Bright Lights Film Journal

Happy Birthday, Naomi Watts! Cinema’s Postmodern Mother of Mirrors

Naomi Watts in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (screenshot)

On the occasion of Naomi Watts’ 47th birthday (September 28), we offer Erich Kuersten’s fine profile of one of our favorite actors, originally published way back in 2008.

* * *

“There was a time — in movies like The Purple Rose of Cairo — when characters left the screen and came down to be incarnated into real life … Today, it would be reality that is transfused into the screen to be disincarnated. Nothing separates them anymore. The osmosis, the telemorphosis is complete.”1

As history and culture become more and more self-reflexive due to media saturation, we are become ever more immersed in the house of tele-mirrors described by Baudrillard above. For example, imagine that George Washington and his army at Valley Forge had Internet and video. Our collective image-memory of these mythic archetypal figures — known to us now only via the stoic posturing of stamps, coins, flags, bronzes, oils, and canvasses — would now include handheld shots of George and his boys drunk and high, shooting naked pictures in the snow à la reality TV. Thus it is natural that since the dawn of movies, eras have been remembered not by their all-too human political and military leaders, but by their movie stars, the goddesses, à la Joan Crawford, Jane Fonda, Madonna — who emblemize the spirit of our peoples, and the sacrificial virgins, à la Janet Leigh, and now Naomi Watts, shadow mother of mirrors for the postmodern 21st century — who symbolize the devouring nature of media itself. Just as Janet Leigh was the blank blonde “other” that acted as birth-mother/murder victim to a new modern cinema via Manchurian Candidate, Psycho, and Touch of Evil, so now comes Naomi Watts doing the same for our postmodern: Mulholland Drive, Eastern Promises, and remakes of The Ring, King Kong, Funny Games.

In “Modernity and the Maniac: The Fall of Janet Leigh,” Richard Armstrong writes: “Like Louise Brooks and James Dean, Janet Leigh has come to embody a potent vision of cinematic modernity.” This modernity, he notes is “less the ‘presence by accumulation which characterizes classical acting’ as French theorist Nicole Brenez puts it. More the vivid brush strokes of affect vivified by the dynamic interaction of presence and absence which only cinema can confer … ”2

This is not to say that Watts or Leigh is a bad actress, only that they do not represent a fixed persona who dominates their films; rather the films all stay the same and they themselves are chameleons. From scene to scene, their presence is never certain, and their absence is felt as an ache. Dean continually oscillates from ticklish softie to cigarette tough guy in all three of his films; Leigh careens from sex kitten to virginal bride and back, sometimes in the space of a single shot . . . and when she vanishes or appears, we hold onto our seats for fear of spinning out of control, reminded with a jolt just how easily our locus of identification can become uncalibrated. The second half of Psycho is haunted by her absence; she vanishes down the rabbit hole ink drain of her pupil and emerges a year or so later — none the worse for wear and much more worldly for the trip — in Manchurian Candidate, coolly coming on to a shattered Frank Sinatra in a train car doorway.

Watts similarly comes to us already bleeding into the margins of other icons, films, and cultures: she looks like the blonde sister of her friend Nicole Kidman; she’s English but raised in Australia and can do American accents like a native; she won our attention and desire by winning the attention and desire of a room full of actors pretending to be film people in Mulholland Drive (right). Hers is a balance of ethereal blonde beauty (à la Hitchcock’s women) counterbalanced by motherish vulnerability; she’s got just enough wrinkles; her teeth are just crooked enough, to make her beauty accessibly “girl next door.” She’s not quite a sex object — almost too bony and frail, and intelligent, too real — when we see her in her underwear, we want to cover her up with a blanket and lead her to safety instead of ravishing her; yet her beauty is still powerful enough that it draws the viewer in, almost incestuously. Like Leigh, she’s a deer in the headlights of her own sex appeal and we want to save her from it, rather than succumb to it ourselves.

In The Ring, her character, Rachel, is continually hypnotized by reflections of herself in television screens and reflective windows. As she struggles with the growing horror that she is being possessed by the “ghost girl,” Samara, she loses her grip on her ideal ego. She wakes up to the “real” of the film’s diegesis. The postmodern mother of mirrors, Watts is able to “wake up” time and again within the films she occupies. When she does so, her “absence” creates a mix of anxiety and longing in the viewer. When our dream mom wakes up, she vanished from the dream, and we are left alone, in a scary world, with no one’s eyes to meet as we’re driven madly around the city in our multiplex stroller.

Like Marion Crane in Psycho, Watts pulls a mid-film vanishing act in Mulholland Drive, in this case changing her character from chipper neophyte to damaged seductress in her audition scene as Betty. Before this scene in the film, we’d no idea Betty would ever amount to anything more than a spunky caricature of Ruby Keeler or Judy Garland. After the audition scene we’re thrown completely out of step with our idea of her character, with our idea of the movie, with cinema, even with time itself. Watts-as-Betty-as her audition character becomes so sensual that we in the audience forget she’s auditioning or even acting for Lynch, let alone the thrilled producer (James Karen).

From this scene on, the movie begins to coalesce into dark mist around her; Betty becomes a product of “the plasticity of cinema” — surrendering to its dark Freudian currents and sucking you, me, Lynch, the camera, all under with her. Our accustomed position as “outside” viewers now shattered, the camera begins to stalk Betty like a worried child. Her whole sense of spunky “Betty”-hood has vanished; now she sulks in her kitchen, smoking in her dirty bathrobe, a fusion of characters including Diane Selwyn, the character presumed to be the amensiac Rita (Laura Harring). The camera approaches cautiously at child’s eye-level: Naomi-Betty-Diane becomes a dark, disturbed mother whose love we never quite get, but never stop wanting. The borders of the Mulholland/Death Drive diegesis, we realize with a mix of discomfort and delight, have expanded to the exit signs of the theater and even beyond. We’re home free in the new mediated womb of the Naomi persona — which is to say, trapped, by our own desire. Up until the audition we had at least the idea of a linear detective-noir kind of plot for the film; now we’re flung from the mediated breast and we watch Watts do things to herself and to others as a child might, barely understanding the meaning of strange, nightmarish adult behavior.

This is the new postmodern cinema: total engulfment. The image is no longer something to be looked at from afar, but to enter and intertwine with. We might fantasize about stepping into our favorite movies when we’re sad and lonesome (à la Purple Rose of Cairo or Sherlock Jr.), but what happens in the new engulfment cinema is the opposite of escape, unless you consider being swallowed by the whale an escape from drowning. The frame of the movie screen, which was so firmly in front of us since our birth, is suddenly all around and behind us . . . it’s receding past us now, and before we can even realize what’s happening, we’ve been annihilated — we’ve become mere celluloid for the cutting room floor of Baudrillard’s simulacrum. This is what death is in the 21st century, at 24 frames a minute. As viewers in the dark, we take the place of the other, the dead, the pure unassimilated conscious witness that constitutes the space between events and people.

In a 2004 article I discussed Watts in The Ring as a female counterpart to James Woods in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome: merging with the media. Where Woods merged via gory special effects of vaginal VCR stomach slits, in Watts’ case, the merging involves building her past life self from old media in order to track down the evil ghost-in-the-machine of imagery: “Rachel is able to decipher the haunted videotape and reincarnate the figure of Samara’s mother, Anna . . . She visits old mental institutions, departments of records, musty newspaper morgues, microfiche machines, libraries, and the internet. From all these dead media formats she is able to piece Anna together, a Bride of Frankenstein version of the maternal image — the dark double of Rachel herself.”3

The Ring‘s horror stems from the fear that the safety of being a “viewer” can somehow be breached, penetrated; the enchantment dispelled, the image can crawl out of the screen and grab us, pierce our eye like a Lucio Fulci zombie might. As her “one week to live” progresses, Rachel must deal with the anxiety of being slowly dissolved in the salty sea of her own mediated unconscious. The unspoken realization of the film is that Samara is not some mindless little girl who just showed up in Anna’s arms; she is an actual materialized psychic projection of Anna herself; a physical manifestation of a pure unconscious drive, like the Monster from the Id in Forbidden Planet. And, in a way, Rachel is also such a manifestation. In our natural mix of feelings for Watts as a persona — the aforementioned combo of maternal desire and dread — we become implicated in the yet-to-happen violence associated with Samara’s videotape.

Like Verbinski’s Ring remake, Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake simultaneously comments on the original and uses it as a springboard for new character interaction: Watts transcends the one-note shriek of Fay Wray’s Ann, to become daughter, sister, friend, and even owner to the lonely giant ape. Here, the impossibility of any sort of sexual interaction between Watts and her giant ape “son/lover/father” is an interesting mirror to our own position as viewers of the film who harbor an objective longing to “possess” Watts in whatever way we might possess an image. Our eternal misfortune as viewers stranded in an audience is that we’re “wrong-sized” and “wrong-dimensioned” for the onscreen diegesis. If we were able to jump inside the movie of King Kong we would be as clumsy and destructive as Kong himself, crashing around the New York City sets, not knowing proper 1930s etiquette — bumping into the blue screen and knocking over the gaffer’s coffee. Much as we desire Naomi, we can only try and protect her much as Kong does, and once the airplanes get him, so too do the house lights and ushers come to kick us out of the theater.

Onward to Eastern Promises (2007), Cronenberg’s uneven quasi-sequel to History of Violence. Here Watts’ Anna is barely a character, more a collection of maternal signifiers as she self-righteously plunges into the dangerous world of the Russian mob in order to get justice for a dead pregnant victim of white slavery (the baby lives, and Watts stands over it in a sanctimonious, humorless way that stirs not our hearts but our jealousy). Watts has a stereotypical working-class British mum and a stereotypical Russian uncle, who berates her at Christmas dinner: “Races should not mix — that is why your child died inside of you.” From that line of broken English we get all the dirt we need on Watts’ anguished midwife, the tarnished angel who spends the film in a self-righteous swoon at the crib side and then cruises on her black scooter over to the Russian Mob Restaurant to yell some more at Viggo Mortensen.

I was really disappointed with Eastern Promises, which I think could be read as Cronenberg’s deconstruction of a polemic; his clinical and detached view of his own inability to use stock characters in a truly engaging narrative. The dead girl’s diary (at 14 she’s raped, drugged, taken from her village, etc.) is narrated via the most clichéd of anguished Russian girlchick peasant voice-overs, wavering sorrowfully enough to make Garbo wince. The Russian white slave brothel girls we see are all similarly overdone with drugged out pathos: they seem totally bored, stoned, and depressed, and their make-up is awful. One can’t imagine business is very good. But Cronenberg — whose relationship to sex has always been clinical at best — is determined to really delve into the victim identification mindset of these girls. He wants us to really feel their doped-up “pain” (a line like “they make me shoot heroin” is spoken with so much sadness and regret it almost gets a laugh — for Cronenberg, painlessness becomes the new pain).

Knowing Cronenberg’s intellect and vision, one must presume this alienation effect is intentional, that this is his Far From Heaven or Douglas Sirk homage. The story arc is pure Written on the Wind, with Vincent Cassel in the Robert Stack role of dissolutely closeted playboy heir who leans too much on Viggo’s Rock Hudson-ish salt of the earth. Cronenberg fishes around this hackneyed story looking for interesting curios, barely interested in the Sirkian subtexts. Instead he spends some time focusing on the tattoos and the pain viewers feel watching a naked man get kicked around a Russian bathhouse. But a lot of the other parts — such as the moral fire raging in Anna’s empty womb — are barely sketched in. With most other actresses, this clichéd character would have been a disaster; but since Watts is our archetypal postmodern mother of mirrors, we react toward her righteous anguish here with (a lesser degree of) the same ironic-hypnotic fascination accorded her audition in Mulholland Drive. We know that she knows we know she’s acting and we love her for giving us a Brechtian fourth-wall ticket out of all the white slave guilt.

That’s why her role in Funny Games seems like it will be completely in line with these mother of mirrors parts. The film itself has not been released yet, and I doubt I will see it, but the content is apparent just from the preview and the poster, both of which I’ve seen ad nauseam. The poster is an ironic take on the black velvet paintings of sad eyed clowns and dogs, only here it’s Watts with her teary eye, like the sacrificial virgin-lamb. In the preview we alternate flash cuts of her bound and gagged in her cute white underwear, with shots of the smug psychopaths who have broken into the house with the intention of torturing her and her family, all set to ironically chipper orchestra music.

Haneke’s “if violence offends thee, why are you watching, oh jaded viewer?” commentary makes no sense in the context of a poster or a preview, since as a filmgoer I don’t get to choose what previews are blasted into my eyes and ears before the main feature. With its fourth-wall-breaking direct addresses to the camera/audience and wry commentary on the deadening power of media violence, Funny Games presumes to deconstruct our horrified responses to its violence, but in the case of a shot-for-shot remake like this, the fourth-wall irony doubles back and swallows itself, often leaving nothing in its wake. As with Van Sant’s Psycho remake, you can hold a mirror up to a mirror and get the nice infinity effect, but don’t think you’re inventing some new art, you’re just being lazy, like the contemporary artist who has his assistants make his art for him, then flies in from London to sign his name en verso.

But Naomi Watts with her teary eye on that poster is more than hip irony of its resemblance to a black velvet puppy painting. The reason it is so unconscionable is that it mocks Naomi Watts’ emotional register. In ironically torturing our mother, we presume to free ourselves from ironic torture. This is the hacking of the apron string made digital flesh on the actresses of the world. The actress must pretend to die so that we may stop pretending to live.

The Funny Games scenario of maternal ironic torture is content to think it has made you uncomfortable, but it has not given you anything in return. It has not presented you with another option. In other words, we’ve grown too enraptured with the smashing down of the false gods. We know how to smash down a false god, and we know how to build another false god and smash that too. But what we don’t know how to do is smash the false god and embrace a new one, to find love within ourselves, and therefore in our cinema. You can see the flash in the pan of “love” cinema only from 1968-1974, wherein people were really making an effort to bring love — love as a thing beyond sex, family, god; love as simply unconditional compassion for all life — into the social fabric, into the arts, into music and cinema. People were trying to create a spiritual art that was not dogmatic or didactic — and sometimes they succeeded: Franco Zeffirelli succeeded with Brother Sun, Sister Moon, and so did the Beatles with Yellow Submarine. The French New Wave captured it all, in their writing and in their early films.

Hopefully in the next decades we will have a new icon to lead us back from this mother of mirror void wherein we cling to the embrace of Naomi Watts like the ghost children we all are whenever we enter the darkened theater. Until then, one can’t really ask for a better actress to fill this weird and dangerous iconic position. As I write this her latest project is already in the works, a remake, appropriately enough, of Hitchcock’s The Birds. (Editor’s note: The remake of The Birds, starring Watts and directed by Michael Bay, remains “in development” as this fall, 2015.)

  1. Jean Baudrillard and Sylvère Lotringer, The Conspiracy of Art (Brooklyn, NY: Semiotext(e), 2005), 198. []
  2. Richard Armstrong, “Modernity and the Maniac: The Fall of Janet Leigh,” Imagesjournal.com, 2004. []
  3. Kuersten, Erich, “Looking Through the Ring: Mecha Medusa & the Otherless Child,” Acidemic.com, 2007. []