[box cover]

Mulholland Dr.

Universal Studios Home Video

Starring Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Justin Theroux,
Dan Hedeya, Brent Briscoe, Billy Ray Cyrus,
Ann Miller, Melissa George, Lee Grant,
and Robert Forster

Written and Directed by David Lynch

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Review by Damon Houx                    

What could be described as a "found art" project by cinema's foremost art-school dilettante, David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001) is truly like no other film ever made. And — damn it — it's a frustrating experience because it bends the rules of cinema and cheats the first-time viewer by being a mystery that isn't about the mystery on the screen. However, it is one of the great DVDs, considering that Mulholland Dr. is one of those few films that actually rewards multiple viewings though its dreamy, confusing, and Buñuelian narrative. Unfortunately, to get at the heart of the film one must spoil the plot a bit. Newcomers have been warned.

*          *          *

Buffeted by an introduction that suggests someone's dreams, Mulholland Dr. begins with the arrival of the exceptionally chipper and doe-eyed blonde Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), who's coming from Deep River, Ontario to Hollywood hoping to get her big acting break by relocating to her actress Aunt's apartment. But while moving in, Betty finds a dark-haired stranger naked in her aunt's shower. The stranger calls herself Rita (Laura Harring, looking like what would happen if someone spliced the genes of Laura San Giacomo with Catherine Zeta-Jones), but because of a car crash and assassination attempt she now has amnesia. The only clues to her identity are a pile of cash and strange blue key found in her purse.

As the two girls try and find out just who Rita is, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is told by men in suits that his new film must star the actress Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) or else it will be shut down. He rejects this, but then Adam finds that not only is his wife sleeping with the pool man (Billy Ray Cyrus), but his project has been canceled, his assets frozen, and he's instructed to have a midnight meeting with someone named "The Cowboy." Though she has a killer audition for a neighboring project, and she catches Adam's eye, Betty's determined to continue her investigation after she and Rita stumble onto a clue in the name of Diane Selwin. As their sapphic interests are heightened by the chase, the clues lead them to Diane's apartment, where they break in to find a decomposing body. The two go home and have sex and Betty admits she's fallen in love with the now blonde-wigged Rita, but in a post-coital dream Rita insinuates that the two must go to the club "Silencio," where they are repeatedly told that everything is an illusion. They then find the strange key's box and go home, but when Rita opens it, she disappears.

*          *          *

The above covers only the first half of a movie that is quickly turned on its ear by the shorter second half — which reconnects most of the major plot point into a different (and possibly the real) narrative, where Betty is recast as Diane and Rita is Camilla Rhodes. Diane (as in the first section) came to Hollywood to become a star, but instead of having the killer audition she dreamed of, she's ended up as Camilla's favorite sycophant until their relationship burned out. Camilla is now about to marry Adam, and she has also debased Diane further by getting a new girlfriend (George) as well. Diane is alone, haunted by her failure, and by the hit she put out on Camilla. And with these dreams of failure chasing her as personified by her aunt and uncle, Diane makes a fateful decision as Mulholland Dr. journey's once again to Silencio.

Or — at least — that's one way to look at the warped narrative of Lynch's film. What is real and what is not truly is up to the viewer, and there are many theories to choose from. It's easy to suggest that Betty is dreaming all or some of this, but it could be argued it's in Rita/Camilla's head as well. (Those looking for more clues into what Lynch may or may not have been getting should browse the Salon.com spoiler ridden assessment here). But like any piece of art, the viewer can take away what they want and leave the rest. Many people are likely to leave it.

*          *          *

Though it's hard to know what to make of the narrative, some of that has to do with the film's inception. Originally, Mulholland Dr. was to be Lynch's return to television, and though Lynch made a pilot for ABC, it never aired as it was deemed too weird for prime time. With a rabid fan-base willing to consume anything the maestro exhumes, the pilot was resurrected when French investors gave Lynch enough money to turn the pilot into a full-length feature film. And though there are revisions throughout, the first 90 minutes reportedly are pretty close to the original pilot, with the first few minutes and the second half almost exclusively the new stuff. Such may be why this R-rated film features bloodless on-screen killings in one section and hot lesbian sex in another — or it could be taken as intentional, if one embraces this as a dream narrative.

Yet, unlike the European version of the Twin Peaks pilot (which only added enough footage to give the show resolution), here Lynch has completely transmogrified the project into a twisted version of the Wizard of Oz dreamworld that recast everyone in Dorothy's life into a fantastic tableaux that renders Dorothy the center of attention. In Mulholland Dr. this dream is (superficially) a denouement of the Hollywood one, although that's probably too simple of an explanation for this complex film.

Because of this revisioning of the pilot project, there are entire sequences in Mulholland Dr. that seem to bear no meaning to the rest of the film. And since many feature names like Robert Forster, Dan Hedeya (both showing up for single scenes), and Billy Ray Cyrus, it's easy for a viewer to get hung up on such small bits (or wonder how these characters would have turned out had this become a TV series). After all, audiences are trained to wonder when such actors are going to show up later (much as it was strange how Chris Isaac and Kiefer Sutherland's characters seem to have no bearing on the rest of Fire Walk with Me). But as confusing as it seems, Lynch has a master plan — he's just not going to connect the dots for the viewer.

*          *          *

Obtuseness is par for the course with David Lynch of late. Since making 1994's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me he's evolved (or some might say regressed) into making films with experimental narratives like his first feature, 1977's Eraserhead, with only 1999's The Straight Story an exception. It was a stark change, as his "middle" period (from 1980's The Elephant Man through 1990's Wild at Heart) had Lynchian flourishes, but with clearly drawn narratives. The shift must have began with the TV show Twin Peaks — since then, starting with the descent into death of Fire Walk with Me and the split psyche of 1997's Lost Highway, these flourishes seemed all that was left. They played to the most-often-criticized elements of Lynch: a love of midgets, jokey midwest humor, odd speaking rhythms, and the presence of otherworldly beings. Yet it's these elements that become more and more interesting under close examination. They seem more grounded with each passing viewing.

With Mulholland Dr., Lynch seems aware of his reputation as an "auteur," with many of the self-referential moments confusing or just plain groan-inducing. Roy Orbison's "Crying" is sung in Spanish at Silencio, immediately recalling Dean Stockwell's lip-synching of Orbison's "In Dreams" in Blue Velvet. To what effect? None really — it probably just means that David Lynch likes Roy Orbision. And unless you clue into the first section's heightened unreality as a dream state, you won't want to forgive some of that section's worst Lynchian traits — like Naomi Watts' excessively chipper delivery and the presence of an all-controlling midget. But these are small moments that don't denigrate the whole.

Indeed, Mulholland Dr. starts to congeal on repeated viewing, which can make the first viewing awfully frustrating. In the scene at Silencio, a master of ceremonies states that everything is an illusion; it's hard to know who that comment is addressed to on first viewing, as all films are illusions. Is Lynch talking to the players, or the audience? Only on the second viewing does it seem to be a way of reminding the characters that they are dreaming. And this depth and obfuscation is what makes repeated viewing a necessity. But how many people are willing to sit through a bad two-and-a-half hour film twice, except those who want to make sure Lynch didn't make a stinker? (For the record, though some "got" Mulholland Dr. on first viewing, this reviewer didn't care for it at all until he saw the picture a second time). Though the film sets up its rules and clues as any good mystery should, such is done through a dream-narrative wherein meaning is gained through knowing the real (a reality that is presented almost totally afterwards). With so much information, it's hard to hold all the pieces together until one knows what the pieces are for.

The value of Mulholland Dr. comes down to how much the viewer is willing to invest into the film. The more you have fun connecting the dots, the better time you'll have watching it. An important clue is the box that, when unlocked, causes Rita to disappear. What is the box? Is it a gesture towards Pandora's box, or is it a more literal nod to a slang interpretation of "box"? That's the fun of it, as Mulholland Dr. is a mystery open to all interpretations and theories, with none more valid than the next. You could even argue the whole thing is just bullshit artistic masturbation in trying to turn a failed TV pilot into a cinematic acid trip. On some level it is just that — an experiment for Lynch to see if he could take one thing and turn into another, totally different thing. And yet for a sleight of hand trick, it's impressive that Lynch pulled it off (this may have led to his Oscar nomination for Best Director), making Mulholland Dr. the most playful movie David Lynch has made.

*          *          *

Universal's Mulholland Dr. DVD presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), and it looks fabulous — since the project was initiated for television, this reviewer found it felt more at home on the small screen than on the big one. Audio options include both DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1, while extras are limited to a trailer and cast/crew notes. But that is Lynch's way on DVD, as is the lack of chapter stops (although ten "clues" from the director are listed on the inner sleeve). Some might be disappointed in so few extras. But like any good magician, Lynch is not about to tell you how he does his tricks.

— Damon Houx

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