Monday, 31 July 2017

VHS Verve: Sebastian's Caribbean Jamboree (1991)

The unprecedented box office success of The Little Mermaid in 1989 was obviously a massive game-changer for Disney, yet it seems that Disney themselves were a little knocked for six by its performance.  At the very dawn of the Renaissance era, they couldn't be certain if or when they would experience another success story like it (a good call, as their 1990 release, The Rescuers Down Under, had a comparatively weak run at the box office), so it was imperative that they maintained momentum in their sparkly new creation.  Oliver and Company, a film which had performed well enough in 1988 to keep Disney's head above the waters at a time when Don Bluth had a realistic shot at making shark meat of them, was suddenly all but buried, and wouldn't even see the light of day on home video for nearly a decade.  For now, it was all about the mermaid.  Yet Disney didn't seem to have a project immediately at their fingertips for capitalising on the public's immense goodwill toward the fishy-finned maiden.  It would be a further three years before they were able to fill the Ariel-sized hole in their output with what would become a standard for them in the Renaissance era, the spin-off Saturday morning cartoon show.  In between, there were some interesting attempts by Disney to keep the mermaid cash cow good and milked, including a proposed puppetry-based series devised by Jim Henson during that brief period at the dawn of the new decade when it looked as if he and Disney were about to join forces.  The tragic death of Jim Henson in 1990 and the ultimate failure of the Disney-Henson merger (for now) meant that Little Mermaid's Island never got further than a couple of pilot episodes (which we'll talk about at a later date).  Little Mermaid fans did, however, get this oddity in 1991 - a 28-minute tour of Caribbean-themed music hosted by the cancrine maestro.  If this wasn't part of your Disney VHS collection back in the early 90s, you missed out on a treat, let me tell you.

Naturally, I really dig this thing because I love Sebastian.  For the longest time, he would have secured my vote as the classiest, most endearing character in the entire Disney line-up, right up until late 2016 when he was unceremoniously dethroned by Tamatoa from Moana.  Yes, I have this thing about crabs.  Crabs are adorable, and I thank Disney for managing to prove that point on multiple occasions.

Actually, despite receiving title billing, Sebastian has only a supporting role in the film itself, the real star of the show being Samuel E. Wright, Sebastian's voice actor (credited here as Sam Wright), who appears in the flesh and gets to hang out with his crab alter ego in between shaking his pants to The Banana Boat Song and other Caribbean favourites.  If the entire concept of this film sounds a little out there, then it's probably best explained as a supplementary film to an album Disney released in 1990, Sebastian, which had Wright singing a selection of calypso covers and traditional Jamaican folk songs in character as Sebastian (everything from "Jamaica Farewell" to more recent hits like Arrow's "Hot Hot Hot" and Bob Marley and The Wailers' "Three Little Birds").  Sebastian's Caribbean Jamboree is a concert film, of sorts, with Wright putting on a show for crowds of screaming kids at Walt Disney World, Florida while Sebastian stays mostly on the sidelines, fretting about the fact that he's never conducted a concert on dry land before.  That's about the entirety of Sebastian's contribution, in fact.  If I have one quibble about Jamboree, it's that it's extremely light on the Jamaican crustacean himself.  Not that Wright lacks the charisma to carry the full 28 minutes on his own; there's a warmth and energy to his performance which makes him an absolute blast to watch.

Actually, I suspect that the main reason why Sebastian is given so little to do here is because they had severely limited means of utilising the character.  Sebastian's Caribbean Jamboree does not contain what I suspect many Little Mermaid fans would have come here to see - namely, new animation.  Rather, animation of Sebastian was recycled from the original film and integrated into the live action environment, and his lip movements dubbed with new dialogue.  There's a lot of recycled footage in this film in general, including an inevitable return to the original's "Under The Sea" sequence (I do love that song, even if the nature enthusiast in me winces at how many examples of so-called marine life given therein are freshwater fish).  In one particularly surreal sequence, we return to the scene from the original film where Ariel observes the revelry aboard Prince Eric's ship, only Wright has taken the place of Eric and is prancing around the animated boat with a few of his adoring young fans.  It all looks tacky as sin, but that's what makes it so grand. In many respects, Jamboree is a glittering example of early 90s naffness (it's not quite up there with the Macaulay Culkin segments of the "Black or White" music video or the original Crystal Pepsi commercial, but it certainly gives it its all) but likeably so. It's a whirlwind of colour, energy and perfectly singable music, all wrapped up in Wright's charisma and that classy cartoon crab. 

Jamboree was followed by a sequel in 1992, under the title of Sebastian's Party Gras.  In my opinion, it was easily the stronger of the two, chiefly because it manages to incorporate a subplot for Sebastian (again, using 100% recycled footage), one that's so amazingly ridiculous that I'm all over it - while Jamboree makes only very limited use of the titular crustacean, Party Gras full-on embraces the goofiness of its central scenario, and has some fun with the entire notion that Sebastian would be hanging out on dry land and hosting a concert with this flesh and blood human (even if they are technically one and the same).  Unfortunately, global distribution for that one appears to have been more limited; I couldn't find any evidence of a UK release and had to track down a copy from the US.

Regrettably I couldn't find much else about Jamboree online, so I'm imploring all kids of the early 90s to give the Wright/Sebastian concert films a bash and get acquainted with these delightfully quirky products of their time.   Oh, and one of the scant pieces of writing that I came across about Jamboree online was from the film's IMDb page, with the author commenting that Wright is delightful and that "it is unfortunate he left us so soon".  Fret not, because as of writing, Wright hasn't actually left us; in fact, he stuck around and continued to voice Sebastian in a barrage of other projects (including the aforementioned 1992 TV series).

To wrap things up, here's a great crab video, which contains a showdown between a real-life Sebastian and Tamatoa (that's at 2:08):

Monday, 24 July 2017

VHS Verve: The Secret Life of Jeffrey Dahmer (1993)

The Secret Life of Jeffrey Dahmer (alternatively known as The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer or Jeffrey Dahmer: The Secret Life) was the first attempt by a feature film to tackle the life and crimes of the notorious Milwaukee serial killer, who was responsible for the deaths of seventeen young males prior to his arrest in 1991.  Released in 1993, it arrived only two years after the lurid details of the secret life in question had become public knowledge, and also has the unique distinction of being the only film of its kind to surface within Dahmer's own lifetime (before his murder in 1994).  The film was directed by David R. Bowen (to date his only directorial credit) from a screenplay by Carl Crew, who also starred in the title role.  From what I can gather, it was never picked up for a theatrical release and wound up being released straight to video.  Coming so soon after the events in question, it was inevitable that the film would take some heat for outwardly exploiting the murders of seventeen people in order to capitalise on the initial wave of media sensationalism surrounding the case, as well as the then-recent success of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991), a hot bit of zeitgeist at the time of Dahmer's arrest which helped to fuel public interest in the story, and ensure that it immediately became cliche to refer to Dahmer's case as a "real-life Silence of the Lambs" (you'll notice that the tagline of this film does exactly that).  Which may account for why the blurb on the back of the VHS takes on such a curiously high-minded tone.  Here's what it has to say:

"The FBI estimates that there are at least 50 Serial Killers undetected.  If this film saves just one life by raising awareness of the real dangers presented by Serial Killers like Jeffrey Dahmer then our efforts to produce it will have been worthwhile."

My first question would be how, exactly, this film envisioned that it might achieve anything so noble as to potentially save the lives of those who watched it?  By letting them know that serial killers do indeed exist outside of slasher movies and are a thing to be wary of?  If so, then I'm not convinced that it would be any more effective than your typical piece of media coverage on Dahmer.  This reads transparently like the film looking to shield its hide from criticisms that it was looking to capitalise on real-life tragedy, with an element of fear-baiting in the implicit suggestion that your own neighbour just might be one of the undetected fifty.  My second question would have to do with why on earth the blurb insists on repeatedly capitalising the term "serial killer"?

Having said all that, I am somewhat disappointed to note that my own VHS copy was not from the original release in 1993 but a later distribution by Marque Pictures in 1999.  So I can't be totally certain that this blurb was copied directly from the original.  (Also, get a load of that VHS cover art, which is blatantly trying to replicate the promotional imagery for The Firm.)

The film itself opens with this disclaimer:

"What you are about to see is based on the true story of Jeffrey Dahmer's attacks and murders over a period of more than fourteen years.  Events and characters in some instances have been fictionalized and combined in order to make a story that can be shown.  Many of the deeds of America's most publicized and notorious serial killer are simply too gruesome to show on the screen.  In order to protect sensitive issues and the privacy of survivors, events portrayed in this film may conflict in detail with exactly what happened in individual cases.

Only Jeffrey Dahmer knows the truth.  

Nothing will ever change the fact that 17 young men encountered Jeffrey Dahmer...

It was their last encounter."

Here, the film likewise covers itself against any potential inaccuracies in its representation of Dahmer's story (and there are a lot of inaccuracies, but we'll get to that later) although again it takes the moral high ground in suggesting that any infidelity to the facts is motivated purely out of respect and sensitivity for the victims/survivors.  Actually, I suspect that the budget was also a major factor - despite the revolting nature of Dahmer's crimes, there's little in the way of onscreen gore (we do see a few severed heads and hands, but they look suspiciously like Halloween props).  The Secret Life was made on a minuscule budget and has a cheap, TV film aesthetic.  Does it make the most of the minimal resources it has, and how does it approach its subject, arriving at a time when the world was still reeling in initial horror at what was uncovered at Apt. 213?  Let's take a look.

The first thing to note is that this is far inferior to David Jacobson's 2002 film Dahmer, in which Dahmer was portrayed by future Hawkeye Jeremy Renner.  There, Jacobson forgoes the cumbersome task of attempting to cram all seventeen murders into a single narrative, his interests lying less in the killings per se than in creating a portrait of Dahmer as both a manipulative predator and a socially stunted loner, a man whose human vulnerabilities were intertwined with the darkest of impulses.  As such, it's pretty light on actual onscreen carnage, focusing primarily on Dahmer's drawn-out ritualistic predation of prospective victim "Rodney", played by Atel Kayaru (commonly perceived to be a stand-in for Tracy Edwards, although his story actually has more in common with that of another Dahmer survivor, Luis Pinet) and interspersing this with flashbacks depicting critical moments from Dahmer's past.  The film doesn't always juggle its episodic format flawlessly, but it grows considerably tighter in its second half when it becomes an amalgam of two parallel storylines - the cat and mouse interplay between Dahmer and Rodney in the present and a teenage Jeff's encounter with carefree young hitchhiker "Lance" (Matt Newton), a stand-in for Stephen Hicks, who wound up becoming the first in his long line of victims.  It illustrates how, having crossed the line into the abominable, Dahmer found that he could only keep walking, a point impressed in the film's closing shot, which shows the young Jeffrey disappearing into a metaphorical wilderness.  The film's arthouse sensibilities may prove a bit trying for some, but all in all it's a well-acted and affecting stab at dramatising the subject that doesn't rely heavily on shocks or sensationalism.

By contrast, Bowen's film is clearly interested in packing in as many killings as possible - I realised this early on when Dahmer takes Hicks (Cassidy Phillips) back to his family home in Bath, Ohio and proceeds to bludgeon him almost instantly, from which point we make an awkward time skip to nine years later when Dahmer hooked up with his second victim, Steven Tuomi (G. Joe Reed).  From there on in, the film attempts to provide an extensive chronological account of Dahmer's murderous career, closing off with his arrest on 22nd July 1991.  I didn't count exactly how many of the seventeen murders are represented therein, but they definitely covered a fair number, along with a handful incidents where the would-be victims got away or Dahmer declined to make the kill.  The problem with focusing so extensively on one killing after another is that the film quickly succumbs to sheer repetitiveness; although some psychological tension is milked from the build-up to the murders themselves (particularly in the case of Eddie Smith, Dahmer's deaf mute victim, even if the scene in question is entirely at odds with how Dahmer operated as a killer - see below), The Secret Life struggles to accommodate the seemingly endless slew of killings into a narrative that feels particularly structured or involving. Inevitably, it moves through the individual victims at such a brisk pace that we gain only the most superficial impressions, at best, of who each of them are (this is in contrast to Jacobson's film, where Lance and Rodney each receive substantial enough focus to establish distinct personalities).

In between the killings, we get a few scenes from Dahmer's personal life, many of which attempt to explore discrepancies between his public persona and the titular "secret life" and just how thin his veneer of normality really was.  In particular, the film highlights the irony that Dahmer had multiple brushes with the law where the authorities could potentially have stopped him well in advance of that fateful night in July 1991 (as far back as when he was disposing of Hicks' corpse, in fact), only they weren't attentive enough to pick up on what was going on.  This is illustrated particularly pointedly in a scene where Dahmer is arrested at his apartment for sexually assaulting a minor, and the officers apparently fail to notice a preserved human skull lying on his cabinet in plain view.  Dahmer's ongoing battle to conceal his secret life from those around him feels as if it should have provided the film with a stronger nexus than it simply amounting to a drawn-out parade of killings, but there's a lot less emphasis on this aspect of the film than there should be, and it's not helped by the fact that Dahmer is literally the only character who receives any substantial amount of screen time.  There are a couple of scenes in which we see him interacting with his grandmother (Jeanne Bascom) and a probation officer (Lisa Marks), but there's no real sense of any other distinctive voices or presences emerging in this world - this may well have been a deliberate choice, to emphasise the extent of Dahmer's social and emotional disconnect from other people, but I doubt it.

Surprisingly, for a film which surfaced so soon after Dahmer's conviction and amid the initial wave of media sensationalism, The Secret Life is not entirely unsympathetic to Dahmer and, like Jacobson's film, shows some interest in what made him tick as a person and in contemplating how his personal demons mutated into murderous obsessions.  Dahmer's human side is represented in his affection for his grandmother, his troubled parental relations and his insecurity regarding his sexuality, while his gruesome undertakings are swathed in plaintive vulnerabilities that, at the film's strongest, present him as a painfully wretched figure.  There's one scene in particular in which Dahmer cradles the severed head of a victim that feels simultaneously tender, disturbing and pathetic - if you can forgive how risible the head prop looks, then it's definitely one of The Secret Life's high points.

On the surface, the film purports to examine Dahmer's one-way journey into homicidal mania from his own perspective, and makes the fairly ambitious gambit of having him provide voice-over narration.  Portions of this were extracted from actual statements made by Dahmer during a speech at his trial; nevertheless, as a narrative device it's curiously dry and unconvincing.  It's somewhat negated by the film's largely perfunctory take on Dahmer's life prior to his becoming a killer (or indeed, what he was doing in the nine year gap between his first murder and his second), the scant details that are incorporated being done so mainly through expository dialogue.  Here, the voice-over narration seems less a sincere attempt to get up close and personal with Dahmer's twisted psyche than an easy route for imparting vague biographical details that provide no real feel of how he got from Point A to Point Z.  Really, though, the film's foremost problem is that Crew, even if this was his passion project, is blatantly miscast as Dahmer - physically, he's too brawny and imposing to swallow as the shy but stealthy societal outsider, and while he does attempt something of Dahmer's infamously flat, monotone voice, his vocals are much too deep (as it is, he sounds eerily reminiscent of David Beard's character from The Last Broadcast (1998), which if you're familiar with that film, might be enough in itself to make the hairs on your neck stand on end).  There's also the issue that, ultimately, the film cannot resist turning Dahmer into a more stereotypical, knife-wielding madman whenever he goes in for the kill, and it's here that the film often comes dangerously close to pushing the story toward the territory of B-movie schlock.  As noted, the film opens by surrendering any pretensions of creating a painstakingly accurate representation of Dahmer's life and crimes - as such, it seems futile to get overly picky with The Secret Life for what it gets right and what it doesn't.  Nonetheless, a few of the liberties it takes are so glaring that it seems unreasonable to gloss over them altogether.  Here are the inaccuracies that especially stick out:

  • Although Dahmer's home life growing up was indeed very turbulent, the film's repeated insinuation that he was molested by his father, Lionel Dahmer, is totally unsubstantiated.  For his part, Dahmer always adamantly denied that he was ever sexually assaulted as a child.
  • There are multiple instances in which Dahmer is seen taunting his victims as he kills them, most of whom are still conscious enough to grapple back to some capacity (in one particularly egregious example, Dahmer drops a live, screaming victim into his infamous blue barrel of acid while banging on the side and ordering him to shut up).  The real Dahmer always stated that he gained no gratification from the killing itself; it was merely a means to an end.  In the majority of cases, he drugged his victims and then strangled them while they were fully unconscious.  Crew's Dahmer, on the other hand, very clearly enjoys the thrill of the kill.
  • Jeffrey's mother, Joyce Dahmer, was not present in the family home at the time of Stephen Hicks' murder.
  • In my review of Chris James Thompson's 2012 documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, I noted that some critics had picketed at the comments by Dahmer's neighbour, Pamela Bass, that Dahmer may have fed her sandwiches containing human flesh.  For Dahmer, cannibalism represented yet another avenue of intimacy with his victims, and there is no evidence to suggest that he ever sought to share his unusual appetites with anyone else.  Bowen's film contains a scene in which Dahmer is implied to do just that, serving a prospective victim a suspicious-looking meatloaf and assuring him that the primary ingredient is "venison".
  • In the film's version of events, Dahmer purposely reveals to Tracy Edwards (Aaron Braxton) that he is a serial killer by showing him Polaroids of the numerous corpses he's mutilated.  Edwards then escapes and heroically leads the police back to Dahmer's apartment.  In reality, Edwards was unaware that Dahmer was such an accomplished killer and went back with the police solely to retrieve keys to the handcuffs that Dahmer had fastened on him.  Edwards was not actually seeking to press charges against Dahmer at the time - possibly because he had jumped bail for a sexual assault charge and it was not in his interests to get involved with the police.
  • A minor quibble, but Dahmer's more innocent pastime - ie: his passion for fishkeeping - is not represented in any shape or form.  Instead, his apartment is adorned with animal taxidermy, presumably to give him more of a Norman Bates vibe.

I assume that having Joyce Dahmer (Donna Stewart Bowen) just around the corner during the Hicks incident is intended to drive home the point that this was all taking place under everyone's noses (plus, the juxtaposition of the killing with shots of her sewing machine provides the sequence with a few tasteful cutaways).  It strikes me as perhaps a tad too convenient that she happens to switch on the radio just as Dahmer launches into his attack, however.  The alterations to Edwards' portion of the story were no doubt implemented in the interests of simplification, and in providing a more traditional ending where the forces of heroism win out in the end.  Making Dahmer into a more overtly sadistic killer, as opposed to a disturbingly detached one, likewise seems to have been motivated by a desire to make him into more of a traditional movie maniac (one who laughs maniacally while decapitating a victim with a buzz-saw); this does create more of a stark contrast when Dahmer is later seen addressing his victims' chopped up remains with a disquieting tenderness, but it's where the film dips most markedly into full-on sensationalism.  That and the daddy thing.

If you're after a good Dahmer drama, then David Jacobson's Dahmer is the flick to go for.  The Secret Life of Jeffrey Dahmer is not an altogether meritless attempt at what is a pretty challenging case history to dramatise, but I would mainly recommend it if, like me, you're a Jeffrey Dahmer completist, in which case what it predominantly has going for it is its historical interest.  Of course, being a Jeffrey Dahmer completist also obligates you to watch Ford Austin's Dahmer vs Gacy, and...well, maybe I'll go into that one at a later date.

In the meantime, here's the trailer to Marc Meyer's upcoming film My Friend Dahmer:

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Carla's Island (1981)

Last time, when I looked at Robert Abel and Associates' groundbreaking 1985 commercial on the virtues of canned ingredients, I made the obligatory comment on how computer animation has advanced massively since the days of its early pioneers, so naturally what was fresh and cutting-edge back then might look creaky and archaic now.  Here, I'd like to skip such any comments and focus entirely on the utter, undiluted charms of Carla's Island, a short film created by computer scientist Nelson Max while working at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in 1981.  I am absolutely in love with this film; a project which, Max recounts, was borne partly out of his jealousy on viewing Loren Carpenter's 1980 film Vol Libre, as well as a fascination with water waves and a passion to recreate some of their essence in computer animation (without Max's tireless efforts to pin down just the right mathematical equations, there'd certainly be no Moana, Finding Dory or Lava).

Carla's Island was designed to showcase how computer generated imagery could be used to simulate the movements of ocean waves and various atmospheric changes.  As such, it has no real plot to speak of, consisting merely of a series of transitions from one atmospheric state to the next.  Over the course of a few minutes, we see extracts from the day in the life of two Pacific islands, the serenity of the opening scene gradually giving way to looming storm clouds and choppier wave movements, before the sun finally sets and leaves the islands shrouded in the gentle glow of a crescent moon.  Then, in a playful post-credits epilogue, we see a solitary shark fin piercing the waters in the light of a brand new day (giving the film something of a punchline, although it also builds on the sense that these digitally-rendered islands are a thriving ecosystem in themselves).  The beauty lies in its gentle simplicity, in its careful attention to detail (check out the various ways in which light interacts with those waves throughout) and in its warm appreciation for the elegance and marvel of everyday cycles.  Overall, what makes Carla's Island such a treasure is that it feels every inch a labour of love - love not merely for the technology involved and for making advancements where that was concerned, but love for bringing these two simple islands to life and giving them such a distinct sense of mood and character.  These are qualities which still endure, and keep the film engaging in an age where seeing CGI accomplish the basics doesn't offer quite as much novelty in itself.

Also adding immeasurably to the character of the film is Carla Winter's wonderfully kitschy soundtrack.  She provides a bit of context to her contribution (as well as the real-life inspiration for the film's setting) here:

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Robert Abel - "Brilliance" aka "Sexy Robot" (1985)

Robert Abel and Associate's "Brilliance" ad is such a beguiling little oddity - a colourful, striking, cutting-edge slice of visual glory touting the virtues of just about the dullest, most nondescript product conceivable.  The company, led by its founder, visual effects pioneer Robert Abel, were hired by Ketchum Advertising in 1984 to develop a thirty-second spot for the Canned Food Information Council; the aim was for it to be so startlingly futuristic that it would completely demolish canned food's popular image as an archaic and inferior culinary product.  As a result, canned food is here not only pitched as the lifeblood of future generations who are busy colonising Jupiter, it's sexy too.  Abel has you so enthralled with the aesthetic charms of that saucy robot (whose cues were taken from the work of science fiction illustrator Chris Moore) that you don't really mind that you don't get a close or accurate peak at the contents of those cans (or question why a Jupiter-faring robot would be sitting down to a candlelit dinner of Earth-grown human food in the first place.  Would a robot's body actually be built for the consumption and digestion of regular meals?  Would it even have a sense of taste?)

"Brilliance" allegedly aired only once, during Super Bowl XIX on 20th January 1985, and went on to become the toast of that year's selection of ads (meanwhile, the most hotly anticipated ad of the lot, "Lemmings", Apple's attempt to follow up on the previous year's bit of Orwell-inspired genius, left viewers in a stunned and uneasy silence).  CGI has come on leaps and bounds since 1985, so it's easy to scoff at how comparatively primitive "Brilliance" looks now, yet every time I watch this ad I find myself in awe at just how gorgeously sleek that robot looks, and at how wonderfully, fluidly human those movements of hers still are (and yet so beautifully inhuman at the same time).  The pioneering techniques used to bring the robot to life and imbue her with all that character were revolutionary for their day, and involved filming a live actress in a swivel chair and having a computer track reference points on her body to convert her movements into animation (see the "making of" video below).  All you fans of what CGI has since achieved have Robert Abel and Associates to thank for pushing the envelope so much with the ads they worked on.  And Ketchum Advertising/the Canned Food Information Council, for supplying the funding which made their research possible in the first place.

Despite Abel's best efforts, I think there are limits to just how chic or alluring you can make canned food appear.  The culinary snob in me finds the whole notion of a future where we're living out on Jupiter with our sexy robot companions and gravity-defying tableware to be a whisker less magical if it involves subsisting on a diet of canned asparagus.  But damn, what an absolute class act of an ad.

PS: The next Super Bowl ad I'll cover here will be none other than "Lemmings"!  Assuming I can get myself into a sadomasochistic enough frame of mind, that is.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

A Day or a Lifetime: Where Is Aunt Ruth?

Note: This entry has nothing to do with the Hotel Earle, or with Barton Fink as a whole.  Instead, I'm piggybacking off my previous ADoaL piece to go into a bit more depth about my comments therein on Lynch's Mulholland Drive.  I promise that I won't do this too often. Also, considerable spoiler warning.

What makes Mulholland Drive such an enduring experience, sixteen years after its initial release, is that it's a deliriously joyful film to get lost in.  Assuming that you can find the pleasure in being lost, of course.  Lynch's film is nothing if not a polarising one - either you'll depart feeling peeved at Lynch for wasting your time and offering no closure to the intriguing scenario he set up and had you invested in for over two hours, or you'll fall in love with the film's unflinchingly discombobulating nature and find yourself twitching for a repeat experience, hoping to figure out where you strayed off course and if any comprehensible route can be mapped out across this dark and tumultuous terrain.  You go back, anxious for another glimpse inside that mysterious blue box, wondering if perhaps on this occasion you'll prevent it from getting the better of you.  Watching it becomes a game, the objective of which is to beat the box, and yet an addiction to the box and to the darkness within is what really drives us.  Much of what Mulholland Drive appealing is that it's a puzzle with seemingly no answer, and yet it beckons us to take up the challenge and, like its spirited young heroine, play-pretend at being detectives.  It's a film which goads us to get lost, over and over again, and yet we go along with it because venturing off course and finding ourselves out in the middle of nowhere offers so much joy and excitement (as well as frustration) in itself.

I was first introduced to Mulholland Drive in 2003 while looking through a stack of DVDs my brother had just purchased.  Before then, I was still a virgin to all things Lynch (although The Straight Story had been sitting on my To Watch list for at least a year).  What caught my eye about this film was the little document that came nestled in the DVD insert, entitled: "David Lynch's 10 Clues To Unlocking His Thriller".  As a marketing gimmick, it definitely worked on me, because I immediately wanted to take a crack at it.  I sat down and watched the film, from beginning to end with the clues at hand, thinking that I could lick this.  The mere existence of those clues had me confident that there was a definitive answer to be gleaned from this puzzle, and that I could figure it out with a little persistence and by paying close attention to the prompts in Lynch's words.  146 minutes later, my Lynch virginity was gone and I was more than a little startled and bewildered as to what had just happened.  At best, the clues had made me a bit more receptive to certain details (the recurring mention of The Sylvia North Story, for example) but as a map to prevent me from completely losing my bearings they were of absolutely no use.  Already, I could feel the addictive nature of that discombobulation taking a hold of me, for my impulsive response was to go back and a second look, in case I had overlooked or misinterpreted one or two important details.  It was then that I picked up on the fact that there was no scene access encoded into the disc, meaning that if I wanted to study a specific scene I would either have to rewind or fast forward manually, or just watch the film from beginning to end again, as seemed like the less headache-inducing option.  This was the first inkling I had that Lynch was maybe a bit of a scallywag.  I didn't quite grasp this at the time, but that might as well have been clue no. 11.  Lynch clearly delights in playing with his victims' heads, so who's to say that the clues themselves are entirely trustworthy, or if Lynch's goal is simply to impress the illusion that there is indeed a puzzle that can be solved?  The clues undoubtedly have their uses in offering a starting point for discussion and analysis, and in training the viewer to be attentive to the minute details of the film, but ultimately they too should be taken with a pinch of salt.

From that very first viewing, the moment that really caught me off guard and haunted me long after wasn't the game-changing moment where Rita opens the box and vanishes into thin air, but what follows immediately after, when Aunt Ruth suddenly appears, glances around the room quizzically and then walks away.  The last of Lynch's clues is has to do with Aunt Ruth, more specifically her whereabouts, so I figured that this must be very important.  She had to be important, or why else would Lynch save her clue for last?  When, finally, my urge to go online and check out what other people had been taking from the clues became too overwhelming (initially, when I believed there to be a definitive correct answer, I feared that this might be "cheating"), I was disappointed on so many levels, not least because nobody seemed to share my deep interest in the character of Aunt Ruth and what she might represent.  Most had picked up on the fact that Aunt Ruth is around in the "Betty" portion of the film but, after the blue box has been opened and we find ourselves trapped in Diane's nightmare of an existence, the only reference to we get to an aunt is to one who's long-dead (Diane never actually specifies that this aunt was named Ruth, by the way), and most were content to interpret this as yet another discrepancy between Betty and Diane's realities.  There was a common assumption that the amount of glaring contradictions between the two meant that the Diane portion of the film automatically invalidated the Betty portion - that Diane's reality was the "genuine" one and that Betty's was simply a lovely idealised dream she had indulged in and which had slowly succumbed to the forces of corruption (much like her "real" life).  That remains by far the most popular interpretation of the film but it left such a queasy taste in my mouth that it very nearly destroyed my affection for the film then and there.  Surely, I thought, the answer to this beautiful, intricate mystery couldn't be that sickeningly shallow?  The Betty portion of the film is so busy, so rich with different characters, story threads and striking images (Club Silencio, the bum behind Winkies) that the notion that it could all be hand waved as the desperate wish-fulfillment of an out-of-work actress immediately rubbed me the wrong way.  I considered the evidence pointing toward the "dream" interpretation.  The first of Lynch's clues advises us that two very important details occur before the credits, and sure enough, we do see things from the perspective of someone sinking down into a pillow right before we move into the sequence where Rita narrowly escapes an attempt on her life.  Then, as Betty's story comes to an abrupt halt and we enter into the Diane portion of the film, things do indeed kick off with her being roused from a deep sleep by the cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery).  On that basis, I could see why others found the explanation so persuasive. If you make the connection between those two moments and can accept that everything that happens in between is simply Diane's dream, we get a fairly simple explanation, from which point onward it becomes a matter of identifying parallels between the two worlds and what these might indicate about Diane's psyche.

Still, when attempting to make sense of Mulholland Drive I think it's important to keep in mind that it didn't start out as a self-contained theatrical feature.  Lynch conceived the project as a TV series and shot a 90-minute pilot for ABC, which gets as far into the story as Betty and Rita discovering the decaying corpse in Apt. 17 and Rita attempting to disguise herself by restyling her hair.  After ABC took a number of issues with the pilot and finally voted to pull the plug on the series, Lynch came up with a new conclusion which incorporated the Club Silencio sequence and the "alternate" Diane reality, and salvaged the project into a feature film with funding from StudioCanal.  Watching the finished product as an abandoned pilot which could potentially have become the basis of a much bigger, more drawn-out storyline, it's possible to account for the large number of story threads which appear to either trail off or become total loose ends.  From that perspective, I think you also become aware of just what an intensely messy picture it is for the first 90 minutes or so (which is not to infer that it's any less of a joy to watch).  Robert Forster's detective initially looks like he's going to be of major importance, but he disappears from the story immediately after one scene (he appears more in the original pilot).  There's that strange sequence where Mark Pellengrino's hit man, Joe, is attempting to retrieve a black book and bungles at every turning, which gets a curious amount of focus for a character who likewise disappears from the story soon after (to reappear briefly in Diane's arc), taking the "history of the world in phone numbers" with him.  And of course there's the extensive emphasis on the turmoils of Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), whose arc looks as if it's going to collide with Betty's but never quite does; the two of them lock eyes during the casting sequence as if gripped with an overwhelming sense of common destiny, but this is quickly aborted.  Adam's arc ends abruptly when he complies with the forces seeking to cast Camilla Rhodes in his film, and he doesn't reappear until we've crossed over into Diane's arc, where things have undergone a dramatic shake-up.  (Note: in the original pilot, Adam was revealed to be a friend of Wilkins (Scott Coffey), the Havenhurst resident whose dog's butt Coco (Ann Miller) threatens to bake for breakfast, and since Wilkins agreed to put Adam up during his financial troubles, it's a safe bet that Betty and Adam would have become neighbours and things might have worked out very differently between them).  The film has so many drawn-out interludes which seem so disconnected from Betty's story that supporters of the "Betty's reality is Diane's dream" theory often have their work cut out in figuring out how they all fit together into this single individual's wish-fulfillment fantasy.  Some interpret them as additional, more cryptic manifestations of Diane's guilt, fears and desires (eg: Camilla betrayed Diane for Adam, so Diane wants Adam to suffer severely in her idealised reality) but it's a messy business, in no small way because Lynch did not initially write these sequences with this outcome in mind (if he envisioned such an outcome at all).  Still, it all works out perfectly in the end.  Mulholland Drive is fundamentally a playful film, and much of that playfulness manifests in Lynch deliberately toying with his viewers' expectations.  The Betty/Adam collision seems destined to happen, but the film seems to purposely back out of it and take an altogether different turning the second that it begins to open up.  It is as if the film itself has been prevented from following its intended course, which has echoes of the overarching conspiracy to get Camilla cast in Adam's film over an actress of his choosing.

So where is Aunt Ruth in all of this?

Aunt Ruth is seen leaving her apartment at Havenhurst at the start of the film, reportedly to shoot a picture in Canada.  She goes back into the apartment to collect her keys and fails to detect Rita lurking underneath her table.  When she reappears at the end of the Betty/Rita arc, her role is once again having an incident of great importance slip right beneath her nose -  this time, the universe literally unraveling on her carpet.  In my previous comparison between the blue box scene in Mulholland Drive and the pipes sequence in Barton Fink, I suggested that Aunt Ruth's casually oblivious reaction to the occurrence functions as a kind of "punchline" to the entire Betty/Rita story, and that the butt of the joke is essentially the viewer.  Ruth walks in right after Rita has opened the blue box, which both she (and the viewer) had anticipated might shed light upon the film's central mystery, only to uncover a dark, deadly, all-consuming nothing that apparently plucks Rita right out of existence.  Ruth then randomly appears; she is visibly reacting to some kind of disturbance, implying that she at least heard something coming from the bedroom, yet when she peers in she sees absolutely nothing amiss.  We too no trace of Rita, Betty, the blue box, or any of their activity - it is almost as if their entire arc has been erased and we have landed back at the beginning of the narrative, with Aunt Ruth never having left the apartment.  Having been teased with the possibility of finally getting to the bottom of the mystery, the viewer instead bears witness to the mystery devouring itself and finds themselves eerily deserted by the two characters who up until now had been commanding their emotional investment.  There's a definite archness to how Lynch concludes this sequence, with the appearance of a character who is visibly confused by what has gone on, but ultimately dismisses the disturbance as "nothing" and walks away.  The film steers its mystery into a dead end, then casually shrugs it off and calls it a day.

Lynch's clue places emphasis specifically on Aunt Ruth's location, and I've seen it suggested that her being in Canada while Betty occupies her apartment should be taken as a clue that she's dead, as there's an old joke in the acting industry that dead actors "really go on to act in Canada".  I was intrigued, but so far my research on the matter has yielded very little about the existence and origins of this euphemism.  If this is indeed what Lynch was going for, then fans of the aforementioned dream/reality reading would no doubt take this as further proof that Diane is re-imagining her life in order to suppress a few uncomfortable realities, in this instance accounting for her deceased aunt's absence by packing her off to a shoot in Canada - but on that note, what are we to make of the fact that both Betty and Diane state that they came to Hollywood from Canada?  Ruth and Betty never encounter one another in person (although they do converse over the telephone), and when Betty is removed from the story, Aunt Ruth returns.  In Betty's story, Aunt Ruth has a tendency to be wherever Betty is not.  There is a cyclic quality to the movements of both characters, which begins with Aunt Ruth moving out of Havenhurst so that Betty can take her place as a Hollywood success, only for Ruth to be recalled to her original position when Betty ultimately fails to assume that identity.  Ruth is, in effect, another doppelganger of Betty's - perhaps she is the future self which Betty, at one time or another, was destined to be, before corruption (in the form of the forces seeking to get Camilla Rhodes cast in Adam's film) seeped in and redirected her story down a very different, far more sinister path, one which Ruth herself is perpetually oblivious to.  In Diane's story, the aunt (who, again, is not specifically identified as Ruth) plays a somewhat different role.  She is deceased but has left her niece an inheritance which is ultimately used to hire the hit man Joe to rub out Camilla.  If Diane represents a corrupted Betty, a Betty who's been pushed down the wrong path and now harbours no hope of redemption, merely retribution, then the death of Aunt Ruth signifies the death of those aspirations.  Unlike many other characters in the Betty arc, Ruth does not cross over into Diane's arc, because Diane, unlike Betty, has not even the vaguest promise of a future.  She is on an irreversible course to crash and burn and it is ultimately the aunt (her estranged future self) who facilitates that destruction.

We might also consider Lynch's fifth clue: who gives a key, and why?  After all, there are three possible individuals to whom this might refer - in Diane's story, Joe leaves Diane a blue key (evocative of the key used by Rita to unlock the blue box) as a signal that the hit has been successfully carried out.  In Betty's story, Coco gives Betty the keys to the apartment at Havenhurst on behalf of Aunt Ruth, so that she can stay there and effectively assume Aunt Ruth's life while Ruth herself is away; as Coco hands across this all-important key, she comments that she is doing so on the basis that Betty and Ruth "probably have an understanding", although that "probably" casts doubt on whether such an understanding actually exists.  When Louise (Lee Grant) shows up at Ruth's apartment, she infers that Betty is an imposter, which would appear to support the common assumption that Betty is simply Diane acting out her silly fantasies, but then a penchant for play-pretense is an integral aspect of Betty's character regardless.  Betty spends much of her story in a kind of cloud cuckoo land, veering between pretending to live out the life of a genuine movie star and acting as if her life genuinely were a Hollywood movie.  Watts plays Betty with an exaggerated, child-like vivaciousness which early on we're goaded to see as indicative of the character's fundamental naivety as a young and hopeful outsider to the Hollywood system.  All the same, there are times when Betty's naivety is laid on almost a little too thickly - for example, when she discovers Rita in Ruth's apartment and accepts that this unexpected guest has every right to be there with next to no suspicion or caution.  Is Betty really too naive for her own good, or is she just too good at assuming the role of the naive young newcomer?  Our assumptions about Betty are further turned on their head when we witness her audition scene and a startlingly different persona emerges, which runs contrary to her earlier, more melodramatic rendition of the exact same material with Rita.  Betty tells Rita that she would "rather be known as a great actress than a movie star, but sometimes a person ends up being both."  Initially, this appears to be a playful dig at the hollowness of celebrity, with its insinuation that stardom does not necessarily equal great talent (see Lynch's eighth clue), but perhaps Betty alludes here to her own skills as a master manipulator.  She plays the role she sees herself as having been cast in order to gain access to Aunt Ruth's vacant apartment and take her place among the Hollywood elite.  Is her status as Ruth's niece even genuine?  We learn from Coco that Ruth has some concerns about who is staying in her apartment and our natural assumption, much like Coco, is that this refers to Rita, but perhaps Betty merits her own share of suspicion.  When the blue box is opened, Betty is stripped of her identity and finds herself cast in a very different role - that of Diane Selwyn, who had previously appeared as a corpse in her story - and the part of master manipulator instead shifts over to Rita, now reborn as Camilla.  As Diane, Betty's vulnerabilities are laid horrifyingly bare and she loses whatever social wiles she had.

Clue no. 5 also calls to question if we are supposed to see any symmetry between the key to the apartment at Havenhurst and the key to the blue box.  The latter unlocks darkness, oblivion, the ultimate nihilism underpinning the world of Mulholland Drive, while the former opens up a world of glamour, luxury and promise, all of which Betty discovers to be nothing more than hollow illusions (a-UNTRUTHS?) when that nihilism finally comes out of hiding and has its cold and callous way with her.  In the end, all that remains in Betty's world is Aunt Ruth, who haunts the empty apartment like the ghost of What Could Have Been, the future which might have awaited Betty had the treacherous twists and turnings of Mulholland Drive not willed otherwise.  Of course, Lynch offers yet another sly subversion in having Aunt Ruth assume the role of the haunted, reacting to a strange and ultimately inexplicable disturbance which has invaded her tidy domestic space.  Perhaps we are meant to question if Betty and Rita are the real apparitions in this story, intruders who wandered into Ruth's apartment from an alternate reality in order to act out their mystery.  After all, while Rita finally is sucked in and devoured by the blue cube, Betty pulls off off a far spookier, spectre-like disappearing act by vanishing into thin air within the split-second that Rita's back is turned on her.  Betty is gone before the box is even opened - was her fate already sealed by that point, or was she never actually a part of this world to begin with?  It plays out like the ending to an archetypal ghost story.  We might consider that character assumed to be Diane Selwyn is already dead in Betty's story, and that the film opens from the perspective of an unseen being who is slowly sinking out of consciousness upon a pillow (the common assumption here is that we are entering into a dream world, but perhaps what we are really witnessing are the final distorted flickers of life of an individual upon the verge of death).  If we place Diane's death as happening chronologically before Betty's story begins, then the possibility opens up that Betty, more than a mere projection of the person that Diane wishes she could have been, actually is the spirit of the deceased Diane, acting out a form of vengeance upon her former erstwhile by leading her into a sticky web of mystery and confusion, a game which finally stops when Rita is coaxed into looking inside the mysterious blue box and confronted by the cold, sinister reality that defines their relationship?  The general impression at the end of the film is that Betty/Diane is the character whose dreams and ambitions have been fundamentally thwarted, yet it is Rita, not Betty, who unsuspectingly opens up the box and gets destroyed.  Betty remains unaccounted for.

Judging by Ruth's reaction, she is totally unwitting to the events in question, but what of the actual key-giver, Coco?  She's evidently not a fan of Rita/Camilla in either of her incarnations, so might she have knowingly assisted in her destruction?  As with just about every question that Mulholland Drive raises, the jury are unlikely to ever return a verdict, but it offers something intriguing to chew on.