The David Lynch Chronicles Volume One:
Two Lynchians Take on MULHOLLAND DRIVE
By Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel
Nick Cato: There are two kinds of people in the world: those who “get” and enjoy the films of David Lynch and those who think he’s simply filming whatever comes to mind in an attempt to con the artsy-fartsy crowd out of their money and validity. When I was about 20 minutes into my first viewing of Lynch’s iconic ERASERHEAD (1977), on VHS back in the early 80s, I became fascinated with the surreal director, both by his demented images, and later with the craft of unraveling his stories: yes, I said the CRAFT, because a single viewing of most of Lynch’s films won’t reveal too much. His films demand multiple viewings, and more often than not, major contemplation. And while some of his films, such as ERASERHEAD and WILD AT HEART (1990), are easier to decipher than later titles such as THE LOST HIGHWAY (1997) and the super-brain twisting INLAND EMPIRE (2006), this first look for CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT at a David Lynch classic goes to 2001’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE, that, while head-scratching enough and open to various interpretations, does have several ideas running through it that a vast majority of the director’s fans agree on.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: “Sort of” is right. When it comes to interpretations, we could spend days going over the elaborate details and symbols. I’ve seen Lynch films with people who insist he’s just messing with the audience. On the surface, perhaps that’s true. It might even be just another trick up the genius’s sleeve. My first Lynch experience was also ERASERHEAD. It was an English major’s dream come true. As someone who had been taught to look for symbols under every bed and in every corner, the film clicked with me. MULHOLLAND DRIVE brings me back to that experience, as do many of Lynch’s films, sitting in a darkened room, unraveling these intricate knots he’s woven for us.
Nick Cato: Like most of Lynch’s films, I didn’t even bother trying to interpret what was going on during my initial viewing of MULHOLLAND DRIVE. I was taken aback by just how addictive this gorgeously-shot film was, plus, as usual, simply enjoyed Lynch’s surreal images and several scenes that are creepier than anything you’ll see in a solid, seriously made horror film. But things began to take shape in my mind, even before the second screening. A brunette woman (played by the beautiful Laura Harring) survives a nasty car collision, seconds before two men were apparently about to shoot her. She stumbles out of the wreck and makes her way down the Hollywood hills, taking refuge in an apartment where she notices the owner (and older woman) is on her way out. Another woman named Betty (played by Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood to take her first screen test, and stays at an apartment owned by her aunt. She soon discovers the brunette woman in her aunt’s bathroom, and discovers she’s suffering from amnesia.
So far, MULHOLLAND DRIVE gives an interesting and some might say “normal” set up, despite the unusual opening credits sequence, where Betty is superimposed over what looks like some kind of 50s dance program, and the sequences of the amnesiac surviving the wreck and eventually meeting Betty are divided by one of the most head-scratching things Lynch has ever done: Two men are in a restaurant, one claiming he wanted to be there as he’s been having nightmares about the place, as well as a spooky figure who lives outside behind it. The men discover that the figure behind the diner IS real, causing the one who dreamt of him to pass out.
During the early meetings of Betty and Rita (a name the brunette takes off a film poster when Betty asks her name), we see mysterious men talking on the phone, saying things like “she got away” and “we missed her.” Evidently, someone is trying to kill Rita. Lynch’s mystery is off.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: There’s something dream-like about the opening sequences that really made me take note. To say the setup is “normal” would probably be misleading. Betty seems so saccharine that she can’t be real. Chipper to a fault, optimistic beyond belief, she charges into Hollywood, ready to take on her first audition with the kind of aplomb reserved for the mentally ill or children. She’s Dorothy headed down the Yellow Brick Road. Even the elderly people she meets on her flight out to Hollywood seem odd beyond imagination, excessively cheerful, nearly insane with joy, wishing their fellow passenger all the best on her journey to become a star. They also have the creepiest smiles this side of Mr. X’s in ERASERHEAD.
I found that even the scene in which Rita is about to be eliminated is so cliché as to be unreal. Lynch seems to be setting us up for something that is so far from reality that it has to be questioned immediately. Hit men only take beautiful women out in limousines to murder them in movies. It’s almost as if Lynch has established a film within a film. It’s even suggested early on that the real hit man in the story is a bumbling low-life who can’t even carry out a simple task without causing utter chaos. He’s no suave mobster in a limo, that’s for certain.
The man in the diner scene near the beginning gnawed at me for a long time. I have an idea that meshes with a sort of WIZARD OF OZ retelling, but to keep it simple, I feel he’s a cowardly lion of sorts.
Nick Cato: MULHOLLAND does a fine job of balancing suspense and straight drama, especially when Betty goes to her first audition, a sequence that not only displays the acting skills of Naomi Watts, but one that leaves me breathless every time I see it. Between this scene, and the scenes of movie director Adam (Lynch favorite Justin Theroux) being threatened to alter his film by a group of gangsters and an extremely strange cowboy (played by real-life cult film producer Monty Montgomery), the film develops a deeper story on a few levels. One classic Lynch staple put into play here are mysterious, underground people seemingly causing things to happen behind the scenes. We’re never sure if they’re the mafia, or corrupt studio executives, or everyday goons hired out by a rival of the aforementioned director. Either way, their presence here gives MULHOLLAND much of its mystery, and in the case of the cowboy enforcer, some latent humor that doesn’t take away from the film’s serious tone.
Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) dealing with Rita’s amnesia
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: There’s certainly no shortage of suspense here. As a Lynch addict, I try not to take any plot point for granted. You never know when there’s a trick. I really do feel that Lynch is a magician of sorts. If you blink, you’re likely to miss something.
The cowboy is one of the more mystifying characters. He seems to be the enforcer for this whole underworld operation, at least on the surface. He tells Adam to pick a girl in a photograph, a blonde woman named Camilla Rhodes, to play the lead role in his film – the one that has been grabbed away from him by the Castiglione brothers (one of whom is portrayed by famed composer Angelo Badalamenti, who provides the chilling music to many of Lynch’s works). The brothers may be the leaders of this mob-like organization. Adam’s choices, the cowboy tells him, are to either pick that girl or have his career ruined. It’s the only option he has left after being kicked out of his house by his wife, who is having an affair with the pool boy (portrayed hilariously by Billy Ray Cyrus).
Nick Cato: When Betty and Rita visit an apartment that happened to pop into Rita’s memory, what they discover provides a turning point in the film, one that throws a curveball that put MULHOLLAND on a path I’m assuming most viewers never saw coming. Now fully convinced someone is out to get Rita, they disguise her in a blonde wig, making the two look like sisters.
Shortly after they discover Rita’s pocket book contains $50,000 in cash, as well as a mysterious blue key, the women have their first sexual encounter, cleverly placed by Lynch where it is in the film’s progress; we’re so taken with the sight of these two beautiful ladies in bed together (and apparently falling truly in love) that the little hints Lynch has left for eagle-eyed viewers to notice are all but forgotten. But it’s at this point where Betty and Rita really try to find out just WHO Rita is and where she came from.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: I’m not so sure this steamy scene is intended as a way to distract viewers from the clues. I think it’s a very big clue in and of itself. Rita is a vulnerable woman, someone who has forgotten who she is. Betty plays a traditionally masculine role here. She’s sweeping in to save the damsel in distress. She is compelled to save Rita, to help her remember who she is. I think you’ll find this extremely important later in the film.
Nick Cato: Perhaps some of us guys became more easily distracted than most female viewers?
In one of my favorite sequences, Rita has a dream where she takes Betty to a vaudeville-style show at an old theater. It’s here where we’re told “This is all a tape recording. It’s an illusion,” as performers lip-sync to music and verse. Perhaps Lynch is telling us that the events going on in Betty and Rita’s lives have been pre-recorded, maybe even by the same people who are attempting to control Adam’s new film. As the women sit watching one opera singer pass out as her song still plays on, we’re left to wonder if Betty and Rita have been brought here as a way to accept their coming fates.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: At the club, called Silencio, they encounter a dream-world emcee who firmly states, “No hay banda!” There is no band. It’s all an illusion. This seems to be the pivot point in the plot. We start to move into reality. Lynch is telling us, quite literally, everything leading up to this point has been an illusion. But whose illusion is this? Is it Betty’s illusion? Is there someone else pulling the strings?
Nick Cato: MULHOLLAND DRIVE really kicks into weird gear when Betty and Rita return home from the show. Rita goes to get her hidden pocketbook from the closet, and when she turns around she discovers Betty is nowhere to be found. Not knowing what else to do, she takes that blue key and sticks it into an odd, small blue box, and from her POV we’re sucked into the box, and then taken back to the apartment where they had just visited. It turns out Betty is really named Diane and is in a relationship with Rita, whose real name we learn is Camilla, the same actress the corrupt studio execs were trying to force onto Adam’s film.
Don’t worry folks…it get’s even trippier from here.
Apparently Camilla is the real movie star, and has fallen for Adam, leaving Diane behind. Diane acts out her rage in a furious masturbation scene, then the phone rings, and brings us back to an alternate (or is it the real?) opening sequence of the film.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Mr. Lynch really loves doubles. He’s used them in myriad films, and even in his seminal series TWIN PEAKS. When Betty and Rita visit the club Silencio, they look nearly identical, both sporting short, blonde tresses. I see this as a huge symbol of Diane’s own disgust with herself, and her desire to pull Camilla down with her. She wants Camilla to be just like her, a loser who can’t get a starring role. Instead, Camilla is a rising star, living out Diane’s dream, and now about to marry a man. I feel the box has a very obvious sexual connotation. There’s a key in Camilla’s box now, folks. And Diane is not happy about that. The box is reality.
Rita is Diane’s way of handling her lover’s decision to leave her for a man. Rita has forgotten who she is. As far as Diane is concerned, Camilla has also forgotten who she is. She belongs to Diane, not to Adam. This anger and frustration drives her to plot a very nasty demise for her former lover.
Nick Cato: In the circular final section of MULHOLLAND, we learn Diane/Betty had paid hit men to take out her girlfriend Rita/Camilla, and we see the creepy homeless man behind the diner now holding the mysterious blue box in his hands, perhaps a symbol of a supernatural string puller.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Everything up to this point is merely Diane’s way of justifying her decision to take a hit out on Camilla. She’s not the villain here. She’s really Betty, a confident, happy woman who will make her way in Hollywood. If only Camilla would remember who she really is, Diane wouldn’t be forced to hire that hit man. This is the story of a woman who has lost touch with reality.
Nick Cato: As Sheri mentioned, when Betty first arrived in Hollywood, she had befriended an elderly couple on the plane. Now, they reappear during the final sequence, taunting Betty/Diane around her apartment to the point she blows her own brains out, falling onto the bed in the same manner they found the corpse upon their earlier visit in search of Rita’s memory. While there’s plenty of discussion on who this elderly couple is, Betty had mentioned her parents during one conversation, making me believe this was her way of dealing with failing to do them proud. And perhaps the entire film is a picture of Betty/Diane battling her demons as she tries to make a life for herself in Tinsel Town, the success of her lover making things that much harder.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: Much like the WIZARD OF OZ, the story all starts and ends in a bed. In the very beginning, we see sheets and a pillow, and we hear someone gasping for air. This comes full circle at the end. We now know that Diane shot herself in the head and collapsed onto her bed after being accosted by these menacing elderly people. Could these older people be symbolic of her mental breakdown? The film up to this point, it seems to me, all comes from within Diane’s mind. Betty is her breakdown version of herself. Camilla has been successful, and she can’t handle that success coupled with her own failure. Like Dorothy, Diane discovers the truth about herself in the end. And it’s too terrible to bear. Reality is a tough pill to swallow.
Nick Cato: MULHOLLAND DRIVE is David Lynch’s love/hate letter to Hollywood. It’s pretty easy to figure out Betty and Diane are the same person: Diane the real-life failure, with Betty being Diane’s fantasized version of herself, as well as her desired relationship with Rita/Camilla. Lynch—an independent filmmaker using Hollywood actors and sets here—basically portrays his own apprehensions and pleasures as a director and as one trying to deal with the Hollywood system. And though at first the film may seem like the tired “it’s all a dream” thing, it’s a bit more complex than that, especially in the light of Diane/Betty’s dreams possibly being manipulated by other entities.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: It might be the clichéd “it was all just a dream” story, but the person dreaming it is significantly disturbed, if not destroyed. Hollywood is very much like the Emerald City. Betty took a jaunt to find her calling, her home in a sense. But Hollywood, not unlike the Emerald City, is not all that it seems. There are mysterious forces that determine who makes it big and who doesn’t. It’s a tough world, baby, and the guaranteed success that Betty hopes to find rarely happens in reality.
Nick Cato: MULHOLLAND DRIVE is basically a surreal, modern film noir, with an incredible performance by Naomi Watts, complimented by co-star Laura Hanning’s often speechless speech and deathly-sexy mannerisms. While we could easily take up another 15 pages breaking down what the cowboy symbolized, who the homeless man behind the diner was, and just WHY on earth Billy Ray Cyrus was cast as Adam’s wife’s lover (!), MULHOLLAND DRIVE is one of those films that reveals itself more and more upon each viewing. It’s like staring at a surreal painting for hours on end, when suddenly things start to appear you hadn’t noticed before.
And with each viewing the film seems to unravel itself a little bit more, almost like Lynch somehow caused the film to work over periods of time. Am I giving him too much credit as a director here? Maybe. Some would say definitely. Either way, this is how MULHOLLAND DRIVE happens to work.
There are few films like it.
Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel: MULHOLLAND DRIVE demands several viewings. Even taken at the surface level, it’s a thrill ride through a twisted world. The most cynical viewer will likely take something away from the film. Things crop up after a few viewings that never occurred to me before. Part film noir, part horror flick, part crime drama, it all comes together in a collage that sometimes leaves the viewer with just as many questions as they resolve.
The legendary Ann Miller makes her final screen appearance as Betty’s landlord.
© Copyright 2012 by Nick Cato and Sheri Sebastian-Gabriel