Monday, December 28, 2009

Geeking Out on Mulholland Dr.

"'The cinema,' said André Bazin, 'substitutes our gaze for a world that corresponds to our desires'."

This quote, read by an off-screen narrator at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard's greatest film, Le Mépris (1963), is a good entry point into David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001)--not quite his best film but close (Heather says Inland Empire [2006], but I'm partial myself to Eraserhead [1977])--as its two-part structure is virtually an illustration of the different ways this quote can be interpreted (and because the Angelo Badalamenti theme over the credit sequence is almost a dead ringer for George Delerue's score for Godard's film). Le Mépris playfully turns Bazin's quote on its head, so that "a world that corresponds to our desires" doesn't mean a world of easy gratification but a confirmation of our worst fears--namely, that a loved one would cease to love us--and Lynch's film, which is no less of an epic break-up movie, gives us both sides of the equation. In the movie's first and longest part, an aspiring actress, Betty (Naomi Watts), moves into a swanky apartment, is discovered by a casting director, and falls in love with a glamourous amnesiac, Rita (Laura Elena Herring). Betty's meteoric rise is contrasted with the decline of a unibrowed Hollywood director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who in the same day loses control of his film, and is left by his wife for the pool man (Billy Ray Cyrus, in a surreal cameo), which is retroactively recoded as wish-fufillment in the second part of the movie when Rita (who's now called Camilla Rhodes) leaves Betty (now called Diane Selwyn) for Adam, and to add insult to injury, Adam is rewarded with a fat settlement in his divorce ("I got the pool, and she got the pool man"). This part of the film begins with Diane waking up in a much dingier apartment than the one where Betty was living, and it's Camilla who's discovered as an actress, landing the lead role in Adam's film, The Sylvia North Story. The important thing to note is that neither part of the movie is more real than the other.

The other important reference point in relation to Mulholland Dr. is Fritz Lang's greatest film, Spies (1928)--another movie in which some of the characters have multiple identities. At the beginning of Lynch's film, Rita is about to be killed in a limo on Mulholland Dr. (we learn later for stealing money from the mob) when the parked car is hit head-on by another vehicle, and Rita walks away from the accident with no physical injuries but total amnesia. (Rita is the name she gives herself after Rita Hayworth.) The efforts of the gangsters to track her down unfold at the same time, but apparently unrelated to, their taking control of Adam's film. Pulling the strings behind both operations is a single all-knowing mastermind, Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson), who like Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the master criminal in Lang's film, is confined to a wheelchair. And the office where Mr. Roque receives information from and gives orders to his henchmen is almost as anonymous and abstract as Haghi's. In keeping with the generic abstraction of Lang's film, where it's never explained what's in the stolen documents, Lynch's film never explains why Mr. Roque is so keen on having Camilla Rhodes (played in the first part of the movie by Melissa George) star in Adam's film, or why he decides to shut down production on The Sylvia North Story instead of simply replacing Adam. Additionally, other gaps in both films add to the sense that their villains are omnipotent: In Lang's film, a soldier claiming to have seen Haghi is promptly shot by an unseen assailant, while the gangsters in Lynch's film are some how able to track Adam to the dodgiest downtown crack house dive hotel imaginable, even though he payed the improbably friendly concierge in cash. However, in the second part of the movie, Mr. Roque is effectively replaced by a hit man (Mark Pellegrino) that Diane pays to bump-off Camilla using the money that Rita stole from Mr. Roque. Needless to say, the movie doesn't explain how Diane got this money, but as part of an overall system of rhymes between the film's two parts, it fits cinematically even if it doesn't make any sense literally.

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