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.
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.
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.
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.
For a certain brand of cinephile, it’s a rite of passage to engage with its puzzle box construction and spend hours pouring over its secrets with like-minded friends. Deep down, I think my hesitancy also stemmed from a fear that it wouldn’t hold up. Having personally exhausted the available internet interpretations and the rest of Lynch’s ouvre in the years since Mulholland Drive’s release, what more could the film reveal to me?
Both a lot and nothing, it turns out. I’ve grown more comfortable with ambiguity in art as I’ve gotten older, but even as someone who’d seen it before, I found myself trying to make sense of Mulholland Drive, which in some ways is anathema to enjoying it. It still might be Lynch’s trickiest film, seducing viewers into seeking answers from it while knowing that to provide them would render it unwatchable.
I went in believing I had it figured out: the first two-thirds are the dream creation of Diane, a.k.a. the “real” Betty, revealed in the final third to be a suicidal drug addict. But the longer the film went on, the less sure of this I became. As Chris Rodley points out in his essay excerpted in the Criterion edition booklet, it’s actually the final third that feels like a dream, with its garbled sound design, feverish pacing, and abstract imagery.
So what’s reality here, and what isn’t? Is that even a useful question? Why does either have to be “real”? It’s set in the “dream factory” after all but, aside from a few establishing and incidental shots, completely absent most of its recognizable landmarks. Instead it’s a claustrophobic, seedy world of boardrooms and sound stages. If Hollywood is indeed a factory, who’s pulling the levers? And who’s dreaming the dreams? Maybe all of us, or maybe nobody.
Obviously, this has been a source of frustration for some viewers. “It was forced, maybe, but very humanistic,” says one of the men about Betty’s audition, which feels like a winking reference to criticisms of Lynch’s work.
Lynch, in my mind, has genuine affection for people, but hates what we’re capable of doing to one another. His detractors often describe his films as grotesque, but there’s little of, say, Wild at Heart’s outré violence or Eraserhead’s Lady in the Radiator here. Instead, we have love gained and lost, wishes granted and then dashed, deaths ordered and taken back, all wrapped up in a story that can’t quite end because it never really began.
That makes Mulholland Drive not only his trickiest film, but also his saddest, not least because Lynch has only made one other feature in the twenty years since. But if it is one of his last movies, at least it’s a memorable one.
For anyone still curious, the actual first time I saw Mulholland Drive was in my dorm room that same year of college. I borrowed the DVD from a guy I had been “hanging out with” earlier in the semester and was now, somewhat disgruntledly, “just friends” with. I watched it alone on a Friday night, when almost everyone else on the floor was out at keggers or the bars that let in minors, and slept very poorly afterwards. “What did it all mean?” I wondered. And, maybe worse, “what will I say to him?” In the end I went with “it was interesting.”
…Or at least I think that’s how it happened.