Monday, July 11, 2011

A Drive on "Mulholland"

I walked into a college preview screening of "Mulholland Drive" ten years ago, thinking I was going to see the new film from David Fincher, director of "Seven" and "Fight Club." I had no idea who David Lynch was, and my experience with experimental and surrealist cinema was practically nil, so I was totally unprepared for the movie I was about to watch. But maybe that was the best way to see it, starting out with no expectations and no preconceptions.

It's difficult to give a summary of the plot, because so much of "Mulholland Drive" depends on the structure of the narrative, and an event that happens halfway through the story that is both a major spoiler and possibly the entire point of the film. Let's just say that it begins with Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a small town girl from Middle America, who comes to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actress. She meets an amnesiac beauty (Laura Elena Harring) who calls herself Rita and is on the run from forces unknown. Betty and Rita work together to piece together who Rita is and what happened to her. This get them mixed up in a series of events and encounters involving a troubled director (Justin Theroux), a Cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery), a pair of mobsters (Angelo Badalamenti and Dan Hedaya), a man who had a bad dream (Patrick Fischler), a psychic (Lee Grant), an actress named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George), and the terrifying creature behind the restaurant.

The first half of "Mulholland Drive," was based on a television pilot created by David Lynch, and you can see the beginnings of story arcs that would have been explored in the longer format of a full series - Betty's acting career, the movie being made by Justin Theroux's character, and the truth about Rita's identity and past. It bears similarities to Lynch's "Twin Peaks" series, where a central mystery serves as a jumping-off point to explore stories using a larger ensemble cast of peripherally connected characters. However, "Mulholland" is more sinister from the outset, taking place in a world of far more danger and deception than small town America - Hollywood. All throughout "Mulholland Drive," Lynch plays with the common tropes of Hollywood stories - the innocent blonde ingenue, the sultry brunette with a secret, the mobsters, the brilliant director in trouble, and more. In the first half Lynch sets them all up, and in the second, he utterly destroys them.

Minor spoilers ahead here, which can be avoided by skipping ahead to the next paragraph. I was taken aback by the shift in tone from the "Twin Peaks" television series to the "Twin Peaks" film, but Lynch pulls off a similar thru-the-looking-glass switch between the two halves of "Mulholland Drive," to magnificent effect. I think this is because the two sides of the narrative are so well balanced, the connections between them are tighter, and the differences made starker and more immediate. The story of Betty and Rita is is intially dreamlike and occasionally a little surreal, with its psychics and cowboys, and long stretches of time spent following other characters. But after the midpoint, the film becomes darker and more nightmarish, stripping away the facade of Hollywood glamour, and forcing us to look at the ugly reality beneath. Or perhaps Naomi Watts' character is finally awake, forced to confront broken dreams and hopeless aspirations. Or maybe it's something else entirely.

What remains so intriguing about "Mulholland Drive" is that it is open to so many interpretations. Objects and locations and characters are presented to us that have undeniable significance, but figuring out the connections and applying any sort of straightforward logic to the events portrayed is up to the viewer. Is the whole film an exercise in subverting form? Is it a metaphor for the creative process? A cautionary tale about the dangers of Hollywood? Lynch gives us just enough of these fragmentary plots and relationships, that the urge to piece them together and find meaning is irresistible. I haven't said much about the quality of the filmmaking yet, which is impeccable. Lynch's images are as strong and resonant as ever, and there were several moments that evoked a sheer animal terror that I've never been able to forget. He uses color and light brilliantly, creating variations on the same dream world that come across as totally different despite being physically identical. The sound design is also exceptional, enhancing every disturbing moment, every twinge of dissonance.

It's odd to think of "Mulholland Drive" as a horror film, but that's how I found myself responding to it ultimately. It's a cerebral puzzle on one level, but I don't think enough has been said about its visceral intensity or dramatic power. Lynch keeps the feeling of unease and anticipation running high, deploying plot turns and bizarre digressions with practiced ease. Even though I was unfamiliar with Lynch's work, on that first watch I always had something to hold on to, some path through the obscurity that I could follow. And then there's Naomi Watts, in one of her first major film roles, who is such a delight to watch as she reveals more and more dimensions of the complicated heroine. Harring does a good job, but you can't take your eyes off Watts. If there is a key to the film, surely it's her performance.

Is "Mulholland Drive" the best David Lynch film? Perhaps, but it's my favorite because it comes across as a culmination of everything he was trying to accomplish in the prior decade, or perhaps a commentary on it. There are so many shared themes and ideas with "Twin Peaks" and "Lost Highway" - duality, illusions, sexual frustration - all refined and distilled into a single, hallucinatory vision. It's tempting to think that Club Silencio may be another entryway to the Black Lodge, or that supernatural possession might play into things somehow.

Or maybe it was all just a dream.

What I've Seen - David Lynch

Eraserhead (1977)
The Elephant Man (1980)
Dune (1984)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Twin Peaks: Fire walk With Me (1992)
Lost Highway (1997)
The Straight Story (1999)
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Inland Empire (2006)

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