David Lynch's Mulholland Drive barrels through a funhouse of the director's longtime obsessions: splintered psyches and multiple identities, enigmatic brunets and vulnerable blonds, red drapes and ominous dwarves, amateur sleuthing and coffee connoisseurship. But what starts out like a greatest-hits anthology eventually reveals itself as a mind-blowing, context-shattering remix.
At last week's New York Film Festival press conference, in addition to the usual questions that might be expected to greet a new Lynch movie (dead-end inquiries about "the monster behind the diner"), there was curiosity about the feature's unique architecture (two-thirds linear mystery, one-third decomposing nightmare), its troubled origins (a TV pilot, rejected by ABC two years ago), and the relationship between the two.
The 55-year-old Lynch, for his part, remains unflappably tight-lipped. Someone asks him what material from the pilot was cut after he shot new scenes to fashion a stand-alone feature. "It wouldn't help you to have them," he says in his amicable foghorn. Someone else wonders about the direction Mulholland Drive would have taken on television. "The series is dead," Lynch fires back. Another pointed inquiry about unused footage elicits blatant exasperation: "No, no, no, no. It's a putrefecation [sic] of the mind to talk about it."
Chain-smoking blue American Spirits and sipping an enormous cappuccino in a hotel suite the following day, Lynch says he doesn't mean to come off as cryptic or coy. "I'm not reluctant to discuss it. It's hard to explain, and I don't think I've been explaining it properly, what a gift it was. When you start out making an open-ended TV pilot and then switch to a feature film, it's very interesting what the mind has to come up with to solve certain problems. It would be very risky to do that on purpose. It would be absurd, but the ideas that came in wouldn't have occurred if it had been done a normal way, so ABC did me a huge service by allowing it to go that way and then killing it."
The rebirth of Mulholland Drive, which opened on Monday following sold-out festival screenings over the weekend, was facilitated by funds from the French studio Canal Plus, after what Lynch's producer, editor, and domestic partner Mary Sweeney calls "some very delicate negotiations." ABC was planning to air the 88-minute pilot as a TV movie in the spring of 2000. "David began proceedings with the DGA to have his name taken off," says Sweeney, "but it was all resolved in time."
Lynch says a resuscitation strategy still eluded him even after the deals were complete. "I was secretly pretty panicked, and panic isn't a friend of creation. It's like trying to go to sleep; it doesn't work too good. So I don't know how it happened, but one day I sat down in this chair, and over the next half hour the ideas came in all at once. They changed how I saw stuff that had been shot."
Indeed, Mulholland Drive the feature is precariously situated on a fault line between clashing vantage points. The movie's first 90 minutes or so concern the role-play-intensive, Céline and Julie-like attempts of a blond aspiring starlet (Naomi Watts) and a brunette amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) to determine the latter's identity. The perspective shift comes when Lynch enacts a deck-shuffling sabotage of the primary narrative, at the same time suffusing it with unexpected pathos. (Think of how any given Twin Peaks episode is retroactively bruised by the lacerating pain of the prequel Fire Walk With Me.)
Lynch refuses to speculate on how a Mulholland Drive series would have evolved. He hadn't scripted any subsequent episodes, and insists that he hadn't given plot development much thought. "I like to not know where I'm going," he says. "With a continuing story, you just need enough to get started but not too much to kill the pull of the unknown. That's the thrill of it—to be lost and feel your way to the next step, not much further." Lynch says when he and Mark Frost, his writing partner on Twin Peaks, started working on the series, they hadn't yet determined the identity of Laura Palmer's killer. "When you think about something, I believe it goes out in the air, just like a radio signal. So whenever we got close, we would dance away from it."
The Mulholland Drive pilot reunited Lynch with a former adversary. He still believes ABC, in forcing him to solve Twin Peaks' central murder too early, was partly responsible for the show's decline, and he was so livid after the network canceled his 1992 sitcom On the Air that he painted a wooden board with the words "I will never work in television again." Lynch claims not to understand the workings of the TV industry at all, or even watch much of its product, but says he finds it a hopelessly alluring medium all the same. "I'm a sucker for a continuing story, so I went there again, knowing the negative side. I just wanted to enter into a world longer. I dodged a bullet."
Lynch's self-defeating attraction to series television meshes with his belief that "endings are terrible things. They can have a great beauty, but only if they leave room to dream." Fittingly, both Mulholland Drive and his sinister psychogenic-fugue neo-noir Lost Highway (1997) defer conclusions by trailing off into circular infinities. Lynch tends to shy from any overly specific discussion of his work, reverting instead to an all-purpose mantra: "I go by ideas." He's at once unfailingly good-natured and ingeniously evasive, capable of absorbing almost any question into an ever ready stream of banal abstraction and homespun metaphor, sprinkled with gee-whiz-isms and the occasional weirdly edifying koan.
Both Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway deal with the guilt, paranoia, and pain that accompany the end of a relationship. Yes, on some level. It would be nice if we all traveled with psychoanalysts, and they could tell us, you know, "Dave, you better pay attention to these things." But I'm not aware of it. For me it's more like the things don't come out of my neuroses; they seem to come from somewhere else.
Where's this "somewhere else"? It's an ocean of ideas. Everything that we see, man-made, started with an idea. An idea had to come from somewhere, so I think they're sitting out there.
Does everyone have equal access to this ocean? Yes, you don't need to go through any metal detectors or anything, you just can get 'em. Some people are really interested in . . . inventions and new products, like this thing I saw on TV was this, um . . . bag? Where you put like, say, some blankets to store. You run this Ziploc zipper closed, and then you put your vacuum cleaner on this part of the bag and suck the air out of it, and it collapses down to next-door to nothing, and then you store the thing away. And it's compact and it's clean and it reduces the space. Now that's a pretty cool idea, and somebody had to come up with that. It's out of maybe studying, or having a need for something, and that's the desire to solve a problem, and then [snaps fingers] the idea comes in. And how does it come in, and where does it come from? Nikola Tesla, sitting on a park bench, he's looking out into the sun or something, and bingo, all of a sudden, there's the alternating current motor, and he saw every wind of wire, every screw, and the knowledge of how it works [snaps fingers] like that in a pop. And all he had to do is go back to his lab and build that. It wasn't there and now it's there, with total knowledge and understanding of how it works. How'd that happen?
But where does talent fit into this theory of creativity? I'll tell ya, only in the translation. There's the idea, and say the idea's for a chair. And you don't know how to work with wood so well, or metal and upholstery, and it's a great idea but you're not handy in the shop, so your chair doesn't reflect the beauty of that idea. But if you are really handy with wood and metal, and you got this idea for this beautiful chair, and you go in the shop and you just do the idea, people see it and they say, man, that is a killer chair, and it goes like that. Translation is the next step, and it could go into still photography, or painting, or film. Some ideas are chair ideas, and some ideas are film ideas.
It's so much like fishing, and the desire is the bait. You have to have patience, and you have to lower the line in there and wait. You could be catching fish, but you're wanting that one beautiful little fish you fall in love with.
This is all very democratic. Artists tend to talk about an idea as something that emerges from within, not something they go fishing for. Well, inside and outside is a strange thing. I really believe that the inside goes to that place where they reside, but it seems like they come in from outside, the reason being they weren't there, and suddenly they're there. You know what I mean?
Mulholland Drive's rupture point is cued by a Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison's "Crying." Lynch says his discovery of the singer, Rebekah del Rio, was a "happy accident": A music-agent friend brought her over to his recording studio, and "four minutes off the street, she hadn't even had her coffee," del Rio belted out a stunning a capella "Llorando." Lynch wrote her—and that very recording—into the film. To hear him tell it, her choice of song was destiny. "In 1985, going through Central Park, I heard Roy Orbison's version of 'Crying' on the radio. I was riding with Kyle MacLachlan, and we were going down to start shooting Blue Velvet, and I said, 'I gotta get that song!' I got an album with Roy's greatest hits, and I listened to 'Crying,' but listening to it again, it didn't marry with the film. I was a little bit depressed, but I kept listening, and I heard 'In Dreams,' and instantaneously, every note, every nuance married to the film. It was 'Crying' that led to 'In Dreams,' and years later, it comes back but in a completely different way."
The scene is accompanied by convulsive weeping—a recurring motif in Lynch's films, most conspicuously in the Twin Peaks pilot and Fire Walk With Me. "The thing about crying is, it's contagious, you know, if there's some honesty to it," he says. "On The Straight Story, in the editing room, I'd just be sobbing my eyes out."
There's a heartbroken tenderness in the way Mulholland Drive spins a cautionary tale around an actor's romantic and professional disillusionment. "The actor's life is one of the hardest lives," says Lynch. "They only have themselves and they are mostly waiting and hoping, and you see how fate plays such a role in who rises and who falls."
Asked about feature plans, Lynch says, "I have no ideas right now," but he's keeping busy with his usual Renaissance-man activities (painting and furniture design) and is especially excited about his Web site, Davidlynch.com, which will soon showcase original content. (Planned series include the Flash-animated Dumbland and the live-action Rabbits.) He's keen to incorporate the technical glitches of Internet streaming as a formal element. "I love some of the bad quality. You work with what you see and feel, and the ideas come to marry with that feel and that quality."
The precise appeal of those beloved "ideas" remains elusive. "A lot of the ideas that I fall in love with . . . they're sort of like contrasts that come up, and so it cannot be just one thing. There has to be the opposite somewhere in the story, so there's innocence and naïveté, and a bunch of things swimming together, and there's strangeness and there's, you know, normal things. But why do I fall in love with certain things? I don't know."
Your work has inspired many psychoanalytic and academic readings. Do you pay much attention to them? No, I don't read them, but I feel like if you're true to the ideas . . . Say the idea is a seed, and it's an acorn, and it wants to be an oak. You're only seeing it in the beginning, in a seed form, but if you're really true to the seed, it will surprise you. There may be things you're doing that you don't even see for a couple years. If you alter it, say because of some strange whim, it won't have that depth or harmonics—the truthful harmonics. You just are translating as truthfully as you could and so it could hold more than you even know.
Are you familiar with psychoanalytic theory? Not really. The study of the mind is a beautiful study. The mind is deep. It's huge, it goes from here to there. I know that there's a psychoanalyst in Texas, part of this group. They analyzed Blue Velvet, and I read some of those and, like, even names, colors, they were finding many, many, many things, and relating it to their theories, and it was pretty . . . interesting. If you get the wrong theory and you try to rationalize that theory it could get absurd.
Your name is used as an adjective more than just about any other director's. Does the word "Lynchian" mean anything to you? It means different things to different people. You know, there's an expression that I heard from my friend Charlie: "Keep your eye on the doughnut, and not on the hole." Wanting to stay inside the house is a protection. There's a story—The Man Who Knew Too Much, right? Hitchcock? So you wanna know a lot, but you wanna know a lot of the right things, and not a lot of the wrong things, for protection. We pretty much should focus on the positives, and the work, and not mess with that process, or else it's dead. So you just like to stay in your house and try to catch ideas.
So how would you define "Lynchian"? Oh, you're back to that. I don't want to think about that because that's more like the hole. If I start thinking about that, it's so dangerous. The next idea I fall in love with is kind of where I want to think.
How's that dangerous? You start second-guessing yourself. It's like you're trying to catch fish and someone's talking to you about McDonald's, and that's about beef and another place over here where you just pay money and you get this food. You're out there trying to catch fish, and maybe even thinking about cooking that fish.
"Twin Peaks: The Yin-Yang Glamour Girls of Mulholland Drive" by Jessica Winter
J. Hoberman's review of Mulholland Drive