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I’m sure it’s so incredibly normal and oft repeated to think, after watching a surrealist film, that what you’ve just witnessed was like a dream. It’s not some penetrating analysis, a mapping of the film’s (perhaps dubious) semiology. Yet this simple phrase—“like a dream”—has invariably kept slithering back each time I have since reflected upon watching David Lynch’s 2001 tour-de-force tale of Hollywood tragedy, Mulholland Drive. I was familiar with the “Lynchian” aesthetic, having seen half of his work prior, yet Mulholland Drive left such an indelible mark deep somewhere within me that the former, and their respective viewing experiences, just hadn’t. As I drove home from The Frida that night via the silent freeways alongside those who shared the road unaware of what I had just seen, I tried without success to search the dusty catalogs of my mind for another film that could compare to this gripping cinematic experience.
With everything David Lynch has done, there are these “eccentricities” dotting the story, some appearing less significant than others. But they all serve to create a sense of disjointed unity that helps establish the dreamlike quality which so hauntingly pervades the film. Off-kilter dialogue and moments of surreal humor come before or follow equally surreal darkness and emotional intensity. Most people familiar with Lynch’s filmography know how dreams and their logic—or rather, their “illogic”—are a running stylistic choice. Specifically, the dreams we tell ourselves—or, to take from Lynch’s prior work, Lost Highway (1997): to see things our own way—serve as themes in his films. Our hopes and aspirations. Our naivety. And that’s really at the core of this film. Bright-eyed Betty takes on Hollywood with her dreams of fame. But when all crumbles around her, she cannot bear to face reality, to see the present for what it is.
The film utilizes a nonlinear narrative structure. Therefore, some mapping of its plot and tying strings together is required. This also makes analyzing the film that much more difficult. That’s why there are so many YouTube videos titled “Mulholland Drive Explained.” This is not a one-off phenomenon with this film, however; most, if not all, of his films (except for 1999’s The Straight Story), when typed into the search bar, also yield below an “explained” tag. Mulholland Drive, in particular, has so many of these due to its immense popularity. The film ended up gaining Lynch a Best Director nomination at the 74th Academy Awards in 2002. To me, though, these video essays appear superfluous. At its core, the film is not terribly difficult to comprehend. Yet there are so many elements that envelop this story that tear our focus away from what goes on. Too many, in fact, to create a video that tries to explain them. And, in my opinion, whatever thematic elements lie within the layered fragments of the film are secondary to the emotional weight and sublimity it offers audiences. The feelings Lynch is able to elicit from these seemingly disparate scenes, shouldn’t make sense. Frequent collaborator Angelo Badalamenti’s score is one thing that helps augment these feelings as well as tie the film together to feel like a whole. His synths and ethereal textures act as an emotional backdrop (as all good scores do) but also sneak up on you during a scene to add the tension and to parallel the ever-creeping nature of reality pecking away. The soundtrack, among the aforementioned stylistic elements, made the viewing experience more gripping and engaging than any other theater experience I had had prior.
On a purely aesthetic level, the film is a masterpiece. Roger Ebert, discussing Mulholland Drive as one of his favorite movies of 2001, notes that “even if you can’t figure out a single thing, the film is compulsively watchable, with images of eroticism, mystery, Nancy Drew style adventure, bizarre auditions, and creepy theatrical performances… it’s a mesmerizing labyrinth.” Lynch himself never divulges much thematically about his films nor about the stylistic choices in accenting meaning, instead opting for the full endorsement of becoming a passive receptor of ideas. And when the ideas come, “you see it, and you hear it, and you know it.” And Mulholland Drive is full of them.
Mulholland Drive screens at The Frida Cinema starting Tuesday, July 19th.
Tuesday, Jul 19 – 5pm, 8pm
Wednesday, Jul 20 – 5pm, 8pm
Thursday, Jul 21 – 5pm, 8pm