Mulholland Dr.

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Early in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., one guy describes a

recent nightmare to another guy over breakfast at a Sunset Boulevard

Denny’s. (It’s called “Winkie’s” on-screen, but it’s clearly a

Denny’s.) Struggling to catch the quality of dream light, he says that

the dream took place in a “half-night.” He may as well be describing an

old Hollywood movie. Scenes that were supposed to take place after dark

were usually shot in broad daylight, with the light filtered or mostly

blocked on the way into the camera. The resulting image has an

inadvertantly unreal quality, where figures cast long shadows even

under cover of alleged darkness. In Hollywood, such photography is

known as “day for night,” but Europeans simply call it “American night”

— the term that gave Francois Truffaut’s essential movie about

moviemaking its title.

Mulholland Dr. is a movie about Hollywood and the American

night. That is, its Hollywood is one that exists in the movies. It is

photographed in a sort of half-light, illuminated by single bulbs and

cloaked in shadows that leave characters teetering on the edge of an

inky blackness. When Betty, an impossibly fresh young thing who wants

to be an actress, arrives there from Canada, it seems that another

wide-eyed innocent is about to get dragged through the muck. Happily,

Lynch has something more complicated in mind.

After some brief vignettes, including the colorful, many-layered

jitterbug dance sequence that opens the film, Lynch’s Hollywood noir

begins to roll as a limousine makes its way slowly down the titular

winding road, which snakes through the Hollywood Hills and overlooks

the city. A woman in the back seat becomes the only survivor of a car

accident that leaves her a bloodied and confused amnesiac with stacks

of cash in her purse. She wanders down into the lights of Hollywood and

sneaks into an empty apartment where she’s soon discovered by Betty,

whose aunt owns the place. Betty at first assumes that “Rita,” as she

identifies herself after spying a Gilda

one-sheet on the wall, is a family friend. When she discovers that the

woman is in fact a complete stranger, and perhaps dangerous to know,

she’s less concerned with her own welfare than with penetrating the

mysteries of the woman’s life.

Mulholland Dr. has a rather involved history, beginning life as

an 88-minute pilot for an ABC television series. Once the pilot was

completed and edited according to the network’s various stipulations,

ABC rejected it. CanalPlus stepped in, buying the material back and

giving Lynch money to shoot what must have amounted to about an extra

hour of new footage, most of which was grafted cleanly onto the end of

the existing film. (The screenplay for the original pilot has been

widely circulated on the Internet.) The resulting work is substantially

a gripping and menacing mystery yarn, but it suddenly gives way to

flamboyance and eroticism.

The balance between these two worlds is at best uneasy. The tonal shift is as jarring in its way as the surreal psychodrama of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was in comparison to early episodes of Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The Twin Peaks pilot, one of Lynch’s finest works, shares similar moods with Mulholland Dr. Taken as a whole, however, the new film may be more akin to Lost Highway,

a notorious Möbius strip of a movie that drove me nuts in its

insularity. What’s remarkable is that, this time around, Lynch makes

the structure of Lost Highway — in which conventional

storytelling gave way to an interior narrative taking place as the lead

character, crucially, reinvented himself — cohere among characters

about whom an audience not comprised of Lynchophiles could reasonably

be expected to give a shit. Time will tell if this one has the staying

power of Lynch’s most irreplacable work, but Mulholland Dr. is a compelling summation of the director’s career to date and his best feature since Blue Velvet.

Betty is this film’s equivalent of Blue Velvet‘s

Jeffrey Beaumont. Lynch treats her very well — she may be generous to

a fault, but she never seems foolish, and her headstrong investigation

is Rita’s best and only chance at discovering the secret of her own

identity. Naomi Watts plays Betty as an almost preternaturally kind and

unassuming ingénue, but one with acting talent and a formidable

sexuality lurking just beneath her good-girl surface. It comes to the

fore in an extraordinary scene in which she auditions for a role with

her body pressed tightly against that of a sun-tanned creep from

Central Casting. It’s a defining Lynch moment depicting the essential

salaciousness of Hollywood, where aging sharks sniff out ambitious

young women to be their willing capitulators.

As Watts begins to simmer, her houseguest seems responsible for

turning up the heat. Played by former Miss USA and ex-countess Laura

Harring with ample-bosomed, Anita Ekberg-style glamour, “Rita” is an

erotic accident waiting to happen. (Even her assumed name is a symbol

of brazen Hollywood sex appeal.) What’s typical in Lynch’s work is an

affinity for exploitation themes, filtered through an American history

that combines 50s and 60s idealism with contemporary violence and

despair, and Mulholland Dr.

does have the amusing whiff of lesbian pulp fiction about it. When

Betty first discovers her, Rita is taking a shower, the curves of her

body abstracted through scalloped glass. In this instance, both the

amnesiac seductress and the naïve seductee remain innocent, but Lynch’s

fascination with sexual deviance eventually holds sway. Had the project

remained on television, the relationship may never have been

consummated but when Lynch throws standards and practices out the

window and lets Rita drop her towel, the immediately ensuing sex scene

is key to the film’s ultimate meaning. That meaning is superficially

elusive, and a kind of mental leap is required to sort out exactly what

happens in Mulholland Dr.‘s final, explicative scenes. Suffice

it to say that we suddenly learn a lot of new things, in rapid

succession, about the psychology of all of these characters.

Hot lesbian sex aside, Lynch’s handling of the friendship between Betty

and Rita is nuanced and surprisingly sensitive. Among the hazards of

exploitation films are cheaply stereotyped characters, but Lynch’s

direction is gentle and the performances sure, pulling the film from

each pulpy situation with renewed weight and conviction. Oh yes, Lynch

takes this stuff seriously, jazzing things up with more sheerly

cinematic flair than he’s shown in years. Mulholland Dr.

could be described as a movie about a dream about Hollywood. The audio

design, credited to Lynch, throbs with amplified ambient sound that

suggests not just the ever-present noise of the city, but also, by

literally surrounding the viewer, the expansive and unexplored spaces

inside one’s own head. The helicopter shots peering straight down

between skyscrapers as the booming sound of the city fills the movie

theater are incredibly eerie, capturing the uneasy feeling of being

alone, downtown, in the middle of the night.

In collaboration with cinematographer Michael Deming, Lynch

bathes his images in unease. His camera can best be described as

floating, often moving vertically within a scene and looking down upon

the characters, or sucking us forward into a point-of-view that we’re

not sure we want to share. The image snaps in and out of focus at key

moments (while one character masturbates, for instance) again

underscoring the connection between the psychology of the characters

and the moving images that they inhabit.

I was reminded repeatedly of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona,

which also examines at close range the relationship between two women,

one of them an actress, and which is also awash in reflexive elements

that turn its status as cinema back on itself. One particular shot in Mulholland Dr. strongly echoes a famous image from Persona

showing the face of one woman in profile, perfectly aligned with the

other, who is facing forward. (I shuddered when, at a climactic moment,

the print of Mulholland Dr. I was viewing slipped in the gate and

melted before my eyes — an explicit yet wholly serendipitous mirror of

a scene in the Bergman film that’s capped by the film catching and

burning.)

One of Lynch’s best features is his sense of humor, which runs to the pitch black. Mulholland Dr.

has a handful of very funny scenes, one of them a full-fledged set

piece involving a botched murder that has little, if anything, to do

with the rest of the film. Justin Theroux plays movie director Adam

Kesher, an obvious Lynch surrogate who is treated very badly by his

bosses. Billy Ray Cyrus has a funny cameo as a pool cleaner, and Lynch

crony Monty Montgomery nearly steals the whole movie as a dead-eyed

cowboy who sizes up Kesher with uncompromising horse sense. (Lynch’s

dialogue, especially in this scene, is even better than usual.) Twin Peaks

midget Michael J. Anderson shows up in a wheelchair (this time with a

full-size prosthetic body) and composer Angelo Badalamenti cameos as a

mobster with a thing for espresso.

At its most baffling, Mulholland Dr. seems scrutable

only by finding the doubles that infest it. An inexplicable sequence at

a nightclub called Silencio, for instance, seems to echo an earlier

scene in which Adam auditions actresses by watching them lip-sync to a

Connie Stevens song. Lynch may be commenting slyly on the process of

“discovering” talent (or discovering “talent”), or merely observing

that Hollywood has always moved audiences to tears with with an art

form at the heart of which is an essential phoniness. Mulholland Dr. is

not about Hollywood as an actual place as much as it is about what

“Hollywood” has come to mean in the collective consciousness.

The vaguely retro images and old Hollywood nostalgia dovetail

with earlier Lynch films, where he seemed to view the world partly from

the vantage point of the early 1960s. There are other reminders of the

director’s body of work, such as Rita’s emergence from the ruined

limousine, which mirrors Sherilyn Fenn’s cameo as an accident victim in

Wild at Heart — it’s my world, he seems to say, and you’re just written into it. More significantly, Mulholland Dr.

shares with other Lynch projects the sense that people are not what

they seem, that they are under the influence of an outside intelligence

or, alternately, that they have become delusional about their own

identities. In fact, such loss of one’s own identity is one of Lynch’s

great themes. It seemed like a silly gimmick and a cop-out when he used

it to resolve the murder mystery at the heart of Twin Peaks, but, refined and revisited here and in the unpleasant Lost Highway, it becomes more disquieting.

So if the film suffers from a split personality, Lynch nearly manages

to turn that into a virtue. In that respect, his audacity is

breathtaking — the main narrative twist both subverts and reinforces

everything that came before it, negating the emotions on display just

before amplifying them to overwhelming levels. Given that Lynch the

feature-film director wields such transformative power over the work of

Lynch the television director, Mulholland Dr.

finally functions as a fascinating auto-critique. It’s true that this

film fucks with its audience — but it also fucks with itself.

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