The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Mulholland Drive (2001/USA/dir. David Lynch) appeared at #20 on my original list.
What it is • So many elements reel us into the first few minutes of Mulholland Drive. A strange, colorful jitterbug swims into view, pop Americana and surreal avant-garde colliding as figures cascade inside one another and repeat across the screen. Then a point of view shot, with heavy breathing on the soundtrack, descends onto a pillow and disappears into darkness. Angelo Badalamenti's instantly evocative score emerges, its synthesized majesty provoking mixed responses so suited to a film about the magic and deception of the film industry: glamor, tragedy, artificiality, deep emotion. The drama begins with a likely murder attempt thwarted by a violent car crash. We meet the potential victim (Laura Elena Harring) whose amnesiac confusion reflects our own: who is she, how did she get here, what does it all mean?? Mulholland Drive is a gripping, carefully-told narrative for all its experimentation. That's what frustrates so many viewers while engrossing others - we are primed to expect answers but we aren't ready for the way they are presented. This desire only escalates as the main plot begins: bright-eyed ingenue Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress newly arrived in Hollywood, discovers that "Rita" (as the amnesiac names herself) has wandered into her absent aunt's apartment. She vows to unravel the mystery of this beautiful stranger. As the film proceeds, it introduces a separate storyline that seems connected in some subterranean way: a shadowy cabal prevents a film director (Justin Theroux) from executing his desired creative decisions in increasingly baroque, ominous fashion. Meanwhile there are cutaways to other events. A hitman (Mark Pellegrino) goes on a darkly comic killing spree, quite likely stemming from that early aborted assassination. There's even a one-off scene with two men in a diner (Patrick Fischler and Michael Cooke), where one of them describes a terrifying nightmare about a "man behind this place...he's the one doing all these things." The scene ends in one of the most viscerally terrifying moments in cinema history. As we travel between characters and locations, we are given a grand, romantic tour of Los Angeles: the shiny airports, the rundown bungalows, the hidden nightclubs charged with occult energy, auditions in small corner offices and bustling soundstages alike, meetings in cold corporate office buildings and abandoned cowboy ranches with blinking overhead lamps. The spirit of this journey is summoned in a single montage as a series of sinister men, most of whose faces we can't see, call one another - a story of the city's highs and lows expressed in telephones, suggesting that all these levels of reality are interconnected. Where are all these threads taking us? Seemingly patterned along the lines of Grand Canyon or any given Robert Altman film (perhaps Short Cuts if we want to stick with the L.A. theme), Mulholland Drive owes its multiple strands to another source - it began life as a TV pilot for ABC. Like many viewers, I didn't know this when I watched, and the setup seemed perfectly natural. Then the blue box opens...and everything changes.
Why I like it •
This is the film. It's the one that made me love David Lynch in 2002, when I watched it on DVD a year after being captivated by the TV trailer for its theatrical release. Prior to Mulholland Drive, I had seen The Elephant Man and was generally aware of Lynch's reputation although the stills I'd come across in books and the summaries I'd read of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet didn't suggest a sensibility I'd gibe with. But there was something dreamy, romantic, ominous, and electric about Mulholland Drive even before my first viewing. There's a famous line from a film ranked even higher on this list about movies never quite living up to our imaginations; frequently this gap between idealization and actuality can even be a virtue, a kind of bittersweet disappointment. But that gap doesn't hold for Mulholland Drive, and perhaps for Lynch films in general. They take us further, open up more doors, than we could ever expect going in. Am I being vague? I'm not sure I can convey the experience of watching the film through words, especially in this short format, but I can touch on a few aspects of its appeal. Perhaps more than any of the director's other movies, even Blue Velvet, its early passages are saturated in happiness. This is already colored by the spooky opening and the drama of the inciting incident (which nonetheless has a moody glamor to it). But certainly from the moment Betty steps off the plane, we are giddy with a kind of Hollywood Dream romanticism that, for me at least, transcends the small town Norman Rockwellism of Blue Velvet. Anyone who has ever harbored ambitions of creativity and acclaim can appreciate this aura, and anyone who has ever tasted the ashen disappointment of failure and rejection can recognize where the story goes. An internal emotional logic plays out in the film's narrative no matter how you explain its convolutions. Its most popular reading was "spoiled" for me before my first viewing, so I've always seen it through that prism and it's hard for me to genuinely consider another interpretation. This has been both good and bad at various times...at first it gave Mulholland Drive an extra dimension, an "answer" to the tantalizing clues that made the puzzle even more pleasurable, without diluting its mysterious tug (because there were still so many loose ends and overarching questions of correspondence, the "why" that the "what" didn't automatically address). Later, I found myself frustrated with this aspect of the movie, vaguely wondering if a less immediately satisfying explanation would have been more deeply satisfying in the long run...if we couldn't explain the relations of the part perhaps their uncanny, irrational powers would remain undiminished? Eventually, though, I found myself drawing the opposite conclusion. The latter part of the film, the most psychologically grounded and explicit, is to me the most gratifying. As fun as the early scenes are, I'm always eager to get to the raw, visceral - and more sharply cinematic - poignancy of the tragic conclusion. This may partly be because I'm more keenly aware of the film's genesis, how those early scenes were essentially designed as ambiguous non sequiturs, kicking off a TV show that never occurred; this is a viewpoint that Lynch himself very much discourages, given his interest in letting mystery and ambiguity linger. However, I'm also drawn more to the film's ending the older I get, the less captivated I am by illusion, and the more determined I am to get to the bottom of things. There is something refreshing about the honesty of a shattered daydream, no matter how bleak. But this too may pass. Betty's naive reverie may eventually re-emerge with a new charge, suggesting that Diane may belong to a different, powerful reality but not necessarily a dominant one. Mulholland Drive is a film that keeps evolving with its viewer.
More from me • Although I've covered the film much more than I remembered, I didn't write extensively on it until I reviewed every single Lynch film in one long post a couple years ago (Mulholland Drive got ten paragraphs, more than any other, attending mostly to its history and meaning as a TV pilot turned feature film). A week later I published an essay exploring the evolution of Lynch's career through all of his work. Last year, as part of the Lynch/Rivette retrospective, I reviewed Mulholland Drive and Celine and Julie Go Boating side by side. Journey Through Twin Peaks: "Opening the Door" is a chapter of my video series exploring the connections between Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive (still frames captured here), and this spring I created Meshes of Lynch, a video essay juxtaposing shots from Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon with Mulholland Drive and other Lynch films (the cross-post contains still images of each comparison). I interviewed Lynch scholar Martha Nochimson, who hates the most common interpretation of Mulholland Drive and offers her own. I appeared on a Twin Peaks Unwrapped podcast devoted to Mulholland Drive when the blu-ray was released. An intro for David Lynch Month in June 2014 featured a recap of my first encounter with Mulholland Drive as well as a dozen images from the movie. My very first blog post on the movie briefly questioned why it wasn't in the 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die book (a long conversation ensued; this was back when blog-commenting was more of a thing). A clip appears at 4:12 in "The Millennial Mood", a chapter in my "32 Days of Movies" video clip series - it's quite a frightening jump-scare, so be warned!
How you can see it • Mulholland Drive is available on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix, and for digital rental/purchase on Amazon and iTunes.
What do you think? • Does Mulholland Drive's original status as a TV pilot distract you, or does it feel seamless? The first time you watched the movie, how did you perceive the relationship between the first part and the second part? What is your preferred reading now, or do you prefer to let the experience wash over you without explanation?
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Yesterday: On the Waterfront (#21)
Tomorrow: The Godfather (#19)