Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mulholland Dr. defined the modern puzzle-box movie

Illustration for article titled iMulholland Dr. /idefined the modern puzzle-box movie

Mulholland Dr., the defining puzzle-box movie of its time, takes at face value the idea that Tinseltown is a place where dreams come true, linking nightmares, fantasies, and weird sex dreams into a long trip through the subconscious. Like Last Year At Marienbad, the defining puzzle-box movie of an earlier generation, Mulholland Dr. is an enigma dazzled by old Hollywood glamour, warping filmic narrative to the edge of incoherence, so that all of its seductive qualities come through. It wasn’t conceived as a movie, and often doesn’t look like one, with tight shots and occasionally flat lighting that betray its origins as a late ’90s network TV pilot, and clear aesthetic breaks with the scenes added after arthouse super-producer Alain Sarde financed additional filming. Yet Mulholland Dr. now stands as one of the best and most popular examples of the big screen’s unique flair for experiences that are simultaneously tantalizing and unresolvable.

The gospel of David Lynch—spread far and wide since the years-long midnight runs of his landmark debut, Eraserhead—has made much of the writer-director’s deep weirdness, to the point that his name has become a byword for the unsettling. Lynch and Lynchian can mean anything from a persistent droning noise to an eccentrically affected performance to a suggestion of the supernaturally sinister lurking underneath the small-town banal; it’s the state of everything being just off enough or wrong enough to seem unreal, as though the universe were out of tune in non-semitone intervals. Whether in films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway or in TV projects like Twin Peaks, Lynch’s weirdness is distinct and self-evident, but focusing on its unexplained and unmotivated qualities tends to give short shrift to the fact that it is also really damn accessible.


Mulholland Dr., an avant-garde film by most metrics, launched the career of its then-unknown star, Naomi Watts, and earned Lynch his third Oscar nomination for Best Director. Go back to the early years of Lynch’s film career, and you’ll find him being offered the chance to direct Return Of The Jedi on the strength of two black-and-white movies about freaks. What is it about Lynch that’s put him so close to the mainstream for most of his career? Maybe the answer lies within Mulholland Dr., a movie that refuses to divulge any answers about itself, no matter how many diagrams and freeze-frames its fans come up with. An aspiring actress from Canada meets an amnesiac with the looks of a femme fatale, while a director is frustrated by the dark forces controlling his studio and a bungling hit man gets his hands on a mysterious address book; a box is opened, and the women become different characters. A viewer can’t resist the urge to try to figure out how its fits together, but can’t.

Per Lynch’s instructions, Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition presents the film without chaptering, meant to be experienced as a whole, its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time constituting one of the director’s most seamless evocations of a dream state. Lynch gets dreams like almost no other filmmaker, because he understands that dreams are not metaphors, but irrationally assembled spaces in which we can’t help but look for symbolism and logic. Creating these kinds of spaces is not easy. Though his work is almost never discussed in terms of straightforward storytelling values, Lynch is much shrewder about structure than his movies usually let on. Mulholland Dr. is never more disconnected than its opening 20 minutes, which introduce characters who seem to belong in different movies (some of whom never appear again) and include one of the most purely scary sequences in contemporary film—the self-contained “man behind Winkie’s” scene.

Among other things, this opening stretch gives the viewer time to acclimate, so that the more straightforward scenes that follow—naïve Betty (Watts) trying to solve the mystery of “Rita” (Laura Harring), big-shot director Adam (Justin Theroux) walking in on his wife in bed with another man—seem to operate with the logic of the half-awake nocturnal. Lynch is the master of getting audiences to accept viewing experiences as dreams, and the thing about these dreams is that they move like the personal subconscious, but pull from collective pop culture and Americana. Here, the clichés of the wide-eyed starlet and the sinister Hollywood conspiracy intermingle with aphoristic cowboys, European coffee snobs, scenes from a late ’50s period piece, and trashy lesbian erotica, the corny “Have you ever done this before?” line bent to imply that most of the movie’s characters are really one person.

Though it’s often abstract, Mulholland Dr. is not heady. It isn’t asking the viewer to try to figure out a problem before offering the solution, like the Los Angeles detective stories it sometimes draws from, but asking them to accept mystery as its own perpetual state. And though its meanings are often obscure, it isn’t esoteric. Its imagery is keys, phones, lampshades, dumpy apartments, convertibles, blonde wigs, velvet curtains, vintage refrigerators with pull-down locking handles. There is no place more inaccessible than another person’s subconscious; Lynch replicates it by drawing on the transformations, anxieties, and erotic confusions we recognize from our dreams, and makes it accessible by populating it with the over-familiar stuff of retro-kitsch diners and oldies radio, the result being something like a night of dreams anyone could have.


About this release: Sourced from a brand new 4K transfer supervised by Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming, Criterion’s new edition of Mulholland Dr. has a softer, more accurate color palette than previous releases, most noticeable in the skin tones. Besides extensive interviews, the special features include a minor deleted scene. Lynch has gone on the record about his own dissatisfaction with the original TV pilot version he delivered to ABC, so those hoping to see Mulholland Dr. in its rough draft form will have to make do with muddy bootlegs.

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