On Hollywood decay
A platinum blonde wig, marred with blood, sits atop a baby-pink 1966 Buick Electra. The dog is missing.
Our Father who art in Heaven, I look beyond Babylon to the forty-five-foot Hollywood sign and witness with repulsion a babe laid beneath, mottled puce and plum. Night after night, suffused with a sinister intrigue I stare out at dead stars. As an artist living, breathing in the here and now, I must pull apart this adoration without hesitation for no, no, no those dames do not dance within a vacuum! Dirt buried beneath crimson acrylic, trembling-tears-rolling I peel back thine emerald curtain.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly make claim to Hades.
As a babe in arms I recall with fervent love, true and golden, The Wizard of Oz (1939) as the first moving picture I ever laid mine eyes upon. Heart yearning, yearning, I faltered in disbelief! A wishful Technicolor wonder realising the imagination of American author L. Frank Baum, the film depicts Judy Garland - bright-eyed and baby-blue - as Dorothy Gale, a Kansas country girl clutching with earnest her terrier Toto, as she slips through a dream into the beautifully unseen: Oz. Idyllic, pernicious.
Laden with yellow-brick roads leading to plentiful posies, the ever-evil Wicked Witch damning distantly, Oz, in many ways, articulates in synchronicity the rotten dichotomy of Hollywood’s studio system: red sequinned perfection at its surface, masking the systemic abuse beneath. Abuse of power comes as no surprise as Arbuckle turns to Weinstein, a century later. I mourn Virginia.
Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (2001) dir. David Lynch.
This dichotomy of the bad and beautiful is no better present than within the work of American film-maker David Lynch, an artist compelled by blood-speckled picket fences and Midwest small-town lovers screaming in the dark. Boasting an extensive filmography of works, including Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, Lynch masterfully interpolates tropes of film noir against a backdrop of hostile Surrealist imagery, to communicate at once glossed visions of America with potent putrefaction.
Thine jolt to mine heart, babe, was compounded by a recent viewing of the documentary Lynch/Oz (2022) at the Electric, the oldest working cinema in England. As I bounded beyond Art Deco archways, adorned in intricacy, I sank into red velvet and felt a fuse set alight. Produced by director Alexandre O. Phillippe, Lynch/Oz threads ephemera with whimsy - archival footage, photographs and interviews - to illustrate the compelling spell which Oz has suspended over Lynch’s work for the last five decades.
“There is not a day that goes by that I do not think about The Wizard of Oz.”
As directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead posit within the film, “…the beautiful white-picket fence… only exist[s] because of this horrible darkness that [Lynch] is now able to see, and it’s built on the shoulders of it… there’s ‘America’ and then there’s a doppelgänger of America… the American Dream was, perhaps, an American myth, and the American Dream walks hand-in-hand with that myth.” I look again to Schopenhauer, for beauty cannot be without suffering.
Despite mine fawning for Twin Peaks year upon year - the angels wouldn’t help you - I must confess I had avoided Mulholland Drive (2001) with fearful urgency. Its curdled, frenetic energy felt confrontational in a horrific way. True, abject horror - dread led by percussive strings. No knife to mine throat, corn syrup dripping down a powdered palm, but a hollow gunshot in thick, stewed darkness.
Within a beautifully laboured performance, Naomi Watts is blonde-haired, blue-eyed Betty, an aspiring actress beaming naively as she descends the escalator, greeted by a banner splashed in sunlit palm trees: Welcome to LOS ANGELES. Pearly-white and perky, Betty remains giddy as a girl in button-down fuchsia, diamanté accents twinkling in the warm California sun. Watts’ opening lines feel distinctly unsettling. Through a stilted smile, a hairline fracture is present - an unwavering air of suspicion, as though held at gunpoint: “Oh, I can’t believe it…” Betty pines. Her dialogue, seemingly, is dubbed.
A life, a dream, a death unfolds and shatters into glass as Lynch splinters vignettes with visual cues of the Studio era. There are, perhaps, two parallel worlds moving in tandem. A life where plush-pink Betty ascends to stardom - silken hand wrapped around thine golden award - and another where she does not: pulsating palm beneath cotton underwear, weeping in anger. The latter is foul, sour, malevolent, and the former, hypnotic.
Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor in The Misfits (1961) dir. John Huston.
I only recall now as I write, dear reader, what in fact draws mine mind and body to classical glamour, to a black-and-white babeling laid out over a chaise longue, willing and silken and ready: fantasy. O, to be plucked from obscurity, to immerse oneself in a world of escapism, intrigue - to a stage awash in limelight, where love is realised in spectral chorus.
The Misfits (1961) strikes a match and sets thine stage on fire.
A whisper of smoke slowly pools within a darkened Nevada cabin as wrought, brittle weeds fray in desert winds. Penned by American playwright Arthur Miller, perhaps most regarded for his critique of the American dream within the 1949 stage play Death of a Salesman, the Western psychosomatic drama serves as a melancholic withdraw from the bygone Studio era of illustrious Hollywood film-making, with the greatest stars of their generation, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe respectively, delivering their final complete performances.
Gable stars as Gay, a worldly cowboy alone out West. Glassy-eyed and weathered by decades of horse wrangling, Gable happens upon Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn, a divorcée in search of escape, relief, love - accompanied by her landlady in a down-and-out dive bar, drinking her lament. Roslyn, purportedly, was written by Miller with Monroe in mind. Roslyn’s troubled nature effectively mirrored Monroe’s - her reliance on substances compounded the deterioration of her marriage to Miller at the time, which effectively ended during production.
Gentle, sensitive and nurturing, Roslyn holds an affinity for the natural landscape of Nevada, as a means to escape the fraught chaos of her previous life. She yearns for affection and a true sense of belonging. The Misfits, it seems, marks the ending of three decades of staged opulence and glamour. As antiquated practices of film-making began to dissipate, as did the era’s brightest stars. Here, following her glimmer of rage as Nell Forbes in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Monroe in The Misfits is unbridled in her talent and capability. She unfurls fire and abandon with genuine sorrow.
Her anger brought me to tears.
Although Monroe shalt wade without warning into that wispy sugared tone, her mouth carefully wrapping around each breathy syllable, The Misfits does, in fact, feature Monroe’s strongest acting performance, as the persona we have come to know, adore and devour slowly slips to her kitten-heeled feet. Monroe is palpably tearful, lonely, pained - channeling her lived experience. Gable maintains that famed orchestral glimmer beneath the scorching-hot sun: diamond-white lustre within thine smile, beneath curled lashes violin strings swell with sorrow. Gay and Roslyn as two lost souls bloom and blossom from friends to lovers, before trouble strikes out West.
Brows furrowed and heavy-heart-pounding, Roslyn runs out into expansive sands and calls out: Murderers! You liars, all of you liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die!
She screams in the desert and I love her. I love her because she is true.