The Naughts: The Romantic Pair of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Romantic Pair of the ’00s (photo)

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    I knew what she looked like by heart this time.
    That scrap of newspaper she was on should
    have been worn ragged by now, the number of
    times I’d pulled it out and looked at it when I
    was alone in the place.

        — Cornell Woolrich, “The Black Angel”

It’s the fear as much as the tenderness. It’s the desperation in the way they clutch hands in a darkened theater, and the sensuousness in the way they caress each other in bed. It’s the contradiction of having found yourself by stepping into a mystery, and the cruelty of discovering that the heaven of love is a gossamer skein stretched over a black hole. “And the mysteries of love come clear,” is the way David Lynch put the paradox in the song he wrote for “Blue Velvet.” Those mysteries have never been as heartrending in Lynch’s work as they are in his 2002 dreamtime noir “Mulholland Dr.”

Love, for David Lynch, is convulsive or it’s nothing. Adolescents, and those capable of living with the adolescent’s self-dramatizing intensity, are the characters for whom he has the greatest affinity — think of Donna and James in “Twin Peaks”; Jeffrey and Sandy in “Blue Velvet.” If surrealism is the way Lynch naturally sees the world, then the kind of romance that makes you feel so alive you think your heart is going to stop, the kind lived out by Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty in “Splendor in the Grass,” is the natural way Lynch thinks of love.

And because that kind of love doesn’t last, every pair of Lynch’s lovers is threatened. In their self-constructed world they’re like Moses’ burning bush, awash in flame and not consumed. They’re hunks-a, hunks-a burnin’ love, and yet it’s not Elvis’s voice we hear watching them, but a far quieter, more worried one, that of Gary Troxel, lead singer of the two-girls-and-a-boy trio The Fleetwoods. “Outside my window/You’re walkin’ by with someone new/Outside my window/The way I used to walk with you,” Troxel sang in 1960, a spectator doomed to seeing his perfect love unravel.

12092009_MulhollandDrive4.jpgThe heartbreak of “Mulholland Dr.”, the reason its romance is the decade’s most emblematic, is seeing a love that has already unraveled achieve the perfection of dreams. Naturalism and quirk seeped throughout indie film, studio love stories seemed to take place in an artificial alternate universe — but “Mulholland Dr.” spanned both while being neither.

Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring), Lynch’s most wounded, beautiful and endangered true hearts, are the transfigured phantoms of the romance turned deadly for Diane Selwyn (Watts), a failed actress who has had the added injury of seeing her lost love Camilla Rhodes (Harring) have all the success she hasn’t. Diane is hungry, and it’s Camilla’s world. Their interactions have the awful indignity of a dead love affair, desire being answered not by desire but by a feeling of responsibility.

And yet before we know any of that, we feel the stars have gone out of alignment for Betty and Rita. In most stories of doomed love, the young lovers face a world in which they, the eternal they of the outside world, don’t understand. Lynch’s lovers are against something cosmic and unidentifiable. In “Mulholland Dr.,” Betty and Rita are often framed against darkness so soft and velvety it’s like a hovering nimbus, ready to swallow them if they awake from the film’s dream. And when they are swallowed, when smoke fills the frame as if the sulfur of hell itself were obscuring our vision, we feel as if not just a romance has been broken, but the beauty of the world has been cursed.

“Have you ever done this before?” Diane asks Rita as, scarcely believing it, she finds herself in the arms of another woman. The insomniac Rita’s answer, “I don’t know,” is a sleek joke. But their sex doesn’t matter. Neither one of them has done this before, throwing themselves into the kind of love affair where every kiss feels as if the universe is opening before you. And yet the universe is closing down on them, too.

What’s beautiful and what’s threatening here is all of a piece. Noir is the most seductive of genres because the things we associate with it — darkness and shadow, rain-slicked streets, cigarette smoke, women at their most beautiful and desperate and treacherous — invite us to revel in the sensuousness of movies. You feel that here when Rita gazes on a poster of “Gilda”; when she and Betty sit in that rundown theater, the place seeming to emit the perfume of decay, listening to Rebekah Del Rio’s heart-stabbing version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”; when a sleek limo glides along dark canyon roads against a mournful wash of strings; when, working like diligent detectives to uncover the mystery opening up before them, Betty and Rita are alive with the glamour that only danger can confer.

12092009_MulhollandDrive7.jpgAnd because the fatalism of noir promises the terror (the thrill?) of seeing it all dashed, eroticism and dread are fused.

Betty and Rita aren’t just figures in Diane Selwyn’s dream but in our dream as well, the collective dream the movies encourage us to lose ourselves in, the dream of peril and romance and sex and mystery. In “Mulholland Dr.,” the movies have become so much a part of the air that they are literally the stuff of dreams, the place we’d rather live.

When I first saw “Mulholland Dr.,” I emerged into Times Square at night and nothing looked right to me. Corners weren’t squared, the lights and neon and traffic and crowds wouldn’t cohere into a visual pattern that I could make sense of. The world I’d just left seemed more real. In that dream of love and danger, Betty and Rita, the light angel and the dark angel, are the presiding spirits, two Nancy Drews become love’s keepers of the flame.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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