Ambiguous Ave.? Bizarro Blvd.? David Lynch’s major mystery movie is back looking better than ever in a 4K transfer. Criterion’s presentation accompanies it with a stack of interesting interviews with Lynch, Naomi Watts, Laura Herring plus other actors and crew people. The movie began, it seems, as sort of a non-spinoff spinoff of Twin Peaks.
The Criterion Collection 779
2001 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 146 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date October 27, 2015 / 39.95
Starring Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Ann Miller, Scott Wulff, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Maya Bond, Patrick Fischler, Michael Cooke, Bonnie Aarons, Lee Grant, Chad Everett, James Karen, Dan Hedaya, Monty Montgomery, Rebekah Del Rio.
Cinematography Peter Deming
Production Designer Jack Fisk
Film Editor Mary Sweeney
Original Music Angelo Badalamenti
Written by David Lynch
Produced by Neal Edelstein, Tony Krantz, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney
Directed by David Lynch
Time alters everything, and it’s interesting to see what a quarter of a century has done with the always-interesting David Lynch. His mysterious 2001 art picture Mulholland Dr. was originally released on DVD without extras, as if he wished he had the power to compel a theatrical release only. In the interim Lynch has made a few more features and turned his attention to the web to market his older short subjects. With this new Mulholland Dr. Blu-ray from Criterion, he’s suddenly sitting for interviews and telling production stories like any other filmmaker interested in his image and reputation. And guess what? He’s no less of a film artist and we like him just as much.
Mulholland Dr. had a rough start as a new TV show. The pilot was revised and rejected several times, until Lynch expanded it into a feature film. It solidified Lynch’s departure from the orbit of anything predictable, even though it subscribes to his familiar personal world of directorial obsessions and themes. Non-Lynchian mainstream audiences are likely be confounded by the director’s impenetrable games-playing. But the slowly paced unfolding of this artist’s dream vision can be a cinematic pleasure. To its credit, Mulholland Dr. is not an in-your-face shock-fest like his extreme yet tepid Wild at Heart.
Lynch pulls us into his story the way any narrative filmmaker would, with characters that connect with our emotions. Canadian acting hopeful Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) arrives in Hollywood and moves into her Aunt’s apartment while she’s away. But an amnesia-stricken woman known only as Rita (Laura Herring) has already sneaked in. Instead of calling the police, Betty tries to help Rita recover her memory and discover her identity. In the first of several stories told in parallel, film director Adam (Justin Theroux) is being forced to use an actress he doesn’t want, by shadowy forces that freeze his bank accounts and make him a veritable fugitive in just a few hours. Rita and Betty grow closer as they collect clues that eventually lead them to the bungalow apartment of someone named Diane Selwyn. Corpses, a weird homeless man, lesbian sex, a phantom nighttime stage show, a mysterious ‘whatzit’ box, and incredible shrinking relatives are only surface symptoms in a puzzle that recasts the women in strangely related roles.
The audience I saw Mulholland Dr. with took it in the way they would an old-school art film, patiently accepting the mysterious weirdnesses and studying every scene for clues to ‘figure out’ what is essentially a dream narrative, a psychological puzzle. Original reviews weren’t so tolerant, with some critics objecting to its refusal to make linear sense, minute by minute. A fairly straightforward mystery is left unresolved, and is instead fleshed out with weird tangential subplots that deconstruct its characters and relationships.
If the puzzle aspect of Mulholland Dr. is a good one, it’s because the original piece was clearly developing hints that would have been addressed as the miniseries went on. The characters dress up like one another. As in the old Ingmar Bergman head-scratcher Persona, Rita and Betty seem interchangeable at one point, an idea interestingly timed with their sexual collision. The theme is nicely echoed through the semi-interchangeable actresses Adam is trying to cast for his lip-synching pop-song scene.
The film soon turns in upon itself, reorganizing its relationships. Betty ‘becomes’ Diane Selwyn, and Rita ‘becomes’ Camilla Rhodes. The show manages a nice sensation of narrative plasticity. The shifting identities and relationships could be alternate realities, alternate possibilities, dreams of potential realities — who knows? Reality shifts just as if God said, “What if the mystery woman were already a big star and the neophyte actress a lesbian hanger-on who’s being dumped? So be it.” Lynch does a great job of handling the way one plane of reality appears to intersect with another. Camilla is the object of a hit ordered by Diane Selwyn (I think). She then transforms into Rita, who can’t remember her identity. Some events definitely happen in a specific timeline, and others, like the dead-of-night performance of the Roy Orbison song in Spanish, are isolated dream experiences that seemingly happen in a limbo outside the story we are watching. Yes, we can see Lynch reaching into his bag of surreal tricks, but his odd visions find traction in our subconscious. In some dark corner of my mind, I can see myself wandering into a damp alley, searching for a magic door to open.
The trick is to resist the urge to demand concrete interpretations. There is no clue map to be found, to use as one might navigate a video game. David Lynch isn’t trying to divide the audience into hipsters and those not in on his Big Secret. When he repeats himself, Lynch can be just as annoying as any other filmmaker who asks you to find things significant only because they are thematically linked to earlier work. I try to keep an open mind, but there are limits. The tiny squeaking Aunt and Uncle seriously gripe my patience. The ‘everything is an illusion’ mantra at the Club Silencio also seems trite, yet the scene generates an hypnotic mood, as if the girls had come to witness some kind of occult miracle. When we stick with the experiences of the two women, I eagerly follow because, shame on me, I’ve been given an emotional anchor. The other truncated dead-end subplots can be a nuisance. Yet one greatly admires the fact that a Real Film Artist is getting his personal demons up on the screen. That a movie this un-commercial could get a major release in 2001, is impressive in itself.
Mulholland Dr. makes few stabs at weird jokes, which is a good thing. What works best are the interesting and sensual characters, plus perplexing plot turns that add to our curiosity. The performances are mostly fine, although Ann Miller’s catty landlady just seems detached and false, without falling into a mode that could be called engagingly weird. Strangely, Naomi Watts’ Betty is more convincing when acting in a scene-within-a-scene, than she is playing herself, the naive newcomer in Tinsel Town. Lee Grant, Chad Everett, James Karen, Robert Forster and Dan Hedaya are just a few of the bits and just-bigger-than-bits that fill out the scattered plot sidebars.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Mulholland Dr. brings a high gloss to film that looked somewhat drab on the earlier DVD. The 4K re-master was supervised by Lynch and his cameraman Peter Deming. The immaculate image reaches into the blacks and makes scenes shot entirely in the shadows seem more dimensional. The brightly lit scenes are dazzling. Lynch’s actresses are allowed to look beautiful, and they indeed come off as glamorous.
Disc producer Susan Arosteguy arranges a clutch of interesting video interviews. David Lynch sits in with Naomi Watts and behaves just like any other enthusiastic filmmaker, excited to remember how she joined the show. Watts expresses her relief that the scenes where she’s supposed to be a wildly star-struck newcomer to town, aren’t grossly overacted. Both she and Laura Herring placed a great deal of trust in Lynch, even when the requirements of the TV show were expanded to R-rated scenes with nudity. The other participants also relish the opportunity to discuss their adventure in the film, and the challenges set by Lynch.
The original DVD had no extras at all. For this disc Lynch provides some deleted scenes and a large quantity of footage taped on the set. Lynch further explains his modus operandi for instinctive filmmaking in a long and thorough text interview, offered in a handsome 48-page insert booklet. Keep this up, and the Lynch mystique may lose some of its mystery.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: New interviews with Lynch; Peter Deming; Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, Laura Harring, composer Angelo Badalamenti, production designer Jack Fisk, casting director Johanna Ray; deleted scene, on-set footage, Trailer, 40-page booklet with Lynch interview from a book by Chris Rodley.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: card and plastic disc holder with insert booklet, in card sleeve.
Reviewed: November 10, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson