Dir. David Lynch. Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Elise Harring, Justin Theroux
It seems silly to say “spoilers” when talking about a sixteen-year-old movie, but if you haven’t seen it and you’re reading this, you should probably watch the movie instead.
Tinch admitted he didn’t really know. “The new fiction is interested in language and in f-f-form, I guess,” Tinch said. “But I don’t understand what it’s really about. Sometimes it’s about it-it-itself, I think,” Tinch said.
“About itself?” Garp said.
“It’s sort of fiction about fi-fi-fiction,” Tinch told him.
Somewhere in Los Angeles, painfully early in the morning – can it be before 3 a.m.? – there is a man in a theater who knows that there is no real orchestra behind him. It’s a tape playing music. He must know it awfully well, for he’ll throw his hands up at a burst of sound from the taped trombone. A man comes in, looking for all the world like he’s playing a muted trumpet; of course he isn’t, though, for he throws his own arms out and the sound continues. A woman (Rebekah Del Rio) comes on next, singing a Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Her performance is tremendously powerful, in the way that only live vocals can be. Betty (Watts) and Rita (Harring) begin to weep after appearing stricken for about half of the song. It’s Rita who appears more saddened by the song, who cries harder, who falls on Betty’s shoulder, but Betty is enraptured at the song’s climactic moment. And then, fool me twice, shame on me; she collapses and the singing continues anyway. That is cinema: to have a representation of something false in front of you, to occasionally be reminded of the falseness of cinema when you’re eating your real popcorn or looking at the real exit signs, and then to be swept back into it with the same kind of furor as before. It is a representation of the medium itself within the medium in much the way that Rear Window did back in the ’50s. Back then, though, the movie might come through your door and push you out your window despite your rational, analytic bent; now the medium cannot sustain itself, cannot withstand the emotion of a viewer, and has to reset over and over again until eventually, it extinguishes itself when there’s nothing left to throw at the audience.
Identity (oh, that word) is constructed in this film in reference to movies themselves. Harring’s character decides to name herself “Rita” based on a poster of Gilda that Betty’s aunt has hanging up around the apartment. That renaming is in itself fascinating, because Rita Hayworth was born “Magarita Cansino,” was credited in early movies as “Rita Cansino,” and only took on “Hayworth,” her mother’s maiden name, when the studio decided she needed to be more white. Rita remakes herself again when Betty helps her to pick out a blonde wig which only serves to, Persona-like, make Rita more like Betty. (Something about Rita’s origin is Venusian; like Aphrodite, born of bloody sea foam, Mulholland Dr.‘s resident sex goddess appears from the blood of a car wreck and emerges from the perfectly, beautifully spiraling smoke of the vehicles.) Betty’s personality, which is the perkiest French vanilla that was ever put into a pint of ice cream, takes on more nuance when she’s acting. She sounds violent while rehearsing a script with Rita; later, she acts the scene sultry rather than stabby. The film gives her both iterations later on, as Betty falls hard for Rita, and then as Diane shoots herself in the face. It’ll be just like the movies, Betty says on multiple occasions, and she proves herself right in the ever more dramatic leaps forward that the film takes. The Hollywood sign is featured a couple of times; the last time we see it, its sheer size makes it seem more like it looms than boasts, more the eyes of T.J. Eckleburg than a monument.
Outside the major story of Betty and Rita, which really only asserts itself as the primary storyline about halfway through the film, there are half a dozen grotesque, appropriately Lynchian characters around the margins. Michael J. Anderson plays Mr. Roque, the taciturn wheelchair-bound kingpin of Hollywood studios, sitting alone (with one inferior man behind him) in the spotlight of a boardroom which looks like it was borrowed from Speaking Parts. (In general, I think that in its endless recreation of images, the ambiguity of its possible meanings, and its reliance on movie folks for the plot, Mulholland Dr. owes a debt of gratitude to Speaking Parts.) “The Cowboy” (Monty Montgomery) is a messenger of sorts, whose authority is never clearly understood; a hitman (Joe Messing) with an unlucky streak a mile wide and a vendetta against vacuum cleaners shows up twice; the Castigliani brothers (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalementi, whose wonderful score this is), who seem to forget language every now and then and dribble substandard espresso in the interim, are the fever dream of film producers. The film could probably get itself down to about 110 minutes from its 145 without any of them, but they are uncertainties of Los Angeles which are necessary to uphold our own misgivings about the action. The film needs them like Blade Runner needs Hannibal Chew fooling with eyeballs, like Sunset Blvd needs Schwab’s Pharmacy and a dead chimpanzee, like Pulp Fiction needs the Gimp. Mulholland Dr. recognizes that we must not get too comfortable with the understandable, if mysterious, subplot of an amnesiac and her new friend.
More than any of them, though, I am fascinated by the Bum (Bonnie Aarons), who hides behind a wall at the Winkie’s on Sunset Boulevard and scares Patrick Fischler (and everyone watching the film, probably) half to death. The movie does not linger long on the two men in the Winkie’s, nor does it provide much screen time to the Bum, who appears to have come to Los Angeles by way of the Exxon Valdez spill, and yet they also speak to the cinema-reproduces-cinema line of thought. The man with dreams (Fischler) tells the dreamless one (Michael Cooke) what he’s seen twice now; the dreamless man stands at the counter, and as he walks out of the restaurant he comes to a wall, and a being, with an unspeakably terrifying face, lurches out. It’s a decent little story – and how marvelous that a story about sleep should be told at a place called “Winkie’s” – but it sent a chill down my spine when I saw the dreamless man appear at the counter, precisely as the man with dreams had noted he had done. From there it was inevitable that he should find the Bum behind that wall. This third iteration of the dream, the first in real life (or, just as likely given this movie, the most recent in the dreaming man’s head), shows us how monstrous recursive acts can be when we have no agency to change them. The man with dreams walks to the wall like a man walking to the electric chair; he cannot stop his fear, has no way even to turn around and run from it. In much the same way that the Club Silencio scene informs us that Mulholland Dr. is a story of cinema about itself, so does the Bum provide us a bullet point underneath which reminds us of the power of repetition.
The last portion of the film, once the blue box has been opened, is a lovely twist. “Diane Selwyn,” has the same body but none of the personality of Betty. Like Betty, she appears to have fallen in love with a woman with the body of Rita but the name “Camilla Rhodes,” who was a different person altogether in the Betty sections. What this “means” or how it changes what the film is “actually about” is more or less uninteresting to me, although the unsolved mystery of where the connections are is nectar to viewers who find satisfaction primarily from treating a cinematic text like it’s a big jigsaw puzzle. I was reminded primarily (and satisfyingly, for me at least) of Vermeer’s The Art of Painting. In that painting, Vermeer paints a scene of someone painting a portrait; in short, it is the recursive painting, one which sets up a point of view and then duplicates it. While that’s a pretty clear Mulholland Dr. vibe, what I like about the painting is that the left side is dominated by a curtain which appears to be pulled back, perhaps by some person out of the frame. What might well have been a very private portrait is now visible, revealed for all viewers to gaze on; if Mulholland Dr. is Diane’s favorable dream, which is probably the single most popular interpretation of the film’s last segment, then that blue box and unusual blue key are like that curtain, swept backwards without even a moment’s notice.