At the Movies

Michael Wood

There are some fine shots of the title thoroughfare in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a new release from the Criterion Collection. It’s all bushes and darkness and bends in the road, various cars’ tail-lights appearing and disappearing. Anything could happen there, especially since there are some very posh residences among the shrubs. But the view from Mulholland Drive is even more significant. ‘It could be someone’s missing maybe,’ one detective says to another as they stand by the remains of a car crash on the drive. ‘That’s what I’m thinking,’ the other detective says, and turns to look at the city from where they are standing: a whole world of bright lights flashing faintly far below. The detective walks to the edge of the cliff and stares down into the valley, as if the missing person has to be there, among the lights, along with the answer to every other question.

We see similar shots of the Los Angeles area several times in the film. This is the mythical metropolis, the last American city going west, the place where all dreams end, the place made only of dreams, and the director wants us to join him in living there for a couple of hours. It’s not an easy place to be, partly because even dreams are not made of dreams, only of mixed wreckage from the waking day, and partly because this is David Lynch’s particular choice of wreckage, full of ambition, danger and ambiguity. The city is ‘mysterious and apparitional’, as Dennis Lim says in his excellent new book on Lynch, and never more so than in this film.[*]

Luis Buñuel is the great artist of the unflagged dream, the one you recognise for what it is when the character wakes up but not before, as happens repeatedly in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. But Lynch is the champion of the long illusion: the dream sequence in Mulholland Drive takes up nearly two hours of a film that is just short of two and a half hours long. He is quite clear, as Buñuel is, about when the dream ends. In a wonderfully swift and elliptical series of shots, two women return to an apartment; one puts a small box on a bed, the other moves away to take a larger box from a cupboard, and when she turns back, her companion has gone. She calls, as if the other woman had to be still in the apartment somewhere; but she doesn’t know what kind of movie she is in. Her companion has left this story entirely and in a moment will be seen inhabiting a quite different one.

I am calling the first part of the film a dream because that is what most people call it, and because it has elements that clearly belong to the fantasy of the character in the second part. But it doesn’t have to be a dream: it could just be a tale she tells herself, or a long memory, or a memory tipping over into fiction. All we can really say is that the levels of proposed reality within the film clearly shift; and that Naomi Watts, who used to be Betty, becomes Diane. Diane, to put it at its simplest, has invented Betty.

Diane is an actress who has lost her love, a woman, to a director (and perhaps to another actress on the side, unless this is Diane’s fantasy). In the intervals of seeing her affair go wrong and plotting vengeance, Diane creates the story of the movie’s first two hours. Betty, a girl from Deep River, Ontario, has won a jitterbugging competition – that’s what all those antique dancers and silhouettes were about at the start of the film – and has come to Hollywood to try her luck. Her luck includes finding the amnesiac survivor of an assassination attempt in the apartment she is borrowing, and the two women go on a quest to find the survivor’s lost past. The quest turns up various memories and locations, including a magical theatre and a corpse that may belong to Diane herself – a figure of fear that has crept from one story into another.

Mention of the actress – Watts’s performance is marvellous, ranging from wide-eyed near stupidity to cracked-up despair – reminds us that the movie is a movie and we have to be careful about what we call real, but Lynch is very subtle in this matter, and not interested in the more obvious games people play with illusions. He makes no show of suggesting, for example, that we can’t know the difference between dream and reality; or that knowing the difference is easy. This is why what Lim calls the ‘metaphysical cabaret’ at a club called Silencio plays such a large part in Lynch’s scheme; and why the film’s great set piece involves Watts reading for a part in a film. The same sense of deception and truth preying on each other governs the photography (by Peter Deming). We see pieces of a world or a person, corners of rooms, gardens full of ferns, characters appearing behind screens or glass. The evidence is everywhere, but do we know how to interpret it?

The effects in the cabaret are all mechanical. The muted trombones we hear are only in the soundtrack, the trumpet player is miming, and so is the torch singer, although she has the key members of her audience in tears. What’s real in this case is what gets you, even when you have been told it is taped. In the audition the effect is reversed, and a weird authenticity takes over. The totally inexperienced Betty is suddenly so convincing we think she may have lost control and stopped acting. If, as seems most likely, this scene is the fantasy of the lamentably unsuccessful actress that Diane is, the whole thing becomes dizzying. She dreams of being so real in performance that the idea of performance will vanish. This scene, thanks to Diane’s imagination and Lynch’s script, is also populated by various Hollywood stooges: the nervous, avuncular producer, the smart, cynical agent, the ageing actor dripping with charm, and the sententious director. It’s this last personage who, asked for his advice to the would-be star, says: ‘Don’t play it for real until it gets real.’ If this wasn’t so vapid it might be Lynch’s motto.

There is quite a bit of aimless hocus-pocus in the movie involving blue keys and a mysterious blue box. This is presumably meant to remind us that Lynch is a magician and can do what he likes with his film, in or out of the metaphysical cabaret. The plotline about the director-character within the movie and his difficulties with the Mafia, who have a strong interest in a particular bit of casting, feels a bit thin too. But the most extraneous-looking scenes in the whole work, apart from being beautifully, slowly, acted and shot, are also the least extraneous to the film’s preoccupations.

Two men sit in a diner on Sunset Boulevard. One looks perturbed and mentions a dream he has had – twice. He describes the dream. It has him sitting in this same diner, his companion also in the room but over by the till, and the dreamer perceives (he says he sees through a wall) a ghastly-looking old man behind the building controlling events, terrifying everyone. The dreamer’s waking hope is never to see this man’s face ‘ever, outside of a dream’. This problem would seem to be easily solvable and the two men leave the diner to encounter the nothing they expect to find. As they turn the last corner to reach the back wall they see a ghastly-looking old man, all long hair, blackened face and stereotyped horror, a sort of movie caveman. Both dreams and reality can be a little predictable.

Towards the end of the film Diane sits in the same diner, in the process of paying a hitman to kill her ex-friend Camilla. The man who told the dream earlier stands outside, looking austere, saying nothing. Behind the diner the ghastly-looking man sits by a fire, apparently using some kind of voodoo to manufacture the tiny figures who are going to creep under Diane’s door and drive her to suicide.

The structure of thought here resembles that of David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979, also newly released by Criterion), where a therapy that deals in working out one’s rage creates a set of small creatures who go off and beat in the heads of people you don’t like. The point, I take it, is not that dreams always come true, or that fact is more fantastic than fiction, but that nothing in the mind is permanently guaranteed not to find a partner or echo in reality. ‘Whatever is thinkable is also possible,’ as Wittgenstein said, and just because you dream of a scary old man in the neighbourhood doesn’t mean there are no scary old men in the neighbourhood.

[*] David Lynch: The Man from Another Place by Dennis Lim (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 192 pp., $20, March, 978 0 544 34375 7).