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Now I’m in This Dream Place: Mulholland Drive Is Still Puzzling, 20 Years Later

How David Lynch's neo-noir film resounds -- and confounds -- two decades after its release

Mulholland Drive
Mulholland Drive (Universal Pictures)
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    I still remember the first time I saw Mulholland Drive, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary this week. It was in the spring of 2005, and I was in my freshman year of college at the University of Iowa.

    An English lit major with an interest in writing about movies, I’d signed up for an Introduction to Cinema course that was required to pursue a film studies minor. A lot of the films we’d watched so far — Weerasethakul’s Mysterious Object at Noon, Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice — had left me, a curious but sheltered eighteen-year-old, somewhat cold.

    But there was an expectant buzz in the air when I settled in for that day’s screening: the film we’d watch today would have boobs in it. I knew who David Lynch was, but had only seen The Elephant Man, not the most representative film of his career.

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    Enter Mulholland Drive. It was an uncomfortable viewing experience for a lot of reasons, not all related to the film’s unabashedly erotic content. There was an aberrant quality to it — how it seemed plucked straight from someone else’s nightmares, its two sections grinding unpleasantly against one another — that felt like something we shouldn’t be watching. I was mystified, and a little frightened, by it, and I knew I would carry it around with me for a long time.

    …Or did I? While going through one of the boxes of old books my parents kept in the basement, I noticed a small BFI edition wedged between yellowed, dog-eared copies of Lysistrata and Machiavelli’s The Prince. I knew instantly it was from that freshman year film course. Only it wasn’t about Mulholland Drive. The sexually-charged, structurally-fractured film I had actually been thinking of all these years was Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 swan song Eyes Wide Shut.

    On reflection, though, this feels more in the spirit of Mulholland Drive than if I remembered my first viewing with perfect clarity. It is, at least in part, a film about the pliability of reality, its unsettled impermanence and vulnerability, our memories less an accurate recreation of events than something that we twist to our own ends.

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    Life is a story we choose to interpret and tell ourselves, which isn’t a bad description of what happens in the film. As a refresher, Mulholland Drive centers on aspiring actress Betty Elms (played by an electric Naomi Watts, something of a newcomer herself at the time) who arrives in Hollywood and befriends an amnesiac calling herself Rita (Laura Harring), earlier seen wandering away from a car accident on the titular road.

    The two begin some amateur detective work, which shifts into a romantic entanglement, and, following a late night trip to the mysterious Club Silencio, splits into a funhouse mirror version of itself. There’s some other bits, too, involving a hapless director played by Justin Theroux and a koan-spouting cowboy and a horrifying human-adjacent figure hiding behind a dumpster, and also Billy Ray Cyrus for some reason, though their connections to the main plot are tenuous and inexplicable.

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    That’s what I could recall, anyway, before sitting down to rewatch it this month. I always considered it my favorite of Lynch’s films, but in truth, I hadn’t actually seen it in full in over a decade. Partly that’s due to its length — an integral aspect of Mulholland Drive’s mythology is that it began life as a TV pilot, Lynch retooling his vision of the story when the original cut was rejected by the suits.

    CBS’s Twin Peaks was a progenitor of the serious serialized drama that would soon become de rigueur, and one wonders if the network might have been a little more forgiving of the project had Lynch attempted it in a post-prestige world (the carte blanche he apparently received for The Return suggests yes.) As a film, its reputation seems to be in a constant state of re-evaluation. Critics adore it, though not universally — for every Sound & Sight poll ranking it the twenty-eighth best film of all-time, there’s a Rex Reed grousing that it was the worst thing he saw in 2001.

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