Take 21: Mulholland Drive

In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week, Take 21: Mulholland Drive

David Lynch is the type of director that is nearly impossible to separate from his movies. His presence is infused in all his art, of which the varieties range from collage, sculpture, and painting to film, television and furniture design. His public persona embraces his Montana hucksterism to such an extreme degree it can be difficult to determine if it’s genuine or if the real Lynch is peeking out at us from between cracks. The gee-whiz quality he depicts can feel like an alternate representation of the grinning elderly couple in Mulholland Drive that Betty meets on the plane — an omnipresent facade masking something more sinister and troubled underneath. Lynch has a creative prowess that is rare and his art embodies a commitment to creativity over entertainment and narrative.

I don’t plan to perseverate on the plot of Mulholland Drive. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it is meant to be experienced. It’s easy to get lost in long conversations about the plot, trying to dissect every shot for a clue about David Lynch’s true intention or hunt for a hint about the psyches of the lead characters. The film is endlessly rewatchable, there are details tucked into every corner that should be explored and discussed in robust and passionate dialogue. But because “silencio” is integral to the film and because David Lynch harbors a tendency for reticence in terms of explaining the underlying meaning, the experience of Mulholland Drive stands alone. The movie is so lush and evocative that despite the lack of overt resolution we, the audience, cannot demand more from it. The story is told by prioritizing tone and instinct over exposition and elucidation.

Because he has mastered tone on screen, Lynch is a dreamscape auteur. The ending of a Lynch film often feels like waking from a deep nap and feeling confusion about your location or the lost time that has passed. Scenes and sequences in Mulholland Drive provoke the creepy sensation of almost understanding — the feeling of strained familiarity. Rita’s memory returns to her in segments spurred by inane details surrounding her — Diane’s name tag at Winkie’s or Betty prompting her with the statement “I wonder where you were going?” The sound design expertly heightens this emotion and is sometimes the only way of knowing if the scene is meant to be comical or dank with menacing undercurrents. The score is the beating heart of the rich, variant, hues portrayed over the course of the film.

When asked to describe Mulholland Drive David Lynch has succinctly used the description: “a love story in the city of dreams.” The film is as much about Los Angeles as it is about dreams, love, and the limits of sanity. Lynch leverages directorial techniques of those that came before him like a carpenter with a deep toolbox. I can only imagine that part of Naomi Watts’ research for the role included viewing the turn of the century films Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard. Both of those films explored conflicting realities and are crafted with Noir sensibilities. Joe Messing’s first scene, where an assassination goes awry then becomes darkly comedic, feels reminiscent of Lynch’s contemporaries, the Coen brothers, who also subvert cinematic expectations. Lynch learns from those whom’s taste he admires, and he uses that knowledge to deftly navigate scenes through a series of genres: thriller, romance, coming of age, and more are all present throughout the film.

One of the treasures of Mulholland Drive is the portrayal of directors in action by Justin Theroux and Wayne Grace in what feels like a commentary on the Hollywood movie making system. Grace’s Bob Booker, on one hand, feels threatened by Rita’s extraordinary performance in the audition, enough to provide arbitrary notes that affirm his authority which could potentially hinder the film from its best implementation. Justin Theroux, depending on which reality we’re observing, has his autonomy ripped from him over and over, first by the executives, then by his wife, then by the cowboy.

This is perhaps a representation of Lynch’s own experiences in the Hollywood film system. After his experience with Twin Peaks, and because of his commitment to modern art and innovation, he offers a jaded perspective on the bottom-line, revenue-driven, industry that at times masquerades as a benefactor of the arts. Film is the most flexible medium for portraying art representative of dreams and the most effective for reaching a large audience, but it is also the most difficult to privately fund.

Dennis Lim summarized David Lynch’s own words for The New Yorker: “Great ideas are ‘beautiful’ and ‘thrilling’ and make you ‘fall in love’; when the creative process is impeded, it’s a ‘terrible thing’ that can feel ‘like death.’” When Betty steps off the plane she is invigorated by the dream of succeeding in Hollywood, of being both a great actress and a movie star. Irene and her companion grin widely. Betty, like Lynch, soon discovers that the exterior of the setting belies the dark puppet masters pulling the strings.

In this way, Lynch tackles two forms of dreams in Mulholland Drive; there are the dreams our subconscious directs for us in sleep and the dreams we foster in our waking life. Both contain the potential for limitless creativity and potential, both can provoke our deepest, most elemental fears. Lynch encourages the audience to witness how dreams can elicit understanding of fundamental selves, beneath the glossy exterior we craft for the onlookers.

Watching movies and writing essays.