by James Hansen
The first David Lynch film I saw was Mulholland Drive in late 2001. I don’t know why it was playing where it was playing, or why I went to see it instead of something a little more usual, but it was the happiest accident I have ever been a part of. It was, and is, the film. I'll play this post nice and close (to my heart), just like in the movies.
As our faithful readers probably know, most of the writers of this site grew up in Kentucky where arthouse films (even mainstream arthouse) didn’t exist. But I still distinctly remember the ones that I saw, and they continue to stand out for one reason or another. The town where I grew up had one movie theater that had one screen. When Titanic opened in 1997, it stayed for 3 or 4 months. I saw it four times. Not because I loved it (although I was young enough to get into the action sequences, and make fun of girls for crying over Leo) but because I loved movies and there anything else to see. With Netflix now, things seem to be much better, but I still have plenty of friends and know people who have similarly frustrating movie going areas. Every once in a while, though, our town would have a sort of break through. I remember seeing The Blair Witch Project and being driven home through the woods and up a winding hill to my house. The film was scary, yes, and, in my view at the time, shockingly independent. Shortly thereafter, I started borrowing video cameras from friends who had them and making short movies of my own, whether for school (creating sequels or spins on classic works) or for fun (creating my 2002 magnum opus- a brutally long 70-minute sequel entitled Cats 2: The Magical Misfit. We wrote original songs and everything!!!) I remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon miraculously playing in our town and counting 35 people who walked out once they discovered it had subtitles.
Then, a year later, I was on a Christmas trip to visit my father who lived around Dayton, Ohio. I was already “the movie kid” and it was my turn to pick the movie. So, off went my pastor father, stepmother, 14 year old sister, and myself to see Mulholland Drive at a dollar saver cinema. I don’t remember why it was at a dollar saver as a new release, or how I convinced my parents it was a good idea. I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into. We had watched R-rated movies for a long while, so ratings were never a big deal. I guess we all figured it would just be another movie. It had great reviews, mild Oscar buzz, and sounded interesting. I was already interested in movies, but Mulholland Drive was something uniquely mysterious, baffling, and altogether wonderful. My family harshly disagreed, as you might imagine. I don’t know what it was with the film, but it made something click. It is, almost without question, what got me into film production (I even made an Mulholland Drive inspired short film in college, my best one, that made it into a festival and was entitled The Sylvia North Story...any other crazy fans out there who know the reference?), which eventually morphed into academic film studies. I rarely have problems critiquing films in retrospect, but, for me, Mulholland Drive is so personal and vastly important that discussions remain as allusive as the film itself. Difficult as it is, I’ll trudge forward here in an attempt to codify that which has kept itself at a distance.
I analyze and think about Mulholland Drive much differently now, which is what 6 years of undergraduate and graduate school in film studies will do. At the same time, I still understand why I responded to it in such a way. For me, cinema, as a sort of all encompassing art form, should never be limited by one thing or another. I have met plenty of people working in theaters who think films are all about the story. If there is no story, then it is a waste of time. But to make this requirement seems highly reductive for a form that has access to so many different things. Perhaps stories are what more people can connect to, but should we then forget that cinema is a different form that has multiple possibilities within the realm of narrative? Can’t the form (by which I do not mean pretty cinematography) highlight and strengthen aspects of the narrative or story? Maybe I expect too much from cinema. The current banal set of Oscar contenders certainly has me thinking so. Cinema, though, allows everyone to see stories, to follow narratives, to listen to arguments in a different way than other forms. Without using the complete form, however, there is something that will always be missing. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t enjoy plays put on film, comedies shot with no sense of style, or stylish movies with no sense of narrative. It does mean, though, at least for me, that they aren’t the strongest examples of what cinema should be.
Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, contains everything cinema should be. It refuses a simple classification and purposefully entrenches itself in and refutes any kind of simple “norm” it sets its parameters within. The same can be said for most of Lynch’s work, which is likely why I have continued to respond to nearly all of it. (And this, for the record, is not to say Lynch is the auteur of these works. If anything, it is precisely the established codes of Hollywood that inform Lynch’s films in such a manner that makes them work. But we can save my complains and arguments against the auteur “theory” for another day...)
With an expansive visual sense placed in the classical Hollywood schemata and with story threads that imbed a collective sense of narrative moment and emotional connection, Mulholland Drive embeds itself within two different worlds of cinema. Its rhythms and movements often shift from classical editing into an elongated style for certain scenes that require something unexpected, a la Betty’s audition scene with the older man – one of my favorite scenes of all time. Watch how the scene gradually changes its tone – not just in the wonderful performances, but in the camera movements, the editing, the sound. It’s a perfectly simple scene right in the middle of the most “normal” part of the film, but it illustrates the significance of every aspect of the cinematic process. It’s something that Lynch, an experimental director who has made a mark for himself in Hollywood while simultaneously critiquing the hell out of it, understands and executes to perfection.
In his wonderful book on the LA avant-garde, The Most Typical Avant Garde, David James analyzes the importance of Hollywood film to avant-garde cinema. Its a difficult position to take for sure, and, while I have my reservations about it on whole, there is certainly a point to be made and contemplated in regards to this within an historical perspective and for modern artists as well. Lynch clearly comes to mind, and the mark is made especially clear in Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE. As confounding as some people find the films, typically on the grounds of them being impenetrable and nonsensical, which I think comes partially from their dialectic of two totally different cinematic mindsets, Mulholland Drive is invested in its story (personally, I’ve never had a problem “figuring out” its narrative although there are certainly elements left to grapple with) but it is also an immersive visual and sensual experience very much dedicated to the notions that Hollywood was founded on. Moreover, the use of Hollywood and the experience of actresses serves as a device that opens up the avenues of realization that come with such a complex work.
The film and its characters search for a form of success and understanding in the world they have become entrapped within – quite a similar experience as the one the audience goes through. Lynch never places the film in a superior position to the audience, dangling vague questions with no answers for the audience to become frustrated by. Although some viewers have apparently seen it in this manner, Mulholland Drive is one of the few films that matches the audience step for step and understands the experience it presents. This is underscored perfectly by the wonderful Club Silencio sequence, where the maestro explains his tricks, the experiences, and the ideas behind Silencio. When the audience is confused, so are the characters and the visual style will often match this unbalance. When there are moments of clarity for the audience, it becomes clear to the characters at the same time. Sometimes it may be a trick, but there is distinct cry of reality embedded within this experience that breaks through in the form of the opera. Llorando, indeed.
Lynch may be some sort of mad puppeteer who constantly plays with a number of ideas, but he ensures that everyone can follow if they are willing to give themselves to the experience. The complexity might be difficult to handle, but, from the first time I saw it, it was something I longed to analyze, if not understand, explore, if not discover, and comprehend, if never completely. Mulholland Drive was something I happily gave myself to and have continued to look for while never looking back.
Here's a low quality video of the audition scene, in case you forgot how amazing it was...