Until a few months ago, if the name David Lynch came up in film discussion, I would have inwardly shrugged. It had been years since I watched one of Lynch’s films. It had also been years since Lynch had even made a new feature (the last one being Inland Empire in 2006). But after screening Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive back in the day, I felt I had sampled enough of the director’s work to know that I was not a fan. His films just never spoke to me. Individual moments lingered in memory, but if anything, I was only confounded and disturbed by those moments.
What to make of the closet scene from Blue Velvet? Or the party scene from Lost Highway? More than any semblance of plot, it was scenes like those that lingered in memory. If someone started talking about Lynch, I would immediately think of that moment when Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, starts inhaling gas from an oxygen mask and moaning “Mommy” before sinking to his knees between a woman’s legs. I believe they call that nightmare fuel.
Fast forward a decade or so. Last year, Mulholland Drive topped a BBC poll of the 100 greatest films of the 21st century. Over 175 film critics from around the world voted on this thing. Hearing it was unbelievable enough, but when I looked at the list, and saw it there in writing, I was only further confounded. What were these critics seeing that I was missing?
And this began my journey into the world of Mulholland Drive and David Lynch. A journey I’m glad I took (and one I recommend you take, too).
Mulholland Drive is a film that lends itself to different readings. The film presents a puzzle, and far be it from me or any dusty old theory to offer one pat solution. Again, everyone has the right to their own interpretation (not to mention their own opinion as to whether a movie like this is really worth pouring over in the first place). Yet, despite the film’s outwardly confusing nature, this is one instance where Lynch the labyrinth designer did give us a roadmap for how to find our way out of —or rather, deeper into — his wondrous maze.
In my own (admittedly offbeat) head, I sort of equate Lynch with Remy the rat in the Pixar film Ratatouille. Some people might be inclined to say, “I smell a rat,” when they bite into one of his specially prepared dishes. As I sit here in my own Anton Ego pose, my feelings on Lynch teeter between begrudging respect and full-blown adulation. Mulholland Drive is a film that I initially found confusing — until I realized what was maybe going on, and it took on a whole new weight.
Now I come away feeling like it really is the masterpiece all those critics make it out to be. Apologists love to trot out this line, but I think Mulholland Drive really is one of those instances where it is true that the genius of the film cannot always be appreciated on a first viewing. The dream theory (which we’ll discuss below) is what gives this film such profound emotional heft for me. I think most people can probably relate, on some level, to how the idealized version of their life is often at odds with the terrible truth of reality.
The snarky answer to the question, “Is Mulholland Drive Really the Greatest Film of the 21st Century?” would be, “No, shamus, it’s not.” Personally, my pick for the 21st century’s greatest film would probably still be No Country for Old Men, followed closely by another 2007 film, There Will Be Blood. Yet both those films ranked behind Mulholland Drive on the BBC’s Top 10.
Bu with the question, “What year is it?” still ringing in my ears from the Twin Peaks finale, I’m tempted to say Mulholland Drive might actually crack my own top 10 now.
After hearing the effusive praise for the film and seeing it receive the top accolade on a list like that, the thing that finally sold me on giving Mulholland Drive another chance was the simple act of rewatching one scene from it on YouTube. That scene, which takes place at a diner called Winkie’s on Sunset Blvd. in L.A., really functions as its own scary little short film. The way the scene is edited offers a masterclass in tension-building, and it has a complete, five-minute arc to it, so you can watch it and enjoy it for what it is without needing to know anything else about the rest of the movie. Not to hype it too much, but this might make a riveting entry point for anyone on the fence about giving Lynch their time.
For much of Mulholland Drive’s running time, the diner scene would seem to be entirely disconnected from the main story. Lynch likes to tell surreal, sprawling stories with an ensemble cast, but there is a sense that his fondness for fresh faces and messy dream logic leads to a build-up of narrative dead-ends.
Though he made an Oscar-nominated film called The Straight Story (whose plot more or less lives up to the title), it has become obvious that Lynch isn’t much interested in telling that kind of story. Often, he seems more interested in just striking a certain tone, conveying mood over clear meaning. In a way, some of his films are more like tone poems than straightforward narratives. That is all well and good, but sometimes it really does seem like this director has made it his mission to flout convention at the cost of coherence. Lynch fans can (and will) argue differently, or that this is the point of his work. But it’s something that all audiences must grapple with when they first make the plunge.
Accordingly, it almost feels at first like the diner scene is just a stray vignette, some scene that Robert Altman deemed too horrifying and left on the cutting room floor when he was making Short Cuts. The face of “Dan,” the guy doing most of the talking in the diner scene (mark the eyebrows; he’s played by recognizable character actor Patrick Fischler) only pops up once later in a cameo. But the timing of that cameo is crucial.
I want to delve into one of the oldest, most prevalent theories about Mulholland Drive, but before we get into any spoilers, it might do to say a few general words about David Lynch and his resistance to being decoded. In a lot of ways, Lynch eschews explanation—not just with his art, but with the way he talks about his art (or remains cagey about it) in interviews. Speaking with BAFTA in London, Lynch once said:
“Believe it or not, Eraserhead is my most spiritual film.”
“Elaborate on that,” the interviewer said.
With a laugh, Lynch replied, “No, I won’t.”
Here it merits mention that the end of Lynch’s recent television odyssey, Twin Peaks: The Return, seemed to reposition an entity named Judy, or Jowday, as the new mother of all evil behind everything in the series. But in Chinese, the word jiao dai can be translated as “to explain” or “make clear.” As Peaks TV podcast co-host Joanna Robinson and Twitter user Rob Carmack have pointed out, this could be an in-joke meaning that the main antagonist of Twin Peaks the whole time was “the concept of explanation and clarity.”
More than an Orpheus figure, the show’s finale seemed to position its central hero, Agent Dale Cooper, as a Sisyphus figure, doomed to keep rolling the rock up the hill in the never-ending fight against evil. In the same way, maybe it is a Sisyphean task to try and decipher David Lynch’s artistic intent with any of his work. Though he was barely lucid at the time, David Bowie’s character in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me did once say, “We’re not going to talk about Judy at all.”
But now let’s talk about Judy. Yeah, let’s Judy this up with some ex post facto film analysis. Because in the context of Mulholland Drive, Lynch himself already freed us up to do that with an old insert he included in the DVD of the movie.
The list we are about to unpack is no big secret. You can find it on Wikipedia, so for fans hardcore and otherwise, it might be old news. But I share it here for the benefit of latecomers to the Lynch party, like me, who are only just now coming around to the director’s work, perhaps discovering or rediscovering old films of his in conjunction with Twin Peaks. After the list, we will shift into spoiler territory, so even though Mulholland Drive may be laden with enough rich subtext to make it spoiler-proof, if you have not seen the film, you may want to bow out now and come back when you have.
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