Best of the Decade #1: Mulholland Drive

The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.

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Performance Anxiety
Michael Koresky on Mulholland Drive

“This is all recorded.”

A moment of silencio, please, for Reverse Shot’s knighted greatest movie of the decade. And not just any decade, but one that’s been cinematically revolutionary (hello, digital video . . . goodbye traditional viewing methods) and polarizing (the democratizing of film making and criticism has either enhanced cinema for all or picked the last scraps off of its corpse, depending on your point of view). How appropriate that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was voted into the top slot considering that the film remains both revolutionary and polarizing itself. Looking back on this American masterpiece from a 2010 vantage point, we can now see this was a film released on the brink of major change, and that it managed to embody that change while remaining resolutely timeless and true to its maker’s spirit. Who’d have thought that not even ten years later, rewatching Lynch’s magnum opus—which, though tinged with its maker’s usual retro chic, was upon its release so very now—would make us nostalgic for film itself, for glossy, movie-movie celluloid, however mangled and nightmarish it becomes in its director’s hands. Mulholland seems especially poignant considering that Lynch’s follow-up, the equally peculiar, if less aesthetically and emotionally coherent Inland Empire, marked his possibly permanent transition to digital video feature-making.

As much as pining for the magic of film defined the past decade of moviegoing, it’s already a dated endeavor: video is here to stay. What makes Mulholland Drive such a specifically stirring example of what we may now begin to term as a dying medium is that it seems to have unwittingly predicted the coming digital and media revolution in its very construction and being, while at the same time it’s undeniably a product of classic cinematic practice. It’s a film equal parts stream-of-consciousness and cause-and-effect, whose pattern forms a sort of hyperlink crazy quilt—what once seemed like mere dream logic now seems prescient, if even inadvertently so. In 2009, the film’s tendency to jump back and forth between narrative strands feels nearly rational, mirroring as it does our current media experience. Yet its cinematographic and editing tricks and experiments, the richness of its colors and textures, the authority and weight with which its camera swirls and glides and hiccups, are all undeniably specifically filmic.

Especially in its first half, in which bits and pieces of various characters’ tales and nightmare tangents battle for narrative supremacy, Mulholland Drive has an exquisite-corpse feel, in which one fragment of story leads to another and so on, with the barest of threads connecting them. Beginning with that ghostly prefab jitterbug contest, which emanates out of a black nothing only to recede back into it, the film jumps to a soon-to-be amnesiac, played by unreal glamour goddess Laura Elena Harring, surviving an attempted hit on her life when hot-rodders smash into her limo as it winds the curvaceous titular road. Her confused, extraterrestrial-like descent into a Los Angeles, unfamiliar to her and to us, leads to her hiding out and sleeping in a stranger’s unlocked apartment, which then leads to the non sequitur bad-dream terror of the infamous Winkie’s Diner sequence, and then on to a series of disturbing, ambiguous, oddly coded phone-call sessions between various suited men in oddly lit office and motel netherworlds. These events insufficiently prime us for the arrival of our ostensible twinned protagonists, blonde, bright-eyed wannabe actress Betty, who’s landed in the city of dreams direct from Deep River, Ontario, and Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a hotshot director dressed in black trying to get a movie made amidst tightening pressure from enigmatic, sinister funders, who are clearly some form of mafioso. Yet as central as Kesher’s travails are to the early parts of the film, when one of the backers (played by jowly Dan Hedaya) says to him, “It’s no longer your film,” he might as well be talking to Theroux about Mulholland Drive itself—this seeming main character is about to be written out of the movie, or least shunted off to the side.

Once Betty’s story dovetails with that of the mystery woman from the limo, who names herself Rita after visually soaking in a poster of Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, we seem to have found our narrative footing—only to have it again upended when Lynch segues to another seemingly unrelated incident, this time a Coen brothers–esque office killing that goes awry when a doofy hit man (Mark Pellegrino) gets trigger happy. The amazing thing about the film thus far is that, even though it plays like a random succession of character introductions that go on for the better part of the film’s first hour, never do we feel lost while watching it. This is a testament as much to Lynch’s ability to script, frame, and sculpt an individual scene as to his overall conception—often the filmmaker is discussed on a macro rather than micro level, but many of these sequences would function brilliantly as discrete shorts; whenever any character appears on screen he or she is suddenly the most important person in the film.

One could argue that the fact that many of the early characters pop up once and are never seen from again (a handful of them played by established actors, such as Robert Forster and Lee Grant) is evidence of the film’s much-discussed origins as an unfinished TV pilot. Yet Lynch is the type of artist for whom such niggling details as intentionality seem moot; these matters of construction bring nothing to bear on Mulholland Drive’s ultimate pattern. Discussing the film’s extraordinary design in such a manner, trying to explain away its mysteries by talking about them in terms of spare parts, ignores the fact that Lynch’s films are generally made up of bits and pieces, symbols and metaphor, gags and songs. That this artist’s free-floating, recurrent idiosyncrasies (think Miró with narrative drive) come together in such a delicate narrative form is the ultimate evidence of Lynch’s unique gift. And never, despite Mulholland’s initial reception as TV leftovers and its reputation as purposefully, even antagonistically, befuddling, has Lynch made a film with as much exquisite, complex coherence.

“I hope I never see that face outside of a dream.”

Much of the discourse surrounding Mulholland Drive has always revolved around trying to establish what’s “real” and what’s a “dream” throughout its 147-minute running time, which is clearly bifurcated almost two hours through, when without tenable warning all the characters become alternate versions or cheap facsimiles of their earlier incarnations. Such a mode of attack is severely complicated by three factors: a) Lynch shoots and edits his ostensible reality, or that which constitutes the waking life of his characters, as though it were a dream, and vice versa; b) within both the film’s likely dream and “real” segments, Lynch constantly retreats into fantasy and nightmare sequences, which seem to create clear separations where they might not be any; and c) what’s the difference, anyway, if movies are simply dreams, the imprint of light on celluloid?

Betty’s early declaration “I’m in this dream place,” exclaimed with girlish glee upon arriving at her Aunt Ruth’s apartment (where she isn’t too shocked to find a naked Rita, who can’t remember her own name), would seem to be the film’s first tip-off, especially on second viewing; yet this hardly would seem to explain all of the strange subplots that satellite around her. That, as we later ascertain, everything we see in the film’s first “section,” and not only Betty’s own distinct story, might be emissions from the same brain, simply reinforces the notion of film as dream, and thus of film dreams having as much consequence as any event that may occur on screen—of course, it’s no surprise that one of Lynch’s stated influences is The Wizard of Oz.

We should know even earlier than Betty’s comment, though, that we’re entering some sort of liminal, subjective nonreality, right from the beginning perhaps, when Peter Deming’s camera (astonishingly mobile yet always seemingly constrained by some odd gravitational force, as though borne on the burdened shoulders of some loping beast) takes us face-first into a pillow. In the end what’s real and what’s a nightmare matters less than what these confused levels of reality say about the people onscreen, and about the microcosm of Hollywood and Los Angeles the film depicts as some grotesque storybook world. Mulholland Drive may be finally, as we come to learn in the film’s virtuoso final half-hour, strictly the story of Diane (Betty’s “alternate”), with everyone else some perverted looking-glass version of themselves that she has created in some guilt-ridden fever dream—but each and every person she meets, fabricates, or reimagines is as singularly important as she is. All are ground up in the gears of the same machine.

If ultimately it’s Hollywood’s superficiality that creates these monstrosities—which rejects one actress over the other, which prizes looks over talent, which dangles the carrot of hope and promise as easily as it snatches it back down the rabbit hole—then it makes sense that Mulholland Drive revolves around faces, surfaces beautiful or sinister. This not only applies to the sequence set in Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd—in which an unnamed beetle-browed neurotic (Patrick Fischler) comes face to face with a gruesome, witch-like man behind the diner mere minutes after describing seeing him in his nightmares: “I hope I never see that face outside of a dream”—but also to those faces scrubbed clean and ready for their close-ups. In the first part of the film, the near downfall of the wise-acre but somewhat idealistic Adam Kesher is caused by his initial refusal to cast an unknown actress in his film just because of her pretty face, despite the “suggestion” of the project’s mysterious backers: “This is the girl.” That girl, an anonymously featured blonde named Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George), exists as only a face throughout the film; she first appears on screen as more than just a headshot photo at Kesher’s audition, during which her voice is dubbed. (When George reappears towards the end of the film, this time as a jealousy-inducing young starlet who plants a kiss on the lips of a glamorous Harring, now playing the “real” Camilla, we still don’t hear her voice; she inaudibly whispers in the other woman’s ear.)

“Don’t play it real . . . until it gets real.”

What’s particularly fascinating about Camilla’s odd audition scene is that it comes directly after Betty’s first audition—and within the juxtaposition between the two may lie the entire film’s reason for being. One of Mulholland Drive’s many pleasures is its uncanny way of narratively mirroring Naomi Watts’s “coming out” as an actress. An unknown entity when the film was released, Watts also remained—for myself and many other viewers, I have discovered—a figure of dubious acting ability for Mulholland Drive’s first hour. A bonny ball of sunshine, Watts’s Betty is not only gratingly chipmunk-chipper when we first meet her arriving in L.A., she also seems to be framed, edited, and ADR-treated for maximum audience annoyance. “Won’t that be the day!” she exclaims with a confidence just waiting to be wrecking-balled when discussing her imminent fame; her oft-stated desires to be a serious actress and a movie star are uttered with nuance-free naiveté. In short, she seems like a shiny-faced stiff. So when Betty goes on her first audition (conveniently set up for her by her insider aunt, as if we needed more reason to dislike her), not only are we surprised by the shocking reservoirs of feeling she’s able to muster, we’re also stunned by Watts’s ability to simultaneously produce the same. Our preconceptions about the character and actress are instantly thrown out the window. This is the real deal. It’s as if Watts herself has followed the directions of her hilariously opaque director in the audition scene: “Don’t play it real . . . until it gets real.” Then, after being suddenly faced with such genuine talent, we see the flipside. Betty is whisked away by a casting director to another studio for an audition. The movie is of course Adam Kesher’s (Watts and Theroux’s misleadingly romantic exchange of glances when she walks in is what first unites these two disparate strands). Camilla walks onstage, her face blank and beautiful, and she proceeds to dispassionately lip-synch to Linda Scott’s “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” Camilla’s success will always be because of opportunity and looks, not skill or worthiness.

This helps clarify (and make poignant) the adhesive denouement of Mulholland Drive, in which we ascertain that every character we’ve seen has conceivably been a manifestation of one woman’s guilt, anger, and fantasies. Camilla, though just a face in the shadows, stands for everything: the beautiful and the ugly, the fantasy and the nightmare, the real and the false. And Diane, the “real” Betty, who has been both seduced and betrayed by the “real” Camilla (literally, sexually), has tried to snuff her out. In doing so, she has created her own terrible demons. What’s extraordinary about Lynch’s grand storytelling plan, once it becomes clear, is that it has forced us to identify with and show boundless compassion for a woman who turns out to be a murderer—desperate, perhaps, but a murderer nonetheless.

“If you do good, you’ll see me one more time. If you do bad, you’ll see me two more times.”

These are words spoken by the eerily eyebrow-less character known as The Cowboy to Adam Kesher when the latter gets out of line. Yet this ambiguously powerful Hollywood puppet master, who lives at the top of Beechwood Canyon, might as well be talking to Diane. After this point in the film, Diane is the one who does indeed “do bad,” and we thus see him two more times: once when he steps into what appears to be Diane’s bedroom in the middle of the night to stir her from a deep slumber, calling out, “Hey pretty girl, time to wake up”; and again, almost subliminally, when he walks through the background of a particularly crucial flashback party scene. And by this point it’s inevitable: Diane will pay dearly for her misdeeds.

The Cowboy, a spook crouched in the corner of her addled brain, is clearly some sort of harbinger of doom. Even though he’s meant to keep intact the very fabric of Hollywood (potentially outsider characters as Adam and Diane are squashed when they try to transgress), his presence creates ruptures, not only in Adam and Diane but also in the film itself. In the ten minutes or so before this pretty girl wakes up from her dream (which has ever so gradually segued into nightmare), Lynch starts to show tears and rips in the solidity of the film, produced by terrifying, rumbling sound bridges, sudden camera staggers, and unexpected, abrupt shifts in focus. Something, perhaps the film itself, is screaming to be awakened, or let out of its cage.

This all comes to a head in the Silencio sequence, a musical interlude that provides the final emotional catharsis before we enter “reality,” and which materializes at that point in Diane’s sleep process when rapid eye movement would produce the most memorable, but also bizarre and “unreal,” images. In the dead middle of the night, Betty and Rita, after lovingly consummating their growing physical attraction, retreat to Silencio, a surreal nightclub in an anonymous back alley, presided over by a blue-haired lady-in-waiting in a loge. Onstage, bathed in spotlight, Rebekah Del Rio performs, with crushing solemnity, a Spanish, a capella rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” So effortlessly enchanting is Del Rio’s voice and so spiritually cleansing is her song that we completely forget that, as a ghoulish emcee reiterates again and again before she begins, “this is all recorded.” In other words, our knowledge of her clear falseness does nothing to quell our vivid response to her overwhelming performance. When the chanteuse faints and her voice continues to emanate and echo around the desolate walls of the tattered old music hall, the effect is devastating. Betty and Rita’s tears are genuine, as are ours—why must we wake up from such emotional truth?

Our awareness, and even enjoyment, of Mulholland Drive as a dream does not imply that we would prefer to live in a false world, wearing blinders, but rather that we knowingly accept our reality as a subjective construction. Naturally this is also true of our relationship with art, and particularly narrative cinema. That Lynch makes us believe in the necessity and consequence of his world for two and a half hours is a tribute both to his eloquent harnessing of film’s expressive capabilities and the medium itself.

Mulholland Drive looks back as much as it looks forward—back at an art form that lives on in vibrant moving images even as it grows more distant with each passing year, back at an outmoded dream factory that it despises as much as it adores; forward to a time when narrative cinema is untethered to linear storytelling conventions; forward to a world where all media is reconstituted as an endless overflow of information, and where it’s hard to tell what’s truth and rumor, real and unreal. It exists on the cusp of a new world, and it glances to the past with a disconcerting mix of nostalgia and pain. The effect it has on the devoted cinephile is twofold: we look forward to the bright cinematic future it promises, when everything is possible, where all narrative rules are thrown out the window. Yet it’s clear that the full weight of film—a 35mm film camera, with its heavy shuttered lenses, bunched celluloid, and imposing frame—was necessary for those exquisite lurches, shakes, and awkward steadicam glides that led us into Silencio. It’s the schizophrenia of the movie-lover perfectly encapsulated in one film, screaming to wake up and also to be allowed a few more hours of blissful sleep.

Go to #2.

*****

More on Mulholland Drive from Reverse Shot.

"This Magic Moment," by Michael Joshua Rowin (Summer 2006)