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Laramie Movie Scope:
Mulholland Drive

The Twilight Zone, Redux

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 25, 2001, updated January 18, 2002) -- "Mulholland Drive" reminds me of the old "Twilight Zone" show, which specialized in tales of warped reality. This David Lynch film seems to dispense with reality completely and go right for an existential nightmare.

The plot revolves mainly around two characters, Rita (played by Laura Elena Harring of "Little Nicky") and Betty Elms (Naomi Watts of "Tank Girl"). Rita, whose real (or stage) name is evidently Camilla Rhodes, survives a car wreck with amnesia. She calls herself Rita after Rita Hayworth. She is evidently an actress. For some unknown reason, some people want her dead. They also want the big stash of cash in her purse. She hides out in Betty's apartment. Betty helps Rita try to recover her memory.

Another plot element involves movie director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux of "Zoolander"). Kesher is being threatened by some mysterious men unless he casts Camilla Rhodes in the leading role of his new film. Kesher does, indeed, cast Camilla in the lead role, but it turns out to be a different Camilla Rhodes than you would expect. Betty also turns out not to be who she seems. Another name seems to be claiming her face, that of Diane Selwyn. Later on, still more mysterious people become tiny enough to crawl under a door and they, and other apparitions appear to harass a poor woman into committing suicide.

The first two-thirds of Lynch's film seem to make some sense, but the final third of the film seems to provide contradictory evidence which throws earlier perceptions into question. Film critics are divided over this seemingly schizophrenic split in the film. One camp, led by respected critic James Berardinelli say the reason for this break in the film is that the first part of the film was intended to be part of a television series that did not sell. Lynch then filmed the additional footage which formed part of the conclusion, and spliced it all together as a complete film. This explains why the lesbian and masturbation sex scenes are near the end of the film, that wouldn't have been allowed on network television.

The other camp of critics say it doesn't matter that the film started out as a television series pilot and ended up as a movie. It is not a cobbled-together mess, as some critics claim, but a masterpiece, and it makes perfect sense to them. The implication is that if it doesn't make sense to you, then you must be an idiot. These sorts of arguments are pretty common in film criticisms. The battle lines are commonly drawn between two camps of critics, those who review films on the basis of entertainment value, and those who review films on the basis of their artistic content. More on this later in the spoilers section below.

It seems to me that Lynch has offered evidence supporting several possible interpretations for the plot, including nightmares, delusions, drug-induced hallucinations, near-death hallucinations (as in "Jacob's Ladder"), some sort of shared delusion, a film within a film, or a play within a film, among others. Since this all takes place in Hollywood, it makes the story even more surrealistic. It is very telling that the most realistic scene in the entire film is a film audition featuring two actors in front of a small audience of movie executives in a conference room.

It is unlikely that the film is about a shared delusion because that would make the plot totally arbitrary. That means the dream, delusion, or hallucination, or whatever, has to be entirely in one person's mind, either that, or it is a dream in combination with reality, or film or stage reality, and delusion. This makes analysis quite tricky because there is no one person common to all scenes. A triple murder scene, and a scary-guy-behind-a-diner scene, for instance, are almost completely unconnected to the rest of the film. While "Mulholland Drive" is ambiguous, it is not without its rewards. There is a very nice do-wop musical audition number, "Sixteen Reasons," and a spectacular musical stage performance of the old Roy Orbison song, "Crying," sung in Spanish by Rebekah Del Rio (appearing on stage as herself).

The acting in the lead roles is solid. The talented Robert Forster ("Jackie Brown"), who plays Detective Harry McKnight and Dan Hedaya ("Dick") who plays Vincenzo Castigliane, have disappointingly minor roles. Country singer Billy Ray Cyrus also has a role in the film as Gene, the amorous pool cleaning man. The film uses some photographic effects to suggest a dream state, such as using double-exposure images and out-of-focus images.

Another theme which runs through the film is the frustration of the filmmaker over the loss of creative control of his film. In one scene, movie director Adam Kesher is told by a mysterious movie executive Vincenzo Castigliane (Dan Hedaya) that "It's not your film anymore." Kesher is also threatened by another mysterious Hollywood power broker known as "The Cowboy." This folksy, but menacing character may represent the uncultured money men who sometimes call the shots in the movie industry, frustrating artistic directors like David Lynch. This theme of frustration weaves its way through the film. Diane Selwyn's movie career is sunk, despite her considerable talent, while her lover's career is doing great, not because Camilla is so talented, but because she is sleeping with a powerful movie director. It is no coincidence that this film was made from an unsold television pilot. Maybe Lynch's original project was shot down by some folksy character like The Cowboy. This movie is Lynch's revenge.

So what, if anything, does this film add up to? Maybe something (my own explanation is below, in the spoiler section), maybe nothing, but it isn't boring to watch. David Lynch fans ("Blue Velvet," "Lost Highway," "The Straight Story," will probably like it, as will those who enjoy a challenging film that doesn't spell everything out for you. Then again, maybe the hot sex scenes, nudity and musical numbers are reason enough to see it. For me it was more challenging than rewarding. This film rates a C.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

Spoilers below (if such a thing is possible in a film like this)

More on the art versus entertainment division among critics, and my own theory about the meaning of the film. I'm somewhat flexible on the divide between critics. I review movies based on either art or entertainment, or both at the same time, depending on the film. There are some films, like "Fight Club" and "Requiem for a Dream," that may not have been the most entertaining films, but they displayed a high level of artistry. I named both of these films the best films of the year in recent years. However, I also agree with the late critic Pauline Kael when she said the audience should not have to suffer for someone else's art. Kael's subjective kind of film criticism precipitated a schism in film criticism circles. She argued against the "autuer" theory of film criticism which emphasizes the importance of a director's style over plot and other features of a film. This schism among critics remains today and "Mulholland Drive" is the perfect kind of film to bring out this split. For myself, if an art film fails to draw me into its world, to fascinate me and to engage me, then it had better entertain me, or else face a negative review. On "Mulholland Drive" I'm not one of those critics who feels that David Lynch can do no wrong. I fall into the Berardinelli camp. The last third of Mulholland Drive looks like a cobbled-together mess of a film, rather than a masterpiece. Of course, as the lawyers say, this is a matter upon which reasonable people may disagree, or even unreasonable people, depending on the heat of the flames.

My own interpretation of "Mulholland Drive" is that it reflects the dreamlike death state of the character sometimes known as Diane Selwyn. This is the same kind of plot device used in "Jacob's Ladder." In the process of killing herself because of her lost movie career and her lost love (she loves the woman known as Rita or Camilla), she dreams up an alternate life story for herself in which she becomes Betty, the fresh-faced girl from Iowa, instead of the burned-out Hollywood harpy she has become. Midway through the film, this rosy fantasy fades and we see a darker, more realistic portrayal of Diane Selwyn's life and her eventual descent into madness. This too, is a dream, or rather, a nightmare.

Under this scenario, the key scene in the movie is the stage performance by Rebekah Del Rio. In this scene Del Rio belts out an emotional song, but falls dead in the middle of it. Her voice continues, however, even after her death. It is a recording, we are told. This is a metaphor for the whole film, which is a recording of the post-death nightmare of Diane Selwyn. Like the song continuing after the singer is dead, Selwyn's nightmares continue after her death. In this context, the repeated phrase "silencio" is another word for the silence of death. These post-death visions may also be a metaphor for the filmmaker's aspiration to immortality through celluloid. By the way, the idea of death as a dream is explored in another recent film, "Waking Life."

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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