This week, Chris Martin (grad student, graphic novelist, musician, martini lover, and DJ) takes us on a strange trip down the rabbit hole that is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive in the most Lynchian way possible, which is to say: perplexing, strange, polyphonic, artful, and, of course, featuring a lesbian scene.
The Background to the First Viewing
Even before I watched Mulholland Drive (2001) for the first time, my Freshman reality was a blur of despondent dreams and would-be realities. Here’s a quick description of my person: I had tent-pole girth, a bowl-cut, two half-dollar eyes and a awkward swagger, that of an émigré stepping foot into his newly acquired, but completely foreign, homeland.
Three months into the start of the academic year and I managed to drive off two girlfriends (a third was to follow suit a month after screening Mulholland Drive), piss off my first roommate, and distance myself from the very people who might have given two shits about my problems (generally speaking) and who, if asked, given me decent advice, my parents.
The problem, I contended, was reality. I was fine. The I who sat at before his demure computer monitor, mixing electronic music on sub-par equipment and occasionally writing a short story, was fine. It was the world that needed changing. I am now, looking back on this woebegone web of development, reminded of the first stanza of Wallace Stevens’ “The Weeping Burgher”
It is with a strange malice
that I distort the world.
Hallway murmurs became insults directed at me, and as I lay alone at night on my mattress, each creak of the aging dormitory felt like a clock ticking away the chances I had to repair wounded relationships. Like most college students, I was only then figuring out who I was. The puzzle pieces of an identity did not always fit together. During the day, my second-floor dormitory window, looking out on a promenade and parking lot, was the bane my first academic year. Writes Nabokov in the voice of Kinbote, “Windows, as well known, have been the solace of first-person literature throughout the ages.” Nonsense! They were a curse of a young writer stuck in his own first-person narrative. The world disproved that I was alone. Sounds of society beckoned to me. A duet of drunk fraternity boys shuffle past, howling at the sky; a coquettish coalition of Asians girls are heard giggling in the distance.
The sorry verities!
Yet in excess, continual,
There is cure of sorrow.
One day, a group of dorm mates asked if I wanted to see David Lynch’s new film. I had not, at the time, seen any films by the director. I was a Lynch virgin, so to speak. The theater where we watched Mulholland Drive for the first time is, today, out of business; a lackluster Chinese buffet was erected where it once stood, but I can still recall its eccentricities as though it still operated. An obese ticketwoman would ask in all seriousness if you’re hiding outside candy, approve your tickets by making an inch-long tear in the paper receipts, and direct you to one of four unambiguously located screening rooms. The machine-gunning of the popcorn would catch your ear and you briefly consider buying an overpriced soda ($4.50? holy fuck…) or perhaps you would have managed to conceal (as did one of my cohorts with the visual aid of borrowed crutches) a can of Mountain Dew hidden in the space behind his knee, so as not to get patted down by the obese ticketwoman. It worked, and she turned her inquires to other consumers.
I come in belle design
Of foppish line.
The theater was cold. Layers of dust, I would later learn when I worked there, settled on the speakers. There was a faint rattling in the wiring. The theater employ must have been the most imbecilic collection of students I have ever witnessed run a theater. Twice, during the opening previews, the screen went blank, and a foppish redheaded boy burst through the rear doors with a flashlight and told everyone, not to worry, there had been a problem with the splicing, but it would be figured out soon. We must have sat six minutes in complete darkness before the sad, abysslike screen flickered to life and continued the preview of some churlish college gross-out flick, the name of which escapes me right now.
The First Impressions
Mulholland Drive was mind-boggling. A masterpiece of cinema. Those who know me personally, also know I’d use this word with films like Dr. Strangelove, The Graduate, and Inglourious Basterds. Mulholland teeters on the edge of pretentiousness, at times, but there was something there that I absolutely bought, that transcended its pretense. The dream as pure fiction, if there was such a thing, untainted by the real world. The tragic triumph of society over love. And, holy shit, was Naomi Watts amazing. I grew into long drawn-out love affair with Justin Theroux, but with Naomi Watts, it was love at first sight. And Laura Herring… is so undeniably sexy as the stranger-with-amnesia: here Lynch playing with the idea of male possession (for one can more easily possess someone if they have no origin).
The film was mind-bending. A puzzle about identity for a kid who sought to understand his own. I thought the acting was, overall, very good. The second half of the film, the recapitulation, was a bit too much, however. The overt explanation of what happened to Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla stood out to me as too obvious and was, I felt, thrown in there for people who couldn’t, or refused to, work things out for themselves. I’m a pedant, that’s one of the things that I learned about myself back then. I felt that the puzzle presented in the pre-cube portion of the film was enough to make me dig deeper, but the recapitulation did the opposite. It gave more answers that I was looking for. I didn’t want answers. For some of my friends, it was a puzzle that could not be solved. But just like Leonard from Memento, out just one year before Mulholland Drive, that’s exactly what I was looking for.
Justin Theroux as Adam Kesher was one of the breaths of fresh air in the film. The struggling director runs into trouble trying to deal with mobsters who have, for no reason clearly explained, vested interest in his film.
The film was patched together from a once-destined made-for-television movie [10YA editor’s note: and a potential series pilot] (the first sixty minutes of the film to when our protagonists get sucked into the blue cube), and a recapitulation of sorts where the first part of the film is “explained.” Lynch revised a great portion of the TV script and re-shot the thing in total. The film was complex. Labyrinthine. But it wasn’t enough to tell people that the film was complex — it was phenomenally perplexing my first time viewing it — the film seemed to force me to want to analyze it.
I spent hours online, reading about the plot’s intricacies. I wanted to know how Lynch viewed his own creation. I wanted to know how it functioned. I got in arguments, where I ferociously defended my views of “what happened” and “what it meant” with those who had seen it. Let me tell you now: this is not a great way to make friends. Lynch’s film resists clear explanation, or explanation at all, and thus dismissing someone’s laziness when interpreting the film is not the most constructive thing an 18-year-old teen could do to get friends. The film’s inaccessible nature ended up driving me, in some respects, further from civilized university life. I firmly concluded that if university life was to exclude critical discussions of Mulholland Drive, it was not the kind of life I wanted to be a part of.
Ah! That ill humors
should mask as white girls.
And ah! That Scaramouche
Should have a black barouche.
Ah! it appears I have distorted Stevens’ poem by quoting it out of order. (Also, Laura Herring is Latina.)
The Dream (Here, it gets weird)
Mulholland Drive is presented as a romance, and, at its heart, it is. The two main characters, Rita (Laura Elena Harring) and Betty (Naomi Watts) are in love, but we don’t know this until about half-way through the film. But the film also is a bit of a detective story. When they first meet, the dark-haired, buxom beauty chooses the name Rita after seeing a poster of the film Gilda starring Rita Hayworth. Then, taking some pages from film noir, the film tests the viewer’s own ability to discern real from unreal against Betty’s detective work trying to discover Rita’s identity. At what point does Betty’s quest for Rita’s identity become a quest for her own? It’s arguable that it always is like this. Her game of identity is the game of, as Vladimir Nabokov would say, “find what the sailor has hidden.” In this case: find what the director has hidden. The post-modern quest for identity is eternally deferred. The contradiction of the two genres is that romance requires the protagonist to overcome some final obstacle, while noir hinges on the protagonist succumbing (in some way) to it. You might say the film is internally conflicted, and you’d be right.
If you have never watched Mulholland Drive, then I suggest that you do so. But… how to explain Mulholland Drive? How to capture the dream within a dream? Because this stunt is immediately perilous, I will require complete silence.
Thank you. This tumbling act will be performed without the aid of a net! Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you… Magnifico: the Tumbling Giant!
Magnifico emerges from hole in tent. A spotlight from far left fixes him as he slowly ascends ladder
He stands erect on platform, bows, pretends to lose balance, feigns laughter, flexes bicep
Scattered laughter, applause
What do we do when we dream? Perhaps this is a big, stupid question, but Mulholland Drive isn’t content with just telling us. It makes the dream, as the Modernists might say, “vivid and continuous.” It looks into the mind of the dying (nearly dead?) Diane and runs her life before her eyes as though it were from the cutting room floor of a big Hollywood blockbuster…
Magnifico extends hands to bar, grips tightly
There are points, such as during Club Silencio, where stark vermillion eyeliner, blue neon, and ruby drapes cut the world into halves: the performers (those things presented beautifully and that we do not initially question), and the viewers (the rough, real, and questionable) and she’s not entirely certain whether she’s on the stage or in the audience. Since the “Death of the Author,” isn’t it the same way with the “performance” of a text? When are you the one on stage or…
…in the audience?
Magnifico swings, times his beats to catch the hands of his partner, back, forward, back, forward
Magnifico releases the bar
Drumroll abruptly ceases, scattered gasping
Magnifico falls, the syllable aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh! dopplering
Loud crying, howls of urgency
A “happy accident”? When is it part of the show or part of the mechanisms that create the show? When can we disentangle image from identity? Rita remembers the name Diane Selwyn, but we soon learn that this isn’t her. Betty, acting detective, calls the number of Diane Selwyn in the phone book, and hears an unfamiliar voice. Mechanisms turn. Plot deepens.
Magnifico hits the ground
Screams of horror
“Llorando” an a-capella version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” sung by Rebekah del Rio, capstones the detective’s quest. This scene was at the time, and remains, one of the most powerful moments in cinema history. And I do not give it that title lightly. Answers, in Club Silencio, are not discovered traditionally, as a noir would want, and the thing the main characters are struggling against, they soon realize (rather, Betty soon realizes) is insurmountable. Death. Silence.
Magnifico gets up, bows, flexes bicep
Rapid applause, catcalls, whistling
Rebbekah collapses onstage, the music continues on without her…
No hay banda
Or rather there is never silence and there is never no band, since Mulholland Drive is as constructed as films can be. It is constructed to show you the illusion of thinking there is no construction, if that makes sense. Another example: there’s a quote from, I think, The Usual Suspects, Kevin Spacey tells the detective “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” In Mulholland Drive, the devil’s in the details, so to speak. What you hear might not correspond to what you see because this is a world of illusion, of cinema, of story.
“The sorry verities!” Indeed.
Then there’s that point where she finds the box the… blue box and she’s not sure whether she’s performer or audience…
I, weeping in a calcined heart,
my hands such sharp, imagined things.
[The review is momentarily interrupted by the author of it imagining a scene that did not occur in the film]
Rita: Can I get out of this dream? What ever can I do (swoons)
She turns out her purse
Rita: A key! Hey, whaddayaknow?!
Key: Good, you found me.
Rita: My word! Key, you can talk?
Key: Yeah, yeah, I get that a lot. Look, put me…there…in the blue box thing. Right there…now turn it…
Rita: How, like, this? Is that good, ohhh! (swoons, runs hands up dress)
Chris (happening upon Key and Rita): My word! Excuse me. I just happened to come into this scene just like Rita did in the film Mulholland Drive! Golly, may I watch, may I–
Key: turn it turn it–
Rita: My word! Ohhh!
Chris: May I… yes?
Rita: yes yes yes yes
Key: turn it turn–
Rita: My word! Ohhh! Ohh!
Key: May I…
Rita: yes yes
Chris: –turn it?
Key and Rita: yes!
yet in excess, continual,
There is cure of sorrow.
The Waking Moment
does not always clarify. The distortions in Mulholland Drive, we learn, are our own. The genres and illusions that we have partaken of through the fantasy are real experiences of false idols. We are the performers in a dream of our own making. And perhaps I was not entirely distant from my parents in 2001, or detatched from my dorm mates. And I’m sure the earlier memorial effort has somehow misconstrued the facts. I was not really anti-social (in fact I spent a great deal of time with other people at the university), but the student-seeking-identity role fit the telling.
There is a moment, in the recapitulation, when the blue key makes sense — our Betty, now Diane, has authorized the assassination of her close tragic lover, the bisexual Camilla Rhodes (Rita). Diane’s problem is the problem Goethe’s Werther has with Lotte (except Lynch’s Werther is a lesbian). Camilla gets engaged to Adam, a young director, and one of them, accordingly, has to die. Werther’s death was a suicide, and, ultimately, Diane’s was as well. There is that moment, when it seems to fall into place. Maybe the blue box means fear? Maybe it means truth? But then we cannot have it that way, says Lynch. No, it cannot be entirely clear. Toward the end, we see the homeless woman holding the blue box. Is it what fear cannot unlock? The symbols begin to take on different meanings, and the ideas we had formed have to be reformed. In the waking moment, as in the dream, we are on unsteady ground.
Has it aged?
I know now that it is neither the lean experiment of Eraserhead, where some of the domestic issues in Mulholland Drive began for Lynch, nor is it the magnum opus of Inland Empire, wherein the experiment of Mulholland Drive was later reconfigured and developed into a — as though it were possible — more explicit commentary on the nature of artistic performance. Mulholland Drive somehow finds a happy medium between the Lynchian pretension of his later films, where he had acquired nearly complete artistic control, and the roughness of his earlier work. Mulholland Drive, today, loses some of its edge when compared to Lynch’s corpus, but only because his work is remarkably unique.
This time through, I found the recapitulation more appealing and complex than when I first viewed it. There is a Kubrickian style scene where Diane imagines Camilla standing in her kitchen, we get the reverse-shot and Diane is distressed. In the next shot Diane takes the place of Camilla. The scene reminds me of the last scene in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a few clever cuts transforms Dave into the floating baby.
There’s something wonderful about falling down Lynch’s rabbit holes, and that feeling of weightlessness, of free-fall, persists even when the outcome of Mulholland Drive is well known to the viewer. Yeah, the movie’s still good. I’ve always had an issue with people who watched the film but thought that it was “hot” at times. I will be mature about this. Yes, the lesbian scene (for all you bros out there) still hits the right note as an enactment of the erotic male-fantasy and–
Bro #1 (entering through a side door): Fuck ye ah! I love the lesbeeans, don’t I? Hell yes, there’s nothing hypermasculine about me at all! Nosiree, I just love watching lesbians do their lesbianey thing, just normal as I am and all. Woooeeeee!
Chris: Seriously? Seriously, just go away. I’m doing a review here and you’ve pulled me out of my first-person monologue. For what?
Bro #2 (sucking on a bottle of Natural Ice): Don’t know nuthin about no monologey….But he sure does love them lesbians, if I do say so myself, and I do! Boy, do we watch films like Mulholland Drive for the wrong reasons!
Chris: You can suck melancholy out of a song as a weasel sucks eggs.
Bro #1 (slipping and falling over): We sure as hell do, and I ain’t ready to start fixin’ my ways, no siree. (regaining footing) Well if it isn’t just the way of the world…
Chris (shoving the Bros out the door): This isn’t going to fly, bros. You’ll have to come back when I’m reviewing Irreversible and listening to Skrillex.
Bro #2 (grabbing doorjamb): Damned if that ain’t a great idea! We WILL be back, count on it!
Chris: I was joking. And now I can’t stop thinking about what you might’ve been doing during that film. Just…no.
Bro #1: Lesbians!
Chris: And stay out!
[Ed’s note: The author is now reinstated as the implied voice of the text. We apologize for the interruptions, and will not return to our programming!]
I’ve lived my whole life avoiding people who can’t look past their own dick and now these asshats come and interrupt my review.
So… anyway. There’s also the famous masturbation scene–
Bro #1 (reentering with a Slim Jim and tugging on his genitals): Fuck ye ah! I love the masterba–
Chris (with baseball bat)
WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP! WHAP!
[Ed’s note: No Bros were harmed in the making of this review.]
As I was saying, the masturbation scene is so shocking and tragic, a rival to the masterfully crafted voyeur scene in Blue Velvet, you know, where we get that famous “Where’s my bourbon??” line? I’ve lost my train of thought. Moving on…
Mulholland Drive demands to be watched all the way through, in one sitting, without interruptions. Please do. This must have been Lynch’s idea: the DVD cannot be skipped ahead or back because there are no chapter markers. Attempting to do so will send you right back to the beginning, losing your place in the film’s sequence. I ran into this strange fact while attempting to play sections of the film for my English 111 class. They watched it all the way through, before you ask, but it was difficult to skip to and analyze certain sections. I ended up fast forwarding and pausing through parts of the film, which made it feel like I was using an old videocassette deck. There’s something “old” about the film and the DVD that goes beyond the text. (What I can tell you about playing Mulholland Drive for Freshman and Sophomores is that this film was made for Freshman and Sophomores. It’s difficult enough to incite discussion, but entertaining enough to keep them guessing. I was a Freshman when I first watched it, after all.) Teaching Mulholland Drive was one of the most enjoyable moments so far for me as a teacher. My students loved it, and the chance to relive that film strengthened my love for Lynch’s mind-twisty narratives.
Of all of Lynch’s films, Mulholland Drive sticks with me the most. Naomi Watts is so good that in the scene when Betty goes in for her audition, her switch from a “normal person” to an “actress” is startling. She changes persona from in one buttery second that you suddenly realize the actress (Watts) had been acting as a person acting as an actress acting as a person, and when she shows you how good she can be, you realize she’s even better than you thought. She’s blonde dynamite.
Another thing about the acting. The oddness to the acting, you know, since it’s supposed to be a dream about acting, har har, does not excuse bad acting. Some of the side-characters stand out even though we accept the pretense that we’re caught up in some farcical version of the American dream. How far do we allow Lynch to use that motif to cover up bad acting? I’m personally okay with allowing Lynch to take us where he wants, but if you’ve never seen the film before, it will stick out. I noticed the acting a lot more this time through, although, to be fair, it’s not entirely clear that some of the side characters are acting poorly or are supposed to be stilted in demeanor. Whatever Lynch’s intention are, I always feel that he’s testing me, seeing how far he can push an artifice before you start to declaim it. The hitman character and that writer character in the office are good examples, so are the two guys, Dan and Herb, in the diner, although that’s one of my favorite sequences in all of Lynch’s films.
Watching Mulholland Drive today rejuvenates cinema. It feels like I’m stepping foot into that familiar foreign land, and perhaps that’s the true mark of a film that will last. Some films just seem to renew themselves with future viewings. The day when Mulholland Drive is no longer exciting, is the day I stop watching films.
The dog turds on the apartment grounds (they’re given a good five seconds of film time) still perplex me. I once read an essay where the critic claimed that the scene was to depict Betty’s anal-fixation, a la Freud. While I’m not sure I buy that, I haven’t come up with a better explanation.
The two “old bags” who Betty meets in the airplane at the beginning come out of a paper bag at the end of the film.
Laura Elena Harring makes an appearance in Inland Empire as “Jane Rabbit,” one of the rabbit people in that odd and disturbing segment with the rabbit family. I always felt Inland Empire was contextual to Mulholland Drive, but if you were David Lynch, what does it mean to have your star from one film recast as a peripheral, masked role in your next film?
Everyone calls the homeless woman behind the diner a man. Ugliness is, apparently, masculine in dreams.
John Vanderslice wrote a song “Promising Actress” based on Mulholland Drive for his album Cellar Door.
There is some strange otherworldly quality to the Cowboy, who becomes illuminated in light as Adam Kesher approaches him on his ranch at night. You have to go pretty far outside of Los Angeles to find a ranch, and it’s not entirely clear how long Adam is gone. When he says, “He’s driving this buggy and you fix your attitude and you can ride along with me,” I get the sense he’s actually talking to the disbelieving audience.
To quote John Vanderslice “Sometimes a cowboy’s just a man / In a cowboy suit”
I’m not sure the Cowboy’s just a man, now that my thoughts are free-floating.
Still on the topic of the Cowboy, when he tells Adam that “you will see me one more time if you do good. You will see me two more times if you do bad,” what the hell does he mean?
I mean, is the second time in Hell? Because I’ll bet the Cowboy is a pretty nice guy when you get to know him.
Still eerie: when Rita/Camilla, lying in bed, says “Silencio”
Still really eerie: when Betty sees herself, lying in bed, decaying.
Still really damn eerie: when the homeless woman peeks out from behind that wall, giving Dan a heart attack.
Still really really damn eerie: when, in the scene leading up to the homeless woman peeking out from behind the wall, Herb stands in by the register, just in the way Dan said he did in his dream, and you realize that you’re in Dan’s dream.
Does Lynch’s interpretation of the American Dream still fit-in with the America of 2011?
The scene when Betty is on the phone with her Aunt, and as the sound of her phone call continues, we — in a first-person-perspective — move toward the bedroom, and open the door. For those few fleeting moments we become Betty.
In traditional Lynch style, there’s a red room (see Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me), but this one isn’t really used all that much.
The word “silence” or any derivation thereof occurs 22 times in the original script for the television pilot for ABC. There is no mention of “Club Silencio.”
Of all the scenes in the film, the round-table where Adam Kesher is told to hire Camilla Rhodes, is one of the oddest. At one point, the cafe aficionado Castigliani brother, (played by Angelo Badalamenti) spits his cafe back into a napkin because it’s not good enough. They should have gone with Starbucks, I guess.
Seeing Michael J. Anderson with prosthetic limbs as Mr. Roque, is even more odd after having watched him play the backwards-talking dream-dwarf character in Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Think about what he must’ve felt pretending to be full-sized (except his head is tiny) in the red-room scene.
I still think this film should have won Best Director and Best Picture. There’s simply nothing like it. Filmgoers will remember it over A Beautiful Mind, I hope. I mean, really, A Beautiful Mind? Please.