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“Do not demystify. When you know too much, you can never see the film the same way again. It’s ruined for you for good. All the magic leaks out, and it’s putrefied.”–David Lynch, explaining to Terrence Rafferty why he will not record director’s commentaries
DIRECTED BY: David Lynch
PLOT: A woman (Harring) is involved in a nighttime accident on Mulholland Drive and flees into the city of Los Angeles with amnesia; she sneaks into an apartment soon to be occupied by naive young Betty (Watts), who has come to Hollywood hoping to find stardom. Meanwhile, a film director (Theroux) finds himself pressured by mysterious mobsters to cast an unknown actress in his upcoming project. Betty helps the amnesiac woman try to recover her identity, but the clues only lead to a strange avant-garde nightclub, a key, a box, and a sudden reality shift that throws everything that came before into confusion.
- Lynch originally intended Mulholland Drive as a TV series in the mold of “Twin Peaks.” When the networks passed on the pilot, the French producer Studio Canal stepped in with additional financing to turn the pilot into a feature film. In between ABC’s proactive cancellation of the series and the creation of the film version, all of the sets and props were dismantled, forcing Lynch to come up with a different way to complete the story.
- Monty Montgomery, whose appearance as “The Cowboy” is an uncanny show-stopper, is a Hollywood movie producer (who produced Wild at Heart for Lynch). Mulholland Drive is his only acting credit (he’s listed as “Lafayette Montgomery” in the credits).
- Lynch insisted no chapter stops be included on the DVD.
- The original DVD release included an insert from Lynch containing “10 Keys to Unlocking This Thriller.”
- Mulholland Drive received significant critical acclaim, nabbing Lynch a Best Director award at Cannes (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There) and a Best Director Oscar nomination. It was voted best picture of the Year by the Boston Film Critics Society, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the new York Film Critics Circle, and the Online Film Critics Society (where it tied with Memento in the voting). It was also voted best foreign picture by the Academy Award equivalents of Brazil, France, Spain, and Australia.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Silencio nightclub, decorated in Lynch’s trademark red velvet drapes and staffed by his trademark subconscious monsters.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If the massive reality shifts and actresses unexpectedly playing multiple roles is not enough for you, then the monster behind the Winkie’s, a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” delivered by a woman who collapses onstage, and a mafia-style media syndicate run by a deformed dwarf who uses an eyebrowless cowboy as his right-hand man will convince you that we are deep in that subconscious pit of eroticism, kitsch and weirdness that can only go by the name Lynchland.
Original trailer for Mulholland Drive
COMMENTS: Oddly enough, what may be the most important scene in Mulholland Drive involves a marginal character, a thick-browed man whose name or profession we never learn. After this scene we will see him again exactly one time. The man is eating breakfast at a Winkie’s (David Lynch’s mythical version of Denny’s) with a friend. He’s recounting a dream that he had that occurred in the very diner they’re sitting in. He goes out of his way to precisely outline the differences between the dream and the way things are now. In the dream, his breakfast companion was standing in a different place, and he was frightened. The light was different; it was neither day nor night, but a kind of twilight. And, most importantly, in the dream there was a man behind the restaurant—“he’s the one that’s doing it”—and the dreamer could see him through the wall. He’s come to Winkie’s that morning, together with his friend from the dream, to check behind the dumpsters in the light of day and convince himself there’s no one there, to rid himself of that awful fear.
But, this being a David Lynch movie, he doesn’t rid himself of that awful fear. Quite the contrary. And because of what happens, we’re left unsure whether this really is his description of the dream, related in the light of day, or is actually the nightmare itself.
Mulholland Drive is a dream of a movie, one with (at least) two sets of realities and characters, inhabited by one set of actors. Each separate universe is a looking-glass version of the other, reflecting events as if in a funhouse mirror. $50,000 in cold hard cash is a mystery in one world, and a sin in the other. And, unlike some of David Lynch’s other movies, there is a solution (of sorts) to the mystery of Mulholland Drive, although it’s a solution that doesn’t betray the film’s mysteriousness.
In terms of penetrability, Mulholland Drive perches somewhere between the eerie off-ness of Blue Velvet and the relative inscrutability of Eraserhead. This movie is clearly in the tradition of the psychological thriller (a genre that, somewhat surprisingly, Lynch had never tackled before, at least not head on). And yet, there are plenty of mystical red herrings and pure dream interludes hanging in the heavy Los Angeles air that envelops Mulholland Drive. Unlike in a typical mystery tale, with Lynch it’s the sumptuous surrealism, not the solution, that puts the thrill in the thriller. It’s the red lampshade, the phone calls to nowhere, the dwarf in the wheelchair that drive Mulholland.
As always, Lynch releases beautiful, delicate narrative butterflies into the cinemas, but certain fans (you know who you are) insist on trying to catch them, pin them by their wings, and dissect them to death. This time around, Lynch explicitly (and in my view, perversely) encourages the segment of his audience that prefers to treat his films as puzzles rather than as experiences to analyze the film to death by releasing a flyer called “Ten Clues to Unlocking This Thriller” (thereby negating his own advice, quoted above, to never “demystify” a movie. No one ever accused David Lynch of a foolish consistency).
Other, more perceptive souls have pleaded with viewers not to try to understand too much of Mulholland Drive. Rather than delighting in Lynch’s clever construction of the puzzlebox, the always perceptive J. Hobermann writes instead that the movie is as “withholding in its narrative as anything in Buñuel” and, after considering that either half of the story might be an illusion, concludes—with a blithe indifference to the carefully constructed plot—“not that it matters.” In a survey of film critic’s interpretations of the film, nearly everyone resisted the analytical mode. Roger Ebert insisted, “There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery”; Jonathan Ross accepted the standard dream interpretation but demurred that it was “counterproductive to keep analysing it”; Tom Charity offered explanations but worried “I’m not sure if it helps to be so specific;” Neil Roberts was ” wary of over-analysing it,” warning that “[w]e should be careful not to let all this analysis detract from a fantastic film”; and Jane Douglas offered this advice: “in some ways it is better to just watch it without constantly trying to work out what it means.” After working intimately on the script over a span of two years, Laura Harring concluded, “You want to get it, but I don’t think it’s a movie to be gotten. It’s achieved its goal if it makes you ask questions.” And co-star Justin Theroux reminds us “I think [Lynch is] genuinely happy for [Mulholland Drive] to mean anything you want. He loves it when people come up with really bizarre interpretations.”
For the sake of those who have unwisely followed Lynch’s Ten Clues to their logical conclusion, traversing the entire length of Mulholland Drive, I offer, as a way to recapture the film’s mysterious magic, the following
TEN MYSTERIES THAT RE-LOCK THIS THRILLER
- Why does David Lynch ask viewers, in his “10 keys to unlocking this thriller” to consider where Aunt Ruth is? What difference would it make if Aunt Ruth were alive, dead, or never existed?
- Who is the man who thinks a monster lurks behind Winkie’s? If he is a dream, then why would Dianne have a dream from the point of view of a total stranger? Other than its metatextual mood setting role,what reason is there for the man and his nightmare to exist?
- Why does a second actress (Melissa George) play Camilla Rhodes in the first part of the film?
- Why is the syndicate so insistent that Adam cast Camilla Rhodes? The entire conspiracy plotline, which occupies a large part of the first ninety minutes of the movie, gets dropped.
- Speaking of the syndicate, why don’t they “shut everything down” after Mr. Roque tells them to? Is “shut everything down” Hollywood gangster talk for “turn up the heat by calling in the Cowboy”?
- Does Adam ever see the Cowboy again? (We do, and Diane does, but does he)? Why draw so much attention to the number of times the Cowboy would appear—other than that, when he says something so strange with such an aura of threat, it’s terribly frightening? Unless—Diane is really Adam??
- Why is the director the only main character whose identity doesn’t change (though his circumstances do)?
- Why do tiny old people come skittering out of a brown paper bag, laughing maniacally?
- Why does Robert Forster get a special mention in the opening credits, yet appear in the film for less than a minute, doing nothing even mildly important? Why did he even get a special bio segment on the DVD release? Is his agent just that good?
- Seriously, WTF is the deal with Silencio? Why is there no band? Why does Betty have a brief epileptic fit while watching the stage show? And what about the key? (Why does the hit man think its funny when Diane asks what it opens?) And the blue box?
- Are there actually more than ten unanswered questions about Mulholland Drive?
Getting lost in all this talk about the film’s meaning, or lack of same, are the film’s amazing cinematic qualities: the neon-noir cinematography; Angelo Badalamenti’s brooding ambient score, which fits the director’s vision like a well-worn glove and immediately drops the viewer into a Lynchian world; and Naomi Watts’ eye-opening performance, which moves from ingenue to conniving bitch with a seriously invigorating stopover as seductress of both sexes. There are great individual scenes, including Watts and Harring’s two tender but scorching love scenes, a murder-for-hire that goes comically amiss with a series of human and non-human witnesses that have to be dispatched in turn, and a heartrending, and very weird, Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” that inexplicably reduces Watts and Harring to tears. Not only that, but as a bonus you get to see Billy Ray Cyrus cold-cocked onscreen, perhaps the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy for millions of Americans who suffered through the darkness of the “Achy Breaky Heart” weeks in 1992.
One of Lynch’s greatest gift is that he skirts the borderline between Surrealism and Symbolism; no one can quite nail him down. In some movies (this one, for example) lists towards the psychological symbolism end of the spectrum, while in others (INLAND EMPIRE, which is essentially Mulholland Drive on acid) he strives for unadulterated bizarrity. Most of the time, he mixes comprehensible, relatable psychological symbolism with a deeply irrational and fearful subconscious stream. He’s pulled off the unique trick of rallying two philosophically opposed film factions: those who treasure the challenge of solving puzzle movies, and those who value the sense of “mysterious fullness” that satisfies precisely because it’s meaning can never be pinned down. Though claimed by both, he can’t actually belong to both camps.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the compelling but intentionally inscrutable return of the ‘weird’ David Lynch that will please his hardcore fans even if it has them scratching their heads as well… for the final 45 minutes, Lynch is in mind-twisting mode that presents a form of alternate reality with no apparent meaning or logical connection to what came before… the sudden switcheroo to head games is disappointing because, up to this point, Lynch had so wonderfully succeeded in creating genuine involvement.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)
“The movie is a surrealist dreamscape in the form of a Hollywood film noir, and the less sense it makes, the more we can’t stop watching it… The way you know the movie is over is that it ends. And then you tell a friend, ‘I saw the weirdest movie last night.’ Just like you tell them you had the weirdest dream.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“The worst movie I’ve seen this year… a load of moronic and incoherent garbage from David Lynch that… predictably ended up at the New York Film Festival, where pretentious poseurs sit with their eyes glued to any screen as long as the projector is still running. From this bizarro atrocity, they should get astigmatism.”–Rex Reed, The New York Observer (contemporaneous)
OFFICIAL SITE: Mulholland Drive – some of the features on this ten year old site are broken (like a link to a chat transcript with Lynch), but Universal deserves credit for continuing to pay fifteen bucks per year to renew the domain name a decade after the film’s release—something studios rarely do
IMDB LINK: Mulholland Dr. (2001)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About ‘Mulholland Drive’ – Bill Wyman, Max Garrone and Andy Klein outline the standard (and almost certainly correct) interpretation of Mulholland Drive. Obviously, this essay contains major spoilers.
Lost on Mulholland Drive – Film fansite featuring guides, essays, a discussion forum for floating personal theories on the film, and even fan-made music videos
Understanding Mulholland Drive: Nice Film—If You Can Get It – Six film critics (Roger Ebert, Jonathan Ross, Neil Roberts, Tom Charity, Philip French, and Jane Douglas) give their brief interpretations of Mulholland Drive
All You Have to Do Is Dream – Interpretation of Mulholland Drive by Frederick Lane, a Freudian dream analyst, courtesy of salon.com; a fascinating article, although you’ll learn more about dream states than you will about the film
The Naughts: The Romantic Pair of the ’00s – Charles Taylor of the Independent Film Channel selects Betty and Rita as the emblematic romantic couple of the first decade of the 21st century
Sinnerbrink on Lynch -Cinematic Ideas: David Lynch’s _Mulholland Drive_ – An academic treatment of Mulholland Drive from philosophy professor Robert Sinnerbrink, originally published in “Film-Philosophy,” Vol. 9 No. 34, June 2005; insightful but very technical
The Madman and his Muse – From Film Score Daily comes this interview with composer and frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, focusing on his relationship with the director as well as the score for Mulholland Drive
HOME VIDEO INFO: As David Lynch eschews both director’s commentaries and chapter stops, the Universal DVD (buy) contains no special features beyond the original theatrical trailer and cast bios (including, of course, one for Robert Forster). The film is also available for download or rental via video-on-demand services.
Update 11/17/2021: Criterion Collection to the rescue! In 2015, the distributor acquired the rights to much of Lynch’s catalog, including this jewel. They released a 4K restoration on DVD (buy) and Blu-ray () with new and archival interviews with Lynch, cinematographer Peter Deming, actors Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, composer Angelo Badalamenti, and casting director Johanna Ray, and “obuyther footage from the film’s set.” As usual, it comes with an ace booklet, this one containing another Lynch interview. In 2021, they re-released the whole package on a 4K Ultra High Definition disc (buy).
(This movie was nominated for review by “MtnGoat,” whgo one year ago complained about a “striking lack of David Lynch” on the site. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)