On the Road Again: David Does The City of Angels
by Mark Peranson
As coy and tight-lipped as ever, David Lynch provided critics with but a one-line summary of his newest film: "A love story in the city of dreams." He's right, of course, but "Mulholland Drive" isn't your grandmother's love story, and the dreams he presents are shattered on every level. Those sulky viewers who deserted the pop surrealist master with the psycho-fugue of "Lost Highway," and may have been gratified with the ultra-linearity of "The Straight Story" might as well stay on their couches, because "Mulholland Drive" is Lynch at his most structurally ambitious and mind-blowing best. In "Mulholland Drive," the underlit and overimagined streets of Los Angeles are used as a launching point for the exploration of the dark recesses of the mind; loosely connected ideas ebb and flow and leave psychic scars in their wake. Like the mode of transportation L.A. is most noted for, the film speeds up and down, shifting gears, and runs down a road full of twists and turns, ultimately ending up with . . . Silencio.
The genesis of the project was as an ABC pilot (soon rejected), and the first half is shot in a more traditional style, parodic of Hollywood filmmaking -- with gratuitous establishing shots, a (mostly) linear narrative, and iconic characters culled from Lynch's favorite decade, the 1950s. The only two "stars" in the film -- Robert Forster and Dan Hedaya, both prominently featured in the press book -- each have a total of one scene in the film's elliptical prelude. The bulk of the material falls on the shoulder of relative unknowns, Australian Naomi Watts and former "Sunset Beach" actor Laura Elena Harring (this millennium's Lara Flynn Boyle and Sherilyn Fenn).
Watts plays Betty, a wide-eyed, bushy-tailed blonde from Deep River, Ontario (where?), who arrives in the City of Dreams fresh off winning a jitterbug contest to make it big as an actress, aided by her aunt's contact with a studio exec. When she arrives to stay at her aunt's, she discovers an amnesiac, shell-shocked Harring in the shower, who we have earlier seen barely survive a phenomenal car crash. Not knowing her own name, she espies a poster of "Gilda" and assumes the name and sultry mantle of Rita Hayworth.
Over the course of the next hour; the time of which roughly coincides with that of a TV pilot, Betty has her first, excessively sultry audition, meets director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) the two women play Nancy Drew (Betty, full with glee, says "It's like we're in the movies) and try to discover Rita's true identity using the clue of a name: Nancy Selwyn. Diane, it turns out, has been rotting in her apartment for three weeks or so, and the girls are frightened -- rushing out into the sun, and shot (by "Lost Highway" cinematographer Peter Deming, he of the shaky heads) in a blur of blinding, shaking whiteness. But have no fear, in a lovely and tender "Red Shoe"-sque moment more suited to Cinemax than ABC, Betty and Rita (now wearing a blonde wig) end up making out in Auntie's bed. Then, to put it mildly, all hell breaks loose.
In a severe and extensive reworking of the pilot (Lynch acknowledges that pretty much all of the film's second half were reshoots), characters switch names, personalities are inverted, a woman with blue hair in a mysterious nightclub called "Silencio" lip-synchs Roy Orbison in Spanish, and we are left with the obtuse portrait of a psyche shattered from professional and personal let down. (To give away any more would be cruel.)
The impulse to interpret exactly what goes on is undercut by elements thrown in by Lynch as unreadable, primal symbols (remember these new entries into the Lynchian lexicon: The Cowboy; The Burnt Man; The Blue Box). In a way, though, grasping the film as a secure, definable object isn't all that crucial. As abstract filmmaking goes, this is the bomb. "Mulholland Drive" builds at break-neck speed, as Lynch intuitively integrates unforgettable images with a dense, intricate sound design of his own fashion. (The film's multiple variations are also echoed in Angelo Badalamenti's sublime score.) In these areas, "Mulholland Drive" is among Lynch's grandest achievements.
But, as par for the course, he gives us one expository scene to tide us over: Betty who is now Diane, relates her story -- what can be loosely defined as "the reality" in a manner that encourages one to recast the entire opening moments as a pop-life fantasy sequence of the idealized version of Hollywood for a newcomer and the painful fall that occurs when dreams end up diverging from reality. As the two halves are meant to be treated dialectically, there are still moments where, as it were, text enters subtext. This should all become much clearer on second and third viewings. But don't expect to get it all.
"Mulholland Drive" may be a remix of Lynch's other films (familiar signifiers pop up aplenty), but it's a remix that manages something unique. Lynch taps into a well of concealed despair and disillusionment, castigating Hollywood -- and those in American society who have subsumed its values, or who think their lives can be lived according to its movies. To sum up the allusive and illusive object that is "Mulholland Drive," you only need to know that it also has, in a small role, none other than Billy Ray Cyrus.
[Mark Peranson is the editor of Cinema Scope (insound.com/zinestand/cscope).]
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