David Lynch and the American Dream by Olly Smith

Please note: this article contains major spoilers for the films Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive.

As audiences we consume Americana in the mass media every single day. It is found in adverts, radio, television, and – most importantly – cinema. The image of the Statue of Liberty or the Hollywood Sign is ingrained in my mind as much as Big Ben or the London Eye, and are part of the characterisation of the country itself: The American Dream. The belief that social mobility is an equal opportunity for all citizens. Of course, we now know through modern studies that this is not the case, and that the reality of America uses your background, race and gender among other things will affect that mobility, but this does not stop Americana from seeping into our everyday lives as a way of selling the American Dream to audiences. 

Associations with the culture can be found in brands such as Coca-Cola or Chevrolet. In music genres like Jazz or Country. In popular icons like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It was traditionally used in films for the same reason, as can be seen in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but as time went on filmmakers began to react more critically to this mantra. One need only look at the social commentary present within John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) – featuring an alien race impersonating the rich and powerful, that use subliminal advertising to encourage the general public to conform and obey – to see how the attitudes were changing. Similarly, it was around then that auteur director David Lynch – then fresh off the boat from his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune – began deploying a similar posture in his films.

The opening sequence of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) features a white picket fence lined with bright red roses. The frame then switches to a tranquil suburban street as a 1950s-style fire engine travels by. In the background, we hear Bobby Vinton’s recording of ‘Blue Velvet’, which had hit No. 1 in 1963. Already in the first thirty seconds of the picture, we are exposed to a similar amount of Americana that we would be in an advert or a song. Suddenly, an old man watering his garden suffers a heart attack, struggling in pain as an infant looks on. The camera then zooms towards the ground, revealing a dark underbelly to this energetic world as it gets deeper into the grass. Those vibrant colours from before are gone, only to be left with the grotesque image of insects consuming each other. 

The highly contrasted red, white and blue colour scheme is also strikingly present in this scene, and becomes the primary palette for the rest of the film as other props, characters and sets are dressed in similar shades. Despite taking place in the 1980s – as evidenced by the cars and music – the film has an older aesthetic inspired by works such as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in order to enhance this sense of classic Americana.

 © 1986 – MGM

© 1986 – MGM

Blue Velvet’s plot begins with protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returning to his quaint hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina to visit his ailing father in the hospital. Whilst there, he finds a severed ear in a field which immediately sparks an investigation from himself and Sandy (Laura Dern), the daughter of a police detective. Following this, Jeffrey becomes embroiled in a dark underworld as he begins a fervent, sexual affair with singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) at the same time as romantically pursuing Sandy. Meanwhile, he is targeted by local mobster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) who is also sexually involved with Dorothy, albeit in a more twisted, oedipal passion.

The world as presented in Blue Velvet operates on a basis of dream logic. This does not mean the events of the film take place in a dream, but rather the small oddities and contradictions go unnoticed by the characters. We see this when Sandy says she knows Jeffrey found the ear because “she just knows”, or how the police investigation into the ear does not ever really have a resolution. It feels like a callback to ‘80s teen slasher horror films that rely on its cast of youngsters to drive the plot, whilst all the adults seem to have a degree of distance from the narrative.

With Lumberton standing in as this dream-like location, it feels like Lynch is lulling us into a place of serenity and comfort. As Jeffrey becomes involved with Frank’s criminal underworld, with the violence, sexual economy and anarchy that ensues, this ease is diminished as we soon realise this is the reality of Lumberton. That initial opening sequence of the quiet suburban street and parasitic bugs acts as a microcosm for how Lynch believes America functions. On the surface, the country is wholesome, happy and tranquil. Underneath, it is violent and chaotic.

 © 1986 – MGM

© 1986 – MGM

David Lynch would later expand on this idea of sunny America having a darker side in many of his following works, such as Twin Peaks (1990-91) and Wild at Heart (1990). In Mulholland Drive (2001), he would again explore the American Dream and the divide between success and failure.

Mulholland Drive tells the story of an aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) arriving in Los Angeles and staying at her Aunt’s house, where she befriends an amnesiac woman calling herself Rita (Laura Harring) who has recently been involved in a car accident. The film also features other vignettes and narrative threads, most notably one involving film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) as he is stripped of creative control over his current project. Betty finds success in Hollywood as her auditions impress the producers, but she and Rita also fall in love. 

In the final thirty minutes of the film, a twist reveals the events preceding were all part of a dream concocted by Betty, who is really a failed actress named Diane. While in the dream she finds success in her acting career and can be with the woman she loves, in reality she has none of those things. She is driven into a deep depression as a result of an ended affair with a more successful actress named Camilla Rhodes (also played by Laura Harring). Many other aspects from the fantasy are contrasted or mirrored in the real world, and the twist itself is foreshadowed many times throughout the film, most notably when Betty exclaims “it’s like I’m living in a dream world” when talking about her life in Los Angeles.

Mulholland Drive uses the concept of dreams to remark on the state of the American Dream in the film industry. Aspiring actors are frequently moving to California in the hopes of finding success in a film career, but the reality is that most will not make it big. While the unemployment rate for the United States currently sits at around 4%, the Actor’s Equity Association has a number hitting 90%. In a 2005 article for The New York Times, executive director of the University Theater Association Scott L. Steele stated: "We're producing too many people. Many of them poorly trained or moved into the field without the connections or relationships necessary to make their transition to a career possible.” With this in mind, getting a successful job in acting seems – quite literally speaking in the case of Mulholland Drive – to be the American Dream.

 © 2001 - Universal Pictures

© 2001 - Universal Pictures

Even the road Mulholland Drive itself is located along the Santa Monica mountain range, which separates the glamorous areas of Hollywood and Beverly Hills from the poorer San Fernando Valley. It acts as a metaphorical divider between success and failure, which is encapsulated within both lead characters themselves. Therefore, Lynch dresses up a very horrific reality for Diane with a surreal fantasyland in which she can have what her heart desires, a sentiment that many others who have failed under the American Dream can possibly relate to. 

This is why Mulholland Drive repurposes the Americana that Blue Velvet brought to the table. Lumberton in Blue Velvet is a happy, wholesome American town on the surface with a seedy criminal environment clawing its way out. On the other hand, Mulholland Drive flips the switch by using dreams to imply that dark underbelly is the surface of America, and aspirations for success are better invented in a fantasy world. Both films explore the two sides of the coin and how American imagery is often used as a substitute for achievement and happiness. I think this is an important theme to explore in a society that uses these images in a large capacity across all types of media. 


This piece was written by Olly Smith - you can find out more about Olly via their Twitter and website.

Tips for Film Critics: Part Two by Ewan Gleadlow

Have you read Part One? Check that out here!


KEEP TRACK OF WHAT YOU HAVE REVIEWED 

For me, keeping track of which films I have reviewed is absolutely integral. Not just to show how many films I have reviewed and how I felt about them, but to create a timeline to find out what films I need to review next. 

Sometimes I may review a film and it will have a sequel which, for whatever reason, I have not reviewed yet. As a self-proclaimed Completionist, it would be a priority for me to review an entire franchise over random, sporadic picks. 

When it comes to tracking tools, I like Letterboxd. It is practical, easy to use, and solely dedicated to film. You can share your reviews, comment on other reviews, and log every movie you have seen with a star rating, all in one place. Not to mention the friends and followers you can make through the site - it is a very welcoming place. 

HAVE AN OPINION 

That seems like pretty vague advice, doesn’t it? Really what I am saying is: do not be afraid to go head to head with the critical consensus. 

Having your own platform is fantastic. It allows for a new opinion to break the mould of what is expected. If you feel a film is truly awful or fantastic, it is your right to tell us why. Reviews like this are needed to challenge the hegemonic reading of a film. 

Contemporary reviews are integral; both on modern films and classics too. And having your own unique opinion is what makes your writing interesting. Do not be afraid or persuaded to conform to an opinion that has already been set out by a majority. 

If you genuinely feel that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is a great film like I do, do not be afraid to tell your audience that. Audiences appreciate honesty over conformity. 

ALWAYS WATCH THE SEQUEL 

 I hate the Rush Hour films, but I have seen all three of them. That is because I think it is integral that you watch the sequel. 

Whether the sequel changes your perception of the original film or not, is entirely dependent on the film, although sometimes the follow up is better than the foundation. Either way, watching the sequel can help you see the bigger picture, and the overall goal intended by the director or writer may not be entirely clear until you have seen the whole series. 

Looking for some film recommendations? Check out the link at the bottom of this article! 

REVIEW THE CLASSICS 

Sometimes it is not financially or physically possible to write reviews for the newest films. Although there are ways around this, most of them are illegal to various degrees, and so it is best to stick to reviewing the classics. 

There will always be an audience for reviews of older films. There is no harm in going back and reviewing classics starring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Marilyn Monroe, and there is always somebody out there wanting to an updated review of Casablanca (1942), Citizen Kane (1941) or even Jaws (1975). The possibilities for what to review are endless. 

What I will say though, if you are reviewing to reach an audience and to establish yourself as a trusted, critical voice, be sure to broaden your watching habits, but try not to go too niche for considerable periods of time. Much like sticking to one genre*, this may not be something that is marketable to a larger audience. 

UTILISE SOCIAL MEDIA 

The most help you will ever receive is from the wonder that is social media. 

For example, setting up a group on Facebook and inviting your friends to join is a great way of advertising your writing. Asking your friends to invite their friends, and so on and so on, is something that genuinely works rather well. 

Twitter is also great. Retweeting has been the saving grace of some of my articles, especially if your article is retweeted by cast and crew. So, don’t forget to tag them! 


To see what films Ewan recommends every film critic watches, check out this post! This piece was written by Ewan Gleadlow - you can find out more about Ewan via their Twitter and Wordpress site, Cult Following

Tips for Film Critics: Part One by Ewan Gleadlow

Before I begin, nothing here is set in stone, and, to be honest, that is the best piece of advice you will ever receive. Nothing is ever set in stone. But, if you are not sure where to start, here are a few tips I have picked up over the past year as a film critic…

JOIN A GROUP AND MAKE NEW FRIENDS

Community is always important in both journalism and critique, and making contacts, connections, and friends is essential. Not only to get your work noticed, but also to make critiquing more enjoyable. It is also a nice safety net to have if you need advice, help or a bit of support.

Groups like A Film Club are excellent examples of the camaraderie within the film critic circle. Weekly chats, promotion of your work, and a genuinely friendly following, all provide you with a good place to get yourself started.

Other groups are available, none that I am personally a part of, but there are various forums and groups scattered across social media that would provide you with similar support too.

WATCH AS MANY FILMS AS POSSIBLE

At the time of writing this, I have watched over 1,000 films. My personal goal is to watch 10,000. Whether that be short productions lasting seconds, or ensemble casts in four-hour long marathons, I try and watch as much as humanly possible. 

The main reason for this is: the more you watch, the more you understand. My personal understanding of film has greatly improved solely through watching as many films as I could get my hands on. And this is evident in the difference between my early work and my more recent writing.

But to watch so many films is a Herculean task. One way to watch as much as possible is to aim to watch a film every day. You could watch something new, or a film you have not seen in a while, and it does not have to be a feature length blockbuster either. 

I usually use short films as a break during film marathon days; where I collect five or six films, and set about watching them all in one sitting. Short films, that last only a minute or so, provide a lovely break in between features. Alternatively, shorts can also help clear your mind after a long day of working or studying… And there is nothing to say you cannot review short films either!

Looking for some film recommendations? Check out the link at the bottom of this article!

REVIEW A VARIETY OF GENRES

Chaining together films from the same genre for long stretches of time can get repetitive. I once tried to review as many Keanu Reeves films as I could in one block, but after four I realised it was not fun for me or my audience. Whilst writing a really great film review requires you to hone your interests, do not be afraid to review films from completely different genres. 

The one thing I wish I had known when I first started out is: do not become complacent. People will not read the same review, and you will tire of writing about the same genre, over and over again. Therefore a change of scenery (and genre) is always great to have. 

If your next few reviews are about films of the same genre, shake it up a little bit. Throw a film in that breaks the mould. Of course if you love Action films review as many as you desire, but always keep your audience expecting something new and unique.

HANDWRITTEN NOTES OVER DIGITAL

This one is more of a personal preference, but writing out your notes by hand can sometimes be far more beneficial than typing them. 

The most integral reason for this is that hand writing notes eliminates the distractions enabled by a laptop or tablet. Writing notes down on your iPhone is all well and good until you ignore the film and start browsing Amazon for more films or, in my case, Pulp CDs.

When you go to make notes on a film, imagine you are going to see that film at the cinema. Turn off your phone and the lights, grab some snacks, and have a few pens handy for your notes. I tend to make four pages of A5 notes due to a poor memory, but make as many or as little as you need!

Aside from reducing distractions, writing out your notes by hand just seems to look really nice. There is something satisfying about having a pile of journals and notebooks full to the brim with notes on films you watched months ago. It is almost like a timeline of your work; something physical that you can display alongside your presumed DVD and Blu-Ray collections.

START COLLECTING

I think one of the reasons I became a film reviewer is because I started to buy films quite frequently. I would come back with multiple carrier bags of DVDs from charity shops, who often sell them for a couple of pounds at the most. Possibly one of my favourite bits of writing is my review of Alien (1979); a film I found in a charity shop.

Buying DVDs so cheaply allows you to build up a library of films that you can review at your disposal. But, on the other hand, you may not want your collection to be full of shelf filler… A problem I have after a year of bulk buying DVDs. What I am going to do with three copies of Man on Fire (2004) I will truly never know.

Of course, you do not have to spend a fortune in charity shops and retail stores at all. Those with access to Netflix and Amazon Prime will be able to give up to date reviews of contemporary products, and reviewing Netflix’s newest original films could get you noticed by a bigger audience. 


This piece was written by Ewan Gleadlow - you can find out more about Ewan via their Twitter and Wordpress site, Cult Following

To see what films Ewan recommends every film critic watches, check out this post, and for more tips, stay tuned for part two!

Representation in Audiences - An interview with She's En Scene's Amanda Craig by Scott Wilson

She's En Scene

She’s En Scene is a Glasgow-based community cinema, screening films made by women for women. Men regularly ask its founder, Amanda Craig, why they cannot attend. They want to watch films made by women too. They already are, she suggests, pointing to the plaudits bestowed upon the likes of Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold.

In her experience, women are not talking about female directors or the technical stuff. That is where She’s En Scene comes in. “I did a screening of Prevenge by Alice Lowe,” she says. “A lot of women said, ‘I would never have watched this,’ but now they have and they’re like ‘she did that in eleven days while pregnant?’ I went to a Q&A screening and Lowe brought her child in, and when you see that you think ‘why aren’t women doing this? Let’s do it then!’”

Amanda embodies this ‘do it’ attitude. She remembers She’s En Scene taking off, with lofty goals in mind, wanting to achieve everything in six months. “But it takes pure loads of time,” she says, not without enthusiasm. While she might have hoped for everything to move faster, she never doubted the workload.

 All images and logos courtesy of Amanda Craig

All images and logos courtesy of Amanda Craig

We meet to discuss her project, but what happens instead is a free-flowing stream of consciousness about the state of the industry. She’s En Scene was founded pre-#MeToo, the hashtag rally cry for those who have experienced sexual abuse while working in film. Weinstein may have bust open the conversational dam, but women have long known the industry’s multifaceted problems.

We talk about terminology. Camera operator vs camera man. In academia, Amanda says, it is always the former, the gender-neutral option. “If I hear camera man, I’m going to think that’s not for me.” Representation is at the heart of She’s En Scene. If you can see it, you can be it.

This year’s Oscars ceremony was the 90th instalment, and the first to ever feature a female nominee in the category of Best Cinematography. For 89 years, women have not seen it. In March, Roger Deakins took home the Oscar for his work on Blade Runner 2049 (2017), but it is Rachel Morrison’s nomination for her work on Mudbound (2017) that felt most like a success story.

We swing back to She’s En Scene. One of the films Amanda has screened is Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009). It is a morally complex film about a teenage girl on a council estate. Angry and aimless, she strikes up a flirtatious relationship with her mum’s boyfriend. She is too young for him, he knows that, but the film does not have a moral sense of righteousness.

“Do you think,” Amanda says, “if you were in a mixed cinema, with men and women, that it would be a safe space for the topic of Fish Tank?” No, I don’t.

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She’s En Scene meets in Govan, a predominantly working class area without the cultural capital of nearby Partick and Finnieston. Amanda strongly believes in the need for a cinema in the area, but acknowledges that, so far, the screenings mostly draw women from elsewhere in the city. Even so, it is bringing people into an area with an unfair reputation.

Just like women deserve to see films created by them, so too do people in Govan deserve access to art as much as those in the city’s bourgeois west end.

“It’s all about trying to tackle isolation” she says at one point, neatly summing She’s En Scene up. She wants it to be for the community, and to not cost too much. She wants it to be a safe space where women not only have a chance to talk about cinema, but to organise and plan their own projects too. She wants the community to shape She’s En Scene, and has no ego when it comes to new ideas. A friend suggested a potential name change in the future, to which she replied “you’re f**king right!”

It is an enthusiastic and exciting conversation. She’s En Scene will undoubtedly grow and grow with Amanda at its helm, and she is keen for it to shift and develop how it has to so that women take something from it. Whether it is a safe space to discuss cinema or it is a conversation that leads to future collaborations and creations, it is a community for those who have long been without one. If you can see it, you can be it, and thanks to She’s En Scene, more and more women are seeing it.


If you would like to keep up with She's En Scene and get involved with their events, visit their JustGiving and Twitter pages!

This piece was written by Scott Wilson - you can find out more about Scott via their Twitter and Common Space Author's page.