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Mulholland Drive

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Mulholland Drive

Directed by David Lynch

Playing at the Charles Theatre April 13, 15, and 18.

When Mulholland Drive first opened in 2001, I was teaching intro to philosophy at a university and I offered my impressionable young students extra credit for seeing it. A few of the dudes in the class dug it because of the (admittedly sexy) lesbian scenes, but most of the class hated it. Hate is in fact too weak a word. It did not make sense. Which is, of course, why it is a perfect introduction to philosophy.

Because in some ways Mulholland Drive makes too much sense. Like some of David Lynch’s other films—most notably Lost Highway—Mulholland Drive is a puzzle with numerous almost-solutions. Every time you think you have figured it out, grabbed the key to its psycho-weirdness, something even more uncanny happens and sends your interpretation sprawling all over the floor in a thousand pieces. It’s like life and will have you thinking about it for weeks (or, in my case, years) without ever really understanding it. As Roger Ebert put it at the time, “There is no explanation. There may not even be a mystery.” But that, of course, is the mystery.

All of Lynch’s films are disturbing—who can ever get oxygen-huffing rapist Dennis Hopper out of their minds?—but Mulholland is among his darkest works. It opens with a bizarrely John Waters-like teenage dance scene and then cuts to a weird dissolve of a woman and two scary old people, then a woman sleeping, and finally a darkened drive down the titular L.A. street as the opening credits roll. The first words (“What are you doing? We don’t stop here,” followed by a scream, and then a man’s voice saying, “Get out of the car”) are full of vague menace that remains vague only until another car slams head-on into them, giving Laura Harring’s character amnesia as she wanders into the city and hides in an apartment, where she is eventually discovered by an aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts), who has just arrived in L.A.

It’s hard to summarize the plot because the time sequence and the reality of various scenes are so uncertain, but there are three main drifts running through the movie. Betty and Rita (as Harring’s character names herself) find a dead woman and a blue key, go to the spooky Club Silencio (where the singer falls to the floor, her voice continuing nonetheless), and have an affair; a man dreams about a terrifying monster-guy behind Winkie’s diner and collapses when the thing is really there; and a director (Justin Theroux), funded by the mob, is forced to cast an unknown actress (also played by Harring).

All of these overlap and intertwine, making everything slippery and uncertain. Identities shift from one person to another, so that it feels like a dream where you see your friend but it doesn’t look like your friend at all, and then suddenly it is someone else altogether. The guy behind the diner is truly terrifying in the best Lynchian tradition; the blue key is truly mysterious; the sexual affairs are Persona-like reality swaps; and as always with Lynch, the whole thing takes place in a highly stylized neo-noir reality where details like a yellow phone or an orange lamp take on a weird, eerie import.

To my mind, this is Lynch’s last great film before he began paying more attention to transcendental meditation. He reminds us of the essential relationship between film and dream on the big screen.

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