A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, January 30, 2017

Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

Mulholland Dr. defies exegesis like no other film I know. Sure, you can trace its origins: Car-crash amnesia is a soap-opera trope; the mysterious mobsters and other manipulators are film noir staples; the portrayal of Hollywood as a nightmare dreamland is straight from Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950), which the film even imitates by having its before-the-credits title appear on a street sign. But writer-director David Lynch isn't out to parody the sources -- not entirely, anyway. What he is up to is harder to pinpoint. There's a part of me that thinks Lynch just wants to have fun -- a nasty kind of fun -- manipulating our responses. At the beginning, we're on to him in that regard: We laugh at the minimal conversation between the two detectives (Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe) at the crash site. We recognize the naive awe on the face of Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), as she arrives in Los Angeles, as a throwback to the old Hollywood musicals in which choruses of hopefuls arrive at the L.A. train station singing "Hooray for Hollywood!" (Has anyone ever been inspired to sing and dance when arriving at LAX?) We're delighted by the appearance of Ann Miller as the landlady, just as later we identify Lee Grant, Chad Everett, and even Billy Ray Cyrus in their cameos. Even the seemingly disjointed scenes -- the director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), is bullied by the Castiglianes (Dan Hedaya and the film's composer, Angelo Badalamenti), or a man (Patrick Fischler) recounts his nightmare at a restaurant called Winkie's, or a hit man (Mark Pellegrino) murders three people -- are standard thriller stuff, designed to keep us guessing -- though at that point, having seen this sort of thing in films by Quentin Tarantino and others, we feel confident that everything will fit together. And then, suddenly, it doesn't. Betty vanishes and Diane Selwyn (Watts), whom we have thought dead, is alive. The amnesia victim known as Rita (Laura Harring) is now Camilla Rhodes, the movie star that Betty wanted to be, and Diane, Camilla's former lover, wants to kill her. It's such a complete overthrow of conventional narrative that there are really only two basic responses, neither of them quite sufficient: One is to dismiss the film as a wacked-out experiment in playing with the audience -- "a load of moronic and incoherent garbage," in the words of Rex Reed -- or to try to assimilate it into some coherent and consistent scheme, like the theory that the first two-thirds of the film are the disillusioned Diane Selwyn's dream-fantasy of what her life might have been as the fresh and talented Betty. There is truth in both extremes: Lynch is playing with the audience, and he is portraying Los Angeles as a land of dreamers. But his film will never be forced into coherence, and it can't be entirely dismissed. I think it is some kind of great film -- the Sight & Sound critics poll in 2010 ranked it at No. 28 in the list of greatest films of all time -- but I also think it's self-indulgent and something of a dead end when it comes to narrative filmmaking. It has moments of sheer brilliance, including a performance by Watts that is superb, but they are moments in a somewhat annoying whole.

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