Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mulholland Drive and Elliot Rodger and the ambiguous manifesto of hate

There's a movie that I've seen twice now, and I still don't understand it, yet I think I know what's going on. Is that confusing enough for you? This intriguing piece of film is from director David Lynch and is called Mulholland Drive. Roger Ebert says of Mulholland Drive, "I think it's a delusion to imagine a complete film lurking somewhere in Lynch's mind--a ghostly Director's Cut that exists only in his original intentions." In my own words (and meant to echo Ebert's posthumous acumen) I call Mulholland Drive simply "baffling to the extreme." And just to establish my credentials, I'll begin with this statement: I'm no stranger to David Lynch.

I enjoyed Twin Peaks back in the 80's (yes, I'm that old). I've seen Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Dune (in many ways I prefer Lynch's Dune to the SyFy version even though SyFy's is more accurate to the book with respect to things such as "kris" knives and "the weirding way"). I'm also a fan of directors who famously put to celluloid things that are difficult to grasp. For example, I like the movie Eyes Wide Shut, which many people dismiss as Stanley Kubrik just wanting to parade a lot of nudity and orgies in front of an audience. To anyone that is willing to listen, I say that Eyes Wide Shut is a masterpiece and not pornography, misunderstood by men certainly more than women because men have difficulty in grasping the concept of a thing as tenuous as intimacy. Eyes Wide Shut is all about intimacy, and when viewed through that lens, all the events in the movie fall into their proper place.

Mulholland Drive, however, is none of these things. It's at once a dream and at other times a nightmare. Perhaps what I mean by this is that it is both surreal and pointless. Betty (Naomi Watts) is a perky blond and Rita is a voluptuous brunette and we're never completely sure if they aren't the same person. And that simple sentence barely scratches the surface of this film. Rita doesn't remember anything, even her name; Betty decides to help her. A viewer is treated to the most talked about lesbian love scenes in twenty years, yet how can we be sure that what we see isn't just a fantasy built around one person pleasuring herself? In Mulholland Drive, nothing leads anywhere, mysteries are started and not solved, and it's quite possible that the entire film is a capsule of the last thoughts that go through a dying woman's mind because at some point there's a corpse, and it more than likely belongs to our narrator. Mulholland Drive is not a Memento where you can hope to explain the mystery. Trust me. I've been trying to explain Mulholland Drive for almost a decade. I fail yet cannot deny that it exists, that there is no continuity, and that the violence it depicts oftentimes makes as much sense as what we as survivors must bear witness to.

Mental illness is a slippery slope whether it is shown to us in a movie like Mulholland Drive, or whether it is diagnosed by a psychiatrist equipped in this day and age to deal with it in familiar terms: cognitive dissonance, dementia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and on and on and on. The word "crazy" and its acceptance as just being is long gone. Those of us who aren't psychiatrists yet live with someone diagnosed with a mental illness should feel better about our situation because we now have a word for what's going on with mom. And with words, there's medication, right? Because people understand what's going on, right?

I think not so much. I think more so that people in using these terms are trying to create the illusion that we have a grasp on the ephemeral. As a caveat to having a loved one with a diagnosed mental illness, there is some comfort to being able to explain the bizarre in terms that one can google. Human beings are ill equipped to deal with things that are irrational, and I think our minds crave answers to the most basic question: why?

By now all of us know what mass murderer, Elliot Rodger, did in Santa Barbara over the weekend. The only thing that we know for certain is that this young man was filled to the brim with hate. But here's the trying to figure out Mulholland Drive, I think the kind of hate that Elliot Rodger expressed in his manifesto is something we should try to understand, but to which there may be no answer at all. His kind of hatred is like a force of nature. Can one understand the motive behind a tornado? For all that we know, there's no motive. There's no reason why. It just is. Understanding the roots of hate in someone that has already committed the most heinous of actions by examining a narrative left in the wake of his suicide, is putting trust where I think there is none. Sure he wrote this 140-page story of his entire life, but in the end, we comb it looking for answers and building theories that may seem structurally sound but rest upon a web of lies from someone consumed by hate.

If, however, professionals can assume that Elliot Rodger is a reliable narrator for his own story, then his justifications for being a monster go far beyond a detailed suicide note. "I am Elliot Rodger...Magnificent, glorious, supreme, eminent...Divine! I am the closest thing there is to a living god," the 22-year-old college student, son of a "Hunger Games" assistant director, boasted. "Humanity is disgusting, depraved and [an] evil species. It is my purpose to punish them all. On the day of Retribution, I will truly be a powerful god, punishing everyone I deem to be impure."

His demented manifesto dropped like a bomb. And his misogyny pivoted around one idea: that men should go out and get sex from women, that women are obstacles to prevent men from achieving some kind of self worth through the loss of virginity, or (with virginity removed from the equation) then lots of sex is not only an entitlement but a right of passage. We can call this "crazy" all we want, but to tell you the truth, I see this kind of thing every day.

I know young straight religious men who openly brag about the things their wives do to ingratiate themselves toward them in the perceived privacy of their homes. I say "perceived" here because they have no idea how their husbands talk about them behind their backs. And since I know mostly men who are younger than myself, most of this kind of talk revolves around talks of power in a relationship, what one "can" and "can't do" in relation to sex (meaning the wife has given permission for some things and not others), and how much (quantity) one is receiving. And there is a "comedic shaming" among men who fall short or may have a perception of being in the proverbial "doghouse" because they "don't wear the pants in their family." That phrase actually disgusts me as I feel it reduces one or another party to being property and not a person.

To someone like me, the antics of "common men" who draw down salaries superior to my own and have homes and children makes me feel like an alien with green skin and purple antennae sitting on a couch in a room full of talk I was never meant to understand. The absurdity is enough to convince me that even though the body ages, many men are just children and they never grow up, and never cease bullying, shaming, and bragging. But even outside of marriages (which are a social and financial arrangement) bars across America on Saturday nights are filled with men who overreact with rejection. Why? Maybe Elliot Rodger, the latest in a string of gun-toting psychopaths, has an answer: "men feel entitled to get sex from women."

Why does this attitude even exist much less multiply and spread? It turns out misogyny has been with us as a culture for a long time. For example, this week we get a new Disney movie called Maleficent. It's a $200 million dollar spectacle of wizardry and dark storytelling for those who are familiar with the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Most people, however, probably don't understand the name "Maleficent." The Latin word commonly used to signify "witch" is malefica" in the feminine. And there is no better place to begin with an understanding of misogyny than by learning of witches.

Before the 15th century, witches could herald from either sex. But that all changed when the separate elements of witchcraft--harmful sorcery or maleficium, diabolism, heretic cultic activity, and nocturnal flight--all collapsed into a single concept of satanic witchcraft. Clerics of the 15th century explained a proclivity for witchcraft as resting in the female gender because of longstanding Christian concepts of the physical, mental, and spiritual weaknesses of women.

Remember Adam and Eve? Oh Eve, for talking to the snake in that garden, you have condemned your entire sex to feelings of enmity, prejudice, disgust, and abhorrence by men for thousands of years. Misogyny doesn't have to be so clearly defined either (as in Elliot Rodger's manifesto). It can take many forms, some of which are difficult to recognize. For one, it even extended to speech. Ever read the phrase "where be women, are many wordys?" in a Middle English text? I studied Middle English as part of my undergraduate work, and I can tell you that literacy in the 15th century was reserved for men and women of status and also the clergy. For the wider population, the following was true (as one 15th century preacher wrote): "Eve, our oldest mother in paradise, held long talks with the adder, and told him what God had said to her and to her husband about eating the apple; and by her talking, the fiend understood her feebleness and her unstableness." Further links of the mouth and female genitalia followed society from the 15th century and into the Renaissance, serving to entrench the idea that for women to be chaste they also had to be chaste in speech.

Violence like the kind that Elliot Rodger visited upon his victims will be the subject of debate for decades. I don't think you can point the blame on any single thing, be it video games, lack of good parenting, bullying, or a cultural understanding of gender roles (or the lack thereof). It goes deeper than any of these things to something so ambiguous that my lips fail to find the words to describe it. However, I do think it's taught and not inherited. Wherever it comes from, people should stop being shocked about it and realize that this kind of misogyny (or any hatred really) is a function of our modern society. It exists and maybe it's not so much a mental illness as it is a widespread clarion call that teachings of entitlement and hate speech are insidious and destructive and, if not taken seriously, threaten every single one of us.


  1. I'm not sure where to begin. Too many things to tackle at once, so will just hit upon a couple.
    Mulholland Drive was typical Lynch, weird and surreal. Little dull. Except for that one scene.
    Rodger was a kid with everything in the world, but he was still so angry. We'll never figure it out. Why are kids so damn angry these days?
    I don't Eve caused all that. There were some really strong women in the Bible, stronger than their men. Moses' wife could've kicked anyone's butt.
    And my duty as a husband is to take care of my wife, in all things. (And I think it's really odd when men brag about their sex life. Dude, that's private stuff...)

  2. I can see that this movie isn't going on my 'must-watch" list. I remember Dune and thought it was pretty good. I'm also sure I've seen Twin Peaks (although I can't remember it--yes, I'm that old, too). The real world is definitely full of weirdness that matches whatever Lynch was trying to portray in the movie. I think I'll skip it. :) Thanks for the heads up where I don't accidentally watch it someday.

  3. I should buy that movie just for that scene.

    Instead of shooting a bunch of people, that guy should have just moved to Saudi Arabia or Nigeria where his attitude is the norm. Just because you can't get laid doesn't mean you should go out murdering people, but that's what happens when any dumbass can go buy an AR-15 with thousands of rounds.

  4. This is such a thoughtful and well written piece. I haven't seen that movie yet but now it's on my list.

  5. I think you're post is very insightful, Michael. There is so much trauma, hate, and oppression in this world. It boggles the mind.

    I do think that at least some of the attitude is inherited - some missing piece in the genetic structure. Having said that, however, I think society feeds the initial learning patterns of what we are born with - shaping, molding, occasionally turning a person in a different heading for good or ill. Most of us can steer our own rudder. Some of us can't. Medication helps some, others are poisoned by it.

  6. And then there are some of us with the OCD to point out the typo in our previous comment. YOUR not you're! :)

  7. I tried to watch MULLHOLAND DRIVE and almost died... I generally cannot stand such empty 'artsy' movies which aren't artsy at all... and plus the cast was expressionless too

  8. I liked Mulholland Drive, but I liked Twin Peaks better. As for Eraser Head, if ever there was a WTF? movie, that one is it.

    As for Elliot Rodger, I suspect a lot went into making him who he became and we'll probably never know half of it.

  9. I'll never understand the selfish need of some to spread their misery around. But I think you're totally right that one can never understand the thought processes of someone who is mentally ill. I won't give my opinions on how the early church and other religions have treated women.

  10. I expect there's an explanation on Wikipedia. Long time since I saw it, my recollection is that it was about a car crash and the dream of the woman just before she died. Or something.


  11. Lots to chew on with this one. Hmmm...

    I can't stand movies where I can't find a firm place to stand. Where it's all kind of dream-like, and I don't know what's happening. A personal failing.

    When someone doesn't know what something is, the first thing he does is to name it. Naming things tames them to a certain extent. It's become a private joke with me about names of things and how if it now has a name, no one still knows anything about it.

    Men and women. Men versus women. I don't even know where to begin.

  12. I've seen a lot of Lynch - Eraserhead [saw it in the Bleeker St. Theater in NY), was a huge Twin Peaks fan, and saw several other things he made, but not this one. I'll have to see if it's on Netflix.

  13. In a way, your coworkers who betray their wives and the intimacy of marriage by revealing what sexual favors their wives will perform are wuss, weak versions of Elliot Roger. They are displaying cold contempt, delusions of superiority, and a confused image of what constitutes masculinity. They have placed the locus of their identity outside of themselves; hence their desperate need for approval and admiration, for status, for the grandiosity of their image of themselves. In short, they don't know how to be real men.

    Maybe you read in the NY Times, Mike (we're both addicted to that newspaper, aren't we?) a couple of recent pieces about a new biography of John Wayne. Okay, so citing Wayne as a manly role model sounds hokey, and since I grew up during the Vietnam War his conservative politics regularly offended me. But then I noticed a funny fact: one of his best pals (and yes, it was strictly platonic) was Maureen O'Hara--a strong, feisty, assertive woman much like some of the characters she played. Can you imagine Elliot Roger or your co-workers being good pals with such a woman? Of course not. They're not man enough for a woman like that, and they would instinctively blame their deficiencies on her.

    Anyway, I looked up in those articles the reasons why John Wayne became such a towering image in the American consciousness. Apparently in real life he was "extremely likable, guileless, exuberant, even strangely innocent." He lacked any pretension or self-importance. He also consciously created for the screen, and lived in real life,
    the figure of the "strong, forthright hero: authentic, stubborn, sometimes pigheaded but dedicated to justice and capable of tenderness and sacrifice."

    “I’ve found the character the average man wants himself, his brother or his kid to be,” Wayne said. “It’s the same type of guy the average wife wants for her husband."

    Okay, so there are other, better American heroes in our American mythology, such as Atticus Finch. What I'm saying is, how did we move away from masculine role models like John Wayne or Atticus Finch to narcissistic, violent losers with an overweening sense of self-entitlement?

    I wish I knew the answer.

  14. As usual Mike, you have a gift for reporting the facts and putting them into perspective.

  15. A lot to think about here. Very well written.

    I think we have to try to find out why people snap like this. They keep doing it, and we can't assume it will stop without us doing something about it.

    What's troubling about this latest one is that the family knew something was up and he had police contact, apparently, shortly before going on the killing spree. So you have to wonder not just what causes it but what else we could do to catch it -- and whether the family raising concerns in fact hastened the actions or serves as a spur to do them.

    I'm not saying the family is to blame, or the cops. I'm saying that so much goes into making a person a killer that we can't often nail down just one thing. There are lots of people, I bet, who are virgins until 22 and feel they should not be. But they don't all go on rampages like this.

    We may never nail down that peculiar combination of factors that turns some people into killers, but thoughtful discussions of it like this will help.