Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive

[Published October 17th, 2001, Show Business Weekly]

“He went to that place where dreams are born.” The last line of Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, marking the transcendence of its robot protagonist David, also marks a good starting point for discussing David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Like A.I. there are many possible interpretations of this masterwork, but I would like to focus specifically on the themes of cinema and dreams. For Lynch’s film expands on Spielberg’s to reveal cinema as that very place where dreams are born and, ultimately, where they can (perhaps will?) die.

Mulholland Drive’s story of movies and the ineffable power they display is focused through two characters: the blond, perky ingénue Betty (Naomi Watts) and the dark-haired, amnesiac Rita (Laura Elena Harring). Their contrasting physical traits suggest light and dark, good and evil. To read it cinematically, they are representations of two basic elements, the manipulation of which create a movie. But the cinematic reading does not wholly lend itself at first. In bringing these two together Lynch initially appears to be playing out classic film noir tropes: Rita has lost her memory and Betty helps in the investigation of her identity. Along the way they meet and are sought by a group of disparate, oddball characters.

This is classic Lynch, shot through with an air of self-reflexivity. Not for nothing does Rita take her name from a poster of Hayworth in Gilda. For ninety minutes Lynch takes us, in a mostly linear fashion, through a story of treachery, deceit, hopefulness, and love. Then the film splits, in an audacious move whose stylistic forbear would be Bergman’s Persona. Those who wish to remain pure, away with ye.

Betty and Rita consummate their blossoming relationship and the artifice of the movie begins to show. They are drawn, dream-like, to the Club Silencio, which strongly suggests a universal cinema and reflects Mulholland Drive’s viewing audience back on itself. A bare stage with a microphone, bathed in blue light, becomes Betty and Rita’s own private movie screen. An M.C. materializes onstage and speaks in English and Spanish about what is unmistakably the illusion of movies. (“There is no band, and yet we hear a band.”) The singer Rebekah Del Rio demonstrates this illusion with her a cappella rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” She seems to be in a powerful state of mourning, but for what? Rita and Betty succumb to the raw emotion displayed, even after the singer’s body collapses and her voice continues. It is as if the falseness of their story, the illusion of their cinema, has been destroyed. Where can they go from here?

The two characters we knew vanish and Betty wakes up in the mind and body of Diane Selwyn, a woman who seems a tortured shadow of the character we’ve come to know. The events and characters of Mulholland Drive’s first half now re-organize themselves into a more personal context. As Diane/Betty is now the hinge on which the movie turns, the film reveals itself as the reflection of her own mind—her own cinema. Lynch’s film thus refracts the ambiguity of Spielberg’s final summation, and we attain a definitive answer to a question both movies pose, “What is the power and ultimate price of our dreams?”

As I’ve hinted, Mulholland Drive is finally a tragedy, and its climactic fade out on a patron of the Club Silencio strongly suggests that our dreams are easily destroyed. Yet there is a glimmer of hope in this cautionary tale, as Lynch’s filmmaking style does not allow for anything approaching traditional closure. This is to his credit, as it forces a viewer to confront his/her individual doubts, fears, hopes, and dreams. Lynch’s acknowledgment of the individuality in each moviegoer is a welcome viewpoint nowadays, when a personal cinema seems more than ever on the verge of collapse.

My hope is that Mulholland Drive will connect with an audience on this and its many other levels, though I have my doubts because of the cynicism and closed-mindedness that circulates through moviegoers and is fostered by media outlets. The movie requires a willingness from the outset to come under its spell. The best cinema is emblematic of this process as Lynch’s Club Silencio scene so eloquently relates. If we suppress our dreams we risk ending up in the limbo of Spielberg’s David or the hell of Lynch’s Diane/Betty. How wonderful that both these artists have been to that place where dreams are born and taken us viewers further than we might ever have expected to go. For that, if nothing else, we should be grateful.