybe I'm weird.  

In adapting The Sacred Fount for the stage (called The Mask of Life after a crucial scene), I honed in on its dramatic mechanism and converted it into a two-hander: a dialogue between the unnamed narrator and his principal interlocuter in the novella, Mrs. Briss. To make matters if possible more confusing than they are in the novella, I also had him recount for her complex, ambiguous conversations that he has in the novella with other characters in separate scenes. However, I saw the dramatic situation clearly: the narrator must convince Mrs. Briss that his theory about vampiric sexual relationships between the other guests at a country house is true; if she is unpersuaded, he will be proved either the victim of a conspiracy or insane. When a few years later I saw Last Year at Marienbad for the first time, I realized that there was a similar dynamic at work between the main characters, and I was interested to read that the screenwriter, Robbe-Grillet (in a reference I can no longer find, of course), thought of X (the man) as attempting a kind of psychological rape of A (the woman) by forcing his version of reality on her. The difference in The Sacred Fount is that the woman is stronger-willed than the man and wins the psychological/perceptual battle.

Loose Baggy Monsters

Not that Lynch's surrealist/absurdist dialogue has ever been conventional or “realistic,” but in INLAND EMPIRE, something else is happening. The movie was filmed without a script, and many scenes feel like acting class improv exercises that break the principal rule of improv: never deny the premise offered by the other actors in the scene. Whatever character she's playing, Dern either offers assertions that are denied (often with a comment like “What is this?” or “What's going on?”) or denies assertions made to her. Frustration is one of the effects, since the individual scenes/storylines cannot advance even an inch. Paranoia is another, since Dern (whom the audience identifies with as protagonist) is put in a position of looking insane.

In late James, dialogue consists of characters making ambiguous statements whose meaning their interlocuter must guess, which is always a risk for the interlocuter, since guessing means exposing what they are themselves thinking. And so on. In addition, the main characters (notably The Governness, the narrator of The Sacred Fount, and Maggie Verver in The Golden Bowl) often develop (sexual) theories that never receive direct confirmation, which leads to an atmosphere thick with paranoia. The protagonist's inability to discover the truth for certain results in frustration for them and for the reader, and the reader's sense of difficulty in advancing is enhanced by the endless, ornamented, ambiguous paragraphs of late James prose. (James thought he was presenting the epistemological situation of all of us, but of course there is a way to know if two people are having sex, called catching them in bed. But even James's most overtly voyeuristic protagonists, such as the SF narrator, refuse to be mere vulgar Peeping Toms, preferring to think of themselves as abstract sexual detectives.)

Is the giant, inherently unfinished/unfinishable INLAND EMPIRE, like the baroque late James masterpieces, the result of some sort of psychological/creative block that paradoxically issues in “loose baggy monsters” (James's name for what he thought a novel should not be, although it perfectly describes his late novels)? Dread, anxiety, and paranoia are subjects for both, and their mannerist late works are increasingly haunted by death – and by the decadent idea of the mask. The evil, mask-like clown face of Robert Blake in Lost Highway becomes Laura Dern's (conveniently mask-like already) grotesquely distorted mask-face in INLAND EMPIRE, in images that destroy the boundaries between surrealism and horror. Which, of course, matches up with the crucial scene from The Sacred Fount, in which James has his characters take different perspectives on an image from horror: a painting of a man with a corpse-like face, from which he has removed a life-like mask. James and Lynch (as early as Blue Velvet) share a view of knowledge as a delving beneath life's pleasant surface to discover the primal horror, sadomasochistic Darwinian struggle, and reality of death beneath. For whatever reason, however, James always presented himself as a social novelist rather than the horror-erotic novelist he really was, whereas except in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Lynch eschews the surface and just gives us the tumultuous life of the unconscious, terrifying to waking consciousness.

*Obviously, the line separating “authentic depictions of female hysteria by men,” “hysterical women standing in for the auteur's male hysteria,” and “depictions of male female hysteria” is extremely subjective: YMMV. I couldn't tell you exactly what I mean by these terms, either. I seem to be using “hysteria” to mean “flamboyant, over-the-top anxiety” and “anxiety” to mean “quiet, low-key, depressive hysteria or angst,” which is pretty lame, really, but on the other hand, these two representations of neurosis – to introduce another loose term – are in fact represented in drama. Then on the other hand, you sometimes get quiet, low-key hysteria, like Cassavetes in Mikey and Nicky. And maybe by “male hysteria” I just mean “hysteria with anger and violence.” In which case, come to think of it, Lynch's Frank Booth is a classic representation of male hysteria. Unless I'm talking about Dead Ringers, in which case “male hysteria” refers to male fears of the feminine outside and inside them – including their own capacity for hysteria.

**In the same interview Lynch speaks of working with digital video as allowing him to respond more spontaneously to the moment, which, it occurred to me, has a parallel in the difference between traditional and internet publication. Like film, traditional publication and the print medium may have their advantages, but in the hands of a skilled writer, the internet medium may produce advantages of fluidity and spontaneity.