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After the relatively conventional The Straight Story (made for Walt Disney Pictures), director David Lynch is once again prowling the more absurd and nightmarish realms of human imagination. In many ways, his newest film, Mulholland Drive, is an astonishing film. It’s filled with remarkable imagery and audacious stylish excursions. It contains a hopelessly innocent ingénue who ventures to Hollywood with hopes of making it big as an actress; a mysterious dwarf who wields his rather impressive power from the confines of a room with curtains for walls (think of Twin Peaks); a pasty-skinned cowboy who hands out mysterious threats; a beautiful amnesiac who stumbles through the neighborhoods bordering Mulholland Drive; and a movie director who is pressured to use a certain actress in his new production. These characters, and many others, come together in a vision that rarely makes much sense, but the vision has a raw, ferocious power that is undeniable, even as it leaves filmgoers puzzling over how to make sense of the goings on.

If anything, however, Mulholland Drive is evidence of Lynch’s lack of interest in conventional explanations. This is a movie about setting up situations that will keep us transfixed as the increasingly bizarre and surrealistic events begin to unfurl. Eraserhead becomes the closest antecedent to this new vision from Lynch, for in Eraserhead nothing was expected to make much literal sense. Eraserhead was about setting up situations that virtually defied explanation.

Unlike Eraserhead, however, Mulholland Drive takes place in a recognizable universe. As in Lynch’s initially-dazzling television series Twin Peaks, his new movie takes its name from a physical location. Mulholland Drive does indeed exist. But don’t let yourself be deceived by appearances. The journey of Mulholland Drive melds the real world and the twisted world of recollection and dreams. It’s the real vs. the cerebral, and in the world of David Lynch, the world of the mind is infinitely more intriguing than the physical world.

The movie’s birth as a failed television pilot becomes particularly important, for suture marks abound on this project. Turning the original material into a feature film wasn’t easy. Some characters fly by so briefly that they hardly register. Everything in Mulholland Drive becomes an enigma as the movie slides down blind alleys and dead ends. While the digressions might have been welcome in a television mini-series, here the digressions tend to accumulate in burdensome heaps. But occasionally Lynch’s vision erupts in stunning fashion, especially in his fixation on unusual mannerisms and quirks. "This is the girl," says the financier to the film director, whose reaction varies from outrage to stupor. He can’t comprehend the oblique, cryptic manner of these men who control the purse strings. No one steps forward and says, "This is the girl that you must cast in the leading role or we will kill you." No. All he gets in an insistent "This is the girl" while a bald co-financier fixates on a cup of coffee. Scenes like this one unfurl in deliberately awkward pauses and twitches. Characters here would fit right into the world of Eraserhead with their single-minded vision that remains elusive and nebulous. What do they really want? Who are these people? Why can’t they communicate in a fashion that is even remotely familiar?

Likewise, when the movie’s heroine, Betty, arrives at the Los Angeles International Airport, we see an absurdly naïve character who is so positive and happy that she seems to belong to a different world (possibly a ‘50s television sitcom). Is she part of a twisted recollection? Is this recollection her own? Is she merely a convention of Lynch’s nightmarish vision? Lynch sprinkles in some clues, such as the elderly couple who sat beside Betty during her plane journey to L.A. As their taxi leaves the airport, the camera holds on the elderly couple. Their smiles spread so wide that they start to squeal in delight as if the excitement of the journey about to take place is more than they can stand. In scenes like this, the movie’s world begins to align itself with the psychotically(?) optimistic vision of Betty, and words such as "nightmare" and "surreal" become entirely insufficient for describing what takes place on the movie screen.

Lynch uses one of the oldest and hoariest plot devices ever created--amnesia. Christopher Nolan's Memento used a similar device and managed to pull it off through an unorthodox method of storytelling. Lynch trots out the old amnesia cliché while holding an unsettling revelation in store. However, unlike Nolan, Lynch tells his story in a conventional linear time sequence--until late in the movie, when it’s time to reveal what the hell is going on. Lynch’s revelation doesn’t have the same impact as Nolan’s in Memento. Lynch’s revelation is more arbitrary and convenient and less surprising than simply necessary to bring the movie to a conclusion. Yet even with the less-than-convincing final third that wraps up the story in a messy accumulation of sweat, viscera, and insane howling, Mulholland Drive remains an impressive experience.

It’s the friendship between the naïve Betty and the amnesia victim Rita that forms the movie’s emotional core. Betty has arranged to use her aunt’s house (who is away on an extended business trip) while she looks for acting gigs in Hollywood, but when she arrives, Betty discovers Rita has already taken residence in the apartment. Assuming Rita must be a friend of her aunt, she allows her to stay. Meanwhile Ann Miller as the apartment manager comes knocking, wondering what Rita is doing there. The eternally optimistic Betty wants to take care of Rita, so she lies, claiming Rita is her friend. And in the process Betty’s desire to help Rita turns into obsession and ultimately sexual desire.

Lynch lets this story unravel leisurely, as if we’re witnessing the opening episodes of a television mini-series. The story tilts this way and that, encompassing wild detours that are suddenly abandoned—but not before providing astonishing vignettes. In one sequence, Betty and Rita visit a strange old theater where "everything is recorded." They watch a woman stumble toward the microphone, her eyes bleary and out of focus, as if she is in a drug-induced haze. But then she starts to sing an astonishing Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s "Crying" that is so incredibly emotional and beautiful that Betty and Rita are reduced to tears. Dramatically, this scene doesn’t necessarily contribute much to Mulholland Drive, but as seen within the episodic structure of Lynch’s fragmented storytelling style, this sequence is a major highlight that should be appreciated for its overpowering sense of dislocation and its commitment to the concept that everything we see and hear is suspect. Are we seeing what we think we’re seeing? (An exceptionally important concept when considering a David Lynch film.)

In an equally astonishing sequence (but in a different way entirely), Betty auditions for a part in a movie. The audition takes place in a small office crammed with agents, producers, writers, directors, etc. We had already seen Betty practice the audition with Rita and she had looked awful, like an empty-headed high-school ingénue who equates emoting and diction with great acting. But at the audition, something entirely unexpected happens. Chad Everett stands opposite her in the audition (Yes, Chad Everett of Medical Center fame!) he slides up next to her. "Let’s play it close," he says with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. He’s an old horn dog relishing the opportunity to squeeze up close to a beautiful young woman. His breath turns into a moan of desire as he pulls her tight and rubs his crotch against her leg. The Betty we had seen through the movie’s first hour might’ve crumbled under the claustrophobic confines and the over-saturated lust. But she doesn’t crumble at all. She meets Everett’s oppressive pawing with an astonishing breathy purr that is nothing like the loud "acting" she did while practicing the scene with Rita. She reads lines where she threatens to kill Everett while simultaneously using body language that promises him her body. Suddenly Betty has depth and conviction. In a scene that appears to be a dramatic dead end, we’re asked to question what we’ve seen. Is Betty who we thought she was?

Lynch toys with these notions of appearances and deception throughout Mulholland Drive as he weaves an amazingly convoluted story that remains elusive long after the house lights go up. Most of the movie’s setup is astonishing. He sets up a barrage of oblique perspectives that only give us limited, incomplete information. These are the characters and situations that a television series could have lingered over for many weeks as he slowly peeled back the surface to reveal the truth underneath (very similar to the approach taken by Lynch in Twin Peaks). But this is a feature film and even though Lynch lets the story unravel over two and a half hours, he still has to wrap up the story in a relatively brief span of screen time. This is where the movie goes skittering out of control in a cacophony of twists that would be surprising if they weren’t so ludicrous and nonsensical.

Mulholland Drive is the remnant of a potentially great television series. As a feature film, it contains some of Lynch's very best filmmaking, but it also contains evidence of his almost complete lack of interest in conclusions. Lynch is attracted to the strange qualities that result when unusual characters find themselves in extraordinary situations. For Lynch, however, explaining the whys does little more than destroy the illusions.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site: Universal Pictures
Movie Web site: Mulholland Dr.



Photos: © 2001 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.