by Greg Muskewitz
Mulholland Drive was originally prepared as an open-ended television pilot that David Lynch wrote and directed for ABC, which was to premiere in ’99. But as time has told, ABC killed that idea (Lynch now vows never to go near TV again), temporarily leaving it dead in the water before Studio Canal + came along and snapped up the rights, thereby allowing Lynch to revisualize the project as a self-contained feature to stand on its own. As-of-yet, I have only seen the film once, a fact that will be adjusted very soon, but to retell the plot almost seems pointless. However, try I will…One early synopsis released by Universal Focus calls it “A love story in the city of dreams.” That’s it. Yet it is so much more complicated than that. Elsewhere referenced as a cautionary tale for young, hopeful actresses, at the film’s start, we travel along with a limousine along Mulholland Dr. An attractive brunette (Laura Elena Harring) sits in the back and becomes alarmed when her drivers pull over and attempt to remove her from the vehicle. As that happens, two youth-filled cars speed by drag racing on both sides of the street, and one slams headfirst into the limo. After a rough night, the brunette sneaks her way into a posh apartment, apparently suffering from a head injury. Around the same time, a blonde, beautiful Canadian filled with naïveté, Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Los Angeles for the first time, deathly excited about pursuing acting.
"Well worth the ride."
The women unexpectedly meet in the apartment—Betty allowed to stay at her aunt’s, but quickly put at ease about the brunette’s intrusion through mistake. Her name is Rita, or so she adopts Ms. Hayworth’s first name from the poster of Gilda hanging on the wall; it becomes obvious, “Rita” is suffering from amnesia and even once Betty discovers the habitat-al faux pas, she has befriended the accident victim and promised to help. Of course, none of this is as straightforwardly laid out. As intermediary scenes, we are introduced to a film director named Adam (Justin Theroux), who attends a studio meeting in which several representatives are forcing him to cast a certain actress named Camilla Rhodes in a part that just opened up (originally set to be played by Rita, maybe?); the detectives at the scene of the car accident; a prefatory luncheon between to male buddies—one who recounts his nightmare only to suddenly and freakishly die out of fear when he imagines seeing a burnt-looking vagrant or “monster,” etc. It’s quite clear that at this point, we are witnessing the staggered introductions of those characters who would have, at least we assume, continued their reoccurrences and places within the show. Those are not the only prelusions, other spots are allotted, such as for Adam’s wife and her secret boyfriend (played by Billy Ray Cyrus), but in particular, the preambles of the cops and the burnt vagrant are only set into motion and never returned to, at least not until another glimpse at the end.
Earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, Lynch was co-awarded the director prize along with the directing-end of the Coen Brothers for The Man Who Wasn’t There, and since then both Lynch and Mulholland Drive have generated praise aplenty. As much as I am glad that Lynch and his film are getting notice and respect, I cannot help but feel that a lot of the yay-saying antics of the critics is the trendy following-of-the-leader/jumping on the bandwagon trendiness of what’s ‘in’ and what isn’t. For me, there were a lot of similarities that I picked up on between Highway and Drive; for starters, there is even an exact musical composition by Badalementi that plays very early on. The director character, Adam, is a lot like Bill Pullman’s Fred Madison, from the attitude, to the clothing, the hairdo and even the looks. It isn’t hard to believe that it could be a relative or even “Fred” when he was younger (and before he went to jazz saxophonist). Another character, nameless I think, who dines with the nightmare-scared friend also resembles Pullman/Fred, not just in looks, but again in attitude and in his speaking manner. Broken sentences and parts of words paused and uninflected. The cops who show up at the scene of the accident and their simpleton, matter-of-fact banter reflects that of Ed, Al, Lou, etc. (“There’s no such thing as a bad coincidence”), which follows a sort of strained humor. Dreams and dualities are a key to Mulholland Drive just as they were in Lost Highway, which is where the nitty gets gritty and things become indistinguishable and indefinable—except to Lynch who birthed the hallucination himself. Over time, I have found a panoply of answers, keys or hints that could be possible answers to Lost Highway, but nothing definitive or official. And I like not knowing. I don’t find that nearly as frustrating as do others. However, one big difference between the two—and there are plenty of others, I promise you that—is between their levels of complexity, confoundity and incoherence, Mulholland Drive is off of the deeper end. It’s stranger, more confusing, more perplexing, more frustrating I suppose (the whole “silencio” segment and act comes to mind). When Lost Highway came out in 1997, it was met with tepid reviews, unhappy that after Lynch’s six-year absence from features, that he returned to something even weirder. The same things that critics tore into and criticized Lynch for in that film, are being praised and hurrahed in his new work even though on all accounts, it is more now. There is a noticeable paucity of profanity and violence, though the images are no less grisly or disturbing, effective or assiduous. My concern, even though it is one that I don’t have to mount myself with, is how much of the praise and respect is written with good intention and honesty instead of artificiality.
Lost Highway is the superior film—not because it is my favorite—but because of differences ranging amid plot, pacing, originality, technical features such as cinematography, editing, musical score, etc. All of those tools are used with the best intent here, and nearly to the best of their extent, but more confounding than the film itself has been the critical reaction. Many of those behind-the-camera are all the same: Peter Deming as the DP, Mary Sweeney as the editor, Angelo Badalementi as the composer. Aside from some purposely blurred and foggy shots, Lynch (Deming as well) doesn’t try anything irresponsible or nettlesome with the camera. The most beautiful composition in the entire film, and maybe even among all of his films is what I call a “Picasso” shot: as the two women sleep in the same bed—one on her back, the other on her side—the two faces blend and conceal together to create an image that is extremely reminiscent of the way Pablo Picasso hid two faces/angles within one. (And with Lynch being a painter as well, the shot could easily be an hommage to the master.) Mulholland Drive is dark in appearance, but not overly brooding and thick in content. It always winds up surprising me how much humor, quirky or plain, that Lynch incorporates and injects his films with. There’s a cornucopia of amusement when it comes to the director’s frustrations in casting, the “cowboy” he must deal with, the what the fuck? confusion of the studio meeting (with Dan Hedaya and his partner who has an obsession for the perfect espresso); the director’s domestic problems; Betty’s over-optimistic and super-naïve arrival at LAX and her corny, pathetic dialogue; Ann Miller as an apartment manager/busybody with clothing and jewelry bydependences equally as busy; etc. The quirky laughs equably counter the creepy, mysterious and unsettling ambience, but is far from overpowering or undermining the textured elegance and mood of Lynch’s eccentric and droll trademark(s). The combinations of Lynch’s visually spooky yet attractive images along with the seemingly unforced and impenetrable atmosphere is concocted like no one else can dream of replicating. Mulholland Drive remarkably sees its way into the director’s venerable oeuvre, and all throughout its searing beauty and chilling mystery, despite the film’s beautiful flaws, it has an unshakable experience. Once the film has its claws dug into you, or has inveigled you via its seductive scent, there is no way for it to relinquish its grasp, and Lynch (understandably) wouldn’t have it any other way. If not by somewhat wringing out or carrying over the drugged hallucinations perfectly fabricated and designed in Lost Highway, Lynch again shows why he is the best filmmaker around, why he blows the competition away, and why once you’ve had it, you can never go back!
Mulholland Drive lasts a compelling and inconspicuous 146-minutes; nearly three-quarters of that ride are smooth and fluid. Even though questions register and pop up on a steady but demandless basis, the at-times episodic nature of the film is comfortably concatenated without cause for any resounding shoulder-shrugging. Only in that fourth-quarter, reaching and extending into a deluxe overtime, does the followability and logic shoot up red flags, causing the film to drag you behind (and at a distance) rather than carry and support you pari passu, as it had been up until that breaking and defining moment. I heard the plot referred to somewhere as a double helix, and that’s a perfect gradation. And wind and twist and turn and swivel it does, categorically fitting into the label of serpentine and labyrinthine. The utilization of amnesia to slowly but surely, and then not so surely, reveal facts and fictions is an excellent suspense machination. Lynch loves to bemuse his audience, sucking one so deeply in, only in the end to stonewall from any definitive answer or answers. That abstruse impression becomes undeniably addictive; the confusion gives way to the steadfast need and want for more knowledge—it becomes a feeding frenzy. Taking all this into consideration, one viewing is hardly going to allow me to digest all of the implications, suggestions, possibilities, theories, quirks, nuances, tricks, etc., that are so fragily and masterfully imbued in the film. As expected (and as I have pointed out) Lynch revisits—even more deeply—the act of dreams, the shifting and blending of identities, which, as it should, left me nonplus following that initial viewing. So few films can personify a dream in the way that Lynch paints them, for how less descriptively could you describe Mulholland Drive as, other than an investigation and observation of dream-state delusions and confusions? (Richard Linklater also examines related terrain in his festival-selected movie Waking Life, wholly different, but not nearly as successful.)
Lynch probably will not change the opinion of those who incorrectly label him as a misogynist. True, he is very demanding—physically and mentally—on his actresses, but often these women are the ones with the power to corrupt, swell, direct or manipulate (both positively and negatively) the direction everything moves in. There are usually two sides to their stories or two stories to separate them from, but attention will call itself to the sapphic themes in this. Lynch can tenderly and erotically film a lesbian sex scene, and he can use an incredible amount of restraint, while still making passion burn and singe. More demanding than the two sex scenes themselves (if you can actually call them scenes in the traditional sense) is a tough but stirring request for Watts to masturbate. The scene achieves a heightened sense of tension and discomfit, but not because of repulsion. In reduced terms, it reminds me of the controversial scene in Requiem for a Dream in which Jennifer Connelly (or her double) is lubed up and penetrated by a toy being shared with another woman; initial reaction was that of gratuity, but later I realized just how pertinent it was to the somber and grave feeling and climax it was designated to spawn. Ostensibly this is reaching for a similar function, but in far less graphic or disturbing ways.
Our three key players are virtually unknowns, but after this film, they should no longer be. During the press conference with David Lynch following the screening, he pointed out that since the projected had aimed to be for television, he needed performers with the ability to commit to the show for longevity. Now that they aren’t bound to any contractual limitations, I hope to see them casted in challenging roles such as what they faced in Mulholland Drive. (If you are wondering why the title sounds so familiar, it’s because of the 1996 movie Mulholland Falls with Nick Nolte, John Malkovich and Melanie Griffith.) I’m too hardpressed to determine which of the women’s roles were more tricky, more difficult, but would rather point out that both of them are endlessly convincing and live up to and beyond their demands. The thrill of their unknown-ness adds thrill, but it isn’t luck that they use to slide by with. There are far too many requirements and dares they face (always remaining sang-froid, even if they don’t want you to believe it) that they must jockey through—not around—which is enough to prove to me their skill. Watts may be given the wider threshold to enter and exit through, but she uses the space ever so efficaciously, and Harring hardly allows for the size difference to matter or be noticed. Theroux is an interesting performer, with his character even suggesting a bit of Lynch himself. He is a steady, thorough actor with a lot to offer, and yet with having given quite a lot here. Adam is an excellent character placed within a Lynchian hell, which may or may not exist or be relevant. Other roles are unfortunately throw-aways—set up, but never given ample time for establishment or development. That’s the case for Michael J. Anderson, Hedaya, Robert Forster, and any number of other cameos or brief intros, all of which are disappointing to have abandoned, but still serve to perpetuate and accentuate the questions and boggles of the mind even deeper.
At this point, I am not sure if I am ready to posit any solutions to Lynch’s enigma. From what I gather (but, like a dream, am not completely able to concentrate over or detail the whole experience), the confusion of identities from Rita to Betty to Diane to Camilla (et al.) is provoked in the dream-state, in which we start off in and follow until the revelations begin dropping, or making sense after the grogginess of sleep dissipates. There are two main women, both actresses, and both who have had a relationship together beyond being friends. Whatever evokes the dream/hallucination/nightmare, I don’t know, but identities are confused and combined. Later, when we see the “real” Camilla at a party, the “real” Diane (a/k/a former girlfriend?) jealously watches on as Camilla has now not only gotten together with the director, but seems to be occupied with another woman—whose face we know as the other Camilla. An explanation for that could possibly be that the first Camilla, the one in the dream, is a mental intrusion of who the woman represents in real life, as she is brought, or moreover forced into the blonde’s life, and welcomed (mysteriously, with other agendas maybe) into the brunette’s. Yet still, that hardly answers or contains answers to the even more provocative questions posed by the importance of the amnesia/dream/nightmare, the burnt vagrant, the rotting corpse, the studio honcho played by homunculus Michael J. Anderson, the “cowboy,” the old folks, the suicide, etc. I am fully prepared to leave these questions rapidly burning inside of me, alongside of those from Lost Highway, but not before this drive becomes a road well-traveled. It will take me several more viewings before I tire of theorizing the plenitude of possibilities.
With Lee Grant.
PostScript: Well, I’ve gone back to see Mulholland Drive a second time. (Surprised?) Having gone within close proximity of my first viewing, there was plenty that I had mulled over, which was still fresh enough in my mind to tend to in the second viewing. For one thing, it’s almost a more exciting experience, more ludic; given the 146-minute running-time that is in no rush to unreel, it gives the viewer more time to make use of David Lynch’s commodious cinematic space. By knowing the general time(s) of when and where something was going to happen, the repeat viewing allotted an experienced exhibition that a curator would have when walking through a museum exhibit alone after giving several tours. There was plenty of time to feel as if some of my inkling theories were stablely supported, while others were dead wrong. But with Lynch, it’s as if the harder you grasp for a definitive answer, the more permanently elusive it will be. Like in dreams, let it come to you. Among the things I picked up on during my first viewing that were just as prevalent the second time around was the Be-Boppy mid- to late-Fifties, very early Sixties feeling, punctuated in the opening swing dance (Jitter Bug maybe), the eerie, lucid simplicity of the characters (particularly Betty’s naïveté, even more persistent throughout this time), the casting of Adam’s film, etc. Then again, Lynch often uses that nostalgic bridge into the seemingly deceptivelessness veneer of that time period that he so effortlessly pulls away in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, or the equally as crystalline allusions in Wild at Heart or Lost Highway. Closure is nowhere in sight when it comes to The Cowboy, the grungy tatterdemalion, Louise, Irene and the old man, the black book sought out early on (causing much comical highjinx during the extemporaneous shooting spree), the key and blue cube, Rebecca del Rio’s lip-syncing scene, and so on. (That scene can be classified as classic Lynch; he said as for the reasoning for that scene’s inclusion was one day when a friend brought del Rio over to meet Lynch, she sang for him, which then prompted him to randomly splice in a utilization for her and her vocal talents.) Also on this go-round, there was more evidence of a murder plot and its swishy-swashy nature of the identities hot-potatoed around. The “Picasso” shot that I referenced in my original review is given further symbolism; for on that night of the wannabe Nancy Drews’ lovemaking, as they become one—hence the confluence of their features into one person with two outlets, and their subsequent split and departure from each other—is the suggestion to why everything from there has become rocky and topsy-turvy, and the turning point as to who is really who.
The problems come rolling in when everyone feels it is their duty to know everything and be explained as to all of what, when, where, why, who and how means. When I was at the New York Film Festival, when Lynch came for the press conference, journalists and critics were inquiring what percentage was dream and what was reality, or what the definition of this or that character was, and its ilk. As expected, Lynch was tight-lipped with his answers, as he should be! One of my favorite aspects of Lost Highway is that I will never know the specific answers for everything in that film, and to me, that’s what keeps the mystery alive. Lynch has always said that once you hold all the keys to a mystery, it ceases to be a mystery, and often enough, the solution doesn’t live up to your expectations and wild imagination. (How often would that Jimmy Stewart be right about his neighbor in a Rear Window-like situation?) Another thing: Lynch’s ambiguous endings are less pretentious and calculated that someone like M. Night Shyamalan who structures his whole movie around dropping an anvil of an ending on his audience at the end. Not every secret in a film needs to transmogrify into a tune-altering revelation, and Lynch resists the temptation to do the same. Let’s clear up one charge, though: Lynch might be known for being weird, idiosyncratic and eccentric, but the constant criticism (and sometimes praise) of his equivocal dénouements is not as much of a trademark. The querulous accusations that he leaves much of his work untold or unexplained is simply untrue. It might be a trend that he is presently in the pursuit of, but the dreamscape ambiguity is most predominant in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, with other minute similarities surging throughout Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and its antecedent TV series. With those, though, Lynch had less to do with the progression of the series, and in the film prequel, there was still less perplexity and puzzlement associated with it, at least for those familiar with the series itself. Lynch’s tendency was to answer mysteries by posing other mysteries in its place, or to use the origins as a springboard to launch further investigations elsewhere. Even early in his career, Lynch may have been preoccupied by dreams, but the foundation that the brunt of his work, and that he himself is all about chicanery, is baseless. Look at Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and The Straight Story. What is so strikingly confusing or unanswered there? They may be weird, quirky and unpredictable, but if anything, nebulousness is the aberration in his oeuvre.Final Verdict: A.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=5544&reviewer=172
originally posted: 10/13/01 03:31:45