Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

In many cases, David Lynch’s particular brand of surrealism leaves me at sea, not because I mind being confused but because the kinds of images that seem to haunt and intrigue him don’t play for me as especially engaging. Blue Velvet is a good movie, but the relationship it draws between pure camp and poetic disorientation averages out, for me, to mildly endearing silliness. The two Lynch films that completely work for me (on top of portions of his TV series Twin Peaks) are The Straight Story, in which he completely shirks his usual fixations and the roots of his career for the sake of a sweet-natured studio project, and Mulholland Dr., which leans in harder than ever on his unique fascinations but forms them into something playful, charming and even quite funny, and above all something whose sole purpose isn’t simply to confound. Even if its open-ended storytelling may still dissatisfy many viewers, the journey itself in this case is savory. Whereas the idyllic setting of Blue Velvet is too phony to be anything but off-kilter and vaguely distressing, the sequestered Hollywood of Mulholland Dr. tosses into a world that has enough allure, mystery, and yes, the usual sleaze to feel like a complete world, rather than an ironic one constructed from tropes; and moreover, the film’s dream logic doesn’t suffer from the arbitrariness of some of Lynch’s more pedestrian work. Everything in the film seems to have a purpose, whether it’s easily or quickly evident to the mere outsiders in the audience or not.

That absence of self-satisfied irony shouldn’t suggest that Lynch is selling us something we could find more unconditionally elsewhere: its oblique and over-the-top evocations of Eyes Wide Shut, Nancy Drew novels and Cinemax porn are presented quite clearly with tongue in cheek, but in this case there is a narrative utility to the stilted performances and the endless, empty sheen of beautiful artificiality; and even before you realize that, Lynch is so clearly in on the joke and in tow with the viewer here that the offbeat humor and pure weirdness of it all can be enjoyed on its own terms before things fall into place (likely after a second viewing). At any rate, the crucial difference between this and Blue Velvet in particular is that it sends up a world Lynch knows and occupies it with broad, off-putting characterizations without actually violating or criticizing either the agency of those characters or our investment in them. On the one hand it’s almost a Lynch parody of a Lynch movie; but on the other it comes from a core of what feels like real love and pain, and not the deliberately simplistic cartoons of innocence and depravity in many of the director’s works.

Shot with no budget with a TV crew (like Psycho!) for ABC before they rejected it as a pilot and Lynch expanded it to feature status, Mulholland Dr. is a very SoCal movie, set quite pointedly in an O.J. Simpson-era L.A. wherein Hollywood dreams of the glamorous past are contrasted with the mundane trivialities of coffee at a hole-in-the-wall diner called Winkie’s, strong-arm talent agencies with apparent mob ties, egotistical hotshot directors with unfaithful wifes, auditions with sexist, grabby screen veterans, and barely competent hitmen who call their victims “bro.” The source of this near-delirious caricature, in the narrative, may or may not be a wide-eyed actress named Betty (or perhaps Diane) portrayed with absolute perfection by Naomi Watts (ironically, this turned out to be a star-making effort for her), who we meet and engage with in a fit of new-to-town naivete that, in the last thirty minutes of the film, is revealed to be either a facade, a glimpse at a now-distant hazy past or — according to most interpretations — a fantasy of what might have been.

That fantasy, if we accept for the moment that it is one, amounts to a uniquely Lynchian approach to a neo-noir in which the eager Betty gets a chance to solve herself a mystery after she walks into what she thinks is an empty house to discover a nude woman in her shower (Laura Harring), extemporaneously adopting the name Gilda from a film poster, who’s suffered a concussion after a bad car accident and doesn’t remember who she is. For Betty, this amnesiac Raymond Chandler nightmare is the perfect introduction to the deceptively glossy streets of the city as the two of them come to function as an almost too-perfect team, the wizened out-of-towner easing into her element quickly with the added motivation of a damsel in distress who must be rescued. As they gather clues and investigate, the two appear to fall in love and engage in a tentative, tender love scene that marks some sort of turning point when the seemingly rational story we’re watching becomes dislocated. Up to this point in the picture, not everything in this gaudy, bright rendition of the city is banal — there’s also a key and a box and a monster behind Winkie’s, and a gorgeous Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” — but a lot of it is. It all just seems so simple, Watts so endlessly enthused and Herring disturbed and helpless beyond belief; to borrow the cliché, everyone just seems so fake.

As it turns out, that’s because they probably are. Fake, but also beautiful. Via quick shots of tearful masturbation and suicide, it’s suggested that the entire first two acts of the film have been a momentary fantasy of sexual control and abandon, a distorted memory of the early moments in a union that’s gone sour, or even just a dream that borrows elements and logic from disparate portions of an awful night leaving Watts’ heroine — once Betty, really Diane — on the verge of insanity. In the fantasy, she molds herself into a desirable go-getter who’s infinitely gifted and seems younger than she is, and her lover has forgotten the events that took her away, or they never happened. This explains why it is, perhaps, that when Betty and Gilda have sex, they seem simultaneously like shy kids and like mutually comfortable lovers who’ve known one another’s quirks for years. But the longing persists and the conclusion to the fantasy seems to get further and further away.

Back in reality, interrupted before her orgasm, Diane watches as the surly filmmaker Adam Kesher whose parallel story of a compromised project and destroyed marriage we’ve been following (maybe because our unreliable, wordless narrator wished to see him humiliated?) makes out with her friend and lover, and indulges in unrelenting PDA with her at an upscale event. There are signs everywhere of a breakup, or of the endings of an illicit affair, that have left Diane, her Hollywood dream not remotely what she expected (is it ever?), a depressed and desperate shambles. In this closing half-hour, the performance styles of all of the actors change completely: Watts is now embittered and naturalistic, Harring the very portrait of uncomprising ambition and all the aloof enigma of an unrequited crush or a still-beloved ex. But there is still little time for us to determine what is real and what isn’t, and logic and reality seem to slip out of our grasp — but we certainly are given enough to understand that the world in which we finally leave Diane is not the happy and hopeful one that we saw Betty enter two hours earlier.

Anyone’s stab at interpreting all this, placing it in perfect order, is going to be different from anyone else’s — and of course the film resists explaining away all of its tangents, some of which may owe their existence to its confused genesis as first a TV pilot and then a motion picture — but the general drift of the story, its swaying moods, its persuasive air of lovelorn melancholy, unforced eroticism and its intoxicating contrast of “the dream place,” the kinds of imagination we routinely employ (again: dreams, fantasies, memories), with cold mundane reality all present an unexpectedly coherent portrait of a life and a city that feels complete and deeply felt.

Mulholland Dr. opened to great acclaim and it has steadily gained recognition from many as one of the greatest films of this young century, setting it far above most of the other, now long-forgotten critical darlings of 2001. (Incredibly, it did not receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.) Part of the reason for this is that it appeals to a cross section of scholarly critics and cinephiles, to whom the story’s emotionally mature ambiguity and fixation on The Business naturally appeal, and “film bros,” who like it because they can view it as a Christopher Nolan-like “puzzle” and because there’s a lesbian sex scene in it. It says a lot about Lynch as a director and persona that he’s perfectly likely to embrace both varieties of reception — he’s quite encouraging to the puzzle geeks, including a list of “clues” in the form of study questions with early DVD releases — but for many individual viewers, paring things down to the specifics of the symbols and cryptic clues and suchlike is a tiresome exercise, and while Betty and Gilda’s sex scene is certainly one of the more memorably gentle in a Hollywood film, its impact comes explicitly because the common quest, the odd personalities and the excited mutual kindness of their relationship has been so well established. To my mind, both schools overstate the importance of the film’s plot — its perfectly colored progression of moods is far more interesting and singular even among Lynch’s works — and underrate its rich, surprisingly acerbic humor; comedy in Lynch’s films was never before quite so explicit, used here to comment on the very absurdity that resists such deconstruction in his previous pictures: “Jason thought it would be a good idea for me to see the cowboy.” (I could name other examples: Jeanne Bates slapping her husband’s knee and the two later chasing a far-gone Diane around her apartment, or the long buildup in the Winkie’s scene, or the sudden presence of Bride of Frankenstein-style “mini-humans.”)

Perhaps this is because the world of Mulholland Dr. is so robust and well-established it can withstand that sort of self-mockery, which is a good illustration of the fine line Lynch walks here. At bottom, this is a soulful film about grief; but it’s also a wild and wacky story in which someone faints from lip-syncing and a hitman shoots a vacuum cleaner to turn it off. Neither element cancels out the other; in other words, our knowledge of how this cornucopia of images, music and sounds revolves around the bitter blow of unrequited love does not stop it from being one of the most fun, witty movies about Hollywood itself imaginable.

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