Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Weird on Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Week Eleven: Mulholland Drive

Rob: Welcome back to Weird on Top, where there is no band. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Alejandra: And I’m Alejandra Gonzalez.

Rob: We’re closing out our coverage of David Lynch’s theatrical work with 2001’s Mulholland Drive, the enigmatic noir-thriller described by its creator as simply “a love story in the city of dreams.” Originally conceived as a ninety-minute series pilot for ABC (Lynch reworked the structure for feature presentation after the studio rejected it), the film stars Naomi Watts as Betty Elms, a Hollywood newcomer whose own dreams of stardom are complicated by the sudden arrival of an amnesiac who calls herself Rita (Laura Elena Harring). The young women search for clues about Rita’s true identity while, across town, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is pressured by his studio bosses to cast actress Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) as the lead in his new project. As Kesher’s protestations lead to a series of personal catastrophes, a distraught man (Patrick Fischler) tells a friend about a terrible dream and a hitman (Mark Pellegrino) searches for a lost object.

Of course, that’s just scratching the surface of Mulholland Drive, the film that earned Lynch his third Academy Award nomination for Best Director and was recently named by a BBC poll as the greatest film of the twenty-first century. It’s certainly my favorite of Lynch’s works. It grows in my estimation with every viewing, and despite its 146-minute running time, it remains one of my easiest and most immersive viewing experiences. It’s heartbreaking and romantic in that uniquely Lynchian style — that which frames heartbreak and romance through the lens of horror and mystery. It’s also my favorite version of Lynchian narrative structure — a story filled with seemingly-random events that all actually carry firm symbolic meaning. Speaking of which: Since we’ll likely be getting into interpretations in our discussion, I wanted to share Film Crit Hulk’s thorough breakdown (the strongest I’ve read; it’s cohesive and considers the spirit of Lynch’s artistic goals when making logical deductions) and Lynch’s own “Ten Clues to Unlocking This Thriller,” an insert included in the original DVD release.
I agree with a lot of fans who think these ten clues are nothing more than Lynch trolling us (he almost never offers any kind of interpretation for his work, and we’re always better for it), but I think Film Crit Hulk’s piece is quite useful. It essentially establishes the film as two parts fantasy, one part reality. The first two hours are Diane Selwyn’s (Watts) tortured, angry dream. She’s done something terrible, and she’s trying to cope with it. She’s displacing guilt, shame, lust, and anger onto a series of fictionalized versions of figures she encounters in the “real world” of the film’s final thirty minutes. That last act is essentially a key to unlocking everything that came before. I know opinions vary (one other analysis I read suggests that Diane is a victim of sexual abuse who turns to prostitution), and I don’t think it’s necessary to accept this interpretation or even “understand” the film in order to appreciate it, but it’s important to know going forward that I consider this interpretation more or less canon.

Ale, I appreciate you letting us save my favorite Lynch film for last. One of my favorite films, period, actually — equal parts tragic romance, indictment of Hollywood fantasy, and surrealist exploration of a hopeless quest for our best selves. I love it with that same passion you feel for Blue Velvet. Where would you like to get started with Mulholland Drive?
Alejandra: What a loaded question! I guess I’ll start by saying that besides Lost Highway, I think this is the Lynch film I am most intimidated to write about or even discuss publicly. I say this since it is almost unanimously considered to be Lynch’s most well-made film (at least in my experience talking to people about his work), so I feel a huge responsibility to do Mulholland Drive justice because I 100% agree with that evaluation. That being said, I’ll be honest and say that even after a few times with this movie, I still am not sure which interpretation of it I find to be the most satisfying to me. I’ll agree with you that Film Crit Hulk’s is probably the most sound and well-elaborated interpretation of Mulholland Drive I’ve seen yet, but there are elements I have found in other interpretations that I really like enough to genuinely consider.

In her review of the film, DeepFocusLens argues that perhaps there is no harsh reality involving Camilla and Diane vs. a guilt driven fantasy involving Rita and Betty, and instead proposes that the entirety of Mulholland Drive is a fantasy that is meant to reflect the different facets of a single person's’ identity, though I am not really sure who that person is. She goes on to say that Rita, Betty, Diane, and Camilla are all archetypes put in place to represent a collective consciousness. Now, I’m not really fond of theories that want to argue that something was all a dream or anything in that realm, despite the fact that over half of Mulholland Drive was, in fact, a fantasy. Still, I think that, at least partially, this interpretation can makes sense. A scene that sticks out the most when I think about this is the one in which Betty suggests a disguise to Rita in order to keep her safe. When the disguise is revealed, Rita dons a (really awful) blonde wig which bears a striking resemblance to Betty’s own hair, and in turn sort of blurs the line between the identities of the two women. Things that once belonged to “Diane,” such as the money used for the hitman, also now belong to “Rita” in Diane’s supposed fantasy, which is a small detail that might also suggest an overlap in identity. The entire premise of Diane’s supposed fantasy is to help discover Rita’s true identity after all, so I don’t think it’s that far fetched of a theory. Look, I’m not saying I totally buy it and I know there are a lot of holes in that interpretation, but that’s kind of the fun of Lynch. You can be completely convinced that you’ve finally cracked it, and then someone offers this theory that kind of makes sense and then your entire world is sent spiraling!

Rob: I like the way DeepFocusLens’ analysis specifically focuses on the nature of acting and Hollywood as a motif that stands in for the multiple facets that make up a single personality. It’s not my interpretation, but I can certainly see it supported in the text. Honestly, it’s a wonderful example of how Lynch stands apart from other “dreamlike” or “surrealist” filmmakers: His work can be shaped to fit into one mold without contradicting another. We’re allowed to imprint onto it in whatever way we see fit.
Alejandra: Anyway, for the sake of my sanity, much like you, I have pretty much adopted Film Crit Hulk’s interpretation as my truth when it comes to Mulholland Drive. Plus, I really love the tragic romance element that it presents. I swear this is not biased on part of the fact that I’ll always be a fan of queer relationships in film, especially between women, but I genuinely think it is done brilliantly. One of my favorite details in Mulholland Drive is the contrast between the two scenes of intimacy shared between Betty and Rita first, and then Diane and Camilla. In Diane’s fantasy, the love scene between Betty and Rita is extremely tender. The women are very intimately close and bathed in moonlight when Betty tells Rita that she is in love with her between deep kisses. Because Diane must have been so profoundly in love with Camilla, this is obviously what she perceived sex to be like between them when it happens in her real life, which is why it feels like the ultimate betrayal to viewers when we see what the sex was really like from an objective, detached perspective. In the second intimate scene (if we can even call it that) which happens in Diane’s “real life, ”things are much different. There’s this really strange sense of emotional distance between the women. It seems to be the afternoon, so the lighting is significantly less romantic than in our first instance. It’s also on a couch in the middle of a really drab living room, which to me just makes the whole thing feel cold and actually really uncomfortable for me to watch. This might be because what ensues is an argument that is a result of the women being on completely different pages when it comes to their relationship. Honestly, the contrast between those two scenes is just really, really sad to me and I don’t really know why. Yikes! This took a turn. Anyway, I will also say that this is the film in which I enjoy Lynch’s Blonde/Brunette dichotomy the most. We’ve talked about it a little bit before, but what do you make of it now that we’ve covered all of his films?

Rob: Thinking specifically about Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive, it’s clear to me that Lynch uses this blonde/brunette motif to as his go-to juxtaposition between mental, social, or emotional states of being. Experienced/naive, pure/soiled, safe/endangered, dream/reality. Is Mulholland Drive the only instance of a character actually shifting from one to the other, as Rita does? I can’t think of another. I agree that it’s an effort on Betty’s part to keep Rita safe (which backfires, of course; it’s too late to stop the dream from collapsing in on itself), but it’s also such a powerful statement about the sometimes selfish nature of intimacy — the idea that we want to assimilate our partners and, in a way, control them. It makes the distinction between those two love scenes you mentioned so much sharper and more heartbreaking.
I wanted to transition to "Silencio," one of my all-time favorite scenes in any film. You love to assemble little collages of images, symbols, and motifs whenever we do one of these pieces, and this time you pointed out Lynch’s consistent affinity for sultry, chanteuse singers. Lounges and nightclubs in general, really. Like electrical wires and pipes in Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, they’re emotional conduits through which we release our hidden impulses and vulnerabilities. They’re pathways to other dimensions. And isn’t it just so telling, then, that Silencio is a lie? A dead end? “There is no band!” It’s all a recording. It’s all artificial. Diane’s dream is ending. Rebekah Del Rio’s Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” is haunting, gorgeous, and ultimately an illusion. And I forget every single time! The bandleader (Richard Green) lays it out for us. He gives us the example with the trumpet, and yet I still get so lost in Del Rio’s performance that it comes as a shock. She is the deepest source of Diane’s sadness — the unvarnished, pleading cry for help. But it’s all for nothing.

She’s just like The Man Behind Winkies (actually played by a female actor named Bonnie Aarons). He’s grotesque and frightening, a powerful manifestation of the guilt and shame Diane feels about the choice she made. Like all of us, Diane pushes that guilt and shame into other places and onto other people (in this case, the guy she saw looking at her at Winkies), but it’s there. It comes back to get her in the end. I’ll never forget the first time my friends and I saw that reveal scene: we were in high school and, while I can’t speak for them, it both made me laugh and scared the shit out of me. That’s how I knew Lynch was special. Was he serious? What is this movie? From there, I was hooked.

Do you have a favorite performance in Mulholland Drive, Ale?

Alejandra: Do you mean besides all of them? I really think every performance in this is pretty enchanting, even the few minutes we get with Michael J. Anderson as what can essentially be understood as the Powers That Be of Hollywood. It’s funny you mention the little game we play where I send you collages of some parallels in Lynch’s work, because that very scene takes place inside of a room with taupe curtains for walls that strike an undeniable resemblance to the curtains in Twin Peaks’ Red Room. We also find our characters, yet again, finding a lot of time in a room with muted pink walls when they’re in Betty’s aunt’s place. The walls are the same exact color as the apartment in Blue Velvet, Inland Empire, Lost Highway, and very similar to the pink used in Laura Palmer’s room. I need to believe that this means something more than just Lynch having an affinity for this spring time shade, I just don’t quite know what. What do you make of that?
Rob: It’s impossible to know for sure, but curtains can sometimes represent liminal spaces or warm, comforting escapes with maternal overtones (birthing canals, wombs, etc.). I’ve always seen the Red Room in that way, and that could carry over here. Could the same be said of the pink walls? Lynch certainly isn’t a prude when it comes to sexual symbolism. It could just be his go-to coding for female spaces. I think it’s up for interpretation.

Alejandra: Anyway, I digress. If I had to pick, my favorite performance would absolutely be what we get from Naomi Watts. She’s remarkable throughout the entirety of Mulholland Drive, but even if we look at the few minutes of her audition before she is taken to the soundstage for The Sylvia North Story, we would have seen all we needed to see. You know how you said you always forget that Del Rio’s performance is simply an illusion? I kind of feel similarly about this audition scene — I always get so invested in it that when it cuts back to the rest of the room watching them, it kind of catches me off guard. I can’t look away. Not to mention she’s essentially playing two very different roles here. She gets sweet, bright eyed, and bushy tailed just right as Betty. The soft focus and soapy look of Diane’s fantasy also really compliments her performance in the first half of Mulholland Drive. On the other hand, Watts gets completely broken, resentful, and guilty just right as Diane. I mean, the tearful masturbation scene makes me so incredibly uncomfortable and I think it’s entirely because of how convincingly Watts plays the part. It truly is a performance of a lifetime, and I wish she would have been more widely revered for it.

Rob: We’ve never done right by Naomi Watts. She’s spectacular, especially considering how little she (or any of the actors) knew about what to make of Mulholland Drive as a whole while filming. It’s a powerful testament to both the actors’ skills and their trust in David Lynch as a creative force. It reminds me of a behind-the-scenes featurette on the Twin Peaks: The Return Blu-ray featuring Laura Dern in the Red Room: Lynch is coaching her on her lines, moving her around the space, and at one point decides to cover her face in this weird cookie dough goop (for a scene that didn’t make the final cut). As he’s spreading this nasty-looking stuff all over her face, Dern says something like, “It should be clear by now that I would literally do anything for David Lynch.” Despite being known as this dark, abstract surrealist, Lynch is so warm and affable towards actors that he makes them feel comfortable enough to try anything.

One last thing before we close: Do you have a favorite line or phrase from Mulholland Drive? Something that gives you chills or breaks your heart? Mine is, “This is the girl.” There’s just something about the cold detachment of it that gets to me.
Alejandra: Oh, that’s a good one. There are so many lines I love. I know I mentioned it already, but the interaction the girls have in bed the first time completely breaks my heart, and it only gets worse and worse with every watch because I know the real answer to Betty’s “have you done this before?” I feel like Mulholland Drive is the movie that I’ve had to revisit for this column that has felt the most like watching it again for the first time to me. I spent hours after revisiting it reading conspiracy theories and watching video interpretations. It made me feel like I did when I first started with David Lynch, and I’m really glad I got to feel that again.

Rob: I’m in the exact same boat. With the exception of Twin Peaks, obviously, Mulholland Drive seems to be the Lynch property that most rewards theories, speculations, and repeated viewings. It’s not as inscrutable or annoying as Inland Empire, and not as emotionally distant as Lost Highway. It’s just perfect David Lynch.

Our trip through Lynch’s theatrical work may have come to close, but that doesn’t mean we’re done! We’ll be back in a few weeks to talk about our favorite episodes of Twin Peaks Season 1. Until then, remember: This world is wild at heart…

Alejandra: And weird on top.

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