The Greatest Trick David Lynch Ever Pulled

By  · Published on July 17th, 2013

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they fall down the rabbit hole of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive with an exit strategy.

In the #28 movie on the list, a young woman with stars in her eyes helps an actress with amnesia discover who she is, and why she has a stack of cash and a mysterious blue key in her purse.

But why is it one of the best movies of all time?

Scott: So with Mulholland Drive, there’s a lot going on. Maybe it would help to start with where we’re coming from on the central issue of the movie – whether the emperor actually has clothes on or not. Is this weirdness without depth? Strange symbolism that’s actually empty?

Landon: That’s always a big conundrum for me with Lynch’s movies – the notion that they need an explanation. On the one hand, these images seem to require some justification to be assembled together in this particular film. They demand interpretation. On the other hand, no interpretation quite seems fully satisfying. To make sense of his work, to put it into words, always seems to reduce its appeal for me as a dive into the subconscious.

Scott: But I disagree slightly there – in the sense that a lot of his symbolism is really straightforward here. Overt even. A mystery where a woman tries to find “who she is,” parental figures who aren’t really parents, a club where the medium isn’t really live singing (but canned sound).

These aren’t really brain-busters, even if the presentation is purposefully obtuse. I should say here that I actually love the movie, even while recognizing that the emperor feels at least a little bit of a draft.

Landon: So you’re saying the film is, in part, about the illusion of filmmaking?

Scott: More specifically the illusion of Hollywood – and I don’t think I’m shattering any earth with that statement. Diane/Betty’s story is one of disillusionment. In this case, the bad kind.

Landon: In regards to the film as a statement on Hollywood, I do appreciate that this film, seemingly moreso than his other work, seems to be framed by classical Hollywood films, specifically Billy Wilder’s work.

There’s something of a love letter quality in that regard to go with the disillusionment, and its a strangely conventional place for a filmmaker to go who made his first feature after being inspired by the depressing ugliness of Philadelphia.

Scott: I love that. Especially since I’ve met people who think of Wilder as a sweet sentimentalist with wide eyes for comedy, forgetting how dark and cynical some of his work was. Angry even.

Landon: Seriously. And Sunset Boulevard was a profoundly strange movie.

Scott: No hay banda.

Landon: I think one of my favorite moments in Mulholland Drive is Betty’s audition. Yes, it takes place in a circumstance in which Betty’s Hollywood experience seems remarkably easy (which has fostered interpretations that the film’s first part is her dream, an interpretation I find limiting), but for a brief moment, we’re not watching Betty audition, but the film she’s auditioning in.

Even as it plays with the idea of the illusions of Hollywood, and even as this film can be seen as a critique of Hollywood, it seems to maintain a sincere investment in them.

Scott: It’s one of the more shocking moments because it completely alters our perception of Betty on a dime.

Landon: And previews what will happen in the film’s latter half.

Scott: A lot of things portend what will happen later, but interpretations aside, it seems safe to say that Lynch has created something that anyone can see almost most anything in – the big human questions are in it, and Lynch is mysterious enough to play keep-away with answers.

So, it’s basically a sequel to Twin Peaks.

Landon: Which is appropriate, as Mulholland Drive was Lynch’s second attempt at a creating a network TV mystery. The first hour and a half of the film is basically Lynch’s pilot, which was rejected by ABC, and I think the fact that this was originally a TV show enriched Mulholland Drive while giving us a key into Lynch’s process (and perhaps its limitations).

Scott: Can you even imagine this thing on ABC?

Landon: Certainly not the last half hour of it, but I’m pretty sure that was an invention of the film. But yes, it’s hard to imagine Modern Family as Mulholland Drive’s lead-in.

Scott: In 2000, it would have most likely been up against Walker, Texas Ranger. ABC ended up punting on Saturday night by playing movies instead of original programming, though.

Landon: There are moments of this film that feel like the first chapter of a larger sprawling narrative in a TV show, most notably it’s one-off moments: Robert Forster’s detective, the clumsy hitman, The Cowboy, the man’s dream of the creepy hobo behind the dumpster.

Robert Forster’s character particularly feels like a character who was meant to have a larger story.

Scott: All pointing to a bigger ensemble.

Do you wish that Lynch had been able to explore the world of Mulholland Drive for a few seasons?

Landon: I’m certainly curious about what it could have been, but I think it’s fascinating that Lynch’s most celebrated film wasn’t initially a film. His previous film Lost Highway (which shares many of the same themes about identity-shifting as we have here) feels very contained if not coherent. Mulholland Drive has elements that point it to several directions at once, which makes it a bit more open, even messier, but in a good way.

We typically think about adaptations in film as having limitations – a short story might fit the form of filmmaking better than a novel, for instance. But there’s a virtue and a richness in going from big to small, to have a notion of what a television-series-long world might look like, and distilling its elements into a feature-length runtime.

Scott: That’s fair, and there’s definitely something magical about the never-to-be-answered mystery presented here. Lynch made it perfectly, not just on the screen, but as a salesman. Refusing to answer any questions (even from his confused cast) and then providing his “10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller,” it seems clear that he knew exactly what he was doing.

Not necessarily as a flim-flam man, but as P.T. Barnum making a great, interwoven piece of art.

Landon: True, but there is a strange paradox to Lynch’s work. He makes films that demand investigation (no wonder his two TV series ideas featured detectives), but he’s not interested in solving those mysteries himself. I absolutely respect his refusal to talk about his films in depth in interviews, but there’s something that’s also revealing about his capacity to transform this into a film, which would have been remarkably different from its TV equivalent.

Scott: How so revealing?

Landon: After he pitched the idea, ABC execs wanted to know the answer to the mystery of who Rita was (naturally), and he said “You’ll have to buy the pilot to find out.” Now, keep in mind that with Twin Peaks, Lynch never intended to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer, and only did so in response to network pressure.

He assembles films through a series of ideas – he once said he collects ideas on notecards and once he gets to 70, he makes a movie. It’s these ideas that seem to motivate Lynch as a filmmaker, but the seeming promise of a cohesive mystery that motivate many of his fans/audiences.

In other words, Lynch was bluffing in his bribe to the network TV execs. It’s not that he did or didn’t know the “answer” to the mystery, but that that’s not what seems to matter to him.

Scott: He would have never been able to drag it out in prime time.

Landon: That’s partly why any answers to the mysteries of Lynch’s work always seems disappointing to me.

Scott: Fortunately, we never have to have an answer for Mulholland Drive. Forget what I said earlier. It’s probably about 17th Century Porteugese Economics instead.

Landon: Or putrefaction. Always putrefaction.

Scott: Like “putrefaction” is even a complete answer…

Changing focus a bit: what do you think would be a great double-feature with Mulholland Drive (other than Sunset Blvd.)?

Landon: Besides another Lynch film, I’d say make it a triple feature. Combine it with something avant-garde, like Kenneth Anger or Paul Morrissey, and then follow it with a Classical Hollywood film about Classical Hollywood, like The Bad and the Beautiful.


Scott: My joke answer and my real answer: Singin’ in the Rain.

Landon: Perfect. Does Mulholland Drive belong in our pile of S&S films about filmmaking?

Scott: Absolutely. Proving once again that you improve your chances of being immortalized if you make a movies about movies because people who watch movies really like movies.

Landon: Blue Velvet? Fuck that shit! Pabst Bl – er, Mulholland Drive!

Next Time: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker

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