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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2002

Too much to dream last night

Mullholland Drive

Rating: * * * * *
Director: David Lynch
Running time: 146 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Two Hollywood "player" types are talking over breakfast in a greasy-spoon diner on Sunset Boulevard. The writer-looking guy says to the agent-looking guy, "I had a dream about this place," his eyes darting to and fro. "It's the second one I've had, but they're both the same. I'm scared as all hell."

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As the sun streams through the diner's windows and cute waitresses bus the tables, the writer gets more agitated as he describes the dream: "There's a man in the back of this place. He's the one doing it. I can see his face, through the wall."

Almost in a trance, the writer wanders out back. As hollow metallic sounds drone on the soundtrack, the camera prowls ahead, past a dumpster, hugging a wall tight up to the corner and then . . . welcome to Lynch-land. It's a moment you won't be forgetting anytime soon.


Hollywood has often been called the City of Dreams, but leave it to Lynch to take that literally. In "Mulholland Drive" -- his latest, and arguably best film -- he dives deep into the city's subconscious and emerges grasping its brightest hopes, its hidden fears, and darkest desires. Lynch's take on Tinseltown is a seance that summons up the ghosts of Hollywood Babylon past and present: glamorous stars with seedy secrets, failed starlets who meet sordid fates and arrogant directors whose projects are usurped by shadowy forces. The veil of the American Dream is lifted to reveal the American Nightmare, an echo of the approach that served Lynch so well in "Blue Velvet."

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Laura Elena Harring in "Mulholland Drive" (below with Justin Theroux)
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The thing with Lynch is he believes in the dream. He believes in it so strongly, and renders it with such loving affection and naivete -- represented in his use of '50s imagery and music -- that the shock is almost unbearable when the horror is revealed. In Lynch's world, you never get one without the other. Pure innocence and perverse evil exert a magnetic pull on each other, like in "Blue Velvet" when Jeffrey Beaumont finds a bit of Frank Booth's sadism in his own soul, or when high school princess Laura Palmer turns out to be a coke-addicted wild child in "Twin Peaks."

As Lynch himself has said (in "Lynch on Lynch," Faber & Faber): "One of the things I've heard is that our trip through life is to gain divine mind through knowledge and experience of combined opposites. And that's our trip. The world we live in is a world of opposites, and to reconcile those two opposing things is the trick." Mark those words, for the secret to understanding "Mulholland Drive" lies therein.

The mystery of love

On the surface, "Mulholland Drive" is a whodunit, a murder-mystery involving a perky Hitchcock blonde and a sultry amnesiac brunette. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) is fresh off the plane from Deep River, Ontario, a wide-eyed innocent and jitterbug champ who's dreaming of making it in the movies. She's staying at her aunt's Art Deco apartment in Hollywood, and there she discovers Rita (Laura Elena Harring) -- in the first of many erotically supercharged moments -- naked in the shower.

Wandering frantically after a car wreck and attempted rub-out, Rita has lost her memory and is hiding in Betty's apartment. She has a bag full of money and a mysterious blue key. (Dream theorists get to work here.) She doesn't remember her name, so she offers "Rita" after glimpsing a movie poster for "Gilda." It's a fitting choice, for Rita does seem to have a bit of Hayworth in her hips, in her languorous movements and slightly regal aura. There's a little bit of unease in her eyes, though, the feeling that something's not quite right, that she herself senses it, but can't say what.

Like all Lynch protagonists, Betty can't resist the mystery and finds herself pulled into a sinister spiral as she helps Rita figure out her identity. There are shadowy forces at work: A ghostly Roy Rogers apparition called "The Cowboy" (Lafayette Montgomery) tells movie director Adam (Justin Theroux) exactly which girl to cast and how to say it: "This is the girl."

Betty's at that audition. She is marked; we don't know why or by who, but somehow, her fate is tied to Rita's.

With its swooning orchestral score and "Vertigo"-like identity-switch, this could easily be a Hitchcock film -- that is if Hitch had directed it in the throes of a full-blown paranoid schizophrenic breakdown, with Salvador Dali given free rein on the dream sequences. As a stark look at Hollywood failure and an elegiac homage to bygone glamour, this could have also been a "Sunset Boulevard" remake -- if directed by avant-garde icon Maya Deren in her voodoo-priestess phase. Which is to tell you everything and nothing, because you've never experienced anything like "Mulholland Drive" -- not in your waking hours, at least.

But for all its surreal mystery -- never mind the Blue-Haired Lady at the creepy Club Silencio -- what lets "Mulholland Drive" seduce, not frustrate, its audience are the emotionally intense performances by its two leads.

Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harding: Remember those names. You've never heard of them before -- one, the daughter of Pink Floyd's sound engineer, the other, a former Miss USA-turned-backpacker -- and you may never again, but they burn like dying suns here. Both start as classic movie archetypes, gradually revealing the soul underneath, before executing 180-degree flips that are sure to provoke a flurry of double-takes. They also manage to turn a good-night kiss into the most erotically charged moment imaginable. Cinema rarely gets so dangerously hot.

If it ain't broke . . .

What's truly amazing is that this film even exists. This magnum opus, which earned Lynch Best Director plaudits at Cannes 2001, was originally a failed TV pilot episode. Commissioned by ABC, the network that ran (and canceled) "Twin Peaks," "Mulholland Drive" was written off when the studio execs decided it was "too weird" (which is like ordering a hamburger and complaining that it contains meat.)

French Studio Canal Plus liked what they saw, though, and offered Lynch the resources to turn it into a feature film. But how? The point of a pilot is to open up possibilities; the purpose of a film's final reel is to resolve them.

Lynch's solution was to embrace these limitations as a secret strength. He tacked on a hairpin curve of an ending, one that suggests closure while actually chasing its own tail (much like "Memento"). Even better was his decision to leave some plot strands floating. Characters like the guy in the diner may have been part of a larger whole, but now they seem detached, enigmatic, portentous.

Lynch has certainly learned from his past. Looking at "Twin Peaks," it was obvious that revealing Laura's killer spelled the end of the mystery. The magic was in not knowing, not in the resolution. But Lynch also saw the frustration that greeted the closed loop of illogic of "Lost Highway" -- people grasped for an answer to the puzzle. With "Mulholland Drive," Lynch has left it tantalizingly within reach. One more viewing, you tell yourself, and you'll have it all worked out. As Lynch puts it: "Fragments of things are pretty interesting. You can dream the rest."

A psychogenic fugue

Many reviewers, using Freudian analysis, have tried to reduce this film to a simple, understandable context: The first two hours as a dream, the last 25 minutes as the reality. But the heart of Lynch's work is to defy understanding.

What throws people is that while Lynch sets up the mystery in a recognizably "real" world, its resolution lies in a parallel universe -- perhaps a dream, but more likely something worse: a spirit realm of possession and doom. Lynch's trick is to work these archaic, arcane fears into modern life without identifying them as such. We don't believe in "curses," so they don't scare us, but the irrational sure as hell does.

Ultimately, there's no need to sweat the "why?" too much. Just sit back and savor "Mulholland Drive" for what it is -- like Escher's staircase, it's an endlessly fascinating illusion of perfect impossibility.

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