Friday, July 30, 2010
So that's where my head is -- or, as they say nowadays, that's where my head is located at. I just haven't felt particularly energized to write much lately, because all of my thoughts have been at least tangentially connected to getting through Wednesday, at which point I will begin two and a half weeks of work-free, medically enforced, lying around and doing nothing. It's not out of the question that, between now and then, I might actually write an actual post about something somebody might care to read, but if I don't, this is why. Similarly, after Wednesday, even though I'll be in recovery mode, I will also have a lot of free time. Mind you, I plan on reading a shitload of books and watching a pantload of movies, but one would think that all of that might inspire me, or fire a spark, or bestow upon me wings of song, so for all I know this brief lull will only preface a great blogging inferno, by which I mean the good kind of inferno. On the other hand, during at least a portion of my recovery, I will be fucked out of my shit on some mad-ass painkillers, or such is my most fervent hope. Should that turn out to be the case, I may not have it in me to post much, and if I do, please brace yourselves.
But whatever happens, this post that you are now reading is only a head's up for anybody who cares to know why the next four, five, or six days could be light on posts around here. Again, nothing to be concerned about (I have a hernia, if you must know), but it's a big enough deal to consume too much of my thinking right now. But really, don't be shocked if I post something here before Wednesday. But also don't be shocked if I don't.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Sunday, July 25, 2010
The Collection Project: Rotten Blood
At least he's there, though, while pretty much the rest of Poe's story is gone. In the film, Poe's idea gets strained through Universal's apparent obsession with mad scientists, in this case appearing in the form of Bela Lugosi as Dr. Mirakle, a carnival showman and secret experimenter in the field of human/ape genetics. He works in the carnival for money, but his passion is finding a human female whose blood is as compatible with Erik -- Dr. Mirakle's ape -- as he can possibly find. This quest leads to the kidnapping of women, the injecting of ape blood into those women, and the eventual disposal of the women's bodies after they've died from having ape blood injected into them. After noticing the positive reaction Erik had to her when she attended their carnival performance, Mirakle soon has his eyes on Camille (Sidney Fox), believing that she will have the kind of blood he so desperately needs. As Camille is Dupin's girlfriend, the source of Mirakle's downfall is not hard to root out.
At 61 minutes, The Murders in the Rue Morgue has no more plot to summarize. The strange thing about the film is that as goofy as it is on paper (and sometimes on film, considering that Erik is presented in shadow and long-shots as a man in a vague, catch-all ape suit, and in close-up as a real chimpanzee, by way of stock footage, and referred to as a baboon), it's hard to say the film ever really steps that far wrong. It looks gorgeous, thanks to the basically infallible Karl Freund, who pulls cinematographer duties here, and it's also full of the kind of strange, and possibly not always intentional, subtexts that frequently marked Golden Age horror movies. For instance, if you check out that image posted at the top, you might see in it some of the dark sexuality that often found its way into these films, where young women in peril frequently also ended up being women bound up and strapped down.
That's Arlene Francis, by the way, and her character, and her introduction, adds a fuzzy class element to the proceedings. Dr. Mirakle finds her on a Paris bridge, watching in horror as two men engage in a knife fight (presumably over her) that ends with both their deaths. Mirakle then swoops in, pegging her as his next guinea pig, only to find later that the contents of her veins aren't what he's after. As she hangs there in his lab, near death, Mirakle rages at her, calling her blood "rotten", and "as black as your sins!" Francis's character is listed in the credits as "Woman of the Streets", and Camille is of a noticeably higher social tier than she -- so what, exactly, are Mirakle's criteria for his blood? To Mirakle, Erik, his ape, is every bit as human as these people he so despises, but perhaps, following a thought process that might be considered counter-intuitive in a person who would think like this in the first place, the people from whom blood should be poached, the people who most closely resemble our nearest animal neighbors, are the people live farthest from the wild.
Then, of course, there's the Scopes Monkey Trial, which would have been a mere seven years old when Florey's film was released. Poe's story (which was first published in 1841) could be seen to be about the dangers of a non-human pretending to be human, having learned only the most superficial behavior from a distance. As this danger leads to violent death (and one of Poe's uncomfortably imaginative murders does make its way into this film), Poe's orangutan could be a stand-in for amoral, sociopathic killers throughout history. But Poe would not have had Darwin available when he wrote his story, and while Darwin is not mention in the film, Dr. Mirakle does tell his carnival audience that humans are descended from apes like his friend Erik. These remarks are met with cries of "Heresy!" and, indeed, Mirakle is not only never able to prove his own lunatic version of Darwin, but he eventually meets his end at Erik's hands. The Scopes trial didn't sit terribly well with everybody, after all, as you might be aware. Then again, Erik still has his eyes on the decidedly human Camille, and hauls her along on his frantic escape, which, you know, sort of brings to mind Cooper and Schoedsack's King Kong, which was, at the time, still a year away.
It's amazing what they used to be able to cram into 61 minutes, isn't it?
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Breck Eisner's The Crazies was met with enough critical warmth that I started to think that it might actually be pretty good. Shows what a sucker I am, because the film is actually quite startlingly free of any kind of imagination, or even respect for its own scenario. Or, okay, not its own scenario, as it's a remake of George Romero's 1973 film of the same name, a film I'm also not overly keen on. However, there are moments in the Romero film I can at least look back on with admiration, while Eisner's take is like watching someone date-stamp a stack of incoming mail. You know precisely what they're doing, but have no idea why you would want to watch it.
The Crazies, both versions, is a plague story -- more specifically, it's a quarantine story, and it is on this level that I want to focus. To dispense with the plot summary first: a bunch of people in a small rural town start to go unaccountably crazy, violently so, and the military swoops in to cordon off the joint, and to ruthlessly gun down anyone who tries to break their quarantine. Our heroes (Timothy Olyphant as the sheriff; Radha Mitchell as his wife; Danielle Panabaker as Mitchell's young friend and co-worker; Joe Anderson as Olyphant's deputy) are horrified by the brutality of this new prison-town that has sprung up around them, and seek to escape, both the military and the "crazies". So that's your story. There is much blood.
My problem -- my main problem, because there are others -- is with the whole genre itself, or at least the way it's so often executed. Generally, and certainly in this film, filmmakers lazily settle on a black-and-white presentation for what should be a profoundly gray scenario. Just once I'd like to see a plague movie where one of the soldiers tasked with gunning down the civilians who seek to escape the quarantine take a break, rip off that goddamn gas mask, and break down sobbing. Instead, the portrayal of these characters is that of heartless automatons (often, a token "nice one" is thrown in, but in The Crazies remake, even that guy's niceness is burdened with some pretty big qualifiers) who at best thoughtlessly aim their weapon at a fleeing housewife and pull the trigger, and at worst find their inner bloodlust awakened by the job they've been handed.
And why, might I ask, should it be assumed that our rooting interest always be with those who would break the quarantine? If they succeed, then they could very well be spreading these highly contagious and always deadly diseases to millions of other people. That's the entire reason the quarantines -- in film and in reality -- are in place. That's also the reason the fleeing housewives are being gunned down, but Eisner and his screenwriters have no interest in engaging with the logic of the story, or of their characters. The truth is that he heroes of these films, the Timothy Olyphants of the world, are usually mind-bogglingly selfish -- it is their safety that counts, and that of their loved ones. The rest of humanity can, quite honestly, fuck off. And it's not as though I don't understand the impulse to flee, but if these possibly disease-ridden people (and it's always the case that at least one of these heroes that have grouped themselves together actually does have the disease) gets shot in the head, am I supposed to think the solider holding the gun did something horribly wrong? Horrible, yes, but wrong? How many people did he just save with that bullet?
As I say, it's a profoundly gray scenario, but almost nobody wants to engage with that side of it. Most often, they latch on to the "we are the real monsters!" idea (this is the idea on which Romero has built at least the second half of his career, and has also tried to retroactively apply to all the films he made before he thought it up), that not only means fuck-all in general, but usually means fuck-all within the very narrow confines of the individual movie. In The Crazies, as in many other similar films, the reasons for the quarantine, and the seemingly callous actions needed to keep it secure, are so plain that the filmmakers never even need to explain them (and they probably wouldn't if they thought they had to), but the story unspools as though it didn't matter. This person was shot, and that's bad. What's going through the mind of the man who pulled the trigger, or of those who gave the order for him to pull the trigger, are irrelevant.
One recent film did actually address these issues, whether or not anyone wants to acknowledge it, and that film (today's Collection Project Film of the Day) is 28 Weeks Later (d. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo). In this sequel to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, London is recovering from the "rage virus" that eviscerated the city in the earlier film. A quarantine has been set up, but one that, due to time and increasing resources, is able to be more gentle and communal. But strict rules apply: no one is allowed to travel into the parts of London that are outside the borders of the quarantine. When someone does, two children, early in the film, what happens? They bring the virus back inside. The military discovers this breach before the children make it back, but they are not heartlessly gunned down, as those trigger-happy madmen in The Crazies would no doubt have done. As a result, though, and as I say, the virus is back inside, and it spreads, and all hell breaks loose, to the point where the military has to open fire on a swarming pack of civilians, because if any of them gets out, and goes on the run, they will be spreading doom all across Europe.
And guess what? That's exactly what happens. When both 28 Weeks Later and The Crazies were first released, I heard much talk about the political nature of both films, and the commentary on the way we live now, but I'm not sure anyone who made those nebulous points were considering the fact that, in 28 Weeks Later, the military is absolutely correct. It is because they are defeated that we see rage-infested people shrieking past the Eiffel Tower in the last shot. The people who escaped at the end of 28 Weeks Later were, ostensibly, the characters we were rooting for, and they succeeded. And look where it got us.
PS - I freely adapted, to the point of quoting outright, this post from comments I left over at Arbogast on Film. If you read any of this over there, then I am profoundly sorry.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
The Collection Project: When it All Makes Sense
The specific Coens film I found myself contemplating was Burn After Reading, from 2008. Not enormously well-loved by critics or audiences at the time, which is something the film has in common with The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading has subsequently failed to develop any kind of strong cult following, which is something the film does not have in common with The Big Lebowski. This strange little black comedy seems to have mildly befuddled or slightly disappointed just about everybody, a reaction heightened, no doubt, by the fact that it followed their top-to-bottom triumph of No Country for Old Men. Personally, I view Burn After Reading as every bit a part of their creative renaissance (for lack of a less stupid phrase, and in comparison to Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, two not-bad films that nevertheless cast die-hards like myself into a state of gloomy concern) as that previous film and their eventual follow-up, A Serious Man. In the same way that Fargo's break-out success slightly confused me -- it's a great movie, but what was it about that one that critics and audiences felt was missing from their earlier work? -- the indifferent backing away that greeted Burn After Reading's release continues to leave me puzzled. Do people still really not know what to expect from the Coen brothers? Or I suppose most people could simply not find the film's collection of selfish, deluded, even stupid, characters, mixed with a few bursts of shocking violence, not all that funny, but, again, if you're a fan going in, what's leaving you cold?
I'm not really asking those questions, by the way (though feel free to answer!); I'm merely registering my befuddlement. And besides, it's quite possible I know the answer, which is that Burn After Reading is one of the most sublimely (to me) pointless film I've ever seen. None of the major characters -- the disgraced CIA analyst (John Malkovich); the pair of moronic gym employees (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt); their lonely, love-stricken boss (Richard Jenkins); the cocky, unfaithful, practically meat-headed US Marshal (George Clooney) -- have any clue, at any time, what they're doing, or what anyone else is doing, or why any of this is happening -- and it's well worth mentioning that the core reason any of this is happening is that Malkovich decided to angrily quit his job and write his entirely worthless memoirs. Each character gets lost in his or her own motives and wants (as opposed to needs), each has decided, incorrectly, that he or she is smart, and all but one of them loses out in the end, to the point that three of them die violently. For no good goddamn reason at all.
In that way, Burn After Reading is of a piece with earlier Coens films like their intentionally less funny (but still sometimes intentionally funny) debut, Blood Simple, whose plot is also dependent on all the main players being utterly clueless about what's going on. In that film, cluelessness also leads to some pretty nasty violence, but not only is Blood Simple less funny, it also, like pretty much all dark crime films, comes pre-burdened (which I don't mean as a knock) with a cosmic message -- something along the lines of "Look what behaving in this way and/or associating with these people gets you." Plus, fate. Similarly, The Big Lebowski is as absurd and meaningless in its plotting as Burn After Reading, but Lebowski has a great deal of heart, which the later film is almost completely lacking. I say "almost", because I don't see how one can be fully immune to the disappointment, sadness, and touching guile of, respectively, the Malkovich (I'm thinking of his early scenes, mainly), Jenkins and Pitt characters, but the fates of those three are not only similar in their completeness, let's say, but in the way the Coens practically gloss over them. The result being that one doesn't walk away from Burn After Reading mourning those lost, so much as thinking "That was pretty messed up."
Of all the complaints against a film, or any work of art, that particularly grate on me, the one I hear most often is "It had no point." The idea that a film, or a story, needs to have a specific "point" for it to be deemed good, or in any way worthwhile, is about as short-sighted as you can get, and this perhaps accounts for the mass indifference that greeted Burn After Reading, because, as I say, it is entirely pointless. It's a film whose story initially flows out of the offices of the CIA, but it's not a political film. It contains criminal acts, including murder, but has no message, no insight into criminal behavior or psychology, or clear satirical point of view. It's just a bunch of shit that happens, because a bunch of people weren't paying attention. And I think the ultimate summarization of Burn After Reading's towering absurdism is this quote from Joel Coen, describing the film:
It's sort of about the Central Intelligence Agency, and physical fitness, and what happens when those two worlds collide.
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The Collection Project: Firewall
What I’d planned to do today was write up my thoughts on Ang Lee and James Schamus’s sprawling, complex Civil War epic Ride with the Devil, but then I saw those words “sprawling” and “complex”, and I was like “I don’t know about that!” Seriously, who needs that on a Wednesday?
Thankfully, over on “The Facebooks”, I brought up the Lee film, and through a series of merry mishaps it was confused by one of my friends, who shall remain anonymous, with Jack Starret's Race with the Devil, the Satanic biker/road/chase movie, starring Lara Parker, Loretta Swit, Peter Fonda, and, far more importantly, Warren Oates. I have to admit that I have a pretty strong fondness for this film – I like its straightforward B-movie ambitions, its reasonably unique blending of the horror and chase genres, as well as the fact that the film is set (possibly for budgetary reasons) in the country, but not in the Deliverance type of country often favored by Hollywood, but rather the more common kind that has libraries and schools. So our heroes, a group of middle-aged, swingin’ 70s types on a long road trip in their motor home, should feel plenty at home in the decidedly non-alien environs where they often find themselves, but, after witnessing a Satanic human sacrifice, they’re not at home, or safe, anywhere.
It’s a fun movie. Warren Oates is in it, you know, so let’s not forget that, and it has a nice pace, and, at least occasionally, a pretty strong sense of dread and despair. I like movies where people find themselves being relentlessly assaulted, their lives constantly at risk, because they turned their heads the wrong way, and saw something they never would have chosen to see. If handled properly, this basic idea – that in the wink of an eye, someone or something might decide to kill you, and might stop at nothing to do so, and you can be as blameless as an infant, but it won’t matter and ounce – can carry you over any number of missteps. It’s a powerful idea.
One misstep that this well-executed idea will not carry you over, however, is a shit ending, and Race with the Devil unfortunately has one. Oates and Co. have just come out the other side of an intense road battle with the rolling coven of Satanists, and they’ve done so relatively unscathed. Everyone is giddy with relief. But then one thing leads to another, and with the typical tacked-on grimness common to the genre and the era, the film ends with the motor home pulling to a stop in a grassy field, only to suddenly be surrounded by a not-very-high rectangle of flames. Everyone panics, and we see yet more Satanists marching implacably towards them. And, it is implied, a slaughter of our heroes will ensue.
Okay, so, two questions: 1) How in the heck did the Satanists know exactly where Oates and Co. would park their motor home? They had to set up their Rectangle of Fire booby trap before hand, and the success of that plan would be dependent on knowing where, in an unmarked field of grass, they were going to park.
2) Why the fuck can’t they just drive the motor home through the flames? Do they think fire is made out of metal? Because it’s not. Maybe in the 1970s they thought that’s what fire was made out of. People used to be stupid, after all. It’s like in Moby-Dick, when Herman Melville keeps insisting that whales are fish, not mammals. I guess I just thought Peter Fonda was a little bit smarter than Herman Melville.
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Bluebeard Devours Everything
Thursday, July 8, 2010
The Right Way to Like a Movie
On July 5th, David Poland wrote a piece on his blog that bore the typically, for Poland, breathless headline "The Inception of Rage". What it had to do with was, see, Poland hasn't seen Inception yet. He could have gone to a screening the previous Friday, but he chose, instead, to kick it with some friends, because unlike some people he has his priorities in order. Which I'd say is fair enough, but the trouble begins when he talks about all the critics who did go to that screening, and the wave of very positive reactions to Inception began rolling in. Poland describes his reaction to that positivity, and the ensuing rage-filled battle that was waged on Twitter, like so:
I tweeted... "I'm sure that Inception will be THE studio movie for adults this summer... but when everyone starts drooling like this, I get nervous."
And thus, the anger began.
I don't know what it is about critics and film writers who are now critics because every fucking person who ever had an opinion about a movie is now a critic, a misnomer that includes professional journalists who have not developed the rhetorical skills to process much more than "yea" or "nay." (And believe me, plenty of veteran crix want to hang that same weight around my neck.) Thinner skin than Larry King's literal skin.
I'm not prejudging. I'm not setting up a backlash. I'm not making a personal attack or attacks.
It's really simple. When EVERYONE agrees... that which they agree on is almost always suspect. It's true of EVERYONE being negative or positive.
What Poland implies this is all about is the moronic fury that crept into any discussion of The Dark Knight two years ago. It's absolutely true that certain fans of that movie, when faced with a dissenting opinion, went plain bugfuck, hurling insults and even making threats, in various comments threads around the web. But what that in turn led to was the perception that everyone who liked the movie was the same kind of repressed fanboy, and that, by extension, nobody could be trusted who expressed enthusiasm for Nolan's Inception.
Poland later writes:
And when i read a handful of reviews and they were written with florid language that would, as Mel Brooks might write, outdo a $20 whore, my alarm bell went off a bit. As I wrote in one of my own tweets, "I would love EVERYONE to be right... EVERYONE almost never is."
But we'll see how I feel when I see the film.
That last line is mighty big of him. But my goodness. He'd love everyone to be right, but everyone almost never is? Meaning what? That he will decide, finally, the true quality of Inception? So everyone, go ahead and read those positive reviews, but don't make too much of them, because Poland hasn't spoken yet. (And if you think that is a self-serving quote from Poland, check out what he has to say in the comments section. If they weren't out of this post's focus, I'd quote from them liberally. Suffice it to say, he's quite sure that he's the one good cop in a bad town.)
Skepticism is a highly prized attitude these days, and its opposite, enthusiasm, is just as highly maligned. If you're really looking forward to a certain film, and even if you've seen it and really like it, then something might be off with you -- so the reasoning seems to be. And Christopher Nolan, and his admirers (of which, Gentle Reader, I am one!) is the current whipping boy for this attitude. Never mind the glowing reviews of The Dark Knight from the likes of Manohla Dargis and Andrew Sarris -- only nerds could really like that movie. It's a nice movie, it's a fun time, but anyone taking it seriously simply does not understand movies (or, perhaps, le cinema). Also never mind that out of six films -- not counting Inception -- only two of Nolan's films could realistically be categorized as action films, because, I've learned, the most damning, and, apparently, really the only sayable statement one can make about Nolan is that he can't direct action.
The point of all this defensive rambling, I suppose, is that the backlash against Inception has apparently started already, with record speed: before anybody except a handful of critics have even been able to see the thing. And according to Poland, because they all liked it with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it's probably not that good. Not bad, Poland is quick to point out -- he expects to like it! He even said so! It's just that a large number of positive reviews means the movie he thinks he's going to like will probably be bad. But only a little bit bad. But still bad. And I guess my question is: why Nolan? Why is a guy who, at least as often as not, tries to bring his own original concepts to the screen, and who, for a summer tentpole guy, is pretty bracingly dark (I mean, The Prestige?? Come on!), and, in just a broad sense, has a unique sensibility that is basically otherwise completely absent from big-budget spectacle movies, hitting this kind of critical brick wall?
Not that he's feeling any kind of pinch. He's rich, he gets to make the kinds of movies he wants to make, and it's hardly as though respect for his work is entirely absent. But as a fan myself, I will admit that I do not like the attitude that now flows through any discussion of his movies, the one that implies that Nolan and Michael Bay might as well swap faces for a year, and by the way that Avatar was something else, wasn't it?
Yes, I expect to like Inception. Or, rather, I very much hope to. And for that, I humbly beg your forgiveness.
The Collection Project Film of the Day:
The other thing that struck me about Memento – and what follows should prove to you that, like David Poland, I practically ooze integrity – was that I was finally able to pin down what bugs me about the film. The premise – a story of a man with no short-term memory hunting the man who murdered his wife, told (and this part is actually incidental to my point) in reverse – is practically begging to be picked apart, and what most people have settled on is “How is this guy able to remember his own condition?” In other words, if he has no short-term memory, how is he able – absent of any medical care, or any friends or family to remind him – to remember that he has no short-term memory? This, however, never bothered me. Leonard’s ability to recall the past memory (a false one, as it turns out, but still) of a man he dealt with through his job, who had a similar condition, paired with the obsessive notes (and tattoos) about his investigation, solved that problem well enough for me. No, my problem (which does tie into the above) is with his attitude. Every time Leonard’s brain restarts, all he has to do his look at himself in the mirror, read the tattoos, check his notes, and his back on the trail. Realistically, since he can’t make new memories, shouldn’t he look in the mirror, think “What the fuck??”, and sit on the bed while his brain tries to process what the hell is going on? The tattoo about the other short-term memory patient probably wouldn’t even be noticed half the time (it’s sort of small), because he’d be too overwhelmed by everything else thundering through his brain. And this consciousness reboot is supposed to happen every twenty minutes or so. How is he supposed to regroup in enough time to figure out what’s going on, what he’s doing, and still make it to the diner in time to meet Carrie Ann Moss?
So that’s my beef with Memento. I’m still carrying water for Christopher (Chris?), however.
Monday, July 5, 2010
The Collection Project: The Infinite
Thursday, July 1, 2010
The Collection Project: The History of the World in Telephone Numbers
They never did, and still haven't, although I've heard any number of theories trying to explain the plot of Lynch's film. All of these theories are boring, and diminishing. They range from the roughly specific -- "It was all a dream, or half was a dream, or it all flashed through Watts's head as she died" -- to the vaguely thematic --"It's a movie about identity". This last one has become particularly irksome to me, because it seems as though any time a film is described as being about, or having something to do with "identity", the case must then be closed, because the deliverer of this truth tends not to have any follow-through. In Mulholland Dr., Naomi Watts appears to be playing two distinct characters, with some overlap, or maybe not. Maybe she's one character, and the nice one is a delusion, while the nasty one with the gun and money for a hitman is the real person. In any event, apart from the obvious point, which is that people present one version of themselves for public display, while keeping the "real" person tucked up inside their brains, what does the film say about identity? And if it says nothing more than I've just done here, then isn't that hopelessly banal, to the point that it's not even worth mentioning?
Still, though. When I first watched the film, one moment in particular, a line of dialogue, sparked my brain, and I became very excited to see where Lynch would take this idea. In the scene, the hitman (Mark Pellegrino) is meeting one of his shady underworld contacts in the man's grubby office, and the hitman points to a book on the man's desk and says "Is that the book?" The man says yes, and that the book contains "the history of the world, in telephone numbers." What, I thought, could that possibly mean? My interest in shadow histories, as a fictional device, was mightily perked, and after Pellegrino shoots the other guy in the head and takes the book, this element of the film goes precisely nowhere. The book is never mentioned again, and the rest of the scene -- apart from a loose link to the car accident that opens the film -- serves only to introduce the hitman, who will pop up, briefly, later on.
I used to think, and sometimes still do, that if Lynch had the will or imagination to tie all this stuff together -- and not just the stuff I've mentioned, but the thing behind the dumpster, the Cowboy, the midget, the "This is the girl" guys, and so on -- then Mulholland Dr. would be the greatest piece of storytelling in the history of the medium. And maybe, at one time, this was Lynch's ambition. Okay, I sort of doubt that, but given that the film was originally intended as a TV series that, following the network's decision not to pick it up, Lynch reconfigured and added to, in order to turn it into a movie, it's certainly possible that the "telephone numbers" line, and the book, would have meant something more, in later episodes of the series that never happened, than the throwaway bit of strangeness it ultimately is.
But...so what? When I watch Mulholland Dr. now, I simply revel in all that throwaway strangeness, as well as the strangeness that has a firmer grip on things. Like, for instance, the Cowboy (Monty "Lafayette" Montgomery), one of Lynch's greatest creations, one who, for my money, blows the similar Mystery Man (Robert Blake) from Lynch's Lost Highway clear out of the water. The Cowboy is probably one of my favorite film characters, but what to say about him? He's strange and creepy, and what the heck is that guy talking about? Also, did you see him in the background that one time?
The problem is that talking about films, especially films like this one, can sometimes smooth things over too much, and you find yourself stating the obvious things that the film itself left unstated, and whatever grabbed your attention and imagination while watching the screen loses its hold (I'm reminded of a DVD extra on the Criterion disc of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, in which Jonathan Lethem seems to want everybody to know that he recently read a whole book that was all about the 1950s). Worse still is trying to explain what the filmmaker never wanted to explain in the first place. I've said before that, in too many people's minds, the word "mystery" has come to mean "something that is solvable", and that, to me, is the danger of ruthlessly hammering away at a film like Mulholland Dr., in the hopes that it will crack open, and inside will be a giant banner with an answer scrawled across it. You're going to ruin the movie for yourself. Your answer is probably wrong, too, by the way, but that won't matter. As long as you believe it, the film will have no power left.
You won't ruin it for me, though, because there is no answer to Mulholland Dr. I mean, really, there isn't, but there certainly isn't one that accounts for all of its madness. Besides that, I'm over that particular phase of my neuroses, the one that demands an answer from everything (okay, I'm mostly over it). Now, when I think of Mulholland Dr., I think of a story I heard about Lynch, when he was at a press conference for his next film, the even more obscure (which really doesn't quite cover it) Inland Empire. A reporter asked him what the film was about, and Lynch pointed to the poster, which was hanging behind him, and said "It says right there." He was talking about the tagline, which is "A Woman in Trouble". That's good enough for me.