Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Mulholland Dr. (2001)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #28

For many years, there was arguably a very clear division between film and television as mediums, at least in the popular consciousness. Television was the lesser of the two, the place where those who couldn't cut it as movie stars (or, more often, movie-stars-in-training) found work and writers and directors cranked out weekly self-contained stories, often involving the same characters. Film, however, was glamorous, the stories and characters capable of being larger-than-life and deeply intimate, and the actors were somehow better than human, glowing just a little bit brighter than everyone else. Never mind that the processes behind the two were very similar, and that both were visual mediums still testing the limits of their capabilities; for at least 30 years, film reigned superior to television, and it was understood that the two mediums mingled only on the rarest of occasions.

However, this wasn't always the case; in fact, it may not have been true at all. A number of prominent television actors and filmmakers dabbled in film, and especially in the 1980s, television began maturing into a medium that was significantly more cinematic. Michael Mann pushed those boundaries with Miami Vice (1984-89) before making the leap to film with stylish thrillers like Thief (1981) and Manhunter (1986), while Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue (1989) made him a famous name among cinephiles before his Three Colors trilogy (1993-94) became his breakthrough.

David Lynch is, perhaps, one of the most well-known filmmakers whose work was entangled in both mediums at a time when such a thing was still a nascent idea. Coming off the commercial bomb Dune (1984) and critical comeback Blue Velvet (1986), and at the same time as his Palme d'Or-winning road movie Wild at Heart (1990), Lynch came to broadcast network ABC with a pilot called Twin Peaks (1990-91). The show was, surprisingly, a huge hit in its first season, with viewers hooked on the central mystery of "who killed Laura Palmer?," the show's oddball surrealism, and the eclectic performances. Even though Lynch only directed six episodes of the show (and only co-wrote four), there was no question that this was his show - defined entirely by his aesthetic and ideas.

Toward the end of the decade, Lynch made another attempt at television with a pilot called Mulholland Dr. Filmed in 1999, Lynch took it to ABC for pitch, only to have the network reject it. Rather than cast it aside, Lynch reworked it into a feature film, adding new scenes and providing it with a "closed" ending. The resulting film has been hailed as Lynch's masterpiece, as evidenced by its placement on Sight & Sound's decennial poll (one of only two films from the 2000s to make the list) and its esteemed reputation among critics.

That it started as a television project only seems natural, since the film straddles so many different boundaries of identity, consciousness, and narrative structure that it seems to exist in a space of its own.

More after the jump.

The film begins with a car accident on the titular Los Angeles street, with a brunette woman (Laura Elena Harring) surviving her would-be murder and finding refuge in a recently-vacant apartment. The apartment belongs to the aunt of Betty (Naomi Watts), an aspiring actress seen winning a jitterbug contest who moves into the apartment while her aunt is away. The mystery woman adopts the name Rita and explains to Betty that she no longer has any memories of who she is or what happened to her. Betty pledges to help Rita discover answers to her questions. Meanwhile, a boorish director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), is told to cast an actress - Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) - in his film, and as he resists, his life deteriorates. Without getting too detailed, there's a major switch-up in the film's third act, which recasts everything previously seen in a new light: Camilla is now played by Harring, and Watts plays a fallen actress named Diane Selwyn.

A lot has been made since the film's release about its meaning, resulting in a wide variety of analyses by various critics (including myself), scholars, and even the actors themselves. In almost every case, the crux of the argument hinges on the role reversal of the third act, with many arguing that the first two-thirds of the film are Diane's dream with the end being her reality. Naturally, this being a David Lynch film, that's not a concrete reading; more than any other film in his oeuvre to this point, it seems to exist purely to confound, at least on the surface (2006's Inland Empire, his most recent film, takes it to a whole new level).

The secret to Lynch's dream logic - the reason why this film seems so confusing even though he refers to the narrative as "straightforward" - is that, as in a real dream, there is no point of reference for the audience to identify with. The opening scene is disorienting, the psychedelic jitterbug competition immediately followed by Rita's accident. The audience isn't quite given a character with whom they can fully identify, as Betty's arrival and discovery of Rita is immediately followed by a previously-unseen character, Dan (Patrick Fischler), telling his friend at Winkie's Diner about a nightmare he had the night before.

Mulholland Drive - Diner Scene from Stephen Wiebe on Vimeo.

Though the man behind the diner becomes a more crucial part of the narrative as the film goes on, the most telling attribute of this scene is Lynch's camera. The camera isn't constantly moving so much as it is drifting, typically upward from over one party's shoulder. The camera appears to be unmoored, as if it's watching the conversation from beyond the temporal reality of the scene. It's dreamlike without being dreamy.

And in that movement is the mission statement Lynch has prepared for the film. The audience is left adrift, much like the camera. This scene is immediately followed by Rita waking up from a nap, which would seem to indicate that it was nothing more than a dream of her's. However, the "dream logic" doesn't end; there is no "snap" back to reality. Even though Rita and Betty make up the ostensible protagonists of the film, it still cuts back to Adam frequently and for extensive periods of time. The warped sound on display at the end of the Winkie's scene recurs throughout the film, further disorienting the "reality" onscreen. Lynch never provides a locus of reason for the film's logic; it successfully operates on its own terms, but those terms are either largely undefined or chaotically difficult to discern.

So, then, what is Mulholland Dr. about, if anything at all? At its core, it's a film about performance. Every character in the film is performing some sort of role, usually on more than one textual level. Adam, for example, fights the constrictions of his role, only to be punished for his rebellion toward the studio powers above him (symbolized in the mostly-silent Mr. Rocque, played by Lynch favorite Michael J. Anderson). Rita and Betty are obviously playing the role of brunette femme fatale and perky blonde newcomer, respectively, until the tables are turned, in which it becomes more difficult to tell what roles they are play (or if, in fact, it's the same person playing different roles). Each character is an actor in their own stories, making their roles as actors more metatextual and functional in Lynch's commentary on performance.

The same can be said of the entire Club Silencio segment as well. The premise is introduced immediately, as the MC - "The Magician" (Richard Green) - illustrates to the club's audience that everything they are witnessing is a recording, the action simply a pantomime of pre-existing sound. This culminates in Rebekah Del Rio's (playing herself) impassioned a cappella performance of Roy Orbison's "Crying" in Spanish. Just as before, the performance is revealed to be a recording when Del Rio passes out and the music continues. Lynch is deliberately both subverting and confirming the audience's understanding of what is "real" in the film, at once pulling back the curtain on his magic trick while still maintaining the illusion.

Club Silencio ~ Mulholland Dr. (2001) from Schmeichler on Vimeo.

Similarly, Lynch's mise en scene comments on artificiality and performance. Like the aforementioned Club Silencio scene, the following scene takes on a deliberately winking approach, only without being quite as explicit in its meaning.

At first, the scene seems to be another disorienting diversion, a doo-wop group performing in a recording studio of some sort. But as the camera pulls further out, it's revealed that the group is actually composed of actors, and that the scene is actually a screen test for Adam's movie. What's perhaps most clever about this moment is that once again Lynch subverts the audience's expectations, this time by taking a transition that's initially jarring and revealing it to be something more commonplace (rather than vice versa). Yet it is still about performance: what the audience is seeing is fake, and the reality of the scene is in question.

Looking back on the film, it's hard to imagine that it really could have been successful as a weekly television program. Lynch's failure with ABC was perhaps the best thing to happen to the film, though, as the pilot-turned-feature expanded into a meditation on performance and artifice in Hollywood, specifically. It's a film that operates, in many ways, like a dreamy Rorschach test: there's a multitude of meanings to be gleaned from it, depending on how the viewer receives it. When Lynch included a document called "10 Clues to Unlocking Mulholland Dr.," his "clues" were just vague enough to guide viewers without revealing any "real" answers. To this day, Lynch refuses to explain the film to anyone. It's meant to be a mystery, and that's how it works best: as a dream half-remembered, its meaning obscured within itself.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": Some Like It Hot (1959)

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