Mulholland Drive

9 commentsFilm

I first saw Mulholland Drive with my friend Rana in her tiny Tokyo apart­ment. The film end­ed at mid­night and by the time we grew tired of ana­lyz­ing its many twists and turns, we real­ized day­light had already crept in through her cur­tains.

Two women, or four, or one.

This is not a review per se, though it does con­tain aspects of one. It isn’t a cel­e­bra­tion of the film’s artis­tic achieve­ment either, though it will become clear that I con­sid­er it one of the most effec­tive (and cer­tain­ly most ter­ri­fy­ing) films I’ve seen.

Rather, what this text does is look at three aspects of the film which con­tin­ue to baf­fle and ter­ri­fy me almost nine years and count­less view­ings after that fate­ful night at Rana’s house.

Disclaimer — If you haven’t seen the film yet, I sug­gest you do. You’ll either love me or hate me after­wards, but I’m will­ing to take my chances. I should also men­tion that I shame­less­ly adapt­ed the above effect from Lost on Mulholland Drive, home to my favorite forum about the movie and the only peo­ple as obsessed with it as I am.

Aspect 1 • Lynchian Space

Mulholland Drive is pos­si­bly the most effec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of what has come to be known as Lynchian space. Indeed, direc­tor David Lynch is so wild­ly effec­tive in cre­at­ing loca­tion and mood as to mer­it the term.

The plot of the film fol­lows a Möbius strip that demands and rewards repeat view­ings. What draws you back again is that the film begins with a scene that belongs at the end of the last time you watched it – a dream with­in a dream with­in a dream. Like a fig­ure 8, two halves of the plot con­nect at one cru­cial point at which the sto­ry frag­ments and reforms.

The first half of the film tells the sto­ry of a fresh-faced blonde named Betty (Naomi Watts) who arrives in Hollywood with high hopes of becom­ing an actress. She finds a mys­te­ri­ous brunette who calls her­self Rita (Laura Elena Harring) hid­ing in her apart­ment after appar­ent­ly los­ing her mem­o­ry in a car crash.

The plot, as they say, soon thick­ens in a series of enig­mat­ic scenes fea­tur­ing a slew of col­or­ful char­ac­ters who seem to know much more about the movie’s secrets than Betty, Rita or indeed we the spec­ta­tors do: a dead body, a stub­born movie direc­tor, an enig­mat­ic dwarf who gives cryp­tic orders over a tele­com, and an appar­ent­ly omni­scient cow­boy with a south­ern drawl and a ten-gal­lon hat. What on the sur­face begins as a pulpy piece of fic­tion about Hollywood and amne­sia spi­rals into a schiz­o­phrenic trip as the iden­ti­ties of the two women start to merge.

As if that wasn’t enough, the first half of the film then takes a sud­den turn for the super-weird when Rita and Betty vis­it the night­club Silencio. There a magi­cian asserts over and over again: It’s all an illu­sion (is he refer­ring to the film itself?), at which point Betty finds that a mys­te­ri­ous blue box has sud­den­ly mate­ri­al­ized into her purse. The two girls run back home, upon which Betty sud­den­ly van­ish­es and Rita is some­how sucked into the blue box.

Down the rab­bit hole.

At this point, the plot enters the sec­ond half of the loop as a woman resem­bling Betty (but now appar­ent­ly called Diane) is asleep in a posi­tion which looks uncan­ni­ly famil­iar, and is awok­en by none oth­er than the enig­mat­ic cow­boy. This is fol­lowed by a series of high­ly dis­ori­ent­ing shots of Diane’s dreams, illu­sions, and mem­o­ries. The truth always seems with­in reach, yet some­how remains stub­born­ly elu­sive.

Lynch pulls all this off with a direc­to­r­i­al sleight of hand akin to a skilled magi­cian: all the ele­ments are there, we can almost tell how the trick is done, yet we are com­plete­ly baf­fled. Lynch’s use of tech­niques like seam­less­ly con­nect­ing dis­con­tin­u­ous points of view, posi­tions of peo­ple and props, dis­tance and per­spec­tive, in addi­tion to the omnipresent score he cre­ates with long­time col­lab­o­ra­tor Angelo Badalamenti in which musi­cal cues are mixed with indus­tri­al sounds, all go to cre­ate a space that is drenched in a mood of unease and dread.

Aspect 2 • Acting is reacting

On anoth­er lev­el, Mulholland Drive is a cold, almost clin­i­cal dis­sec­tion of screen act­ing. One scene in par­tic­u­lar is arguably unique in the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma, and in fact Professor George Toles cites it as “the Rosetta Stone for the mys­ter­ies of star act­ing in Hollywood film.”

The scene in ques­tion involves a film audi­tion in which Betty (Naomi Watts) lit­er­al­ly trans­forms onscreen from a perky ingénue into an enig­mat­ic femme fatale, as Lynch decon­structs the con­ven­tions of director/actor rela­tion­ship and the Hollywood cast­ing sys­tem.

A brief shot of the Hollywood Hills cuts to the inte­ri­or of actress Betty’s apart­ment. “You’re still here?” she asks angri­ly. “I came back,” replies Rita uneasi­ly. “I thought that’s what you want­ed.” This ear­ly part of the scene ini­tial­ly takes us by sur­prise until the frame pulls back on Rita and we real­ize that she’s in fact read­ing from a script and that the girls are actu­al­ly rehears­ing a scene for Betty’s upcom­ing audi­tion.

In this lat­ter half of the same scene, the girls start off in char­ac­ter, but soon break into laugh­ter. We fol­low Betty as she approach­es Rita, and the shots alter­nate between close-ups of Betty and Rita. It can be said that the cam­era angles required by the fic­ti­tious scene and by the actu­al scene are the same: The girls are ini­tial­ly at a dis­tance and then come clos­er togeth­er, sig­ni­fy­ing increased inten­si­ty in the fic­ti­tious argu­ment and increased inti­ma­cy in the actu­al scene.

Then a brief tran­si­tion­al scene shows Betty arrive at the stu­dio for her audi­tion. In it Betty (the char­ac­ter) is extreme­ly perky, and the ini­tial impres­sion one gets is that Naomi Watts (the actress) is over-act­ing. This impres­sion will soon change once we dis­cov­er the hid­den depths of Betty’s char­ac­ter, and hence the hid­den act­ing skills of the then-unknown Naomi Watts.

Uncle Woody goes to work.

This fol­low­ing scene starts as Betty  is intro­duced to the cast and crew of the film. Her part­ner in the scene is Woody Katz, a mid­dle-aged, over-tanned actor who is polite but some­how las­civ­i­ous. This open­ing sequence is shot in wide angle, cov­er­ing the entire room and all the char­ac­ters in it. Great lengths are tak­en to explain to Betty who every­one is and exact­ly what they do, so that we are very much aware of Betty’s audi­ence, even though, as we shall see, they are not shown onscreen dur­ing the audi­tion prop­er.

The scene con­tin­ues as Bob Brooker, the direc­tor of the fic­tion­al film, gives his cast cryp­tic instruc­tions. “Don’t play it for real until it gets real.” Betty nods obe­di­ent­ly, and then las­civ­i­ous Woody tells Bob that he would like to play the scene “nice and close like we did with that oth­er girl… It felt kin­da good,” and when Bob asks him not to rush his line again, he replies con­fi­dent­ly, “Acting is react­ing.”

There’s some­thing off-kil­ter about the dia­logue and per­for­mances that is dif­fi­cult to express through stills, and there is a sex­u­al under­tone to every­thing that Woody says (“Daddy’s best friend goes to work.”). Even his name itself (Woody) is a sug­ges­tive dou­ble enten­dre.

AUDITION SCENE • Click on each image for a larg­er view.

Stills tak­en from DVD of the film.

Throughout this sec­tion of the scene, Betty and Woody are shot from the side in a medi­um two-shot, which con­tin­ues as the audi­tion begins. It’s the same fic­tion­al scene as the one that Betty and Rita rehearsed ear­li­er, but it is played very dif­fer­ent­ly: at a slow delib­er­ate tem­po, with a pal­pa­ble air of sex­u­al ten­sion.

However, while in the fic­tion of the scene Woody’s char­ac­ter is the insti­ga­tor (in keep­ing with his actu­al per­son­al­i­ty), it is Betty (her­self not her char­ac­ter) who is in con­trol dur­ing the real­i­ty of the audi­tion. An extreme close-up on the actors’ hands shows that when Woody hes­i­tates to fon­dle Betty’s behind (as the fic­tion­al scene requires that his char­ac­ter do), Betty grabs it and firm­ly places it there.

The rest of the scene is played in extreme close-up on Woody and Betty. The rad­i­cal onscreen trans­for­ma­tion, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly and on three lev­els, reveals the trou­bled feel­ings of the fic­tion­al char­ac­ter that Betty is play­ing, the com­plex­i­ty of Betty the fic­tion­al actress, and final­ly the tremen­dous skill of Naomi Watts the real actress. Her ini­tial over­act­ing in play­ing perky Betty was in fact part of the act itself. The sequence ends with only Betty in the frame, reveal­ing that the scene is actu­al­ly about Betty/Naomi her­self rather than the fic­ti­tious audi­tion.

It’s all an illu­sion.”

- Magician at Club Silencio.

After the audi­tion, the view cuts back to the ini­tial wide-angle shot of the room as every­one applauds Betty’s per­for­mance. Bob gives his usu­al cryp­tic remarks, “Very good, real­ly. It was forced, maybe, but still… human­is­tic.” We are firm­ly back again in the lucid (yet fic­tion­al) real­i­ty of the film called Mulholland Drive.

Aspect 3 • Death of the Spectator

Dead/Asleep

Many films con­tain a sit­u­a­tion in which a char­ac­ter wit­ness­es their own death, par­tic­u­lar­ly films that deal with time trav­el, yet very few have dared explore at any great length the para­dox­es of such a sit­u­a­tion. Sigmund Freud famous­ly said that the only scene impos­si­ble to imag­ine is one’s own death since one is always aware of one’s own pres­ence as an observ­er.

In this con­text, it is inter­est­ing to con­tem­plate the posi­tion of the spec­ta­tor, which rais­es exis­ten­tial ques­tions which tran­scend the expe­ri­ence of the film and con­nect to fun­da­men­tal desires that form the cor­ner­stones of the psy­che. Mulholland Drive is pos­si­bly one of the best films to con­tain such a scene, in which Betty finds a corpse who may or may not have been Diane (Naomi Watts again!), who her­self may or may not be Betty.

The pret­zel-shaped struc­ture of the film is itself a dou­ble-para­dox. The cin­e­ma of David Lynch, as that of Maya Deren, derives from a sin­gle unadorned point of view: that of the main char­ac­ter. Everything that occurs onscreen is a prod­uct of that point of view, and is pre­sent­ed to the view­er as a seam­less sur­face that is spa­tial­ly con­tigu­ous and tem­po­ral­ly con­tin­u­ous. Lynch cre­ates a total­ly sub­jec­tive space that is infi­nite­ly more com­plex than the sum of its objec­tive parts. For instance in the scene below, Diane’s reac­tion to the sound of break­ing glass takes us from one loca­tion to anoth­er, which could itself be a mem­o­ry of a past event.

Diane… reacts… to a dif­fer­ent place and time (click to enlarge).

In anoth­er scene Diane reacts to the sud­den reap­pear­ance of Camilla (also played by Laura Harring) only to reveal that she is actu­al­ly look­ing back at her­self. Here Lynch inten­tion­al­ly mis­us­es the con­ven­tions of cin­e­ma by fol­low­ing a shot with a reac­tion shot that belongs in a dif­fer­ent loca­tion and/or time.

Camilla… appears… but it’s just Diane (click to enlarge).

If I am here now, then I must have left this place in order to get back to it and wit­ness myself. However, if I have died here, then I could not have pos­si­bly left this place, hence I could not have returned to it to wit­ness myself die. This para­dox is con­nect­ed to the ter­ri­fy­ing con­cept of the dop­pel­gänger, or the mon­strous dou­ble: some­one who resem­bles me in every way yet is not me. This has been used in cin­e­ma in a mys­te­ri­ous yet benign form, as in La dou­ble vie de Véronique (1991) or in a malig­nant form, such as in Don’t Look Now (1973).

Silencio.

However, in Mulholland Drive the dop­pel­gänger presents itself as the impos­si­ble alter­na­tive to an impos­si­ble sit­u­a­tion: either Betty and Diane are the same per­son (who wit­ness­es her own death), or they are duals of each oth­er, dop­pel­gängers caught in a cos­mic rift.

Many years lat­er, when I arrived in Los Angeles to study film, I had my own ter­ri­fy­ing expe­ri­ence of these three aspects. And one night, I too got lost on the long, tor­tu­ous road of the title. Mulholland Drive ends with a begin­ning — a sin­gle word whis­pered to begin the show, or to bring clo­sure to every­thing: Silencio.

Directed by David LynchStarring Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring and Justin Theroux

This sto­ry is from Meedo’s upcom­ing book mon­tage­space: Cinema and the Making, Un-Making and Re-Making of Architecture. Please feel free to con­tact us for more details and read relat­ed sto­ries here.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Soul May 28, 2010 at 7:42 am

We talked about it before
Wanted to watch it badly after we had discussed it briefly with Chebel
I checked the blog (like i do every morning) and saw this post
Didn't read it
Don't want to
Will watch it tonight w Chebel if you'd like to be with us
Then I ll read your review
Can't wait!

Reply

Soul May 28, 2010 at 10:42 am

We talked about it before
Wanted to watch it badly after we had discussed it briefly with Chebel
I checked the blog (like i do every morning) and saw this post
Didn't read it
Don't want to
Will watch it tonight w Chebel if you'd like to be with us
Then I ll read your review
Can't wait!

Reply

mohamad May 28, 2010 at 8:05 am

Chilling... loved the review, it gave me another perspective to look at it and i cant wait to watch it again... i also have my own theories about certain events. we should watch it and discuss:)

i was waiting for this one... very nice man

Reply

mohamad May 28, 2010 at 11:05 am

Chilling... loved the review, it gave me another perspective to look at it and i cant wait to watch it again... i also have my own theories about certain events. we should watch it and discuss:)

i was waiting for this one... very nice man

Reply

Soul May 28, 2010 at 8:51 am

*loved the first image in the post

Reply

Soul May 28, 2010 at 11:51 am

*loved the first image in the post

Reply

Samsam May 28, 2010 at 9:52 am

One word: Amazing.
Can't wait to watch the movie.

x

S.

Reply

Samsam May 28, 2010 at 10:08 am

One word: AMAZING!

Can't wait to watch the movie!

x

S.

Reply

Samsam May 28, 2010 at 1:08 pm

One word: AMAZING!

Can't wait to watch the movie!

x

S.

Reply

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