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After 20 years on “Mulholland Dr.,” David Lynch’s cinematic puzzlebox still captivates

The 2001 surrealist masterpiece, “a love story in the city of dreams,” is screening at UW Cinematheque on November 6 on 35mm.

The 2001 surrealist masterpiece, “a love story in the city of dreams,” is screening at UW Cinematheque on November 6 on 35mm.

Image: In a still from “Mulholland Dr.,” Hollywood ingénue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), frame right in a red short-sleeved shirt, and her enigmatic new friend “Rita” (Laura Harring), dressed in black and clutching Betty’s right arm, attend a late-night performance at the otherworldly Club Silencio.

Twenty years after it premiered at Cannes, Mulholland Dr. (2001) remains the ultimate cinematic mindfuck. David Lynch’s surrealist neo-noir masterpiece shatters any preconceptions about how to watch a film, while demanding the active participation of the viewer in the construction of its meaning. In honor of its 20th anniversary, UW Cinematheque is screening a 35mm print of Mulholland Dr. on Saturday, November 6 at 7 p.m.

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The film follows a blonde aspiring actress from Canada, Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), who arrives in Tinseltown and encounters a glamorous brunette amnesiac (Laura Harring). Meanwhile, as the two attempt to discover the nameless woman’s identity, hotshot Hollywood filmmaker Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) finds himself in trouble with shadowy underworld figures invested in his latest project. To write a precise summary of the movie’s plot would be a futile endeavor, but Lynch has provided his own synopsis of Mulholland Drive: “Part one: she found herself inside the perfect mystery. Part two: a sad illusion. Part three: love.”

Mulholland Dr. began its life as the open-ended pilot episode for a proposed television series to be aired on ABC, the network that once turned the first two seasons of Lynch and Mark Frost’s avant-garde soap opera Twin Peaks (1990-1991) into a cult phenomenon. Although enticed by the project at first, ABC executives detested the pilot and rejected it outright. Lynch was close to abandoning Mulholland Dr. altogether until French producers acquired it from ABC and provided extra funding for Lynch to transform it into a feature-length film. As filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley observes in his book Lynch On Lynch, it’s “as if Lynch had been forced to jump directly from the TV pilot episode of Twin Peaks to the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)—without the benefit of all the intricate plot and character development in between.” The final incarnation of Mulholland Dr. consists, for the most part, of a reedited television pilot plus 50 minutes or so of additional material shot nearly two years later. 

In the process of reimagining Mulholland Dr., Lynch invented a radical new cinematic language, while creating a singular work of art that remains open to a multitude of possible interpretations. With one striking, painterly composition after another, Lynch presents an elusive, richly textured, and deliriously apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles’ dream factory. Mulholland Dr. tells an oblique postmodern love story as it dissolves the glittering, seductive surface of Hollywood to probe the darkest corners of the American film industry. The film weaves together an exhilarating array of stylistic elements, thematic preoccupations, and narrative threads, keeping viewers in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Through its many twists, turns, juxtapositions, and revelations, Mulholland Dr. vividly captures the distorted logic of a nightmare. While the first two-thirds of the movie are linearly coherent, Mulholland Dr. becomes increasingly bizarre, disconcerting, and inscrutable until the story finally collapses into a fevered succession of abstract fragments that compel us to question everything we have previously seen and heard. In an interview originally published in the 2005 edition of Chris Rodley’s book Lynch On Lynch, the director said: 

I think people know what Mulholland Dr. is to them, but they don’t trust it. They want to have someone else tell them. I love people analyzing it, but they don’t need me to help them out. That’s the beautiful thing, to figure things out as a detective. Telling them robs them of the joy of thinking it through and feeling it through and coming to a conclusion.

Although Lynch’s film has inspired a popular obsession with solving its mystery, such efforts ultimately seem beside the point. Much more than an enigma to be deciphered, Mulholland Dr. takes as its subject the very act of solving: the absurd process of making narrative sense, of needing and creating meaning. The power and beauty of the film derive from its fundamental ambiguity. With its fractured, elliptical storyline, exquisite visual detail, and strangely seamless series of shifting atmospheres, Mulholland Dr. beckons us toward full immersion in a complex, multilayered, and dreamlike sensory experience as we abandon ourselves to its magnetic flow.

What is Lynch trying to say? The director never explains his work, and he has been particularly reluctant to analyze or interpret the luscious puzzle that is Mulholland Dr. In an interview Lynch gave to the Los Angeles Times in 1989, he candidly revealed:

I don’t know what I want to say to people. I get ideas and I want to put them on film because they thrill me. You may say that people look for meaning in everything, but they don’t. They’ve got life going on around them, but they don’t look for meaning there. They look for meaning when they go to a movie. I don’t know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.

Perhaps Lynch does not know what he wants to say to his audience, but he certainly knows how to say it. 

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