Directed by David Lynch
Released in 2001
You can “solve” this film, I know, because Lynch thought of everything, plot-wise and otherwise, while making it. I also know that I do not want to piece together every little detail, align every event in chronological order and scrutinize what one blue key means against another blue key. The rush one feels watching this film — especially returning to it again and again, once the initial shock of the late-act reversal has worn off — comes from the act of “working things out” yet accepting that the fullness of Lynch’s vision remains beyond your grasp.
I just revisited Mulholland Dr., this being I believe my fifth visit. Cornell Cinema screened this on their brand-new screen with updated speakers and projection equipment. After watching this on big HDTVs, small screens and 480p projectors, I am now convinced it must be seen, at least once, across as large a canvas as possible, in the darkest and largest room you can find. This is a movie about movies, yes, but this is also a movie that downright cherishes the effect watching a movie can have on a person.
As far as breaking Mulholland Dr. down and grasping for formal, narrative meaning, a little of this effort is necessary to at least ground yourself. You can go from there how you please, either pausing the film and taking notes upon every shot, or accepting that things just work out and that you will elect to bask in Mulholland Dr.’s greatness only when watching it - which you do again and again, because you cannot stay away.
But, as for the film’s construction, I think most veterans accept that the first two-thirds are some sort of projection/fantasy of Diane (Naomi Watts). When she experiences this series of scenes is a good question, as well as whether or not she ever does. After the first scene (the bizarre, obviously nostalgia-tinged “Jitterbug”), we catch a quick glimpse of, ostensibly, Diane’s POV on the bed with red sheets. She is sobbing, or at least gasping heavily, yet we don’t see her body. I don’t know what, exactly, happens during this shot, but I know it provides a tragic bookend for the film. This must be a moment, either before or, maybe, after (?) her suicide at the end, and the ambiguity of this one shot serves to remind us that this film works through mood much more than it does through cause+effect, plot-motivated narrative.
Picking apart the rest of the movie is a joy to be had in the cinema, while watching it. However, I have gleaned much from the film by keeping one thing in mind, regarding the first two-thirds of the film: The characters, prior to the ‘blue box switch-up,’ live how Diane (in “real life”) wants them to live, yet stay at a distance because they also embody Diane’s worst tendencies. Like in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Betty (Diane’s innocent, plucky ideal of herself, or of how life should be lived, if it only could) molds Rita (Laura Harring) from a tabula rasa - courtesy of an amnesia-inflicting car crash - into the perfect lover, and not to mention mother, too. (The line between depiction and voyeurism of lesbian acts that some accuse Abdellatif Keciche of crossing in Blue Is the Warmest Color is not in question here. Lynch sort of lingers the camera on Rita’s breasts during that beautiful love scene, but it’s from Betty’s perspective and connotes some mother attachment). Yet Rita lacks an interiority throughout much of the film, and acts like this obsequious doll that just so happens to have this ability for second sight. That is not a criticism, but a symptom of the fantasy and a telling sign that this fiction Diane constructs for herself will be short-lived, for Rita is the one that ends it.
Adam (Justin Theroux) is having the worst day of his life because he stole Camilla (or Rita) from Diane, and you can bet Diane subconsciously transfers her awful life onto Adam’s. “This is the girl,” Adam declares, accepting an actress (named “Camilla Rhodes”) he does not want for his movie (a.k.a. his life). Diane must suffer this feeling every day knowing she cannot have the one, the real Camilla, she wants. “This is the girl,” Diane says to the hitman who, very likely, kills Camilla sometime off-screen, before the demons (that unforgettable old couple) drive her to suicide. She tries to rationalize the murder, of course, by staging the hitman’s daily work as some slapstick farce, where one kill means two collateral deaths, a fire alarm and a whole lot of DNA evidence (I mean, he just throws his cigarette butt onto the fire escape!).
I should catch myself. As fun as the process of writing is, I should abstain from spending too much time dissecting Mulholland Dr. The gut feeling churning in one’s gut while watching this is proof enough that Lynch not only knows what he is doing but, like, knows close to everything, as in in life. The movie makes sense because it works on that subconscious, surreal level, where “sense” is more like nonsense but lodges into our brains and bodies cleaner and quicker than the most lucid of narrative prose.
In that sense, Mulholland Dr. is a movie I cherish above so many others because it lets me have it both ways: The visceral experience - of music complementing image, camera movement embodying the feeling of dreams and moments of silence swallowing us into the suffocating limbo of nightmares - is unmatched. Yet Mulholland Dr. also knows that you are watching it to work it out, so it presents a mountain of clues and somehow reveals their secrets throughout its duration. When we finish watching it, we grasp for meaning and catch some of it — but not all. There is so much more in there, and that is why we return.
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