If moviemakers weave their dreams for us, David Lynch animates his nightmares. Learn how Eagle Scout and filmmaker puts cinematic technique to manipulate audiences in his 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Drive.
Among Lynch's work, 2001's Mulholland Drive, with Blue Velvet, represents most clearly Lynch's cinema of nightmare; his films run on dream logic, even when they are at their most naturalistic. Lynch gets away with a lot, but his golly-gee appearance and persona is a mask he wears to hide his calculations (cf. Hitchcock's public face); there's a high degree of cinematic technique at work behind what can seem like the footage from a CCTV camera in someone's brain.
Evan Puschak of Nerdwriter posits that, just as other directors manipulate lighting, Lynch manipulates and subverts expectation. His case rests on an examination of one scene in particular: Betty, played by Naomi Watts, has gone to audition for a role in The Sylvia North Story, a melodramatic film within-a-film that features many of the tropes of mid-century America that Lynch has had a running obsession with for his whole career. In the first moments of Blue Velvet, the camera brings us from the picket fence America of Lumberton to a much more disturbing place, as the camera passes the body of the heart attack victim, down into the grass, into the ever-present reality under our feet. This is a sight we almost never see, and the sound of the earth teeming is indelible. To simplify (vastly), there is more going on than we see. More, even, than we can imagine.
At the beginning of the film, Watt's Betty is a trope herself, the wannabe starlet who arrives in L.A. from Deep River, Ontario, to become a movie star, though she would rather be a serious actress (ah, youth). She has a sunny disposition, and doesn't even seem bothered that that there is a strange, amnesiac woman living in the house she has rented; she is less a person than a caricature of fresh-faced innocence. Watts' performance in the early part of the film, then, subconsciously primes viewers for one narrative. Which we get, sort of, though, this being Lynch, we also get more. A great deal more, in fact. Since Lynch has already shown us Watts rehearsing the scene with her roommate (who, again, is an amnesiac stranger who happens to just be there when Watts arrives), we in the audience know that both the scene and Betty's performance are hokey and dumb. And so our expectations are set.
When she gets into the audition we are made aware, once again, of the director's uncanny ability to conjure a uniquely skin-crawling brand of psycho-sexual menace; I would conjecture that this is, in part, due to the faces he casts (cf. Robert Loggia's Robert Evans' like-crocodile tan in Lost Highway) that telegraph a certain leering decadence, and also because Lynch is so promiscuous in his stylistic approach. In Highway, Loggia almost beats a man to death for tailgating him, though the mise en scène is totally cheerful and naturalistic. It's almost comic, but not quite. Not quite, because what it is, more than anything, is horrifying and creepy. (Though the uploader on YouTube calls it the "only humorous scene in the movie." Ha. Ha.)
Throughout the film thus far, the audience has been led to look at the surface of things, and even though there is a probable subconscious knowledge on the part of the audience that there is something underneath the surface, here what we are shown, in this audition scene, is something infinitely stranger than we were expecting. Instead of lecherous vultures exploiting the country bumpkin starlet who could barely contain her amusement at the soap opera level dialogue before, we are given a moment of intense and dark erotic emotion; more important, it is genuine emotion, which is precisely what we've been lacking thus far in the film. Watts' and the actor with whom she reads her lines (a man who looks as though he could be George Hamilton's body double, if George Hamilton needs one, which is fact I do not know but have reason to doubt) have a real moment, ambiguous and creepy though it is.
Like many of Lynch's films, Mulholland Drive is intensely personal, so personal that it becomes universal, which is part of Lynch's appeal. And yet, the film is known as one of the director's "easiest" films to wrap your head around; the reason for this, perhaps, lies in the fact that the first 96 odd-minutes are the pilot episode of a series Lynch was developing for ABC. And indeed, the first hour and a half are relatively open-ended. They suggest, once you know their genesis, the set-up to what could be an open-ended story, Twin Peaks in L.A., etc. But starting with a sex scene between Watts and her amnesiac roommate (Laura Elena Harring), a scene that ABC would almost certainly not have aired, the film's reality begins to unravel, morphing into an obverse of what has come before. Lynch has said that, when forced to write an ending for what was now a movie, he meditated and found that “all the ideas came, all at once.” Though the ideas were simple to conjure, they themselves were not. This sequence, one of the most haunting in Lynch's filmography, and perhaps even cinema, never fails to disturb and unnerve.
Perhaps a reason for the film's reputation as one of the director's easier films is that, from the first, even the marketing campaign included "clues" as to its meaning. While Lynch himself has been mum on the subject, and Roger Ebert wrote, "There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery," the film is, on several (at least one of them being Freudian) levels, fairly easy to interpret. The film has to be seen to be interpreted, and it would be unfair to engage in speculations here, beyond those revealed in the Puschak's video. But, like the shot in Lost Highway where Bill Pullman's character escapes prison (metaphorically) by literally turning into Balthazar Getty (a fate worse than death, I'd imagine), there is a similar scene in Mulholland where Betty disintegrates.
But regardless of what or who Betty/Diane is within the film, whether she is there to expiate a guilty conscience or to assuage Rita's guilt, whether or not, "through his use of the cultural history of the 50’s and surrealism, about Americans’ need for escapist fantasy," the film operates on a level of memory, though a memory that may or may not have happened. It continues Lost Highway's obsession with America's obsession with its past, with guilt assuaged through story, story whispered in the night or projected (ahem) onto a screen.
Mulholland Drive confounds because it promises a simple plot twist that will lead to some cathartic moment of Aristotelian, tragic resolution, yet the audience is denied, in the end, even that. Lynch's nightmare refuses to end with the film, just as he refuses to accede to our expectations, and those are two of the reasons the film continues to haunt and engage us.
The only sure thing, perhaps, that can be said about Mulholland Drive, is that it does the work of a work of art, which is to make the one who experiences it think, and think in a different way, about the world around them.