Shades of innocence and corruption in two films

A very particular kind of mystery thriller, Mulholland Drive has all the signature David Lynch ingredients and then some.

There's the innocent, or seemingly innocent, party; the gallery of grotesques, the tawdry; the sadomasochism, the ominousness, the violence. There's also the tremendous tension generated by close-ups and close-ins and by focusing on the merest flickers of facial expression. And the highly charged off logic and the high theatricality - with a twist - of the realm of dreams and nightmares. Here is a land of illusion and disturbing alternate realities.

Recently showcased at The New York Film Festival 2001 at Lincoln Center, Mulholland Drive devolves on the adventure or trap that L.A. can pose for a starry-eyed kid from some midwestern (here, a mid-Canadian) town. (It's noteworthy in this context that in the production notes Lynch bills himself simply as 'Born Missoula, Montana, Eagle Scout.')

A cute girl who won a jitterbug contest back home and dreamed of becoming a movie star has an aunt who sponsors her trip to La La Land. The situation develops in quintessential Lynch style.

The movie starts off with a wierdish mock '50s bang, followed by a mysterious close-up of someone apparently under cheap blankets in bed in what appears to be a disturbed state of sleep.

This is followed by the fully ominous passage of a sleek black automobile winding slowly through an isolated patch of the Hollywood Hills in blackest midnight.

The latter seems like a tipping of the hat in reverse to the equally portentous all-white auto passage, which began the Coen brothers Fargo, or even to the opening scene of Sunset Boulevard.

The film is definitely reminiscent of the old all-American-detective-girl Nancy Drew mysteries as well as of Alice in Wonderland - in perverse. And it's also a tender love story.

Then there's the juxtaposition of the blonde and the brunette. Naomi Watts exhibits breathtaking depth and range and Laura Elena Harring is perfect as a mysterious seductress.

Lynch does a send-up of the convention of the innocent blonde. The film's lowest lowlifes are also light-haired. But I think this midwestern one-time Eagle Scout is still mystified by the alluring and (to him) not entirely comprehensible - nor entirely trustworthy - 'brunette.'

There is a lingering conviction in our culture - more than lingering in too many quarters - that innocence sports yellow hair and blue eyes, even to the point of endearing obtuseness in the image of 'the dumb blonde,' and that brunette coloring (from European to African) reflects the sinister and corrupt.

An odd notion in light of the fact (no pun intended) that it was essentially northern Europeans who stole this continent and massacred its original brunette inhabitants and then perpetrated slavery, etc., on the quintessentially brunette of this earth.

Not that any one ethnic group corners the market on the human potential for heinous behavior. Just that in the history of America, the bad guys, if anything, were from the lightest-colored human stock.

Recent illustrations of this include the billboard for Hannibal, where blue-eyed Anthony Hopkins is portrayed with brown eyes, and the vampire's eyes on the billboard for the most recent Buffy movie are also brown. For his role as a sadistic character in Once Upon A Time in the West, blue-eyed Henry Fonda had volunteered to wear brown contact lenses.

Notice how many of the TV newswomen are blondes and, among those who are not, how many are gradually converted to that condition. Have you seen Greta Van Susteren lately?

Oh, good excuses are always trotted out for this sort of thing. I think the current rationale is that blonde hair makes one look younger - even if you're already young, I guess, like Jane Clayson, Bryant Gumbel's co-host of 'The Early Show' on CBS.

Think how many of the young female movie stars of recent vintage have been light-haired, compared to the percentage of that phenomenon in the general population.

We have long been conditioned to think there is something inherently healthier, more decent and more beautiful about lighter as opposed to darker ethnicity, a point of particular significance in times like the present.

Also featured at the film festival, Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien in fact features a lovely tan-skinned Spaniard (Maribel Verdu), whose southern European features, like those of the older Italian Sophia Loren (but of an entirely different cast) clearly suggest Arabian roots.

The movie is an ebullient road film about two teen-aged boys, Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Bael Garcia Bernal) on their last summer holiday before college and a rigid class structure engulf them. From supremely and relatively privileged classes, respectively, they apparently don't need summer jobs and have learned to be concerned only with pleasuring themselves. Upper class Tenoch's father is a courtly but thoroughly corrupt high government official. No doubt his son is expected to achieve similar success.

With the married 30ish character portrayed by Verdu, the boys take off from their contemporary urban environment into the world of the Mexican countryside. For all three self-absorbed characters, their sexually charged odyssey to a non-existent paradise becomes a raucous rite of passage.

Meanwhile, through the windows of their car, we see the grimness of life for most Mexicans, the wrenching poverty, the ubiquitous rifle-wielding military, instances of police violence, and also of roadside religious pageantry begging alms. We're treated as well to a slice of a more innocent, self-sustaining way of life that is about to be swept away.

Luna, and particularly Garcia Bernal, are inspired and engaging comic actors in a well-made film. Tu Mama is the highest grossing movie in Mexican box-office history.