HEAD FOR THE HILLS

Joshua Rothkopf October 22, 2001

In dreams, as the song goes, David Lynch walks and talks with you. Hes by now our pre­mière hyp­no­tista Hitch­cock off the nar­ra­tive hinge­sand Mul­hol­land Dri­ve is his Ver­ti­go (if you can imag­ine a Ver­ti­go thats all ver­ti­go). Once again the sub­ject is play-act­ing, with Hol­ly­woods hang­ing gar­dens sub­bing in nat­u­ral­ly for those Gold­en Gate psy­cho-vis­tas. And the anx­i­ety comes not from uncer­tain freefall but a fear of land­ing hard on ones fan­tasies: the death of pre­tend­ing. With this new one, Lynch goes dark­er and deep­er; its a big, ter­ri­fy­ing epic about being swal­lowed whole by the fun fac­to­ry, per­haps con­sent­ing­ly.

In ret­ro­spect, Lynch seems to have been work­ing up to it: Blue Vel­vet pre­sent­ed imag­i­na­tive curios­i­ty as treach­er­ous but, sub­ver­sive­ly, essen­tial to rough sex and pure love alike. Even Dune, ever hard­er to dis­miss these days, is suf­fused with dream prophe­cy made real; Lynch cor­rect­ly iden­ti­fied the core of Frank Her­berts wad­dy epic in a mantra shift­ed to his scripts heart: The sleep­er must awaken.

Mul­hol­land Dri­ve has its own vari­a­tion, spo­ken by a mys­te­ri­ous pard­ner known only as The Cow­boy: Hey, pret­ty girl­time to wake up. But here, and its thrilling to behold, Lynch is final­ly beyond such dis­tinc­tions of con­scious­ness; hes freed him­self up like nev­er before by plac­ing his action at the Great Fak­e­ness prop­er, where the process of becom­ing is, itself, a slip of the skin. From the first scene on, a vio­lent limo wreck out of which emerges a dazed brunette (Lau­ra Ele­na Har­ring) who starts down the ravine in heels toward L.A.s twin­kling sprawl, Lynch seems will­ing and able to go fur­ther into the void than even that grand­dad­dy of Hol­ly­wood obliv­ion, Sun­set Boule­vard.

After those first noc­tur­nal impres­sions­float­ing red tail-lights and smoke car­ried off by mid­night breezes­the men­ace nev­er lifts, even at warped high noon. Enter Bet­ty (Nao­mi Watts), a quak­ing young hope­ful fresh off the plane and ready for her three-pic­ture deal. (Hers is a perk­i­ness height­ened to demen­tia: Watts man­ages to out­beam even her pink sweater.) She cant believe her posh new digs vacat­ed by a trav­el­ing aunt, or her show­bizzy land­lord Coco, or the nice cab­bie at the air­port who loaded her bags in the trunk. She does­nt even seem to mind that nude stranger in her show­er, our mys­tery B‑girl from the car crash. Rita, she calls her­self, after eye­ing a poster for Gil­da, and it soon becomes clear that she did­nt quite make it out of the acci­dent whole. Ritas amne­sia works like cat­nip on Bet­ty; Lynch lingers on her sym­pa­thet­ic reac­tion long enough for it to ripen into some­thing slight­ly impure, à la Look what I got! Bet­ty has come all the way from Deep Riv­er, Ontario for the movies and­would­nt you know ittheyve found her.

But this being Lynchs Hol­ly­wood, we know were not being primed for high-spir­it­ed sleuthing but some­thing clos­er to nasty urban leg­end. Already, a per­fect­ly healthy neu­rot­ic has else­where col­lapsed at the sight of a grin­ning mon­ster lurk­ing behind the local din­er; these Nan­cy Drews in search of Ritas iden­ti­ty are wan­der­ing unwit­ting­ly into a hor­ror film. Goth­ic court­yards and shad­owy hall­ways become close to unbear­able, and a rot­ting corpse sends the women shriek­ing. Its here, about halfway in, that Mul­hol­land Dri­ve would have end­ed, had it not been dumped by ABC as the tele­vi­sion pilot it was orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed to be. But I ask: Has there been a more promis­ing first act since Lau­ra Palmer cracked the spine of her diary in Twin Peaks?

Still, giv­en the rad­i­cal expan­sion that fol­lows, you have to won­der if the gods wer­ent smil­ing as net­work-safe ele­mentsno­tably a con­fi­dent detec­tive on the caseare ter­ri­fy­ing­ly abort­ed and the movie teeters into apoc­a­lypse. There are plen­ty of sad sto­ries of vision­ary genius dulled by trim-hap­py pro­duc­ers (Greed comes to mind); less known are the care­ful refine­ments that come out of lib­er­a­tion. Lynch, up to now, builds slow­ly, episod­i­cal­ly, deep­en­ing Bet­ty and Rita with con­spir­a­to­r­i­al glances and the sub­tle casu­al­ness of room­mates. So the bloom of their attrac­tion is the most ten­der sur­prise yet: Im in love with you, Bet­ty whis­pers in the blue glow of their embrace, and its the nat­ur­al exten­sion of her own hunger for self-revi­sion. Ritas men­tal haze, her full-fig­ured aloof­ness, is just about the sex­i­est thing she can handle.

Lynch has long been a card-car­ry­ing roman­tic. He has tech­ni­cal lus­cious­ness down to a sci­ence, but the swoon always makes more sense when linked to the wild at heart or even out-of-body yearn­ings of ele­phant men. And sure enough, some­thing does shift here: Bet­ty and Ritas kiss is so pure, it sends the pic­ture reel­ing. Sud­den­ly, one of Ritas few pos­ses­sion­san omi­nous blue key found at the bot­tom of her purs­e­fits into in a bizarre box they take home from a night­club and, with a twist, all bets are off: Bet­ty is gone, or per­haps reborn as a strung-out fail­ure named Diane. (Watts range in the dou­ble-role is breath­tak­ing.) Rita is now a glam­orous star named Camil­la Rhodes, long over Bet­ty or Diane or who­ev­er shes become. Even by les­bian stan­dards, it feels like the short­est affair on record: Diane, for­lorn, brews cof­fee in her dingy, mold-green kitchen and mourns a career that nev­er mate­ri­al­ized; Camil­la basks in the atten­tions of some jerk direc­tor with a goatee. 

Is it much lat­er? Or ear­li­er? The answer may lie some­where in between; a large part of Lynchs dar­ing is in his con­fi­dence that youll want to fig­ure this one outand to his cred­it, I think hes got us squirm­ing on the hook. (I have my own the­o­ries, but dont drop me a line unless you want to be wrecked.) As far as altered states go, the last 45 min­utes cant be beat. Camil­la invites the frus­trat­ed Diane to a par­ty; as she leads her through a dark glade, a short­cut to her man­sion and suc­cess, you feel the pow­er dynam­ic in full rever­sal, con­fi­dence and humil­i­a­tion swapped. Lynch is pulling off noth­ing less than a Buñue­lean tour de force by turn­ing his sur­re­al­ism into psy­chol­o­gy; he knows our expec­ta­tions and uses that com­mand to secret­ly estab­lish a yawn­ing mad­ness. With Mul­hol­land Dri­ve, the trance that comes so eas­i­ly to him is final­ly charged with the doom of a classic.

Joshua Rothkopf has been cov­er­ing cin­e­ma for In These Times since 1999. His work has appeared in The Vil­lage Voice, The Chica­go Read­er, Isth­mus and City Pages, among oth­er publications.
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