Hey guys, obviously things were backed up this week [at this point I should say last week]. On a good week, my goal is to post updates by Friday. This has not been a good week.
I underestimated how hard it would be to find this week’s film. When I finally did get my hands on a copy, I felt paralyzed. I’d had a specific angle in mind for this essay since I compiled the List of Fifty back in November. Now I wondered if what I had to say was worthwhile. Should I be focusing more explicitly on the lessons it has to teach budding filmmakers? Either way, would anybody read this junk?
Only days before, a local writer of some renown had passed away. I barely knew him personally, but I considered him an important mentor. With his sense of humor, his enthusiasm for life, and his love for the people and the land of Vermont, he was an inspiration for me both as a writer and as a man. It was only in his last days that I realized how little time and thought I’d given to our connection. I was always sure there was more time to get to know him.
Then there was no more time. We won’t be sitting around the kitchen table this spring, sharing stories over a six pack — a long-time dream of mine. I won’t be accompanying him on any summer fishing trips, as I’d hoped to. I’ve been in a fog all week, listening to what interviews and presentations of his I can find on Youtube, trying to absorb what I can of his spirit. I can’t imagine what this must be like for the people who were fortunate enough to know him well.
With all of this swirling around in my head, I started to panic. I was keenly aware of how much time I have left in the world, and how little use I seem to be making of it. My mind went in a dozen directions. I should quit pretending I’m going to make movies some day, and focus on the blog. I should quit the blog, and focus on making movies. I should still do the blog, but make damn sure every post is brimming with brilliant pointers for the budding filmmaker.
Toward the end of the week, I came across this Youtube video by The Royal Ocean Film Society. I didn’t realize until today, sitting down to write this blog post, that its message was one I desperately needed to hear. Near the video’s end, Andrew Saladino cautions, “There’s genuine value in taking yourself less seriously. Whatever you’re trying to do, it’s absolutely nowhere remotely close to the level of bona fide earth-shattering genius that you think it is. Trust me, I’ve been there before, and I was wrong. And you are too.” In other words, quit freaking out about how far short of amazing the work you’re doing is, and just do it. Get it done and move on.
This week’s film is a great example of this concept in action. David Lynch first shot Mulholland Drive as an open-ended television pilot for ABC. When the network passed on it, Lynch managed to pull together enough financial backing to shoot additional scenes, reworking the film into a perplexing, surreal noir, a tour-de-force that’s frequently cited as one of this century’s greatest films to date. Not bad for a shelved TV project.
For those who are unfamiliar, Mulholland Drive follows [or seems to follow] young Hollywood hopeful Betty Elms and “Rita,” an amnesiac car crash victim, as they try to unravel the mystery of Rita’s identity. Their only clue: Rita’s purse, containing several thousand dollars and a strange blue key.
Meanwhile, director Adam Kesher struggles personally and professionally as he tries to recast the lead in his new picture. Shady Hollywood manipulators force him to select Camilla Rhodes, an unknown actress. Other storylines — a hapless hitman, a mysterious dark figure behind Winkie’s Diner — make an appearance, but don’t connect themselves to either of the main tales.
Rita and Betty become lovers. In the middle of the night, Rita begins talking in her sleep — No hay banda. Silencio. Waking, she takes Betty to Club Silencio, where they witness a bizarre show wherein performers mime along with a tape recording. After the performance, they discover a blue box in Rita’s purse. Back at Betty’s apartment, Rita is suddenly alone. Frightened, she opens the blue box with the blue key. Rita then also disappears.
The remainder of the film throws all of the preceding events into question. Betty wakes up in a different, dingy apartment. From her conversation with a neighbor, we learn that her name is Diane Selwyn; “Rita” reappears as her former lover, Camilla Rhodes. Camilla left Diane for Adam Kesher, prompting Diane to have a nervous breakdown. She contacts the hitman from earlier and arranges to have Camilla murdered. The deed is done; driven mad with guilt and pursued by hallucinations, Diane commits suicide.
The most widely accepted interpretation of the plot is that the first two thirds of the movie are Diane’s dream. She recasts herself as an innocent, and Camilla as a helpless dependent. She imagines the studio conspiracy that arranges Camilla’s success [Diane herself is a struggling bit-player]. Even tiny details — the blue key, the espresso cup used in one hilariously weird board meeting — find themselves mirrored in the waking world as Diane fixates on the minutia of her most traumatic experiences.
In the end, the sense of the narrative is less important than the theme. This is, foremost, Lynch’s meditation on the film industry, and on the dream of Hollywood — which, just as often, turns to nightmare.
Light & Shadow: The Man In Back Of Winkie’s and the Jitterbug Contest
One of the most effective moments in the film comes out of nowhere. Two men sit in Winkie’s Diner [seemingly a chain a la Denny’s] on Sunset Boulevard. One of them tells the story of a recurring nightmare he’s had: the two of them are in this specific Winkie’s, and they’re afraid. Why? “There’s a man. In back of this place. He’s the one that’s doing it.I can see him through the wall. I can see his face.” After he finishes his story, the two men walk around behind the diner to see if the man is there. He is. He pops out from behind a graffiti-covered wall, and the dreamer either faints or drops dead at the sight of him.
It’s an incredible use of a jump-scare, but in this film, it’s a bit of a puzzle. Neither of the two men [credited as Dan and Herb] have any connection to the remainder of the story. Yet the scene’s location within the first act suggests that it provides a part of the thematic context for the rest of the film. Which prompts the question, who is the Man In Back of Winkie’s? And what is the “it” that he’s doing? Two different interpretations present themselves. They may not be mutually exclusive.
In a literal sense, the figure behind Winkie’s represents the fate feared by every wannabe movie star — homeless, covered in filth. At night, the figure crouches beside a trash can fire, fondling its possessions, which are stored in a paper bag. The character is even listed as “Bum” in the end credits. Extrapolating, we could say this figure represents the nightmare side of the Hollywood dream. This idea is further supported by an analysis of the opening and closing sequences of the film.
We open to a raucous jazz number, with a crowd of people jitterbugging in front of a purple background. Behind them, enormous shadow-versions of themselves mimic the dance moves. As the scene progresses, several pairs of dancers are swallowed up by these silhouettes. We see flashes of them within the shadow figures, but they are for all intents and purposes gone.Finally, a third image is projected in front of them, so brightly lit it appears almost completely blown-out: Diane/Betty, first between two beaming older people, then walking forward as a crowd cheers.
Here we find the theme of the film — Hollywood as both dream and nightmare — perfectly encapsulated. On closer inspection, there are only a handful of dancers, duplicated endlessly. These are your everyday Hollywood actors, hustling to make a living. Periodically, some of them get swallowed in the shadows of the background and disappear.* But meanwhile, up front, there’s that bright, shining dream — standing alone before the cheering crowds. This dream is so bright it blots out everything else.
The ending presents things in a similar multi-layer fashion. Diane sticks the barrel of her gun into her mouth and pulls the trigger. The bedroom fills with smoke and flashing blue lights. Out of the mist looms the face of the Bum, quickly dissolving to the stage curtains of Club Silencio. This then gives way to the nighttime cityscape of Hollywood, over which, again in bright white, we see a smiling Diane and Camilla, heads together.This finally gives way to the bare stage of the club, and a final word from the mysterious woman on the balcony [“Silencio.”].
Leaving aside the very last shots — the bare stage, the balcony — what can we make of the layering of images? At the forefront is Diane’s dream, reunited with her love in a bliss known only in the movies. Behind them, the dream city of Hollywood. Behind that, the club where, earlier in the film, an emcee admonishes us to remember that “This is all a tape recording,” just an illusion.** And lurking behind those blue curtains, only dimly visible, is the dark being from behind the diner, the shadowy figure behind all of Hollywood’s illusions.
The second interpretation is more personal; the figure behind Winkie’s Diner is Diane herself, or at least, a part of her. For one thing, the “man” behind Winkie’s is actually a woman, played by actress Bonnie Aarons. Note that we first see her in the early portions of Diane’s dream. The man inside the diner tells us that she’s “the one who’s doing it,” which can be interpreted as controlling the events of his world — that is, her own dream.
Consider also the figure’s penultimate appearance in the film. Slouched beside her campfire, she looks down at the blue box in her hands — the same blue box which Diane and Rita found earlier at Club Silencio. She stuffs it into a paper bag and drops it to the ground. Two tiny old people crawl out of the bag and scurry away.
We’ve seen these old people before. They arrived on the same plane that brought Betty to L.A., and seem to have looked after the girl as she made her way from Deep River, Ontario. “We’ll be looking for you on the big screen,” the old woman tells Betty, giving her a final hug. Later, we see them staring out the windows of a cab, vacant, almost robotic smiles on their faces. Several commentators have speculated on their identities outside of Diane’s dream; I think it makes most sense to see them simply as starry-eyed tourists in Hollywood, the adoring crowd that Diane so desperately longs for.
What crawls out of that paper bag is the nightmare version of the obsessive fan. Watching them chase Diane through her apartment, laughing, clutching at her bathrobe, driving her toward suicide, I kept thinking of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, chased by a crowd of paparazzi. Some of them reportedly took pictures of the Princess of Wales being pulled from the wreckage. The dark side of fame is that they all want a piece of you, even when you’re gone.
From the ashes of an abandoned TV project, David Lynch constructs a mesmerizing cinematic experience unlike any other. Part dream, part satire on the Hollywood movie machine, part cautionary tale, Mulholland Drive is as hard to let go of as it is to explain. Had Lynch simply abandoned it, the world of film would be much less rich today. Not everything we try will work. Not every project will be brilliant. The important thing is to do it, to keep moving forward even when the road gets bumpy. Thank you for riding out the rough roads with me.
On deck: The last great love story of the era of “Silencio”…
* The silhouettes are mirrored later in the blackened appearance of the figure behind Winkie’s.
** The Club Silencio sequence lies at the heart of the film. Its “No hay banda — there is no band” dissects Diane’s dream, and indeed the film itself, in the same way that Matisse’s The Treachery of Images dissected representational painting and language itself. The performers openly admit that they are not playing or singing, and yet their performances [particularly the moving Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying”] affect us anyway — just as the performances in a film can, even though we know full well it isn’t real. A fantastic analysis of this element throughout the film can be found here.