Saturday, 24 November 2012

Francis "York" Morgan and other things I don't understand

My latest Character Select is an examination of Deadly Premonition's Francis "York" Morgan through the prism of David Lynch. It's pretty spoiler-heavy, so if you haven't played the game and want to, I'd suggest not reading it until you do. For everyone else, here's what went through my mind as I wrote it.

My favourite part of writing the article was the research; I watched Mulholland Drive three times, every time looking at it from a different perspective, finding another potential meaning in its strange events. Before the Deadly Premonition article, I hadn't seen the film since I was a teenager, when I hated it. That was a time when I thought everything had to have an answer, that only lazy or incoherent writers failed to tie up all the loose ends in their narratives.

I still think that there are plenty of films (and novels, and television shows) that try to conceal their disorganisation with a "symbolic" ending, but Mulholland Drive is not one of them. Its impenetrability is part of its narrative, in which dreams and the subconscious are both intertwined with and inseparable from reality. Far from being an excuse for whimsical strangeness, the surrealist approach allows for a more authentic exploration of the way the mind creates its own realities than a more literal narrative would.

This blog post is written under the assumption that you've read the Character Select article, in which I explain that one interpretation of the film is that the first two hours are the dream of Diane, a character played by Naomi Watts, broken by an insurmountable combination of guilt and depression. What I didn't take much time to explain in the article was that there are links between the "dream" (in which Diane recreates herself as the innocent, optimistic Betty) and the "reality" that don't quite make sense.

The main one is the fact that we see Diane waking from what appears to be the dream before (or apparently before) many of the real life events that seem like they inspire that dream. For example (spoiler alert!), the film ends with Diane shooting herself on her bed, yet in the dream, Betty finds Diane's body decaying in the exact same position. Even if you surmise that the dream is a hallucination that takes place in Diane's head at the moment of her death, that doesn't explain the fact that a series of conspiratorial telephone calls in the dream seem to end with a call to the phone that sits by Diane's dead body in real life.

Maybe, then, the film shows two sets of characters acting in parallel universes. Or perhaps the story is a Möbius strip in which a story with two sides continues on an endless loop in which they never meet, but continuously lead from and create the other.

Because of these endless possibilities, the film will never get old for me. I realised recently that many of my favourite things have this quality. Much as I love the intense satisfaction that comes from the denouement of a perfectly-crafted detective story, or a tale that's illuminated with a well-plotted twist, such things are ultimately finite in their appeal for me. Those stories are thrilling when you first see/read/play them and awe-inspiring when you go through them a second time and marvel at the narrative craftsmanship. After that however, all you can ever do is learn them off by heart.

Conversely, stories like Mulholland Drive have infinite possibilities. My favourite Bret Easton Ellis novels, American Psycho, Glamorama and Lunar Park, also posess this quality. In American Psycho, you never find out how much of the novel takes place in real life, and how much takes place in Patrick Bateman's head. Is there actually a difference between the two? Isn't such violence just as horrific in the mind as in reality? Patrick Bateman is a painstakingly constructed tissue of designer clothes, popular music and 1980s yuppie cultural touchstones, and he says himself at one point that without them, he simply doesn't exist. So what is the nature of violence by a creature who by his own admission "simply [is] not there"?

These questions are rhetorical, by the way, I think if you actually try and answer them, you're missing the point.

Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama is the story of a male model who finds himself embroiled in an international conspiracy carried out by other models, the nature of which never becomes quite apparent. Lunar Park is the story of an author called "Bret Easton Ellis" whose family is torn apart by supernatural phenomena. The Bret Easton Ellis who wrote the book isn't married, of course.

Speaking of Bret Easton Ellis, he once gave a talk that I attended where I asked him whether he watched The Hills. Fool! What a missed opportunity! A bit of reading before the event would have told me that of course he watches The Hills, and that by asking the question (which he answered by spending about 10 minutes talking about how much he loved it after shrugging off the five previous questions about "satire", "Barthes" and "the simulacra") I'd wasted the chance to ask him what he thought of Heidi Montag's plastic surgeries.

You think I'm kidding? No way. I'm fascinated by The Hills, perhaps the original "scripted reality" television show. Scripted reality is a monstrous genre in which real people have their lives filmed, but instead of documentary, which attempts to portray its subjects as they really are, scripted reality stages real life events, so that arguments between best friends are set up, for example. There's no doubt that in most cases the emotions we see on the faces of the subject (characters?) are real, but where do those emotions come from?

The Hills features a group of friends in Los Angeles, initally Lauren Conrad, Heidi Montag, Audrina Partridge and Whitney Port, who are unremarkable in many ways despite their beauty and wealth. The four go to work and date awful men, and the camera is always there when one of them breaks up, loses a job or has an argument. In the early series of the show, the cast are endearingly guileless, and it's impossible to separate the construct from the reality.

Later series rather lost their charm: hardworking "protagonist" Lauren Conrad and her sensible colleague Whitney left and were replaced by the rather more mercenary Kristen Cavallari whose well-documented ambitions as an actress tipped the show's balance firmly into the realms of fiction. At the same time, poor Heidi lost touch with reality to the extent where she spent all her wages not only on a failed pop career but on a deeply shocking amount of plastic surgery which turned her into a terrifying manifestation of Hollywood's worst excess. Her first meeting with her mother after the event was of course filmed for the show, but suddenly the manifestation of the L.A. dream seemed all too real. She and her husband are now reported to have run out of money and are living with his parents.

It's perhaps no co-incidence that Mulholland Drive and The Hills both use LA as a central, titular motif.

I find later series of The Hills (and indeed all the ghastly shows that came after it such as Keeping up with the Kardashians, Jersey Shore and Made in Chelsea) too cynical and unpleasant to enjoy. It's very clear which members of the cast (Kristen) are aware of the boundaries between fiction and reality and can use it to their advantage, and which (Heidi) mistake the two at their peril. In contrast, the early shows are iridescent in their strange blend of fantasy and reality, and though they don't have the symbolic power of Mulholland Drive, they're equally fascinating.

I'll leave you with my old friend Tori Amos singing "Cloud on my Tongue". It's a beautiful song which, like all her best songs, might be rich with truth, honesty and meaning but would be utterly dimished by literal lyrics. When I hear it I can't help but remember English classes at school, unpicking the threads of poetry and tying them neatly to a grid of meaning. As long as you kept your argument coherant, you got a good mark. Learning to analyse and develop an argument is a vital life skill, of course, but that's really no way to enjoy art because it leaves us unable to appreciate the things we can never fully understand.

And since there's very little in life that we can ever fully understand, that's a dangerous place to be.


  1. I'm surprised you didn't mention Twin Peaks (by David Lynch) as part of your research! I'm watching the show now precisely because I love Deadly Premonition, and the show is what inspired the game. The connections between the two are unbelievable.

  2. I did in great depth, in the article that this post links to...