By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Part of what keeps you watching is that Mulholland Drive is a mystery. There‘s murder, a big pile of cash, even a pair of deadpan detectives. But Lynch isn’t interested in solving mysteries, only poking about in them, and here, as in his other films, the genre elements remain incidental. For Lynch, unlike the majority of nominal independents, vision is never subordinate to the imperatives of industrial moviemaking, which is partly why his third feature, Dune, was such a disaster: He never could get past all the cool stuff he‘d come up with and get on with telling Frank Herbert’s story. That may be why, whether stumped by the demands of narrative or merely indifferent, Lynch has, more or less, been telling the same story for years. What changes from film to film are his sympathies, a weather vane, perhaps, of where he himself is in the pecking order -- looking a down from the top of the film world or gazing up from below, an ant crawling over a waxy severed ear.
Betty tugs at our own sympathies with cornflower eyes and a dazzling optimism that seems definitively American, and it‘s hard not to think that part of what makes her so vulnerable is that Lynch sees a little of himself in her. A genius at casting, Lynch calls on Watts, who’s been knocking around in small parts since the mid-‘80s, to do almost everything an actor can possibly do in a role, and she returns his confidence with an extraordinary performance. Watts is so good that in her first few scenes she even persuades us she’s “bad” -- she says her lines too loudly, with too much false brio. The reason is central to the film‘s mystery, which is equally obscure and obvious, and resists too much hard prodding because it’s essentially as fragile as a broken heart. As Rita, Harring doesn‘t have as much to do, but the former beauty queen (Miss USA in 1985) makes her character’s amnesia into a virtue -- she empties her face of guile, leaving only melancholia and fear. Still, because Lynch‘s dialogue is invariably pitched between Samuel Beckett and Abbott and Costello, the film is also consistently, absurdly funny. (When the women dial a number that could belong to Rita’s real self, Rita says, “Maybe it‘s not me.” Says the voice on the answering machine: “Hello, it’s me.”)
Lynch knows we can‘t stop watching, and this time he’s not punishing us for our pleasure -- or his own. Lynch is our homespun Buñuel, an aesthetician of cruelty, but he‘s not an intellectual, and his work sometimes suffers from a lack of real, lived-in ideas. He’s so at home in a dream world of his own making that it sometimes seems he isn‘t much concerned with navigating the world in which the rest of us have to live. He’s entitled to that, though not to our blind devotion. He is, of course, a savagely gifted artist with an unerring instinct for composition, and a fantastical visual imagination that recurrently pushes our sense of what narrative film can be. But genius alone doesn‘t make art great. There’s the human factor, too -- empathy, the very quality that can go so grievously missing from Lynch‘s work, the quality that turns the likes of a Buñuel or a Francis Bacon into more than empiricists of misery or brilliant technicians. But maybe rejection has softened Lynch a little, roughed him up in all the right places. Mulholland Drive isn’t just his most affecting movie since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the sequel film to his vaunted television series, it‘s his most tenderly felt since The Elephant Man, the film that now curiously seems his most autobiographical, especially if you think of Lynch playing both doctor and patient.
In The Day of the Locust, a novel Lynch’s new movie evokes in its sordid texture and its sense of this city as fundamentally unforgiving, Nathanael West wrote, “Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” There are plenty of monsters in Mulholland Drive -- a back-alley demon with lit-up eyes, a rasping movie executive sealed in a monument to his own power -- but mainly they‘re the monsters of our own making. In the end, what turned audiences, and critics, off Fire Walk With Me wasn’t just its seriousness but its revelation of beasts within. That, along with its earnest, plaintive tone, didn‘t jibe with the original Twin Peaks’ archness, its cathode cool. Just before, Lynch had made Wild at Heart, a decadent mess nearly devoid of feeling that played like the work of a filmmaker who, having gorged on the adoration of his audience, had grown contemptuous of it in return. He soon lost his bearings: Lost Highway unraveled like a parody of Lynch‘s obsessions, while The Straight Story mined too much of what’s boring about his world-view, all that hokum and gee-whiz blather, instead of the freakish and the unbearably true. In Blue Velvet, a man screams “Mommy” between a woman‘s legs; here, it’s a woman who screams into the void of her being. Mulholland Drive gets at many of the same painful truths as Blue Velvet, and while it‘s not always as beautiful looking and its pleasures are tougher, its lessons harder, the film is finally more human -- a film to love, not just revere.
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