NOTE: This is an article primarily for those who’ve already seen this movie, so SPOILERS abound. Still, see the movie if you haven’t--it's a must-watch--and then read this.
Just recently, I perused an article on Daniel Johnson’s Film Babble Blog titled 7 Years Later, Does Mulholland Drive Make Any More Sense? In it, Johnson vividly recounts a recent experience of watching David Lynch’s 2001 film with a group that had largely never seen it before, many of whom, when the film was through, were just as befuddled as a lot of viewers have long been with it for seven years. I would say Johnson characterizes some members of the audience as being absolutely infuriated by Lynch’s work, because it’s a movie that refuses to explain itself (much like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—one of Lynch’s favorite films--did back in 1968, when a lot of people were similarly either fascinated or angered). Anyway, Johnson’s article has inspired me to finally put down into words an interpretation of this masterpiece—one that only peeked at my conscious initially.
Now, I’ve never read word one regarding an explanation of Mulholland Dr. (which is the REAL title of the film—the word “drive” is not supposed to be spelled out; I’ll quickly explain why later). I never wanted to, because I chose to just enjoy the film in all its beauteous mystery. However, upon the second or third viewing, the puzzle pieces clicked into place for me and I’m now satisfied that my interpretation is the “correct” one. Unfortunately, this might robs Lynch’s film of some of its chilling perplexity, but it also gives it more of a sense of tragedy and heart. I’m fine with the trade-off. Mulholland Dr. will remain circuitous enough for me, and will continue to contain a lot more clues to other interpretations that could be just as valid as my own. At any rate, it will always be interesting enough for many more viewings. This on top of the fact that it is unspeakably gorgeous to look at and listen to make it a top favorite of mine, and certainly one of Lynch’s greatest achievements as America's premier living moviemaker.
Before delving deeply into Mulholland Dr., the viewer has to recognize that Lynch has three major obsessions in his work: abstraction, eroticism and—most importantly--dreams. And they further have to realize that any filmmaker who’s interested in dreams is also very much interested in the machinations of film art itself. And I mean, beyond looking at film as a way to tell a story or make a buck. Lynch, I feel, like any great director--Coppola and Kubrick have said this is so--sees the very viewing of films as a replication of the dream state. Think about it: we’re in a darkened room; we’re perfectly still; we’re (ideally) quiet; and we’re raptly interpreting mere shadows on a wall. You gotta admit, that’s about as close to wakeful dreaming as you’re going to get. This is part of what bewitches us all about the EXPERIENCE of watching a movie—and by that, I mean going to a theater to watch a movie. Lynch will tell you that this is really the ideal way to experience a film. He doesn’t really condone the viewing of his movies anywhere but in a theater (he doesn’t even put chapter stops on most of his DVD releases), In a theater, you’re lulled into a dreamy fog by the very nature of projected film, because you have no other choice: you've given yourself over completely to it. So, rightly, Lynch uses this technology to lure the viewer into the abstracted worlds he creates.
So we know now that dreams and movies are two things that are important to this artist. That’s good, because remembering that is key to interpreting Mulholland Dr.
Now think back for me. In almost every movie that has ever been made, if the filmmaker is attempting to show a character we’re following as they experience a dream, they will first introduce the character and his/her however complicated situation, then show them going to sleep, or asleep in the bed or whatever, then they’ll show us the dream they’re experiencing in their head. Then they’ll show the character waking up from that dream, usually wide-eyed and sweaty. This is almost always the case, unless the filmmaker is trying to trick us into thinking something outlandish is happening in reality when BANG the dreamer awakens and we find it was only happening in their tired brains.
So we have here: real life, sleep/dream, awakening. The natural three act structure of a dream on film (or in reality).
Movies, too, have three acts: set-up, conflict, resolution. Just to remind you, this is very similar to the structure we all experience when we go to sleep. We set-up our bed, we go to sleep, and then have conflicts with the various thoughts rattling around in our heads, and then we wake up and resolve to make sense of it all (or to forget the whole thing) before we go on with our day.
What Lynch, I think, decided to do with Mulholland Dr(eam) is to mess with the natural order of each set of three acts. In his film, we get the dream/conflict (the second act) first, THEN we get the real life/setup (the first act), THEN we get the awakening/resolution. It’s really that simple.
I think it’s important to briefly remind the reader of what dreams are or could be. I say “could be” because no one really knows if they have any meaning or not. There's no provable answer. We could go all Freudian and say that everything in a dream is a symbol for something else. We could say that dreams are the brain relishing in its holder’s deepest fears and desires. Or we could just say that dreams are the random neural sweepings of an average day—that they are the mindjunk with which we no longer have any practical use. I think that dreams are all of these things, and more: they can be prophecy, craft, regret, horror, wackiness, want, jumpiness, memory, relaxation, inspiration, and escape, at once and all together. And Lynch's Mulholland Dr. reflects those attributes more accurately than any of his other dream-obsessed works.
That said, Mulholland Dr. begins with a dazzling, purple-hued swing dance number—set to the first bit of Angelo Badalamenti’s astonishing score--in which we see real couples athletically dancing behind a process shot of even more couples dancing. We don’t have any idea what this intro means, really, until—if we’re paying attention—later on in the film. It’s here that we see our first images of Betty, played with utmost brilliance by Naomi Watts. But we only see her here as a ghostly, smiling visage.
Then we see a camera drifting through an apartment, into a bedroom, and into a pillow on the bed. Easy enough. Someone’s going to sleep. But who? Maybe it’s us? Someone else? We don't know, so we have to continue on...
Now we cut to a limousine, at night, driving up Mulholland Drive, creeping through the darkened, mysterious road that Lynch himself says inspired the first spark of an idea for him. The credits begin to roll here. I say this because credits--despised by many--are the natural signifiers to the beginnings and ends of movie dreams. Credits sequences ease us into the phantasm of cinema, and end credits wake us up; this is why you see so many people get up out of their seats at the first sign of end credits: they're trying to get on with their day. At any rate, we watch this limo cruising behind the credits, and then the horrible thing that befalls it once they are over. And from here we're lead into a mystery involving a dark-haired woman (Laura Elena Harring) who wanders, dazed, away from this scene and ultimately into an abandoned Hollywood apartment.
It’s here that we see our first shining images of Betty, played with verve by Naomi Watts. I remember hearing great things about Watts’ performance way before the film was released (it had won the Best Director award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival before it was unleashed on theaters the following fall). But her first line readings, to me, seemed stiff, unreal—as if she were acting a role, and acting it badly. Still, I stayed with her, because Betty here is total sunshine and sweetness, her pink sweater nearly busting its buttons with enthusiasm. I have to admit, I loved her right from the start: it's one of cinema's most notable breakthrough performances. Anyway, Betty is escorted out of the L.A. airport at which she’s just arrived by an elderly couple who wish her well in her Hollywood sojourn. In a bizarrely looped conversation (Lynch is far too advanced a sound master to have sonically crafted these scenes in any way but in the lame-brained fashion they're received), Betty and the seniors part ways, the elderly couple getting into a limo (we get a bizarre glimpse of them driving away that’s a little portent of things to come: remember these people...), while Betty climbs into a cab.
Now, I have to stop myself. It’s not my intention to write a shot-by-shot support of this interpretation of Mulholland Dr.--I wouldn’t wanna take the fun or the challenge of the movie away from anyone who hasn’t seen it. But let’s just say that the meeting of these two women--Watts and Harring--and the relationship that develops between them is very much the center of the movie. It’s a pairing, at this point, that’s largely controlled by Betty. The dark-haired woman, afflicted with amnesia from a head trauma, has to rush for a name once she awkwardly meets Betty (bare naked in a shower, her very image sliced into clumps by the shower glass). Frantic for an identity, she takes the name “Rita” from a glimpsed poster for another film about obsession Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth. (That, alone, could be the basis for a film theory thesis right there, and probably already has been.)
Rita, throughout this first part of the film, is at Betty’s mercy, like a lost pup taken in by a fizzy girl. Betty and Rita are two sides of one personality, each intermingling with each other (the film sometimes feels like Lynch’s take on Bergman’s Persona, mirroring some shots from that masterpiece). Rita even takes to covering up her long black hair under a wig that replicates Betty’s short blond ‘do. further driving home the confluence between these co-mingling identities. What follows is a mystery that often feels like the adaptation of a Nancy Drew book while simultaneously being a passionate love story between off-guard paramours, replete with cinema's sexiest love scenes.
There are a few more elements in this section of the movie. We get the introduction of two detective characters (Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe) who unfortunately promptly disappear (just like some characters do in dreams, don’t ya know). We have two Winkie’s diner patrons: one (Patrick Fischler) who recounts a terrifying vision to his friend, and then is doomed to relive it right there. And we get a grisly though humorous scene with a hit man (Mark Pellegrino) who messes up a job somethin’ awful. And then we get Justin Theroux as Adam Kesher, the bespectacled, put-upon director who’s being uber-pressured into casting a specific girl for a role in his shitty movie—to the point where, midfilm, he’s called to a secret conference at an abandoned ranch where he confers with a creepy calm cowboy (veteran Lynch producer Monty Montgomery, here billed as Lafayette Montgomery, who blesses us with one of most riveting one-scene performances ever in motion pictures). Let's remember that the cowboy is one of Hollywood's most iconic images. Let's also remember that we DO see this character TWO more times. And notice his scene ends with an image of the Hollywood sign: Mulholland Dr. is very much, also, about the conflicting images of Hollywood--as a dream maker and a Marilyn Monroe-killing dream breaker.
There are more characters: Betty’s chatty landlord (MGM veteran Ann Miller, in her final film role); a spooky, psychic next-door neighbor (Oscar-winner and one-time blacklistee Lee Grant); a band of terrifying film financiers (Dan Hedaya and composer Angelo Badalamenti); an unctuous film producer (James Karen--the cemetery-upending villain of Poltergeist) who auditions Betty with a scene from a gunky soap opera where she’s to play a love-clamp with a much older man (Chad Everett); a pool cleaner (Billy Ray Cyrus) who's caught messing around with Adam's wife; and an extra-weird overlord named Mr. Rogue (Michael J. Anderson) who seems to be quietly pulling the strings of the whole affair (is this a reference to Bela Legosi's character in Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda?).
By the time the mystery Betty and Rita are trying to solve takes us to the Club Silencio, this dream has definitely reached critical mass. In a scene that seems like an extended homage to past Lynch films (especially Blue Velvet), we sit enraptured along with these women as they witness a devastated singer (Rebekah Del Rio) as she performs a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” (I wanna note here that, while I watched it in the theater, the sound of this woman’s performance was something I'd never experienced before; it slashed the air, crystal clear, reverbed and utterly unforgettable; even in the cheap cinema I was watching it in; it transfixed me, and I could absolutely feel the audience I was with in attendant rapture). It's the best scene in the movie, for sure. The following invaluable piece of memorabilia lets you know that David Lynch had a specific vision of how this film, and I bet particularly this scene, should be visually projected and sonically played:
After the performance at Club Silencio, during which Diane discovers the Blue Box in her bag, Diane and Rita rush home to open it. But before Rita can turn the box's key, she discovers that Diane has disappeared. The box opens, the darkness it contains engulfs the screen, and then also Rita disappears, with the box falling to the floor of Betty's aunt's apartment. It’s here that the dream ends…
…and now we’re in reality, where we see a wholly different Naomi Watts, now as a dour Diane Selwyn. But wait. Wasn’t Diane Selwyn the name of the dead woman whose murder Betty and Rita were investigating? Okay, maybe...anyway... Diane, unlike Betty, is completely disheveled—in fact, when I first saw the movie, it took me more than a minute to realize this was STILL Naomi Watts. Instead of being powdered and dynamic, like Betty, she’s now dark-eyed, sweaty, neurotic, unconfident, and completely depressed. She’s getting over a breakup with Camilla (Camilla Rhodes? The one in the coffee-vomiting scene, where the producers keep saying "This is the Girl?"). Camilla (who, in the photo in the aforementioned scene, is visually repped as the star of a scene Adam Kesher is shooting--"I've Told Every Little Star")--Camilla is a woman who looks exactly like Rita. But now Camilla/Rita is in control of affairs, now having given up on her love affair with Diane/Betty in favor of a new one with Adam, the director of the new movie she’s in.
Now, the supremely confident Camilla is calling the shots. She cruelly invites Diane to her film set, where she let’s her see her make-out session with Adam Kesher. And then she equally cruelly, and manipulatively, picks her up in a limousine (remember the limousine?) and takes her up Mulholland Dr. (where we see the same shots that began the film) to the director’s modern Eames-designed house, where she introduces her to Theroux’s demanding mother (Ann Miller again—what’s going on here??). And then she puts Diane through the supreme heartbreak: the announcement of her engagement to the slimy Adam.
It’s here that Diane is sent over the edge. She’s seen meeting at Winkie’s (remember Winkie’s?), where she sees the nametag of a waitress named Betty, with a hit man (the screw-up Mark Pellegrino again), to whom she gives a picture of Camilla/Rita (“This is the girl”) and pays him to kill her. He says he’ll leave her a blue key (which figures into the dream portion of the film) when the job is done.
When Diane discovers the blue key (that opens the mysterious blue box), after a fruitless try at masturbating while looking not at her beloved Camilla/Rita, but the lonely stuccoed ceiling of her apartment, she is overcome with remorse, guilt, anger, and suicidal thoughts.
This is where the dream makes a reappearance. The two miniature figures of the old people that first greeted Diane/Betty upon her arrival in this fantasy town of Hollywood, sneak under the door of her apartment and, emerging from the ground-level trash (that, frankly, looks like a vagina), they become as big as life. Diane screams horribly as they corner her into her bedroom, and in response, she reaches into her bedside table, pulls out a gun, and shoots herself in the head, becoming the corpse that she and Rita once discovered. Smoke fills the room as a veil to the palpable world.
I think this a fair description of Mulholland Dr. It’s not my style to go through the ins and outs of a movie; I get impatient and even angry with movie reviews that merely recount the plot of a film without telling us what, truly, makes it worth watching. But if Daniel Johnson felt an article with the title of 7 Years Later, Does Mulholland Drive Make Any More Sense? was worth writing, then there must be many people out there who are still confused by the meaning of this incredible movie. I only wanna help. At the very least, I want to make one excited about it.
I conclude by mentioning a few more details that make Mulholland Dr. absolutely necessary viewing, even for those who may be afraid of diving in. I’m in love with everything about this movie, but there are five aspects of it I must point out:
(1) The incredible audition scene with Betty and Woody Katz (Chad Everett). Before this try-out, we get Betty giving a sub-par reading of this potboiler's corny dialogue with Rita as her amateur acting partner. But when she’s under pressure, and in different and more important circumstances, Betty/Watts delivers a stunning performance as a woman threatened by her own passion and driven to kill if things don't turn out her way. I am floored by the incompetent Hollywood characters in this scene--an incredibly poor director, an actor who's used to a lot less than what he gets, the coterie of hangers-on unprepared for what they witness. When I watched this in the theater, I could feel the audience immediately being roped in by this stand-alone scene; it's here that I knew that Naomi Watts' breathy, erotic performance was one of the best I've ever witnessed, and her transformation immediately afterwards into other forms of Betty underline this. And Chad Everett, a former '70s TV star with a troubled career, has never been handed as juicy a big-screen moment like this. It's a tremendous wow.
(2) The fuzzy, alluring photography from Peter Deming, who blossoms extraordinarily under Lynch’s direction. With this and his work on Lynch’s amazing (and similar) Lost Highway, he is wholly transformed into an artist categorically separated from his workmanlike efforts on such films as My Cousin Vinny, House Party and Scream 2/3 (although his work on From Hell approaches his Lynchian imagery).
(3) The detail-oriented, creative casting by Johanna Ray. There are a great many characters in Mulholland Dr. and Ray seems to have found the perfect person for every teeny, tiny role. Look at Ray’s resume and you’ll see she’s responsible for the effectiveness behind many of our favorite films: Kill Bill, Inland Empire, From Dusk Til Dawn, Lost Highway, Showgirls, Starship Troopers, Lost Highway, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blue Velvet, Map of the Human Heart and the U.S. version of Funny Games.
(4) The great scene where the dream Camilla Rhodes (“This is the girl") auditions for Theroux’s film. Melissa George, in lush '50s-era costuming and makeup, lip-syncs to Linda Scott’s version of the Hammerstein/Kern song “I’ve Told Every Little Star” with bald-faced verve. I adore how Lynch fits a musical number into almost every film he’s made (there's also "16 Reasons Why I Love You" to enjoy here). Lynch fans will recall Dean Stockwell lip-syncing Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet or Laurel Near’s version of Lynch’s song “In Heaven” (later covered by The Pixies) in Eraserhead, or the dance number to Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion” in Inland Empire, or Julee Cruise’s burlesques in Twin Peaks. Lynch loves musicals—they’re steeped in the sort of surreality he adores.
(5) Oh, how I love the incredible early scene in Winkie’s Diner. Can you think of anything more terrifying? This is one of the film's few stand-alone scenes; these characters never make a reappearance in the dream, but then, don't we all have dreams peopled by strangers?
I love Mulholland Dr. I love its mystery. I love its craft. I love its passion. I love, love, love it all. And you should, too--even if it confuses you. If it does, perhaps that's even better.