When I first saw Mulholland Drive at a second-run theater in downtown Portland, Maine, I hated it. I was angry that it existed. How could anyone finance this thing? I was right out of film school and as a result I had been blinded by the false idea that films had to flow at a specific pace and be very well defined by a three act structure with definable character arcs and a wrap-up that’s clear, cut and dry. I had the idea that if a character was in a dream, we knew it was a dream. My time at film school had taught me that films were for the audiences and not the artist and that audiences are stupid. At film school, it was hammered into me that films that make it into theaters are not art-house at any level and they should never be—if for no other reason than to demonstrate allegiance to financial investors. When I returned to my job the following day, one of my co-workers asked for my thoughts on the film. I sighed and muttered: “I cannot believe how awful it was.” She proceeded to inform me that David Lynch “has a style” and he can be “a little weird sometimes.” I decided then that David Lynch wasn’t for me.
But I, like all people, evolve over time. After I moved to New York, I immersed myself into the world of avant-garde cinema, in large part due to my frequent visits to screenings at the historic Anthology Film Archives. Anthology is a hot-bed of experimental cinema. Through a labyrinthine journey, I found my way back to David Lynch, albeit with a much more open mind. Although there are some titles of his that I have yet to warm to, Mulholland Drive is now one of my favorite films.
David Lynch is a filmmaker who deals with realities: the reality of the physical world and reality of the mind. They are separate spaces and with Mulholland Drive, Lynch plays with those spaces to leverage an emotional tax from his audience. As YouTuber Nerdwriter1 points out in his excellent visual essay “How David Lynch Manipulates You,” Lynch’s goal is to manipulate his audience by making them think they’re watching one kind of movie, but flipping the cards to show them another. This is achieved in the way he sets up the film’s story and characters. It is typical: a woman named Betty (Naomi Watts) wins a jitterbug contest and flies out to Los Angeles to become an actress. We’ve seen this story a hundred times over. David Lynch knows that we’ve seen this story and he goes through the checklist of what we’ll expect, only it’s not quite right. There seems to be no difficulties had by our heroine, Betty. Everyone she meets is friendly, honest and without any ulterior motives. She gets an audition off the bat and kills it. This is how Lynch gets his audience into a comfort zone so that when he feels he’s been setting up the deck long enough, he flips the cards—changes the game. Suddenly the film becomes unsettling and the younger me, who appreciated the first two-thirds of the film (because it conformed to my expectations), will become unsettled and angry by the latter half. Everything is different, in every way. Suddenly our famous actress wannabe, Betty, is now Diane. The faces are the same but the reality has changed. More than that, all expectations of the Hollywood story we thought we were going to see are not honored. In the first two-thirds of the film, Betty was a fantastic actress, but in the final third, with her name now Diane, she’s a total failure. Failure is the key to unlocking the film’s main through-line.
While there are abundant archetypical characters in Mulholland Drive (police detectives, a hitman, the typical lot of cast and crew found working in Hollywood), non-traditional allegorical characters emerge throughout the course of the film, some symbolic of very terrifying ideas. The most alarming of which is the homeless person residing at the back of the fictional Winkie’s Restaurant. We are introduced to this creepy character by means of two characters: Dan and Herb (Patrick Fischler and Michael Cooke), who are discussing a nightmare Dan had. Dan elaborates on a premonition-like image where Herb was standing on the other side of the restaurant, and the two proceeded to the back alley. It is in the back alley where Dan sees a terrifying face. He says that the face he saw in his nightmare was a face he hopes to never see. Alone, this scene could be taken any which way. However, in the context of everything else, Lynch is tackling the issue of failure or fear of failure. In Hollywood failure is inevitable for the majority of those that pursue a career in filmmaking and to have to look failure in the face is truly terrifying. No one who goes to Los Angeles wants to see that face. As their meeting in the restaurant progresses, soon Dan’s dream unfolds: Herb makes his way to the other side of the establishment. The two then walk out to the back alley where the homeless person emerges and then disappears. Dan faints at the sight of him/her. He has looked failure in the eyes and cannot handle it.
There’s a consistent pull towards conspiracy theory when one struggles to make it in such an industry like Hollywood. This pull is evident in Mulholland Drive with Lynch’s depiction of the studio system of filmmaking: a secret-society type of portrayal which is essentially how Betty/Diane rationalizes her struggle and eventual failure. Failure, once again emerging as an operative theme. Like Dan, our main heroine does not want to meet the face of failure. The idea is too terrifying. In turn, she must rationalize why she’s not landing certain acting jobs and a conspiracy against her is the easiest rationale. The function of this conspiracy portrayal is simply to do what the allegorical homeless person does: clue us into the idea that the first two-thirds are not the actual reality—but a reality of the mind. There is no single face for failure and there is no illuminati-style conspiracy running Hollywood. Warner Brothers and MGM are not the Skull and Bones. This can be confusing the first few times one watches the film, mainly because of the abrupt change in reality. But the abrupt change isn’t as complex as some may think, but is in fact quite simple: Diane woke up.
If one regards the first two-thirds as Diane’s dream, then the final third must be actual-reality. This is backed-up by the change in nearly every single aspect of the way Lynch portrays all the characters. No longer is there cookie-cutter dialog, expected changes in characters, nor the ensured success of its heroine. The film becomes truly gritty, real and tragic. Betty, now Diane, is a failed actress. Her best friend and love interest is engaged to the director who, in the first two-thirds, seemed to be falling in love with Betty. People aren’t as warm or welcoming. The reality in the final third is simply cutthroat—a closer reflection to actual reality than what had previously been presented.
In an interview dated in 1997, discussing Lost Highway, Charlie Rose asked David Lynch “When people say Lynchian, what do they mean?” Lynch went on to say “… when you’re inside of it, you can’t see it.” This is because Lynch seems to pursue his work instinctually. He utilizes his subconscious to guide him to the finish line. This is evident in the way he pursued the completion of Mulholland Drive and accounts for why his work is the way it is: Lynchian in nature. It makes sense at a practical level that Mulholland Drive wouldn’t feel typical in structure. The film started out as a rejected TV pilot and Lynch came back to it much later and finished it as a film once additional funding was in place. This circumstance, in and of itself, allowed the film to operate at a different level. David Lynch has admitted that his goal is to get his actors locked into the place, mentality, that he’s been locked into—that place where the film already exists in his mind. If this is how he pursues working with his actors, then it’s safe to assume that this is how he operates with his audience: to push them where they need to be to see the world through his eyes. Lynch will maximize all of the tools he has available to achieve this end—and our expectations of how movies flow is a tool that Lynch commands with precision. We should not expect anything less from an artist of multiple mediums.
Though the younger version of me was unhappy with the initial experience, the wiser version understands it now. To view a David Lynch film is an education, and obtaining an education isn’t always easy or pleasant—but the end result is what matters most. David Lynch gets results. David Lynch has shown us on multiple occasions that filmmaking can be both for the audience and the artist, though the audience will need to be more open-minded and patient. I’m ecstatic that I’ve come around to finding an ingress to understanding Lynch’s work and I hope that others find their way too.
Ebert, Roger. “Mulholland Drive”. Review. November 11, 2012.
Ebiri, Bilge. “Why David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive Is a Great Horror Film.” Vulture. October, 23, 2014.
Lynch, David. Mulholland Drive. 2001. Film.
Nerdwriter1. “Mulholland Drive: How Lynch Manipulates You”. YouTube Video. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXZK0Binfk4
Olson, Greg. Beautiful Dark. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. 2008. Print.
Rose, Charlie. “David Lynch interview on Charlie Rose (1997)”. YouTube Video. Web. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ICCqk-fH_c