in Room 17
by Nathaniel Rogers
from the FiLM
Like slide shows of private vacations, dreams have often
been considered social faux pas. The telling of them, that is. The standard
reasoning being that dreams are only interesting to the person having
them. But nightmares, on the other hand, are often worth repeating.
They're a little sick, a lot revealing, and just entertaining enough
that no one will be launching their own r.e.m. while the tale is being
told. Two films trafficking in the nightmarish opened this week. One
is a puzzling vision of subconcious horrors and the other, for less
adventurous but quality hungry filmgoers, is a traditional serial killer
B picture. Both are worth seeing for entirely different reasons.
Drive has had quite the troubled production history. Forget
A.I, this motion picture has the year's most interesting backstory.
Ten years after he made the incredibly absorbing television series Twin
Peaks (still his strongest work), David Lynch decided to give a
TV series another go, and created a 88-minute pilot for ABC. Suffice
it to say that they didn't like it too much, deeming it too "weird."
(Pause for laughter.) What they were expecting we can hardly guess...but
we can laugh at their ignorance of all things "Lynchian." He is, after
all, one of the few directors to spawn an adjective in his name.
So, due to Hollywood stupidity, the pilot was shelved.
Some time later, the great French film company Canal Plus got a hold
of it and were intrigued by what they saw. Forget the jokes about Jerry
Lewis, the French know cinema, and they love and respect it. Canal offered
Lynch millions more to transform the aborted pilot into a stand-alone
feature film. After seeing the end result I just want to say "Merci
Angelo Badalamenti's ever familiar but still undeniably hypnotic music
kicks in, we're driving with a lone limo quietly up Mulholland Drive
(yes, the title is the sign, Lynch loves those!) toward an unknown destination.
Just as you're sinking into a Twin Peaks trance, a terrible crash
occurs. A mysterious brunette emerges from the limo bloody, dazed, stumbling
from the wreckage. Now we're revisiting Wild at Heart. (One of
the joys of this film is watching Lynch rework his obsessively recurrent
elements into a fresh new narrative.) This time the brunette actress
is Laura Elena Harring instead of Sherilyn Fenn, but the scene feels
identical to the earlier film with its frightening mix of confusion
of Lynch's prime strengths is his power of suggestion. Most filmmakers
give you scads of exposition to introduce you to characters and narrative.
Lynch just takes off with a strong, often disturbing, image and a mysterious
situation. It works better than exposition. You're instantly riveted
and left to your own devices to unlock the secrets of the story. But
what happens to the brunette you ask? Well, plot is never the point
with Lynch. He riffs obssessively in many (too many) unrelated directions
throughout the film. Still, the main storyline concerns the brunette's
search for her identity. The limousine crash has left her with severe
amnesia. She goes by "Rita" and meets, quite accidentally, a young fresh-off-the-bus,
blond Hollywood ingenue (played by Naomi Watts) named "Betty". The two
women embark on a naive, Nancy Drew-like quest for Rita's identity.
They uncover clues in between Betty's auditions for a movie.
secondary storyline concerns a young hotshot director who is trying
desperately to get his film made after a production shutdown. He is
drawn to "Betty" but forced by the studio to cast a girl named "Camilla"
in his leading role. What's especially fascinating about this film-within-a-film
is that it seems to be metacommentary on the Mulholland Drive
production history itself, only it's also part of the original pilot.
Lynch must be psychic. He must have seen the trouble coming.
back to Betty and Rita. Rita remembers a name "Diane Selwyn" and the
two set out to find her apartment. Perhaps she will answer the mystery
of Rita's identity? Diane lives in #17 and from the moment Betty and
Rita enter the locked apartment, a transgressive act, there's no turning
back for them or for us as viewers. From here on out (I assume the pilot
probably ended right about here) the general wierdness gives way to
a dive deep into the subconcious that is simultaneoulsy exhilarating,
confounding, silly, frightening, and nonsensical. Ah, David Lynch is
to clear one thing up though: The film is not just a journey through
this formidable auteur's twisted psyche, or a replay of his greatest
scenes. Mulholland Drive has a mind and theme of its own. While
it's perhaps foolish to try to connect direct meaning to any of the
odd occurences, characters, or things that have symbolic resonance,
it's clear what Lynch's primary subject is. Like Lost Highway,
identity in the world of Mulholland Drive proves fluid. The subject
matter is Hollywood itself, and more specifically the abuse of women
within the industry. Given that Lynch's focus is actresses, the identity
searching, fluid personas, and abrupt changes only reinforce the themes
In the end, the picture serves as a fairly bleak indictment of Hollywood's
misogyny, the way the system discards, replaces, and forces women into
certain roles. To Lynch's credit though, it's not a one sided or heavy
handed argument. The actors are also self-abused, culpable in part for
their own replaceability. "Rita" has amnesia and doesn't know who she
is. "Betty" (on a less literal level) doesn't know herself either. No
one gets away clean. Lynch pinpoints the treachery from within the victims'
ranks -everyone fighting for their own scraps from the table.
Drive is unquestionably a very weird film. Weird even by Lynchian
standards. Some parts are more effective than others: there are too
many characters for a feature, and a few threads should have been excised.
They may have proven terrifically effective in series form, but here
feel distracting. But in this case, we'll have to forgive the director
his indulgences. Even if the oddity or the overstuffed running time
drives away mass audiences, there is much worthwhile here for adventurous
moviegoers. Lynch's masterful creativity with visuals and sound is alive
and healthier than ever. The unusually hard-to-read performances are
in place too. We've seen this before in Lynch films: actors will seem
stilted and overly stylized at first and then, suddenly, the performance
will lock into place and become unexpectedly moving or clear. There's
also a great deal of comic relief in the form of eccentric and quotable
Finally, and most importantly, Mulholland Drive
offers filmgoers a chance to experience a true auteurial voice. The
term gets thrown around a lot, but in this case it more than applies.
Lynch has singular vision. See Hollywood through his eyes.
slam-bang mainstream thrills are more your cup of tea, you could do
much worse than giving Joy Ride a whirl. Definitely a
mini-gem within its genre, it's a well-produced road trip/serial killer
yarn (two elements that Hollywood and audiences never seem to tire of)
that will have you grabbing your armrests.
The film's plot is as beautifully simplistic as genre
pieces should be, but rarely are. The film begins quickly when Lewis
(Paul Walker) decides to buy a car to nab valuable time with his intended
girl, Venna (Leelee Sobieski) who yearns for a little time on the open
road. The one minor wrench in Lewis' vague "get the girl" plan is a
slight detour to bail out his troubled older brother Fuller (Steve Zahn).
Once Fuller and Lewis hit the road, on their way to fetch her, the film
kicks in and the thrills begin.
brothers pass the time playing pranks with their CB radio. Lewis, in
a lame embarassed falsetto and calling himself "Candy Cane", flirts
with a trucker with the handle of "Rusty Nails." He does this to amuse
his hyper and pushy brother who in turn keeps egging him deeper and
deeper into the fašade. Just a few short scenes into the film's running
time (cutting wisely right to the chase) the brothers play a nasty prank
on their CB prey and lure him to room #17 (the boys are in #18) at a
roadside hotel. Things go horribly awry.
reviewers can divulge all the plot developments and twists for you but
let it suffice to say that the brothers are tossed mercilessly from
this self-created frying pan into one scary fire after another. "Rusty
Nails" is hell bent on teaching them and their girl a lesson. Venna,
as you probably guessed, gets swept along for the unpleasant ride. The
nightmare escalates into hyper-contrived set pieces towards the film's
finish, but for the lion's share of the film, the sick mounting terror
is expertly handled and relatively unpredictable.
don't want to overstate the case with my recommendation here. This picture
is far above average for the genre, but at heart it's still throwaway
B entertainment. Yet I have to give props to director John Dahl, whose
confident guiding hand is evident throughout. Screenwriters Clay Tarver
and Jeffrey Abrams also deserve credit for fashioning actual surprises
and giving us fresh characterizations of the protagonists: The brothers
have actual personalities, and don't always come off as heroic. Imagine
there's Steve Zahn, predictably excellent, who can always be counted
on to elevate his material. Whatever motion picture a studio, director,
actors, and creative team deign to make, they ought to give it their
100%. That's happened here. When everyone works at the top of their
game, even B pictures can get an A for effort.
©2001 Nathaniel Rogers