24 Frames: Mulholland Drive

Why film? As I watch one movie after another, I seldom pause to consider such a question. I suppose this project is an attempt to track my own relationship with film, how it grew from a pastime of simply viewing them for entertainment to a full flower of talking, thinking about and obsessing over them. Rarely does a week pass where I haven’t watched a single film (or more likely four or five.)

What initially drew me to studying film was its invitation to view and partake in cultures and perspectives outside my own. It’s unlikely I’ll ever spend much time in or even visit Russia, but I can glean various perspectives of what Russia is like through the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky and Andrey Zvyagintsev (to name three great directors from three wholly different eras.) Granted, I’ll never know it as well as the places I’ve lived and spent ample time in, but even just familiarizing myself with Russian movies (and those of other countries from Finland to Burkina Faso), I feel my mindset expanded.

Culture aside, film can be limitless in its approach—just think of all the disparate (and in some cases, intersecting) worlds a film can contain according to genre, tone, style and structure. Over ten days at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic two years ago, I watched a trashy camp classic (Valley Of The Dolls), a pioneering experimental/fake documentary made around the same time (David Holzman’s Diary), a Reagan-era, female-directed French musical (Golden Eighties), the low-budget indie debut from Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan (Next of Kin), a popular “ripped from the tabloids” doc from a decade ago (The Queen of Versailles), peak early 90s New Queer Cinema (The Living End) and, from two years before that, Bertolucci’s adaptation of the Paul Bowles novel The Sheltering Sky—there you have it, seven distinct ways of seeing out of hundreds of thousands available to rent or stream.

The Sheltering Sky

Even the pre-streaming age afforded such possibilities if less access and convenience than we’re now accustomed to. As the 1990s gave way to a new century, I kept at it, practically organizing my own life around what I could see in theatres, and then what I could rent or borrow to watch at home. I continued perceiving film as a virtual global passport of sorts, but something else shifted. The idea that cinema not only offered many things to see around the world but also new ways of seeing the world regardless of location registered back in grad school when I first watched bold, wholly original takes on contemporary life such as Safe. I kept this in mind when picking out new movies to see. Those making the most instant and lasting impressions adhered to this notion of cinema as a lens offering viewpoints that were recognizable (to a degree) but also fresh and illuminating in ways that I’d never devise on my own.

Writing about Beau Travail, I championed 1999 as a consensus-supported banner year for film; in my personal view, 2001 nearly surpasses it, especially in the realms of indie and world cinema. Ghost World, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, In The Bedroom, Memento, Waking Life, Amelie, Gosford Park, Donnie Darko—not too shabby a selection (and I’ve left out some titles I might devote to future entries here.) Adding delayed domestic releases from the previous year like In The Mood For Love and Our Song only enhances this notion of 2001 as another all-timer for cinema.

Naturally, the year carries a weightier association in the collective memory. Even though my spreadsheet of watched films by date only goes back to 2004, I still recall the last film I saw in a theatre before 9/11: a restored print of Godard’s Band of Outsiders at the Brattle in Harvard Square with a solid Saturday night crowd. Francois Ozon’s slow-burn psychological thriller Under The Sand at the Arlington Capitol was what I first saw in a cinema afterwards, three Saturdays later. It’s no stretch in noting how much the world changed between those two screenings and how coincidentally those two titles represent the collective mood before and after (particularly the Ozon film with its gloomy undertones and quiet, numbing sense of dread.)

Under The Sand

Exactly two weeks after Under The Sand, I saw Mulholland Drive on its opening weekend at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. At this point, I appreciated director David Lynch but felt no strong passion for his work. I’d viewed The Elephant Man in a high school class (way over my head at the time); as an adult, I’d watched Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; the former had unnerved me without necessarily transcending that feeling, while the latter left me cold (granted, I hadn’t seen a single episode of the series at that point! Why I watched this prequel at all is best saved for another essay.) And yet, I’d also seen The Straight Story, which did move me with its deceptively simple narrative and in how it captured the unlikely beauty of a region (rural Iowa and Wisconsin) I’m familiar with—never mind that it’s Lynch’s most atypical work (rated G and produced and distributed by Disney!)

Mulholland Drive arrived in theaters with no shortage of hype. Originally conceived as a 90-minute television pilot for ABC (home of Twin Peaks) in 1999, it was rejected by the network. Rather than leave it behind, Lynch refashioned it into a film, securing funding from Canal+ and shooting additional footage. The 146-minute feature version premiered at Cannes in May 2001 to critical acclaim and Lynch tied with the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There for Best Director (Nanni Moretti’s comparatively forgotten The Son’s Room won top prize, the Palme d’Or.) By its theatrical release, growing buzz around the film positioned it as one of the year’s most anticipated arthouse attractions.

A film lives up to such lofty expectations (such as the swaggering, singular Hedwig and the Angry Inch) just as often as it does not (to pick an extreme example, all I wanted to do was take a dozen Silkwood showers after feeling thoroughly pummeled by Requiem For A Dream.) My first viewing of Mulholland Drive was closer to that of Hedwig, but with some reservations. I wrote in my journal (this was still pre-blog) of walking away from it feeling “entranced” (a word I surely overused in my twenties) and given my overall impression of Lynch’s back catalog, a little surprised. I described it as “a world of dreams” populated by characters that were less Twin Peaks caricatures (remember, I hadn’t seen the series yet) but more “grounded and fragile.” However, I couldn’t love it due to its unusual structure and inexplicable twists. I suspect I was far from alone in this, as I’ve discussed the film with numerous people over the years who similarly find Lynch’s tendency to leave crucial things open and unexplained a stumbling block if not a reason for outright disliking it.

Still, that initial watch of Mulholland Drive, perhaps enhanced by a continual string of accolades (like Beau Travail the year before, it topped the Village Voice Film Critics poll) stayed with me. I made room for it on my own year-end top ten film list at #9, right between Our Song and The Man Who Wasn’t There. When it hit the then-second run Somerville Theatre in early January, I saw it again. In that journal entry, I wrote, “It’s a film that begs to be seen more than once” before noting how much funnier it was the second time, the half-filled theater often reacting with belly laughs (only to be subsumed by some rather nervous laughter in the brain-melting last half hour.) Whereas I kept trying to figure out what the hell was going on after that first viewing, now I could come up with a few ambitious (if probably insufficient) theories, having noticed reoccurring objects and parallels drawn between characters and situations.

No matter how much I worked on cracking the film’s narrative code, its mystery (as well as its mastery) left me captivated (to use a slightly better word than “entranced”.) I bought the DVD when it came out months later and re-watched it a handful of times before seeing it again on the big screen at the Coolidge in 2006. When I redid my best of 2001 list a few years later, it wound up at #2. In 2012, it secured a place on my list of ten favorite all-time films inspired by the once-every-decade Sound and Sight poll (as did Beau Travail and McCabe & Ms. Miller.) Just last year in a job interview when referencing my professional and academic background in cinema, I was asked (for a non-film related position, I might add) what my favorite movie was: Mulholland Drive popped in my head before anything else.

I’m not going to make that particular case for it here; to name a single favorite film out of the thousands I’ve seen is increasingly an impossible task. Neither will I fully go through it scene by scene given limitations of time and space and my readers’ patience. However, I have to address the narrative and will do so starting at the very beginning. To this day, I struggle explaining why I feel a sensation akin to goose bumps upon just hearing the opening swing-band music as images blur and skitter across the screen. Soon enough, they settle on a tableau resembling those Louis Prima-scored Gap commercials from the late ‘90s but with slightly older and decidedly amateurish dancers, not to mention all those overlapping silhouettes. As jarring and exciting as any beginning, it barely has anything to do with the rest of the film; only over two hours later does one character (whose visage flashes over the action at the scene’s conclusion) mention once having won a dance competition. Is that what the opening scene depicts, or is it a dream?

In the film’s grander scope, such a question is irrelevant. Mulholland Drive might be the ultimate movie gathering power predominantly from feels rather than plot. Still, one must consider that latter. The narrative throughline of Betty (Naomi Watts), a blonde, fresh-faced aspiring actress from Podunk, Canada apartment-sitting for her Aunt Ruth in Hollywood and her relationship with Rita (Laura Harring), the mysterious brunette car accident survivor/amnesiac she finds squatting there easily draws one in. As compelling a mystery as anything featuring Nancy Drew or Jessica Fletcher, it’s Lynch as his most outwardly engaging and tender.

Alas, as much as it, well, drives Mulholland Drive, it serves as only a part of its universe. The film’s first half often plays like the TV pilot it was conceived as, given to multiple storylines that in a feature context resemble planted seeds meant to develop into full-grown branches in subsequent episodes: the man (Patrick Fishler) recounting his nightmare to another man at Winkie’s, a Denny’s-esque diner where the dream took place; a ropey hit man (Mark Pellegrino) whose attempted mark goes horribly and absurdly awry; Adam, a hotshot filmmaker (Justin Theroux) whom, in a closed-door boardroom is forced by mafioso (one of ’em played by longtime Lynch collaborator/scorer Angelo Badalamenti!) to cast a particular actress as the lead in his next picture, declaring upon her sight, “This is the girl.” That last thread actually develops further as Adam endures and suffers various foibles, only for his story to briefly merge with Betty’s as she visits his film shoot directly after an audition where, performing an intense scene with an older actor (played by Chad Everett!), both she and Watts reveal what skilled actresses they are.

The Betty-and-Rita story increasingly takes up more screen time as the film lingers past the 90-minute mark until they find a key to open the blue box in Rita’s purse. As Rita unlocks and opens it, the camera seems to dive into its darkness; on the other side, everything has abruptly shifted. Watts is now Diane, whose name earlier bred a spark of familiarity in Rita, leading her and Betty to scope out Diane’s drab apartment only to find her decaying corpse lying in bed. Watts-as-Diane, disheveled, glumly shuffling around her shitty bungalow is nearly the polar opposite of Watts-as-Betty, so cheerful even her pink sweater literally sparkled with sequins. Harring also reappears, only now called Camilla, a successful actress who has been helping Diane get bit parts. Camilla (also name of the “This is the girl” actress) is in a relationship with Adam, who is still a filmmaker; at a house party they invite Diane to (out of pity, it seems), they introduce her to Coco (Ann Miller—yes, that Ann Miller), whom we previously knew as the manager of Aunt Ruth’s apartment complex; she is now Adam’s mother. It’s all purposely disorienting and as Diane’s mental and emotional instability surges into the red zone and the film ends with her suicide by gunshot, it’s not difficult relating to her madness.

Eat your heart out, Ann Miller.

For years, my most basic interpretation was that everything up until Rita opening the box was Diane’s dream with Betty an idealized version of herself. It’s probably no coincidence that when Betty becomes Diane, the first words heard are “Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up” from The Cowboy, the flat-voiced, Uber-Lynchian figure who ultimately convinced Adam to obey the mafia’s wishes (do we even have time to get into who or what else The Cowboy is?) Going back to my notes after that first watch in 2001, I described the entire film as a dream or a series of dreams dissolving into one another, rather than the opening of the box as a demarcation line between dreams and reality. Those words now startle me, for on my most recent rewatch, they sum up how I currently interpret Mulholland Drive. Given Lynch’s notoriety for refusing to explain anything in his films (no commentary tracks from this guy!), it’s fitting that his greatest work is one of his most enigmatic. He purposely leaves a trail of clues, some of which even match up, but there’s no grand denouement, no rationalization for why Betty becomes Diane—although earlier dialogue such as Betty’s “It’ll be just like the movies—we’ll pretend to be someone else,” or Rita’s anguished cry of “I don’t know who I am” resemble premonitions in retrospect.

Still, when thinking about the film, I always go back to that bizarre swing-dance opening. Whether or not it has anything to do with what follows, it undeniably sets a tone: nebulous and perplexing for sure, but also expectant and positively giddy. Where (and possibly when) in the world are we? The simplest answer (to the former at least) is Los Angeles. Lynch seems to view the city as his medium here, a canvas with space for him to manipulate, paint over and reassemble what’s already there. For instance, he inserts numerous establishing shots panning over the cityscape—in particular, the steel-and-glass-heavy Downtown skyline mostly at night. He just hovers over it all with Badalamenti’s near-ambient, white noise score playing a crucial part. He avoids most recognizable landmarks, instead opting for an anonymity heightening an encroaching dread.

Instead of Grauman’s Chinese Theater or the Hollywood Sign, he renders ordinary, everyday locales as places to remember. Think of those already vaguely recognizable to a viewer of a certain age, like Winkie’s coffee shop or an abandoned drive-in movie theater. In this film’s universe, they’re presented as significant a part of the overall design as Aunt Ruth’s cozy, incredibly well-preserved art deco apartment or Adam’s swanky mansion in the Hollywood Hills. This extends to reoccurring objects such as mirrors, an ashtray and a rotary phone (!) as well as settings that aren’t what they initially appear to be—most notably, the abrupt cut to a tableau of singers decked out in 1950s outfits performing the Connie Stevens song “Sixteen Reasons” in a recording studio. Again, where (and when) are we? As the camera pulls back, we see it’s actually Adam’s film set, an audition for a scene in a Stevens biopic he’s directing—the one he’s being forced to cast a particular lead actress in.

After Betty and Rita’s discovery of Diane’s corpse (which climaxes in a chilling superimposed image of the two of them reacting in horror), most of these locales and objects seem to just melt away, restricting the action to Aunt Ruth’s apartment where Rita begins cutting off her hair to disguise herself until Betty lends her a wig. The two women now look nearly identical, and their relationship soon turns sexual. Then, in the middle of the night (with no explanation), Rita asks Betty to take her to a place revealed as Club Silencio. They sit down in the sparsely attended, dilapidated old theater. A goateed magician takes the mic and delivers a spiel about how “It’s all recorded… it’s an illusion.” He introduces Rebekah Del Rio, who sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” in Spanish, her tremulous, haunting voice filling the cavernous space like a siren, powerful enough to raise every last hair on your body. She makes it through half the song, her intensity forever rising until she suddenly *drops* to the floor… and the song continues. After all, “It’s all recorded… it’s an illusion.”

Arriving just before Rita opens the box, the Club Silencio scene could be the key to unlocking the film’s allure, if not entirely its logic or purpose. It’s as if everything has been building towards this gorgeous, striking, transcendent, shocking moment where we witness a great performance that’s not entirely truthful. Similarly, the engaging, intriguing stories of Betty and Rita, Adam and Camilla, Diane, Coco and all the rest of these Los Angelenos aren’t entirely truthful or are at least altered to allow for simultaneous truths, none of which are absolute. Mulholland Drive is indeed a panorama for Lynch to fearlessly explore connections between dreams, reality and also the movies (“Why film?”, indeed), not to mention all of the wicked, sublime and terrifying possibilities that surface as they overlap.

Essay #12 of 24 Frames.

Go back to #11: Beau Travail.