Sunday, October 25, 2015

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch
DP: Peter Deming
Editor: Mary Sweeney
Score: Angelo Badalamenti
Producer: Neil Edelstein, Tony Krantz, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney
Starring: Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux, Bonnie Aarons
Distribution: Criterion Collection
Length: 2 hrs. 25 min.

A lot of discussion on Mulholland Drive has revolved around trying to figure out what happens in its disjointed plot. This isn't a discussion that I find particularly interesting. While I can understand the compulsion to figure this movie out, it's hard for me to see how doing so is fruitful.

It's certain the film is divided into two parts, with different characters played by the same actors in each. Both parts take place in Los Angeles and focus on characters played by Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. The first two hours of the film play out like a crime thriller or neo-noir, constantly hinting at the existence of criminal elements pursuing the main characters. The last twenty minutes play more like a nightmarish evocation from a character's failure to be in balance with the world around her.

The film repeatedly reminds us, in ways both subtle and overt, that our watching it comes with certain assumptions. The most obvious illustration of this comes in a scene from the film's first two hours. The characters Betty and Rita (Watts and Harring, respectively), prompted by an nightmare, go to a club called "Silencio." A band appears to play instruments on the stage, but a mysterious man tells them:

"No hay banda! There is no band! Il n'est pas de orquestra. This is all a tape recording. No hay banda. And yet we hear a's all recorded. No hay banda. It's all a tape. Il n'est pas de orquestra. It is an illusion!"

To prove his point, a woman walks on stage and sings. Both the song and the look on her face convey profound sorrow. But before the song is finished, she passes out and is dragged away from the microphone, and the song keeps playing; it was all a recording. In this scene, and others, Lynch reveals a surface impression to be false, but he also does something more interesting and more important: he demonstrates that the artifice of the surface, despite its falsity, is capable of drawing a powerful emotional reaction from an audience. No hay banda, but Betty and Rita are still brought to tears by the music.

Another scene from earlier in the film approaches this from a different angle. We see Betty audition for a role in a film. Earlier, we saw her practicing for the audition. When she was practicing, her performance was awkward and forced, so when she goes in for the audition we expect to see the same; instead, her performance during the audition is much better - in fact, it's so much better, it's as if she's a different character in a different movie. She immerses herself fully in what appears to be a fairly complicated scene.

This is perhaps partially attributable to the way the scene is shot: it's shot as the scene Betty was acting out might have been shot, with nothing to remind us that we're watching her performance. But as engrossing as this scene is in itself, there's always an awkwardness to it coming from the dissonance between the quality of Betty's practice and the quality of her performance. We know what we're seeing is fake, but even with that knowledge, it's hard not to take this scene mostly at face value.

The first two hours of Mulholland Drive are powered almost completely by performance, iconography, music, and images. We are reminded that we're seeing a falsehood, and yet we're also provoked to find life in it; after all, the moments that most straightforwardly point to the artifice are enabled to do so only because they carry across such deeply felt emotions.

Moreover, the first two hours keep the world depicted alive by suggesting that sinister, frightening, clandestine forces are behind everything. The subtle self-reflexiveness is dissonant and alien, but that plays into a sense of menace. And even though everything is different in the last twenty minutes of the film, two things persist: harsh emotions still runs strong, and a sense of encroaching danger is still palpable.

The idea that a life could be conveyed through iconography is accompanied by paranoia about the potential destructiveness of power structures. Breaking away from that, we encounter paranoia about the self, but conveyed through repetition of things we saw in the first act - an internalization of those earlier threats.

Mulholland Drive acknowledges that our reactions to it are necessarily solitary, but also acknowledges that, to an extent, they can be engineered - the lyrics sung in Silencio aren't exactly subtle, after all. In fact, the threatening forces that appear in the film's first two hours seem to actively oppose such intentional communication, stepping in the way of connections between people and shutting down their attempts at artistic expression for the sake of profit.

The film wouldn't work if its sequences couldn't inspire a reaction out of context and without intellectualizing. They do work, though, because they manage to run entirely on form and the observation of human behavior. And yet, the film complicates this by placing them in a narrative context anyway. Some people find that any admission of artifice negates their ability to react strongly to a film. For me though, Mulholland Drive shows that feeling and the consideration thereof aren't mutually exclusive. It leaves me with the sense that there's mystery in the world, though without certainty of when that's good and it's not. Whatever you take away from Mulholland Drive can only be your own - but only because you fell for the filmmakers' tricks. Does that lead to a dream or a nightmare?

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