Director: David Lynch
(WARNING: Contains spoilers) In a recent poll, more than 100 film critics and bloggers voted David Lynch’s enigmatic Mulholland Drive as the best film of the decade, which I found, admittedly, a bit suprising. I say suprising because Lynch films are often met with sharp divisions of love and hate, usually with no middle ground to speak of, so for a film of his to gather this much universal acclaim is certainly noteworthy. I am, in the end, happy Mulholland Drive was named the best film of the decade since I come down on the side of loving his films (OK, he’s my favorite director next to Luis Buñuel so maybe I’m a little biased). To me this unified declaration proves, decades into an amazing career, Lynch is still making deeply personal, and highly charged films that continue to burrow under the collective skin of film goers the world over.
Mulholland Drive along with Lost Highway (which shares many similar ideas on doppelgangers, alternate narratives/universes (see my previous review of Lost Highway) are two of my favorite Lynch films, although they were not always so. I enjoyed Lost Highway enough, but wasn’t struck by it like I was when I first saw Blue Velvet. A few years later when Mulholland Drive came out my response was pretty much the same. I had also been following the history of the film so I knew that it was originally a pilot developed for ABC which the network declined to accept for various reasons. Once Lynch got the rights back he shot more footage and expanded it into a movie. I think my knowledge of this clouded my initial response which was this: that the first hour was amazing and the second half not as engaging. In other words it felt like a pilot that was reworked into a feature film. There were plotlines and characters that felt like dead ends (even more so than the usual Lynch film), and I was left wishing this had actually been made into a series (I still do, just a bit).
It was only after talking to a friend at length about the film, his impressions of it, what he thought the ending meant, how it related to the rest of the story etc., that I rented and watched it with fresh eyes. I’ve watched it many times since then, and I have grown to not only admire this film, but really count it among my favorite in the Lynch cannon. This renewed interest prompted me to see Lost Highway again, and again and again, each time admiring both films that much more.
Unlike Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, both of which struck me immediately, I needed more time warming up to Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway; the narratives that turn into themselves again and again, the endings that are really not endings but beginnings, they are two films that are more challenging, in the same way that Eraserhead and Inland Empire are challenging. They are not immediately accessible; they don’t reveal themselves upon first viewing; they are dense mysteries that may never be penetrated, and that’s OK because they may not need to be, they are often simply what they are upon first discovery: unabashedly bizarre, disconcerting, hypnotizing, utterly visceral experiences. Its languid pacing lures the viewer into a false sense of understanding which is routinely undermined by diversions and distractions of the main plot-line. The visuals are luscious and lurid as usual, a phantasmagoric welling of Technicolor seediness that often boarders on madness. Mulholland Drive is the perfect culmination of ideas that Lynch started with in Lost Highway, sans the overwhelming menace of the latter. True, there is menace here, just under the surface, but there is also joy and sadness, and a strange sense of calm that envelopes Betty in the final scene of the film. There is redemption in Betty’s face, she is full of promise, echoing that of the beginning of the film.
The story of starry-eyed, aspiring actress, Betty (Naomi Watts) and the mysterious, amnesiac, Rita (Laura Elena Harring) trying desperately to discover her real identity, has all of the hallmarks of classic Lynch: absurdly naive characters; brutal explosions of violence that emerge from seemingly mundane surroundings; dialogue that is at once kitschy and mysterious, a cadence that lends itself to the entire filmic artifice which evolves in rapidly organic and frightening ways over the course of the movie; detours down the dark alley ways of film noir; an approach to filmmaking that is timeless, but also immediate, of the times in which it was created. Mulholland Drive is a sort of love letter to Hollywood and filmmaking, a more twisted version of Sunset Boulevard. It is a waking dream about dream-making, it plunges you into the city that drives all of this, exposing the monsters that skulk around in the shadows, that move about in the golden, smog-infused sunlight. From the bungalows to the back lots, the diners and houses on hills, Lynch is gives the audience a journey around L.A., his L.A., the reality, but also that one that exists in dreams and nightmares. Like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, Mulholland Drive evokes a by-gone Los Angeles of gloss and crime, while giving us a strange preview of the present and future, one that is only fully glimpsed by Lynch himself.
And there are many memorable scenes; Betty’s reading at a casting call that recalls, in some strange way, the scene in Wild at Heart between Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) and Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) in the motel room; Angelo Badalamenti‘s hilarious turn as a mobster who is just trying to get a good cappuccino; Betty and Rita in a climactic scene at the mysterious Club Silencio with vocalist Rebekah del Rio singing an a capella version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish to the weeping lovers. The whole scene is strangely moving and the last time we see them together before their relationship collapses and is reborn into another storyline and pair of characters.
Of course, like Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive has been written about at length, so anything I add will be just short of redundant, and possibly border on the mindless drivel of a Lynch fan (of course this didn’t stop me from putting together a previous “review” of Lost Highway). There have been much better, far more articulate overviews of Lynch and his films, the best of which very well might lie in the late David Foster Wallace’s article for Premiere magazine*.
In the end Mulholland Drive, is probably the most heart breaking of Lynch’s films. It is a tragic love story at its core. Lynch even called it a “love story in the city of dreams”. The moments between Betty and Rita are some of the most intimate, sincere of the film (especially so in the lovemaking scene; yes it is meant to be titillating, but it is also tender, one of the most honestly moving scenes Lynch has ever filmed). There is a sort of naked honesty present in many scenes between the two women, the same kind of moments Lynch conjured in the underappreciated Straight Story. Eliciting this sort of raw emotion proves that Lynch is not just about being “weird” for weird’s sake as many of his detractors would argue; he is also a director deeply interested in the human condition, about how it feels to be alive.
Perhaps Mulholland Drive makes perfect sense as the film of the decade, the first decade of the 21st century, if only in the eyes of a bunch of critics and bloggers. In many ways it reflects the times we live in, the dangerous uncertainties of a new century, and for lack of a better word, the surrealism of many events that left their indelible mark upon the decade.
* David Foster Wallace’s essay is not only a fascinating portrait of an artist at work, but an appreciation of that artist’s career, and how that career affected his own writing (you can also find this in his amazing collection of essays A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again) .