It's... well, it's David Lynch all right. There are moments that are pure Eraserhead, as when Angelo Badalamenti interrupts a high-powered Hollywood movie to slowly and methodically spit espresso into a napkin until Dan Hedaya starts screaming. There are ornate rooms with ridiculous amounts of drapery, freaky and interminable song and/or dance numbers, supernatural characters like an eyebrowless vanishing cowboy and a hellfiend of some sort who lives behind a dumpster. The first half of the movie throws out about half a dozen plot threads, only one of which is especially interesting. Luckily, this turns out to be the one that comes to the fore. And it's wonderful.
This is the thread in which the murder of beautiful, glamorous, feline "Rita" (Laura Harring) is interrupted by a freak accident which leaves her amnesiac and hiding out in the home of a stranger who's gone on vacation. That stranger's niece, golly-gee-willickers Betty (Naomi Watts), hops off a plane from Canada and quickly establishes herself as the latest iteration of the archetypal David Lynch perky innocent, looking around wide-eyed and chirping, "Wow!" and "Oh, my!" and "I'm so excited to be here!" And when she finds some random in her home away from home? It's Nancy Drew time! Gosh, let's you and me find out who you are by looking through the phone book and knocking on doors! And why trust this trespassing fugitive? "She's very nice!"
But surprisingly, this is not satire, or not pure satire anyway — it's not an exercise in "let's laugh at the hick." The fact is, Betty and Rita are very nice. One of the joys of narrative is spending time with appealing people, and both leads more than qualify. And this is not just because of their inherent traits, but because of the way they're framed: it's over Betty's shoulder that we get to know Rita, alluringly mysterious yet completely vulnerable, and over Rita's that we get to know Betty, guileless and kindhearted... movies often present us with a character to adore (Sarah Polley in The Sweet Hereafter, Irene Jacob in Three Colors: Red, Thora Birch in Ghost World, etc.) but here we have two. And we're tagging along as they piece together their situation, explore this city — strange to both of them, for different reasons — and begin to bond with each other... and consequently, we bond with both of them. So when the last barriers come down and the kissing starts, when Betty whispers with equal parts urgency and astonishment, "I'm in love with you, I'm in love with you," it's just achingly beautiful.
Of course, as a straight male it's to be expected that I'd like the hot girl-girl action. There's been a fair amount said about why guys dig the whole lesbian thing (at least when it's femme-femme) but in the end it all boils down to the old Paul Reiser line: "It's naked, it's fun, and I agree with both of them!" Contrast this with a narrative about a straight couple. So there's a boy and a girl. Who do I care about? I'm straight, so I care about the girl. Girls are interesting. I want to follow her around, get into her head, find out her hopes her dreams her loves her fears, etc. Except what does she want? In a story like this, she wants to smooch the boy. Bleah, can't relate. So much for that. Whereas in Mulholland Dr., it is eminent understandable why Betty would want to kiss Rita (who wouldn't?) and why Rita would want to kiss Betty (who wouldn't?) so you get a positive feedback loop and the flat-out best love scenes in any movie I can think of.
(One last note before moving on: this came up on the MUD once and one person averred that he hated lesbian scenes because he related not to both participants, but to neither. I also had someone in one of my seminars at Cal who declared that he couldn't even bring himself to play a videogame as a female character. Me, I'm the opposite. I always play games as female given the choice. Why? I suppose it's just another manifestation of what I said a few lines up: I want the game to be interesting, and if you want me to be interested in a character, making her female is a big help.)
Backing up almost to the beginning now: I said earlier that "well, it's David Lynch all right." Yes, but it's Lynch with a heaping helping of Kubrick, and that's a huge plus. At least, that was the parallel I drew. Mulholland Dr. reminded me of two of Kubrick's films. One was Eyes Wide Shut, which took place in New York, but not really: it took place in a New York of the mind, specifically New York of the dreaming mind. Similarly, Mulholland Dr. takes place in a dream Los Angeles. It's not that it's unrealistic. It's that it's orthogonal to realism.
But even more, Mulholland Dr. reminded me of 2001. In both we have an odd but reasonably conventional narrative, but then we take a journey — in 2001 a long one, in Mulholland Dr. a short dive into a blue box — and come out someplace where every cut means the world has changed. Betty walks toward the couch in a bathrobe, carrying a pitcher of coffee; reverse angle, and now she's got a glass of hard liquor and is wearing nothing but cutoffs. Except now she's not Betty. She's Diane. And Rita is now Camilla, and Camilla and Diane have been lovers for a long time, but now Camilla's cutting Diane out of her life. And so Diane plots the murder that went awry and led to Rita meeting Betty, and...
...and it doesn't make sense. Nor is it really supposed to. This isn't a mystery, and we're not learning "what really happened" to neatly fill the gaps of the first hour forty-five. This has infuriated a lot of the film's detractors, who would have preferred to be able to come away from the movie with some solid information like, "So the first 7/9 of the film is Diane's dream in which she recasts her lover's director's mother as her own landlord and..." These are probably the same people who freaked out about the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episode "Normal Again," in which two parallel plot threads are treated with equal validity: one in which Buffy is poisoned by a demon and hallucinates that she's been in a mental institution with undifferentiated schizophrenia for six years, and another in which Buffy is in a mental institution and hallucinating that she's a vampire slayer in the fictional town of Sunnydale with a witch and a vengeance demon for friends and a retconned ball of sentient energy for a sister. "That's ridiculous!" Buffy realizes, becoming convinced the institution is real — and, indeed, the episode ends not in Sunnydale, but at the institution, as Buffy has slipped into the permanent catatonia of her fantasy world. One last hallucination, or one last glimpse of reality before we head back into her head for the rest of the series? I looked up the Usenet discussion on this one a while back and there were plenty of distraught people. "This invalidates the whole series!" It does? Why? I mean, you do know that Buffy isn't real, right? Why do the episodes only "count" if the show insists on its own (nonexistent) reality? It's like the people in 1984 who voted for Reagan over Mondale, saying, "I know they'll both raise taxes, but I don't like a guy who admits it."
Anyway, tangent. Back to Mulholland Dr. So, yeah, with half an hour to go, we head to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, and suddenly there's been a round of Identity Musical Chairs and almost every actor is playing someone else's part. And there's no "true" and no "false," no "asleep" and no "awake"... there's a pre-box happentrack and a post-box happentrack and after you see the film they're both in your head at once. Every character is a palimpsest.
One thing I've noticed in discussing narratives with Jennifer is that she's very concerned with whether the people in a story are behaving "in character." This has never been something that concerned me much. There's some validity to the notion in a serially collaborative medium like series television or comics — a writer brings in an existing character, can't be bothered to read up on the character's previous appearances, makes up a personality, etc. But I'm more inclined to think that when a character behaves in an unusual way, it's because we're seeing a previously unrevealed side to her personality — that the author is adding depth. One of the most striking and wonderful moments of Mulholland Dr. is when Betty goes on her audition. We're thinking, "Gyah, Betty as an actress? Yeah, right — she's wooden in her day-to-day life, let alone with a camera trained on her!" Plus there's the whole words-in-collision aspect of Betty, absurdly innocent storybook Betty, and the threat of the casting couch... she's ridiculously out of place. Yet when the audition's underway, and the lecherous old actor insists, "We'll play this niiiiice and close," Betty proves to be an astounding actress — suddenly, she's every inch the purring sex kitten, complete with claws. And then the scene's over and she's Kara Zor-El again. "Welp, there it was!" she says with her usual glazed smile.
Out of character? No, we've just learned that the character had previously unglimpsed depth, and everything, both afterward and retrospectively, is informed by what we've learned. Much the same goes for the Jupiter segment. The connection between Betty and Diane is not spelled out, but each deepens our understanding of the other — each are glimpses of who the other could have been but is not. Which sheds just as much light on her as the audition — the light is just a different color. For in addition to the sides of ourselves that others rarely see are the sides of ourselves we don't actually have, but could have had. Alternate takes on who we might have been. What would my life have been like, what would I be like, if my sister had lived? Or how about if in my early childhood we had moved not to California, but rather to Georgia, where my father was looking for houses when at the last minute the job offer came in from Orange County? Do these other versions of myself really have nothing to say about each other? Which is not to say that this is in fact the relationship that Betty and Diane bear to each other — just that that relationship cannot be dismissed.
And as a writer, let me ask this: does Diane's appearance "invalidate" Betty? If so, then just about every character ever written is invalidated, because even if the reader never sees it, to their creators they're all palimpsests like this. As Ready, Okay! evolved, Allen went from being the fourth child of five (his two eldest siblings being early versions of characters from my work in progress, the third child being a version of Krieg, the youngest a version of Siren) to being the middle child of three (with a version of Molly as his older sister and a version of Kelly his younger) to his eventual position as eldest (by six minutes) in a lineup of Echo, Krieg, Molly and Jerem. The book I'm working on now focuses on characters all of whom are Dianes to the Bettys in Ready, Okay! So to me the scramble that comes at the 1:45 point of Mulholland Dr. isn't just a stunt, but a brilliant insight into the nature of the characters we create. Who are as dear to us as children.
And while we may not all write, we all dream. And Mulholland Dr. has something to say to us on that score, as well. A MUD acquaintance recently wrote an attack on ambiguity in art, claiming that it undermines art's purpose, which is to communicate a message. But that depends on what constitutes a message, doesn't it? A message that could be summed up in a sentence or an essay would probably be best left as a sentence or an essay. But there are some things that cannot be so precisely articulated. If I have a feeling I want to share, describing the feeling, however eloquently, will not communicate it. But through art, if I am sufficiently skillful, I can make you feel what I feel. Mulholland Dr. movingly captures a number of feelings that derive from dreams. Perhaps the most basic is the layered reality of dreams, where palimpsests are ubiquitous: "I was hanging out at home, except it was also the mall, and also the moon..." (In fact, who needs an invented example? Here's one I posted a few years ago.) More that that, though, the film evokes the rapture of a dream of an intimate bond with someone, and the devastating sense of loss upon waking and realizing that that bond is gone, or never really was. Or what about dreams of terror, terror which in the light of morning seems so out of proportion with that which prompted it, but which is no less shattering for that? Many of the bad reviews of Mulholland Dr. conclude that in the end, the movie's just a dream, and what's more boring than someone else's dream? That's a fair point. Listening to someone describe a dream is dull. But we're not listening to David Lynch describe a dream in Mulholland Dr.. We're dreaming it along with him.