a.k.a.: Mulholland Drive
Director: David Lynch; Screenplay: David Lynch; Cinematography: Peter Deming; Studio: Universal Pictures; Producers: Pierre Edelman, Alain Sarde, and Mary Sweeney
Cast: Naomi Watts (Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn), Laura Harring (Rita/Camilla Rhodes), Ann Miller (Catherine “Coco” Lenoix), Dan Hedaya (Vincenzo Castigliani), Angelo Badalamenti (Luigi Castigliani) Justin Theroux (Adam Kesher), Brent Briscoe (Det. Neal Domgaard), Robert Forster (Det. Harry McKnight), Katharine Towne (Cynthia Jenzen), Billy Ray Cyrus (Gene), Lori Heuring (Lorraine Kesher), The Cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery), Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson), Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George), Patrick Fischler (Dan), Michael Cooke (Herb)
- “Silencio… silencio…”
I assume that this one is going to divide some folks. I’ve watched Mulholland Dr. with many people and generally see two initial reactions. Either people are completely confused by it and feel cheated by David Lynch with the abrupt turn that the story takes. Or, there are those that may not fully understand what just happened but are so fascinated by trying to figure it out that they can’t wait to watch it again and solve the mystery. I distinctly remember falling into the latter category after watching it for the first time. I was captivated the entire way through, but utterly confounded by the time the film ended. My exact reaction was, and I remember typing this on a movie message board, “I’m not sure I can explain what I just watched; all I know is that I loved it.” That’s an incredible thing to say about a movie that I will routinely cite as being among a handful of the best films released in the last decade. The fact that I was admittedly confused, unsure of what to make of the story – indeed, skeptical as to whether it made any sense at all – and still remained amazed by the artistry of it all speaks volumes to what an impression this movie made on me.
It needs to be said early in this piece that it is difficult to discuss this movie without revealing key twists and plot details that are major factors in the story. My reputation of trying to keep these as spoiler-free as possible is well-established, but it’s going to be a virtual impossibility here. If you haven’t seen it yet, my recommendation would be to just skim or simply leave comments for 2001 in general. Why ruin what could be a rare experience? But by all means, consider this a flashing sign that reads: GO SEE THIS MOVIE ASAP! Now, with that, we proceed…
Assessing things now, Mulholland Dr. looks like the film that David Lynch was working toward. Taking elements he had utilized with great results in previous movies – the surrealism of Eraserhead, the sexual taboos of Blue Velvet, the wildly non-linear storytelling of Lost Highway – he combined them to create an indefinable type of film. At various times it feels like a thriller, a mystery, a 50s sitcom, an erotic love story, and so much more. The other obvious influence on the tone of the entire project was his celebrated TV series Twin Peaks. Lynch’s original idea for Mulholland Dr. was to follow the formula he created with Twin Peaks – make a two-hour pilot episode and then springboard that into a regular series. He went to ABC only with the vague outline of a woman who is injured in a car crash and wakes up with $125,000 in cash and a blue key in her possession. Other than that, she remembers nothing about herself. The series would progress as the girl she meets afterward tries to help her discover her identity. The ABC brass, understanding how successful the protracted mystery of Twin Peaks was a decade earlier, gave the go ahead. It is amazing to think that television bigwigs would allow someone like Lynch such free reign, knowing the themes he routinely touched on in his work. But they did and Lynch proceeded to shoot the pilot film… only to have ABC reject it once it was completed.
All of this was fine with Lynch, because he was unsatisfied with the changes he was forced to make by ABC executives. After a long night of inspiration, Lynch was able to rework the script, adding subplots that would be prominent in the final version, and stretch it to feature-length. In fact, it was at this point that Lynch included the final third of the film, involving the opening of the blue box and the transformation of the two lead characters into completely different people. Once this twist was added to the story, it guaranteed that the movie was bound to be controversial. But Lynch didn’t stop there. Without the restrictions imposed by television, he was uninhibited in exploring the darkness that permeates so much of his other work, and he does so freely. The bizarre sequences and characters found throughout the story are endless. So I’ll personally take this opportunity to thank ABC for passing on the pilot and freeing Lynch to do what he does best.
After an opening montage of teens jitterbugging, the story begins traditionally, with a wide-eyed Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) stepping off a plan at LAX. She tells the elderly couple she met on the flight that she has come to Los Angeles to stay at her aunt’s apartment and pursue her dreams of becoming a Hollywood starlet. When she gets to the apartment, she discovers a mysterious woman in the shower. The lady was able to sneak into the apartment after surviving a terrible car crash on Mulholland Drive the night before. Unable to remember anything about herself or the circumstances of the accident, she takes the name Rita after seeing a poster for Gilda in the apartment. The only clue to Rita’s true identity is a large amount of cash in her purse and a lone blue key. The bighearted Betty decides to assist Rita in discovering her identity and figuring out what the money and key actually mean.
This is the key storyline, but in watching it progress, Lynch guides the audience through an assortment of dreams, nightmares and hallucinations. The various threads seem completely random, but they are at least loosely tied together, and somehow manage to work in the overall story arc. The other key subplot followed is the travails of wunderkind director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Resisting the influence of the mob-backed Castigliani brothers (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti) trying to influence the casting in his latest film, Kesher becomes overwhelmed by it all. The characters met along the way could only be the creation of David Lynch. Just describing them sounds like something out of a vaudeville act: A man dressed as a cowboy calls a meeting and obliquely discusses what Adam is going to do. Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson) appears as a puppetmaster, pulling the strings of Hollywood from behind a plate-glass window. A blue-haired woman. A hitman who manages to shoot through a wall and kill an innocent bystander. Two men who meet at a local café to discuss the recurring nightmare that one of them has been having about a strange being that appears behind the dumpster of the restaurant. Billy Ray Cyrus having an affair with Adam’s wife. Truly, these are only characters and scenarios that could be created by Lynch.
If you’re still reading at this point, chances are you’ve already seem the movie and understand how convoluted it all can seem. And the confusion is taken to another level when Betty and Rita find a blue box that is a match for the key in Rita’s purse. When they turn the key, everything changes. In my opinion, it’s the jumping off point for whether someone is going to love or hate the film. If you can stomach the shifts of characters and perspective, it’s a mystery that holds up to endless repeat viewings. If it seems like too much of a swerve, it is likely to ruin the entire thing.
There are entire web sites devoted to interpreting Mulholland Dr., with dissertation-length essays attempting to construct complete interpretations. That is not my intention here, but I do think it’s interesting to at least get individual takes on how to make sense of it all. I have reached a point where I feel confident in saying that those who think the entire movie is one convoluted mess are wrong. There _is_ a coherent story to be interpreted. I can’t account for all of the scenes that take place – things like the Cowboy and the monster behind the dumpster at Winkie’s still vex me – but regarding the key love triangle between Betty/Diane, Rita/Camille and Adam, I have an interpretation that works for me. My analysis is not at all revelatory and is the one I see most people adopting. It seems obvious to me that at least one section of the film is a dream – either the first two-thirds, containing Betty and Rita, or the final third where they become Diane and Camille. The question becomes which part? I’ve seen arguments made both ways, but the entire storyline between them makes sense to me if the first two-thirds take place entirely in Diane’s mind. It is Diane looking back on her relationship with Camille in an idealized, Hollywood light. She casts herself as the innocent Betty, unable to live what she has become in reality. Unable to cope with the fact that she has brought about the death of a former lover, she retreats to these hallucinations to relive the relationship. Things like the blue key, which signaled that the deed has been done, are incorporated into the dreams as Diane weaves in and out of reality and hallucination. But once she realizes that there is no undoing what she ordered, reverting into her dreams no longer becomes possible. Toward the end, such attempts only take her back to real-life memories of Camille and Adam flaunting their relationship. The end result is explosive, to say the least.
OK, a thoroughly abbreviated and amateurish interpretation, but it was nice to at least get something like that into writing. I think the fact that I can construct such an analysis is a huge part of the appeal for me. The complete incomprehensibility I experienced with Lynch’s later Inland Empire, for example, was a definite turnoff. I’ve yet to come across a coherent story being constructed out of it, and thus have no real attachment to it. For anyone else who would like to try, I’d love to hear how others have interpreted it all. As I said, I can’t account for everything that happens. Certain characters and scenes still have me baffled. But I have explicitly avoided reading too many interpretations of critics and others as I still occasionally try to unravel it all myself.
The most powerful memory I have of seeing Mulholland Dr. for the first time remains the fact that I saw it under the best possible conditions. I literally knew no more about the storyline than the description on the back cover of the DVD, which gives almost nothing away. What initially drew me in was the Hitchcock-like mystery of it all. The movie progresses by playing as a straight thriller and Lynch is able to create scenes of unbelievable power. Sequences like when Betty and Rita secretly visit the apartment of the unknown Diane Selwyn or the intense El Silencio club kept me on the edge of my seat. I had no idea where the story was going. And then they opened the box and, in the words of the inimitable Cosmo Kramer, blew my mind. The result was one of the most memorable movie experiences of my entire life. I remember watching the credits roll, scrambling to figure out what I just watched. It’s a cherished memory and I’d give anything to be able to go through that again or to have similar experiences.
Other Contenders for 2001: OK, this countdown is devoted exclusively to major motion pictures, but I can’t go through this year without at least acknowledging Band of Brothers. It’s a great mini-series, and in my opinion the best thing that HBO has ever made – and this is coming from someone who thinks that The Sopranos, The Wire and Curb Your Enthusiasm are among the greatest television series of all time. Band of Brothers is amazing.
As to the actual movies under consideration in this countdown, nothing came close to approaching Mulholland Dr. I can only think of two movies in the entire decade that would challenge it for me, so the runaway victory is no surprise. But others from this year that I really like: The Fellowship of the Rings (Peter Jackson), The Man Who Wasn’t There (Coen Brothers), Y tu mama tambien (Alfonso Cuaron), and Gosford Park (Robert Altman).