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Savant Review:

Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr.
2001 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 145 min.
Starring Justin Theroux, Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Ann Miller, Scott Wulff, Robert Forster, Brent Briscoe, Maya Bond, Patrick Fischler, Michael Cooke, Bonnie Aarons
Cinematography Peter Deming
Production Designer Jack Fisk
Film Editor Mary Sweeney
Original Music Angelo Badalamenti
Written by David Lynch
Produced byPierre Edelman, Neal Edelstein, Joyce Eliason, Tony Krantz, Michael Polaire, Alain Sarde, Mary Sweeney
Directed by David Lynch

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This miniseries - turned feature film garnered a lot of praise from David Lynch fans, who've called it his most successful offering since the Twin Peaks television show. It certainly solidifies Lynch's departure from the orbit of anything predictable - into his personal world of directorial obsessions and themes. Non-Lynchian audiences need not apply, as there's nothing but frustration, impenetrable games-playing, and the slow-paced unfoldment of One Artist's dream vision. Those already inculcated into his inner circle will find plenty of the hip weirdness they expect.


Canadian 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. On the first of many parallel stories, film director Adam (Justin Theroux) is being forced to use an actress he doesn't want, by shadowy forces who freeze his 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 incredibly shrunken relatives are only the surface symptoms of a puzzle that recasts the women in strangely-related roles.

After decades of ignoring home video and avoiding contact with his rabid fan base, David Lynch has this year fully embraced DVD and the web. His subscription home page is as commercial an enterprise as they come, and his involvement in DVD work has so far led to some irritating extras: the purposely surreal 'interviews' on Fire Walk With Me and, on this show, his 'personal' ten clues to solve the mystery. Mysterious auteurs add to their legend by letting their work itself serve as their last word, rather than interpreting it for us in interviews. Until his own recent need for positive publicity, Woody Allen kept a tight leash on any official analysis of his films. Lynch was the king of this, following the lead of Stanley Kubrick, of course - allowing rumors of recuts and special editions of his work to bounce around the fan ionosphere until everybody was talking about him. Now he has to play at least some of the same self-promotional games the rest of 'em do. This DVD of Mulholland Dr. has no extras at all, so his Remote Genius persona is safe for now.

Reviews of Mulholland Dr. have been talking about its status as a PG rated television show that was later transmogrified into an R-Rated film, as if the information were vitally important ... as if a disclaimer card up front would have been useful: "Dear viewer, Mulholland Dr. makes no linear sense because it was an inexpensive television show that was reworked for the big screen. A fairly straightforward, but unresolved mystery has been left unresolved, and instead fleshed out with weird tangential subplots in a new structure that deconstructs the characters and relationships of the original, with a new story (or several new stories) that bend the original back upon itself."

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 - 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.

When the film turns in upon itself, setting up an entire reorganized set of relationships - Betty becomes Diane Selwyn, Rita becomes Camilla Rhodes - there's a nice feeling 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 was 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 appears to intersect with another. Camilla is the object of a Diane hit (I think) but then transforms into Rita, who can't remember her identity. Some events are definitely happen in a specific timeline, and others, like the dead-of-night performance of the Orbison song in Spanish, are isolated dream experiences that seemingly happen out of time, outside the story we are watching.

The downside of this is that being a Lynch insider (which Savant doesn't consider himself) is practically a prerequisite to even beginning to have a clue as to what's happening in the film. In theaters, there were the initiated, who treated the picture like it was Holy writ, and the others, who wondered if they were being had, or insulted, or both. Lynch, when he repeats himself, 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 the tiny squeaking Aunt and Uncle serously gripe my patience. The 'everything is an illusion' mantra at the Club Silencio is so grindingly obvious, that it borders on trite, no matter how brilliant other aspects of the show might be. Likewise, the truncated dead-end subplots remind me less of narrative roads not taken, than of shoes left dangling. When they add something to the story, such as the genuine craziness of the hit men, the pain is lessened. But additional strangers drifting onscreen to describe dreams that mirror their present realities, are just more gum in the gears.

What works best in Mulholland Dr. are the same elements we're always attracted to - interesting and sensual characters, and perplexing plot turns that make us want to see more and find out what's going to happen next. The performances are all fine except for Ann Miller's catty landlady. Strangely, Naomi Watt's Betty is more convincing when acting in a scene-within-a-scene, than she is playing herself, the naive newcomer in tinseltown. 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 undeveloped subplots.

Savant also took exception to the present sentiment that Mulholland Dr. is Lynch's greatest work so far. Even the disparaged Wild at Heart was visually distinguished, and Lynch's earlier films, even flawed work like Dune, were deliriously beautiful. Mulholland Dr. was shot for television and simply looks drab. I suppose it's the sign of the dilettante, when I can sit happily entertained through this director's most self-indulgent passages when there are interesting visuals to watch. Without the hypnotizing images of Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr. sometimes resembles a dry run.

Yet interesting enough to want to see it again, as soon as I have the right co-audience ...

Universal's DVD of Mulholland Dr. is a careful transfer that makes the many dark-on-dark scenes look as attractively murky as they did in the theater. Jack Fisk's wholly believeable settings often look better on DVD, as many theaters chose to project the show narrower than 1:85, cropping off many compositions too tightly. Lynch probably did some vertical repositioning in his transfer, while selectively darkening parts of Laura Herring's nude scene to frustrate DVD weenies with nothing better to do than to surf for celebrity private parts. The lack of chapters is a bother, but understandable. Savant is of the opinion that 'David Lynch's ten clues to unlocking this thriller' is a pretty cheesy move, unbecoming the reigning Genius King of the Weird.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Mulholland Dr. rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: PP keep case
Reviewed: April 16, 2002

Reader responses for MULHOLLAND DR. as of 4/21/02:

Glenn, Just a few comments on your interesting review of Lynch's latest. You refer to it as a "mini-series" turned feature film, but that's not entirely accurate. While it did originate as a television project, it was to be an on-going series for ABC, not a limited mini-series. Lynch never filmed anything more than the two-hour pilot, which of course was rejected by the powers that be after numerous editorial reworkings.

I'd argue with the statement that "Non-Lynchian audiences need not apply, as there's nothing but frustration, impenetrable games-playing, and the slow-paced unfoldment of One Artist's dream vision. Those already inculcated into his inner circle will find plenty of the hip weirdness they expect."

While calculating the hipness of his weirdness is certainly subjective, I don't think that it's fair to say that non-Lynchian audiences can't appreciate the film. I believe that one of the picture's many strengths is its accessibility. Lynch somehow managed to remain true to his "One Artist's dream vision," while still making a film that appeals to a variety of different audiences on different levels. How else to explain the widespread critical praise from mainstream critics who normally scoff at Lynch's artiness? Mulholland Dr. even garnered rave reviews from Roger Ebert, a critic who was notorious for his across-the-board hatred for Lynch's films. Every audience isn't going to make sense of the film--most won't even try--but they can certainly enjoy it. The same cannot be said for the very similar, but far less mainstream, Lost Highway, a film that I find superior in every way to the enjoyable Mulholland Dr.

While you can't argue with the folks who say it's an impenetrable mess, I do think that its semi-mainstream popularity is clear evidence that Mulholland Dr. is as widely accessible as, say, Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. I don't think that the film's pleasures lie solely in decoding its narrative. Perhaps Lynch's list of "clues" included on the disc was a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgment of this? A gentle ribbing for those who aren't looking for anything other than a clear solution to the mysteries? - Mark Wickum


Hi Glen, I would have to rate your review on Mulholland Dr. a 4 start effort. You told it like it is.

I remember working for a small Canadian distribution house that handled offbeat and foreign product. Whenever we screened potential new releases the acid test for a film's suitability seemed to be: a) were you be able to stay awake? b) is there a plot? For our group a plot was deemed unnecessary - having a theme was O.K. c) if you couldn't figure out what the director was trying to say, the film was labeled as being "cerebral." This was considered a good thing.

David Lynch's films remind me of those weird old days. Mind you, we did distribute David Cronenberg's first two short features. I even appeared in one of them. They were slow, deliberately paced efforts, had a theme, no synch. sound and perplexed most viewers. I guess nothing much has really changed, has it? - Jon


In response to your review of Mulholland Dr., I can understand your frustration with seemingly dead-end subplots. At first viewing I did feel that it was a two-hour tv pilot with a tacked-on "square peg in a round hole" ending. But subsequent viewings have fleshed out the story and it works wholly and totally as one fluid piece. I don't believe there are any dead-end scenes and that everything has a purpose in telling the main story whether it seems to or not. I was not a big Lynch fan when I saw it. I was only vaguley familiar with Twin Peaks and was frustrated by Lost Highway and I can still get this movie and see a whole coherent narrative (and the Ten Clues might help, but you shouldn't need to use them. The film takes care of itslef if you pay attention). I suggest watching it a few more times and it will open up and all of sudden it becomes a film of undeniable genius and beauty. Just my opinion, Evan M. Pulgino


Glenn, I have to note that the Chelsea New York audience I saw Mulholland Dr. with thought Ann Miller stole the whole movie. Really.

My opinion is similar to yours: I found the film somewhat compelling, right up until it was clear it intended to make no sense, after which I saw it for what it was, which was unfinished TV footage rounded out with some afterthought filming. Yes, it looked drab. Yes, it went nowhere, and it took its time, too. And yes, I too was confused at how many critics fell all over themselves about this thing. Even the usually dependable and well-grounded Roger Ebert (my personal hero) continues to fall prostrate at Mulholland's feet, and he generally dislikes David Lynch films (he really didn't like Blue Velvet one bit). He even wrote a glowing essay on it this past week.

I'm not a Lynch nut. I liked Blue Velvet but I was very young when I saw it on video (``Dig it, man, suburbia is repressive and twisted under its facade of normalcy -- whoa''). I suffered through Fire Walk with Me, a film which makes Pink Floyd's the Wall look like it has the linear structure of a Matlock episode. I loved Twin Peaks, though.

So: Ann Miller, drab filming, pointless story. What's not to like? - Chris Rywalt.

Savant Note: I really expected more letters telling me how dumb I was for not 'getting' Mulholland Dr. I have to assume the people who really worship this picture just read what I wrote, rolled their eyeballs and moved on .... I like (and print) any kind of dissent short of 4-letter words, let me remind you! Glenn

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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