Directed by: David Lynch.
Written by: David Lynch.
Starring: Naomi Watts (Betty / Diane Selwyn), Laura Elena Harring (Rita / Camilla Rhodes), Justin Theroux (Adam), Robert Forster (Detective McKnight), Brent Briscoe (Detective Domgaard), Maya Bond (Aunt Ruth), Patrick Fischler (Dan), Michael Cooke (Herb), Bonnie Aarons (Bum), Michael J. Anderson (Mr. Roque), Ann Miller (Coco), Angelo Badalamenti (Luigi Castigliane), Dan Hedaya (Vincenzo Castigliane), Melissa George (Camilla Rhodes), Mark Pellegrino (Joe), Lori Heuring (Lorraine), Billy Ray Cyrus (Gene), Lee Grant (Louise Bonner), Lafayette Montgomery (Cowboy), James Karen (Wally Brown), Wayne Grace (Bob Booker), Scott Coffey (Wilkins).
I’ve been asking myself a question I’ve been asking myself since watching Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Dr. (2001) on back-to-back nights: Why is Mulholland Dr. a masterpiece – a film on my personal Top 10 Films of All Time List – and Lost Highway just a mild curiosity for hard core Lynch fans only? Both film actually tell similar stories – of dual identities, or more accurately of people who create a fictional reality rather than live in the real one. Both have strange, unexplainable plot elements that dead-on, or seem to, and are discarded from the rest of the plot. Both are films that would require a very large diagram for me to explain the plot, and even then, I’m pretty sure that I would get partway into it, and then have to start over again – only to have the same thing happen over and over again forever. I think the answer to this question of what makes Mulholland Dr. Great and Lost Highway mediocre ends up being relatively simple – but with multiple layers. For one thing, Mulholland Dr. is quite simply more enjoyable. It has Lynch’s dark sense of humor, and his genre pastiche, and absurd touches that make me smile – like the guy in the cowboy hat. Second, this time is actually does seem that Lynch has a master plan in place – given the films origins as a failed TV pilot that he turned into a movie, he may not have made the master plan in place when he started it, but he certainly had it in place when he finished it. I know there are elements of the plot that I still cannot explain – but I have a feeling I could if I really wanted to delve THAT deep into the film. But the ending of Mulholland Dr. works, because it feels like a conclusion – it feels like what Lynch has been building towards for the entire movie, whereas the end of Lost Highway seems like it was designed to make the audience leave the theater scratching their heads. Perhaps most importantly though, the characters in Mulholland Dr. feel real – even though they are not real, and exist at least at parts in the movie solely as dreams, they feel genuine, their emotions feel real, and their relationships feel real. At the heart of Mulholland Dr. is the tenderest romantic relationship in all of Lynch’s films – and even if it is nothing but fantasy in the end, it’s real in the moments. The characters in Lost Highway feel like they are constructs that Lynch invented to fuck with – and by extension, to fuck with the audience.
I have seen a lot of film in my life that try, with varying degrees of success, to recreate a dream world – and none of them are as successful as Mulholland Dr. This is a film that operates on dream logic, where there can be wild tonal shifts, characters can change or merge over time, and events may or may not be connected. Lynch has, of course, done this sort of thing in the past – but I don’t think he’s ever done it for an entire movie, and been this successful (again, Lost Highway is probably the first example of him doing an entire movie in dream state – where almost all of his other movies simply have portions in a dream world). But also, like a dream, the world can be both confusing and logical at the same time (if that makes sense – and it does to me). You may not know precisely what’s going on at any one time, but it all makes sense in the moment. More importantly, when you look back over the movie, it seemingly makes sense as well.
The film stars Naomi Watts as Betty – a jitterbug champion from Deep River, Canada who comes to L.A. to make it as a movie star. She’ll be staying at her Aunt’s place, who is out of town (and has Ann Miller as her landlady). It’s not long after she gets to her Aunt’s that she discovers a dark haired woman, who will eventually say her name is Rita, after the poster for Gilda (1947) she sees on the wall. We know Rita from an earlier scene where she was riding along in a limousine, when a gun was draw on her – and only a car accident saved her life, after which she stumbled along until she came to this apartment. Now, she says, she has no idea who she is. Betty decides to help Rita figure out who she is. Already in this plot, we have seen elements of film noir and detective story fiction (and innocent detective story fiction at that – Roger Ebert references Nancy Drew in his review of Mulholland Dr. and considering that eventually the pair will simply break into an apartment going through an open window, it fits). The two keep discovering more and more information, that may or may not be relevant to their investigation- and they also fall in love, culminating in a sex scene that is as erotic as any I have ever seen in a movie – and not because it’s a graphic, lesbian sex scene between two beautiful women (its graphicness is nowhere near the level of Blue is the Warmest Color) – but because there have been few sex scenes in movie history where you feel the connection between the partners so much. Wild at Heart aside (where the sex scenes between Sailor and Lula were also charged with feeling), Lynch’s films have often portrayed sex negatively – either resulting in a monster baby like Eraserhead, or else the various degrees of rape and sexual abuse in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, or else something used solely to manipulate, as in Lost Highway. Here, the sex scene is beautiful, and yes, sexy – which so few movie sex scenes actually are.
While this is going on, there is another seemingly disconnected story happening surrounding Adam (Justin Theroux), as a famous movie director, who needs to hire a new girl for his latest project. He is used to getting his way, but he is warned of dire consequences that will befall him if he doesn’t choose the girl that a pair of brothers (Angelo Badalamenti and Dan Hedaya) have told him to choose. There are other stories – a strange man in a room who seemingly controls everything (played by Michael J. Anderson, from Twin Peaks of course). A hit man (Mark Pellegrino), who latest job doesn’t go very well. A man telling his friend in a dinner about a strange dream he had – set in this exact dinner – about the strange bum, who may be some sort of evil force, who lives behind the dinner – only to go out back, and discover that perhaps it wasn’t a dream after all.
All that tells you what Mulholland Drive is about on a plot level – at least until its starts solving its mysteries, in a way that makes them even more interesting. But it doesn’t tell you what it’s like to watch Mulholland Drive – which is one of the strangest experiences you can imagine. I remember when the film came out in 2001, I went back to the theater at least three times to see it – and it wasn’t about trying to figure out the plot. It was about wanting to be in that cinematic space again – wanting the film to weave its magic spell on me. Before this last viewing, I’d estimate it’s been a good 5 or 6 years since I watched the film – in part because I always worry the experience will never be as great as it is in my head. Yet, it haunts me. I know the film inside out know, and it reminds a fascinating mystery to me. My interpretation of the film is not overly original – it’s probably the majority opinion on the film involving a certain character’s fantasy life until it comes crashing down around and she’s thrust back into reality. Still though, there are things about the movie I continue to notice each time out that are new.
I fear that I have started to ramble about Mulholland Drive – which if I’m not careful, I can do for far longer than anyone needs. So let’s just wrap by saying that like all Lynch films, the film is a technical marvel – from Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting score, to Peter Demming’s expert cinematography, which goes from noir nightscapes, to 50s inspired musical numbers, to surreal concerts, to bright sunshine and back again. The performances are brilliant – Watts giving her star making, and what remains her best performance, as the sunny Betty, who gives away to something darker. Harring is almost her equal as a woman who earns her comparison to Rita Hayworth in femme fatale mode. But best of all is how everything works together to create a dream life atmosphere. Could I explain everything in Mulholland Drive? Probably not. I also don’t really want to. It’s a dream of a movie – and one I look forward to having again. It’s not only Lynch’s best movie – but one of the very best movies I have ever seen.