ALICE IN LOTUSLAND
From the Wreckage of Spoiled Dreams-Movie Magic
By Eddie Muller © 2001
Mulholland Drive is a triumph, both as a revelatory
reimagining of traditional narrative cinema, and as personal
vindication for its maker. Like a master magician, David Lynch
has conjured a mature, evocative and emotionally satisfying
experience from the wreckage of dispiriting failure. Critics
are picking over the film like detectives combing a crime
scene, sifting for the remains of the ill-fated television
pilot that was its genesis, as if they suspect the finished
work is a jerry-rigged parlor trick, rather than a fully-realized
work of art. Lynch meanwhile remains a tight-lipped perpetrator,
testifying only that his film is "A love story in the
city of dreams."
No further explanation needed. For unlike other "Lynchian"
projects, Mulholland Drive is not mystifyingly
open-ended. Rather, it's scarily self-contained. It's a mystery,
certainly, but by the time it reaches its crushing conclusion,
it is specifically about one thing: the crumbling psyche of
a young Hollywood dreamer. Trapped in a movie-inspired fever
of desire and heartbreak, she's driven to commit murder. But
Mulholland Drive is more than just a feminized version
of Lynch's own Lost Highway. It's a worthy successor
to such bleak Lotusland fables as Nathaniel West's Day
of the Locust, Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place,
and perhaps most significantly, Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard,
of which it's a rabid offspring.
Early in the film, as a wounded woman numbly descends into
the lights of Hollywood after surviving a car wreck on Mulholland
Drive, Lynch inserts signposts to map the terrain, literally,
and in the case of "Sunset Blvd.," figuratively.
This tale, after all, will turn into a fin de siecle
bookend to Wilder's mordant midcentury take on the movie business's
power to insidiously shape reality, to delight and destroy
in equal measure.
Both films depict naive wannabes in the thrall of vainglorious
femmes fatales. Both revolve around a contest of wills, in
which lovers battle for dominance. Both spend ample time lampooning
the hubris in the Dream Factory's machinations, as well as
showing its cruel disdain for the neurotic foot soldiers chewed
up in the gears. Both films reveal the Promised Land's dreadful
undertow, which sucks down the weak-willed and gullible. Both
stories are narratedby one of these drowning losers.
(During the five-year course of making Eraserhead,
Lynch would screen Sunset Boulevard for his crew whenever
filming resumed, to remind them of the feel he wanted in his
The thematic conventions and visual iconography of film noir
play a part in both films. For a good bit of their running
times, both are detective stories, in which the protagonist,
swept into the orbit of an alluring woman, tries to solve
her mysteries despite obvious warning signs. Fatefully, a
needy, consuming relationship develops before the "truth"
is revealed. Menacing figures of vague origin circle like
buzzards, either gangsters in a malevolent conspiracy or someone's
paranoid delusions. The affair goes bad when one lover cashes
out her stake in the shared delusion. Bullets follow. Lynch
even throws in a bout of amnesia, a venerable device dating
back to such L.A.-based noir classics as Somewhere in the
Night (a phrase that leaps to mind as Robert Forster,
in his minuscule appearance, ponders the glittering expanse
of Los Angeles).
All these elements, familiar from many works of far lesser
stature than Sunset Boulevard, are useful iconographic
guides for navigating the convoluted course of Mulholland
Drive. It gives viewers some bearings as Lynch twists
traditional narrative structure, spinning an old plot in a
new way. There is clearly a beginning, middle and end to Mulholland
Drive; Lynch just doesn't travel the route in that order.
Some viewers will opt out, resenting such obtuse storytelling.
Others will be invigorated, even exhilarated. This type of
gamesmanship demands intellectual and emotional investment
from the spectator. The reward is a more engrossing and provocative
experience than one normally encounters at the multiplex.
It can be frustrating and enervating, but both are valid emotions
in Lynchland. Predictability, boredom and ennui are not.
When you get down to it (or, more appropriately, open up to
it), Lynchland isn't all that impenetrabledespite the
befuddlement his films supposedly generate. They're created
from recognizable elements, common settings viewed askew.
Unlike the computer-generated sci-fi fantasy worlds that pass
for "visionary" with the younger generation, Lynch
isn't interested in fashioning an alternate reality into which
the emotionally stunted can escape. He's burrowing into a
world we all recognize and share, and it's a vision anyone
can comprehend, with an open and willing mind. Far from obscure,
Lynch seems generous, providing an experience with more layers
of meaning, and avenues of access, than other filmmakers even
[Read no further if you haven't seen
The surface level of the story is, by the end, very clear:
Diane Selwyn was a bright-eyed ingenue, eager for a movie
career, who lost her big break to glamorous Camilla Rhodes.
Generous Camilla not only offers Diane a bit part in "The
Sylvia North Story," she offers a place in her bed as
well. If Diane can't be a star, at least she can love one.
But when Camilla dumps her for director Adam Kecherwho
lords it over the movieland minions from his mansion way up
on Mulhollandpoor Diane snaps. She gives a scummy hitman
a purseful of money and a headshot of her former lover: "This
is the girl," she instructs him. Diane then retreats
to a miserable bungalow, to lie low and wallow in her misery.
On the last night of her life, she dreams this very story,
but her subconscious shapes it into the movie she wishes it
had beenan exciting tale of how spunky "Betty"
rescued and fell in love with ravishing "Rita,"
who adored her in return. But the dream ends, and Diane is
left with a dismal reality that's spun out of control. When
the police track her down, knocking on the door, she blows
her brains out to silence the roiling pain and guilt.
What makes the movie so challenging is that two-thirds of
the narrative is Diane's dream, which you don't realize until
she wakes up andcue the plummeting elevatoryou
understand that "Betty" is only a figment of Diane's
subconscious. She gleaned "Betty" from a waitress's
badge at the diner where she hired the assassin. The last
third of the film flashes back from Diane's final waking hours,
cataloging the indignities, real and imagined, that drove
her to have Camilla killed. The only scenes that take place
in "real time" are those in which Diane shambles
around in a dirty bathrobe, paralyzed by remorse.
It's a thrilling revision of traditional narrative: the exciting
"climax" is the wave of expository information that
makes us rethink all that's gone before.
Several plot threads clearly intended for the more expansive
framework of a TV series end up filtered through Diane's consciousness,
showing her paranoid vision of Hollywood, both old and new:
a room full of freeze-dried studio hacks are floored by her
stunning audition, but still rule thumbs-down; a casting meeting
between the callow Kecher and his menacing financiers is covertly
observed by Mr. Roque, the anonymous puppetmaster who parcels
out the "breaks." In Diane's mind, they're all conspiring
against her. Even a biddy psychic (faded thespian, no doubt)
gives Betty/Diane a disdainful competitive sniff, upon learning
she's an actress.
There's always a "Mr. Big" in David Lynch's films,
an incarnation of the energy that controls the course of human
events. Here it's "The Cowboy." His mystical corral
exists on a plane even higher than the Hollywood sign. He's
overseen this terrain since the cameras first arrived, since
William S. Hart ushered in the cinema of sensation by pointing
a six-shooter at the audience and firing. The Cowboy is an
ambivalent figure, neither benevolent or malevolent. When
he dresses down the "smart aleck" director, he's
like a ghostly messenger from the founding Jesse Lasky Feature
Player Company, emerging from Hollywood's original ranchland
to read the rules, in no uncertain terms, to this self-important
Also appearing, in a regular alleyway engagement behind Winkie's
diner, is another member of the Lynch stock company: the Force
of Evil. As a visual artist, Lynch has always been compelled
to represent "evil" in a single human symbol, providing
a locus for the ambient dread that floats through his frames.
That he's introduced through a peripheral characterwho
promptly dies in the face-to-face encounteris one of
the film's loosest threads.
Since Diane is in both subsequent diner scenes, a possible
interpretation is that she is the terrified dreamer, incognito,
trying to explain her anxieties to an agent or therapist.
It doesn't really matter. Intuitively and emotionally, Lynch's
gamble pays off. The first scene establishes Winkie's as a
place where horror lurks, effectively coloring two pivotal
scenes to come. One can infer from subtle suggestions that
Diane actually worked at the diner, another reverberation
on the classic "fledgling starlet" story [all waitresses
in L.A. are really actresses]. And it's Winkie's, after all,
where Diane will cross into darkness, even after she's warned
that "there's no going back."
Equally confounding is the 2 A.M. trip to Club Silencio, another
familiar stop on the Lynchland tour: the red curtains, the
all-knowing emcee, the sense of paralytic entrapment, the
Orbison. It's all on display, again, but now it serves multiple
purposes: It allows "Betty" and "Rita"
to bond in a mystical way-which gives the rest of the movie
its emotional weight. It also explains the emotional heart
of the story, but in peculiarly Lynchian terms. By having
Rebekah del Rio sing "Crying" in Spanish, the director
opts for further mystifying a large percentage of his audience.
Of course, for those who speak Spanish, or know the lyrics,
the song clearly explains the Diane/Camilla relationship.
This scene also represents the dream coming to its climax.
Betty (significantly not Rita) convulses in her seat as she
begins to "come out" of it. In this case, "it"
is not only her dream-state, but the unconscious realization
that she's invested so much in a hoax. As the emcee explains,
you can't trust your eyes in this "theater." The
magic of synchronized sound and imagecinemais
wonderful and deceptive, but it is not reality. Diane's willful
desire to live a fantasy is the crux of her demise.
In Mulholland Drive, Lynch not only conjures his patented
dreamscape of sensuous and unsettling imagery, by the end
he's assembled the instinctual and disconnected threads into
a tight and painful Gordian knot. That's something he never
quite managed with other fractured narratives such as Fire
Walk with Me, Wild at Heart, or Lost Highway.
Despite flashes of poetic brilliance, and a free-floating
mix of apprehension and black humor, those films are frustratingly
elliptical. At their worst they're freak shows, especially
when they're crammed with hipsters savoring their inclusion
in Lynch's carnival.
Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive will come
to be seen as virtually inseperable works, yin-yang versions
of the same premisea dream-state excavation of a mind
that's committed murder. But Lost Highway was a repellent,
not seductive journey, and once Bill Pullman went missing,
so did the emotional anchor required to pull the audience
fully into the depths of Lynchland.
In Mulholland Drive, Lynch has a pair of anchors, costars
Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring. Their onscreen freshness
heightens the revelatory quality Lynch is after in every scene
(of every movie he makes). Perhaps he'd realized that well-known
players can be a distracting disaster, like Nicolas Cage mugging
through Wild at Heart. Here, when Nancy Drew leads
Rita Hayworth to hell (or vice versa), the devastation is
deeply felt. The actresses deserve as much credit as Lynch
for being able to embody, by turns, such appealing and awful
Watts and Harring bring palpable passion to Diane and Camilla's
slowly emerging relationship. It's no less real because it's
a dream, and it's achieved not through scripted backstories
or rational exposition, but solely through their physical
interaction. The fact that it workswithout wordsis
another triumph for a director notoriously suspicious of attaching
literal explanations to his visceral obsessions.
In the past, Lynch has taken grief in politically-correct
quarters for his treatment of women, and in some cases, such
as the cruel handling of Laura Dern and Patricia Arquette
(in Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, respectively)
the films' foundations are too shaky to provide a valid defense
for the lurid debasementeven if those scenes are at
the heart of Lynch's artistic preoccupation: the constant
threat that purity, innocence and beauty face from corrupt,
malignant forces. Lynch clearly understands the immense power
of women's bodies, and in Mulholland Drive he finally
channels that energy in a respectful waywithout sacrificing
any of the sensuality he relishes. Rethinking the story from
inside Diane's psyche might account for the difference.
On initial viewing, the love between Diane and Camilla unfolds
in a sequence unique in its intensity, tenderness and sincerityboth
for Lynch and American movies in general. Usually nude love
scenes are cringe-inducing, plagued by a combination of hackneyed
direction, cynical exploitation, and the sacrifice of storytelling
momentum to ticket-selling titillation. In this instance,
however, the moment is electric. The combination of Lynch's
sensitive direction (he shows enough to be erotic, but stops
short of voyeurism), cinematographer Peter Deming's gorgeous
half-light, and the breathless, bona fide heat of Watts and
Harring, conjures lightning in a bottleit's a scene
of compelling sexuality.
Their second love scene, by comparison, comes off stark and
tawdrywhich cuts to the core. One is a ravishing fantasy
of blissful intimacy, the other a final midday fuck-off to
a dalliance gone cold. When Watts later takes to the same
couch, tearfully masturbating as she tries to reclaim an image
of her dream lover, she's in a lonely place few movies dare
to go. These sex scenes aren't only crucial to the plotin
Lynch's cinematic shorthand they are the plot, and Naomi Watts
is fearless and mesmerizing in the way she defines, and deepens,
Lynch's themes. Minus these scenes (if Mulholland Drive
existed only as the ill-fated pilot), Watts' performance would
have been devalued, even denigrated, for its (seemingly) simplistic
star-crossed goofiness. In the finished version, she's pure
A second viewing shows that Diane's infatuation with Camilla
exists all along, bubbling beneath her guileless facade: in
virtually every scene the women are only a breath apart, touching
each other, gazing into each others' eyes, acting unconsciously
like illicit lovers. Since these scenes existed in the (pre-lesbian)
pilot, it's hard not to believe that Lynch meant "Betty"
and "Rita" for each other all along-an embrace of
noir archetypes, the dark sultry femme fatale, and the perky
blonde commoner who secretly craves such sexiness: Janet Leigh
takes Ava Gardner to bed.
Whether Diane wants Camilla, or wants to be Camilla, it's
a moot point. Her desire literally opens Pandora's (blue)
Box, and she doesn't have the strength of character to slam
it shut before all hell breaks loose. By succumbing to her
jealousy and opting for revenge, Diane gives in to the evil
force represented by the dumpster dweller out back of Winkie's,
a hulking, vaguely defined mass of bad gris gris. Unlike his
comrade BOB up in Twin Peaks or the white-faced Mystery
Man of Lost Highway, this guy doesn't move around much.
He knows that in this city of spoiled dreams he'll have plenty
of customers, and that they'll find him.
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