David Lynch knows his way around a controversy, and if he is often contrarian for contrarian’s sake, knocking him for this does a huge disservice to the simple beauty of the act of being contrarian. It denies the cantankerous danger and dreamy nightmare-like quality of something that is so elementally arbitrary, so devoid of meaning, so ruthlessly antisensical. It does a disservice to the idea that something can simply exist for itself and the joy of being itself. It is in this region, despite all his other narrative pretensions and the very real sense of specific, pointed, subversive purpose to each and every shot in each of his films, where David Lynch skulks about. His films do not really exist purely for their own sake – there is a clear through-line and object of critique in each of his films, but they come closer to pure lunacy, to pure invention for invention’s sake, than almost any director since the era of silent film. In the world of today, if we limit ourselves to American directors, he has more to say about how film is made, and how images and sounds move beyond theme and story and into pure effect, than any other director. He’s having a hell of a lot more fun than anyone else while he’s at it too.
In Mulholland Dr., arguably, he created his most wonderfully, beautifully arbitrary Frankenstein’s monster. Lynch has only gotten more radical with age, and Mulholland Dr. is perhaps the greatest culmination of him being himself for 150 minutes. Filmgoers beware, but for anyone willing to put themselves into a film, to unlock its mysteries, or to simply sit around and be willfully confused for a while, Mulholland Dr. is a bounty of anti-filmic invention and feverish, hyperbolic artifice that amounts to its decade finest critique of the idea of fiction cinema, non-fiction cinema, and the human condition filtered through any art form. When so many films are packaged for specific purposes, a work that seemingly exists to fulfill its own drives and rampaging pulses is a pleasure indeed. If that’s a little too ostentatious for you, then Lynch inoculates himself with themes a mile wide. But it’s the way visuals convey theme, and not theme per-se, that has always interested Lynch, and his visuals speak for themselves.
At some point in the late ’90s, David Lynch was asked to produce a television pilot for network production. As just about anyone who breaths when they get up in the morning could possibly guess, the finished product was not what the network was expecting. This, of course, is no mystery. Now, why a network would think a television pilot produced, written, and directed by David Lynch would be a huge success probably suggests they’d heard of Twin Peaks, lightning in a bottle fluke of a successful TV show if ever there was one, and not one likely to ever repeat itself, without ever actually having watched it, or remembered what he did with the highly confrontational second season. That they’d not actually seen any of his films is almost a given. As for when Lynch took the rejected idea, fashioned it out into a feature film, and took the entirety of television and film history to task in the process…well, that was no surprise at all. Possibly to the network, but they’re not real people anyway.
At some level, Mulholland Dr. has the free spirit and surrealist aura of Twin Peaks taken off the deep end, but its vicious indictment of Hollywood culture filtered through an appropriation of ’50s moral conservatism and smalltown melodrama veers closer to Blue Velvet than anything else (another famous screw you to Hollywood culture when Lynch took up the task of making the pop-culture mistake Dune for Dino DeLaurentis so that he could be given total and complete control over his next project to be funded by DeLaurentis, which turned out to be a product more unconventional than he could have imagined in his wildest nightmares). Like that film, Mulholland Dr. is a deceitful, hypnotic, lurid, never fully lucid film that has the unmistakable aura of stumbling onto an early ’90s soap opera constantly fading into and out of its own narrative. And its own consciousness.
This self-reflexive air of not so much recreating American life through the spirit of smalltown morality but through modern recreations of that spirit in the world of television and film, flows throughout the film from beginning to end. Take that recreation of highly melodramatic, manipulative daytime theater television pushed to the extremes of its own artifice and into the dicey, treacherous realms where parody and earnest recreation become one and the same, darken it up like midnight on a moonless light (to quote Lynch himself), and you can begin to imagine the hazy dream that is Mulholland Dr. Incidentally, you can only just begin to turn your head toward the full force of the Lynch aesthetic.
Trying to place a narrative on top of Lynch’s insidious parade of histrionic dialogue and garish, high-gloss soft lighting takes us into some might murky waters indeed. We are given aspiring actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) who shows up in LA to fall in love with America all over again, another woman who finds herself in Elm’s aunt’s house but can’t remember a thing about who she is or how she got there (Laura Elena Harring), and Hollywood director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) who is forced to cast a specific unknown as the lead in his upcoming film. We are given many more strands, in fact, and soon enough they will all come together. But the ways in which they do not only fail to take the form we expect; they don’t particularly seem to matter. Everything about Lynch’s film stretches the arbitrary quality of the material, the simple fact that we follow along simply because Hollywood tells us to. Not unlike Elms and her new female friend who decide to use Hollywood mysteries to follow arbitrary clues to find out the identity of the woman played by Harring. They’re running around aimlessly and without logic, except of course Hollywood logic.
And wouldn’t you know it, but, in a fashion, they succeed. This, of course, is no surprise to Lynchian die-hards. Because Lynch also loves Hollywood and enjoys submersing himself in this logic, if only to pervert it, it was never really in question that things would work out in the end with a sort of twisted variation on Herzog’s emotional truth. That, this sense of indicting something and then confounding all to come back and fall bitterly and madly in love with it yet again, is wholly Lynchian, and it gets to the heart of why anyone who says he “hates cinema” has a closeted view of why someone can love cinema. For Lynch absolutely finds cinema arbitrary, and he absolutely wants to point this out at every chance he gets. But he also undoubtedly, positively loves cinema for this very reason, and there is nothing he wants us to know more.
Of course, he’s also plenty willing to demand we drag ourselves through the dangerous portions of the cinematic world to get there. Lynch’s elliptical, forced narrative exists in a place of the unconscious and unquiet soul, and he makes sure it is not an easy place to escape from. He uses artificial lighting to embalm the film’s ghostly, drugged-out haze in a glossy sheen of grotesque characterization and anti-naturalist lighting (the artificial lighting is turned up to an almost sickly high-contrast to convey not onscreen Hollywood dream but backstage Hollywood nightmare in the film’s most famous shot of diminutive actor and Lynch regular Michael J Anderson fitted in an over-sized suit with over-sized limbs to give him the appearance of being eaten alive by his body).
The whole of the film unmistakably heightens and draws attention to its TV pilot origins, accentuating its distance and alienation in the sort of earnest, go-for-broke, sensualist way only directors like Lynch and his disciple Jim Jarmusch truly know how to sell without seeming contemptuous of their audience or overly sterile. Lynch’s insistent, almost cataclysmic ability to lull us into a slumber of continuity editing (the early, intentionally mundane bits are marked by an almost complete commitment to traditional Hollywood editing) is uncanny and committed (Lynch never goes for easy parody, and honors his form through and through). It is Lynch, though, so when the poison pen ink of this love letter to old Hollywood reveals itself, Lynch spends the rest of the film unraveling and subverting Hollywood with the shattered pizzaz of an edge-of-sanity ringleader with an insurrectionist sideshow.
More so than in any other Lynch project, in Mulholland Dr., the existential nihilism of the ending reminds us that films and television are lovely dreams, but they are just that: dreams, and nothing more. Everything about the film showcases to us that it is a dream, and the final forty minutes see us not so much wake up as become sucked into Lynch’s nightmare. They do nothing less than indict any producer or viewer who would have watched this would-be TV show and felt it to be truthful drama (there’s also plenty of indictment to go around for the producers who turned his pilot down, assuredly).
The closing act of the film is a brutal work of structural gamesmanship that hinges on the contrast between fiction and reality. Lynch hammers down this dividing line more fully than he ever has before (and this is the man who made Blue Velvet, may I remind you). It’s Lynch’s most distilled work, and the work with the most to say about David Lynch as an artist, almost consciously segmenting off sections that recall his past works, the nightmarish, the lovely, the hypnotic, and the surrealistic, and stringing them together with a gaze that intentionally draws attention to how these various tones do and do not fit together. It’s Lynch’s history of Lynch, defined by no one past work but an intentionally tumultuous melding of them all. Few films can ably recall it, and fewer still can even hope to look at its late-night moody jazz and return unchanged. If the Lynchian way is to take our mind and shake it to the core of its foundations, then Mulholland Dr. sees nothing sane enough to put it back together. As a psychotropic nightmare plunge into oblivion, its dream logic is inexplicable and unexplainable; it renders the idea of psychoanalysis, the hope of “understanding” the dream by crystallizing it into a singular point or points of meaning, essentially trivial and purposeless. A dream, for Lynch, is too uncontainable, too fluxional, too free-associative to be restricted and gerrymandered into a series of talking-points or meanings.