There Are No Accidents on 'Mulholland Drive'

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.

Mulholland Drive

Director: David Lynch
Cast: Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Justin Theroux
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Year: 2001
Release date: 2015-10-27

”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.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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