Film Comment, September/October 2001
Welcome to L.A.

Hollywood outsider David Lynch plunges into Tinseltown's dark psyche.
Philip Lopate on Mulholland Drive.

Mulholland Drive, David Lynch's newest, is a film so compelling, engrossing, well directed, sexy, moving, beautiful to look at, mysterious, and satisfying that it threatens to unnerve the aesthetic premises of those who, like myself, are not intrinsically Lynch fans. For die-hard Lynchians, undisturbed even by the narrative incoherence of Lost Highway, it will be catnip; but what about the rest of us, the skeptics? How will we explain this sudden embrace of a mannerist who in the past had seemed adolescent, self-indulgent, and even vulgar, if not meretricious?

Of course, one would need to have been half-blind not to acknowledge Lynch all along as a brilliantly original film artist, a fabricator of stunning images, passages, and moods who created his own recognizable universe onscreen. But that was the problem: as with Fellini, it was a universe so preciously fond of itself and its schtick, it did not seem to need my appreciation. Devoted to another ineffable ideal (Mizoguchi, Dreyer, Ophuls, Hou Hsiaohsien) I could simply sidestep Lynch's uncanny as not my cup of tea. Call me an old fart: the point is, I have no stake in youth culture, no need to appear hip by over-praising Eraserhead, Lynch's grotesque-by-the-numbers debut, or the overwrought inventiveness of Dune. The Elephant Man's restraint pleasantly surprised me, but Lynchians discounted it as a contract job, just as they later mistrusted the amiable The Straight Story, which also lacked the director's coercive portentousness. Blue Velvet, Lynch's signature film, I found ravishingly hypnotic yet silly. I could not take seriously its indiscriminate promotion of the lurid, its investment in unmasking the American Dream (as if anyone still believed in that), combined in a Manichean fashion with a questing mythos of innocence. Wild at Heart was worse, a detestable merger of Wizard of Oz faux-naivete and Touch of Evil sinister. Twin Peaks, intriguing up to a point, became too coy with its surrealist tropes. But I swooned at Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, a guilty pleasure that worked precisely because it stopped trying to make narrative sense and entered a trance-space, especially in the nightclub scenes. Given my preference for just those passages in Blue Velvet that had seemed most transfixed, most stoned, I was beginning to think that Lynch succeeded best when he surrendered to a dreamy calm, time standing still. So it was dismaying to find Lost Highway a bust, despite its great visual surface, because, with so much identity dissolution there were no characters to follow; it was too abstract.

I've dwelled on the pitfalls of Lynch's style to emphasize that Mulholland Drive triumphs not from any abandonment of that ominous manner but from its maturation or fulfillment, brought on by small adjustments to the formula. For example, there are still grotesque, surrealist touches, but without quite the coyness attached. Identities are shuffled, as in Lost Highway, but not before the characters have been solidly established. A much greater degree of control is in evidence. And there is, I hope to show, a new current of adult feeling that eventually displaces the old, one-note titillation of foreboding, or at least coexists with it.

Mulholland Drive begins with a black limousine snaking through the eponymous hills; the lights of the city that Auden called, in reference to Chandler's mystery novels, "the Great Wrong Place," shine below. Angelo Badalamenti's score provides the mood, the ache. A bruised brown and blue palette, tight compositions: a hot, morose brunette in the back seat (Laura Elena Harring) is about to be shot, executed, but is saved by a collision with another car. She stumbles from the wreck in a black cocktail dress, and makes her way in high heels down the hill, where she finds an apartment court in which to hide out. Suffering from a concussion, she has lost her memory, and her handbag contains no ID, only piles of cash, probably stolen.

We've been here before. Lynch uses film noir as an atmosphere, a gesture, a lost paradise. Until the film takes hold, a belatedness hovers over the enterprise: one thinks not just of classic noir (In a Lonely Place, The Killers) but, even more, the revisionist cycle that plays with the legend of Los Angeles and/or fiddles with structuralist, amnesiac time-schemes (Barton Fink, Pulp Fiction, Memento, The Limey, L.A. Confidential). Then something more gripping starts to happen, partly through the introduction of a counterweight to noir, a perky little blonde named Betty (Naomi Watts), just flown in from Canada, and the resulting chemistry between these two dissimilar women.

Betty is the wholesome, optimistic, determined to take the town by storm, or to help out a stranger in need because it's the right thing to do. There is something comic in this pairing of the buoyant, new-kid-in-town, Doris Day-ish, resolute Betty and the bewildered, cowering, glamorous, tainted "Rita," still in her cocktail dress. As they track down clues to her missing identity, the terror starts to recede, and they become empowered adventurers finding connections in a web. Think Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating.

When they first meet, Betty unexpectedly finds this dazed woman in her aunt's shower; the woman volunteers the information that she has been in an accident, but is silent when asked her name. As it happens, a large poster for Gilda hangs on the bathroom wall, so when the amnesiac emerges she has an answer for the blonde, and an identity: "Rita." Harring recaptures that wounded, duende heritage of Rita Hayworth (real name Margarita Carmen Cansino), as well as her vagueness, the stunned, incomplete aspect. It's the vacancy that comes with extraordinary beauty and the onlooker's willingness to project any combination of angelic and devilish onto her. In this case, she truly doesn't know who she is, so she has to be reactive, sweet, and self-inventive.

What makes most femmes fatales fatal is their unconsciousness; it allows them a dangerous plasticity. All femmes fatales are amnesiac, in that they forget their vows. See Jane Greer in Out of the Past, Hayworth in Gilda, Yvonne de Carlo in Criss Cross, and any number of sweetly accommodating sirens (but never steely, self-aware Barbara Stanwyck) who form the template for Lynch's Rita.

Mulholland Drive is a movie about movies, in more ways than one. This time Oz is Tinseltown. Small-town America has been replaced by Hollywood, a milieu Lynch (whatever his Missoula upbringing) now understands much more concretely than Middle America, and is much less apt to patronize. He knows the exercise of arbitrary power by studio heads, easily comparable to Mafia godfathers. He knows the way pretty young women are passed around by old men, chewed up and spat out, their spirits broken. He knows the insecure dignity and self-absorption of the bit players, and can satirize them with refreshing economy. He knows, too, the way Los Angeles can come to feel like a company town, provincial in it's interconnectedness. When a minor character says his family is in "the business," he apologizes for the shorthand and explains, "show business." One assumes all the apartment court denizens, including the crazy old psychic, were originally drawn to Los Angeles by the promise of stardom. Thus, the insularity of the Southern California film community becomes an apt analogue for that larger conspiracy Lynch is always hinting at: everyone is in on It, everyone is related, and they are all in the business of manufacturing dreck. That's show biz. And a part of Lynch loves the dreck, its pop vitality, or the routines that go into it, as he shows with the relaxed scenes of actresses auditioning for a dopey doo-wop number. What he is really drawn to is performance.

Where identity is not fixed, performance becomes a floating anchor. Betty, who seems so sunny and perky, practices the fines of a scene for her upcoming audition with Rita. The scene is dreck - something about a young woman outraged at the behavior of her father's partner - and Betty plays it with becoming, self-righteous anger, prompting Rita (who has been woodenly feeding her lines) to marvel: "You're good." She certainly is smooth. The next day, at the audition, Betty has to act the same scene with a lecherous has-been, and suddenly she does it with surprising lubricity. Again she's good. But completely different. (It helps that Naomi Watts is so gifted) This little turnabout shows the playful fluidity that represents, for Lynch, the promise of human character, the reverse side of the anxiety that comes of not having a fixed self.

So, when Rita, realizing she's in danger, decides to disguise herself, she dons a wig, and the two heroines compare their blonde hairdos in the mirror. It could be a moment out of Bergman's Persona or Altman's Three Women. Rita's gratitude toward the grounded, protective Betty is palpable, as though no harm could come to blondes. We feel the warmth of their becoming pals. Not long after, Betty tells her she needn't sleep on the couch, they can share the bed, and Rita goes a good deal further than pals: she strips off her nightgown, revealing a full figure, leans over the timid Betty and begins kissing her.

What is remarkable is that we haven't seen it coming, and yet accept it completely. When Betty tells Rita as they embrace, "I'm in love with you!" it is as if she is understanding for the first time, with self-surprise, that all her helpfulness and curiosity about the other woman had a point: desire. Who can doubt her? But it took Rita to make the first gesture, the presentation of her voluptuous body to the smaller woman. In this arena, Rita is the performer. When Betty asks, "Have you ever done this before?" (meaning: gone to bed with another woman), Rita, ever the amnesiac, confesses, "I don't know." But the intuitive logic of her generosity seems to flow from the trust and mutual dependency that has been building between them. The two women offer their breasts to each other (and to us). It is a beautiful moment, made all the more miraculous by its earned tenderness, and its utter distance from anything lurid.

We can only speculate why Lynch should have needed the voyeurism - or sympathetic detachment - of watching two women, in bed to permit himself this first convincing portrayal of an adult love relationship.

Later, Rita wakes up with a premonition and gets Betty to accompany her in the middle of the night to a soil of Magic Theater, a la Hesse's Steppenwolf. In this scene, two-thirds of the way through, the film seems to descend to a more unconscious level. Until now, however bizarre, everything had been causally connected, a one-thing-after-another linear narrative. Now the two women go home together, carrying a blue box that mysteriously materialized in front of them at the theater, enter their bedroom - and Betty disappears. A key is inserted in the box, which falls to the floor. From here on, all bets are off. Betty, no longer wholesome-looking, is now living alone in a much rattier apartment court, and having a prolonged fever dream. Occasionally Rita visits her and they start to make love, only now Rita seems to be a movie star named Carmela, and all that's left of their relationship is betrayal, humiliation, abandonment. It's as if Lynch could only sustain the ecstatic rapport, the intimacy of love for a few brief scenes, before turning it into a nightmare. The threat comes less from the dark forces of crime (the syndicate who might be hunting Rita never draws close to her) than from the fragility of love. Once Rita plays the sexual card, it would seem, she gains the upper hand and becomes the heartless Carmela, while Betty loses all her spunk, turning into the One Who Will Be Rejected.

The events in this last hour, which I'll call Part B, may feel more fragmented, less compelling than the meticulously ordered Part A, but we need Part Bs disenchantments for emotional balance. The two stories appear to have been folded into each other, in a Mobius strip, with some details overlapping and some not. What gives? Is there a right solution, which only David Lynch knows (and much more clever, diligent film critics than myself will have figured out)?

Several possibilities exist, and, being an incurable rationalist, I feel obliged to enumerate them. 1) It was all a dream - as we used to say at the end of our compositions in elementary school. This is the most consistent, encompassing explanation, but does not take us very far. It simply reduces all phenomena to the same flat, invented plane. 2) It is a mixture of dream and reality. In this arrangement, some characters, seen in a purported "real life," would be transformed and given other functions. The question then remains: which part or parts represent the reality that the dreaming mind is reprocessing? 3) The two narrative tracks exist in alternate, parallel universes. I can never understand what this increasingly employed explanation means, and regard it as the last refuge of sci-fi scoundrels. 4) Since we see Betty masturbating in Part B, it suggests that all of the narratives could be her masturbation fantasies. Another way of putting it is, If all the events we see are subjective, be it daydream or nightmare, whose subjective consciousness is being tapped? Betty's? Lynch's? Rita's? All of the above? (In Gestalt therapy, they teach you that you are everyone and everything in your dream. How could it be otherwise?) Maybe it doesn't matter. If you surrender to the film, it becomes your "parallel universe."

Much has been made of the fact that Mulholland Drive began as the pilot of a TV series that then never got funded; Lynch, deciding to release it as a feature, then went back and shot more footage to flesh it out. Certainly, some of the film's idiosyncratic aspects might be explained by its television origins: the credits' a Fifties-type dance party with special effects that feels like a series title sequence; the episodic nature of the narrative; the many secondary characters who are introduced to us in early scenes but never come back to the story (including name actors such as Dan Hedaya and Robert Forster, who were undoubtedly scheduled for later reappearances). The TV-style reliance on close-ups becomes a strength, given the painterly lighting of Peter Deming's cinematography, and its restriction of our visual information reinforces the claustrophobic dream subtext. The self-conscious art direction suggests, too, one of those "paranoid" cult shows Wild Palms or The X-Files, with Los Angeles contemporary-villa style read as conspiracy decor. The pacing, too, is more TV-like: the scenes shorter, their imperturbable forward march closer to Twin Peaks than to Fire Walk with Me. Fewer tour-de-force cinematic passages, more stress put on the totality of the atmosphere.

I know a number of film critics who have, already seen Mulholland Drive several times. It encourages multiple viewings, partly to solve its riddles but also because it has that seductive, languid tempo that bears revisiting. In that sense it belongs to a newly evolving genre (such as Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood For Love) that operates like a fusion of movie and pop music; one can either keep seeing it in theaters or put on a DVD of it, like a favorite music CD. The languid, seductive rhythms, the unresolved, circular, less-than-over-beating narrative, the sexy actors all contribute to a kind of personal, open-ended fantasy, or pornography, of yearning.

Phillip Lopate's last book was a collection of film criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically.

© 2001 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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