The Lynch Ledger-Entry Nine: Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Here we are finally…the masterpiece. So many arguments I’ve endured, so much anger towards the film from the unconvinced–the polarization remains strong 13 years on. You should say to yourself, “with this much heat created by a film, there must be something there, right?”. And there is something there–so much. I find that most of the naysayers are not fans of David to begin with, and probably couldn’t name a selection of his other films. So, from the get go, they have little understanding of his technique and/or style. And it’s important to go into “Mulholland Dr.”, knowing that Lynch is going to take you into unusual places. You can’t expect to be in your comfort zone, and you may not understand all that he’s up to…especially that first time around. How many of those folks that I’ve argued about “Mulholland Dr.” with, have only seen it that one time, and immediately dismissed it? Most? All? I can imagine them being so angry during that last half hour when Lynch took them down the rabbit hole. Many of those people have hit me with the old “I’m entitled to my opinion” line. Well, of course you are. Everyone is. But I find it childish for adults to even say that. To paraphrase my favorite film critic, Walter Chaw, from a recent tweet, “like or dislike is subjective, knowledge and eloquence is not”. In other words, it’s your job to be a bit cinema savvy before your trip to “Mulholland Dr.” This is caviar, friends, not fast food.

I first saw “Mulholland Dr.”, at a now defunct art film theater in New Jersey, in October of 2001. That location no longer exists, like so many single screen houses before and after it, falling to the massive multiplex chains. Something else that existed a month before “Mulholland Dr.” premiered in the United States–the World Trade Center. And I believe that is significant regarding how the film hypnotized me at the time–maybe others can share in comments if they experienced a similar ennui. It was a very bizarre time in America, and here was David Lynch, unleashing his finest work–a film drowning in regret, disillusionment, nightmares and death. I feel I have to acknowledge how the national mourning period enhanced my appreciation of this surrealist classic. But make no mistake, after my revisit to the film just last week, everything holds up. Some things have even improved. It remains, without question, a cinematic landmark, and holds a ranking among my favorite films of all time. “Mulholland Dr.” garnered David Lynch the Best Director award at Cannes in May 2001. Later on it was named Best Film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics Circle. The L.A. Film Critics Association named Lynch the year’s Best Director too, and the Academy Awards followed suit with an Oscar nomination for David in that category. Is it any wonder I rail against Ron Howard movies, being that the tepid “A Beautiful Mind” grabbed so much attention that particular year?

Can I explain the “Mulholland Dr.” plot to you? Sure I can, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t struggle a bit myself, upon that first look more than a decade ago. But each repeat viewing is an enhancement. Isn’t it a good thing to have a cinematic treasure that is still able to morph and deepen over time? “Mulholland Dr.” is a complex puzzle, but all of the pieces are there. It’s frightening, it’s darkly humorous, it’s unbelievably romantic, and it’s heartbreakingly tragic. It touches and enthralls me, and it can do the same to you–if you let it. Or, you can simply scoff and deride it like the “haters”. But that’s truly your loss. It’s a dream place, opines Betty Elms (an astonishing Naomi Watts) upon her arrival in Hollywood. Aspiring to stardom, and full of percolating optimism and ambition, Betty represents the thousands of young starlets that arrived in California only to have their dreams dashed and their enthusiasm extinguished. Meeting the amnesiac “Rita” ( a mysterious and beguiling Laura Elena Harring), gives Betty an opportunity to play amateur “sleuth”, and quite possibly learn something about herself along the way. Perhaps, something horrible. Then, when young hotshot director Adam Kesher (a wonderful Justin Theroux) is forced by the “suits” at the studio to cast a certain female lead for his latest film, Betty loses her lover, her career–and possibly her grip on reality. And along the way, you the viewer, will be expected to ascertain what is actual, and what is not. It’s been deemed both exhilarating and maddening.

The Lynch-initiated, will recognize 1997’s “Lost Highway” as a terrific warm-up for “Mulholland Dr.”. And if you consider both of those frustrating and challenging, you should try 2006’s “Inland Empire” on for size (more on that next month, in the final (?) installment of The Lynch Ledger, with entry #10). One of the many fascinating things about “Mulholland Dr.”, is that it began as an attempted pilot for a television series, that started filming in early 1999. The network was unhappy with the pilot, and decided to not put it on its broadcast schedule. Undeterred, Lynch transformed what was supposed to be an open-ended series, into a complete feature film. He did this by rewriting the script, and filming a variety of new scenes in October of 2000. After re-shaping the final product, and giving it an official ending, David had rebooted “Mulholland Dr.” into the one we know and love (well, most of us, anyway) today. It was a bit of a circuitous route in the artistic process, but Lynch insists that it became what it was meant to be all along. A strange beginning to its life as a film, but a beautiful final result. Not only do I agree with this sentiment, but the prestigious Sight & Sound poll does as well. Compiled every 10 years, the recent 2012 listing was the first time eligible for “Mulholland Dr.”. The “youngest” film on the list, it placed 28th. “Vertigo” from Hitchcock was #1, “Seven Samurai” from Kurosawa was #17, and Coppola’s “The Godfather” was #21–just to give you some scale. Not a bad showing for “Muholland Dr.”, wouldn’t you say? I’ll bet that number improves by 2022.

Naomi Watts gives a revelatory, multi-layered performance in “Mulholland Dr.”, and she should’ve been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Peter Deming’s cinematography is gorgeous, and won him the Independent Spirit Award. And Lynch regular composer, Angelo Badalamenti, not only provides what is probably his most haunting score, but cameos as an “espresso snob” mobster. It’s a hilarious and off-putting scene. You know, I’ve talked enough about “Mulholland Dr.”. I’ve now written hundreds of words about “Mulholland Dr.”. But I’m willing to bet that many of you still need to see “Mulholland Dr.”. Experience it. Absorb it. And then come back and join the argument–or the fun. It’s up to you which road to take. I’m well established as part of the chorus that finds it to be genius. Take this ride with David Lynch. It’s one that you’ll never forget.

Grade:  A+

next month’s Lynch Ledger Entry: 2006’s “Inland Empire”


11 comments on “The Lynch Ledger-Entry Nine: Mulholland Dr. (2001)

  1. I love it when other people love this movie as much as I do. Excellent review and good job grounding it in its time, I was too young to see that aspect in 2001.

  2. Glad that you are a fellow lover of David Lynch’s masterpiece. I was 35 when it opened, and living just outside of NYC. That feeling I wrote of was palpable for me, but I imagine how old you were, and where you were located, had some say in the degree of impact. Thanks for reading, thanks for the compliments and thanks for commenting! ML

  3. rita does not have amnesia. rita IS amnesia. when they enter the theater of the mind and the key is placed in the box’s lock and the box opens rita disappears and the dream is over. the dreamer no longer has a mental block and hard, cold reality starts setting in.

  4. with lost highway we met the dreamer and then see the dream. in mulholland drive we see the dream and then meet the dreamer.

  5. i really love this film, but i actually love lost highway even more. also, i tend to think of eraserhead and blue velvet as being the director’s master works.

  6. i’m a big D.L fan and find this movie very mind bending and want to get the current criterion release of this masterpiece and i loved Lost Highway as much…will soon have D.L’s entire movie collection…Dune was my least favorite though i would buy it because the collection would be incomplete without it

    • Thanks for stopping by, wayevy! I have purchased the Criterion Blu-ray, but have not watched it yet, or its special features. Hoping to get to it soon, but as a reviewer (outside of the blog, I do weekly reviews for a national radio program in the U.S.), this is my busy time of year. I am also quite fond of “Lost Highway”, plus its become common practice to sell “Dune” short. It IS one of DL’s lesser efforts, but it is not as bad as advertised. You can read reviews for it, “Lost Highway”, and ALL of David’s ten features, via my Lynch Ledger here on the blog!


      • oh okay very cool and i liked Dune and love all of His films i have seen thus far and ordered Inland Empire from Netflix and can’t wait to see it ….i want to eventually buy all of His movies and same with Stanley Kubricks

  7. Considering doing a Kubrick series, along the lines of my Lynch Ledger…but it’s quite daunting. Stanley may possess more genius than I can handle right now! Some day, maybe.


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