On Mulholland Drive (2001) and Los Angeles/Hollywood: City in a Fugue State
One in a Million, Babe
written and directed by David Lynch; starring Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, Ann Miller, Dan Hedaya, Justin Theroux
Hollywood has a penchant for supposed self-deflation, like a Warren Beatty who bumbles and self-deprecates his way to getting killed off every other movie as if it were cosmic penance for his access to the good life — burning himself in effigy as a peace offering to the less fortunate. Occasionally, the industry gives us a Sunset Boulevard or an All About Eve, laying bare the peculiarities of that strange, delicate species known as The Actress. Sometimes, we get a Swimming with Sharks or The Player if a fucked-over screenwriter or director’s got a voodoo doll bearing the likeness of a particular executive on his bedside table.
Usually, though, it’s more along the lines of an Entourage or that short-lived series with Jay Mohr: a genial self-roasting (which is to say, self-tribute) that takes those dim-bulb actors and barbed-wire super agents into a headlock merely to give ’em a noogie and set ’em loose. Your average film-world shark-in-a-suit is much too in love with the line of supplicants he has to step over just to cross the studio lot — daily ego balm for an insecure schmuck who, less the power he wields over others’ dreams, would likely spend his life thoroughly ignored. Hand him the satirical blade behind that hot new script “exposing” the princess that changed him from a lowly frog and gave him that cushy corner office, and she’ll wind up with scarcely worse than paper cuts.
David Lynch, however, remains a Hollywood outsider. Foreign finance now provides the building materials for his Little Houses of Horrors and, despite the cachet he carries in certain quarters, his fractured narratives filled with backwards-talking midgets, circular endings and weird Americana don’t exactly get the checkbooks flipping open in Culver City and Burbank. “David Lynch” is a name to be dropped, a signifier of personal hipness, proof of one’s occasional wading through cinema’s artier waters, but, hell, no one ever expanded their swimming pools or bought their BMWs off of Wild at Heart or Fire Walk With Me.
Yet, the television network ABC signed off on about three-quarters of Mulholland Drive: the PG-rated chunk concerning perky-beyond-belief aspiring actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) as she arrives in Hollywood to stay at her aunt’s place and discovers “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring), a mysterious, amnesic beauty huddled in the shower. (“Rita,” naturally, has no idea who she is; when Betty asks her name, she blurts out the name from a Rita Hayworth poster on the wall.) Presumably, ABC looked at the script Lynch submitted — the quest to uncover a beautiful woman’s identity! shadowy gangsters! a pair of Dragnet-talking detectives whom we’d better hope get to “Rita” before the gangsters do! the friendship between Betty and “Rita” tinged with a blossoming yet safely unspoken Sapphic affection! — and thought they’d be getting another prime-time phenomenon on the order of Lynch and Mark Frost’s now-iconic Twin Peaks series.
Except that Twin Peaks was only a phenomenon until Lynch the Storyteller appeared to take permanent residence up his own rectum, at which point the show was consigned to the spirit realm to cavort with Leland Palmer and Killer Bob. Perhaps ABC execs suffered from the same memory loss that afflicted “Rita.” Perhaps Lynch was getting some private revenge with this take-the-money-and-run style of funding for what he already intended to be his next theatrical release. Certainly, he couldn’t have been shocked when the network took a pass on the pilot he’d shot, using the excuse that Watts and Harring were too old for television.
What he did next was script a way to tie up the loose ends — at least, as much as being David Lynch would allow him to. Under his revisions, the Hardy Girls probe into “Rita’s” past now surfed the clam-licking undertow of melding-feminine-psyche dreamscapes Persona and 3 Women. Sunset Boulevard bared its tits and woke up in a Day of the Locust nightmare even the dead couldn’t narrate. Darkness beckoned from a final act that shifted the plates beneath the Hollywood of the ABC pilot to open the ground at its “heroine’s” feet — L.A., scorching in the flames of rejection as a way of life, now belched from the abyss. Lynch closed the distance created by the petty vengeance-seeking of the safe-mode Hollywood satire. Mulholland Drive turned out to be both the defining Lynch work and cinema’s only broadside against the Tinseltown hazing ritual on the level of the subjective, where the wounds never heal. The princess: rent to shreds in a toilet stall with her skirt left hiked up.
But David Lynch films don’t make any goddamn sense, you say. The majority of Blue Velvet aside, you say, his style is too self-consciously “weird,” its logic too internal and too impenetrable for audiences unaccustomed to fugue states and radiator ladies and B-movie dialogue delivered with heartfelt sincerity, with a catalog of tics and eccentricities we’re meant to be entertained by for their own sake.
You took a chance on Mulholland Drive as the casual moviegoer sucked in by its Best Director nomination and possibly the biggest ad campaign ever attached to a Lynch film. And you were left racking your Law & Order-fed brain to try and figure out just what the malevolent mystery midget had to do with the mob-connected brothers threatening the callow young film director, and just what all of that had to do with the homeless man-thing living behind the dumpster, or with the distressed dames at the film’s center. And, well, those of us who knew better just looked at you with a sort of affectionate mocking tinged with condescension. “Silly rabbit,” we grinned as if watching a child finally take to the potty all by herself. “You don’t go into a David Lynch film expecting logical story development and clear-cut plot resolutions.”
Agreed: Lynch’s status as the King of Strange can make his films feel like a glossy museum of abstract expressionism that’s closed to all but a select few. Rather like an Alice Cooper concert in the early Seventies, at this point, a David Lynch film simply has to provide the mind-bending freakshow anticipated by the die-hards. Those not invited to the party may regard the very Lynch-ness of a Lost Highway or an Inland Empire as a test that cineastes feel they have to endure, as if it were an annual renewal date stamped on their own fading coolness — sort of like when you’re twelve and you tackle that new rollercoaster ride that all your friends are daring you to try, lest you end up the “big fat wuss” of your childhood social circle.
Of course, music is more than just the same damn Zeppelin and Pink Floyd warhorses on boomer-dad rotation. You also need Throbbing Gristle. You need dub reggae and Krautrock. You need Sun Ra and Burzum and Pere Ubu. With Mulholland Drive, Lynch went from being Captain Beefheart circa Trout Mask Replica to David Byrne during the Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense phase: “weirdness” as a startlingly tangible metaphor for the inscrutability of the world, as the prism through which the fears and doubts that guard your life’s frustrations begin, at last, to take on visible shapes.
“It’s like somebody took America by the East Coast, and shook it, and all the normal girls managed to hang on.”
— Harry Lockhart, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Lynch’s fever-dream Los Angeles is our truest Los Angeles because — forget a David Lynch character — L.A. itself has a split personality: it’s the town that can’t look at itself so it turns to Hollywood movies, and believes them more intensely than anyone. There’s the people who moved here with daydreams of billboard ubiquity versus the people who live here and their death grip on middle-class sustenance. There’s the Instagram Stacies rouged and zippered into cheerleader packs of perfume-ad remoteness, snapping group selfies in line for the new hot spot on Sunset while homelessness — either asleep or dead on a bus bench feet away — laps at their Jimmy Choos. Hal Ashby’s Shampoo — the Jewish daddies’ girls on tennis courts, the entertainment lawyers and kept women — still screens on a Westside loop, cocooned away from the polyglot Training Day swarm east of La Brea. Orange County, with its Pacific Ocean teasing against the shoreline, with its docked yachts and Spanish architecture, now hosts some of the grimiest gang murders this side of the cartels.
L.A. — or rather, Hollywood, its Betty Elms dream self — is a place where personas slip and mutate and never seem to have had their third acts written. That’s not the flakiness of which this place is so often accused; out here, it’s called keeping your options open. It’s life as an ongoing rehearsal for the right part. It’s cultivated neurosis as career strategy for people who seek fulfillment in trying on — then discarding — identities, accents, histories, psychologies. And the fantasy of that fulfillment is actually nuttier than the fantasy of stardom, whose lower-rung, more ephemeral variety is conferred upon so many, so quickly, before it hops off onto the next fresh arrival, that the ghosts of thwarted delusions plaguing every how-do-you-do in L.A. are as inescapable as couches on sidewalks and ex-child actresses who yammer on about spiritual enlightenment before repairing to the ladies’ room to blow the bartender for a few lines of coke.
When people confess to thoughts of going back home (as they inevitably do here), it’s not generally out of a sense of failure, as in, “Oh, I couldn’t make it.” Rather, it’s that every transplanted Angeleno comes to weigh the kinds of relationships that one has here versus ones that one could have elsewhere. And here, where yesteryear could be as recent as eight months ago, every relationship carries the implied threat of disposability. L.A.’s the Potemkin village in love with its own flimsiness, after all — the wide-open underbelly on your drive to Astro Burger. If you’re in enough social circles, your relationships turn chiefly on a kind of starfucking (who’s the alpha male of the group? who throws the biggest parties?), on whatever attention people feel they can squeeze out of being linked with you for as long as it takes a camera to flash or a rumor to spread.
Give me my East Hollywood dive bars with burlesque nights on Thursdays, I always said. Drunk sluts at a red light on Sunset, who woo-hoo from the car next to you that they just turned twenty-whatever and they’d love to have a birthday fuck.
Give me my red line from Hollywood and Western, packed with practiced avoidance: Van Heusen-shirted screenwriters-by-night with eyes glued to their iPhones, next to the odd vagrant rummaging through his worldly possessions in a Von’s bag, next to earbud-insulated Jamals mutter-rapping in hoodies, next to affiliation-inked sureños on their way downtown to see their parole officers.
Give me masochistic married women who drive down on a whim from Santa Clarita, I said. Hipster Laurens with their Roxy Music vinyl off Gower or Franklin, where they still have checkerboard floors from the days of “Loss ANG-eleez.”
Give me the squeak of Rite Aid carts pushed by Esmareldas past Thai jerk-off parlors. Give me dipshit taggers who autograph the rolling shutter on your street, only for it to be painted over the next morning. Give me the bachelor walk-up with no air conditioning over on Bukowski’s side of town, where my daily welcoming committee is the Armenian daughter puttering about her family’s kitchen in a white tank top and panties across a Rear Window courtyard.
And then, I faced the reflection of an aging, childless man who hadn’t come close to what he’d once set out across nine states to accomplish.
Or, to put it the Mulholland Drive way:
You moved to L.A. to follow your dreams. About five, six years ago. Your Aunt Gladys always told you you should be in movies, and everyone concurred. And you’re gonna prove Aunt Gladys right — you’re gonna be a big, big star. But lately, it’s been tough going. You’ve been out on audition after audition and you’re just not getting the callbacks the way you used to. Sure, you were in soft-focus in the background of a couple of shows on the WB for a few seconds and you were once thisclose to life as the perky new intern on that earnest hospital drama. But by now, your headshot’s been passed around more than that “private” video that the guy at the “modeling” agency swore was just for his personal evaluation. Maybe you’re not considered a fresh face anymore. Maybe — to the gatekeepers enthroned in casting offices all over town — you’re even damaged goods, at this point.
And so, it’s a year and a half to two years now that you’ve logged as a waitress at Fred 62 or Mel’s on the Strip. You’re really getting behind on all your student loan payments and credit card bills, and that twelve-hundred-a-month studio on Franklin that you’re sharing with the Indian girl you met on Craigslist isn’t quite the blast you first imagined it to be. It’s not terribly hard to find some spiky-haired indie-band reject or future reality-show candidate down at Liquid Kitty or The Woods to throw some Stoli-and-Viagra-fueled dick in you and quit returning your texts, but that sweet guy you left back home — the one who took you to meet his parents and paid your Visa and Mastercard bills and hadn’t already fucked twelve girls who look just like you — well, his kind’s like the American Bison in these parts.
Well, hell, at least, you have a good friend to wallow in shared La La Land misfortune with, right? Actually, she’s your best friend, your oasis of sanity, your port in the storm, the only person you really feel you know in this crazy town. You met her on — oh, what was it, was it that audition for Real World: Huntington Beach? Was it that one NBC pilot? Well, anyway, you’ve known her for a good portion of your time in town and, truth be told, you sort of bask in her glow every time you’re around her — she’s that vibrant, that talented, that comforting. That sexy.
Oh, sure, she’s had far more success than you have — some medium-profile TV work, a couple of supporting roles in hip indie films — but you don’t hold that against her. She’s your friend. Oh, sure, she’s started seeing that cocky asshole of a director, the guy who thinks he’s the next Tarantino or whomever, but you believe her when she tells you it won’t change a thing between the two of you.
And then, she tells you things have gotten serious between her and Mr. Genius On The Rise, and you can’t deny that it hurts. You’re being cast aside for monetary considerations, for the sake of career — and here, you thought what you had together meant something. You thought you meant something. Hell, kid, no one means anything in this town, not when it comes to career aspirations. Surely, you should’ve known that by now, right?
Well, now you’re thinking of doing something about it. In fact, you’re gonna make her regret ever recasting your role in her life.
And now, you find yourself in some other diner on Sunset, meeting with some shady guy who takes her headshot from you and gives you a key and tells you where it will be. When it’s “all done.” After which, you find yourself suicidal with regret and you end up recasting your unpleasant reality as a cinematic fever dream in which you’re a star on the rise, in which anyone who ever held dominion over you in your waking hours is now the picture of powerlessness, in which you and your inamorata embark upon a quest to discover her past and fall madly in love — forever and ever and ever. Just like people in the movies.
Except that — guess what? — the movies lied to you. Hollywood lied to you. This is L.A., hon’. And L.A. tends to gyp you on the happy endings.
©2010, 2022 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic
(This piece was originally posted July 30, 2010 to the now-defunct blog Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic. Some content has been altered for this re-posting.)