‘Mulholland Drive’ Is David Lynch’s ‘Ulysses’
“Filmmaking,” says David Lynch in the biography/memoir “Room to Dream,” “is just common sense.” But Lynch’s sense isn’t common. “Rabbits,” a short film featuring three actors from “Mulholland Drive” (Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey) wearing rabbit suits, is “the most inscrutable work Lynch has ever produced.”
Perhaps all of Lynch’s work is inscrutable, however. His “Ulysses,” the work where it all came together, is “Mulholland Drive” (2001).
Much has been written about the origins of “Mulholland Drive.” It began in 1999 as a TV show pilot for ABC, which wisely rejected it as the wrong vehicle for selling toothpaste and detergent.
Fortunately for Lynch, who has always been revered in France, a French studio came to his rescue, allowing him to expand the pilot. Within a year, he had flipped a failed TV show into a feature film that a 2016 BBC Culture poll of 177 critics named “the greatest of the 21st century.” The British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound Poll ranked “Mulholland Drive”—the only 21st-century film included on the list—as the 28th greatest movie of all time.
The scenic road passing through the Santa Monica Mountains around Los Angeles is the ghostly presence behind everything that happens in the movie that bears its name. The highway has always held a fascination for Lynch, who calls it “a magical street, and many people feel that when they drive on it at night.”
Daytime, too. Artist David Hockney’s famous 1980 painting, “Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio,” seems like a Day-Glo version of the road as seen at the beginning of Lynch’s film.
Lynch lived there for several years, as did Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. It appears in movies, including Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” (a street Mulholland Drive crosses) and even Lynch’s “Lost Highway.” Musician Randy Newman proclaimed his love for the road in “I Love L.A.”
It was named for William Mulholland, an Irish immigrant who rode into Southern California on a mule near the end of the 19th century, got a job digging wells and, within a couple of decades, parlayed his smarts into the position of superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Department. He can, with truth, be called the man who brought water to a desert city, making Los Angeles, and thus Hollywood, possible. He had an office above Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The machinations employed by Mulholland and associates to bring water to the city would make for a classic movie, and did, if you overlook the fictionalization of facts in “Chinatown.”
(You can read Mulholland’s story in “The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles,” by Gary Krist.)
Film critic Pauline Kael thought, “Lynch might turn out to be … a Frank Capra of dream logic.”
But the Capra-esque feel in “Blue Velvet” is absent in the ending of “Mulholland Drive.” Instead, it has the feel of a waking nightmare.
Set in an unspecified time somewhere in Lynch’s psyche, pop cultures from different decades meld: The clothes and cars are 1990s (except for Gloria Swanson’s limo from “Sunset Boulevard,” parked at a studio entrance), but the three pop songs used in the film were released around 1960, and behind the opening credits is a spectral jitterbug contest straight out of a 1950s grade-B teen movie.
Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), pretty, blond and as wide-eyed as a young Doris Day, arrives from Deep River, Ontario, fresh from winning the jitterbug contest. (Make what you will of the fact that Deep River was the name of the apartments where Isabella Rossellini’s character lived in “Blue Velvet.”)
That night, a limo glides down Mulholland Drive, with a beautiful brunette in the back seat (Laura Elena Harring). The limo stops at a deserted spot. The young woman asks, “What are you doing? We don’t stop here.” She’s about to be murdered when two cars full of joyriding teenagers slam into the limo. Only the young woman survives. She stumbles through the night, carrying a purse inexplicably stuffed with bundles of cash—is it the money the killers were paid?—and crosses Sunset Boulevard and hides in an unlocked apartment.
The apartment belongs to Betty’s Aunt Ruth, who is working on a movie in Canada. Betty sees the woman in the shower and assumes she is a friend of Ruth. Betty asks her name; the woman, who has lost her memory, sees a poster for the Rita Hayworth noir film “Gilda” and appropriates the actress’s name. Betty tells “Rita” her story, gushing, “Now I’m in this dream place”—one of the many lines you may have to watch the film a second time to appreciate. Betty dreams big—“You can be a great actress and a big movie star—and that’s what I hope to be!”
Rita breaks down, telling Betty, “I don’t know who I am” or where the money in her purse came from. They find a blue key in the purse and give it a blank, Lynchian stare. They hide the purse in a hatbox in the closet.
The next 30-odd minutes of the film spent tracking down Rita’s identity could easily be a Nancy Drew mystery. At Winkie’s diner (on Sunset Boulevard), Rita sees “Diane” on a waitress’s name tag and it sparks her memory. She recalls a name: Diane Selwyn. There’s a D. Selwyn in the phone book; they leave her a message. Betty says, in another line you may not understand until you see the film again, “It seems strange to be calling yourself.”
Appealing as the actresses are, you sense that something isn’t right. The characters and plot seem contrived from the outset—who arrives at LAX and walks straight into a waiting cab? At the apartment, the girls rehearse Betty’s audition for a potboiler movie. The dialogue is so hackneyed, they burst out laughing. In the next scene, Betty walks into the audition—who lands an audition their second day in Hollywood? Fresh-faced Betty from Ontario shocks with her level of sexual intensity while saying the same lines we heard her laughing at an hour earlier.
Suddenly, the film pivots, and we begin to question what we’ve been seeing.
Betty and Rita find Selwyn’s apartment and break in to find the body of a woman. Rita panics, convinced that the same killers are after her. Betty disguises her in a blond wig. The two look like sisters. (There are several blond women who look like projections of Diane: Betty, of course; a blond actress at Betty’s audition; two blond waitresses at Winkie’s, Betty and Diane; and, perhaps most sinister, an unnamed blond hooker seen with a pimp who Diane later hires as a hit man. The waitresses and hooker may be Diane’s suppressed memories of how she supported herself.)
Then comes another jolt: a sudden, torrid love scene that nothing up to this point has prepared us for. They sleep, but Rita wakes Betty, repeating the word “silencio.” Rita puts on her blond wig and the girls flag down a cab at 2 a.m. (and who gets a cab in L.A. at two in the morning?). A Lynchian Easter egg: On a utility pole outside their apartment, a small poster reads, “Hollywood is Hell.” They’re headed to Club Silencio, located in a desolate part of L.A., and, in Salon, Greil Marcus wrote, “… an all-night lip-synch palace, the dank, rotting theater is pure Hollywood: street level skag Hollywood. A few junkies, alcoholics, and other insomniacs dot the seats. A man appears and announces the concept—everything is taped.” This is the famous “No hay banda”—there is no band.
Again, Marcus: “He [the MC] and another man move so convincingly to the sounds behind them it’s as if they’ve called them into being. The sense of displacement hits Elms like a disease: suddenly she is shaking in her seat like a spiritualist’s table, shaking as if her bones are about to come out of her mouth.” Then the great Rebekah Del Rio, a roadhouse singer in “Twin Peaks,” appears and lip syncs to her own recording of “Llorando,” a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.”
In a scene reminiscent of Dennis Hopper crying to the title song in “Blue Velvet,” the women sob. In her purse, Betty finds a blue box, its purpose unexplained. Back in the apartment, Rita takes down the hatbox and pulls the blue key from the purse; she calls for Betty: “Donde está?” No Betty. Rita opens the box.
Suddenly, we’re in a different story. Watts has morphed into Diane Selwyn, a failed actress who has scraped by on bit parts while her roommate (and lover?) Camilla Rhodes—Harring, who plays Rita in the first part of the film—becomes a star, engaged to trendy director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Watts looks used, her blond bob now disheveled.
The turn the film has taken is probably best explained by Watts herself, who told an interviewer, “I thought Diane was the real character and that Betty was the person she wanted to be and had dreamed up. Rita is the damsel in distress and she’s in absolute need of Betty, and Betty controls her as if she were a doll. Rita is Betty’s fantasy of who she wants Camilla to be.” In that fantasy, Betty sees a Hollywood controlled by gangsters—Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson, the dwarf in “Twin Peaks”) and the Castigliane Brothers (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti, the film’s composer).
A mysterious cowboy soft-arms Adam Kesher into casting an actress named Camilla Rhodes with the code words, “This is the girl.” (Patti Smith appropriated the phrase in a tribute song for Amy Winehouse.)
The final 31 minutes were added by Lynch to the pilot. They include intensely erotic sex between Watts and Harring and a weeping Diane masturbating, the most disconcerting scene in any Lynch film. A shaken Watts told Lynch she couldn’t do it; he assured her she could.
A glimpse into Diane’s hell might be a painting in Ruth’s apartment, “Portrait of Beatrice Cenci,” by Italian painter Guido Reni; it’s centered between Betty and Rita in one scene.
Cenci was executed for plotting the murder of her father, who she claimed sexually abused her. She became a cause celebre for abused women and inspired many artists and writers, such as Percy Shelley, who wrote that her life touched on “the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart.”
The painting seems to suggest that Diane was abused as a girl and perhaps also during her years in Hollywood—this “dream place.”
“Dream logic” is associated with Lynch, but what’s meant by the logic part? Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist turned self-help guru with a Jungian oil slick, dismisses “Mulholland Drive” as “Freudian,” as if a complex work of art could be dismissed by this association. (I would like to hear Carl Jung’s take on “Mulholland Drive.” Angelo Badalamenti’s theme music sounds as if it was composed after a session with Jung. It doesn’t tell us how to feel but how the characters feel.)
Here is the “Mulholland Drive” theme music by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
Whether watching “Mulholland Drive” for the first time or the sixth, as I just did, I have three observations. First, the Lynchian universe subscribes to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of unconscious, “the part of the mind that is inaccessible to the conscious mind but that affects behavior and emotions” (sample phrase: “fantasies raging in the unconscious”) and subconscious, “the part of the mind of which one is not fully aware but which influences one’s actions and feelings” (“subconscious desires”).
Second, people in our dreams are always composites of people from our waking world.
Third, the film’s meaning, as such, derives from Watts’s interpretations. Lynch famously never explains his scripts to his actors. In “Room to Dream,” a crew member explains, “ … basically we’re like his brushes.” “Mulholland Drive,” though, is driven as much by the actor’s interpretation as the director’s. With some accuracy, “Mulholland Drive” can be called a collaboration between Lynch and Watts.
Watts’s performance is wrought from the script and from her own hellish years of fruitless auditions. (In 2005, she made a comedy about it called “Ellie Parker.”) Prior to being cast by Lynch, Watts says, “My self-esteem was at an all-time low.” When she read the script, “I couldn’t believe how much Betty’s story matched my own. … You don’t get two roles like that in one career.”
“I don’t know if Johanna [Ray, Lynch’s casting director] told David about how long I’d been struggling, but he definitely tapped into that part of me.”
Watts’s story gives us a clue: Diane hasn’t just arrived in Hollywood as Betty does in the opening, but has been knocking around the movie business for years. Though she looks much younger, Watts was 29 when Lynch cast her. He’s known for casting actors on hunches, from looking at their head shots; he had Watts fly to L.A. from New York after seeing hers. (In a scene in the film, we see a head shot of a woman who looks very much like Watts.)
It’s impossible to imagine any other actress in the role. Of all the descriptions of Watts’ amazing performance—performances—I like Greil Marcus’ best: Watts gives “an astonishingly controlled, extremist performance … At the start she walks out of LAX with stars in her eyes. The shot is both iconic and clichéd, silly and scary, because the radiance in Watts’s face, communicating the depth of her character’s commitment, or insanity, pushes the shot almost into abstraction. That’s true for every scene Watts is in.”
“Mulholland Drive” is about much more than the overused theme of dream versus reality. It explores how movies shape our consciousness. Diane’s unconscious and subconscious are imprinted with movies; near the beginning of “Mulholland Drive,” two police detectives (one played by Robert Forster, the sheriff in the return to “Twin Peaks”) examine the wreckage at the scene of the accident and conclude that someone is missing. That someone is Rita. We’re conditioned to expect a police procedural, but the detectives are never seen again. The gangsters that run Hollywood are caricatures. The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman called “Mulholland Drive” “a poisonous Valentine to Hollywood,” but Lynch isn’t ridiculing Hollywood. He’s after bigger game: the way movies shape our dreams and distort our perceptions.
Diane’s mind is a Cuisinart full of movie genres: teen musicals, pornos, melodramas, gangster films, even Westerns (the cowboy threatens Adam Kesher) are all jumbled together. “It’ll be just like in the movies,” Betty tells Rita when they begin the search for her identity. “We’ll pretend to be someone else.”
“Mulholland Drive” is sprinkled with homages to some of Lynch’s favorite films: “Sunset Boulevard,” Bergman’s “Persona” and Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (the scene where Betty puts a blond wig on Rita recalls James Stewart and Kim Novak). The names Betty and Rita nod to the two most popular actresses of the ’40s, Grable and Hayworth.
The film that seems to have influenced Lynch the most is “The Wizard of Oz.” Several scenes in his films refer to “Oz,” most memorably Sheryl Lee’s the Good Witch in “Wild at Heart.” The original script for “Mullholland Drive” set several scenes in a Denny’s; in the film, Lynch changes it to Winkie’s, the land to the West in “Oz.” The MC at Club Silencio is Lynch’s wizard, pulling back the curtain to reveal “No hay banda.”
“Oz” influenced Lynch in one special way: It’s a story in which characters are introduced in real life, then reimagined in a dream. This is what Lynch does in “Mulholland Drive,” though it’s not obvious at the first viewing because of a fractured narrative. Lynch would probably agree with Jean-Luc Godard: “I believe in a beginning, middle and end, though not necessarily in that order.”
To make narrative sense of “Mulholland Drive,” start it about 20 minutes from the end, where Diane gets a phone call from Camilla, telling her a car is waiting to bring her to a party at Adam Kesher’s house on Mulholland Drive. It’s virtually the same scene as in the beginning of the film. We see the same limo on the dark road, only this time the passenger is Diane. The limo stops. Diane says, “What are you doing? We don’t stop here.” They are stopping at the back entrance to Kesher’s house. “A secret path,” Camilla smiles, as she leads Diane up the slope. All the main characters from the first two hours appear now in what seems to be real life. We hear snatches of dialogue that Diane’s unconscious replays in the dream.
It’s the so-called reality part of the film, though, that contains the greatest mysteries. Lynch once said, “Waking dreams are the ones most important to me, the ones that come while I’m quietly sitting in a chair. When you sleep, you don’t control your dreams. I’d like to dive into a dream world that I made.”
It isn’t clear that Betty’s love scenes with Rita reflect a real relationship between Diane and Camilla. In the dream, there’s a famous Lynchian stare between Rita and Betty’s dark-haired neighbor; in the waking part, the same neighbor exchanges harsh words with Diane in what appears as a lovers’ breakup. Was Diane’s neighbor her real lover and Rita the unattainable fantasy of Camilla?
Lynch’s perfect trick on the viewer comes after the party at Kesher’s. At Winkie’s, a shockingly worn-looking Diane hires a man to kill Camilla. (“This is the girl,” she says, as she gives him Camilla’s head shot.) Is a jealous Diane contracting the murder of her former lover, or is this a waking revenge fantasy? Where would a destitute actress get cash to hire a killer? Look closely: Is the money in the same purse that Rita carried when she stumbled into Aunt Ruth’s apartment? Has Diane taken the money from her dream into real life? If not, where did it come from? And what was all that cash doing in Rita’s purse in the first place?
Is the money a reality reimagined in a dream—or is it taken from a dream into reality? Is this recurring Mobius strip Raymond Chandler reimagined by Jorge Luis Borges?
In the 1960s, Susan Sontag argued that the transcendental power of art was being undermined by an overemphasis on intellectual interpretation. I’d apply this to “Mulholland Drive.” It’s wrapped in a gorgeous impenetrability, a neon-lit noir of a puzzle in which all the pieces start to rearrange themselves as soon as they seem to be in place. The blue box, the blue key, the demon behind the diner, Club Silencio—no matter how many times you see them, the mystery expands.
You need to see “Mulholland Drive” at least three times to truly not understand it.
David Lynch is not just about movies, but has a wide range of interests and can be seen in: ● Coffee commercials with “Twin Peaks” cast members) ● Music videos (here’s the official video for his album “Crazy Clown Time”) ● and even his own comic strip, “The Angriest Dog in the World” ● He’s also found time for acting in films other his own. Here he is in “Lucky,” the last movie of his friend, the late Harry Dean Stanton. ● In the TV shows “Twin Peaks,” he plays FBI agent Gordon Cole, and on Louis C.K.’s show appears as Jack Dall, a cynical Hollywood hanger-on. For his role on the Louie C.K. show, he was nominated for a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Guest Performer in 2013. ● He’s also been a voice actor on “The Cleveland Show.”
Others pay tribute to Lynch:
●The Festival of Disruption in L.A. and New York:
●Lynch does the Ice Bucket Challenge:
Finally, find the script for the “Mulholland Drive” TV pilot here.Your support matters…
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