About a month and a half ago, I had to watch Eraserhead, David Lynch’s debut, for film class. That was a weird one. In fact, it was so weird that I wasn’t sure I would watch any other Lynch films of my own free will. But we all get into weird moods sometimes, and I was in one Friday night, so I decided to give Lynch another shot. I can say that I liked Mulholland Drive a lot more than Eraserhead, and even a lot more than most other movies. It’s just as weird as Eraserhead is, but somehow it’s not as disgusting or depressing. It’s more beautiful.
This film is going to be impossible to discuss completely spoiler free, as time gets sort of messed up and the ending is commonly thought to be the beginning. I’ll give you a brief description here which will serve as a very generalized account of the movie in case you are unsure of whether you want to see it or not. Knowing more of the plot doesn’t hurt and probably helps, because I don’t know what I would have thought if I’d watched this movie knowing nothing. I probably would have plunged into some sort of existentialist crisis and completely doubted my conception of reality. Anyway, the film is part dream and part reality (probably, one can never be quite sure). It focuses on the relationship between two women, Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring), and how Betty perceives their relationship. This all takes place in Hollywood, so another focus of the movie is the reality of life in the movie industry contrasted with the popular idealization of it. If that sounds good to you, see the film (if it doesn’t sound good to you but you like movies, see it anyway because this is a great movie).
This is a Lynch film, so it’s going to get pretty weird. All of this is portrayed in a creepy surrealist style that is unique to his films. You’re going to see some deformities, though not to the extent you see in Eraserhead. There are near indecipherable symbols that reappear throughout the film, making you think they are important when they may or may not be. Lynch is known for not trying to convey a single message in his work or offer his own interpretations on it, so it’s basically up to the audience to get any meaning out of it. Going off of that, I’m pretty sure that some things that happen are completely nonsensical. The first shot of the film is some random people dancing; it doesn’t seem to have much relevance. The camera work is great. There’s a scene in a dinner where the camera won’t stop moving! It gives a great sense of unease and trepidation to the scene. You’ll see things other directors may not show, including nudity, sex, and feces (oh my!). Lynch is able to switch through seemingly unrelated events with a mastery similar to Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia.
Though it has been said that Mulholland Drive defies explanation, there seems to be a dominant theory that convinces most people. While it’s clear that it is not intended to be The Answer to the mysteries of the film, it’s the one that most people seem to believe. And to be fair, it does seem reasonable. The first part of the film is a dream, and after they open the box they surface into reality. In the dream, Diane as Betty is a more confident, innocent, and optimistic version of herself who is able to captivate, protect, and even control Camilla (called Rita in the dream). She dreams up Rita as blanker and more subservient than Camilla ever was in real life, making her into what she wants her to be rather than what she actually is. She does the same thing with herself. Though I can’t think of a contrary theory, (I’m sure there are many) I’m hoping this isn’t the case. It just seems really depressing to me that reality is so bleak while the dream (which is disturbing in some cases) is so happy. I wish it could be the other way around. But is happiness felt because of a lie (or a dream) really preferable? I don’t know, but in the situation of this film I felt it was.
The Club Silencio segments were pretty interesting. They reminded me a lot of the Lady in the Radiator from Eraserhead. Lynch is known for juxtaposing idealized 1950s era small town America situations against harsher, grimmer realities. The Lady in the Radiator looks pretty fifties (besides the weird face) and is performing on a stage similar to the Club Silencio one. One of the performers at Silencio says something about how everything is all a recorded illusion, and it can be anything one wants it to be. “If we want to hear a clarinet… listen” and we’ll hear one. Maybe that’s saying that through dreams, we can sort of control our own private reality. Diane can be Betty and control Camilla by making her into Rita. The guy in Eraserhead imagines the Lady in the Radiator in a similar way, the problem is they always wake up to reality. And reality sucks.
The acting in this film is phenomenal. First of all, you have perfect casting. The casting of Ann Miller as Coco is akin to the casting of several major silent film figures including Erich von Stroheim, Gloria Swanson, Buster Keaton, Anna Q Nilsson, and HB Warner in Sunset Boulevard (the two films are often compared). Naomi Watts and Laura Harring both completely look the parts they are playing. It’s amazing how completely different Watts looks after the dream is over. What she feels is manifested in how defeated and worn down she looks. She shines in the first half, as if she is literally glowing. Though you feel bad for her in the second part, just purely based on appearances you can sort of see why Camilla doesn’t pay her much attention. The gulf between them is staggering. Harring is supposed to look like a femme fatale, and she does.
But it doesn’t stop there. The two actresses have are basically playing two parts in the film. When Diane wakes up and both of their names change, their personalities do as well. They become completely different people, and do so seamlessly! It’s quite amazing. Watts has a bit more to do than Harring as she is more the center of the story, but they are both fabulous in the film. I don’t know which part of the film would be more difficult. In the first part they are both sort of more one dimensional. Betty in particular is quite corny, and Rita is sort of blank and lost. But never does this mean they don’t hold your interest. Then in the second part they both become desperate and even evil, but you can still sympathize with them. The rest of the actors deliver as well, but none of them have the impossible jobs that the two main actresses have.
A listing of possible interpretations of the movie could go on forever, but I for one will need a few more viewings to really cement one over another for me. One thing that is undeniable at this point is the craftsmanship that went into the film. It captivates you even if you have no clue what’s going on. It has that quality in a film that is the hardest to pin down; when I was watching it I knew it was great. Something above the acting, the writing, the mystery of the story, and how it’s made just makes it great. I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it. I saw it in Mulholland Drive, and I can’t wait to see it again.
“Hey, pretty girl, time to wake up.”
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