Mulholland Drive. 2001. Directed & Written by David Lynch.
Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Jeanne Bates, Dan Birnbaum, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Patrick Fischler, Bonnie Aarons, Michael J. Anderson, Ann Miller, Angelo Badalamenti, Dan Hedaya, & Justin Theroux.
Les Films Alain Sarde / Asymmetrical Productions/Babbo Inc.
Rated R. 147 minutes.
No secret if you follow me on Twitter or know me personally: I’m a stark raving mad fan of David Lynch. A fanatic, really. While I understand entirely the fact others either can’t stand his films or find them too strange to follow, his work speaks to me on a deep level. His status as an auteur comes not just from the way he manipulates sound and visuals to create a hypnotic vision of his concept of Americana. It also extends from the fact he’s one of the 20th century’s greatest surrealists, capable of deconstructing genre, even the concept of cinema itself. In that very spirit of rearranging our preconceptions of film, he takes aim at the film business, and above all else Hollywood itself with Mulholland Dr.
The nightmarish psychic landscape of this Hollywood is partly Lynch’s own personal experience as an artist, a veritable auteur existing in a state of suffering at the hands of executives holding the purse strings, the power. Even the tale of this film itself, starting out at ABC as the hopeful pilot for a new Lynchian series, where it was then butchered into a product of which Lynch was not at all proud, can be seen in the meat and bones of the dreamy story he weaves through Mulholland Dr.
Most of all, the film is an allegory about the dark corners of Hollywood, what it does to the psyche of directors, actors, and actresses in particular who find themselves in pursuit of the classic American success story of making it big in the pictures.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The dancers, the various screens, then Watts’ Betty character with the two older people. Followed by a pillow, signifying a dream. However, as the twists and turns get more mystifying, it gets harder to tell what is dream, what is reality. But if we pay attention there are ample clues to what’s actually going on. It’s just the fact that Lynch is a deconstructionist, taking apart Hollywood, the hopes of aspiring artists and actresses, and showing us how the film business is, more often than not, built on the bones of broken dreams.
Right before we see Betty, for real, for the first time we see the red lampshade, and the telephone’s ringer echoes dreamily as she shows up at the airport. Significantly, she’s with an old woman and her husband, who see her off then grin creepily together while they leave in a limo. When does the red lampshade reappear? Following Watts’ 2nd character Diane’s failed orgasm. She hears the phone ring, then she’s invited out to the party on Mulholland Drive, taking her to where we first, earlier on, meet Rita (Laura Harring). Constantly, Lynch plays with the idea of the dual identity, a recurring theme over the course of his work in film.
One other key way to suss out the true identity of who Watts is playing in the ‘real life’ of Mulholland Dr‘s world are – you betcha – coffee cups! Damn fine addition. For instance, if you pay close attention to both Winkie’s Diner and Diane Selwin’s apartment there is a blatant clue in the open. Just so long as you’ve got coffee on the brain.
“It‘ll be just like in the movies.
We‘ll pretend to be someone else.”
Identity is obviously a prominent theme. Hollywood fractures the identity of actors inherently, so in this vein then Mulholland Dr becomes the landscape of a true Hollywood nightmare, as we watch the destruction of the American dream of the sweet, young actress trying to make it big int eh movie business. Lynch’s deconstructionist method is in turning the American dream into a surreal, nightmarish circus of ethereal vignettes, pure existential dread.
Not only is Hollywood shown in a dark light in terms of its affect on personal, individual identity. Lynchian absurdity is rampant when it comes to the business’ mechanical processes themselves, too. The espresso scene, featuring none other than longtime musical collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, is wildly absurd. Points out the foolish excess, the bourgeois expectation of the backrooms in the movie industry. A cup of anything, even the most expensive liquor imaginable making or breaking a film production is hilarious, if not at its core desperately depressing.
“Someone is in trouble.
Who are you?”
There’s a strange space which Mulholland Dr occupies in terms of Lynch’s filmography, fitting right alongside both Twin Peaks and also Lost Highway. You might say these three films of his in particular fit together, existing in the same universe. One where electricity crackles, signifying a move between the world of the spiritual, the dreamworld, and that of the real world.
For instance, Winkie’s Diner. A place where nightmares seem to exist, play out, where elements of dreams come together, or perhaps where they fall apart.
Exhibit A: Dan (Patrick Fischler). He tells his friend about a terrifying dream, one in which a scary man appears from behind the diner’s dumpster. One of the many keys in the film is when he casually comments: “I hope that I never see that face, ever, outside of a dream.”
Exhibit B: The Nightmare Man, credited as Bum (and played by a woman, Bonnie Aarons). We see him out back of the diner early on when Dan tries confronting his dream in, supposedly, real life. The literal personification of a haggard nightmare. Later, we see him again at night, a red light flashing, where he sits behind the dumpster holding a blue box; the one into which Rita seems to disappear after opening it (a sign of Diane being the dreamer as we shift to her story once the box is opened, symbolic of our opening a door to understanding).
Most interesting is, this 2nd time, the Nightmare Man puts the box in a bag and drops it to the ground, out of which comes the old couple from before, the ones who saw Betty off from the airport (we’ll return to this afterwards). And finally, a shot of the Nightmare Man is dissolved into the blue light over the red curtains of the club Silencio just prior to the end credits.
This final exhibit hinges on my belief that Diane is the real character, dreaming up Betty and Rita, et cetera. And from there it’ll lead into my final thoughts on the film.
Exhibit C: Silencio. This is a space existing in dreamworld, most definitely. Or rather, a nightmare world. Silence, in spiritual terms, is the gateway to enlightenment. Therefore, we can see the club as a place where the dreams/nightmares all come together, where their meaning is revealed.
At the same time, silence can be interpreted in wholly different terms if considered in conjunction with the concept that Diane, as it’s revealed through the presence of older debaucherous men in her life via the dreams of herself as Betty, was abused as a girl. The presence of the blue-haired woman (blue hair symbolising old age), especially seeing as how she speaks the word “SILENCIO” as the final line of dialogue, suggests that part of the plot, dug in deep, rests with an old woman’s silence. Leading many to understand this as a confirmation of Diane having been abused as a girl, receiving no help from either her aunt, or more than likely her grandmother. In that the blue-haired woman, whomever she represents, is confirming her silence when Diane was abused years before.
Speaking of grandmothers, this is where we jump back to the old couple from Betty’s arrival at the airport. After they’re released from the blue box in the Nightmare Man’s paper bag, they escape to Diane’s apartment where they terrorise her until she puts a bullet in her head. The idea that the old couple are the final terror of her life, the one that drives her to suicide, is the key. And just like the blue key to the blue box, this key is what unlocks the mystery of Diane and her rightfully fragile headspace. No mere coincidence then that the blue key is also the key to her apartment, right?
There are still things to discuss, though here is where we’ll end. Let me know what you think; if I’m full of shit, or otherwise. All thought is welcome in the Lynchian universe.
My last words are these. That Mulholland Dr doesn’t merely look into the darkness of Hollywood through deconstruction and surrealist imagery, it— as Twin Peaks did, too— dives into the subconscious dreamworld of traumatised women, young women broken and butchered by men in power