A Multi-Layered Analysis of Mulholland Dr. (by Alan Shaw)
Background & Motivation
However, as it turns out, there is still much more that can be said about Lynch's movie. In fact, the above interpretation is just scratching the surface of some the movie's thematic content, its enigmatic characterizations, its intricately threaded, multi-layered story line, and its complex symbolism and rich texture. And this is quite remarkable, because in some ways the film Mulholland Drive was really a fortuitous accident. It was originally intended to be a TV series like Lynch's Twin Peaks before it. And in some sense, the accident that produced Mulholland Drive was eerily similar to the accident in the one of the opening sequences of the film, where a beautiful vehicle with a beautiful passenger is in a terrible crash during an assassination attempt. Mulholland Drive is the cinematic vehicle that would not die even after the terrible accident it suffered along with other attempts to kill the project. The majority of the movie was filmed as a pilot for the proposed TV series, and, as such, it was structured to open up story lines that would take an entire season, and perhaps multiple seasons, to resolve. Not many filmmakers would intentionally embed so many subplots and complex thematic devices in a work that they believed viewers would only have the limited amount of time to engage that we get in the movie theaters. Thus, as I said, it was an accident that brought this movie into being, because before Lynch knew what form the final cinematic vehicle would take, he certainly did pile into the film complexities and plot devices galore.
Inevitably, Lynch had to wrestle with the question of how he was going to transform his vision for a TV series into a concept suitable for a movie of only two hours and twenty minutes. How would he resolve all of the many loose ends he created without having the time to develop their individual threads in the manner that he had originally intended? His most uncharitable critics will tell you that he just decided not to resolve everything. But in my opinion, they are wrong. Instead, he decided to trust the artistry of his craft and the power of his medium to allow the resolutions to come from the subtext of the story communicated through a rich language of metaphor and symbolism. Such a decision also required Lynch to have a good deal of trust in his audience as well, since now his work would become more difficult to interpret. And I think this trust was well placed, because I believe that those that give it a chance often find the film to be no less gratifying than an extremely challenging but richly rewarding novel. I was one of Lynch's many viewers who accepted the challenge to sift through his movie carefully.
In many ways, Lynch's film is an expression of issues that have a very long history within his works. Like the works of many other unconventional filmmakers, Lynch's films deal in themes that force us to examine our assumptions about entertainment and our habit of viewing films as just another form of entertainment. Are we in the theater to escape from our problems, or are we there to examine other lives on display so that we may reinterpret our own? Can we say that we are not putting ourselves into the position of the protagonist when we watch a film, especially if that film deeply explores issues from the point of view of the protagonist? And if we admit to some degree that we do in fact see through the protagonist's eyes, then to what extent does this help us to resolve our own conflicts and to what extent does it simply confuse us all the more? It is a question that concerns playing out one's issues within the context of a different persona. This is not just about walking in someone else's shoes, but it is also about living within someone else's head and seeing through her or his eyes. "Persona," the groundbreaking film by Ingmar Bergman, is one the most regarded classic films to seriously address this question using profound symbolism and cinematic techniques that are still innovative almost forty years later. A more contemporary film that approaches this question using instead light-hearted literalism and shrewd humor is "Being John Malkovich," directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman. But Lynch takes the issue farther than Bergman, Jonze or Kaufman. Throwing caution to the wind, Lynch asks us what would happen if we were not just in one head at a time? What would happen if our complex motivations and conflicted hearts were represented by a cast of personas in conflict with one another, and all struggling for control over the direction that our life will take. If you are willing to think of the main character in Mulholland Drive in this light, and envision her fantasy as a journey to determine the ultimate fate she will face after the fantasy is over, then you begin to understand the enormous trust Lynch puts in his audience. He wants us to take the journey with her, seeing her life through the eyes of multiple personas. And in so doing, Lynch wants us to learn to love her and to be angry with her, to be impressed and unimpressed, to be filled with hope and to be filled with dread. In essence, he wants us to engage her conflict with her, and to come away without any easy answers. And in the end, he wants us to learn some very heart wrenching lessons. But I am jumping ahead without laying a proper foundation. I think a deeper exploration of the background to the film is in order.
A Lament for Fallen Angels
In my opinion, it is important to view this film as an ode to those young women whose lives are destroyed during their pursuit of a Hollywood career. In fact, the film is explicitly dedicated to one such woman named Jennifer Syme, who had previously worked with David Lynch on some of his films. She was 29 when she was killed in a tragic car accident the same year the movie came out. Interestingly enough, I believe that the film is covertly dedicated to another young woman who also aspired to make it in Hollywood. That young woman died at the age of 22, at about a week from the day one year after David Lynch was born. The woman's name was Elizabeth Short, although she was nicknamed Black Dahlia because of her arresting beauty and her stylish black hair. The real Elizabeth Short was called Betty by some as a shortened version of her name. I believe this is one of the many possible allusions which explains why there is a major character named Betty in Mulholland Drive. Lynch has had a longstanding interest in the life of Elizabeth Short, and it is even rumored that he owns the movie rights to a story about Black Dahlia's murder written by John Gilmore. Betty, who is also Diane in Mulholland Drive, is not the only one with something in common with Black Dahlia. Rita, who is also Camilla in the movie, is also a very beautiful woman with an impressive mane of long black hair. Not only that, but like Black Dahlia, this second character's life will also end with a murder.
But Betty and Rita are only associated with Black Dahlia in the background motivation of Lynch. The connection between them is not very explicit. However, I think it is important to note that both of the female protagonists in the movie were actresses whose lives become associated with a woman who is destined to die following her dream to become a Hollywood actress. Indeed, even though both of the protagonists' circumstances are different from that of Black Dahlia, they will both follow her into her ultimate fate. In fact, if you step back and look at the essential arc of the movie, in the beginning the main character, Betty/Diane, arrives in Hollywood full of zeal and passion, but by the end she is a broken woman whose life energy has been beaten out of her. The opening Jitterbug dance sequence, among other things, offers us a metaphor for her bubbly energetic persona at the beginning, while a group of dirty dishes falling and breaking near the end symbolize her final fallen, broken and unclean state. I believe that Lynch is driving home the message that the Hollywood dream is an extremely dangerous dream. But more subtly Lynch is also dissecting for us the inner dynamics of the fall that the main character experienced. What I think many miss when watching the movie is the nature of the inner conflict that pursuing the Hollywood dream establishes in both the heart and the mind of those who are not especially guarded and careful.
Where many see the movie as a condemnation of the potentially sinister nature of the impersonal and corrupt Hollywood machinery, I believe the movie is more of a poignant expose of internalized forces that work to overcome and destroy those who are attracted to the blue neon glow of Hollywood's glamour. It is not the movie making enterprise that Lynch targets, for he himself is an accomplished devotee who gives honor to those in his craft in spite of his critiques. But Lynch does shine a penetrating light on the flawed human element within that enterprise which is prone to believe too deeply in its own fanciful artifice, and by so doing lose touch with the more meaningful relationships that are disconnected from the business.
One Architect of L.A.'s Conspicuous Consumption
A case in point is William Mulholland, the man who was honored by having a major street in Los Angeles named after him. What did he do to deserve the honor of becoming the namesake for Mulholland Drive? He was an Irish immigrant with minimal formal education who taught himself the craft of engineering and then rose to the top to become superintendent and chief engineer of the Los Angeles water department. In that position he oversaw the construction of the 233-mile Los Angeles Aqueduct, which was finished in 1913 ahead of time and under budget. The aqueduct brought much needed water from the Owens River into Los Angeles. The water was critical to the city's dreams for the exceptional growth and glory that it enjoys today. Yet deceit and corruption were involved to take away water rights from Owens Valley farmers and other residents who had different plans for the River. Mulholland's financial backers became rich off of the water bonanza while members of Owens Valley suffered complete financial ruin. Some called it "The rape of Owens Valley." At the opening ceremony for the aqueduct, Mulholland uttered his most enduring quote, "There it is. Take it." I believe a form of this quote echoes repeatedly throughout Lynch's movie as character after character repeats Diane's infamous words, "This is the girl." Each time those words are uttered, the context is such that the character might as well continue on and say, "Take her," since like William Mulholland they appear to be delivering a type of commodity who is being given over for some type of momentous consumption. However, when the commodities are human beings they do not always survive the consumption.
William Mulholland's commodity trafficking only involved water, but even his star ultimately failed to survive. Tragedy struck as Mulholland sought to bring into the city more and more water. The St. Francis Dam was one of the dams he had built for this purpose, but it collapsed in 1928 killing almost 500 people in the resulting flood. He resigned under criticism that he had filled the reservoir too quickly and that he had not sought after any independent expert opinion during the entire project. In essence, the claim was that he had gotten too cocky and his own hubris brought him down. Whether or not Mulholland was at fault for the collapse is still under dispute, but he took full responsibility saying, "If there is an error of human judgment, I am the human." Like Mulholland, we are all only human, and Lynch makes us take a very intimate look at how human judgment is prone to flaws and errors, and especially when it comes to engaging in the dream and the legend that is Hollywood.
City of Dreams and Nightmares
Lynch's movie is replete with images of the legendary Hollywood. There is the cowboy who looks like he's from the Roy Rogers era. There are the musical numbers that seem like they could have come from the 50's and 60's. Then there is the true veteran starlet from the musicals of the 40's, Ann Miller. And many other symbols of nostalgia stand out, like the poster of Rita Hayworth, the vintage car from the mid 40's, the frequent references to Sunset Boulevard, and the Jitterbug dance sequences that had that 60's psychedelic feel to them. Even the scenes with the mobsters felt retro with their colorful bigscreen atmosphere that is somewhat distinct from the mobster images that are still very contemporary on television.
But perhaps most significant to Lynch in terms of establishing that mythological Hollywood ambiance was the place where the Betty and Rita characters lived during the first three-quarters of the movie. Lynch's screenplay describes this place as "an ancient, gorgeous courtyard apartment building, built during the golden age of cinema." Yet was that age really all that golden in Lynch's view? Not if you take seriously the symbolic importance of the dog excrement left in the middle of the courtyard of this apartment complex from those good old days. And not if you take seriously the name of the street on which this complex is found: Havenhurst. It does not taken any leap to figure out that Lynch wants us to be somewhat balanced in our thinking about legendary Hollywood. It may have been a haven for some like Rita Hayworth, but it was a hearse for others like Elizabeth Short.