The Movie Mezzanine Filmmaker Retrospective series takes on an entire body of work–be it director’s, screenwriter’s, or otherwise–and analyzes each portion of the filmography. By the final post of a retrospective, there will be a better understanding of the filmmaker in question, the central themes that connect his/her works, and what they each represent within the larger context of his/her career. This time, we delve into the strange world of David Lynch’s mind, attempting to make sense of things along the way.
David Lynch had attempted a return to television numerous times, but his most famous return to the medium was when ABC, who originally aired Twin Peaks, greenlit a new show for Lynch and allowed him to shoot a pilot, only to cancel it at the last minute due to run-time and content restrictions.
That pilot was for a show called Mulholland Dr., which followed an amnesiac woman who befriends an up-and-coming actress in modern Los Angeles, as they and various other characters encounter bizarre mysteries, conspiracies, and more shady happenings going on in the Hollywood system. ABC liked that premise and bought the pitch for that hook alone. Upon watching the pilot that Lynch filmed, however, they were disappointed with the final product and canned it.
Lynch even explained what happened behind the scenes in an interview I can’t recall the source of, but is archived in Paul A. Woods’s novel Weirdsville, U.S.A. “”All I know is, I loved making it, ABC hated it, and I don’t like the cut I turned in. I agreed with ABC that the longer cut was too slow, but I was forced to butcher it because we had a deadline, and there wasn’t time to finesse anything. It lost texture, big scenes and storylines, and there are 300 tape copies of the bad version circulating around. Lots of people have seen it, which is embarrassing, because they’re bad-quality tapes, too. I don’t want to think about it.”
But Lynch isn’t one to give up easily, even if it was increasingly apparent that no network would want to pick up a canned pilot. Having experienced rejection from that same studio before through the cancellation of Twin Peaks, Lynch did the same thing he did when he envisioned its spin-off, Fire Walk With Me: he turned to film. Gathering seven million dollars more from Studio Canal to finish the project, David Lynch gathered the material he shot for the pilot, reworked the script, shot new material, and the result is easily one of Lynch’s best and most memorable films of his entire career.
On adding 18 pages to the script–18 vital, insane pages that would end up defining Mulholland Dr.‘s legacy–Lynch said in an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, “One night, I sat down, the ideas came in, and it was a most beautiful experience. Everything was seen from a different angle. Everything was then restructured, and we did additional shooting. Now, looking back, I see that [the film] always wanted to be this way. It just took this strange beginning to cause it to be what it is.”
Today, we’ll lose ourselves in the windy roads and distant city lights of Mulholland Dr., a love story in the city of dreams.
“It’ll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be someone else.”
I have a strange history with Mulholland Dr. Mainly because it was the first David Lynch film–hell, the first David Lynch anything–I had ever seen. I only knew of Lynch back then for being the origin of the term “Lynchian”, a word I’d seen pop up a lot in film reviews, back when I was considering being a critic. I finally saw the film, experiencing David Lynch for the first time… and didn’t like it. Or perhaps I should rephrase that. I liked everything about it, up until its baffling final twenty minutes, which flip everything on its head, abandon the previously established characters, plots, arcs, etc., and leave you in a dazed, horrified state. I knew I was terrified. I knew I was bewildered. I also knew that I didn’t understand a god damn thing that happened or what it all meant.
And the worst part about it was that Mulholland Dr. begged to be understood. You could feel the thematic connections between the film’s constant switching of character names and alternate realities, and how they all related to one another right at the tip of your tongue. Yet you couldn’t really place it. Why? It’s a mental workout, for one thing. And it’s hard to really concentrate on such matters when you’re too busy having nightmares about tiny, laughing old people breaking into your house at night. I was still completely mesmerized by the experience of Mulholland Dr., but there was still a small part of me that begged to know how this film “worked”.
After watching a little more of Lynch’s filmography, I finally revisited Mulholland Dr. knowing I wouldn’t get any answers. Instead, I felt that tease again. It actually wasn’t until my third viewing, having seen the majority of Lynch’s films (and the entirety of Twin Peaks), spotting the thematic similarities between them, and, admittedly, reading up articles about different theories and interpretations regarding the movie, that I finally began to gain an understanding for how Lynch operates, and how it relates to the innerworkings of Mulholland Dr.
Mulholland Dr. opens with a series of images that perfectly set up the fact that you won’t be understanding much of this film. Footage of couples dancing to swing music is overlaid on top of each other, creating a cacophony of imagery that further gets muddled when the blurry, literally shaky image of a woman and her parents smiling together obscures the dancing. And it is after that that we get our first “clue” of sorts to the puzzle: A first-person POV shot of someone–most likely a woman judging from the exhausted breathing noises we hear–burying themselves into the pillows for a night of rest. At this point, it should become clear: Mulholland Dr. is a dream film.
The main plot follows an amnesiac woman who goes by the name Rita (Laura Elena Harring) with no memory of who she is, what her real name could be (though it’s hinted that it could be “Diane Selwyn”), why she was nearly killed in a car crash, or why her purse is stuffed with what must be thousands of dollars and a mysterious blue key. She confides in an empty house, where a young up-and-coming actress named Betty Elms (Naomi Watts in a star-making performance) has just moved into from Ontario to become the next Hollywood breakout star. Instead, she gets embroiled in the mystery of Rita’s origins and the seedy Hollywood underbelly surrounding it. All while a film director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) might be forced by gangsters to pick an actress named Camilla Rhodes for his film, in a series of events that may or may not even be related to what’s happening with Betty and Rita.
It sounds conventional enough. A film-noir/Nancy Drew-style mystery centered around the underground criminals of Hollywood? Sure, why not. But just as we’re getting accustomed to Mulholland Dr.‘s world, David Lynch throws a curveball. Or rather, he replaces the baseball with a fish, teleports the audience to the Bermuda Triangle, and asks us to breathe underwater.
At around the two hour mark, everything I described above is all abandoned entirely. Instead, in a transition that is both calculated and jarring, we end with a woman named Diane Selwyn (also Naomi Watts) wandering her apartment room as a sad, depressed husk. We learn why this is via flashbacks depicting a steamy romance between her and a woman confusingly also named Camilla Rhodes (also Laura Elena Harring). Both happen to be actresses working on Adam Kesher’s latest film.
Camilla is a huge star who is well-loved in the industry. Diane isn’t particularly well-liked, only getting parts solely by riding the coattails of Camilla’s stardom. Diane experiences further despair when she spots Camilla, her only love and the only reason she is able to manageably live her dream in Hollywood, constantly slipping away from her. She kisses Adam right in front of her, sometimes staring right into Diane’s eyes while doing it just to spite her, and even seductively kisses another woman right in front of both her and Adam just to drive the point home further. Diane is unable to take any more of this, and hires a hit-man to kill her.
Wrecked with guilt, Diane is haunted by hallucinations, primarily of an eternally laughing old couple, which materialize in front of her until she can no longer bear the psychological turmoil. She shoots herself in the head, and the film closes with images of Betty and Rita (not Diane and Camilla) embracing together, all overlaid on shots of the Los Angeles cityscape.
And then it ends. No explanations are given as to what happened to Betty or Rita, or how these final twenty minutes are associated with the 2 hours we experienced prior. Lynch simply crafts two opposing universes, depicts them as objectively as possible, and gives the viewer the tools required to build a bridge of their own that connects the two.
This has made Mulholland Dr. David Lynch’s most feverishly debated and discussed work. Especially since this was released in 2001, as internet message boards were coming into fruition, tons of theories were tossed around across film-buffs and casual audiences alike hoping to make sense of the film’s dual “realities”–and there are still new theories being shared to this day, 13 years after its release.
Many of these theories range from interesting (that the film was a dream-like reinterpretation of the themes found in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard), to nutty (that it was actually a sci-fi film about parallel realities colliding with each other due to the control of the eldritch monster behind Winkie’s Diner), to outright dismissals (that the reason why there are so many unresolved plot threads is because they were leftovers from Lynch’s original idea of it being a television series, and Lynch only pretends they have meaning out of fear of being dubbed as a “pretentious hack”).
Why this film, out of all of them? Surely Eraserhead and Lost Highway are surreal enough to warrant the same level of analysis. What was it about Mulholland Dr. that really toyed with the audience’s desire for a rational explanation?
Before we can even get into that can of worms, I’ll have to jump right into the bandwagon myself with my own theory. Not only for the sole purpose of just sharing my own interpretation of the events, but also, because this is a retrospective series, to find the thematic connections between this and the rest of Lynch’s filmography and career.
Even as I was watching Mulholland Dr. for my fourth time for this retrospective, my previous interpretations of the film’s events still managed to morph and evolve in fascinating ways. Having read so many of these theories, my own thoughts are admittedly less my own original ideas than they are a combination of various other theories I’ve seen and read all over the internet, mixed in with one little connection that I actually don’t really see much of: that Mulholland Dr. is actually an expansion of the themes and ideas present in Lynch’s previous feature Lost Highway.
Here’s how I personally view the events of Mulholland Dr., chronologically.
Diane Selwyn is a failing actress only getting by just through association with her romantic partner Camilla Rhodes. Their relationship falls apart, specifically at the moment in which she drives to the party in Mulholland Dr. Then, in an act of jealousy and bitter resentment, Diane hires a hit-man to murder her, all in the name of punishing Camilla for betraying her and to leave Adam Kesher empty-handed. The hit-man tells her that she’ll find a blue key in her house when the deed has been done. And yet while she clearly has hatred for Camilla, there’s still a part of her that feels guilty for ordering this hit on a woman she once loved.
Conflicted feelings rattling in her head, she goes to bed (the first-person POV shot) and then dreams up a scenario that she designs as the ultimate form of wish fulfillment, but later ends up subverting her own expectations. This dream opens with a situation that serves as a fresh start not just for one character, but for every character involved with Diane Selwyn’s life.
Diane begins the dream by reimagining that fatal drive through Mulholland Drive; only instead of a party, the limousine is going out to execute a woman. That woman, in the same place Diane sat in reality, is Camilla in the “dream world”, only it isn’t really Camilla. Her true identity in this narrative, if she even has one, is never revealed, for before Dream Camilla can reach her final destination, a deus ex machina of sorts causes the car crash that saves her life, but also robs her of her memory, thus allowing her a reset.
This brings us to the real Diane, who has reinvented herself as well. Instead of the depressed, failed actress that was Diane Selwyn, we first see her as Betty (a name she “steals” from a waitress at Winkie’s diner in the “real world”). Betty Elms is a chipper, wide-eyed, golly-gee-willikers Mary Sue with big dreams of becoming a Hollywood star–the exact opposite of the Diane Selwyn that will be established later on. With her new identity in check, Diane-now-as-Betty moves into her aunt’s apartment, where she meets the now amnesiac Dream Camilla, who adopts the name Rita after seeing a poster for Gilda. The only other hints of Rita’s origin: a purse filled with numerous wads of cash and a sinister blue key–similar only in color to the one from Diane’s reality–that none of them know what it opens.
As the two are solving Rita’s mystery, Adam Kesher shows up in the dreamscape–the only character who keeps his original identity from the real world. Instead of stealing away Camilla Rhodes, the Adam of Diane’s dream is instead forced into accepting Camilla Rhodes by gangsters, even though he doesn’t even want her in his film. This ends up serving as the Real Adam’s “punishment” of sorts for stealing away Real Diane’s lover. At the same time, it reflects Real Diane’s simultaneous need and resentment towards Real Camilla.
The hit-men that Real Diane hired also appear in the dreamscape, imagined less as professionals and more like bumbling morons who can never execute their hits properly. It’s easy to see why Real Diane would envision the hit-men as such. It is at this point in the dream that Diane is slowly beginning to see the importance of her love for Camilla by slowly reinventing and molding her through this dream world, and it is because of this that she’s slowly starting to regret hiring the hit on Camilla.
This is the first proper hint of her dream being one of wish-fulfillment. The hit-men are seen here as comically inept, as Diane wishes they would be now that she’s experiencing regret for hiring them. She wishes that circumstances such as these would have led Camilla to somehow escape from their clutches. Or, if that’s not enough, that they’d at least get caught if they were to ever harm her.
Meanwhile, as Betty and Rita are investigating, one of the locations they inspect is actually the same apartment building that the Real Diane stayed in. This is because Rita saw a waitress at Winkie’s (the same one Real Diane saw with the “Betty” nametag) with the nametag “Diane” and felt that it could be her “real name”. When they do reach the dream version of Real Diane’s apartment, what they find is a rotting corpse lying in a bed. What neither of them seem to be aware of is that this is actually the Real Diane sleeping.
In seeing this corpse through Betty and Rita’s eyes, the Real Diane Selwyn has seen what her guilt has transformed her into: a decaying, gray husk. The point is made clear: Diane is more alive in her dream than in reality. It is after this scene that Rita reinvents herself further by shaping herself in Betty’s image, with a blonde wig that creepily implies that they are both two halves of one subconscious product (culminating in a few shots that eerily reference Ingmar Bergman’s Persona).
Immediately after that, the two share a passionate sex scene that further connects them. Not only does it ostensibly act as a means of repairing the real Diane and Camilla’s relationship (at least in Real Diane’s mind), but it also displays how truly masturbatory this fantasy of Diane’s is. You know that old question about whether or not having sex with yourself would count as masturbation? Mulholland Dr. seems to be for that theory.
When Betty has sex with Rita, what we’re witnessing isn’t just wish-fulfillment of the highest order but also a fantasy in which Dream Camilla (who is role-playing as both Rita Hayworth and Diane at the same time) is having sex with Betty (the Real Diane’s dream avatar). Two halves of Real Diane’s personality–the one that still holds big dreams for Hollywood, and the one that’s irreparably damaged by Hollywood–are now becoming one, in the hopes of repairing her emotional damage.
Brief sexual excursion aside, the Real Diane’s fantasy starts to crumble when a “vision” of Rita’s leads them to Club Silencio, a place where the performances on stage are simply illusions of illusions. It is there that a mysterious item materializes: A blue box that eerily matches the key of the same color found in Rita’s purse full of cash.
Upon attempting to open the blue box and see what’s inside, the fantasy collapses and the Real Diane finally awakens from her dream state. Upon waking, she finds the blue key sitting on her desk, discovering the hard way that losing herself to the dream wasn’t enough to escape from her reality or her sins. Realizing through her dream why she loved Camilla in the first place, she becomes consumed with guilt, until the hallucinations manifesting from that guilt bring her to suicide.
The similarities between Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway should hopefully be apparent by now. Both films take place primarily in the world of dreams, and both films’ dream spaces are used as an attempt by the protagonist to rationalize or discover the meanings of their sins: Fred unable to remember why he murdered his wife, and Diane unsure whether instigating Camilla’s murder was the right decision.
Most interestingly of all, both films’ dream spaces use a similar kind of basis to inform their atmosphere: the tropes and conventions of film noir. Both Fred and Diane imagine themselves in film noir narratives, complete with conspiracies, damsels, and seedy underbellies waiting to swallow them whole. This categorizes both films under the definition of “neo-noir” , but Mulholland Dr. adds an extra layer to the proceedings by a.) setting it in Hollywood, b.) giving Hollywood, the source of many of these films, a seedy underbelly of its own and c.) having many of the characters be actors, simultaneously playing and living their film noir archetypes.
At the core of this Hollywood texture are the dual arcs between Diane/Betty. In fantasy, a guileless dreamer who manages to get the part while still being faithful to her friend and companion. In reality, the one who needs saving; a failed actress who can never fulfill her big dreams because she depends on Camilla, a woman who is slowly slipping away from her. Understanding this, Camilla is actually more than just a romantic longing for Diane. Camilla represents Diane’s American Dream: the Hollywood Dream. And now, she has ostensibly killed that Hollywood Dream by hiring the hit-men.
Diane is so in love with the world of Hollywood that her dream world is made up of many of the tropes of classic American noirs set in Los Angeles. She’s ostensibly directing a film in her head, casting various people from her life as pawns in her narrative. At the same time, her hostility towards it is present as she gives this City of Dreams a seedy underbelly of its own. If Camilla merely represents Diane’s Hollywood Dream, then the dream world’s Rita is a physical manifestation of it, with Diane imagining herself as the one innocent hero in this seedy Hollywood underworld who can rescue her from its venomous grasp.
And this dream narrative, like many of Lynch’s dream narratives, comments on the “reality narrative” in subtle and disturbing ways. The difference between how Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. handle this dream narrative, however, is rather major.
Lost Highway used it as a means of commenting on its own genre, acting as an ahead-of-its-time evolution and exercise of neo-noir. Mulholland Dr., on the other hand, not only acts as a neo-noir, but also as a neo-Hollywood film, commenting on the Hollywood Dream itself. It does this by showcasing the euphoria of being able to partake and envelop yourself in the creation of fantasies, and how your dreams can be crushed by painful reality–the same kind of painful reality that Hollywood lets us escape from. In many ways, the film can be reflective of Lynch’s entire career, which was filled with its own euphoric highs and crushing disappointments.
Film critic J. Hoberman famously called the film “a poisonous valentine to Hollywood”. Seeing these elements from the film and Lynch’s own history with Hollywood at play in Mulholland Dr., I couldn’t agree more.
And yet, even as I offer up this theory, there are still many with differing viewpoints on the film who are still just as emotionally or intellectually affected by it. Hell, there are plenty of people who remain in love with Lynch’s strange dual worlds without even wanting or looking for an explanation. Even if there was no mystery to solve, Mulholland Dr. still works as a purely audiovisual, dreamlike experience. Ebert even said of the film in his 4-star review, “…the less sense it makes, the more we can’t stop watching.”
Whenever I explain that defense of the film to others, I go back to that scene in Club Silencio, where Betty and Rita listen to the singer passionately perform a vocal opus in Spanish that moves both of them to tears. We, and most likely Betty and Rita, have no idea what this woman is singing about, and yet we can feel that passion in her voice. We may not understand the meaning, but we get the emotions she’s conveying in her voice. And even when it’s revealed to us that the woman’s performance was nothing more than an illusion–a mere tape recording rather than a true vocal performance–Betty and Rita are still sobbing in their seats as the song continues on, even as the singer has been dragged away from the stage. In a way, that’s how all of Lynch’s films work. We can’t help but be swept up into the illusion of his filmmaking. Even when he presents a world of artifice, we realize something born from a fantasy can carry a deep, intrinsic meaning to the reality we are living in, or a universal emotion we can all relate with.
And yet, as I already established earlier, most audiences still end up obsessed with unraveling the meaning to Mulholland Dr.‘s lyrics. We beg for answers, we make up our own, or we dismiss them entirely as a whole. What is it about Mulholland Dr., out of all of Lynch’s films, that most toys with the audience’s desire for explanations? To me, more than any other Lynch film, Mulholland Dr. gets into the audience’s head like that because it is explicitly about searching for meaning in what appears meaningless.
If we’re following the chronological order of the scenes, then Diane’s dream begins the night after she hires the hit-men to kill Camilla. It is in that scene in the Winkie’s diner where Diane not only sees the name that would become her dream avatar, Betty, but also learns of the blue key that serves as the sign that the hit-men have done her job. “What’s it open?” she asks the hit-man before he just spontaneously laughs the question off without answering.
It is that blue key that represents all of Diane’s guilt for the horrible betrayal she committed toward Camilla. It is the blue key that has no meaning or purpose, opens no box, and leads to no reward. And so, Diane retreats into a dream world where that key can have meaning. In a way, it was all about that key. If she can find something that the blue key opens, a treasure chest that could perhaps justify her terrible deed, then surely she can find a way to live with the guilt. But it is to no avail. Even in this perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy that Diane has crafted, the box which the blue key opens holds nothing for her. And it is precisely at that moment of realization, that there can never be a rationalization for killing her Hollywood Dream, that the Diane’s dream collapses, and reality comes crashing back in.
Instead of finding a justification for the blue key, the dream world gives her a different kind of truth: that Camilla didn’t deserve to die. That there may have still been a love for her that remained fresh, even if it was only an extension of Diane’s love for herself and her desire to live her dream as a Hollywood actress. Now with no more reason to live, she kills herself, and the last image we see is merely another retreat into that fantasy world that she created, the only place where she is forgiven.
And just like Diane, the audience sees something that David Lynch refuses to explain, and so we try to explain what it all means ourselves. And instead of digging an explanation out of the film, our explanations are formed, in a way, by ourselves. We may never agree on whether or not what we’re seeing is a fantasy, an alternative reality, or something empty and meaningless, but our explanations are our own, and because they are our own, they may comment on ourselves.
So if that’s the case, what does my personal interpretation of Mulholland Dr.‘s events say about me? Even if I may not have understood everything about the film at first viewing, I could understand an image as simple as the look of hatred on Diane’s face when she sees Adam stealing Camilla away from her. I can empathize with a character who nobody respected or appreciated, a character chasing a dream that they can never achieve. I can be deeply moved by a person realizing the error of their sins, and being so traumatized with the guilt that they’d rather end their life than carry that burden with them into old age. These are the first building blocks of my bridge between the film’s reality and its dream world. In much the same way that someone may be drawn in by something else in the film.
Like Betty and Rita being moved to tears by a song neither of them could understand, we go to Mulholland Dr. not merely for explanations, but for the euphoric sense that there is something beyond our understanding affecting us as we view it. That can be just as exhilarating as seeing a movie that merely comforts our basest understandings of life. Mulholland Dr. may be the poisonous valentine to Hollywood that J. Hoberman suggested it to be, but even more than that, I also see it as a love letter to the power of cinema in general. That it can bring us to search for meaning in the meaningless. And through that, Mulholland Dr. is the ultimate David Lynch film.
If Blue Velvet acted as the blueprint for Lynch’s films, than Mulholland Dr. is his career’s thesis statement. All of his thematic obsessions and visual motifs coalesce in this one film. The dualities between dreams and reality, blondes and brunettes, day-worlds and underworlds, American iconography and American Dreams, and more all come full circle in this one film. To me, as great as many of his films prior to Mulholland Dr. have been, they’ve all been leading up to this one singular experience.
But still, Lynch wasn’t quite done. After Mulholland Dr., Lynch continued to experiment with the medium in new ways via the internet and digital video. And much like how Lynch’s filmography all led up to Mulholland Dr., these experimental endeavors all reached one end point: a film that may arguably be Lynch’s most grand, incomprehensible, elusive, and terrifying magnum opus.
Next week, The David Lynch Retrospective finally concludes with a look at his three-hour epic nightmare: Inland Empire.
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