Isms and their ists. Ideologies and their labels. I get lost in the definitions and refuse to identify with any single group.
The Contrarian likes his absolutes and I like tearing them apart. It’s easy: absolutes don’t like context and look ridiculous swimming in a sea of conditionals.
We’re both being careful. He’s gone fully vegan and avoided answering why. I say nothing about the sidestepping.
We see a clean-looking Lebanese restaurant. There’s a menu in the window. Mid-range prices, a complete selection including vegan friendly options. Enough people to suggest the food is good. The waitress that greets and seats us looks, to me, Lebanese.
The appetizers, a platter of mezze for two, is quickly chosen. I add a lamb stuffed eggplant for my main and the Contrarian starts his interrogation of the waitress finding every dish with yoghurt or cheese. After a few of these, I ask him how he feels about lentils.
“I like them.”
I turn to the waitress and ask if they have a meatless lentil dish.
“Oh yes, with wheat and fried eggplant.”
My eyebrows ask the Contrarian if he wants this.
I find it strange when meatless eaters drink. Is it the association with healthy eating?
I hesitate then decide alcohol may knock me out early.
“Tap water for me, please.”
I watch the waitress walk away. The Contrarian asks me what I want to do afterwards. I want to enjoy the moment but reply. “I was thinking of checking out a discount DVD shop. I want to see if I can find a copy of Sunset Boulevard.”
“That sounds very specific.”
“Yes.” He’s expecting a reason to follow. I’m feeling playfully vengeful, wanting payback for his taking me from the present with the future looking question. I let a few seconds pass. He looks ready to ask ‘why’. “And … Le Mépris.”
“A French movie? That’s unusual for you. Is there a theme going on here?”
“I watched the movie again. And I started wondering if the road was a reference to Chandler or Ellroy novel. I ended up falling into the rabbit hole of interpretations of the movie.”
“And what do Chandler and this other guy…”
“James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential.”
“Yeah, he wrote the book.”
“OK, what do Chandler and the Kim Basinger guy have to do with Sunset Boulevard and Le Mépris?”
“Rabbit holes. They are two of the rabbit holes. Movie references.”
“So you’re on fact-finding mission?”
I think about how to reply. “Sort of. There are at least a couple of obvious references to Sunset Boulevard and it has been forever since I last saw it. I am less sure about the references to Le Mépris. You know, fact-finding may be a good way to describe my obsession with watching all the movies that Mulholland could be referencing. I have already watched three other rabbit hole movies.”
“White rabbit holes? Listening to the dormouse?”
“Feeding my head. And here comes the food for the stomach.”
There are four breads to accompany the appetizers. Plenty to dip with, keep talking, make the food last.
“The hummus is really good and I’ve become a kind of expert. I eat this shit almost every day now! Now tell me about your boner for Mulholland Drive. There’s a couple of really hot scenes but it can’t be that.”
“The baba ghanoush is garlicky. Aphrodisiac levels. Though it has to be one the most frustrating aphrodisiacs around. Get’s you excited but leaves you with a breath that knocks them out before you can do anything about it. The movie doesn’t leave you with bad breath.”
“Funny ha ha. You’re not answering the question.”
“You didn’t ask a question.”
“Aw come on! It’s implied! How did wondering about a couple of authors become an obsession that has you chasing DVDs?”
The question is a good one. It happened without me thinking about it. “It’s Chandler‘s fault.”
“That sounds like a line out of Friends. What’s that white stuff with the olive oil on top?”
“Let’s ask. I think it may be a type of fresh cheese, sort of like sour cream.”
I look to my right and spot the waitress serving a couple. I wait until the man’s plate is placed in front of him and raise my hand. My timing is right, she sees the gesture and comes over. “Labneh, a special Lebanese cheese. Very good.”
The Contrarian reaches for the hummus.“What did Chandler do?”
“He convinced me he had written about a murder on Mulholland Drive and that a car was involved. And the more I searched, the more theories and interpretations of the movie I found. And I did a lot of searching. I was convinced. And he didn’t make it easy because he renamed places in his novels. I ended up with a long list of classic movies to watch. And a need to do something else as an excuse to stop my search.”
“How many interpretations can there be? You spend two hours watching one story then you get twenty minutes were you get the real story and figure out that first two hours are a fantastic dream. There can’t be that many ways to explain that. I mean, the ending kind of explains it already, right?”
“It’s the internet and it’s David Lynch. It’s people obsessing over little details with pet theories about them and insisting they are right even in the presence of contradictory evidence. There is this uncredited extra that a guy is sure is an actress from Twin Peaks or something. So he emails Lynch and Lynch replies that it isn’t her. And the guy is posting all this on the internet with the conclusion that, despite what Lynch said, he is sure that it is her.”
“So you’re watching a bunch of movies to prove the internet is full of crackpots.”
“More like trying to prove that they are not all crackpots. And making sure I am not one either.”
“You’ve got your own crackpot theories? This I’ve got to hear!”
“If I get started … I have been playing with these ideas all by myself and I’d love to share them and not on the internet. If I open the door, they’re going to come streaming out in one long flow of verbal diarrhea.”
The Contrarian lifts his beer “That’s all right, I’ve got plenty of liquids and I can get more if needed.”
“You asked for it! Do you remember the opening scene?”
“The car drive down Mulholland?”
“Before that. The jitterbug dancers.”
“The movie opens with a bunch of dancers doing their thing all over the screen and in the background, unsynchronized, their shadows dancing. The shadows don’t represent what’s happening and I’m thinking Allegory of the Cave.”
“Plato‘s? That’s not a movie!”
“Yes, Plato‘s. And I’ll get to the movie reference. So… you have the shadows telling you that what you’re seeing is not reality. It’s imagined, a story created from a distorted and limited point of view. And the foreground is Betty’s story.”
“Which one’s Betty?”
“The Naomi Watts character of the first two hours.”
“The pink sweater one.”
“Yes. Though, I am not hundred percent sure it is her. It could be the Naomi Watts character from the last 20 minutes. I am not sure it makes much of difference to my cave interpretation. Both of their stories fit, which may be the point. The dance ends with Betty arriving in Hollywood, stepping into the light, a little dazzled, which can represent both the movie lights and the fire’s light.” I pause to let the Contrarian catch up. He has two stories, the allegory and the movie, to remember and line up. “And though she is stepping in the forefront, she is transparent, ghost like, which is why I prefer calling her Betty.”
“So far, it’s still Plato.”
“Patience. … I really like how this bit is acted, not a word is said yet I get strong feeling about the story being told and in only a few seconds. The I’m-here smile arrival, dream-come-true sightseeing and, a second stepping into forefront with even brighter lights.”
“The sun. And this time it is a flashing-bulbs dazzled look that is followed by an acceptance speech. It corresponds nicely to the allegory and it reminds me of Le Mépris. It makes me wonder if Godard and Lynch had the same idea, or was Lynch inspired by the scene from Le Mépris and he used it to create his own version, or is this an homage to Le Mépris.”
“There is this scene in Le Mépris Brigitte Bardot where goes to the movies with her husband but instead of a movie they end up in a very surreal scene with Jack Palance and Fritz Lang. There’s a singer on the stage. People walking back and forth, their shadows projected on the wall. And every time one of the characters speaks, the music stops. And when the bit of dialogue is finished, the music picks up where it left off, as-if someone had hit the pause button to speak and then unpaused the music afterwards.”
“Sounds like Lynch got two scenes out of one from Godard, the opening and the cabaret scene.”
“It does. There is another scene where I think people have missed the reference. But is this taking this referencing thing too far? In this scene I am going from Plato to Godard to Lynch. That is a lot of layers. May be the similarities are unintentional, or completely imagined. It feels like I’m spouting another complicated explanation of the movie, layers and layers deep, a conspiracy theorist’s perspective where every detail is significant and has some mysterious meaning that confirms the conspiracy.”
The Contrarian is looking wistfully at the empty hummus bowl. I point out that there’s still some of tabouleh left.
“Yeah. … Are you saying that the movie doesn’t have the answer to who really shot Kennedy?”
“I have a feeling that a lot of the people posting their interpretations of the movie also think they they know the real truth about Kennedy. Half of the theories about the movie ignore that 80% of the movie, the Betty story, was originally a TV pilot. And Lynch changed very little of it when he made it into a feature film. Lynch redefined the story a posteriori. There must be artifacts of the original idea left, which means not everything is going to fit the revised story, nor does everything have to.”
“And the jitterbug?”
“Was filmed for the movie version and, I like to think, serves the story.” I rip of a piece of bread and scoop up a mouthful of labneh. Impatient to continue my analysis, I regret the size of my serving. “There is, I think, only one undeniable link to anything in the movie, the car from Sunset Boulevard parked at Paramount Studios, and the rest is conjecture. When it doesn’t need too much explanation or complicated apologetics, then, maybe, just for fun, it’s worth talking about. David Lynch is known for not explaining himself, for believing that the story is what the viewer sees and not what he intended it to be. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and he builds stories for beholders.”
“You’re not going to give me a scene by scene run through, are you? It’s a long movie, you’ve just finished describing the opening scene and you’re talking about a bunch theories which you don’t believe. We are almost finished with the starters. At this rate we will still be here for supper.”
“The food is good. And I warned you that once I got started on the movie, you were going to suffer.” I grin at him. “I could probably walk through the whole movie and have something to say about each part of it. That said, I’d rather show off my ideas instead of repeating someone else’s. And you know I don’t like to ridicule other people’s bad ideas and, in this case, I’m not sure I want a quality comparison. You’re right, I have a bunch of ideas that don’t even convince me but they’re my ideas and I can’t seem to let them go.”
“Are they worse than the one about the Allegory of the Cave? More deserving of self-inflicted contempt?” Now it is his turn to grin.
“Unfortunately, yes. There are two scenes that made me think of Carnival of Souls.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s a low budget horror movie from 1962 that over the years has picked up the ‘cult classic’ label. It starts with drag race that ends in a car crash.”
“That’s your first reference?”
“Yes. And, like in Mulholland, it’s the start of a dreamed sequence.”
The waitress comes to check on our progress. Seeing the appetizer plates empty, she asks us to confirm we are ready for our mains. While she is stacking the dishes, the Contrarian adds that he is also ready for another beer.
I restart my summary as soon as the pile of dishes are lifted from the table. “Carnival of Souls; Car crash. The car goes into the water and the protagonist emerges not remembering how she survived.”
“Your second reference?”
“Not really, more like a part of the first one. Anyhow, she drives off, goes to Utah and starts a job as a church organist. There are few scenes where she is haunted by a ghoulish figure.”
“Like the homeless person behind the diner? Your second reference?”
“The whole first diner scene reminds me of the movie. As the story moves along, the protagonist starts having moments where she is invisible and inaudible to everyone. She ends up consulting a doctor about it.”
I pause as the eggplant is placed in front of me. “Thank you. … The diner has the guy confessing his fears to a friend. Annnnd, when the friend is paying the bill, you can see him talking but you cannot hear him.”
“Not exactly strong links but not that far-fetched. Why are you feeling guilty about it?”
“Wait. You haven’t heard all of the story yet.”
“You said two scenes.”
“The ending is what gives meaning, context, to the first scene.”
“That’s cheating. The ending counts as a third scene.”
I am not going to admit he is right. “The weirdness escalates, a climatic sequence with, as I remember it, at the climax, a cut-away back to the crash scene from the beginning of the movie. They’re pulling the car out of river. All the passengers, the girl included, are in the car and are dead. It’s not explicitly said, but the whole trip to Utah is a dying dream, a nightmare she has while passing. The escalating weirdness represents her slowly, or not so slowly, losing her grip on life. And of course, you never die in a dream.”
“Instead of explaining why you think it’s a stretch that Lynch is referencing Soul Carnival…”
“Carnival of Souls.”
“Carnival of Souls. Whatever. You made the case for it stronger.”
“Well … The two scenes in Mulholland Drive that remind me of it were shot for the TV pilot, in other words, before Lynch added the ending that turned the pilot into the dream sequence.”
“And I don’t like that a famous critic said Carnival of Souls reminded him of Lynch‘s Blue Velvet. He speculated, with a strong disclaimer that it was impossible to know for sure, that it was an influence. Now everyone takes it as a fact that Lynch is a fan of Carnival of Souls.”
“If it has shown up before then maybe it’s more than a coincidence.”
“I searched, I cannot find a single direct quote with Lynch saying he is a fan of the movie, nevermind that he was influenced by it. And remember, the dream theme didn’t exist when he shot the beginning of the movie. And forgetting that it was turned into close-ended movie a couple of years after the pilot was rejected is a mistake I say many of the Mulholland theorists make. Theorizers? Theorists? Theorizers make.”
“Maybe the dream theme was part of the pilot?”
“It’s a stretch. But maybe. Probably not. Probably not…”
“You can’t say for sure it wasn’t. You said Lynch doesn’t explain himself.”
“He moves in mysterious ways. It’s a shame there isn’t a mystery teapot in one of the scenes.”
“Your eggplant looks delicious.” He has changed the subject. I think he got the reference and did not understand it was an opportunistic joke.
“It is. How are the lentils?”
“Good. Almost good enough for me not to want some of your eggplant.” There is an element of martyrdom in veganism.
I go back to Mulholland Drive. “I like my links to Le Mépris better. And I have a few ideas about the Rita Hayworth thing that I also like better.”
“You said something about there being another scene that referenced Le Mépris?”
“Why do you sound surprised? Do you think I don’t listen to you?”
“I know you do. It’s when I’m spouting bullshit that I get surprised.”
“It’s not complete bullshit.”
“That’s where I get my biggest surprises. Every once in a while someone quotes me back to myself. Sometimes it’s years later. And I’m saying to myself ‘Wow, they were listening and it marked them.’ I guess wear what surprises me is that people take me more seriously than I take myself.” A thought stops me.
It’s a general thing. I really don’t take myself very seriously. It’s why I get confused when people get angry at the stupid things I say or do. I misjudge how serious people are about everything.
“The other scene?”
“Yeah, actually it’s not that straight forward. I should say for me. My mind takes an inaccurate shortcut and I conflate it with the Club Silencio scene. It takes place in the club but it is at the end of the movie, where it has to be if it mirrors Le Mépris. The ghostly apparition of the two dead lovers mirroring the scene of the two dead lovers in Le Mépris, the return to the lady in the club’s balcony mouthing silencio mirroring the return to Fritz Lang calling silencio to cue the start of the shooting.”
“Like the Frnech Silence, on tourne?”
“Yes. I like the irony of ending the movie with the director’s call that the cameras are about to roll but that is more about Le Mépris than Mulholland Drive. There’s one rabbit hole I avoided, the indirect references. Le Mépris is full of symbolism, allegories and references to Greek mythology. That makes Mulholland‘s references to Le Mépris references to references. If I don’t want to tie my mind in knots, I would need to do a deep dive on Le Mépris first and I’m not ready to go there.”
“You make it sound like there are other references.”
“Possibly. Rita putting on the wig to go to Club Silencio mirrors Brigitte Bardot’s putting on a wig to go to the theater. Rita, dark haired, puts on a blonde wig. Bardot, a blonde, puts on a dark hair wig.”
“Always the same scene.”
“Yes. And it’s the multiplication of the possible references to that scene that make me think that maybe Lynch is referencing Le Mépris while making me think that I am looking at that scene with a conspiracy theorist’s magnifying glass and taking every coincidence as another clue.”
“Maybe.” I notice the waitress is patiently standing by our table. Our plates are empty.
I am full and I am not ready for the meal to end. I can see the Contrarian is also hesitating. It is not obvious if he is wondering if there is a vegan option or if this is because he is also full or if he is waiting to see whether I will take one .
I quickly eliminate the vegan option from the reasons for the hesitation. He bitches enough about the lack of choice in vegan desserts and he believes that a martyr is not a martyr if no one knows of the sacrifice. The bitching is as much a part of his identity these days as is the veganism.
“Me too.” He turns towards me. “I thought you were going to go directly to the coffee.”
“We have a few options without milk products.” I am pleased by the waitress’ memory trick and return her smile. The Contrarian’s “Good.” disturbs me. It is royal, a service due, entitled.
“Let me clear your plates and I will return with the dessert cart.”
Talk is suspended, replaced by the noise of dishes and cutlery coming together in a neat pile. I catch a hint of black lace, force myself to catch the waitress’ eye and smile. I find myself wishing that reality was closer to a porn movie: A wink, a nod, and before you know it the flour is falling off the shelves in the back room.
“Nice” I wait for her to disappear into the kitchen before agreeing.
It takes me a few seconds to climb out of my fantasy world. By the time my mind gets back to the present moment, she is drawing the trolley parallel to the table. I see a type of custard covered in crushed pistachios, learn it is flavoured with orange blossom water and order it.
The Contrarian takes longer than usual to choose. The shared appreciation of the waitress’ physical attributes has raised his testosterone levels. The selection process is accompanied by flirting, some of it embarrassing to watch; the questions about the pistachio filled cigar, accompanied by a pregnant pause while looking her in the eyes. The motivation for the flirting is baffling; it started only after he caught me fantasizing.
The cigar is joined by a walnut filled pastry and a piece of baklava.
“I’ll take the coffee, Turkish, after the dessert. Thanks.”
I turn my attention back to the Contrarian as soon as she steps away. “Rita!”
“Is that her name? When did you get it?”
Any doubts that he sees picking her up as a competition are dispelled. Not that he is in the habit of hiding it. I just cannot be bothered to confirm it each time, especially if I am not playing the game.
“Right. The Rita Hayworth connection.”
“You got me started, encouraged me. Now I have to talk out all my ideas.”
“There’s no mystery to the Rita connection. The poster scene is explicit. So what is special about it? I’m guessing there are a few crazy theories on the internet and you have better ones.”
“Crazy theories first, actually, ‘crazy’ is not the right word, flimsy, tenuous. I don’t think much of the idea of making a big deal of the real Rita dyeing her hair red and the movie Rita’s wig.”
“And it would interfere with your Le Mépris conspiracy.”
“Not really, there’s nothing ruling out multivalence, things having multiple meanings or interpretations. I don’t see the significance. It’s why I call it flimsy. I think even less of the fact that Rita Hayworth was a stage name.”
“Stage name, borrowed name. Tenuous. A coincidence.” The flatness in the Contrarian’s voice announcing that he disagrees with me and that he is simply confirming he understands the reason for my opinion.
“Exactly. What surprises me, especially with all the attention paid to the decor, is that I did not see any comments about the poster and the movie’s tag line ‘There never was a woman like Gilda!’ That sounds like a blatant announcement to me.”
“That could explain why she called herself Rita instead of Gilda.”
“I thought that for a moment then ruled it out. Diane, the real world Betty, has a Rita fetish.”
“And what a fetish!”
I ignore the comment. “She’s her role model. The dinner party scene is what made me think of it. Her idea that dancing, winning the jitterbug contest, leads to acting. Not an obvious leap unless you think of Rita Hayworth being a dancer before becoming an actor.”
“Another original theory of yours?”
“I haven’t seen anyone else comment on it. Nor anyone try to make a connection with Rita marrying Orson Welles, a director. Not that I give it much weight but it seems more obvious than some of the other stuff mentioned.”
“She did become a short haired blond for him.”
“True and you could probably make a lot of connections to that movie if you tried. There’s the hall of mirrors, a theatre scene, a love triangle but, like a lot of the other crap, it seems to take things a bit too far. It is hard to see how those links serve the movie.”
“But with Lynch you never know.”
“Again true. But I’d rather spend time analyzing that dinner scene than speculating on what could be random coincidences.”
The Contrarian laughs. “You had no problem listing off the possible connections.”
“Guilty. I did spend some time thinking of reasons why the blonde Lady From Shanghai was a better parallel than the red-headed Rita. That was helped by watching a few Orson Welles movies. It’s what I like most about turning Mulholland into a project, the rabbit holes, following tunnels just for the fun of the adventure, even when I know I am way off track. That particular adventure started with Gilda, because of the poster, then the Lady,and then F for Fake.”
“Amost, or maybe that should be ‘not yet.’ Time will tell.”
“I can see it is easy to take you off track when talking about the other movies orbiting around Mulholland.”
“Here comes my coffee.”
“Are you going to spit it out on to the napkin if it is no good?”
“No! But if I am not careful when I get to the bottom of the cup, I may end up spitting out a mouthful grinds.”
“The art of drinking Turkish coffee. Either you know it or you end up creating napkin art.”
“You know about the drop of cold water?”
The Contrarian’s face lights up as if he has the answer to the $64,000 question. “That goes for any good coffee. A mouthful before to rinse and a mouthful after to bring out the after-taste.”
The game show metaphor is still in my head and the wrong-answer buzzer goes off in my head. Its harshness makes me take a second before answering. “I was thinking of the drop that goes into the coffee. It is supposed to settle the grinds to the bottom and it is supposed to be physics but I can’t figure out which principle.”
The coffee is now in front of me. I ask for a glass of water and the Contrarian for his third, or is it his fourth, beer.
Waiting for the water, I frame the cup with my hands.
“What the fuck? I can go for the drop of water bit but what is this waving your hands around like that supposed to do? ‘Double, double, toil and trouble.’ Are you casting spells now?”
“Yeah. It turns the coffee into a superpower elixir, like Obelix‘s.”
“Don’t you mean Asterix?”
“I do. And there goes my smooth segue back to Mulholland Drive. The coffee sitting on the white table cloth in front of me reminded me of the hazy transition at the end of the supper. The call backs that follow. It is a great scene.”
“Which means you have another” he does scare quotes “original” and he does another set of scare quotes “theory.”
“Of course I do.”
“Le Mépris, Sunset Boulevard, or a Rita movie?”
“Sunset Boulevard. Adam’s comment about his ex getting the pool man made me think of the opening scene. And the whole sequence is a commentary on the Hollywood system.”
“The sequence starts with the coffee seen from Diane’s perspective which tells you whose view you are getting. Then there is the comment about the pool man, the idea that Adam should have rewarded the judge, an admission that the ruling was not fair. She then spots the coffee-spitter just before Adam delivers what I call the clincher ‘Sometimes good things happen’ which comes from a Helen Miren quote where she says that she doesn’t believe that good things happen to good people, that it’s all luck, that sometimes good things happen to bad people, but it’s better, more worthwhile, to do good.”
“Naomi Watts certainly ignores the conclusion.”
“She’s only concerned with the single line. It’s what sets up the revenge. She has just spent the meal eating crow, confessing her failures to Adam’s mother while her table-neighbour listens in, adding salt by filling in details. Then there is the smoky transition to her picking up the cup of coffee. The scene is shot from her point of view, a signal that the series of allusions to the Hollywood machine, corruption and the conclusion ‘sometimes good things happen to bad people’ are her explanation of why she busted in Hollywood.”
I take a sip of my coffee. “And I like how Lynch lines up three straight coffee transitions for the ending of the Diane story. I’m tempted to rewatch the movie just for the transitions. Lynch makes them add to the story. They are not just mood setters, or clever ways to join two scenes. They work like commentary, silent narration.”
“I’m ready to watch it again. I get the feeling I missed half of what is going on.”
“I said ‘tempted.’ I am getting close to overdosing on it. Maybe after Le Mépris or the original pool man movie, Sunset Boulevard.”
I pick up my napkin, wipe away the grinds that have gathered at the sides of my mouth, and drop it next to the cup.
I tip the cup, seeing if there is enough liquid for another sip. The grind patterns from the playing with the cup remind me of my first trip to Mexico City. The fortune telling was supposed to be part of the Zona Rosa experience.
I was not impressed, when after a first look at my cup, I was told that I would soon go on a long trip. I stayed quiet and let the unimpressive predictions continue. My girlfriend was unimpressed with my lack of participation in the game.
Years later I would learn that the obvious stuff was meant to start a conversation which would give clues for creating a reading. My silence had killed the show.
The memory has me wondering how much the Zona Rosa has changed. I remember hearing it had been severely damaged in the 1985 earthquake.
I put the cup down. “Ready?”
The Contrarian swallow the last of his beer. “Yes.”
We head towards the cash register.