Sure, we’ve all heard the rumours: topping the critics’ pick of the flicks for this century, hell, this millennium so far, is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. But what exactly happened up in the darkness of those famous hills, on those enticing yet savage switchbacks? It was late one night when they called it in. The cops had come up cold, suspected multiple homicide. But I found out soon enough that we were dealing with multiple lives…
Of course, I started off watching Mulholland Drive like all the others: a basic stakeout approach. Pick a spot, get comfortable and lie low for a couple of hours, observe events unfold. It didn’t take me long to realise it was going to take more than coffee and doughnuts to get through this. Sure, I started taking notes, mentally at first, a few jottings here and there.
But when the frenzy kicked in, when the case really started to bite, I found myself recording everything in the illumination of my phone. Every little detail, subjected to forensic rigour, seemed to offer up yet another clue. But rather than shedding light on the true nature of those events, the mystery deepened like the darkness of the Hollywood hills.
What we think we know…
So there’s the manic dance sequence with the same couples overlaid upon each other and themselves. Then, Betty emerges from the airport flanked by the elderly couple, someone (whom we don’t know) sinks onto a bed, and the collision takes place on Mulholland Drive. A dark-haired woman escapes from the wreckage and heads down a rough, wooded hillside where she hides off Sunset Boulevard, before sneaking into aunt Ruth’s apartment. Enter Betty, to use her aunt’s apartment while she auditions for a role in a film.
At this point, there are two key scenes away from Ruth’s apartment that just begin to complicate what appeared to be a straightforward case. In the first of those scenes, detectives investigating the scene of the crash mumble, “Could be someone’s missing, maybe?” while in the second case, at a diner, a man goes to the rear of the building to dispel a recurring nightmare he is having by proving it’s not real, only to discover that it is real and deadly.
“Could be someone’s missing, maybe?” But who, where are they and in what sense are they missing? This, along with the dark haired woman’s amnesia and adoption of the name Rita (from a poster featuring Rita Hayworth), are the first indications that here, in Mulholland Drive, identity is fluid and dynamic. “Come on, it’ll be just like in the movies, we’ll pretend to be someone else”, says Betty. I replay the recording and listen again. “We’ll pretend to be someone else.” Two people pretending to be one other person? Or just a twist of grammar? After a few of these long, moonless nights everything starts to look like another clue.
Later on, when the mystic Louise Bonner comes calling at Ruth’s apartment, she protests that Betty is not who she says she is, before being removed by the equally mysterious Coco. Later still, when Rita cuts her hair and dons the blonde wig, suddenly we’re in the realm of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (a similarly curious and enduring case often ranking high in the greatest films of all time). With Betty and the newly blonde Rita both looking directly into the lens of the hidden camera that was placed in their mirror, Betty says, “You look like someone else.”
It is not clear that Rita becomes Camilla any more than Betty becomes Diane, but it is clear that both are at least aspects of the same individual in the Lynchian multiverse where identity is overtly pluralistic. Are there four suspects here wanted for questioning… or two…or maybe even just one?
Okay, so a lot of damn fine coffee has been consumed and a lot of sidewalk has been pounded, but how did we get here, adrift in the Lynchian multiverse? I’ve got a hunch that when a man walks round the back of a diner to see that his nightmares are not real, only to discover that they are, then that is when we say goodbye to the world as we think we know it: our expectations are subverted.
It’s hardly a new trick. Hitchcock was the master of suspense, yet even in Vertigo and Psycho, he subverted our expectations only in the service of the plot (and entertainment). In Mulholland Drive, the disruption of narrative expectations, of chronology and identity, cause and effect all seem to be the very substance and focus of the film itself rather than its subtext.
Lynch has created post-film: concerns that would formerly have been regarded as being of meta-narrative are foregrounded in the content rather than being structural, behind the scenes and implied. Narrative and identity constitute the very subject of Mulholland Drive. Here, substantive reality or “things” do not even have to underpin the phenomena we experience. As the orator at Club Silencio says, despite the music, there is no orchestra, “it’s all on tape”. Our attention is drawn to a disconnect between phenomena and what we expect to be their reality.
We are invited to run with this throughout the film: suspend your usual expectations, stop trying to make the usual connections and maybe, like Adam the fateful director, we too can ride along in Cowboy Lynch’s buggy. Are you ready for the ride? In this post-truth world where signs and signifiers long since parted ways, where the simulacra is ubiquitous, we return to Mulholland Drive repeatedly. You drop down the embankment, find an apartment with an unlocked door and slip inside…
When Rita emerges from the crash at the start of the film, she pauses and appears mesmerised by the golden strip of highway in the city below. The same shot, focusing on that strip, reappears near the end. Rita and Betty, Diane and Camilla are all on their own Yellow Brick Roads, except here it’s Mulholland Drive, it’s a Moebius strip, an Escher stairway, a Lynchian loop that we join with no real beginning and no definite end: in that sense Lynch has created a perfect piece of art.
It seems to exist on its own independent terms, a closed circuit that nevertheless admits of endless possibilities while retaining its own internal structure, its own nebulous nightmarish logic. It’s precisely the lack of a definitive explanation that enables this masterpiece to endure.
In the beginning, I tried to solve this case using classic 20th century methods, tried and tested. But then I realised that a different kind of thinking was required because now the game has changed. Will you be returning to Mulholland Drive?
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