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Spring 2002

Deep Sleep

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Steve Vineberg
Mulholland Drive,
written and directed by David Lynch, 2001.



Of the 146 minutes’ running time of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, roughly the first 100 take place while the main character is asleep. She’s Diane Selwyn (played by Naomi Watts), but in her dream she’s a wide-eyed Canadian kid named Betty Elms. Betty arrives in L.A. with the hope of making it in the movies and becomes involved—first emotionally, then sexually—with a beautiful stranger (Laura Harring) who calls herself Rita but is actually suffering from amnesia. What we’re shown of Rita’s story is the set-up for a classic film noir: high above the city, on an elegant, secluded stretch of Mulholland Drive, she’s ordered out of a limousine at gunpoint and only escapes with her life because another car smashes into hers, killing her assailants before they can shoot her. Wandering alone through the early-morning streets and then hiding behind a bush outside an apartment complex—a magnificent example of 1920s California baroque—she manages to sneak in when one of the tenants leaves in the morning. (Jack Fisk and Peter Deming are responsible for, respectively, the stunning production design and cinematography.) The apartment belongs to Betty’s aunt, who’s arranged for Betty to stay at her place while she’s off on a movie shoot. Betty finds Rita in the shower when she walks in and before long becomes embroiled in her quest to find her identity, which leads them, in a tense, Hitchcockian scene, to a second apartment complex and the dead body of a woman named Diane Selwyn.

Mulholland Drive was conceived as the pilot of a projected TV series, but though Lynch shot it, it was never picked up, so he wrote an additional forty-five minutes—the waking part. And perhaps it’s the well-known story of the way the movie was made that is partly responsible for the misperception that the last three-quarters of an hour was merely tacked on. I’m not sure what Lynch originally had in mind, back when he was preparing the TV series, for Betty and Rita and the other characters we meet in the first hour and a half of the movie. They include a young film director named Adam (Justin Theroux) who is commanded by the studio’s Mafia associates to cast an unknown blonde named Camilla Rhodes in the leading role of his new movie; a hit man who shoots an old friend to get hold of a mysterious black book; and a terrified man who—like the hero of the classic 1945 British horror anthology Dead of Night—can’t break free of a recurring nightmare where a monster lies in wait behind a familiar diner. But the fact is that when Lynch turned the material into the movie Mulholland Drive, he reworked it—ingeniously—so that each of the strands of Diane’s dream reflects some part of her waking reality. When she rises, shaken into consciousness by one of the figures in her dream—the wan, drawling Cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery), who appeared earlier to threaten Adam with implicit harm if he didn’t accede to the demands of the mob-run studio—Lynch provides us with a series of flashbacks to explain how she got to the psychic state that produced so florid and passionate and violent a dream.

We discover that Diane is deeply depressed, having hired the hit man herself to kill her lover, a successful movie actress named Camilla who has become engaged to her director (Adam)—and who is played, of course, by Laura Harring. Diane paid the hit man off in the diner, handing over Camilla’s picture along with the cash and instructing him pointedly, “This is the girl”—the words that, in Diane’s dream, Adam is ordered to say when “Camilla Rhodes” shows up for her screen test. So the monster behind the diner is Diane herself—or the part of her that, in a jealous rage, arranged for the death of the person she loved most in the world. We don’t see Camilla’s corpse, but we know she was killed before Diane dropped into her deep Freudian sleep: the hit man warns her in one flashback that once money has changed hands the deal is irrevocable, and her neighbor mentions that a pair of detectives have come by more than once looking for her. (The detectives in Diane’s dream, played by Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe, are investigating the accident on Mulholland Drive and looking for the missing woman, who left evidence of her presence behind in the death car.) Diane’s life is really over when she wakes up, but we don’t realize it until we’ve seen the end of her romance with Camilla and the ugly revenge she set in motion. In a sense, Diane’s dream—which returns her emotionally to the optimism of her own early days in Hollywood and the fervor and discovery of her first lovemaking with Camilla—is the last journey she has to take before letting go of the sour, sordid mess she’s made of her life. And if we can find our way through the maze of the narrative, it’s our eventual recognition that the dream is a kind of valedictory that gives the maligned last section of Lynch’s movie a special poignancy.

Theoretically, I suppose, a movie ought to be clear to its audience on a first viewing, but some filmmakers work so subtly, and on such an instinctive level—and with technique sophisticated enough to carry through those instincts—that the first time around we may not catch on. Even after all these years of watching Robert Altman’s and Brian De Palma’s movies, I still sometimes find I’m late picking up the signals, as if I hadn’t been entirely awake when I started watching; and Lynch sometimes works that way for me too. Most movies, both in and out of the mainstream, are so banal and lacking in surprise that you could probably figure out everything you needed to know even if you were half asleep. Then you walk into a Lynch or a De Palma or an Altman and your senses are fully engaged, engaged to overflowing. You have to be ready for these directors—and I believe I’m paying them the supreme compliment when I say that. It’s an inescapable fact that, no matter how many movies you’ve seen, you still link up with each new one, initially, on the simple level of plot. But these three master filmmakers insist on taking highly unconventional approaches to plot. De Palma employs it as a hook, a lure, and then throws it away when he gets deep enough into the characters’ feelings. The most emotional of genre directors, he makes movies that sidestep our expectations for genre pictures, and though he provides the surface pleasures of that kind of film, where we end up is so far from where we expected we were going that audiences may feel betrayed, as if they’d signed on for a cruise and found themselves on a safari. Altman ladles on oodles of plot, but in such a casual, tossed-off way that you scarcely know it’s unfolding. Most moviemakers never get under the surface, but Altman’s pictures often have no surface at all—they demand total submersion or they just pass you by. And Lynch, our great native surrealist, puts the elements of his plot into a dream—where they’re linked, inevitably, to marvelously eerie, suggestive music by Angelo Badalamenti. That’s Lynch’s natural narrative mode, because he makes emotional connections imagistically, not through the typical process by which movies and TV shows reveal theme and uncover character motivation, the realist conventions of the nineteenth-century well-made play. Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw took those conventions about as far as they could go, but they’re still with us; we’re addicted to them. I don’t mean to disdain them; they can be very pleasurable in a well-turned story line like that of The Usual Suspects (which has no depth) or L.A. Confidential (which has considerable depth). But Lynch doesn’t work in that tidy, rhyming fashion. He lays down little trails for us to follow, and when we reach the endpoint of his treasure hunt, we find he has no intention of explaining all the details we encountered along the way. That can be maddening, of course, especially when the unexplained episodes aren’t compelling in and of themselves. (The Mafia scenes in Mulholland Drive tried my patience, except for the weird, suggestive exchange between Adam and the Cowboy, and I wasn’t wild over the hit-man sequence in Diane’s dream either.) Lynch tempts us with the black book and then never bothers to tell us what’s in it or why a man died for it; all he cares about is that someone hired a hit man to kill for it—just as Diane hired the same hit man to kill her girlfriend. He builds an elaborate story about Adam’s movie and the Mafia, but its only importance turns out to be in the way “This is the girl” galvanizes all of Diane’s feelings of love and loss, envy and longing and betrayal.

Those feelings, of course, are what Mulholland Drive is about, and the rewards of figuring out Lynch’s methodology for getting us to them are great: you wind up dazzled by their intensity. The true story of Diane in Hollywood began when she won a screen test as the prize in a jitterbug contest. (The competition is glimpsed in the movie’s opening images, which are like cut-outs and evoke the Fifties—Lynch’s visual shorthand, familiar to us from Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, for the innocent time that never really existed.) But she never got anywhere. The only parts she ever landed were bits in Camilla’s movies, offered lovingly, perhaps, but hard for Diane to see as anything but scraps from her lover’s princely plate. But Betty has talent, and she knocks people out with it. Her aunt has set up an audition for her on the day she arrives in L.A. The excerpt she has to prepare is a dumb potboiler scene; when Rita helps her run her lines, the two young women end up giggling helplessly over the melodramatic dialogue and the abrupt emotional shifts. But when Betty does her audition, opposite an aging Lothario (Chad Everett), she floods the scene with unexpected sexual danger and poises it on a knife’s edge between fury and heartbreak. This must be the most sensational audition scene ever put in a movie, and it’s prime David Lynch—the currents of feeling seem to materialize out of the woodwork like ghosts. (Naomi Watts is phenomenal here; she’s the acting find of the year.) You gasp when you realize that this sweet-faced hayseed had all this stuff in her, but that’s the Lynch vision—that there is no such thing as the commonplace, that all of us are quirky and have our own dark oceans bubbling around inside us. Blue Velvet told us the same thing, and Twin Peaks confirmed it, and even his most benign movie, the serene, touching 1999 The Straight Story, is about the emotional reserves of a quiet man whose journey to see his estranged, ailing brother is an odyssey of surpassing strangeness: a 300-mile trip across the heartland in a John Deere riding mower with a trailer hitched behind it. The unsuspected depths of Betty Elms lead her into a lesbian romance with the raven-haired beauty she finds in her aunt’s shower, and they make her into a breathtakingly exciting actress. When an agent, captivated by her performance at the audition, takes her across the studio lot to meet Adam, who’s testing actresses for the lead in his movie, he takes one look at her and just knows she’s right for it. But he doesn’t have a choice; he has to cast Camilla Rhodes. (Melissa George, who plays the dream Camilla—and who was seen, briefly but memorably, as the costar of the TV series Thieves—shows up later in one of Diane’s flashbacks. There she’s a young woman at the real Camilla’s engagement party who whispers something to Camilla and then kisses her on the lips—a hint of yet another betrayal, one Diane is obviously just finding out about.) You can see the disappointment in Adam’s face when he repeats the phrase “This is the girl”: he’s just seen Betty, and this should have been the girl. In Diane’s fevered mind it should have been she, not Adam, who wound up with Camilla; she, not Camilla, who made it in Hollywood.

In Blue Velvet, Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece, the protagonist is a college boy (Kyle MacLachlan) whose induction into the world of sexual desire is divided into two parts: an adolescent relationship with a high school girl (Laura Dern) and a passionate affair, tinged with elements of sadism and masoch-ism, with a damaged nightclub singer (Isabella Rossellini). By Twin Peaks, made four years later, the distance between Sandy, the innocent teenager in her rose-colored bedroom, and the openly erotic, tragic Dorothy—who are linked by their emotional intensity as well as by their feelings for MacLachlan’s Jeffrey—has been eliminated. The kids in Twin Peaks—not only Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), with her open cheerleader’s smile and her shimmering golden looks, but even her less worldly best friend Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle)—are already way past innocence, and if they’re not when Lynch’s TV show begins, they definitely are twenty minutes later, when Laura’s murder is announced by a tearful principal over the school’s loudspeaker. At the beginning of Mulholland Drive, we think we recognize the trope from Blue Velvet that splits the golden-haired naif (Betty) and the dark femme fatale (Rita, who borrows the name from a Hay-worth poster in Betty’s aunt’s apartment). But that’s because we don’t yet know that Betty is only a figment of Diane’s dream—a romanticized version of the girl she was when she landed in L.A., before she met Camilla. What Lynch does here is to combine the bright girl and the dark woman in a single character: Diane/Betty. Of course, we don’t know how much like Betty Diane used to be; by the time we see Diane, with her edgy style and her defensive, shadowed look, her bitter disappointments have wasted her. But on some level she has Betty inside her (literally). And even before Lynch breaks the dream apart—even while we’re under the impression that Betty is the movie’s protagonist—there are sides to her that we don’t expect, sides that she reveals in the audition sequence and when she invites Rita into her bed. And neither of the two characters Laura Harring plays in this movie is merely a femme fatale. Rita is more of an innocent than Betty: wandering through L.A., her mind wiped clean of all memories, she only looks like a seductress. And though Camilla leaves Diane for Adam, Lynch includes a touching scene—the original that, in Diane’s dream, has been transformed into the violence on Mulholland Drive—where the limo delivering Diane to the engagement party stops suddenly in the hills and Camilla herself appears to escort her personally up to the festivities. There’s a strange courtliness to Camilla’s behavior here. It may be the equivalent of a farewell kiss, and we can’t ignore the creepy side of her leading her old girlfriend by the hand to make her witness the celebration of her upcoming marriage. But the action, as Lynch stages it, has a bittersweet quality, too, an acknowledgement of the weight of their relationship. Lynch can be great on the way love can go wrong: the only scenes in his Lost Highway that really work—the early scenes—chronicle the disintegration of a romance. He does it once again in Mulholland Drive, but in a way no one ever has before. Dark and light are still crosshatched in Lynch’s work; visually, I imagine, that will always be his trademark. Emotionally, though, he’s moved so deep into his material that the line that divides them is no longer visible.



Steve Vineberg teaches both theater and film at Holy Cross College in Massachusetts. He has written fegularly for The Threepenny Review since 1985.
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