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There Are No Accidents on ‘Mulholland Drive’

David Lynch's Mulholland Drive unfolds in a series of desires, warnings, and deals that are often made under duress by unseen malevolent forces, or motivated by darkness within.

”Don’t Tell My Heart”

A man sits in a dark room, in a lonely mansion. He imagines a cautionary road sign for Los Angeles: “‘entering this industry, you are now on the highway to darkness…'”

The man describing this warning of a lost highway might be right at home in a David Lynch film. He is in fact Billy Ray Cyrus, global superstar country singer of days past and father to present day global superstar Miley Cyrus. The above quotation appeared in a widely redistributed February 2011 interview with Chris Heath for GQ. The article was originally called “Mr. Hannah Montana’s Achy Broken Heart”, but headlines linking to the interview featured the forces to which Cyrus assigned blame for his daughter’s headlong fall into reckless young adulthood. Five years and several Miley media events later, the interview is still remembered as the time Billy Ray blamed Satan and David Lynch for destroying his family.

To be fair to the media outlets that refashioned a comprehensive interview about a life and career into a sensational headline, Mr. Cyrus did cite both figures in his assessment of a low point in his life and how he had arrived there. Reflecting on the pivotal Hannah Montana experience in the context of opportunities Hollywood provides, he said he believed his family was being attacked by Satan. “It’s the way it is. There has always been a battle between good and evil. Always will be. You think, ‘This is a chance to make family entertainment, bring families together…’ and look what it’s turned into.”

Filmmaker David Lynch enters into this tale of spiritual warfare because Billy Ray Cyrus appeared in Lynch’s 2001 film, Mulholland Drive (original title, Mulholland Dr.), which expanded the singer’s acting career opportunities as well as those of his daughter, whose fame has now eclipsed her father’s career highs in some ways. The theme of doing whatever it takes to gain and sustain attention is present, but value-altered, in more recent interviews with Cyrus. Now he seems to approve of his daughter’s celebrity acumen that has kept all eyes on her in the risqué transition to adult stardom.

Mulholland Drive is a film about which there is endless theorizing. Like many of Lynch’s works, the film asks viewers to bring to it their own conceptions of causality, temporality, morality, and aesthetic sensibility. One could argue that, for entertainment purposes, an audience should not have to work so hard to shape a film into coherence. For Lynch devotees, however, the deep interactivity that his films invite is part of the appeal. Lynch asks us to meditate on images, characters and events that have arisen during his own meditative experiences. Creation and reception are a continuous process shared between artist and audience.

For a plainspoken summation of Mulholland Drive’s big ideas, Billy Ray’s road sign warning is as good as it gets. Mulholland Drive is a horror story about choices and consequences in Hollywood. The movie unfolds in a series of desires, warnings, and transactions that explore deals made by individuals and institutions, often under duress by unseen malevolent forces or motivation by darkness within. There’s an aspiring actress, Betty (Naomi Watts), an amnesiac bombshell, Rita (Laura Elena Harring), and a mystery about Rita’s memory of an accident and a name, “Diane”, all winding through Betty’s suspiciously ascendant introduction to Los Angeles. And yes, there’s a surrogate for Satan, just behind the corner in the rear of a diner.

”In a Dream, it Seemed Real”

As an aborted American television series pilot brought back to life through international funding, Mulholland Drive traded up from the small to the big screen and defied its apparent destiny as an unworkable launching pad for a series. It’s worthwhile to think about this path to the cinema, because the film narrative’s attention to success and failure and ambition and compromise are also embedded in its unique production history. By the time audiences first viewed Mulholland Drive on cinema screens, the movie (as entertainment industry product) had already emerged on the bright side of one life cycle resonant with the movie’s plot of trying to succeed in a ruthless industry.

A crucial element of Mulholland Drive’s execution is that the bright side of sunny L.A. — a “dream place”, in Betty’s view — receives significant exposure for a majority of the running time. Though subsequent viewings and repeated viewings reveal the sinister underbelly to run throughout, Lynch possesses such a knowing view of Hollywood’s seductive appeal that the movie tricks the viewer again and again with a false hope that the illusion is what’s real; that true satisfaction could ever be attained in a place predicated on artifice and falsity. Betty believes it, Watts sells it, Lynch directs it, and we buy it.

Identifying strong desires and how they’re felt and presented is central to appreciating how Mulholland Drive works as movie about fantasy. Early scenes train us to interpret the opposing forces at work within the film. Betty arrives at the airport with a ridiculously sanguine outlook on becoming a star in Hollywood. Two older travel companions wish her well as she departs to her aunt’s house.

After Betty leaves her companions, their demeanor shifts from supportive to sinister in unspoken glances and gestures. They seem to know Betty is doomed even before her adventure begins. But within the film’s construction, even these naysaying characterizations of the couple aren’t quite who they appear to be, nor are they fixed in the correct time and place. They, like everything else in the film’s first and second acts, are subject to Betty’s refashioning as she (or someone) sleeps.

In dreams, Betty has a chance. When awake, she’s a goner. She knew this older couple before she came to L.A., and despite her transformation of them within her dreaming consciousness, they will escape the dream and become the manifest stuff of waking horror.

How can we be sure the story-seer is sleeping for most of the film? Just after the jitterbug dance scene prelude, Lynch provides an unsubtle point-of-view shot of a character moving towards a pillow and into sleep. He then uses the title of the film to transition into the first dream event of the movie, which is Rita’s amnesia-inducing car accident. The plots of Rita, as well as that of a film director named Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) intertwine with Betty’s introduction to the place that will make her a star.

In a naturalistic framework, the content and perspective of most of the film’s early events would be awkward and inconsistent, even incoherent. Yet, when understood as an idealized version of Betty’s circumstances, as a redo on the possible fulfillment of her desires for stardom, the scattershot structure of the early film is perfectly appropriate.

To reinforce the activity and effects of dreaming, Lynch nests the dream worlds within Betty’s own fantasy. Rita takes several naps, even after Betty warns her against sleeping after a concussion. As she drifts into sleep, Rita utters the loaded phrase; “It will be okay if I sleep.”

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In what could be Rita’s dream, another character, mostly detached from the plot proper, recounts a dream of his own. His is the most multi-tiered dream of all. His story of a terrifying Bum behind a diner fits within the plot structurally, as it follows a shot of Rita sleeping. Also, the setting of the diner is at once the space of the dream being recounted as well as the place of the retelling of that dream.

The climax of the sequence produces a terrifying jump scare when the dreamer comes face to face with the Bum, a sight and presence that scare him to death. The point-of-view shot as the dreamer and his meal companion approach the Bum is key to the visual syntax of the film. We learn not to trust subjective perspectives, which here are often tied to high emotional states and unsettledness. The first point of view shot was the introductory descent into the pillow. Many others follow within the dream worlds.

Furthermore, beyond the subjectivity of the content and perspective, there’s the matter of Betty’s unsettled identity. We only see what we do because Betty is dreaming. But Betty is also a product of sleep. In the real life of the film story there is no Betty. Betty is the creation of Diane Selwyn, a dejected actress from whose mind all of the above pours.

If this all sounds too complicated, one need only consider a couple of clarifying factors. The first is simply the experience of dreaming. Are there clear transitions in dreams? Not often. Aren’t there many strange variations on familiar people, places, and things in which they conform to, or frustrate our desires? Yes. This is the boundless, fluid-formed world of Mulholland Drive.

The second thing to consider is a frequently occurring dramatic situation of Lynch’s films, which is for characters to retreat to “other” places to cope with or sort out the circumstances of the waking world. These include the radiator of Eraserhead (1977), the ear/head of Blue Velvet (1970), the lodges of Twin Peaks (1990–1991), the person of Pete Dayton in Lost Highway (1997), and the many destinations reached by various portals of Inland Empire (2006).

For Diane Selwyn, whom we only meet in any direct sense in the last fifth of the film’s running time, the dream is the last chance to make good on her desire for Hollywood stardom. By transforming the people of her life and their respective powers, she paves the way for her fantasy fulfillment. But it is the machinations of her real life that seal her fate, a point to which we will return shortly.

”It Will End in Tears”

Betty and Rita become detectives, a process Betty describes as “just like in the movies. We’ll pretend to be someone else.” Initially, they face little resistance. But Adam the film director is obstinate, determined to exercise control over a picture he’s making. He’s advised that he must cast a specific actress, Camilla Rhodes, in a key role in his movie. That choice is not his to make.

Some interpret this strand of Mulholland Drive’s plot as Lynch’s commentary on the nature of free will and destiny. But there’s already another particular context in which the Adam plotline resonates, and that is the film’s attention to remote and unseen decision makers that affect careers and lives. In her dream, Diane has given herself an opportunity “just like in the movies” by becoming someone else, namely Betty. But the dream also includes the Hollywood power structure, and her fantasy emergence as a sought-after actress occurs in parallel with Adam’s fall.

Adam is the figure within Diane’s dream that most illustrates the capacity for Hollywood to “shut down” careers. He’s hardly a sympathetic figure, as his sense of self-entitlement is considerable. However, the menacing men surrounding him in boardrooms, and the other, more powerful men they report to behind walls and in darkness, threaten to so extinguish Adam that we could pity his powerlessness.

Though their trajectories go in opposite directions for a while, Betty and Adam share the situation of being warned against acting on their desires. Two of these sequences occur side by side within the film’s structure. After ignoring the advice of Gene the pool cleaner (Billy Ray Cyrus) to just forget about his wife’s infidelity, Adam ends up at a seedy hotel. The proprietor, Cookie, appears at the door and informs him, “You’re maxed out at your bank and your line of credit has been cancelled.” On one level, Cookie is describing the financial freeze that has set in because of Adam’s imprudence at work and at home. However, on another level, there’s the suggestion that Cookie is talking about a greater sort of currency in life, involving the choice to go with or against the flow and the need to cede control in order to advance.

Meanwhile, though Betty has been hiding Rita at her aunt’s apartment, a mysterious woman named Louise Bonner (Lee Grant) appears at the door to warn Betty that someone is in trouble and the truth is not being told or understood. Louise is another of the film’s unsettling presences that momentarily shake the viewer from the comfort of escapist fantasy. She also introduces a subplot that is important to the growing mystery of Diane Selwyn, which is the suggestion of discord between roommates.

Adam, out of money, reluctantly meets with a figure known only as Cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery). Cowboy strongly instructs Adam to change his attitude, go back to work, and to accede to the producer’s demands that Camilla Rhodes “is the girl” for his picture. Cowboy says “you will see me one more time if you do good. You’ll see me two more times if you do bad.” He disappears into the night.

As harbingers of danger ahead, Louise and Cowboy could hardly be more direct. This is their primary function within the film. Yet when filtered through Lynch’s directorial eye and Diane’s dream, they are so mysterious as to be disregarded or at least to create skepticism. Their functions oscillate. They are like characters that walked into life from a movie, and therefore their warnings seem like the stuff of make-believe. They are in fact the force of reality intruding on a dream. Yet within a dream that feels real, they seem too fantastic. All of this contributes to the progressive unsettledness that Lynch masterfully modulates.

The stories of Betty and Adam, climax in the potential for professional success. Adam learns to suppress immediate self-interest for the greater good of a movie being made. By assenting to powerful men in the short term, he likely advances his own career in the long term. Betty succeeds in an audition, but departs from the studio, in which she might someday be named “the girl”, in order to follow the mystery of Rita/Diane to its conclusion.

At Sierra Bonita apartments, the women find a corpse that terrifies Rita. It’s a human ruin that the Betty of dreams isn’t yet ready to face, though she will soon be forced to do so, in real life. For now, she refashions Rita into a blonde, into a version of herself that she pulls like a mannequin into the mirror’s view. Whereas Rita’s first introduction by name occurred within a reflected image of a movie poster featuring Gilda’s Rita Hayworth, her shifted self involves multiple reflections. Betty holds her in a mirror, like herself, next to herself, and not about to let her go. Shortly after, Betty professes her love for Rita, an unreciprocated utterance.

This detective-turned-love story culminates in Club Silencio, perhaps the grandest sorting-space in all of Lynch’s filmography. Though the setting is surreal, the presences and performances on stage reify themes that have appeared earlier in the dream. Cookie himself appears as an emcee, introducing Rebekah Del Rio, whose performance of “Llorando” caps a succession of expressions revealing the power of illusory experiences (like music, films, and dreams) shaped by, and conforming to, desires. By having their illusions shattered in such a dramatic fashion, Betty and Rita are left shaking and crying.

“You End Up Becoming Yourself”

The last act of Mulholland Drive wakes to the life of Diane Selwyn (Watts), unfiltered by dreams and revealed to be a nightmare of unfulfilled desires. One way to view this final section of the film is as the total entanglement of torment that created the need for an idealized dream, an escape. Diane is a victim of the film industry, having been passed over for the stardom enjoyed by Camilla Rhodes (revealed to be Harring). The dream’s inciting incident, of Rita’s accident and need to be rescued, is in fact an outgrowth of Diane’s desire to possess her rival/lover solely, wholly.

In short, Diane is enslaved by her desires. By focusing all of her energies on wanting Camilla and wanting to be Camilla, Diane has yoked her identity to that which cannot be satisfied/satisfying. That attachment threatens to pull her down to the grave. In this version of events, Camilla denies Diane’s advances, saying “we shouldn’t do this anymore.” For Diane, not doing this is impossibility. She responds, “Don’t ever say that,” as the ugly reality of her life once again overtakes fantasy.

All of the entities over which Diane exercised power and dominance in her dream are in control of her waking existence. In life, she doesn’t need to be warned so often against courses of action, because she has little so agency. This is a point at which the making of the film again intersects with the plot of the film, as Lynch made Watts enact a very private moment on film, which caused the actress great distress.

In a supplementary interview on the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition, Watts discusses her discomfort with the scene, to the point of physical sickness. She says she told Lynch in no uncertain terms that she did not want to do the act. He shot the scene anyway, despite her saying “no” as the camera rolled.

This is one of the only flaws in Mulholland Drive, but it’s a big one. First of all, no actress should be pressured into doing such a scene against her wishes, especially with the power structure of a film set bearing down on her. The professional way to negotiate such a scenario would be to discuss it in detail in advance of shooting, so that a camera isn’t predatorily drawing the image out of an unwilling subject.

Additionally, the scene is completely unnecessary for the effectiveness of the drama. By this point, the viewer is able to fully understand the source of Diane’s torment and the mixture of pleasure and pain therein. Here, Lynch’s freedom to increase the sex and violence of his work in a feature film version of the story (as opposed to a more palatable form for network television) works against the finished product. That Watts still recalls the pain of the shooting fifteen years after the fact attests to the shot scene being a poorly determined course of action, period.

These are these sorts of things being weighed inside and outside of Mulholland Drive. Watts’s stardom can be traced back to this breakout role, but no amount of stardom has diminished her discomfort with certain parts of the process. Had the film or her star failed to take off, would the pain sting greater? The dilemma of Diane Selwyn, and anecdotes shared by Watts about her frustrated actress days, suggest that failure can drive a person to extremes.

So we arrive at the single most indispensable scene in the plot of Mulholland Drive. In this section, which is tellingly featured at the beginning of the set footage included on the Blu-ray disc, Diane is faced with a choice: to find some means of getting over Camilla and accept rejection, or to claim victory by putting an end to Camilla. At a diner with a hit man, Diane identifies Camilla’s headshot, saying, “This is the girl.” He asks, “You sure you want this?” She responds, “more than anything in this world.” The scene presents a desire, a warning, and a transaction, all in a row. Diane makes a decision from which the rest of the dreaming and waking plots flow.

Because all ended well, so to speak, for Mulholland Drive and its cast and filmmakers, the film’s fevered drama about dreams, nightmares, and the entertainment industry is particularly potent. Relatedly, the casting of Watts and Harring, two actresses in their 30s and facing career limitations, inject the film with a distinct sort of lived pressure. In her interview on the film’s Blu-ray edition, Watts also says she had grown so accustomed to directors not treating her as a human being that she was shocked by the seeming generosity of Lynch’s simple eye contact. Harring says she had decided to give up on screen acting entirely before Mulholland Drive came along.

The circumstances that produced Mulholland Drive are some of the same sorts of circumstances the movie questions. Specifically, how sustaining is the world of dreams if the reality underpinning them is often unbearably depressing? When failure and rejection are the norm? When 30-something actresses are considered to be in their career twilight years by film and television executives? When actresses have to go powerless and endure real pain for a bit of fame? For individuals like Diane Selwyn, this world is not enough. Though to be lost in the world of dreams offers no reprieve from the road to ruin.

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