The Not-So-Straight Story: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive

It’s weird to see people leaving the theater laughing directly after the final, breakneck 30 minutes of David Lynch’s latest dream noir, Mulholland Drive. It’s especially strange when you consider that those final moments were packed with the most violent imagery, frightening occurrences, and harrowing cinema we’ve possibly seen from the eclectic visionary since his prequel to another failed television revolution, Twin Peaks. Maybe it was the elderly couple crawling beneath the door to terrorize the film’s protagonist into what may have been her inevitable, self-imposed destruction. Or maybe it was the Bob-like demon in the alley.

Either way, I was glued to the back of my chair during the end of Mulholland Drive as forcefully as I was slouching in it near the film’s beginning.

mulholland3As much as people still decry Lynch’s extensive use of what have come to be known as Lynchian archetypes – the fair-skinned innocent filled with aw-shucks naiveté; the dark-haired femme fatale with an even darker secret; nicely dressed crime fighters speaking in clipped, sometimes pointless dialogue; dark-arts villainy and an unnamable evil presence; flickering lights and lascivious flesh-baring; feminine depression/sexualization and masculine oppression/impotence, among others – they are just the colors on the palette that his self-styled film paintings usually require to run their nonlinear (unless you consider the infinity symbol linear, that is) course to doom, alienation, and deferral. Those and other archetypes belong to Lynch as much as the in-over-his-head (usually Italian or Italian-American) dreamer belongs to Scorsese, the dysfunctional family/corporation belongs to Coppola, the hardy impotent belongs to Hitchcock, or the deranged or deteriorating moralist belongs to Kubrick.

Each artist has his tools, and to fault Lynch for his possibly obsessive ruminations on female sexuality – Freud called it the “dark continent” – is to ignore the cinematic gifts he’s given us, the professional and artistic risks he continually takes, or the daring twists he’s made on convention of all stripes. Without his invention – specifically that found in Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks (the television show and the film), and now Mulholland Drive – cinema and television would simply not be as sophisticated and as brave as it is today.

That might sound like a mouthful, but you don’t have to look far to find those who have benefited directly or indirectly from the pioneer steps Lynch and his circle of actors, sound engineers, co-producers, editors, and writers have taken. In film, he upped the ante of visual storytelling from his first film, Eraserhead, on, paving the way for the likes of David Fincher, Jeunet and Caro, Tarsem, Kasi Lemmons, and even Guy Ritchie; his narrative risks, like those presented in Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet have fueled the careers of plenty more. In television, well, it gets easier there. Just as so-called reality television is demarcated by the introduction of Survivor, adult dramedy is measured by its occurrence relative to the introduction of Twin Peaks, which blazed trails the likes of which Northern Exposure, Six Feet Under, The X-Files, and more have all shared at some point.

To forget the impact Lynch has had on the artistic media he’s worked in is to avoid the nearly obvious in favor of the reductive point-and-grunt criticism that so much of his work has been subjected to after Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. “It’s just Lynch being Lynch,” someone said as I wobbled out of Mulholland Drive.

I thought that was supposed to be a good thing.

“We’ll Be Watching For You On the Big Screen”

No matter what you may think of Lynch, there is hardly any doubt that you’ll see another movie as bizarre yet bizarrely familiar the rest of this year. Mulholland Drive shares an affinity with other recent L.A. noir films, such as the fascinating Memento, in that it is hardly in the dark. In fact, the Hollywood that Lynch parodies and paraphrases is sometimes a sun-streaked world full of optimism, power, and power plays, as well; that much we have seen before. So it doesn’t seem to jar our sensibilities when Rita, the aforementioned femme fatale (Laura Elena Harring) is stopped by her chauffeurs at gunpoint and forced out of the car in the film’s beginning. Nor is it strange when an automotive accident releases her dark secret – a la Cloris Leachman’s Christina Bailey in Robert Aldrich’s equally twisted noir masterpiece Kiss Me Deadly – into the world, particularly into the life of a doe-eyed naïf named Betty (Naomi Watts in a virtuoso performance).

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Unable to remember her life before her accident on Mulholland Drive, Rita accepts the intrigue-hungry help of Betty – who finds both Rita and her secret life fascinating. At once, the film looses these two feminine detectives – the first of their kind unless my cinematic memory fails me – into the wild side of Los Angeles, including a shadowy entertainment multinational run by a wheelchair-ridden mogul – Michael Anderson, the backwards-speaking, dancing Man in the Red Suit from Twin Peaks – and members of the underworld, two-bit hustlers who kill for money and black books with the phone numbers of every player in Hollywood, black magic soothsayers and washed-up divas, and after-hours art installations of indeterminate spiritual value.

And that’s just for starters.

Like Lynch’s Los Angeles prequel to this latest flirtation with dream noir, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive takes its time setting everything up – scenes drag on seconds longer than you think they should, conversations seem to take more time than they normally would, revelations come to you before they come to the characters. Unlike Lost Highway, however, you don’t have to suffer as much through this method – the unfamiliarity of these new faces put more emphasis on the machinations behind the words. Indeed, in Lynch’s films, the near anonymity of the actors seems to have the biggest payoff for the audience, a point that many who have criticized the lack of depth in his characters may agree with.

One of the other reasons that the movie may start slow is because, as most people are aware by now, Mulholland Drive was initially envisioned and shot as a television program; the relationships between all of the characters – who are indeed connected across the matrix of the film together – don’t ever become utterly clear, whether by design or default. The only early glimpses of a rationale behind this madness is when Betty is bid goodbye at LAX by an elderly couple whose incessant grinning and cackling recalls that of the devious presence Bob from Twin Peaks. And that’s if you’re a LynchHead. If you’re a newcomer to his strangeness, the early stages of the film and character development may very well seem strained.

“Now I’m in This Dream Place”

But by the time Rita and Betty stumble onto the first casualty of their investigation lying dead next to pieces of her own brain, the film leaps into hyperdrive and out of its narrative vein, doubling back onto itself and out into storylines unseen. Expanding on the “fugue state” psychosis Lynch and co-writer Barry Gifford employed for their protagonist in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive’s second act detaches characters and story arcs, sending the film into a frenzied rush of imagery, events, and faces, all of which seem to work their way back to the film’s beginning. Or middle. Oh hell, or end.

This is where it gets fun.

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When I got lucky enough to meet Lynch and proffer some long, drawn-out theorization masquerading as a key to the mystery of his oeuvre, he answered my ramblings with a flat, “No.” It was a tough lesson – especially since he publicly rebuffed me in a room full of around 200 people – but one well learned. He qualified his abrupt statement explaining, “Sometimes the intellect can get in the way, sometimes you just have to turn it off and let everything come out.” And I think this is the only productive way to get at what he does when, in situations like those that occur in the fractured parts of Mulholland Drive, he irrupts convention in favor of complexity, linearity in favor of the webbing that most of his characters seem to get caught up in.

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When Mulholland Drive turns on a dime into this netherworld of mystery and violence, it really careens. Betty takes over the role of Diane Selwin, the woman who Rita thought she might be, only to find herself on the outside of a collapsed love triangle and at the mercy of her own frustrated desire for Rita, who has become someone named Camilla. That might seem like a serious detour, but it’s just a minor taste of the twists Lynch conjures up, especially in the imagery department. Playing with shadow and noise, he hitches his audience to Betty’s shoulder as she is jerked from one event to the next, all stops and starts, rewinds and fast forwards, until she is placed on the mirror side of Betty’s narrative. Only this time, instead of being aided by the elderly couple who can’t wait to see her on the silver screen, she is hunted by them into screaming darkness and the blunt end of a pistol.

And this uncompromising savagery is Lynch’s finest attribute – who else could take the sweet and kind elderly and make them his barking demons? For all the protest that the film’s egregious violence and brutal sexuality will possibly engender from gays and lesbians – much less your run-of-the-mill, KPAX-watching straights – Lynch’s fascination with the body in pain reinscribes the real cost of the mythmaking machine of Hollywood. As we watch Camilla and Diane come apart in the end of the film as quickly as Betty and Rita come together in its beginning, we return inevitably to the border that the actual Mulholland Drive represents – the difference between Hollywood, the geographical area and the symbolic term, and the rest of the world. “The director didn’t take too kindly to me,” Diane squeaks as she breaks down watching said director and her ex-lover Camilla tongue each other across the table, words which speak volumes about the cost involved in any sort of emotional investment in the world of Mulholland Drive.

Which is the film’s ultimate and refreshing gift. Where there have been a slew of films since the beginning that have lampooned or criticized its apparatus – The Player, Sunset Boulevard, Get Shorty, among others – none have taken their time beating it into a bloody pulp as much as Mulholland Drive has. Lynch has laid bare the culture of the image’s fever dream more capably than any of his predecessors, a thought that didn’t hit me until the late hours of my second night after viewing the film, his frightening and meaning-laden visuals bouncing around my mind and out onto the pillow. Kind of like that piece of gray matter Mulholland Drive’s nameless evil figure – huddled around a campfire in a back alley behind Winkie’s burger joint – stuffed into a wrinkled paper bag along with a puzzle box that held the answers to the mysteries of Rita’s past, Betty’s future and why those kindly elderly are really possessed by malice and brutality.

So give it to Lynch – his films stick with you that way, if you let them. If you think you know everything about narrative convention, character development and story arcs – to the point that you’ve developed the endlessly criticized “formula” common to most entertainment – then he was probably skewering you when he dreamt up this latest fugue state. But if you still go to films to see something new, even new to Lynch, then Mulholland Drive is the latest installment in what has so far been a truly innovative, daring, and original bending of the rules from a director who always wanted to be a world-famous painter.

Does that make sense?

This article originally appeared here on Morphizm, as well as Bright Lights Film Journal and Popmatters.