Monday, March 13, 2017

Movie About Movies: Mulholland Drive

Movie About Movies: Mulholland Drive (2001)

Written and directed by David Lynch, “Mulholland Drive” is arguably the weirdest movie I have ever seen.

A torrid dreamscape, punctuated with lurid violence. The sexiest sex scenes since before modern pornography and a burgeoning modern fear of real sexuality ruined it. Stunning performances by leading actresses Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. Entrancing plot lines that dribble away into thin air. A cascade of imagery and sound. It was fantastic.

Harring and Watts, left to right.

I’d heard tell of the movie before, like whispers of a strange, creepy legend no one really knows what to make of (everyone tells me to watch it but no one dares explain why); I’d noticed it on a few lists of “best movies ever,” and had attempted to watch it previous to this assignment only to be disappointed when just the first half of the download worked. When I realized it was on Netflix I quickly switched my ‘movie about movies’ pick from “Room 237” (sorry Stanley Kubrick, Lynch’s Twin Peaks is one of my top three favorite shows, but I love your movies too) to “Mulholland Drive.” I watched it at about midnight on my fairly large and new smart TV. As a Netflix addict, it is set up in my bedroom so I can drown myself in stories and media as I fall asleep every night. (Although this habit may be a contributing factor to a host of terrible nightmares that would become such twisted screenplays probably both Lynch and Kubrick would delight in directing them...)

Oddly enough, I didn’t have nightmares after watching this movie. It sucked the nightmare right out of my head and blew up my fears wide on the screen. After watching the insanity of “Mulholland Drive,” I have never felt my own mind to be so sane. I also felt a little sick, like the twisting storyline and cascade of images were empty of meaning; it was all just a play on individual perspective, and Lynch never really meant anything by it. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s sitting in a chair in an empty room full of red curtains somewhere, cackling like one of his demonic characters at the expense of all the fans and reviewers attempting to find meaning in something totally meaningless. There is no meaning; we make meaning of life’s random events where there is none, and it’s all just a beautiful nightmare. Of course, this movie was also an obvious commentary on some of the more nightmarish aspects of the Hollywood machine. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it at first, and needed a little help.

Movie reviewer and renowned Hollywood expert Roger Ebert gave the most accurate description of “Mulholland Drive” in a review on his website:

The movie is hypnotic; we're drawn along as if one thing leads to another--but nothing leads anywhere, and that's even before the characters start to fracture and recombine like flesh caught in a kaleidoscope. "Mulholland Drive" isn't like "Memento," where if you watch it closely enough, you can hope to explain the mystery. There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery.

There have been countless dream sequences in the movies, almost all of them conceived with Freudian literalism to show the characters having nightmares about the plot. "Mulholland Drive" is all dream. There is nothing that is intended to be a waking moment. Like real dreams, it does not explain, does not complete its sequences, lingers over what it finds fascinating, dismisses unpromising plotlines. If you want an explanation for the last half hour of the film, think of it as the dreamer rising slowly to consciousness, as threads from the dream fight for space with recent memories from real life, and with fragments of other dreams--old ones and those still in development.

Usually I am keen on dissecting a movie. This one, however, provides far too much rich and layered context and references to other media for me to begin scratching the surface. I needed to read about it as soon as the credits rolled; I’m not ashamed for needing help sorting this one out, and it seems others aren’t, either. There is a host of quick reviews and theories available in a sort of collated review on (This is also where I first noticed the apt description by Ebert and went in search of the full review.) There is an in-depth dissection by Bill Wyman, Max Garrone and Andy Klein on which Ebert cites as the best theory, a.k.a. the “dream theory.”

As soon as I read Ebert’s citation of the dream theory, it all clicked in my head. “This is what my nightmares are like,” I thought. Vivid, intense, and escaping. Dreams turn to horrors in scene changes that make no sense but feel completely right, pulling forward. Emotions are raw, exploding and slipping away as fast as burnt-out fireworks. One scene leads to the next, throwing so much imagery at you, pulling the past, present and future into one single moment, layering moments inside moments until you forget what came before. Scenes slip through your fingers like sand, escaping the confines of sense; you can’t remember how you got here or why any of it occurred, but you experienced it all and it was pure elation; beautiful, and then, suddenly carnal, sexual, and finally, horrific. Then you wake up. Credits roll.

"Mulholland Drive" may leave you feeling a little like this gif. 

My own theory builds on some of the well-researched experts who know more than me, but I get the sense that Mulholland Drive is only secondary a commentary on brutal Hollywood; Lynch is, after all, a successful director who has seen it all. In an interview with Mitch Horowitz, Lynch alludes to the fear-machine he thinks much of Hollywood is. It may be that his familiarity with the horrors of Hollywood influenced his choice of a Hollywood setting to explore themes of meaninglessness and fear in “Mulholland Drive.”

I once noticed an article about somebody here in Hollywood who ran his whole business on fear, like it was a macho, cool thing. Now to me, it’s like that person is an idiot. Not only that, but he’s probably riddled with fear himself, broadcasting it and needing to give more of it to others.  

This goes on day after day – but humanity was not made to suffer: Bliss is our nature – that and being naturally kind to others. We’re all in this thing together.

So, it’s common sense that if a guy goes to work and he’s always afraid of losing his position or his whole job, or being humiliated publicly, his fear will often turn to anger. And a person becomes ultimately angry at his work. And then he begins to hate.

And this is the kind of life that this person in Hollywood, and probably many, many others who run the show, give to their employees. And it’s real close to hell. And you don’t get people to go that extra mile for you. They can probably hardly wait to get away from you and away from their work. And the creativity is cramped – negativity cramps creativity,” said Lynch.

Lynch is a proponent of meditation, and the interview is largely about some of his spiritual views and the influence of Hollywood.

Although Lynch criticizes Hollywood in “Mulholland Drive,” using an ethereal big bad force in charge to threaten the character of director Adam (Justin Theroux), I think he intended to use the idea of Hollywood as a dark place that chews up young starlets and directors and spits them back out mostly as the perfect neo-noir setting to explore deeper, more existential themes.

I believe that the movie is a play of duality, building on Lynch’s movies that came before. Naomi Watt’s character, Betty/Diane, is two sides of the same coin, a fevered dream mish-mash of past and present, culminating in murder/suicide. She is the innocent, romanticized version of past self, versus the hard, ragged, jealous, murderous reality of present. The movie takes place inside Diane’s head, from her perspective, dreaming in the moments before she kills herself. It’s the flash of memory before the final scene of death; she remakes herself in fantasy but the demons of truth drive her to suicide, filtering into her dreamscape in seemingly inexplicable ways. In this way, nothing in the movie has to make sense or flow in a line of time. Reality is entirely subjective.

Mulholland Drive” is often hailed as Lynch’s best film. For such a deeply disturbing movie, it won a whopping total of 47 awards, and was nominated for 47 others. This included an Oscar nomination for best director and four Golden Globes nominations. It also put actress Naomi Watts squarely on the Hollywood map, as well as actress Laura Harring. Harring actually won an Alma Award for her role as best actress. This movie about struggling young starlets actually propelled two young starlet women deep into successful careers. Both were previously "almost making it" in Hollywood but not quite getting the right parts. (Naomi Watts was best friends with immediate star success Nicole Kidman, whose friendship has strange parallels to the struggles of starlets in the movie itself.  It’s no wonder Watts was fantastic in the part, she’s lived it… but with a happy ending.) Watts went on to star in “The Ring,” among several other prominent roles in box-office hits. For years I refused to watch “The Ring” because I thought it would terrify me too deeply- the trailer scared the bejeezus out of me and I thought it looked too much like my own nightmares- but when I finally did watch it, I found it to be a delightfully creepy ghost story that was actually done fairly well for an American remake. After witnessing her versatile performance in “Mulholland Drive,” I’d be hopeful of any moving starring Watts, even if I’m not a fan of blondes.

Watts (left) and Harring. In a drawn-out fantasy, a super-sensual sex scene between the leading actresses. 

Lynch has written and directed several other movies, garnering a cult following. These include 1977’s “Eraserhead,” sci-fi masterpiece “Dune,” and cult classic “Blue Velvet.” The hit show “Twin Peaks” of the 1990s is the first I’d seen of his work and I immediately binge watched it following my first surgery about five years ago when an ex brought over the DVDs. I loved the surreal, ethereal images, ideas and sounds in his directing, along with the noir-like character dialogue and twisting, mysterious plotline. Lynch uses similar images, sounds, casts and crew members throughout his works, connecting scenes between movies in a bizarre connect-the-dots game for the viewer. His use of red curtains and the same actor Michael J. Anderson to inhabit the curtained rooms is certainly unique; it also adds strange familiarity that builds on the creepiness-factor inherent in his films/shows.

Long red curtains are a common theme among Lynch's works.

Anderson as Mr. Roques, the mysterious man behind the glass, pulling all the strings. 

He frequently uses Johanna Ray as casting director in his films. Aside from Lynch films, she has cast a lengthy list and wide variety of movies including some of my favorites: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,”Kill Bill” Vol. 1 and 2, “Repo! The Genetic Opera,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and “From Dusk Till Dawn.” Though none of her projects are similar, each of those has become a cult classic, and in a large part due to the stellar performances from the casts Ray chose.

Film editing of “Mulholland Drive” was performed by Mary Sweeney, Lynch’s ex-wife and mother of one of his children. She has worked with Lynch for years, and bore his child over ten years before they were ever married. (They were only married for less than a year.) On Lynch’s films her film editing touches are clear, helping create a continuity of style in his movies. These include “Blue Velvet,” “Lost Highway,” and “Twin Peaks.” She recently wrote and directed her own film, “Baraboo,” and though I have not seen it, I’d be interested to see what one of Lynch’s female counterparts has to express.

Peter Deming, the cinematographer Lynch chose for “Mulholland Drive” recently did the cinematography for “Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013). He’s also doing the cinematography for the “Twin Peaks” reboot, a long awaited 12-episode throwback to Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” show of the 90s. The show is scheduled to be released May 1, 2017, on Showtime. I can say with certainty that I will be viewing Deming’s work further, as both “Twin Peaks” and the original “Wizard of Oz” are favorites of mine. Plus, a Wizard of Oz spinoff with Mila Kunis as the Wicked Witch has to be entertaining. I refuse to believe it is as awful as it probably is, and if it sucks, I’ll find out the hard way. At least I’ll know the cinematography will be good, judging from Deming’s work with Lynch.

“Mulholland Drive” casts Hollywood into the limelight as a starring force in the movie itself. Yet it doesn’t say anything concrete about Hollywood; the viewer cannot be sure what is real and what is fantasy. Is it really a terrible place filled with cruel people who destroy a young woman and her hopes? Or is Betty/Diane her own self-destructive force? One thing can surely be gleaned from the film however; Hollywood is a place that pits aspiring actresses against one another. It is a place where they go to dream or to die, or so the movie would have you believe.

One scene does show a picture-perfect view, straight out of Hollywood’s past, however:

Image result for mulholland drive gif
Camilla Rhodes, played by Melissa George, auditions for a part by singing the 60s hit "16 Reasons Why I Love You" originally recorded by Connie Stevens. 

In this scene, a full movie set is shown, including a picture-perfect recording room with glittering auditioning women. The Betty character stumbles onto the set in tow by two wise-talking Hollywood powers, both women. She watches director Adam audition women to star in what looks like a movie set in the 60s.

Just a scene earlier, we see Betty (Watts) audition for a part and blow away a room full of director/producer types in a sort of fantasy of how a perfect audition might go.

Lynch, through the eyes of the Betty/Diane character, seems to be romanticizing classic Hollywood, yet its true, dark-tendriled nature soon rips through the Betty fantasy and rips Diane back to a hellish consciousness.

Diane/Betty's experience of cruel, public embarrassment at director Adam's Hollywood dinner party and consequent hiring of a hit man to kill her previous lover, Harring's character, doesn't cross over as a particularly realistic representation of Hollywood society. Then again, nothing in the movie really does.

Though not many parallels exist between this movie and the 'movie about movies' we watched in class, "Hail, Caesar!" both act as critiques of classic Hollywood past. While the Coen brothers' critique looks back through a humorous lens, fond and irreverent, Lynch dives into the darkest possible depths of Hollywood's effects. Both films, however, send a similar message, questioning the meaning inherent in the movies themselves and the people making them, discovering them to be futile, meaningless dreams, a manufactured fantasy given truth only in the eye of the beholder. Hollywood is a turning, well-oiled machine filled with the good and the bad- the potential for it all. Lynch just happens to see more negative consequence, whereas "Hail, Caesar!" shows the existence of meaningless Hollywood crud to not really be so bad of a thing, after all.

End Note: I watched and wrote about this 'movie about movies' to replace my missing blog post from Week 6, "Newspapers and Modern Journalism and First Amendment."

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