Z To A: Mulholland Dr. (2001)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

mulholland dr. 01

Plot Synopsis: A bright-eyed young actress travels to Hollywood, only to be ensnared in a dark conspiracy involving a woman who was nearly murdered, and now has amnesia because of a car crash. Eventually, both women are pulled into a psychotic illusion involving a dangerous blue box, a director named Adam Kesher, and the mysterious night club Silencio.

– From IMDB page

(Spoilers Ahead- but believe me, you’ll still be confused)

I’m pretty sure I’m the only person I know who can explain Mulholland Dr. to people. Of course, I’m referring to what happens in it, not what it actually means.

That’s part of what I admire about it, that David Lynch created something where viewers have to assert themselves. He presents images and ideas, but it’s up to you to decide how they come together or if you want to try in the first place. I’ve met plenty of people who say, “I hate that fucking movie.” They have no idea what happened in it. I tell them, “Really? Try Inland Empire.”

For the most part this film is dream imagery: disarming, foreboding, unsettling, disturbing and occasionally quite funny. Scenes play out (or perhaps not), frightening or unnerving us because of their unpredictable nature. After all, that’s how dreams often work, skipping around and following their own absurd logic.

But keep in mind- this is a David Lynch film. If it’s a dream he’s creating, it’s going to look something like this:

(Note: I would include a GIF of the man behind Winkie’s as well, but truth is it still freaks me out. I hate looking at it.)

There are scores of theories about what these images, interactions- even the tiniest details- could mean. You can find many of them on Lost On Mulholland Dr., a fan-generated site about the film. There are also clues provided by Lynch himself, included with the DVD upon purchase, and this amazing breakdown at Salon, circa 2001.

Are these theories helpful? Somewhat. Mulholland Dr. is a labyrinth of ambiguity and dead ends, but in my case I remain completely engaged the whole time. I’m not sure why, but I’m leaning toward this theory: there’s a playfulness and shock in the scenes that keep me mesmerized.

I mean, this film is the only thing Billy Ray Cyrus has done that I respect. That alone makes it a complete anomaly.

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No, Billy Ray Cyrus. I will never forget. NEVER FORGET.

There’s also something about the relationship between Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) that gets to me. It’s a love story, as simple as it gets, but ultimately doomed. It can’t be protected from the outside world- namely Diane Selwyn’s waking life (Selwyn is also played by Watts, in a dual role). The fact that these women are so kind to one another, so unabashedly moral and child-like, makes their storyline absolutely tragic. Their love and loss is hard to fathom and has stayed with me, as well as other viewers, critics and the actors involved.

The way Lynch introduces that loss is quite a sucker punch. The scene at Club Silencio is the centerpiece of the film, which not only addresses the narrative but the nature of film itself. The proclamation “No hay banda!” (“There is no band!”) tells us that everything we’re watching is an illusion. The effect it has on the characters- and by proxy, the audience- is unlike anything I’ve seen before or since.

When it comes to being “meta,” Mulholland Dr. is without peer. It’s the strangest way I’ve seen a director tell an audience: “YOU ARE WATCHING A MOVIE.”

After this sequence the structure of the film crumbles, becoming something else. We learn that what Diane has been dreaming isn’t real. Betty and Rita aren’t real. Also, what you (the viewer) have been emotionally invested in and trying to dissect isn’t real. It never was.

At this point Mulholland Dr. moves to another level of tragedy. At heart it’s a chronicle of a woman who has been screwed over- not only career-wise but sexually and emotionally. What happens to Diane is cruel, and the schism between her and her counterpart, Betty, is so vast that some viewers thought she had been played by two different actresses. This isn’t only a testament to Lynch’s direction, but to Naomi Watts’s range as an actress. As I wrote before, this film was her breakthrough. And what a breakthrough it was.

In the end the Betty/Diane dichotomy seems essential. After all, Diane appears to loathe her life so much that it is only within her subconscious she can get relief from it. Being Betty is the only way she can “play,” to attain what she wants and give what she can offer.

The film also serves as a pointed critique on Hollywood, particularly how it devours and spits out performers and stifles creativity. This partially explains why Diane dreams she is someone else, especially when we find out she is a failed actress. It’s no wonder she desperately needs to “play”- she hasn’t been given the opportunity.

Before we know this, Diane’s dream explores her frustrations through a storyline involving director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) being bullied during the casting process. It is nestled into the dream logic of the film, as disjointed and enigmatic as the rest of what we’re seeing, but seems strikingly real. I can safely guess that people in the industry understand and may even laugh at what he goes through. They have been through something similar themselves.

But deep down, Mulholland Dr. isn’t a critique of anything in particular. If anything it’s an exhibit of one person’s inner reality (once again, a recurring theme in Z To A), much in the same vein as The Singing Detective (2003). A person’s subconscious rarely makes sense, and Diane’s is no exception. She is just as mysterious as the rest of us.

In fact, I wonder if Lynch is taking this a step further. Diane’s story plays out like a Möbius strip, a loop where her desires and frustrations have no end. You get the feeling that whether she is sleeping or dying she will find no rest- her demons will only reset themselves. Images recur and flicker before her eyes, ceaselessly tormenting her with what can’t be changed, what remains important, and what she will have to endure.

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I suppose the question is, “Why would anyone want to watch that?” I guess it’s because we all have a potential Mulholland Dr. within our subconscious. I would also say that it’s because of Lynch- love him or hate him. He is obsessed with the concept of presenting ideas, and this film is where your own interpretations and reactions are important, just as much a part of the film as they are a subjective experience. Basically, you can live in Lynch’s films. He invites you to do so.

However, what I still can’t get my head around is why I’m able to watch Mulholland Dr., other Lynch films, or the works of Luis Buñuel and be satisfied by them, while I can’t enjoy a Fellini film. I recently tried to watch 8 1/2 (1963) and failed to get through it. My theory is that it’s because Lynch and Buñuel make you feel like you’re at least in on the joke. With Fellini… I just feel like I’m being left out.

Still, so many viewers feel that way about Mulholland Dr., so who am I to judge? And with Fellini, I’m compelled to keep trying.

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2 thoughts on “Z To A: Mulholland Dr. (2001)

  1. Pingback: Z To A: Donnie Darko (2001) | The Holy Shrine

  2. Pingback: Z To A: The Ring (2002) | The Holy Shrine

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