Theatrical release poster.  Source: Wikipedia.

Theatrical release poster. Source: Wikipedia.

Mulholland Drive continues in the tradition of great films about Hollywood’s dark side: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), one of director Lynch’s personal favorite films, John Schlesinger’s The Day of the Locust (1975), and Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) immediately come to mind. However, I tend to think Mulholland Drive does the best job of exposing the alluring and savage enigma that is Hollywood.

Hollywood, a town where anything is possible, where your wildest dreams can come true, where your name can be forever sealed and awed at within a gold star on the sidewalk, is also a town of great tragedy, of countless dreams turned nightmares, of desperate lives clinging to the last shimmer of hope before finally fading into obscurity—the dark side of Tinseltown embodied in the character credited as the ‘Bum’, the derelict vagrant who lives out back of Winkie’s Diner. Perhaps this understanding of Hollywood can be traced back to Lynch’s personal experience making the historically problematic and incoherent Dune (1984). He was so displeased with the studio’s final cut of the film that he even attempted (unsuccessfully) to have his name removed from the project altogether. This was the biggest lesson to be learned by a then budding filmmaker: always have control over the final cut of your film. With the epic failure of Dune, Lynch knew firsthand what it felt like to be a pawn in the large and complicated game that is show business. While watching Mulholland Drive, we can’t help but wonder if the Adam Kesher character, played by Justin Theroux, a young, hip film director who everyone in town wants to work with, is just a younger version of Lynch himself.

Lynch began his career as a fine artist—a painter, to be precise. Other film directors who have taken this painter-to-filmmaker route include the likes of Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol, Julian Schnabel, Matthew Barney, and Gus Van Sant, just to name a few. When considering these directors, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that fine artists possess a certain openness to unconventional approaches and techniques, an openness that is quite rare in Hollywood and popular moviemaking. This might explain why most of these directors never quite broke Hollywood—or maybe it’s that they simply didn’t want or care to. We also see in each of these directors an understanding and appreciation of symbolism and the importance of subtext, a unique, almost microscopic, attention to detail, and a daring surrealist flair. Lynch undoubtedly leads the pack in this regard. His films embrace the surrealist notion more than any other mainstream Hollywood director. In a lot of ways, he helped pioneer and introduce American audiences to surrealist cinema. This surrealist approach, of course, has its downsides. Lynch has often been criticized for being too weird, too random and unrefined in his artistic choices. However, when considering Lynch’s overall body of work and his evolution as a filmmaker, such criticisms lose their potency and fall by the wayside.

Mulholland Drive is not immune to such criticisms. At this point in Lynch’s oeuvre, it was his most surreal, most audacious film. Eraserhead (1977), Lynch’s debut feature film and cult classic midnight movie, was undeniably surreal; however, the tone and atmosphere of the film is so consistently otherworldly that the viewer is likely to simply view it as complete and utter fantasy, missing the point that it’s an abstraction of our earthly reality. Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, bears so many realistic qualities that the contrast of the real versus the surreal becomes all the more effective. It’s almost as though Lynch sees the world three degrees off. The film—set in the present—is littered with traces of the past: 50s dance and pop songs, the use of old-fashioned phraseology, classic hairstyles, and there are even outdated camera techniques, notably, the use of Vaseline on the lens to create hazy halos of light around the female leads, a technique that only seems to live on in daytime soap operas. It’s also worth mentioning the overdubbed vocals early on in the film when Betty, wonderfully played by Naomi Watts, arrives at LAX airport—the minute difference between what we see and what we hear introduces an ever-growing sense of discomfort and disorientation, whether we’re conscious of it or not; it causes us to question ourselves and the filmmaker, not quite knowing what is real and what is illusion—a theme which reoccurs all throughout the film.

This is distinct in the scene at Club Silencio: Betty and Rita, the film’s classic femme fatale, played by Laura Harring, see a theater show where the truth is laid out from the beginning: “No ay banda . . . There is no band . . . Everything you hear is a tape recording.” We know it’s a mime show, an illusion, and it’s with this assuredness that Lynch brilliantly sets a trap for us. When we hear a mysterious woman sing Llorando, a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s Crying, the performance is so real, so full of emotion, that for that moment we are completely convinced of what we are seeing and hearing. When the singer collapses on the stage floor unconscious and the breathtaking song continues, the rug is yanked out from under us, leaving us emotionally disoriented and conflicted.

Mulholland Drive is one of the few examples I can point to in cinema that I believe truly captures the qualities and essence of a dream. The viewer is led in and out of a sort of waking dream—sometimes a fantasy, sometimes a nightmare—where it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish between what is real and what is illusion. Just as in a dream, objects, characters, and environments shift and change with every viewing. This is probably the film’s strongest and most enduring quality: it can be interpreted in so many, perhaps endless, ways. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film, and yet, with each viewing, I see things I’ve never noticed before; I have epiphanies I’ve never had before; I form theories I’ve never considered before. The film also follows in the shoes of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), both dreamlike films about female characters who switch identities. This is a theme Lynch partly visited in one of his earlier films, Lost Highway (1997), which was born out of the director’s fascination with the O.J. Simpson trial and Simpson’s apparent dissociation with his alleged crimes. Lynch describes the protagonist’s transformation of personality and appearance as a psychogenic fugue—a rare dissociative disorder in which a person temporarily forgets their own identity and memories after a stressful or traumatic episode. We even see hints of this concept at the end of Lynch’s early television series, the highly adored Twin Peaks (1990), when the protagonist, special agent Dale Cooper, smashes his head against a mirror, and upon looking at his reflection in the shattered glass, sees the murderous villain of the series, Bob.

Lynch is notorious for not explaining his films. He believes that the magician should never share his secret. Lynch also has some firm ideas about the way a film should be watched: films should be viewed on a large screen in a dark room, definitely not on a computer or phone screen (there is a hilarious video that illustrates Lynch’s passion on this matter), that the volume should be loud, and that there should be no interruptions whatsoever. Lynch even goes so far as to not divide his films into chapters or include a scene selection menu on his DVD and Bluray releases—attempting to skip a scene will only lead the viewer back to the beginning of the film.

Whether you appreciate what David Lynch is doing with Mulholland Drive or not, it would be difficult to argue that he’s doing something that lacks intention and soul. In an age driven by box office records, uninspired franchises, cheap CGI tricks, and superficial storytelling, artists like David Lynch remind us of the magic of the movies. In many ways, Mulholland Drive is a metaphor for cinema itself and for the movie-making process, and Lynch’s ability to twist reality, manipulate our expectations, and suspend our disbelief is something truly rare and beautiful. We can only hope that more artists like Lynch will emerge in the film industry in the coming years—people who are not afraid to share their unique vision with the world and communicate it with mastery.

Tom Yoannidis’s short story “Suicide House” won second prize in the Fifth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest, and his script “Runaway” won second prize in the Fifth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest.  Tom was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1990. Raised by a wild/artistic mother (model/private pilot/photographer) and an adventurous father (commercial pilot), he moved to New York on a whim in 2012 to study acting, and graduated from the Maggie Flanigan Studio in late 2014. He then moved to Toronto to work as an art director/art director’s assistant on TV commercials before returning to study Film at SVA. Tom is a hopeful director/writer in the making and an impulsive watcher of 70s cinema.