A month or so after my mother’s death in 2001, I found myself in an awkward situation involving David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. I had just seen it in the theater, loved it, and desperately wanted to talk about it with a certain friend. But I hadn’t yet told him my terrible news, and because my mother had committed suicide, it couldn’t be told quickly or summarily. Every time I told someone what had happened, I flinched for both of us. It just wouldn’t do to call him up and chirp, “There’s been a tragedy, but guess what? I went to the movies and saw Mulholland Dr.!” This little dilemma was the love-child of survivor guilt and Miss Manners. Eventually I settled on emailing my friend about my mom and telephoning a couple of days later. I was learning that this new, strange life had room for grief and pleasure both—and ways to live with that excruciating truth.
I went to other movies in the following months. I saw Polanski’s The Pianist and can now tell you nothing about it (except how taken I was with Adrien Brody’s magnificent nose), but I do recall chatting in the lobby with a friend, who made an offhand crack about light-starved Swedes killing themselves in winter. She was horrified as soon as the words left her mouth, and totally nonplussed when I laughed. (Did I have another option?) I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, and what I mostly remember is how my partner held my hand through the entire not-inconsiderable running time.
In short, nothing came close to the opulent sorrows of Mulholland Dr. Its palette was sumptuous, shuttling from bright and hard to murky and unsettling; the sound design, as always with Lynch, was to die for, as was Angelo Badalamenti’s score. The movie was elliptical, a ne plus ultra of pastiche, tramping through Hollywood genres (suspense, comedy, detective, romance, musical, noir) and managing to feel like something altogether its own.
The most accessible reading of the film is as an adult Wizard of Oz (beloved territory for Lynch.) Naomi Watts’s character has crafted a Hollywood tale of luck and pluck starring herself as Betty, a fresh-faced little lady from Ontario who comes to Tinseltown with one foot already in the door. (She jams the other one in during my very favorite audition scene ever.) As if that weren’t enough, she falls in big cinematic love and prowls around inside a rich, dangerous mystery as she attempts to discover the real identity of amnesiac knockout Rita. The fantasy won’t hold, however—she can’t keep herself from knowing an awful truth—and eventually we hurtle into the grubby reality she has spent four-fifths of the film outrunning. Here she is not Betty, but Diane, a harder, coarser version of Betty, thwarted in both love and career. She has paid to have her cruel lover Camilla (whom we first met as Rita) killed. The knowledge is too much for Diane to live with, and the movie seems to end with Diane’s suicide.
This reading goes down easily, suggesting a story that mainstream cinema has always told about itself: Movies are balm for your wounded, soiled life. Sure. That was certainly true when I saw Mulholland Dr. and was so unexpectedly transfixed. But something else was on offer, and it was about terrible instabilities of personhood and of knowledge. People aren’t who you thought they were. You’re in the middle of a new bunch of characters making a different story altogether, some of which adds up, some of which refuses to. Behind it all rumbles a vast invisible machinery, and like hapless director Adam, your entire life may be redirected by an executive who announces, “It’s no longer your film!” and razed by a misshapen man in a wheelchair whom you don’t even know exists.
Moreover, that last part of the film is also a familiar parade of tropes: the icy femme fatale, the vengeful lover taking out a hit, the spiral into insanity, the brutality of the Hollywood apparatus itself. It’s no less movie-like than the improbable first part, and Lynch leaves plenty of loose ends that don’t add up to the It Was All a Dream formula. At the end of the day, we can’t really say to whom the dream belongs. To Diane? To the young man in Winkie’s restaurant who, under spatially disconcerting, hovering camerawork, narrates his own dream about a frightening man behind the dumpster? To the frightening man himself (who was actually played by a woman)? As in Lynch’s Lost Highway, this destabilization of identity and point of view is profoundly unsettling. But as consolation, balm, we’re immersed even deeper in what John Ashbery has named “magic and terror.”
Every mourner faces mysteries. Some seem universal: What happened? Who am I now? Others are unique to the individual loss. In the early days after she died, I tried to piece together what had happened for my mother. It’s typical for a suicide’s survivors to wish that the death were really an accident. There wasn’t much question that my mom’s overdose was anything but deliberate, but I was compelled to see for myself. (Autopsy, from the Greek: “seeing with one’s own eyes.”) I spoke with her friends, her doctor, her pharmacist. I made calls that heretofore would have seemed impossibly cinematic: the medical examiner’s office, a New Jersey detective, a Jewish cemetery in New Orleans. I read her actual autopsy report, a document of heartbreak both mundane and exotic; knowing what clothes she’d been wearing when she died was as unbearable as learning the exact weight of her brain.
The heart of Betty’s investigation and of the film is the scene at Club Silencio, a mysterious nightclub-cum-theater where Betty and Rita attend a middle-of-the-night performance, looking for clues about Rita’s identity. A devilish compere/magician figure outlines for the audience the devices of the entire show. “No hay banda!” he shouts, as we listen to an invisible (but diegetic) band. “This is all a tape recording!” He shows us a couple of tricks to prove his point, then, like so many good showmen, disappears in a puff of smoke.
Next up is (real-life) singer Rebekah Del Rio. She opens her mouth and begins a wrenching acapella version in Spanish of “Crying.” (The use of Roy Orbison rhymes nicely with Blue Velvet’s show-stopping set piece where Dean Stockwell lip-synchs “In Dreams.”) This is “Crying” like nobody’s business. You feel it in your chest. Betty and Rita weep and clutch each other’s hands. Suddenly Del Rio’s mouth stops moving, but the song continues. She falls to the stage—in a faint? dead?—and still the song continues. Why are we surprised? This is just what we were promised. No hay banda. No hay real singer anywhere, especially for the film’s audience, because after all, we are only watching a movie. Despite, or maybe because of the double-ness of the trick, our hearts are broken. The decadent feast laid before us is yanked away. It’s what we signed up for.
Mulholland Dr.’s most terrible images—that hideous man behind the dumpster, the mottled, decaying corpse in the apartment—deliver the not-news that death and ruin are always there. They sit behind us at every movie. They are also clues about the essential vitality of investigation itself. Even when the search leads nowhere or, more likely, someplace you won’t understand. Knowledge never keeps us safe. Did my detective work on my family’s tragedy add up to much? Yes. No. It was no longer my film, but I had to act in it.
Lisa Beskin: Three Times a Lady