How Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’ Invaded Our Dreams

Naomi Watts' breakout role powers a film with no easy explanations (thank goodness)

The opening of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” is a delirious jitterbug sequence, in which figures dance all over the screen.

The dancers are superimposed in a kaleidoscopic manner, their movement appearing enthralling as well as manic. Only a few minutes in and the audience needs to pay close attention – even at this point, there are visual indicators that provide helpful context and foreshadowing to the story to come.

Mulholland Drive | Official Trailer | Starring Naomi Watts

When we meet Betty (Naomi Watts), she is departing from an airport and in the company of a kindly old couple she met on the plane. They share Betty’s giddiness at arriving in Los Angeles, where movies allow us to live in the dreams of others.

Betty befriends a car crash survivor, Rita (Laura Harring), who is hiding in her apartment and suffering from amnesia. Betty becomes an amateur sleuth and tries to discover who Rita is and why the clues they discover point in scary directions.

“Mulholland Drive” came to be as a 1999 television pilot that wasn’t picked up. Lynch was able to secure financing elsewhere, remove his work from the televised format and complete it as a lengthy, hard-R rated exploration on the nature of reality.

It’s about the artifice of Hollywood and how everyone in that world gets pulled into the lies of that world…including us.

Aside from a supporting role in “Tank Girl” (1995), this is Watts’ breakout role and her first lead. She’s astonishing, whether evoking an earnest Nancy Drew-like manner or Betty’s uncanny control during a high-stakes audition, Watts is a marvel here.

Harring, like her co-star, is unafraid of going in the wild directions the screenplay dictates, making her initially gimmicky character richer and more unsettling as the story unspools.

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There are numerous interpretations as to what it all means and, because Lynch has maintained the mystery and never spoiled it, I can’t claim to “understand” it. I also don’t think understanding art is essential to appreciating it, necessarily, as works with open-ended meanings tend to linger in the mind and do those mental somersaults more than the nitwit movies containing nothing between their ears.

That said, the general hypothesis (no spoilers here) is that we should be asking whose perspective is driving the tale and how much of it we can believe to be true.

Considering the image that layers itself over the stunning dance sequence that opens the film (and how the dance is brought up much later on), there are clear correlations, though how they add up will differ for each viewer.

I’m being vague, though I also encourage viewers to allow their opinions and sense of the imagery to take up head space before one simply goes online for the myriad “answers.”

Something to remember every time we’re about to watch a Lynch film: He’s an artist first, a filmmaker second. His work can be challenging and psychologically taxing but writing him off as merely “weird” is to miss the point completely.

Our dreams are “weird,” of course, but only when we wake up and try to piece the details together. While we’re dreaming, we just go with it, no matter how odd it may seem, and this is the space in which Lynch’s film live – his movies are a gaze into the subconscious.

“Mulholland Drive” is breathtaking. Like Lynch’s prior film, his underappreciated “Lost Highway,” it’s about a fractured perspective but this is the far more compassionate and accessible film.

Perhaps the film’s most amazing scene (there’s a lot to choose from) is the late-night drive to Club Silencio, in which Betty and Rita make a visit to a lush theater, with a vast red curtain. We witness a performance in which everything we see and hear, as the announcer keeps reminding us, is a recording.

Rebekah Del Rio, playing herself, takes to the stage and does a gorgeous Spanish rendering of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Lynch cuts back and forth between a tight close-up of Del Ray and Watts and Harring, allowing us to see how the song is driving them both to tears.

Lynch isn’t kidding around, and neither are Watts and Harring, who are so moving to watch as they earnestly succumb to the emotions of the music.

There is an intriguing subplot here about Hollywood productions being under the control of mob-like forces (I say mob-like because the mysterious organization pulling the strings in Hollywood operates in a quirky but still forceful manner). We also have a frightening elderly couple, a supporting role for Billy Ray Cyrus and one of the funniest set pieces ever conceived involving a botched hit job.

I won’t describe the third act of the film, only to note that it infuriated me the first time I saw it. In fact, I left “Mulholland Drive” so angry, I truly hated the film and didn’t revisit it for years. Lynch pulled the rug out from underneath me in his climactic series of reveals and it felt like a personal betrayal.

I grew attached to the characters and the story and was unwilling to embrace his suggestion that I needed to rethink everything I had grown attached to.

Here’s what pulled me back into the film and, fittingly, it’s a strange story.

In 2007, I was visiting Marty, my brother, in Los Angeles, where he lived and worked. He was making a film at the time and I was delighted to operate as his boom operator for a night of shooting. One morning, he took me to a rundown diner, the kind one would describe as having a great deal of “character.”

As we sat waiting for our breakfast, Marty asked me, “Do you recognize it yet?” I didn’t know what he meant. He said we were in a diner that was featured in a famous movie. After I made at least a dozen wrong guesses, he fessed up that we were in Caesar’s Restaurant, which was used as “Winkie’s” in “Mulholland Drive.”

While we ate, he hatched a plan and I went along with it. Through his coaching, we wound up reenacting the entire Winkie’s nightmare sequence, including walking outside and seeing what was behind the dumpster (Marty provided a spirited take on the big reveal). He shot it as a photo montage to do a side-by-side comparison. Not long after, I gave the film another look and have returned many times.

Lynch gives us cinematic clues to consider, like “Gilda” (which provides Harring’s character with a temporary name), “Sunset Blvd.” and even “Carnival of Souls” (note the establishing scene and the exit from a car crash).

Perhaps the movie to consider the most, for a sense of perspective and knowing Lynch’s love of it (remember “Wild At Heart”) is “The Wizard of Oz.” Is that film Dorothy’s dream or the dream of her relative on the farm? When Dorothy awakens on the farm, is that the “real” part of the movie? Who is doing the dreaming?

The answer, in short, is us.

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