Thursday, August 9, 2012

Director Spotlight #8.13: David Lynch's Mulholland Drive

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. July’s director is master surrealist David Lynch.

Grade: 97 (A)

David Lynch had originally intended Mulholland Drive to be a TV show, and most of the footage from the pilot made it into the film. But ABC turned down the show, citing the nonlinear storyline and ages of the stars as being problems. Undaunted, David Lynch added onto the pilot to make a feature length film. The result is one of Lynch’s finest films, his most critically acclaimed work since they heyday of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, and a fine addition to the puzzle box movies of the late 90s and early 2000s (Memento, Donnie Darko, Fight Club). The film is a fascinating comment on the slippery nature of reality, the power of dreams, and how they’re crushed by reality.

NOTE: Yet again, no way to get into this without spoilers, so be forewarned.

“Rita” (Laura Elena Harring) has been in a terrible car accident on Mulholland Drive in Hollywood. She has no memory of who she is or what happened. She befriends a perky aspiring actress named Betty Elms (Naomi Watts in a career-making role), who vows to help Rita find out about her past. Meanwhile, Hollywood director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is bullied by the studio and the mob on who to cast as the lead in his new movie.

That’s the basic plot to Mulholland Drive, but the movie is so filled with diversions and sidetracks that it’s easy to get lost even before the third-act twist that throws nearly everyone through a loop the first time around. But where Lynch’s next movie, Inland Empire, would go way off the deep end, Mulholland Drive has a strong through-line in its central story and a noir backbone to keep it from getting too abstract. Lynch keeps a number of his more far-out influences (Kubrick, Polanski) in the more atmospheric touches (particularly his always masterful use of sound), but better yet is his use of Billy Wilder-esque black comedy (the incompetent hitman, some of the swipes at Hollywood since Sunset Blvd.) and Hitchcockian suspense. The film mixes the thematic ground of Lynch’s biggest influences: Hitchcock’s interest in doubles and obsession, Herzog’s fascination with madness, and Wilder’s interest in how the American Dream chews people up and spits them out. And of course, there’s another polarized world a la The Wizard of Oz, one of Lynch’s favorite films.

Lynch is a master at building dread, and he proves this both in the main story and the many sidetracks the film takes. When Betty and Rita play amateur detective and break into a dead woman’s apartment, the threat of the two getting caught could potentially be life or death. When Adam has to meet a strange character named The Cowboy out on a ranch, Lynch’s use of dim light in the dark night helps bring an uneasy mood to the meeting. And then there’s the famous scene behind Winkie’s restaurant- we hear Patrick Fischler’s character describe the frightening figure he saw behind the restaurant, so we have some idea of what we’re going to get…and yet Lynch distorts the sound and drags out the tension to interminable levels so brilliantly that it’s hard not to scream when we finally do see the figure. That said, Lynch is also a master of bringing surreal black comedy to the fray as well. The bit with the incompetent hitman early in the film is perhaps the funniest scene in Lynch’s filmography, though everything involving the pretentious film director at Betty’s audition would rival it (“it’s the two of them…with themselves…”).

Lynch fills the film with some of his best weird minor characters, from the menacing Cowboy to the Castigliani Brothers (played by Dan Hedaya and composer Angelo Badalamenti) to Justin Theroux’s fun part as an ill-tempered, pretentious filmmaker who looks quite a bit like Jean-Luc Godard (probably just a coincidence there, though). The film wouldn’t work without its central characters, though: Laura Elena Harring has the look of an Old Hollywood beauty, with the same mysterious, ineffable quality of her character’s namesake, Rita Hayworth.

Naomi Watts gives the best performance by an actress in the 2000s as Betty Elms, a girl with the gee-whiz good golly gosh perkiness and optimism of Doris Day. Lynch deserves credit for giving her the hilarious, intentionally corny dialogue that fits her character, but the wrong actress could make the part annoying. Watts sells every moment as the ultimate good girl next door in Lynch’s filmography- someone who can seemingly fix every situation and keep anyone safe just by staying with them. It’s easy to see why Rita gravitates to her (aside from her beauty)- she’s so sweet and determined to succeed that the idea that she could fail doesn’t come into play. Much has been written about Betty’s audition scene- the script is terrible, the director pretentious. It’s all hopeless until Betty takes control of the situation- all of the sudden the perky Doris Day character is a sexually adventurous young woman, with the ability to turn even the worst scene into a show-stopper. And then there’s the famous love scene between Betty and Rita- a scene that’s equally erotic and sweet, and the final moment of real happiness in Betty’s life.

Diversions aside, Mulholland Drive is fairly easy to follow until Lynch pulls the rug out from under us in the final forty minutes with the justly famous Club Silencio sequence- as it’s made abundantly clear, everything in Club Silencio is an illusion. There’s no band playing, the gorgeous Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” is only a recording, and Betty is truly afraid. Watts and company reportedly had no idea what the film was about during production, but you’d never know it watching her play the scene. It’s the first scene where we see start to see all of the cracks in Betty’s façade- perhaps she’s not the perfect girl we thought she was. Lynch litters plenty of clues throughout the film that not everything is as it seems- Betty’s too perfect, Rita’s too dependant, and the odd sidetracks have to add up to something. Lynch has always been interested in dream logic, but Mulholland Drive is the most explicit example. Betty can’t hold onto the illusion anymore- “it’s time to wake up”.

Betty, it turns out, is not Betty, but Diane, and Rita is “Camilla”. Watts and Harring do an excellent job at showing the polar opposites to their previous characters- Camilla is not the sweet, dependent Rita, but rather a deeply cruel and manipulative Hollywood starlet. Diane is not the eternally perky and extraordinarily gifted Betty, but a despairing young woman whose dreams outweigh her talent. All of the sudden, the too-good-to-be-true segments of the first two hours make more sense- in her dream, Diane/”Betty” has the successful career and the adoring girlfriend instead of being an unrequited lover. Adam, the cynical, megalomaniacal creep of a director can’t get his movie made his way, and the only reason he doesn’t cast the “extraordinary” Betty is because a talentless hack, “Camilla”, has forced her way in. Coco (Ruth Miller in her final role) is not Adam’s dismissive mother, but Betty’s sweet old landlord.

But it can’t last: the City of Dreams is a city of nightmares, Diane has been rejected and publicly humiliated by her former lover, and she’s hired the not-incompetent hitman to kill her. She can’t escape her guilt forever. The dream has too many reminders of the truth- a blue key like the one that signified the deed was done; a horrifying presence at Winkie’s, the All-American restaurant where she hired a murderer; and the knowledge that this is all an illusion in the end. Dreams give way to crushing realities, and guilt gives way to madness in a horrifying final scene where Diane imagines the adorable/creepy old people from her dream as spectres of guilt. She cannot take it- she ends it all. And the heavens open up for Diane, a sweet escape from the nightmare of reality. Hollywood is a great place if you’re successful…and hell if you’re not. The great American Dream is a lie. “Silencio.”

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