Everything contained within David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) seems ornamental and meticulously arranged, its creativity stylised with mystery at its core. Electricity whirs around every static object and every canned phrase, and its terrified audience is reminded that this is just a film, just a film, ‘just a tape’. As its narrative follows hopeful actress and amnesiac through fractured realities of Hollywood, Mulholland Drive becomes an apparition that progressively retracts further in on itself and away from its own construction of reality. And by the film’s end (also understood as its beginning), we arrive at its internal, twisted centre.
Though it presents a familiar devotion to insatiability and a fervency for neo-noir that characterises Lynch’s repertoire, Mulholland Drive is considered by some the apex of his career. Lynch rather consistently produces films which are distinctly hypnotic in their half-conscious, disorientating terrain, yet these qualities are especially refined in Mulholland Drive. Essentially, Mulholland Drive emphatically presents an exhibition of sacrifice that surpasses its precursors, a highly dramatised sacrifice of cinematic convention and narrative formula, made visible by its replacement with illogic, aesthetics and impulsion. Enervated and disturbed by this disorder, its audience uncovers something compellingly insidious that permeates and shapes the tangled, fatalistic lives of Betty/Diane (Naomi Watts) and Rita/Camilla (Laura Harring), though they aren’t ever certain to what exactly that something is.
It is both empty and overflowing, insufficient and intoxicating. Mulholland Drive illuminates an instability of perception, narratively and meta-cinematically, as its audience is pulled through a temporal and spatial kaleidoscope with unnerving rapidity. They are constantly tempted and perplexed; tempted by whatever is in that blue box, perplexed by the converging beginning and end, though both threads of speculation yield more unanswered questions.
it is a film,
it is grotesque,
it is abstract art
Theorising Mulholland Drive requires a process of abstraction. It is exhaustively unending, as affirmed by its cult following, to try and piece this film together in a way that mirrors our own conceptions of linearity and experience, and this is its ingenuity. Mulholland Drive doesn’t capture realism, rather it captures a perversion of realism and its uncharted spaces, along with its literal and continual assertion that it is a film, it is grotesque, it is abstract art.
Mulholland Drive experiments with technical and critical ideas of filmmaking, as Lynch dangles a narrative before his audience yet resists quenching their appetite for familiarity. He poses questions rather than answers, offers intrigue rather than information. Though to call this film a master of intrigue would inhibit its complexity, clamp its creative parameters. Rather, Mulholland Drive captures all that is excellent in filmmaking by honing in on its antithetical, darker ego. It robs its audience of security and linearity, it redefines how we consume film and generates a crowd of infiltrators who peer inside a private, perplexing game between Lynch and cinematic meaning.
As pro-suburban policies were launched in conjunction with a national construction program of 1945, suburbs sprouted all over America and increased the attainability of the American Dream. Surviving from frontier to front-line, this ethos saw nuclear families in pastel neighbourhoods supplanting the horrors of war with their picket fences, Tupperware parties, and flowerbeds.
William Levitt, hailed as the ‘father of suburbia’, developed a scheme with his firm Levitt & Sons that allowed them to build mass-producible and inexpensive housing for the flood of returning veterans in America. In the three separate developments of New York (1947-51), Pennsylvania (1952-58) and New Jersey (1958), the firm offered small houses that could be built in just one day. Despite the modern approach to assembly, the homes themselves strayed little from the conventions of house design upheld by Americans at the time. The structures were revolutionary in their construction, but nostalgia was manifest in their appearance. Within the settings of the ‘Colonial’ or ‘Ranch’ type, the lives of nuclear families were aided and improved by efficient, hygienic and top-of-the-range appliances. Returning from the horrors of war, the veterans were awarded with domesticity.
However, due to the standardisation of the Levittown houses, the homogeneity of the streets became a popular criticism. As Levitt sorted his residents by income, each house-type was grouped by neighbourhood, rendering swathes of streets indistinguishable. The long history of racial segregation further upturns this narrative of a suburban utopia. The development in New York was founded on the basis that it was only available to white people alone. Indeed, this stipulation was written into the house contracts by Levitt stating, ‘no dwelling shall be used or occupied except by members of the caucasian race’. Sales agents were advised to turn away black families and automatically register their applications as unsuccessful. Even after the states enforced a non-discrimination law, sales agents located the black applicants away from their white neighbours. The homogeneity of the residents is thus facilitated by this aim to constitute a community with a specific racial identity.
The little boxes of American suburbia are some of film’s most frequented locations, its homogeneity frequently rendering the protagonist or narrative as extraordinary in comparison. In films that centre around a singular character, think Carrie, Donnie Darko and The Truman Show, the protagonists display their deviation within a stifling suburban setting.
In Carrie (1976) (dir: Brian de Palma), the title character faces unanticipated menstruation, peer-bullying, and abuse from her Christian fundamentalist mother. Carrie Whites’s telekinetic powers are the ultimate deviation from the claustrophobic household and school her mother and peers respectively enforce. Following Carrie’s murderous revenge and the burning down of her house, the final scene begins with an opening shot of suburbia. Birds sing and the sun casts shadows on a manicured lawn. The scorched plot where the White house once stood is set up as its inverse. This contrast serves as a reminder of suburbia’s nightmarish potentiality, one that is shown in the final scene, to still haunt the sole survivor of Carrie’s rage.
In Donnie Darko (2001) (dir: Richard Kelly), suburbia is first introduced as a landscape of mundane yet tranquil normality. In the opening scene, Darko cycles through the streets, the camera panning to the morning joggers. Darko’s father is shown blowing leaves off his lawn, and his sister plays on a trampoline. Immediately Darko is set up as the anomaly – an adolescent who frequents a psychotherapist, disturbs classes, and treats his family with hostility. Again the underside of suburbia is unleashed. The tranquility first introduced is done away with by the end of the film and instead suburbia is set as the home of supernatural powers, multiple universes and sexual deviants.
In The Truman Show (1998) (dir: Peter Weir), suburbia is a simulation. As a product of a corporation, the life of Truman Burbank is broadcasted live around the world as reality entertainment. Here suburbia is not intended to be residential. Instead, cameras are hidden within each wall and suburbia is presented as the ultimate facilitator of voyeurism. When Burbank realises the reality of his situation, this realisation marks his deviation from the suburbia. He becomes transgressive, determined and defiant, assets the suburban simulation attempted to suppress.
The placidity regularly assigned to suburbia is exploited in the genre of horror. Films like Halloween (1978) (dir: John Carpenter) set the horrific actions of Michael Myers within the sleepy streets of Haddonfield. Get Out (2017) (dir: Jordan Peele) subverts this in the setting of the Armitage country-estate. However, despite its isolation, the systematic racism and manicured appearance of the estate seem Levittownian in their presentation.
AmericanBeauty (1999) (dir: Sam Mendes) has been described by critics as a satire of middle-class notions of beauty, sexuality, materialism and personal satisfaction. In the opening monologue, Lester Burnham introduces his suburban place of residence with contempt:
‘This is my neighbourhood. This is my street. This is my life. I’m 42 years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead … And in a way I’m dead already’.
Films like Edward Scissorhands (1990) (dir: Tim Burton) and The Virgin Suicides (1999) (dir: Sofia Coppola) use suburbia to emphasise the abnormality of their central storyline. In the former, Edward’s behaviour, appearance and physicality are stark contrasts to the pastel utopia of the suburb. As the film progresses, his disruption to the homogeneity of the community ultimately results in his eviction by mob force. In the 1999 film, it is the suicide of the youngest daughter that disrupts – the setting of suburbia heightening the atypicality of her action.
For Levitt, suburbia offered security. In film, that veneer is firmly pulled back.
In compiling this A-Z of female directors and their films, my measure of their credibility being only their average score from Metacritic’s algorithm, problems became manifest: taking the average reception of women’s films and summarising it as their critical consensus, as one example. Although this list is intentionally celebratory of women and their art, it is quite precarious in its function as it inevitably highlights women’s cultural deviation and separation from male directors and their work. But nevertheless, here it is.
It’s telling that most of the films listed are from the twenty-first-century, some are co-directed with men, and all are combatants in a system that explicitly, albeit ambiguously, omits women from directing. Only during the recent epoch of modern film can we see the rise of critical acclaim for women in the director’s seat. Naively, we might choose to believe this lends itself to the simple deduction that more women must be directing, that in the twenty-first-century opportunities are far more open and multiple, or even more naively, we might believe these opportunities have always been present and women before simply ‘chose not to’ take them. Here, it is worth noting that when I speak of these women, they are of course majoritively white, for there are far more complex and systemic exclusions at present for female filmmakers of colour.
More cynically (and more truthfully) the same number of women are directing as prior to the twenty-first-century but perhaps now they are (rarely and selectively) given a bigger budget, thus a higher chance at commercial success, meaning they are often paid more attention critically and commercially from the industry. Yet even this is a rose-tinted vision of reality, for women are still routinely overlooked in creative direction, especially in the oligarchical, masculine system of filmmaking. We are still the audience to Man and his camera, Man and technology as two conflicting yet collaborative monuments of modernity, leaving no room for women and their visions except in front of the camera.
This list fails to be comprehensive, the alphabetical structure is a simplistic way to organise women’s films although it does, of course, naturally exclude fantastic directors of the same lettered surname as those listed. I think this list functions as a microcosm of the industry as it is represented at large, its algorithmic, commerical, fast-paced and bite-sized way in which the internet presents us with women’s film and its criticisms. Women’s films, and by this I mean their directors, are routinely subcategorised, subaltern and subdued. I am by no means trying to even begin surfacing the problems with modern cinema today regarding gender and binary identities that cinema seems to instrumentally reinforce (often with sincerity, as celebratory for example), but here it is, a not-so-comprehensive list of magnificent female directors and their highest rated films.
A. Gillian Armstrong ‘Little Women’ (1994)
B. Kathryn Bigelow ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009)
Score: 94 (note: the highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic with 94)
C. Sofia Coppola ‘Lost in Translation’ (2003)
Score: 89 (note: the 8th highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic)
D. Claire Denis ’35 Shots of Rum’ (2009)
Score: 92 (note: the second highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic)
E. Nora Ephron ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ (1993)
Score: 71 (note: the fifth highest grossing film by a female director on Metacritic)
F. Valerie Faris ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ (2006)
Score: 80 (note: co-directed with a man)
G. Greta Gerwig ‘Lady Bird’ (2017)
Score 94: (special note: second highest rated film, directed by a man or woman, of 2017, according to Metacritic)
H. Courtney Hunt ‘Frozen River’ (2008)
J. Tamara Jenkins ‘The Savages’ (2007)
K. Karyn Kusama ‘The Invitation’ (2016)
L. Kátia Lund ‘City of God’ (2002)
Score: 79 (note: co-directed with a man)
M. Lucrecia Martel ‘The Headless Woman’ (2009)
N. Mira Nair ‘The Namesake’ (2007)
P. Nina Paley ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ (2010)
Score: 94 (joint highest rated film by a female director on Metacritic.)
R. Kelly Reichardt ‘Old Joy’ (2006)
S. Shari Springer Berman ‘American Splendor’ (2003)
[spoilers and content warning: rape, themes of complications in pregnancy]
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) fools us into believing that we are now, fifty years after its production, at a safe distance from its terror. We see a typical young, married couple move into a New York apartment building, into an apartment met with rumours of disturbed previous tenants, and the precedent is set that the couple, and audience, should be wary. However, as soon as we are situated within the initial viewing of the apartment, as soon as we see the chest of drawers and the mysterious closet it unnaturally blocks, and the moment we witness what becomes an increasingly abusive marriage, we realise that there is no safe space for Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow). Instead of the pleasant, character developing realism that usually premeditates climactic horror, we see Rosemary, whose perspective we are significantly and exclusively bound to, slowly subjected to episodes of abuse that precede scenes of the supernatural, and in effect, lays the groundwork for the trauma that materialises.
the sexed body
Rosemary’s Baby evokes a kind of terror that moves inward and deeper into the mind of the audience than conventional tropes of horror. Rendering us bizarrely entranced by its surrealism, this terror is tracked against Rosemary’s body in its deterioration. Rosemary’s body is, quite literally, the skeleton of all trauma. Rosemary’s husband, Guy (John Cassavetes), whom she initially believes to have raped her and in doing so impregnating her, the ‘wire’ that she feels twisting inside her as her unborn child torments her, and the doctors who cooperate with the cult to subsist Rosemary’s isolation and medicate her with ‘tannis root’, are traumas inflicted upon the female body as a reproductive, commodified host.
Through the body, we see its relational status. We relate Rosemary’s body to her mind, how it paradoxically spirals into madness from an outward perspective the closer she gets to the truth of her pregnancy, Guy’s relationship to her body, and her body’s relation to her use of language: how she communicates or fails to communicate the messages her body is telling her: in pain, there is something wrong. It is far more distressing to watch Rosemary’s abdominal cramps and the paranoia that her unborn child could be stillborn when we remember that her doctor advises against reading about or speaking of pregnancy with her friends (“no two pregnancies are the same“, he tells her). This contrived web of isolation knits Rosemary further and further into herself, turning to her body as the only tangible material that can evidence her descent. In the vulnerability and exploitation of the female body, we step outside of surrealism and psychological horror and into the more terrifying realm of what is conceivable and real. Our discomfort isn’t merely reactive to the (albeit disturbing) imagistic sequence of the Satanic cult at work, it is the shocking and violent impregnantion and the pregnancy that follows: Rosemary’s physical trauma and her decline parallel to her isolation.
Food plays an important motif throughout the course of the film. It motivates the plot: Rosemary is delivered a dessert by Minnie in an (unsuccessful) ploy to poison her into a comatose state in which she can later be molested, as well as the ‘natural’ remedies for pregnancy such as the cakes and herb concoctions. Food, in its absence, also maps Rosemary’s deterioration. Polanski points us dialogically towards Rosemary’s physical transgression as she is described as thin and unwell by those around her, quite literally embodying her internal and psychological disturbance. As food becomes malignant, nourishment does too. In the aftermath of her molestation, Rosemary weakens physically as she carries her child, and her consumption of the medicinal drinks become a pattern for her lack of control: her body as possessed by other forces at work.
a nightmare of the body
It all boils down to a lack of agency. In its constituent parts, Rosemary’s Baby is a nightmare of the body in a hyperbolic translation to perfectly befit the horror genre, and even with its neat containment, it speaks emphatically to ideas of autonomy regarding gender and sexual violence. In its criticism, the justifiably controversial director Roman Polanski seems to operate through a lens frequent in mid-twentieth century film: the male gaze of a vulnerable woman under the guise and exemption of intimacy and high aestheticism. Thankfully, this doesn’t render Mia Farrow’s performance as a prop by which to experiment with aesthetics and thrills, instead, she becomes our heroine. Throughout her performance, Farrow quietly escapes the threshold of her character by deconstructing it. We are left mesmerised, by what could be, and often is, misunderstood as a vacancy and naivety in Rosemary’s character, with what is actually a powerful force in the face of extreme, physical adversity. When Rosemary is finally ensnared by the dreaded birthing scene, the scene we have long anticipated throughout the film, we reach the body’s second most violent act (following the impregnation). Upon regaining consciousness after the trauma and sedation, Rosemary enters the closet that we saw at the beginning of the film and steps into the lair of the cult, the Castevets’ apartment through the connecting architecture of the apartment block. By this physical act of infiltrating the cult’s congregation, sneaking through the connecting door into the next apartment, we see Rosemary’s emancipation, out of an apartment that we now allegorise with her pregnancy: in both, she was imprisoned.
Rosemary Woodhouse is exemplary for dictating the film’s atmosphere and subject. With her body as its fabric, she is the terror. What is terrifying isn’t the mythic nightmare of being targeted by a cult, it is the exploitation of the body and its deep, unnerving manifestations on the mind and reality. In this conspired exploitation, the body homes a distrust in everyone, and more pertinently, a fear of what exists within.