David Lynch's films are almost always about dreams (or really, nightmares). In 2001's Mulholland Drive, the director tackled, for the first time, the "dream world" of Hollywood. But there is another nightmare in the script: the one is inside the mind of Naomi Watts' character(s). The first two thirds of the film tell the story of a Hollywood hopeful helping a glamorous stranger with amnesia find her identity. Though in many ways the premise is conventional, the film is made of multiple plot-lines that overlap, twist back on themselves, and sometimes come to dead ends.
Several of these lines intersect at the fictional Winkie's Diner, and it is here that Anna Catley's video essay (below) locates one evocative path towards the center of the film's void, a path whose coordinates can be broken down into three cinematic techniques that Lynch uses to convey meaning in his film.
Catley shows how Winkie's Diner, a location that makes multiple appearances, is key to at least one understanding of the film. Check it out, and see how Lynch uses camera work, editing, and sound to set a tone that sets up the rest of the movie. (Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen the film, there might be some spoilers (and also, you should see the film.))
1. Camera Movement
In Mulholland Drive, three scenes take place at Winkie's (in the script, the diner is referred to as Denny's). In the first, two men, Herb and Dan, have met to discuss Dan's dream. The scene consists almost exclusively of a traditional dialogue scene, a shot/reverse shot sequence (more on that below.) But something is off. The first thing to note is that the lighting is "naturalistic", a total shift from the film's opening minutes. The context of their meeting, and their relationship to each other, is, and remains, a mystery; a full breakfast sits in front of them, but none of the food is touched.
By convention, the camera is usually static in dialogue scenes, but here it floats (almost imperceptibly), as Dan tells his story. Directly before the shot of the Winkie's sign, we have seen a woman fall asleep, and this floating camera maintains the dreamy quality of the opening minutes without calling too much attention to itself. It also helps establish the balance of power: notice how the floating shifts in relation to Dan's reaction to Herb's story.
2. Editing Rhythms
The abrupt cut to Winkie's and the conversation seem to indicate that we have entered the "real world." But the lighting, and the camera movement as well as what Lynch does here with the cutting, calls that into question. First, there is the use of extradiagetic sound, a tone (again) that is barely perceptible (courtesy of Angelo Baladamenti, Lynch's frequent musical collaborator; later, he has a small cameo.)
For the first forty seconds of the scene, the cutting rhythm is straightforward enough, with 8 cuts (including from the sign to inside the diner), but for the next forty-odd seconds, there are no cuts at all. As Dan relates his dream, we stay focused on him, rising, pushing in, moving back, until he describes a connection between his dream and their reality, and the camera pans with him. This move happens twice. Is this a hint about whether we're in a dream within a dream?
3. Dialogue and Performance
As the scene starts, Herb condescends to Dan; he seems annoyed to be there in the first place, and when Dan reveals that the reason for their meeting is to discuss a dream, Herb can't help from making sarcastic noises. It would seem, then, that Dan has done this sort of thing before. However, both actors deliver their lines in peculiar cadences. It's nothing so much as bad acting, but because the rest of the film is so skillfully performed, their idiosyncratic deliveries stand out as intentional. Lynch is a master of modulation, though, and on first view it's not enough to really draw a bead on. It is, however an excellent setup for what comes next: the sustained shot that ends in a deft camera move adds an almost unbearable tension to the bright scene. This moment—where reality seems to rip apart at the seams—is common in David Lynch's work.
The two other scenes set at the diner occur when Betty and Rita, (Watts and Haring, the starlet and the amnesiac) make a phone call; they are served coffee by a waitress with a nametag that says, "Diane". Later in the film, Watts' character, Betty (now known as Diane), will return to the diner, this time to employ a hitman to kill Camilla (played by Haring). In each scene, they appear to sit in the same booth. Anyone interested in a timeline of the film can check one possible answer here, on IMDB.
There are numerous interpretations of Mulholland Drive; the same could be said for almost all of the director's films, but the chief difference here is that he has laid out a breadcrumb trail for the viewer. There is an explicable quality here, a puzzle begging to be solved; it's a quality lacking from the rest of his work. Anna Catley's video essay locates the locus of the film at Winkie's diner, and is one way into a film where a master director, by taking his surrealist tendencies and merging them to a genre-subverting mystery plot and hoary Hollywood tropes, created a work that is still engaging, and teaching, audiences almost 15 years after its release.