Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive ★★★★★


Fourth viewing, but I hadn't seen it since the night it opened NYFF. (Caught two early NY press screenings; this was a year before I started attending Cannes.) My contemporaneous review called it "a brilliant act of reconstructive surgery," and I strenuously argued back then that its origin as a TV pilot precluded true greatness, even though there's hardly a moment in the entire movie that I don't love. (Still made my top 10 list that year, but in the bottom half.) I would point in particular to elements, like Forster and Briscoe's brief appearance as cops, that have little or no function in the movie and were likely to have played a much more significant role had the project gone to series as intended. For example, here's my response to someone on the Movie Nerd Discussion Group (now defunct) who'd asked why I stubbornly refused to ignore this extratextual knowledge and judge the film qua film; I include it both to illustrate my thinking at that time and because I'm quite proud of the kicker.

Let's imagine that a filmmaker starts shooting his new movie on black-and-white film stock, intending to make the entire film in black-and white. Halfway through production, however, the film's camera van is stolen, with the remaining unexposed reels of b&w stock inside. This financial disaster threatens to scuttle the picture entirely, but the filmmaker calls in a few favors and manages to scare up enough reels of color stock to continue. But because he was shooting out of sequence, the finished film jumps back and forth between color and b&w—sometimes even several times in mid-scene, because the filmmaker only got one angle in the can prior to the incident.

Now, if we don't know the history of the production, we might be inclined to cobble up some clever theory as to what the bizarre and apparently random juxtaposition of color and b&w "means" or is intended to "signify" or whatever. If we do know the history of the production, however, I think it's perfectly acceptable to incorporate that knowledge into one's evaluation of the film—viz., by attributing the random jumps to their actual cause, financial necessity. Similarly, there's no need for us to try to determine what Ed Wood was "trying to say" by having some dentist impersonate Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space, because we know that he was trying to say the same thing Bauhaus said: Bela Lugosi's dead.

That all still seems very sensible to me, but I no longer think it applies to Mulholland Dr. For one thing, my assumption that every single aspect of the scuttled pilot was destined for further exploration in subsequent episodes never made much sense—that's not how Lynch operates. Wasn't true of Twin Peaks' original run, and it sure as fucking hell wasn't true of Twin Peaks' resuscitation, which is chockablock with bizarro narrative dead ends, unmistakably by design. For another and much more important thing, what was I even talking about? Virtually nothing here feels out of place, or like setup for a payoff that never arrives. There's the clue of Rita's earring, which never goes anywhere and most likely would have been pursued on TV, but that's about it (and I doubt I'd have paid that much notice had the cops been played by unknown actors). Looking back, this entire line of criticism seems like an effort to rationalize what was really just strong anti-TV bias (which has since gone the way of the dodo). In my mind, Mulholland Dr. wasn't really and truly cinema, and got penalized accordingly.

Freed from that nonsense, I now find myself properly in awe. A few quibbles remain: Diane imagining Adam being hit on by his assistant seems improbable (though I enjoy that bit in a vacuum), and the inept-hitman sequence (featuring Jacob from Lost!; wasn't familiar then with Melissa George, either, who'd go on to do terrific work on the first season of In Treatment) feels tonally distinct from everything else, which isn't uncommon for Lynch but likewise bugs me elsewhere in his oeuvre. However, the film's overall shape—an idyllic dream gradually infested by reality and then juxtaposed with same by way of a surrealistic bridge—speaks to Hollywood's cruel seduction more potently than any other movie in history, including Sunset Blvd. (Just now realized that I insist on abbreviating both titles, because both are initially shown as street signs/markers. Lynch's film spells out "Drive" in the end credits, but I'm an opening-credits man through and through.) Most great films can boast one genuinely legendary scene, if that; Mulholland Dr. has at least two (Silencio, the audition), and arguably four (Winkie's, the Cowboy), plus the sheer emotional devastation of Diane's real life, which nearly destroyed me this time. As I get older, there are more and more things I'm happy I was alive to experience, and seeing Watts' performance when she was still basically unknown is one of them. Legitimately spent an hour of my first viewing unsure whether she was immensely talented or someone whose limited ability was being expertly exploited; watching the first shoe fall during the audition scene, and the other shoe slide off throughout the final act, remains one of my all-time moviegoing thrills.

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