One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 46
By Laurence Lerman
This does not look good.
With the rise of the Delta variant, which has emerged with frightening precipitance after the supposed taming of the Covid-19 virus, the nation’s first tentative steps forward toward a life of post-pandemic normalcy have been curtailed with nearly the same degree of suddenness.
Theaters and concert halls are once again looking unappealing, indoor restaurant dining is being shunned, health officials are advising new mask mandates for both indoors and out, a possible second round of vaccinations is on the horizon (or, remarkably, a first round for some!) and another shutdown is being considered.
Covid-19 is playing like some kind of Möbius strip. It’s looping around, paralleling a time and events that have already occurred and reflecting it all right back at us. And a Möbius strip, at least as proposed by German mathematicians Johann Benedict Listing and August Ferdinand Möbius, is infinite, spiraling around itself so that it ends at the exact point where it first began, before starting again.
Covid and its effects are going Möbius on us, a weary and worried population that’s looking for renewed relief and hope as the summer enters its final month. And that served as a signal to me to start streaming a couple of movies that ape Covid’s cyclical existence, ones that begin on unsettling footing and end on the same shaky ground where they began.
So bring on David Lynch, whose deliciously surreal neo-noir mysteries Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001) embrace a Möbius strip style of storytelling, where the ending takes us right back to the beginning. Oh, there may be new information, changes of perspective and unpredictable detours provided along the way—like our own perceptions of the Covid virus and how we’ve been handling its effects over the past 18 months—but right now, it feels like we’re headed right back to where we started from.
The first half of Lost Highway lays out the relatively straight-forward story of a jazz musician (Bill Pullman) who appears to violently kill his subdued and possibly unfaithful wife (a dark-haired Patricia Arquette), a crime for which he is immediately jailed. While incarcerated, the musician transforms into somebody else: a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty) who gets lustily involved with the murdered woman’s doppelgänger (Arquette again, as a blonde), the girlfriend of a nasty gangster (Robert Loggia) who is himself connected to a bizarre associate known as the Mystery Man, played by a creepy-as-all-get-out Robert Blake.
It’s Blake’s Mystery Man, dressed in black with kabuki-white makeup and toting an ever-present video camera, who provides the bridge between the two stories. Prompting some voyeuristically engaging nastiness, violence and pornography among the players, the Mystery Man’s mysterious presence returns Pullman’s character to his apartment’s front door and a final snatch of dialogue that’s identical to the film’s opening line, thus beginning the story once again.
Though he’s famously tight-lipped when it comes to talking about his work, Lynch once cryptically remarked that “the beauty of an abstract film is that it’s open to interpretation” when asked to describe Lost Highway. But it’s worth noting the film’s screenwriter, Barry Gifford, described its structure as “a Möbius strip…the story folds back underneath itself and continues.”
That said, Lynch has offered that Lost Highway is a kind of “psychogenic fugue” that unspools “just on the border of consciousness—or on the other side of that border.”
The same might also be said of Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., his greatest accomplishment since 1986’s Blue Velvet and, at this point, one of the best and most original films of the 21st Century.
Not unlike 1950’s Sunset Blvd., another dark classic named after one of Hollywood’s vehicular arteries, Mulholland Dr. baroquely speaks of the seamy underside that subsists beneath the movie-making capital’s glittery and alluring façade.
Mulholland Dr. offers us three Hollywood archetypes: Betty (Naomi Watts in a star-making performance), a fresh-faced young woman who comes to town wanting to become an actress; Adam (Justin Theroux), an up-and-coming director whose latest movie is being taken over by its shark-suited producers; and Rita (Laura Haring), an exotic, dark-haired beauty suffering from that most Hollywood of maladies, amnesia. It’s Rita (a name she’s given herself after spotting a poster of 1946’s Gilda starring Rita Hayworth) who splits the film’s narrative into two when she brings her new lover Betty to the spooky, blue-lit Club Silencio late one night—after they’ve consummated their relationship. And there, as singer Rebecca Del Rio croons a Spanish version of “Crying” on stage, the two begin to transmogrify into each other in a sequence that’s as striking as it is bewildering.
From that point on, the narrative—which has been playing out like a Hollywood fairy tale about the new kid in town achieving her dream—loops around and begins again, an altered version repeating itself, but this time as a horrifying nightmare, with Betty scraping by as an embittered, failed actress. The characters are shifted around a bit and the settings are subtly altered, but it’s the same story with an infinitely darker tone. And as an age-old Hollywood tale, it’s fated to repeat itself over and over.
Four years elapsed between Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., with Lynch directing 1999’s The Straight Story in the interim. Another kind of road movie, this one based on a true story about an elderly WWII veteran driving his tractor across from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his dying estranged brother, The Straight Story was released by Walt Disney Pictures and remains Lynch’s only G-rated film. That it’s rated G elevates it to another level of weird, but The Straight Story, as its title implies, resists any kind of a Möbius-like interpretation. Filled with expansive shots of the great American Midwest and a solitary figure chug-chugging his John Deere along barren stretches of highway, it’s a handsome and chronologically sound if low-key panoramic adventure best served up on the big screen.
But, once again, as the Delta variant continues its rise, the odds of catching The Straight Story or anything else in the Lynch filmography at a repertory theater are taking a nosedive.
This does not look good.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.