David Lynch's film 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.”
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.