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Mulholland Drive

Written and Directed by David Lynch

Cast: Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Robert Forster.

David Lynch’s own synopsis of this movie reads:

Part one: She found herself inside the perfect mystery
Part two: a sad illusion
Part three: love

Gorgeous brunette Laura (Harring) is a traumatised car crash amnesiac, who has narrowly escaped being killed, not once but twice, firstly by her gangster companions and secondly by joy-riding teenagers. Naïve star-struck blonde Betty Elms (Watts) arrives in Hollywood from Deep River, Ontario, to make it in the movie business. Staying in her aunt’s apartment she finds Laura, now calling herself Rita (a name quickly adopted after glimpsing a poster for Gilda), naked in the shower, and resolves to help her find out who she is, between auditions. Meanwhile, too cool hot shot director Adam (Theroux), who turns out to have quite a few domestic problems, is pressurised professionally to re-cast the lead actress in his latest film.




If Blue Velvet is to Lost Highway (both visceral journeys to the heart of darkness) as Wild At Heart is to The Straight Story (both romantic quests with uplifting happy endings), then Mulholland Drive’s companion piece from Lynch’s oeuvre to date is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. The latter was a spin-off prequel to the television series, while the new movie started life as a pilot for an aborted television series. ABC refused to broadcast what Lynch delivered, deeming it too obscure and incoherent, so he got extra funding from the French company which has bankrolled his last two ventures, Studio Canal, and expanded what he had into a feature length offering.
Its Twin Peaky television roots are betrayed by the same slow unfolding, open-ended atmosphere of building up to something. Identity issues are central, with the dream manufacturing that is Hollywood’s business an ideal objective correlative for the mutability and fragility of personal identity, since stories are fictions and actors play at being someone else. There is a mise en abyme rehearsal scene, where we only gradually discover that the lines being spoken are those of the character’s character, and not the character herself. There are other characteristically surreal Lynchian touches: what’s that golf club doing on the boardroom table in the middle of negotiations? A lesbian affair develops between Betty and her new roommate, initiated in a scene so highly erotic perhaps because of its seeming spontaneity. This is a motif hitherto largely unexplored in this director’s work (except for Laura Palmer and that sultry Oriental sawmill manageress), but it brings the two leads ever closer to the point were their separate personalities all but merge. So, it’s Nancy Drew with lashings of lipstick lesbianism, all shot in the gloriously saturated colour style we have come to expect.
There will, doubtless, be complaints that none of it actually makes any sense. But, as the American novelist David Foster Wallace has written in his essay about being on the set of Lost Highway, ‘David Lynch keeps his head’ (available in his collection of occasional prose A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again): ‘Like most storytellers who use mystery as a structural device and not a thematic device, Lynch is way better at deepening and complicating mysteries than he is at wrapping them up.’ He continues, with reference to the series Twin Peaks:

"The show’s first season, in which the plot movement consisted mostly of more and more sub-surface hideousnesses being uncovered and exposed, was a huge smash. By the second season, though, the mystery-and-investigation structure’s own logic began to compel the show to start getting more focused and explicit about who or what was actually responsible for Laura’s murder. And the more explicit Twin Peaks tried to get the less popular the series became. The mystery’s final “resolution”, in particular, was felt by critics and audiences alike to be deeply unsatisfying. And it was. The “Bob”/Leland/Evil Owl stuff was fuzzy and not very well rendered, but the really deep dissatisfaction – the one that made audiences feel screwed and betrayed and fuelled
the critical backlash against the idea of Lynch as Genius Auteur – was, I submit, a moral one. I submit that Laura Palmer’s exhaustively revealed “sins” required, by the moral logic of American mass entertainment, that the circumstances of her death turn out to be causally related to those sins. We as an audience have certain core certainties about sowing and reaping, and these certainties need to be affirmed and massaged. When they were not, and as it became increasingly clear that they were not going to be, Twin Peak’s ratings fell off the shelf, and critics began to bemoan this once “daring” and “imaginative” series’ decline into “self-reference” and “mannered incoherence”.

In his essay, ‘On Writing’, Raymond Carver refers to Flannery O’Connor’s essay, ‘Writing Short Stories’, in which she: ‘…talks about writing as an act of discovery. O’Connor says she most often did not know where she was going when she sat down to work on a short story. She says she doubts that many writers know where they are going when they begin something…When I read this some years ago it came as a shock that she, or anyone for that matter, wrote stories in this fashion. I thought this was my uncomfortable secret, and I was a little uneasy with it. For sure I thought this way of working on a short story somehow revealed my own shortcomings. I remember being tremendously heartened by reading what she had to say on the subject.’ For, if you know the end when you are only beginning, you are just a product-maker. Where’s the sense of adventure? Why bother making the journey? (“Hey, wise guy, we need a script to get the finance.”)
In my opinion, even if Lynch is a better starter than he is a finisher (and this isn’t even always so, as there’s nothing structurally or emotionally unrewarding about Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart or The Straight Story, for examples), he still deserves a gold medal for even trying, since the lack of resolution is merely a fairly inevitable consequence of the extent to which he has problematised and enriched the exposition, a feat that is far beyond most of his self-serving, morally cosy contemporaries. In other words, he takes risks. And he’s still taking them.
Many will find Mulholland Drive too insubstantial for their taste, and it would be very easy to damn it with that lazy critical commonplace, ‘It is not his best’. Better to approach it as essentially being about capturing a mood. If you surrender yourself to the sensuousness, chances are you will find it remarkably seductive, and even curiously illuminating.

First published in Film Ireland









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