An Appreciation – Mulholland Drive
Los Angeles is a strange place. It’s a town of mystery and intrigue, built upon an industry of dreams. This is where countless people have gone with hopes of striking it big, landing that one important movie that will shoot them to fame and fortune. How often have we heard about a person from No Where, U.S.A. coming to Hollywood and through a combination of skill, persistence, and luck end up on top of the world? Sadly, for every success story there are a dozen others ending in heartbreak and tragedy. L.A. is not only a place of dreams, but of nightmares. Around every street corner one can find a dark and twisted history. This is where Elizabeth Short’s unsolved murder lent to her forever being known as “The Black Dahlia,” or where Peg Entwistle’s infamous leap off the Hollywood sign solidified her place in movie lore.
Early in David Lynch’s brilliant Mulholland Drive (2001), the camera shoots the city from high above, with the glowing streetlights illuminating the darkness. There is an awe and wonderment of this image, yet there exists malevolence waiting to be stumbled upon. It only makes sense that a filmmaker of Lynch’s caliber, one who so often explores the fantastical recesses of the mind, would tackle the mystique of the so-called “Dream Machine” that is Hollywood. With his writing and direction, he has made a mesmerizing depiction of this world, both in its glory and madness. This could have very well been “The Hollywood Movie” if it weren’t for another small, location specific picture known as Sunset Boulevard (1950).
But even Billy Wilder’s masterpiece never examined its material in such an illusive way. Lynch never gives us solid ground in terms of narrative. He is constantly throwing us for a loop, establishing certain narrative points and then subverting them later on. Is any of what we’re seeing real, or is it the figment of a character’s wild imagination? Do characters even exist, or are they all apparitions? Or is it all the amalgamation of multiple people’s thoughts and feelings? Through the years, Lynch has resisted giving any deeper explanation of his work. A film like this grows through interpretation and analysis. If Lynch were to provide his perspective, it would drain the aura surrounding it.
This is one of its great accomplishments, setting forth a puzzle and leaving us the responsibility of putting it all together. Using the “dream logic” device in storytelling is a tricky thing to pull off. It can be used as an easy out to explain away plot holes and lapses in common sense. But what works here is how Lynch infuses a level of importance in every single element. Everything we see and hear matters. Nothing is done arbitrarily, it all fits as it should and we walk away trying to make the ends meet. Even though characters change names and personalities, they do so as a means to enrich the material, not undercut it. Clues are presented and then revisited, characters we think play major roles are pushed aside while background players are brought to the foreground. Lynch never “tricks” us, because despite the abstract nature of the plot folding unto itself, it contains a level of truth and honesty.
Surprising to think that this started as a rejected television pilot for ABC, whose fragments were collected by Lynch and completed nearly two years later as a feature. But that doesn’t mean this is simply a collage of sequences stitched together to salvage whatever remained. The circumstances that brought the film to life have little relevance to its quality. The fact that it fell through for television ended up being a blessing in disguise. Lynch takes familiar conventions of noir – that classic cinematic style of the ‘40s and ‘50s – and melds it into a form all his own. This is a perfect blending of his cinematic tendencies, from the bizarre worlds of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet (1986), and Lost Highway (1997) to the heart and soul of The Elephant Man (1980) and The Straight Story (1999).
How does one start to unravel the intricacies of Lynch’s story? We can start with Betty (Naomi Watts) the bright-eyed optimist, traveling from Ontario to L.A. with stardom twinkling in her eyes. Her opening scene – where she exits the airport with an elderly couple she met on the plane – is exaggerated in the performances as well as the visuals. Watts plays the moment with a big smile plastered on her face, and Peter Deming’s cinematography captures it with a hazy yellow glow. Coincidentally, Watts was a struggling actress at this time, and was close to quitting the industry altogether before she got the role. Life imitates art, and vice versa.
There’s also the amnesiac woman (Laura Harring) who, after surviving an early car crash that kills a couple of men intent on murdering her, stumbles her way to an apartment complex to recuperate. This apartment belongs to the aunt of Betty. When Betty runs into the woman and asks for her name she answers with “Rita,” an obvious reference to Rita Hayworth, famous for her role in the noirish Gilda (1946). It’s no mistake that Laura Harring looks startlingly like Hayworth, filling the role of the alluring mystery woman. Interestingly enough, instead of recoiling away from a complete stranger in her aunt’s apartment, Betty befriends Rita without pause, helping her overcome her amnesia and discover who she is. Why does Betty do this? What draws her to Rita, and what compels Rita to go along with Betty? From here, the narrative shifts into a detective story, as the two piece clues together despite not knowing anything about the other.