Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive ★★★★½

My Forty for 40: #22

MULHOLLAND DR. (2001)
Dir. David Lynch

David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., undoubtedly the most-acclaimed movie of the latter half of his career, represents a startlingly-effective magic trick for two reasons: 1) the movie shouldn’t work, but it does; and 2) it created a sort of permission structure to re-evaluate his past several movies, which resulted in a complete 180-degree reversal in reputation to many of his detractors.

Lynch’s career was floundering at the turn of the 21st Century. After critical success with Blue Velvet and the breakthrough TV series Twin Peaks, Lynch began to alienate his fans with his theatrical follow-up Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and the confounding Lost Highway. While fans seemed enjoy the surrealist elements of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Lynch’s most recent efforts seemed to lean too far in this direction, and he was forced to course-correct with the ultra-realist, straight-down-the-middle The Straight Story for Disney. After apparently righting the ship with this critical hit, which ended up reminding audiences that David Lynch is, in fact, still a remarkably talented filmmaker and storyteller, he once again dove into the bizarre and surreal with Mulholland Dr., his attempt to salvage a canceled television pilot into a viable property.

Mulholland Dr. is a puzzle box of a film, a narrative made up of discreet vignettes that sometimes seem logically disconnected – and at others seem to directly contradict those that came before – but yet are linked with a strange sort of associative connective tissue. It’s hard to describe what the bumbling assassin, the man-creature behind the diner, and the Silencio stage performance have to do with one another, but taken together in sequence, there is a certain vague thematic and tonal logic to the progression. The phrase “dream logic” is used a lot to describe Lynch’s best and most confounding work, and it’s a valid term, as the choices don’t make logical sense but don’t feel random or arbitrary, but a more apt comparison might be to a kind of visual poetry. Modern poetry, at times, “works” due to connotations and associations that arise due to the specific combination of words and phrases, in a specific order, in the mind of the reader; if one word in an effective, well-written poem is changed, it totally changes the meaning of the poem. Much of Lynch’s work functions in the same way: the combination of specific shots, scenes, images, and (of course) sound-design creates a web of associations, many of them subconscious, within the mind of the viewer, and this experience is a difficult-to-describe and –rationalize sense of unity that elicits a feeling far more than a cohesive story. No wonder Lynch’s work is often compared to a dream.

There is, it should be noted, a story here, it’s just fairly difficult to decipher. The basics are that Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is trying to make it in Hollywood, and she has a complex attraction/jealousy/envy relationship with fellow actor Rita (Laura Harring). Throughout the narrative, both actors play two characters, and the viewer pieces together that one version is real and the other takes place within the deranged imagination of one of the characters. What’s real and what’s imaginary is less important than what it means… or, more precisely, how it feels: in the end, Lynch’s film says something troubling about the nature of the entertainment industry, and, perhaps, more universally about hopes and dreams in general.

The unlikely success of Mulholland Dr. caused many former detractors to look back on works such as Lost Highway and Fire Walk with Me with renewed interest, reframing them to be all of a piece, part of a single sensibility that is repeatedly returning to the same tropes and storytelling style. What was confounding about Lost Highway and befuddling about Fire Walk with Me suddenly clicks into place and (somewhat) makes sense when viewed through the lens of Mulholland Dr. When viewed as an oeuvre, these films, as well as Inland Empire and Twin Peaks: The Return represent a single, cohesive vision; what didn’t work about individual movies suddenly seems to work. Heck, if Marvel movies can be viewed as one long narrative instead of discreet movies, why couldn’t Lynch’s?

Lynch is a singular filmmaker. Much of this might be due to the fact that Lynch didn’t come to the industry as a movie lover – he’s a fine arts person, mostly interested in painting first and foremost. He started making films once he realized they could represent a sort of moving painting. Because of this, he lacks a lot of the usual assumptions about narrative film, the sort of mental conditioning that allows Spielberg and Lucas and De Palma and Scorsese to be such natural storytellers. This might be a hindrance to most other artists, but David Lynch is not most other artists: there is undeniable genius here, and it might not be everyone’s cup of Garmonbozia, but for those of us for whom his work “clicks”, Mulholland Dr. clicks cleanly and allows a framework for his other art to click as well. Although it’s often viewed as a puzzle box, in many ways Mulholland Dr. is the key.

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