Monday, January 19, 2009

California Dreaming with David Lynch


The prestigious French publication Cahiers du Cinéma recently named David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001) one of the 100 greatest films of all time. When released, it was almost universally praised as Lynch's best work since Blue Velvet (1986) and went on to win the Best Picture award from the New York, Chicago, Boston, and Phoenix film critics organizations as well as from the National Society of Film Critics. Lynch won the Best Director Award from the Los Angeles film critics and at the Cannes Film Festival and received an Oscar nomination as Best Director. The film, actually her 25th acting credit, also made a star of the British-born and Australian-raised actress Naomi Watts.

Although the movie bears many similarities to Blue Velvet—a hallucinatory visual style, its plot of the two main characters trying to solve a mystery, the striking integration of pop music with visuals, a mood of escalating danger and dread—it abandons the straightforward linear narrative of that earlier film for something closer to the logic- and time-contorting narrative style of Lynch's more surreal works like Eraserhead (1977). The origin of the movie's unusual narrative structure is explained in part by its production history. It was originally sold as a story idea for a television series to ABC and shot as a pilot introducing the characters and setting up the mystery elements of the plot. The intention presumably was to pursue the mystery throughout the season and work up to a solution at the end of the show's run, as Lynch had done in Twin Peaks. When ABC rejected the pilot, Lynch got new financing, expanded what he had already shot, and devised a final section to provide the film a conclusion.

Many viewers found the result fascinating but mystifying, and it is possible to see the movie as a superbly executed reality-and-illusion puzzle, the kind of intentionally artistic examination of reality and the nature of film narrative that was popular in the 1960's. In the wrong hands, this necessarily fragmented, non-linear storytelling strategy can be disastrous. But with Lynch, this approach produces astounding results. The movie's slightly raveled combination of calculation and spontaneity, of order and anarchy, makes us reconsider the ways in which movies present time and events, not unlike the most challenging films of Luis Buñuel. And like Buñuel, Lynch, with his artist's eye and unique narrative style, shows us unexpected ways of combining images with events. Long after the movie has ended, haunting images—of faces and expressions, of scenes and entire sequences—linger like remembered fragments of a dream.

Although I don't find everything in the movie neatly explicable (is that really so strange in a film directed by David Lynch?), I do find the overall sense of the plot comprehensible, and in this post I would like to offer my own interpretation of the events in Mulholland Dr. This necessarily requires a detailed recounting of the movie's plot—something I normally try to avoid—so readers be forewarned. This is really two movies, each of which, as in Rashomon, presents an alternative interpretation of the same events. The difference is that in Mulholland Dr. there is for me little ambiguity. The first version of events is the imagined one; the second version is the true one.

When the movie begins, even before the credits, we see an enigmatic sequence, shot music-video style, of several young couples dressed in outfits from the 1940's jitterbugging to music of the period. The couples appear against a solid purple background and are computer-duplicated so that we see each couple from more than one angle. Behind some of them are projected their shadows, like Fred Astaire's in the "Bojangles of Harlem" number in Swing Time. At one point we see in the foreground the white silhouette of a group of older people enthusiastically enjoying the display, and later the white silhouette of a young woman walking toward the camera smiling while we hear applause.

The movie proper begins with a beautiful young woman (Laura Elena Harring) riding in the back a limousine. In an isolated area of Mulholland Dr. in Los Angeles, the limousine suddenly stops, and the driver turns around and points a gun at the frightened woman. At the same time, two carloads of teenagers in convertibles are racing each other down Mulholland Dr. in the opposite direction, the teenagers behaving like manic refugees from Rebel Without a Cause. Suddenly the racing cars crash into the stopped limousine. The woman, apparently the only survivor, staggers into the brush and downhill before passing out in the shrubbery of a Hollywood apartment building. The next morning she wakes up and takes refuge in an apartment whose tenant she has seen driving away in a cab with a large amount of luggage.

At the same time, another young woman named Bettie Elms (Naomi Watts) is arriving at LAX to pursue her dream of an acting career. While in Los Angeles, she will be staying in the apartment of her aunt, who is on an extended trip out of town. When Bettie goes into the bathroom of the apartment, she finds the victim of the car crash in the shower. The mysterious young woman at first introduces herself as Rita (she had just seen a framed poster for Gilda in the bathroom) but then confesses that she is an amnesiac and actually has no idea who she really is. Like Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, Bettie is intrigued by the mystery and resolves to help Rita solve it and find out her true identity. The only clues are the contents of Rita's purse—a large amount of money, a piece of paper with the name Diane Selwyn written on it, and a blue key—and Rita's vague memory that she has been in a car accident.

The rest of the movie largely concerns the two women's attempts to investigate the mystery. Several subplots are introduced. One concerns a young man who has a recurring nightmare that he goes to a diner called Winkie's with a man who is apparently his therapist and in the alley behind the diner encounters a monster. Another concerns a professional hitman. Yet another concerns a movie director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who is attempting to get financing for a movie but is being coerced into casting an actress named Camilla Rhodes in a part. Part of this coercion involves a nighttime meeting with an odd-looking, menacing middle-aged man dressed like a cowboy.

Only this last subplot has any apparent connection to the main Bettie/Rita plot. After auditioning for a part (Watts is particularly outstanding in this sequence), Bettie is taken down the hall to a studio to be introduced to Adam, who is conducting auditions for his movie. This section of the movie contains one of its most stunning sequences. At first we see a pop group dressed and coiffed circa 1960 performing a song called "Sixteen Reasons Why I Love You." The combined effect of the visuals and music is spellbinding. Suddenly the camera pulls back to reveal that we are looking at the performance through the window of a recording studio, the recording console and equipment visible in the foreground. A few moments later, the camera pulls back even further to reveal that that we are actually on a sound stage and that the recording studio itself is a set. If any one scene encapsulates the Chinese box nature of Mulholland Dr., it is this one. And even that is only one layer of the action, for there are also haunting close-ups of Watts and Theroux gazing enigmatically at each other on their first meeting. This sequence is followed immediately by one of the next audition, of Camilla Rhodes performing another period pop song called "Why Haven't I Told That I Love You?"

At this point Bettie leaves to meet Rita to visit the address they have found for Diane Selwyn. When they find nobody home, Bettie persuades Rita to break in. In Diane Selwyn's bungalow they discover a dead woman in the bedroom and flee.

Later that night, Bettie invites Rita into her bed, and the two make love. In the middle of the night, Rita wakes from a dream muttering, "Silencio . . . silencio . . ." and insists that Bettie accompany her to a seedy part of town where a bizarre theater is presenting a late-night magic show. Here the two women huddle together while a heavily made-up woman lip-syncs to a recorded a capella version of Roy Orbison's "Crying" sung in Spanish. At the height of the performance, Bettie opens her purse and finds in it a small blue box. The performer's emoting is so strong that both women are in tears before the performer collapses on the stage while the recording continues.

When Bettie and Rita return to the apartment, Rita turns around from putting away her coat to find that Bettie has disappeared. Rita takes the blue box from Bettie's purse and opens it with the mysterious blue key. It is empty, its interior black. She drops the box to the floor, where it falls open. The camera moves slowly into the interior of the box until the screen goes black, and the first section of the movie is over.

The second, shorter section of Mulholland Dr. opens with the menacing cowboy from the first part walking into Diane Selwyn's apartment. Through the bedroom door we see a woman with dark hair like Rita's lying on the bed with her back to the camera. in the same position as the dead body that Bettie and Rita discovered in the first section. "Time to wake up, pretty girl," he says and leaves. When the camera returns to the bedroom, it is the blonde Bettie lying on the bed. When she gets off the bed and walks into the living room, she looks disheveled and distraught. At this point the movie shifts into a flashback. Bettie is lying on top of Rita on the sofa, making love to her, and Rita stops her, saying "We can't do this anymore." Later Bettie receives a telephone call from Rita reminding her that the limousine will be there for her shortly.

This time it is Bettie who takes the ride up Mulholland Dr., where she is delivered to a party at the home of Adam Kesher, the movie director. She is introduced to Adam's mother, Coco (Ann Miller), who is the same person that in the earlier section was the manager of the apartment building where Bettie's aunt lived. As Bettie sits across the table from Adam, Rita, and Coco, she tells Coco about herself. Her name is not Bettie at all, but Diane Selwyn. After winning a jitterbug contest in Canada, she came to Hollywood to pursue her dream of being a movie actress. There she met Rita, whose name is not Rita but Camilla Rhodes, and became her protégée (and presumably her lover). It was Camilla who got Diane small parts in her movies. As the party progresses, we learn that it is being held to announce the engagement of Camilla and Adam. After the announcement is made, an attractive young blonde woman comes up to Camilla (the same woman who was Camilla in the first section) and gives her a long congratulatory, and clearly sexual, kiss on the lips. At this point Diane loses her composure, and tears begin to stream down her face.

Later at Winkie's Diane meets the hitman. Here she also encounters two other people from the first section of the movie. One is the man with the recurrent nightmare, who now stands by the cash register where his therapist stood before. The other is their waitress, a young blonde woman whose name tag reads "Bettie." When Bettie and Rita came to the diner in the first section, this same person was their waitress, and that time her name tag read "Diane." (I believe that this is the same actress who also plays the first Camilla as well as the new lover who kisses the real Camilla at her engagement party.) From her purse, the same purse Rita carried when Bettie first met her, Diane removes a large amount of money and passes it to the hit man along with a photograph of Camilla. The hitman shows Diane a blue key and tells her that she will receive it when the job is done.

We now come back to the present, where Diane, dejected and mournful, sits on the sofa staring at the blue key. The last scene in the movie returns us to the mysterious theater, where the woman who earlier sang "Crying" sits alone in the audience muttering, "Silencio . . . silencio . . ."

It is now clear that the first part of the movie was an elaborate dream/hallucination/imaginary movie in which Camilla escaped the attempted hit unharmed and Diane was able to meet her all over again and become her lover. All the characters and elements of this complicated wish-fulfillment fantasy came from Diane's life; all the raw material of the long first section of the movie can be found in the shorter second section. The people, names, and situations have been deconstructed and reassembled to create an alternate and, to Diane, more acceptable version of reality that changes the past and erases both her loss of Camilla and her responsibility for Camilla's death. In the end, though, she must return to reality and remain there. Camilla is dead, Diane is responsible for her death, and the rest is silence.

There is no way I can do justice to Mulholland Dr. using words. I can attempt to sort out the order and nature of its events, to clarify what happens in the movie and why. But I cannot adequately describe the subliminal effect of experiencing this movie. I can only say that seeing Mulholland Dr. is a unique, powerful, and profoundly affecting cinema experience unlike any other I have ever had. It is a movie about the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves, about making movies, watching movies, and the movies we make up in our minds.

Mulholland Dr.
may be a patchwork of disjointed events and images, but somehow it all holds together, and I can only assume that the element that unifies everything is the vision of its director. I cannot think of anyone else except possibly Luis Buñuel who could have done so successfully what David Lynch does in Mulholland Dr.—create an entire movie that reproduces the look, the atmosphere, and the ineffable narrative structure of a dream, with its logic- and time-defying sequence of events, its internal reality that echoes and distorts external reality, and its almost mystical transformation of real people and events into imaginary ones. Mulholland Dr. takes the concept of mimesis—of art imitating real life—one step further, into the realm of art imitating dream life.
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In the documentary In Dreams: The Roy Orbison Story (1999), David Lynch says that he originally planned to use "Crying" in Blue Velvet, but after listening to a tape of Orbison's greatest hits and hearing "In Dreams," he decided to use that song instead. He finally did get to use "Crying" fifteen years later in Mulholland Dr.

5 comments:

John said...

Lynch is one of the few true film artists we have. While I don’t like everything he does, his work is always fascinating. I have only seen “Mulholland Drive” once, sometime ago so it is difficult for me to comment, though I enjoyed reading your analysis and really admire your writing. Wish I were somewhere near as good. “Mulholland Drive” and Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour” would make a good double feature.

blake said...

Wow, I'm wicked impressed with this blog. I actually just wrote my dissertation about Mulholland Dr. Thanks for your insight, and welcome to the LAMB.

R. D. Finch said...

Blake, thanks for your compliment, which I appreciate even more after taking a look at your own blog. I'm not sure that our tastes in movies will often coincide, but I am mighty impressed with your writing style--which is a lot looser and more entertaining than mine--and the thoroughness with which you cover the movies you review. I really liked your entries on "Mulholland Dr." and "Blue Velvet." Thanks again.

R. D. Finch said...

Blake, one more thought. Did you find my brief review of "Blue Velvet"? If not, look for the "David Lynch" label I just added in the sidebar under "Subject Index."

blake said...

I just checked out your review of Blue Velvet. It sounds like we share a similar love affair with the movie. Isn't Lynch fantastic? I'm not ashamed to admit I don't quite get Inland Empire, but who cares when he's got Mulholland Dr. and Blue Velvet under his belt.