Thursday, March 29, 2012

Into the Canon: 'Mulholland Dr.'

Films mean something unique and personal, yet the experience of them is among the most shared thing in our culture. Recognizing this seeming paradox, I'm attempting a new series called "Into the Canon," where I share the personal meanings behind my favorite movies. As many of my friends know, I have an ever-changing "Personal Canon" of films that mean something to me. In talking with them about how we define "best" and "favorite" movies, how we determine which ones "mean the most," I figured the only way to do that was to write about it. Only then can I really start to decipher why I love what I love.

 Geography gives way to other meanings

I. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)

It may have been freshman year of college. It may have been earlier.

I can't remember when I happened upon David Lynch for the first time, but when I did it was like someone lit a fire inside me. Mulholland Dr. was the first Lynch film I saw, which in some ways seems completely backward to me now, as it's probably the most fluid and beautiful expression of his navigation of what dreams mean.

The first time I saw it, I did not understand it. But much as the characters repeat "This is the girl" over and over, I knew one thing -- This is the film.

Not since I had watched 2001: A Space Odyssey when I was around fourteen had I felt so challenged and so utterly confused. I took to the Internet, begging for some kind of explanation. What actually happens in Mulholland Dr. -- or better yet, on Mulholland Dr.? I read all the theories about dreams, about insanity, about drug addiction, prostitution, satire, demons -- but none of it made the whole film work.

What about the bounty hunter, I asked? The Cowboy? The Sylvia North Story? Who was Camilla Rhodes really? And what the hell is going on in Club Silencio?

Frankly, I still don't know what's going on in Club Silencio. I do know it's all an illusion. Hay no banda. There is no band.

'No hay banda.' The illusion foregrounded, then shattered.

Everything we hear in Club Silencio is on a recording. We don't know where it's coming from. All we know is that the illusion is foregrounded, and then it shatters. It's a crucial moment in the film, where the elaborate dream world Betty has constructed for herself (if most of the movie is, in fact, a suicidal Diane's dream) signals its own artifice, mere moments before we're thrown into "reality" -- or maybe just another dream. Or something else. I'm still not really sure.

What Mulholland Dr., and really all of Lynch's films to one degree or another, present is an entirely different way to watch a film or, in the case of Twin Peaks, a television show. They present unsolvable puzzles that will drive you insane if you try to make every piece wedge together, or they weave into beautiful fabrics of moods, themes, and emotions if you let them wash over you.

Lynch's filmmaking comes out of his dreams and his ideas -- the most elusive things in the world. It's a wonder then that his work is often encased in ostensible detective films -- be it in the bizarre procedural Twin Peaks, where dreams are outlets for murder clues and the more twisted secrets festering inside the town, or in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., where characters take on the mantle of detective to solve some kind of problem. "Detective films" are about restoring order where it seems lost, but how can we order our dreams? We may try to order them into narratives, but does that not seem to always slip through our fingers?

That, to me, largely seems the point.

 The ideal 'Betty' performing as 'The Detective.'

After I saw Mulholland Dr., I devoured the rest of Lynch's films, and blew through Twin Peaks and its film prequel sometime the next year. Despite their ugliness -- I'm thinking more Wild at Heart than The Elephant Man -- there is such beauty in the worlds he depicts. They are all haunted, haunting spaces of intense dichotomies between the presented space and what's "hidden" behind it.

As I struggled over the intervening years to figure out what the Cowboy in Mulholland Dr. means, not to mention how times we see him, as well as what the plot of that damn movie-within-a-movie actually is, I started to realize they don't matter.

Despite the movie having a major through-line in Betty/Diane's detective work to discover her amnesiac lesbian lover's actual identity and thus navigate a finely honed line between the ideal (the dream) and the hell (the nightmare) of her life, there is so much ephemeral action it makes the "plot" almost second-hand.

 Symbol, or ephemeral, action/iconography?

I think I've probably seen Mulholland Dr. a half-dozen times now, and I tend to forget many details about it. As much as some episodes -- like the demon behind Winky's on Sunset -- remain in my mind, other details like that black book the bounty hunter carries around with him seem to disappear. Lynch gives us iconography that we can track through the film. It may never go anywhere, but the visual detail is as labyrinthine as that sound design that constantly seems to distort any semblance of cohesive visual arrangement.

Moving to Los Angeles provided another twist in how I watched the movie. As with many L.A. movies, I've tried to rewatch them with some frequency as I spend more time getting to know Los Angeles.

"Mulholland Dr." -- the street -- is a perplexingly beautiful road. It winds and curves through the Santa Monica Mountains. It's flanked immediately by lavish houses hidden behind long, crawling driveways. It's above the city, and so you can turn one way and see the Valley, and turn another way and see Hollywood -- and if you're lucky, the Pacific and downtown, almost all at once. Mulholland Dr. shows you how fractured this city is, all the while winding its way like a serpent through the mountains.

Los Angeles as a dream-like, haunted space

How fitting then that Lynch's exploration of "Hollywood," of "Los Angeles" -- where the filmmaker concerned with "dreams" takes on "the dream factory" -- should use this street that lets you see both everything and nothing, where it's impossible to see too far ahead because of how wildly it curves.

The schizophrenic nature of Mulholland Dr. is embedded in the disconnected nature of the city it glides across. As my own fascination with how urban spaces get visualized in cinema grows (not to mention my fascination with Los Angeles), so too does my appreciation of Mulholland Dr. on this level, of the way it visualizes and compartmentalizes Los Angeles, the camera floating around it.

This is the film.

I find it an immensely powerful, challenging film that never stops surprising me. All of these threads I have alluded to -- Los Angeles itself, the construction of one's "screen identity," the use of Hollywood, the tension between dreams and reality, the notion of something festering beneath a shiny veneer, the use of the detective film, the ephemeral actions and sequences that confound a total understanding -- would require pages to unpack. Indeed, an entire book. If someone hasn't written it already, they should. I'd enjoy reading it, although I'm positive no single approach to Mulholland Dr. could ever get it right.

'This is the girl,' a woman in trouble.

That's the joy of Lynch. These thoughts spring out of his head, but he films them in ways that feel so designed for each one of us to approach them however we please.

Mulholland Dr. is in my Personal Canon because of how it continues to perplex me, and how much I love the kind of perplexity David Lynch throws on the screen. Its take on dreams, its seeming lack of coherence, its world within a world within a world (that may just be a dream. Or something else), and the heartbreaking dichotomy between Betty/Diane's existences amaze me each time I watch it. Watching it each time is almost like watching it anew. Familiar beats take on new meanings, while entirely new meanings rear their heads.

As much as we're driven to decode it through its "clues," Lynch reminds us through Club Silencio -- it's all an illusion.

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