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Playing Chicken on “Mulholland Drive”: Two Critics Square Off

Kipp loved it, Null said he could take it or leave it. Words were said that might not ought to have been. A little blood was spilled. Three bones broken. All of this over a silly little movie called Mulholland Drive? One of us had to be right, didn’t we? It was either good or bad, pure and simple.

Well, it ain’t so easy after all. Mulholland Drive stands as one of the most divisive movies of the 2001 season, winning tons of critics’ awards — including five Online Film Critics Society awards, best film from the New York Critics and National Film Critics organizations, four Golden Globe nominations, and an Oscar nod for director David Lynch.

But consider the true tale of the tape: costing an estimated $15 million to make, the movie didn’t even earn half that in its U.S. theatrical release.

The critics might be with Kipp, but the audience is with me.

Six months later, Jeremiah and I put the gloves back on and returned to the ring to take a second look at Mulholland Drive. Like the explicitness of the film itself, the following conversation is unedited. Avert your gaze if you feel queasy. Christopher Null, Editor-in-Chief

Christopher Null: Okay, Jer. You liked this movie so much, why don’t you explain to me what’s so friggin’ great about it? Be brief.

Jeremiah Kipp: I don’t see what’s not to get. It’s a visionary work of art that deals with a subject most of us can relate to: the hope of achieving more than the pathetic hand we’re dealt. Diane (Naomi Watts) is a washed up actress who dreams of becoming an emerging starlet, dreams of discovering love at first sight, and dreams that she’ll have it all. The reality of her situation is far bleaker, and David Lynch understands how to convey a dreamer’s dream in a profound and artistic way. I don’t think I’ve had a fuller, more emotional cinematic experience this year — except maybe A.I. Artificial Intelligence! (laughs) But let’s not get into that one, or we’ll be here all night.

CN: Yeah, my emotional response to A.I. is limited to nausea. But what’s so visionary about a big dream sequence? I don’t hear anyone calling Lynch’s Lost Highway – which has virtually the exact same structure – a masterpiece. Mulholland Drive is admittedly better than Highway, but not by much. But the worst insult is that Lynch is too lazy to do anything new with this movie. He’s ripping himself off.

JK: Lost Highway was incomplete. You can see Lynch going through a process to get to Mulholland Drive. I don’t consider that a rip-off, it’s a continuation of the same themes and ideas. In fact, it’s the fuller, more complete structure of what he was unable to pull together in the flawed but interesting Lost Highway. And what are movies but representations of our dreams? Lynch taps into one of the great things about going to the movies. To see a life represented in a new context. All of the films by that other great David, Mr. Cronenberg, came from writing down nightmares he had.

CN: Well, except for The Fly. That came from another movie. And there’s Naked Lunch. And M. Butterfly…

JK: The premises were unoriginal, but the visuals came from Cronenberg’s imagination.

CN: Or his makeup crew’s…. But back to Lynch… as most people know, Mulholland Drive was originally slated to be a TV series a la Twin Peaks, but the network decided they didn’t want it, so Lynch turned it into a movie. I loved Twin Peaks (the show, not the movie), but I can’t imagine how upset I’d be if I sat through 13 hours of this stuff and then Lynch popped out with, ‘Oh, it was all a dream!’ I felt only marginally less robbed after 2 ½ hours in the theater – and even then, the whole dream ending is a leap of faith, the only interpretation of the film that gives it any hope of making sense.

JK: But Betty (Naomi Watts) says early on in the film, ‘I came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dream place.’ The two guys in the diner are talking about a nightmare. Those are clues for interpretation.

CN: Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t think the audience ought to have to do all the legwork in piecing together a movie. At the same time, I don’t want everything spelled out for me, but invariably I find these ultra-ambiguous endings (a la John Sayles’ atrocious Limbo) to be lazy and conceited. In other words, Lynch is really getting full of himself.

JK: I like Memento, but (a) there are probably more holes in it than Mulholland Drive, and (b) what’s there to think about afterwards? What Lynch has done is create a film that suggests different interpretations. Old Peter Greenaway said he considered his movies ‘Infinitely Viewable Cinema.’ Same with Mulholland Drive, where part of the enjoyment is decoding it. It would be lazy and conceited if the images didn’t have such an emotional resonance — they creep into you. Are you telling me you weren’t affected at all when Betty/Diane is weeping and convulsing while Rebekah Del Rio sang Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ at that midnight club?

CN: Well now you’re just talking crazy. Mulholland Drive is certainly not without its engrossing scenes – the stellar ‘audition’ scene being the unequivocal highlight of the film – but a handful of good scenes on a backdrop of mediocrity make it all the more obvious that the rest of the film is just filling up time. You mentioned the men in the diner – what do they have to do with the film? Is Betty supposed to be dreaming about them, too? And the old, smiling people who shrink at the end of the movie? And the blue box and key? The guy having the affair with the director’s wife? And the interminably prattling announcer at the club? Dreams are weird, sure, but all of this borders on ridiculous, and ultimately, all the non-sequiturs come off as cheap tricks.

JK: Non-sequiturs? The men in the diner set the thematic tone for the rest of the movie. I can’t imagine Mulholland Drive without it. It’s a microcosm of what happens to Betty, and the diner figures in as a murderous turning point when she’s Diane (who I see as the ‘real’ character; with Betty as the ‘dream’ character). Those old, smiling people are wearing false faces — surface charming but ultimately diabolical, kind of like Betty herself. It’s fascinating to deconstruct this stuff, but Mulholland Drive isn’t just an intellectual experience. As I said, Lynch works on emotive levels. The reason the audition scene is so effective is because the actors are generating heat together. There’s a passionate connection between Betty and Rita (Laura Elena Harring), which is why it’s so heartbreaking when that all falls apart. Lynch isn’t afraid of expressions of pure feeling. Some call that sentimental; I say they’re fools who don’t recognize profundity when they see it!

CN: Silencio! Lynch is capable of far better work. Look at how Blue Velvet sticks together thematically and visually – you may not get the whole movie as you’re going along, but by the end you feel you’ve experienced something. By the end of Mulholland Drive, you don’t know what you’ve experienced except for
a jumble of good and bad scenes, apropos of nothing. And frankly, I stopped caring.

JK: Betty’s meltdown is as horrifying as anything else Lynch has done. You have no heart, Chris! (laughs) Tell me… can you pinpoint exactly when you stopped caring? That implies you were into it for a while, and eventually grew frustrated.

CN: It’s hard to pinpoint one moment, because the whole film kind of slips into irrelevant gibberish as it bounces around the various ‘realities.’ But if I have to pick, the straw that broke this critic’s back is when Betty, sitting in the midnight club (which in itself is nonsense, but that’s another story) experiences a kind of vision – complete with blue lightning – and miraculously produces a blue cube from her handbag. Up until this point, the scenes with Betty in them have made sense – the only really Lynchian nonsense sequences have involved other characters altogether like the men in the diner, the old people, the dwarf on the phone, the midnight cowboy – and this can all be dismissed as junk intended for further exploration in the aborted TV show (and let’s be honest, that’s what it is).

JK: It’s a mistake to look at Mulholland Drive as representative of what he might have done with the TV-series. All those so-called ‘nonsense sequences’ are placed in a new context by being part of a feature film. The only nonsense I see is everything you’ve just said! Back to that elusive blue cube…

CN: The blue cube completely turns the plot around, and not in a good way. Suddenly, ‘Diane’s’ quirky daydream becomes sinister – full of jealousy and rage. And frankly, there’s nothing in the story from Diane’s (very few) ‘real life’ scenes to indicate she’s unhappy.

JK: Are you completely ignoring Naomi Watts’ performance as Diane? Or the fragmented, disconcerting ways Lynch photographs those scenes? Diane looks positively disheveled, lives in a rat hole, is jilted by her lover Camilla (Laura Elena Harring). Her entire life is seen as dingy and gray. Her only solace is found in grimly masturbating on the couch. She’s hardly the portrait of happiness.

CN: But none of those scenes occur until the very end of the movie. Diane’s few appearances before that just make her seem like a regular kinda gal… albeit one with sketchy friends. It’s at this point in the story where we get our first indication that she is having a bad dream. It’s manipulative, and it makes you feel like the previous 2 hours (and hey, you’ve got 30 more minutes yet to go!) have been a total waste of time.

JK: That blue cube you hate so much is a way of separating Betty from Diane — you think it’s a gimmick, I say it’s a necessary, mystical bridge. But what you seem to be saying is that Mulholland Drive is completely random, which it’s not. The final 30 minutes are the inevitable end result of Betty/Diane’s desire to make something of herself in Tinseltown. She’s destroyed by all those elements Lynch has been weaving throughout the film. They all converge at the end.

CN: I think you’re giving credit to Lynch that he hasn’t earned here, building symbolism out of thin air and drawing conclusions that aren’t supported by the plot. Can you really tell me that all the wild tangents – the scenes that don’t involve Betty/Diane at all – enhance the viewing experience? Or is it possible that, say, a 90-minute Mulholland Drive, with some of the detritus trimmed, might have been a better film? A Mulholland Cul-de-Sac.

JK: We’re talking about a movie that’s a subjective viewing experience. It’s built in such a way that interpreting the symbolism says a lot about the viewer.

CN: Ahhhhh, so it’s one of those movies that’s better if you’re stoned.

JK: That’s what they said about 2001: A Space Odyssey.

CN: And all of Lynch’s movies, come to think of it.

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