Monday, April 15, 2013

Defining "Lynchian"

Film: Mulholland Drive
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Oh, my poor, naïve brain. Here I thought I’d go through life with Southland Tales being the weirdest, most unexplainable film I’d ever seen. No, leave it to David Lynch to concoct something more convoluted, more twisted in upon itself. Mulholland Drive is possibly a fever dream, possibly an endless loop of repeating time, and possibly both. Okay, I’m overstating my confusion a bit, but Mulholland Drive is not an easy thing to work through.

I don’t know where to begin in terms of synopsis of this film, which is precisely why I compared it with Southland Tales. Rather than going chronologically, it’s probably a better idea to do this in terms of story line. Hell, the film isn’t chronological, so I may as well not be. There are a lot of things going on here, and rarely is anything what it seems.

A woman (Laura Harring) is being driven in a limousine. It stops suddenly and she is threatened. It appears that her drivers are going to kill her, but a group of joyriding teens comes over the hill and smashes into the limo. It appears that everyone but the woman is killed. She wanders away with minor injuries, eventually finding her way into an apartment.

Meanwhile, Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood. She is planning on living in her aunt’s apartment and hopes to start a film career. As it turns out, the unnamed woman from the start of the film has made it into Betty’s aunt’s place. They determine that the woman is an amnesiac. She has no identification in her purse. Instead, she has a massive amount of money and a blue key. They slowly start to look for clues to put her identity together. The woman starts calling herself “Rita” based on a poster of Gilda. Rita recalls the name Diane Selwyn, and the two go to this new woman’s apartment, but find her several days dead on her bed.

A film director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is planning his new film. He is being pressured to accept an unknown actress named Camilla Rhodes. He doesn’t want to and balks. He soon discovers not only that all of his funding and money have been cut off, he also finds his wife in bed with the pool guy. Eventually, he decides to cast Camilla, and everything seems to be back on track.

Finally, an incompetent hitman (Mark Pellegrino) kills a man for a black address book. His incompetence forces him to kill a couple of other people as well.

And then, Rita and Betty go to a club called Silencio and everything changes. Everything. Identities, roles, personalities, and just about everything else. Of course, it’s here where the real meat of the story happens, where any meaning or purpose for this film can be gleaned. And of course, it’s the part of the film that I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on. Mulholland Drive is a film that I think really needs to be experienced rather than read about. I’m not even going to put it under a spoiler tag. No, if you haven’t seen it, you probably should.

I’m very much put in mind of two of Polanski’s “Apartment Trilogy” films--Repulsion and The Tenant, especially the latter. Like that film, Mulholland Drive has an element of cyclical time, or time curved in on itself. Even the nature of the changing identities of the people in the drama reflect this earlier Polanski film, as does the slowly dawning, slowly revealed horror of the situation. Lynch has cited Polanski as an influence, and I’d cite this film as definitive proof.

Beyond the obtuse nature of the film, Mulholland Drive has many of the hallmarks of Lynch’s other works. This is especially true in the nature of the acting, which is frequently wooden in the extreme. And yet it’s a wooden style of acting that is somehow different from the norm. It’s an obvious woodenness, an intentional thing, or at least to me it often comes across as intentional.

Lynch’s films, and I admit I haven’t seen them all, often have a strange undercurrent of some otherness to them. It’s not specifically evil in the classic sense of the word. Instead, it’s more a sense of violation of the norm, an impression that something fundamental has shifted in a very unnatural way. The dream-like reality (or the very real dream world, if you prefer) of Mulholland Drive contains that throughout. Even if the most obvious reading of the film is the true one, there is still this sense of time folded over on itself, and necessary events playing out multiple times because of necessity.

I’m sure I only half understand it. But Lynch is a fascinating director, if only because his incomprehensibility is just so damnably interesting.

Why to watch Mulholland Drive: Because it’s David Lynch.
Why not to watch: It might be incomprehensible. Or not.


  1. I like this film, but at the same time I think it's massively overhyped precisely because no one, including David Lynch, knows what the story is.

    To me it's all Emperor's New Clothes. Lynch made a TV pilot episode for a show that did not get picked up. That pilot was the first section of the film and made relative sense. He then got funding to make a movie out of it. He wanted to keep working with Naomi Watts, but he had pretty much made that impossible with where her character went, so he said to hell with it and cast her in a second role. He then threw in some patented smoke and mirrors, let all his fans speculate on what the deep meaning of the dual roles was, and dropped "hints" now and then to keep people talking about it.

    The exact same thing happened with Twin Peaks - he had a finite story, the ratings were great, they told him to make an unplanned second season of it, he threw in some smoke and mirrors, but ratings dove when people finally caught on that he didn't have any more clue who killed Laura Palmer than anyone else did. Mulholland Dr. has the advantage of only being 2.5 hours long, not 2 seasons long, so many people never pick up on the fact that Lynch is doing the same kind of scrambling.

    Again, I like this film, and I think Watts does a great job in it, but I think any time spent trying to figure out the meaning of it is wasted effort if it is not giving you pleasure doing it.

  2. This is a movie I have been lying awake at night trying to figure out. I cannot say that I reached any definitive conclusion but it was fun groping for it.
    Then I read a comment on Squish review of Mulholland Drive that actually analyse the entire movire as a religious critique. As weird as it sounds it actually made perfect sense and as a result the movie lost a lot of the magic for me. I liked it better when I was left to speculate.

  3. @Chip--I can see that, but I think it's a little deeper than that. I really don't think Lynch is taking the piss on all of us here. Maybe he is, but he does that really well if that's the case. I think there is some meaning here.

    @T--I think you could look at this as a religious critique. I think there is a way that makes more sense, though:

    *** SEMI-SPOILER ***
    The entire first sequence is both dream and reality. It's dream in that it's re-imagined, but it is the actual reality of Diane. She came to Hollywood as a star-struck hopeful and sort of made it, only to be pitched to the side, which leads to her conclusion. The dream sequence is her own re-imagined version of her past.
    *** END SEMI-SPOILER ***

    At least that's my interpretation of it.

  4. Steve, I don't have any concerns like Chip describes because I'm so intrigued to dig into the mystery. I also think there's a lot more than just discovering the clues. It's also really entertaining, especially in the first act with the film director meeting "the Cowboy" and going through his crazy experiences.

    There's so much to like and it never feels like it totally goes off the rails. I'll admit that I'm partial to Lynch and even really liked Inland Empire, which makes Mulholland Drive appear linear. This is my favorite Lynch film and falls just behind the early Twin Peaks episodes in my rankings. I'm glad that you were able to check it out.

    1. Inland Empire is one of the few full-length, non-documentary Lynch films I haven't seen. I'm predisposed to like him, too. Even Dune, which I consider a pleasure that is sometimes guilty and Eraserhead which I didn't hate--and that's about as positive as anyone gets with that one.

      I'm pretty satisfied with my interpretation of this one (seen in my response above), but who knows with another watch? That ambiguity and multiple possible reads is what I tend to really like about Lynch in general.

    2. I agree that the best you can expect from Eraserhead is not hating it. I'm in the same camp and find it intriguing while also being frustrating. I expect you would enjoy Mulholland Drive even more on a second viewing. There's so much to digest the first time that it's more relaxing to watch it again.

    3. I've run into a string of films like that in the last month. A critic's work is never done, right?

  5. I think I'm coming to terms with the fact that I find off-track Lynch kind of annoying. Opening with that statement, however, I'll immediately add that if Lynch has some sort of a message, I think he can be very good. It's when he starts throwing in random nonsense - or what appears to me to be random nonsense - that I get aggravated and the whole thing starts to reek of ego. Mulholland Dr. walks a thin line for me between being random nonsense and actually having a point. Playing around with the issue of identity and even the religious messages, that's interesting. That pervasive sense of dread that you called attention to, that's interesting. Random nonsense like tiny people appearing and dancing and blue smoke and what the hell a box I guess I have no idea, that's... not so much. Others may like it, but I don't. And I'm OK admitting that. Took me awhile, but yeah. I loved Watts' performance, especially the audition scene. That really floored me.

    I guess I'm still up in the air as to my final opinion. There's good stuff here, but also a hefty dose of egotism. I watched it a year ago and still haven't made up my mind.

    1. Yeah, I admit that there are times with Lynch that I just throw up my hands and try to revel in the insanity. The tiny people were a part of that. I see that moment as her brain state at the time, a sort of hallucination/psychosis made real for us (because why wouldn't Lynch make it real for us?).

      As for the's the box that ultimately triggers the switch in focus of the film, so there's probably something there. Dunno. I shrug and roll with it.

  6. "Instead, it’s more a sense of violation of the norm, an impression that something fundamental has shifted in a very unnatural way."

    That is honestly as fine a one sentence description of Lynch's films as I've ever read. Perfectly sums up the overall tone of many of his films.

    Mulholland Dr. is definitely my favorite Lynch film, the world in which it creates is so unique and eerily captivating.

    1. That's pretty much the tone of everything of his I've seen, including The Elephant Man, which is the least like that. I'm really curious about The Straight Story, which I suppose I'll get to eventually.

  7. I've had a rough journey watching Lynch. For every film of his I find gripping, there's another one I find off-putting or infuriatingly impenetrable. Mulholland Drive is one of the ones I ended up liking and I don't find it nearly as confusing or obtuse as say Inland Empire. In fact, in my own mind I've got my own idea of what might be going on behind it all. It's got enough there I think to sustain hints of something more than just random scenes, unlike Inland Empire (at least for me).

    1. I go into Lynch predisposed to like him, but I haven't seen Inland Empire, which may well be the deal breaker. I suppose I'll find out when I finally get there.