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From Under A Rock: Mulholland Drive

February 11, 2017 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: Mulholland Drive  


Movies are beautiful things because they can be anything the creator wants them to be. That’s why genres exist. That’s why “experimental” cinema exists. David Lynch is the master at experimentation and he has crafted a unique voice for himself as an artiste. This week’s pick is perhaps his most well-known work and I think it’s the one that represents his voice the best.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron chose John Wick. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock to show him Mulholland Drive.

Mulholland Drive
Released: October 12th, 2001
Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch
Naomi Watts as Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn
Laura Elena Harring as Rita/Camilla Rhodes
Justin Theroux as Adam Kesher

Michael Ornelas: I mentioned last week that I watched every Lynch movie last year in an effort to study him, and needless to say…it was interesting. This film is a trip, and unclear in a lot of ways. Or at the very least, it’s a puzzle that requires some digging to solve. I usually don’t like that approach to filmmaking, but Lynch is the best at it and there’s so much to unlock in Mulholland Drive, and I love it.

Aaron Hubbard: This was definitely an unusual film, one that seems designed solely to test the viewer’s patience and willingness to sort out the puzzle. Early on, it is confounding, but by the end we get enough real information to start piecing things together.
Who’s Who?
Michael: One of the most unique aspects of this film is the fact that it’s presented in such a way that we don’t actually know who is who in any given scene. It’s theorized that Diane Selwyn is the main character and at least one other character in every scene represents a different part of her psyche. The most obvious example of that is Betty, who is clearly a bright-eyed, optimistic aspiring actress with big dreams and a pretty easy time in Hollywood, all things considered. This is not the way the industry works (I speak from experience, as someone pursuing a career in film), but it’s how so many people imagine it when they make the move to Los Angeles. The other character played by Watts is Diane, who’s a psychological mess and clearly in a rough patch in her life. She seems like a much more realistic portrayal of someone frustrated with the constant heartbreak of the entertainment industry. She obviously takes things to extremes (taking a hit out on her cheating girlfriend), but she represents the toxicity of this career path.

Aaron: Perhaps some background is necessary there; Betty (Watts) is introduced early on as the ostensible main character, but around two thirds into the movie we learn that what we are watching is not real. It’s a dream, or a fantasy, or just a mind trying to come to terms with something… or possibly all three. Watts in the real world is Diane, who took her name from a waitress named Betty (who, in the dream world, has her name). That’s the most obvious connection, but once we realize the first part is all in Diane’s head, we have to assume that she is always present in some form. The main key to that is that anyone who is wearing all black in a given scene is Diane (for reasons I will explain in the next section). Camille is more straightforward; she’s always Rita, although there are scenes connected to sex that are tangentially related to Camille even if she is not there.

Michael: It pains me that you know more about the movies I pick than I do. To be fair, you do a lot more research on them while I try and gather my thoughts just based on what I see (and in that regard, I end up learning a lot from my discussion with you). But Lynch is notorious for his use of symbolism. Both with colors and objects and even music. There is just so much to his filmmaking and it fascinates me.
Color Symbolism, Parallel Movies, and Other Keys
Aaron: This is a film where it’s helpful to take notes on what we see, as the story is mostly told visually and not through words. The easiest to point out is color; Diane’s two main colors in her dream are pink and black. Pink is connected to Betty, the idealized, innocent childlike character who Diane is intentionally regressing to in her dream because it’s safe. Her demeanor (especially in contrast to the real Diane) is a giveaway, but the sparkly pink sweater that she wears is also a size too small and looks too “young” for Watts. Why is she regressing to a more innocent state? Because she feels guilty about putting the hit on Camille (Rita in the dream). The black represents death; Diane is also Adam, Dan, the hitman, the producer of Adam’s film, the horribly scarred lady behind Winky’s Diner, and the large thug who is looking for Adam and gets choked by his wife. Each of these characters is against Rita, and are trying to sabotage her career or to kill her. Diane is at war with herself; part of her (Betty) is still in love with Camilla, but the rest of her is trying to kill her.

Michael: What he said.

You also listed “Parallel Movies” in your label of this discussion point, and that helps me transition into one of the first things I noticed while rewatching this. After the car crash in the opening scene, Rita walks from the scene of the accident on Mulholland Drive until she finds somewhere to stay. The only other street sign they show in this sequence is Sunset Blvd (which is actually quite a hike by foot, for the record), and that also happens to be a movie about Hollywood. More specifically, about an actress who sees her star fading and resorts to desperate measures that sabotage those around them. That idea is clearly a big part of this film as well, with the exception that Diane never really had a star in the first place. Both films make it clear that the allure of Hollywood will drive people mad, whether they get a taste of fame and success or not.

Aaron: A less spelled-out connection is to The Wizard of Oz; Diane goes to a dream world where people from the real world show up to play different characters. Like Dorothy, Diane is also trying to get “home”, but in a more figurative sense. She wants a home that can only be imagined in her dream; her love life and career are going nowhere, and the film heavily implies that her home life was harmful. Her grandparents are shown to be repressed memories in the blue box, and they chase Diane onto her bed. Sexual abuse is strongly hinted at here, and there is another clue to this being the case earlier on. Betty has an audition, where she plays a character who is being inappropriately sexualized by an older man while her parents are “upstairs” (Diane’s real parents are deceased). This is the only scene in the dream where she wears blue. Blue, as shown by the keys and at the theater, is a color that shows a blurred line between reality and fantasy. This all adds up to a very bleak tragedy for Diane.
Lynchian Characters
Michael: My absolute favorite aspect of David Lynch is the fact that he gives everyone in his work something to be remembered by. Every character has a quirk or something that makes them unique, yet relatable. Even the most boring of people in real life have something about them that makes them different from anyone else you’ve ever met, and Lynch knows how to write characters to represent that. The hitman encounters several bit characters in his scene where he keeps overcomplicating his situation. These people could have been bland because they’re in the movie for such a short amount of time that it wouldn’t matter, but Lynch gives them specific mannerisms that allow them to shine and take the scene over the top in its hilarity. As a huge fan of Twin Peaks, I’ve come to expect this from Lynch and am glad he’s never let me down.

Aaron: That scene was hilarious and I would have happily watched it go on. Some of my other favorites were Coco (Betty’s hotel manager) and the woman she is based on in the real world. I like that this character always lets us know she knows what’s going on without saying it. The riddle-speaking cowboy was also a very Lynchian character, the type of person you’ll never quite forget.

Michael: He gets away with a lot of these characters because they are symbolic of other things. The cowboy was one of my favorites as well because he seemed like a higher power. Almost like a guide to the narrative. He had an ominous, yet warm feel about him, and my uncertainty of his role, yet inherent trust allowed me to experience him much in the way the characters did.

Aaron: I have somewhat mixed feelings about this movie. It’s very good, and very complex. There are some extremely engaging scenes, with probably my favorite being a Spanish cover of Roy Orbison’s song “Crying” that has a very cool transcendent quality to it. But its main function seems to be to serve as a narrative puzzle, and while researching other people’s research has given me insight into piecing it together… I don’t know if there’s enough of a reward under all of it. But the journey was certainly fascinating.


Michael: I fully admit that I still don’t fully understand the film, but there’s enough there for me to put a lot of it together. It encourages rewatching and studying, and it’s a piece of art unto itself. It’s Lynch’s cinematic masterpiece, and I look forward to watching it more in the future. I think the performances are out of this world. I wouldn’t want Hollywood to be filled with movies like this, nor would I want directors to aspire to make something like this. It stands alone in its originality and that’s what makes it so special to me. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime movie and, as such, I have to give it the highest marks.


Aaron: You know, this review really makes me think you’ll appreciate films like Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives a lot when you get around to it.

Michael: I have become a big fan of NWR, so I am totally down to check that out. Villeneuve doesn’t have me hooked yet, but I’ve still only seen Blue Ruin by him.

Do you enjoy David Lynch’s approach to storytelling, or is it too abstract for your tastes?

Next week:

Aaron: Well, after that I really feel like turning my brain off and watching something wonderful and simple… Oh, this ought to do nicely.
Karate Kid
Michael: The fact that I’ve gotten 28 years into my life without seeing this feels criminal. I’m more than happy to rectify it next week.

Aaron: Yeah, I just… I don’t know if I want to be associated with you. What kind of childhood did you have?

What are your favorite coming of age movies?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, A Clockwork Orange, Chicago, Seven, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, The Room, Chinatown, Jaws, Unforgiven, RoboCop, The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man 2, Prometheus, Scarface, Gattaca, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Equilibrium, City of God, The Graduate, Face/Off, Snowpiercer, The Exorcist, Hellboy, Village of the Damned, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Idiocracy, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Fly (1986), Under the Skin, Die Hard, Dredd, Star Wars Holiday Special, A Christmas Story, Snakes on a Plane, The Big Lebowski, Bulworth, Raging Bull, Thank You for Smoking, John Wick, Mulholland Drive

Aaron Has Other Columns!
Check out the second part of my Top 52 Marvel Heroes list here, and be sure to read my review of Tim Burton’s Batman before you see The LEGO Batman Movie.

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Check me out here to see my star ratings for over 700 films. Recent reviews include Green Room, Song of the Sea, The LEGO Movie and Rashomon.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
How does one attempt to sum up David Lynch's labyrinthian masterpiece? It's an amazing film, no doubt, but you should pack a lunch and a notepad if you're going to figure this out. If you can, it will likely be a rewarding time at the movies, although it certainly isn’t for everyone.