When I first watched Mulholland Drive, I had never been to Los Angeles (well, other than Disneyland) and had a fascination with the city that could not possibly be the least bit reflective of the reality of L.A., born as it was by my knowingly incorrect assumption that the city is nothing but a strange, hypnotic amalgamation of Raymond Chandler novels, the romance of Old Hollywood, and David Lynch movies — in particular, Mulholland Drive. In many ways, I suppose this makes me similar to Naomi Watts’ character in this movie, albeit one I hope comes to a slightly less tragic sort of ending. It’s fitting that all these inaccurate elements should form my amalgamated notion of Los Angeles, because they all come together in Mulholland Drive. This movie is one of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels — only it’s missing Philip Marlowe. In the vague recollection of memory, and amid mundane (and often incorrect) assumptions about what hardboiled detective novels were like, we can forget how supremely weird Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels were. Marlowe himself was such a self-effacing, down-to-earth character that it becomes easy to gloss over the strangeness of his cases and the cast of supporting characters. Not just the murderous spouses, femme fatales, and seedy club owners — we expect those — but books like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, and The Long Goodbye are also full of blackmailed homosexuals, drug dealers, dope fiends, occultists, magicians, and madmen.
Similarly, our image of Chandler’s stories is one of downtown, urban Los Angeles — forgetting how often Marlowe’s cases took him high up into the hills, or the surrounding scrub country, down unlit country roads, or up into the forested mountains. Although I confess that, being unfamiliar with the lay of the land means I don’t fully understand it, the geography of Los Angeles is as important to stories about that town as it is to similar stories set in New York (which I’m sure is possessed of a geography as puzzling to some as LA is to me — how can I live in New York City but be so close to salt marshes?). In fact, that I don’t understand the layout and surrounding country of Los Angeles makes Chandler’s books even weirder, more disorienting, and alien to me — and I have purposefully avoided rectifying this ignorance for the sake of how it enhances my enjoyment of these stories. Even after spending time in LA and driving around the urban sprawl that is, to outsiders a single city, and to locals a bunch of individual cities, I still don’t understand it well, and that’s perfect.
Chandler also had a tendency to get lost in the convoluted nature of his own plots, weaving webs so intricate and odd that sometimes not all the strands would come together — though one hardly cares, so fantastic is the story. One of my favorite Hollywood tales actually comes from the cinematic adaptation of The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart, directed by Howard Hawks, and with a screenplay by William Faulkner. As the legend goes, Faulkner was working on the script and realized there was one mystery — the murder of a chauffeur — he could not find the answer to in the book. He enlisted the aid of director Hawks, who upon rereading the novel also could not decipher the solution to the mystery. So they contacted Raymond Chandler, admitting that the loose thread was a minor plot point but that they’d like to get it right in the film. So who killed the chauffeur? Chandler said it had been a while since the book, so he’d have to reacquaint himself with it. He would then get back to them with the answer. Time passed. They didn’t hear from Chandler. Eventually, he called Faulkner and Hawks back and said, “I have no idea who killed the chauffeur.”
Those familiar with the tangled nature of Chandler’s plots will recognize something very similar in Mulholland Drive. The film’s main characters — hopeful newcomer and jitterbug enthusiast Betty Elms and mysterious amnesic with a dangerous past Rita are the sort of clients who would Marlowe walk into Marlowe’s office and hire him for some vaguely defined job. All of the weird tangents in the story — the hitman, the mysterious cabal pulling the strings behind a troubled movie production, the freaky “cowboy” on the edge of town — every one of these characters would have been at home in a Marlowe story, as would the off-kilter mood, the creepy atmosphere, and sudden explosions of violence. The only difference is that, in the case of Mulholland Drive, Philip Marlowe is not there to solve the case. He’s not there to help Betty and Rita and save them from a vicious fate. He’s not there to untangle the mystery for them — or for us.
And so we are left on our own to drift through this freakish true crime dreamscape of Los Angeles that David Lynch has constructed. Mulholland Drive throws you into this world without bothering to explain the rules that govern it. It becomes something akin to a snake devouring its own tail. Lynch’s dream of Los Angeles is a patchwork quilt of real life and romantic legend, of old pulp and hopeful dreams and bitter disillusion set against a backdrop of back alleys and neon, cafes, glamorous parties, and oddly remote mansions, and drawn from half a dozen decades. And that dark fantasy land version of Los Angeles feeds my own sinister romance of Los Angeles. Which is why Mulholland Drive has such an emotional impact on me. It is very easy to identify with Betty, the hopeful young romantic who clings desperately to her illusion of Los Angeles even as the more mundane and grimmer reality seeps in from all sides.
Lynch’s tendency to cram his favorite decades (or at least the decades that most influenced his taste and style) into one mythically American time period (reminds me of Streets of Fire) makes itself known immediately, as the film opens with a garishly filmed jitterbug contest, something I don’t think has actually happened in America since Kennedy was assassinated. Then we cut to a dark-haired bombshell (Laura Harring) almost being murdered by a hired gunman in the back of a limo. Before the killer can pull the trigger, however, the limo is hit by a car full of drag-racing youths. Bloodied but alive, the woman stumbles out of the wreckage and into the Hollywood hills, eventually slipping into an apartment just as the elderly residents are leaving, then passing out. Shortly thereafter, fresh-faced young jitterbug contest winner Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in LA to make it as an actress, taking up residence in her aunt’s apartment — which happens to be the very same apartment in which Rita snuck.
Betty discovers Rita in the shower shortly after arriving and thinks the woman is a friend of her aunt’s. When that is proven to be a false assumption, Rita (who isn’t named Rita — she just grabs the name off of a movie poster) confesses that there are gaps in her memory, that she has no idea who she is or how she came to be in the apartment — and oh yeah, her purse is full of money and a mysterious blue key. What follows is sort of a spin on Kyle McLaughlin’s experience in Blue Velvet. Betty, doubtless enthused by the romantic idea of solving a mystery with and about her new best friend, splits her time between auditions and amateur sleuthing. Meanwhile, an entire second drama is playing out around a brash young film director (Justin Theroux) who is being pressured by a shady cabal of entertainment producers while at the same time experiencing profound marital trouble at home.
As Betty and Rita yank at the strands of the mystery, things start to rapidly darken for the two, leading them first to discover the decomposing corpse of a murder victim in what they have figured out to be Rita’s apartment; and second, to a seemingly random visit to a nearly deserted, sinister cabaret called Silencio, the floor show of which triggers disturbed emotional reaction from both women. It is an odd performance composed mostly of people pretending to play instruments, lip-syncing to pre-recorded tracks, but in a way that tricks the sparse audience into thinking the performances are real; and in a sense, they are; just not in the way it seems. The cabaret culminates with a haunting rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” which is what triggers such an intense and inexplicably terrified reaction in our protagonists. And it is indeed a poignant and evocative performance, just one of the many things about this movie that stick in the mind. When Betty and Rita return home, and Betty subsequently seems to disappear, Rita extracts the mysterious blue key from Betty’s purse, ponders it for a moment…and then things get really weird.
To say that David Lynch was experiencing a bit of a rough patch going into the production of Mulholland Drive would imply that he’d ever enjoyed a smoothly paved road. Although beloved by cult film fans for Eraserhead (1977) and The Elephant Man (1980), neither are what you’d call mainstream movies. His debut into that world was via the troubled science fiction epic Dune (1984), a movie I love but garnered widespread condemnation by audiences and critics alike. He began to gain his footing on more familiar ground, with the twisted neo-noir of Blue Velvet (1986) and the dark, absurdist road trip movie Wild at Heart (1990). And then there was Twin Peaks, the television show that captivated and befuddled audiences for one glorious season, making Lynch a household name, then confounded and enraged audiences for a second season, resulting in the cancellation of the show on a cliffhanger ending.
Chased from the small screen, Lynch took Twin Peaks to the theaters, directing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, released in 1992 much to the rabid delight of fans still clamoring for answers. However, if there’s one thing Lynch does only sparingly (at best), it is providing people with answers. Excitement turned to confusion, and then to vitriol and rage once people saw Fire Walk with Me and realized it was going to give them nothing in the way of continuing the story of Agent Dale Cooper, focusing instead on events before the television series. The film was eviscerated by fans and critics alike (though time has healed some wounds and allowed for a more measured assessment of the film; personally, I think it’s exceptional).
By way of “appeasement,” Lynch directed Lost Highway in 1997, his most bizarre, disjointed, and challenging film yet. The film enjoyed more success with critics than did Fire Walk With Me, probably because it did not come into theaters hauling all of that Twin Peaks baggage. Still, receiving a warmer reception than Fire Walk With Me is a pretty small accomplishment, and the strangeness of Lost Highway even more firmly divided people into “Lynch is a genius” and “Lunch is pretentious and self-important” camps. Beneath the undeniable strangeness of the movie, attentive viewers can tease out a fairly comprehensible plot about a man (Bill Pullman) unable to deal with his own violent tendencies or the consequences of those tendencies and so retreating, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge style, into a fantasy about himself. Although puzzling and infuriating at times, Lost Highway was highly regarded enough that Lynch was once again invited into the circle of regularly working film and television directors. He followed up with what became, ultimately, a variation on the plot of Lost Highway, though Mulholland Drive did not begin life as such. In fact, it began as a pitch not for a feature film at all, but for a new television series.
Lynch shot a pilot episode in 1999, but when television executives saw the results, they declined to pick it up as a series. Undeterred, Lynch got the cast and crew back together, shot some additional scenes, then filmed an end for the piece — which had originally been left devoid of a real ending, as it was supposed to be the kick-off for a series. The resultant feature film version of Mulholland Drive was then released in 2001. Some people peg the fractured nature of the production for the equally fractured nature of the film’s narrative. For 2/3 of its run time (presumably the television pilot portion), Mulholland Drive is a pretty straightforward (for David Lynch) story about a young hopeful who helps a haunted amnesic try to solve the mystery of her identity. There’s a hitman and a shady conspiracy, and we’re lulled into assuming Lynch will continue in this manner and that everything will, more or less, be wrapped up before the film ends.
Lynch has steadfastly refused to provide much in the way of assisting viewers to make sense of his work, preferring to leave the audience to decipher it for themselves and base their reaction on their own interpretations of his intent. Although the shift in narrative that happens after the eerie Silencio scene is jarring, it’s not quite as opaque as the language of the film might fool one into thinking. We are back in the same territory as Lost Highway, though with a much different, more sympathetic character, which is why I think Mulholland Drive succeeds on a much more visceral, emotional level than Lost Highway. Watching a sort of aloof guy discover his own capacity for cruelty is much less engaging than realizing you are watching the deterioration of a perfectly likable, sweet character you were really hoping would come out of this movie unharmed. “Jerks can become monsters” carries less of an impact than “good people can become monsters.” Once the shock of the film’s narrative shift wears off, we discover we are witnessing the reality behind a desperate self-delusion, the end result of a dreamy young hopeful being mercilessly ground beneath the heel of reality. It is utterly emotionally gutting.
As is par for the course with Lynch, the bleakness is wrapped in a gorgeous package. The scene in which Betty and Rita, still a bit giddy with their mystery adventure, become increasingly hesitant and distressed to look inside Rita’s presumed apartment, is one of Lynch’s best scenes. The sense of creeping unease, the realization of both women that something potentially horrifying waits at the end of this little lark makes for an incredible amount of tension. And rather than relying on visual shorthand for “this is scary” — a decrepit or decayed location, washed out, dingy lighting, all the predictable tricks so common today — the entire scene plays out in a perfectly normal suburban Los Angeles apartment complex, surrounded by greenery and flower bushes. It’s easy to wring horror out of an excessively grim setting. To accomplish the same in a sunny, bright, familiar setting makes for considerably more enhanced horror. I don’t relate to a greasy dungeon full of yellow lighting and stained walls and dangling chains; But a typical, utterly unspectacular living room in a perfectly normal setting — to watch such nightmares unfold there is much more powerful.
Similarly, the hallucinogenic Silencio scene is haunting, and Lynch manages to draw me as a viewer into the same state of distressed mesmerism as is experienced by the increasingly agitated Betty and Rita. Suddenly, this thrilling adventure we were having with our new, enigmatic bombshell best friend is becoming something altogether more nightmarish. While what happens on stage is strange and not altogether sensical, the feeling that this is the point where things change, and what awaits us on the other side of this scene is not something we want to experience but will have no choice, seeps from every frame. Once again, I feel like Betty. Something about it sends the coded message to my brain: get ready to be depressed. And Lynch, in that regard, delivers in the second half of the film.
None of this would work if it wasn’t for the emotional core provided by Naomi Watts as Betty and Laura Harring as Rita. There are other characters in the film, but they all fade into the background, leaving these two young actors to shoulder the entirety of Mulholland Drive’s macabre story. And my do they deliver. Without seeming to try, Naomi Watts convinces us to fall a little bit in love with Betty, making us more and more fearful of the fact that we know this is a David Lynch film, so things probably aren’t going to end well for her. And Laura Harring, although built like a film noir bombshell and possessed of that threatening, veiled past brings a touching vulnerability to the role of Rita who is as sad about her own mystery as Betty is entranced. You can understand entirely why Betty — or Philip Marlowe — would want to help this puzzling woman.
In even the most warped of Chandler novels, Marlowe provides an out for the reader. No matter how seedy the case, no matter how tragic the outcome, at least we have Marlowe to steady us. Had he been the one to expose the reality behind Betty and Rita, he would have been sad. But we would have gone home with him, world-weary and depressed but still fighting the fight against the darkness. We still have him as an ally, someone next to whom we can collapse into a ratty old chair and share a slug or two of whiskey as we decompress from such a messed-up case. Mulholland Drive does not afford us that ally. There is no escape. We are Betty. Her distress, her mania, her madness is our madness. We experience it first-hand, not just as accomplices but at the core. We are as fooled by her fantasy as she is, and as devastated when it all comes crashing down.
When a romantic relationship develops between the two, it seems not the least bit tawdry or exploitative. It simply seems natural, believable, and moving. They are two scared people who have found one another, and as a storm seems to mount around them, there are moments of quiet tenderness and solid footing to be found in one another’s company. I don’t think this is a movie about lesbians as much as it is a movie in which the boundaries of who falls for who don’t make much of a difference. When the curtain is thrown back and the truth is revealed, it is all the more heartbreaking because we’ve grown to appreciate the idealized tenderness of a perfect romance. We like these two. Or at least, we thought we did. But this is no lazy “spurned lesbian lover” tale. Ultimately, it has nothing to do with gender preference, or even romance, and is instead more about a violent reaction to disillusionment; about a reaction in someone they did not even realize they were capable of when they are affronted by the fact that other people and places are not conforming to the script they’ve written for themselves — that reality is not allowing you to be the hero of the movie you’ve written for yourself.
Despite the murky intent of the narrative, it resonated with audiences and critics alike, garnering more praise for Lynch than he’d ever achieved and making Naomi Watts a star. In Betty she’s created a character that is disturbingly easy to relate to. I stage manage my own life to a degree, or try to, and have manufactured an ideal vision of what my life as a writer, a traveler, a person living in New York ought to be. I have soundtracks. I rehearse certain encounters, like Cary Grant saying he only plays the role of Cary Grant. Many of us spend energy trying to force our fantasy into some sort of reality. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. And while my disappointment when reality deviates from the script doesn’t manifest itself in tragic rage and violence, I still comprehend what happens to Betty and can empathize with her. Watts throws everything into this role, never hesitating despite what was, at the time, perceived as risky and controversial (onscreen same-sex relationships have become much more common since 2001). It’s a stellar performance. Laura Harring gets lost somewhat in the shadow Naomi Watts casts, but it is the nature of her character to be more of a cipher. Still, she manages to wring a tremendous amount of pathos from the amnesiac Rita. When she cries, you feel like you’re crying.
It’s also another typically great score by frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. His mixture of brooding atmosphere and Bernard Herrmann-meets-1950s kitsch is an indispensable participant in Lynch films. They would not be David Lynch films, not entirely, without Angelo Badalamenti’s moody scores. His music is for me like the voice of Mary Weiss or Ronnie Spector. Both women had voices that transcended vocals, transcended being instruments, and became pure emotion. They could be singing about the most mundane and trivial teenage angst, but when it was communicated in those voices, you believed. You believed this was the single most tragic story of all time. The same thing happens to me with Badalamenti’s scores. The theme of this movie is unnerving and sad. “Pretty 50s” is another great example of Lynch and Badalamenti tweaking the stereotypical twang of 50s rock into something menacing and not altogether right.
Lynch and Mulholland Drive both racked up impressive commendations. He was nominated for Best Director Oscar, and the director, film, screenplay, and score were nominated for Golden Globes. Of course, David Lynch took his rediscovered mainstream success and accolades and poured them into Inland Empire, which put him right back out in the Hollywood doghouse again. Satisfying the expectations of Hollywood in order to stay in its good graces is not among his priorities. Instead, he spent his time in exile working on music and painting, all the while in the background laying the foundation for the project that was finally announced in 2014: the return of Twin Peaks. Lord only knows what sort of controversy and fan rage Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost will inspire with that project.
Mulholland Drive is my favorite film from one of my favorite directors. It’s a film that rewards the dedicated viewer. First, by confusing them and making one think about what the hell is going on. Later, once you have figured out the structure of the film and what the second half means to the first, there is still so much the film has to offer. It’s the culmination of all of David Lynch’s sundry obsessions and themes, a tragic tale of the Hollywood meat grinder as filtered through the lens of nostalgia and affection for that very same meat grinder. And when Lynch is indulging his obsessions, he’s usually indulging mine as well. We share much, though he never calls me (he doesn’t even report the weather to me anymore). The same colors, the same periods of history, the same warped interpretations of those same periods. The same type of music, even the same type of women and the same type of self-destruction.
As drama it is deeply affecting; as horror, it is deeply disturbing. In the canon of films about film, Mulholland Drive earns a spot alongside the classics, like Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place. It is the sobering reminder placed alongside Hollywood love letters to Hollywood. A reminder that the city and the industry so full of rags-to-riches success stories is full of even more crushing tales of defeat, that the city that can produce dreamland wonders and perky musicals also gave us the Black Dahlia murder. Movies like Mulholland Drive remind us how easily dreams can be twisted into nightmares, and how we as viewers, even knowing the cold, harsh truth about the entertainment business, still feel ourselves inexorably and irresistibly drawn, like Betty, to the romantic fiction we know does not exist but have all agreed is better than reality.