American Independent Gothic: Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

Posted by John Berra on January 19, 2011 in Dr John Berra, Guest Blog tagged with ,

The American Independent Gothic tour now arrives in Los Angeles, California. Of course, no tour of Los Angeles would be complete without a trip to the Hollywood hills and a little look into the workings of the Hollywood studios, and this particular package is no exception. However, this tour intends to reveal the underbelly of the Dream Factory rather than to celebrate its glitzy veneer and, as such, operates completely independently without any sponsorship from corporate affiliates.

To some extent, this is also the professional approach of David Lynch, a director whose occasional dealings with the studio system have often sent him scurrying back to the margins in order to preserve the artistic integrity of his cinematic output, or at least to avoid providing easy explanations to his audience. From the industrial interiors of Eraserhead (1977), to the logging community of Blue Velvet (1986) and the small Washington town of his television series Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and its big-screen prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lynch has re-appropriated locations to suit his skewed vision of America, and the Los Angeles of Mulholland Drive is no exception. For most of its running time, Mulholland Drive is very much a dreamscape representation of Los Angeles in that it deals with the fantasy of being discovered by the industry and the seduction of stardom, but Lynch also weaves a thread of mystery through the fantasy as a means of undermining it and ultimately exposing the unpleasant reality. The bitter experiences that Lynch has endured in Hollywood – unrealised projects such as One Saliva Bubble and Ronnie Rocket, the science-fiction fiasco of Dune (1984), the abrupt cancellation of his television series Twin Peaks and Hotel Room (1993) – are evident in the conspiratorial web and tragic outcome of Mulholland Drive, which actually originated as a television pilot that was not met with network approval. In her 2004 analysis ‘All I Need is the Girl: The Life and Death of Creativity in Mulholland Drive’, Martha P. Nochimson states, ‘Mulholland Drive propels the audience through a set of disorientating transformations in order to follow the life of creative integrity to its demise’, which summarises the manner in which Lynch shuffles the personas of his main players, not to mention the levels on reality on which they are performing. These disorientating transformations ensure that Mulholland Drive film has similarities to Lynch’s unfairly-maligned noir nightmare Lost Highway (1997) – in which Bill Pullman’s saxophone player reimagines himself as Balthazar Getty’s auto mechanic – but whereas the narrative form of the earlier film was derived from the circularity of the psychological fugue, the narrative trajectory of Mulholland Drive is rooted in Gothic ambiguity.
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The film beings with a dark-haired woman (Laura Elena Harring) not only surviving a late night murder attempt but emerging as the only survivor of a car accident on Mulholland Drive. Suffering from amnesia due to shock and nursing a nasty head injury, she makes her way down to the streets of Los Angeles, taking refuge in the apartment of an elderly actress who is leaving the city to shoot a movie elsewhere. Betty (Naomi Watts) is an aspiring actress who arrives in Los Angeles the following morning with dreams of becoming a star; she takes a cab to the same apartment, as it belongs to her aunt, only to find the amnesiac woman in the shower. When asked for her name, the intruder says that she is called ‘Rita’, taking the name from a framed poster for the Rita Hayworth classic Gilda (1946) that is hanging on the wall. Eventually realising that her unexpected guest has no connection to her aunt, the naïve but helpful Betty tries to help Rita discover her identity, but they only have the contents of Rita’s purse (a large amount of cash and a blue key) to go on. As the two women embark on an amateur investigation, two parallel storylines take place: hotshot Hollywood director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is in the process of re-casting the lead female role in his latest movie and is being forced by industry-affiliated gangsters to ‘choose’ an unknown actress named ‘Camilla Rhodes’, while a hitman botches his assignment of stealing a book of phone numbers, leaving three people dead. Betty and Rita seem to be making progress when Rita recalls the name ‘Diane Selwyn’ which leads them to a small apartment where they find a dead body; back at the apartment of Betty’s aunt, an increasingly worried Rita tries out the disguise of a blonde wig then enters into a sexual relationship with Betty. Waking up at 2am, Rita insists that Betty accompany her to the sinister nightspot Club Silencio, at which point it becomes apparent that we might be watching fantasy, a suspicion that is confirmed when Lynch unleashes a hard dose of reality with the story beginning again with the same players now cast in alternative roles.
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Mulholland Drive can be viewed as another one of Lynch’s stylistically heightened ‘woman in trouble’ films, with Watts and Harring following in the frightened footsteps of Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and foreshadowing Laura Dern’s unfortunate film set experience in Inland Empire (2006). However, the narrative – or semblance of narrative – has a particularly Gothic sensibility in terms of its steady slide from certainty to uncertainty, and in the structure of events. In her 2007 study Hollywood Heroines: Women in Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film, Helen Hanson states that, ‘The gothic narrative drive, then, is more typically retrogressive than progressive its complicated and unpredictable narration forces characters, protagonists, readers and viewers to move backwards as well as forwards, and to reprocess their present conditions and knowledge in relation to events and secrets in the past which were not known, or only partly known.’ This is precisely what occurs in Mulholland Drive, as the reality of the Betty and Rita storyline collapses with thirty minutes still remaining, with the extended dénouement not only making sense but achieving greater emotional resonance when related to a belatedly informed reading of the events that have preceded it. Hanson observes that, ‘The narratives of the female Gothic films foreground questions of knowledge and interpretation, a feature they share with the detective and suspense film’ and this seems to be the realm in which Lynch is operating, at least in terms of recognisable genre. For three-quarters of the duration of Mulholland Drive, the narrative advances based on Betty and Rita’s assimilation of knowledge with regards to Rita’s true identity, but as this knowledge is limited to some vaguely-related clues (the car accident, the cash, the key, the recollection of a name that turns up in the phone book), interpretation leads to further questions rather than answers, at least until the big reveal.
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Of course, Lynch is as revered for his mastery of mise-en-scène as he is for his cryptic approach to story-telling, and Mulholland Drive not only adopts the narrative form of the female Gothic film, but presents the Hollywood landscape in an appropriately Gothicized manner. Lynch makes particularly atmospheric use of the titular location; the twenty four-mile Mulholland Drive is a winding route around the Hollywood hills, but Lynch blacks out the beauty of the landscape by shooting at night, with the limousine that is carrying Rita driving through the darkness recalling the carriages of Gothic fiction, while Angelo Badalamenti’s typically ominous score suggests that this will not be a smooth journey. Rita then takes a Gothic-noir walk down Sunset Boulevard, taking refuge in the shadows of the palm trees as she avoid attention from passing police cars. The subsequent scenes detailing Betty’s arrival in Los Angeles have the sun-kissed ‘quality’ of daytime soap opera but, as Nochimson notes, they are ‘immediately juxtaposed to global, aerial images of Los Angeles, which again suggest the unknown powers that lurk behind appearances and absences.’ Apartments, houses, offices and studios have strangely non-specific spatial relations, with Lynch taking the opportunity to extend the ever-evolving design of the suburban Los Angeles home in Lost Highway to the remainder of the city as it becomes apparent that this Dreamland is just that, a reflection of the mental state of one of the casualties of the casting couch; ‘I’m just so excited to be here. I just come here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this…dream place’, she enthuses while settling into her aunt’s apartment. Betty encounters many of the professionals who are associated with the Hollywood power structure (actors, agents, directors) but the real movers and shakers pull the strings from ‘hidden’ rooms which could be above, below or next door to the spaces that the wide-eyed ingénue is being led through. The surreal Club Silencio sequence establishes some geography but then also becomes spatially strange; Betty and Rita take a late night cab ride to what seems to be a warehouse district on the wrong side of town, gaining access to the club via its neon-lit alley entrance, but Lynch does not show the lobby, instead immediately cutting to an old-fashioned, red-draped theatre. Club Silencio is also another ‘hidden’ room in structural terms of as it represents a further step into the sub-conscious.
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Discussing Mulholland Drive in his 2003 collection The Magic Hour: Film at Fin De Siecle, J. Hoberman states that, ‘the ominously rumbling city is malign and seductive; the movie industry, or should we say dream factory, is an obscure conspiracy.’ The obscurity of the conspiracy is due to the fact that it is imagined, with Betty’s psyche speculating on the behind-the-scenes machinations that have prevented her from securing leading roles. Her fears manifests itself in the form of boogeymen who appear in a variety of guises; the mobsters who exert casting control over Adam’s latest project, the ‘monster’ that lurks in the alley behind a downtown diner and the cowboy who convinces Adam to make the aforementioned creative compromise. Nochimson explains that, ‘the Cowboy creates a situation which Adam recognises as absurd, a western scenario straight out a bad movie, with no roots in the reality of the ordinary life in Los Angeles, as Adam is directed to meet the mysterious Cowboy at a corral, complete with the skeleton of the head of a steer and the signature flickering light of a Lynch film’, which points to the manner in which Betty’s psyche is constructing scenes based on a love of movies that has soured due to her unfortunate experiences on the fringes of the industry. However, the ultimate monster in Lynch’s Los Angeles proves to be the one that lurks within – the monster of desire and jealousy – as the central character eventually snaps out of her fantasy world to confront the guilty conscience that has been caused by hiring a hitman to murder her movie star lover. This analysis of Mulholland Drive subscribes to the widely-accepted interpretation that the film operates on the level of dream-logic, with the initial three-quarters being fantasy and the final quarter showing the reality of the situation. Although other readings are possible, they inevitably reaffirm the assertion that the Los Angeles of Mulholland Drive serves as a warning to all aspiring starlets about the dangers of pursuing their ‘dreams’.

You now have thirty minutes to purchase souvenirs and take photographs before the bus departs Dreamland. The final destination on the American Independent Gothic Tour will be Ozarks, Missouri.

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