dir. David Lynch
Based on some of the reviews I read shortly after
Naomi Watts’ character, Betty, is analogous to the shattered dreams of many of the starlets who have gone to Hollywood in search of fame, the tragic figure who arrives in Los Angeles all wide eyed and innocent. In typical Lynch fashion, he has Naomi Watts over act the naïve wide eyed innocent to get his point across (think the naïve innocence of the beginning of Blue Velvet). Her story is reminiscent of Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia, a young girl who left a small town in Massachusetts to become an actress in Hollywood. In 1947 at the age of 22 her body was found bisected in two and totally drained of blood. This was as potent a symbol as any of Hollywood broken dreams.
Despite the obvious similarities with the real life unsolved crime, David Lynch was not going for biography in this film. I believe he utilized some of the details from the real life murder as a tool for depicting the darker aspects of what Hollywood does to innocence. In addition, he also utilized Hollywood movies themselves as metaphor in Mulholland Drive. Here are only some of the many devices Lynch apparently employed to make his point:
The dwarf that called all the shots/the man behind the curtain:
The odd little man who wants Camilla to get the coveted part in the director’s movie represents the invisible hand behind the scenes that can ruin a director’s control of his own film, metaphorically the man behind the curtain (The Wizard of Oz). Having him at a distance and behind a glass wall, speaking in monosyllables only adds to that aloof mystique. The dwarf is a continuing device in Lynch’s movies, and usually represents some mysterious and evil foreboding.
The diner/Boulevard of Broken Dreams:
The diner represents the classic Edward Hopper painting and subsequent Hollywood spin off “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”. Early in the picture, a man relates a nightmare to a friend. In the nightmare, he is in the diner, but it is dusk (as in the painting). There is a strange man behind the diner. This strange man later comes from around a corner and causes the man to drop dead. I believe that this bum represents the roll that chance plays in the lives of the starlets who arrive in Hollywood in hopes of fabulous careers. In the movie, this happenstance comes alive in the grotesque features of the bum, a character so demonic in destroying people’s lives that the man’s heart literally stops when he sees him. The evil controlling influence of this bum is later reinforced when it is shown that this character actually has the black box (Pandora’s Box?) that Rita eventually opens, thus unleashing the tragic nightmare/reality (through the looking glass) on herself and Betty. The bum is also shown unleashing the sinister older couple who had met Betty on the plane in the beginning of the movie. Even in the beginning, you could tell the couple had sinister intent based on their obvious sneering laughter. Were they laughing at Betty’s innocence, or because they were to be the eventual cause of her downfall? Does Lynch want us to see this couple as representing the general public’s draining of the lifeblood from the icons they supposedly admire (think Marilyn Monroe)? At the end of the movie, this perverse couple literally hounds Betty to her doom. In reality, we hound our own celebrities to their doom.
Sunset Boulevard and the Rehearsal Scene:
Rita and Betty meet at Betty’s aunt’s house on Sunset Boulevard. Betty’s aunt is supposed to be an actress. The use of this street is an obvious reference to the classic movie of a starlet’s demise, Sunset Boulevard. This street name has now become synonymous with movie failure. When Betty and Rita finish their little over the top rehearsal scene Betty even speaks in the vernacular of Marlene Dietrich, “thank you dahhlink.” Marlene Deitrich represents the time period of the aging starlet from the prior classic. Later, when Betty actually does her rehearsal for the director it is great. It is no longer over the top. The director, however, appears oblivious to the obvious talent he’s just witnessed. Could it be that the rehearsal was not as great as it appears? Was it in reality as over the top and bad as the one Betty had done earlier with Rita? Is the great rehearsal scene only a product of Betty’s imagination? Or is this all part of a dream? My guess is that Lynch would like to leave us wondering.
The Dream vs. Reality Theme:
In typical David Lynch manner, the dream (Betty’s reality) comes to an abrupt end as the camera pans slowly into the now open little blue box. When Betty and Rita disappear, Betty’s so-called Aunt comes into the bedroom thinking she’s heard something. But there’s nothing there. You begin to realize that this woman doesn’t even know Betty. Betty no longer exits in that world. Think of the opening scene of Blue Velvet when Kyle MacLachlan’s nightmare begins with the camera’s panning into the severed human ear. In both movies, this takes the main character out of a Pollyanna world and into some seedy underworld, a new reality. In Mulholland Drive the camera panning into the box leads Betty into her horrific real life. The fun loving dream where she is in control is now over. In her dream life Betty imagines she is a great actress. She’s apparently unable to face the fact that she isn’t any good and must rely on the kindness of her ex-lover for bit parts.
In her dream world, Camilla is given a good part because of some bizarre collusion from above, the man behind the curtain. Betty can’t face that Camilla is actually the good actress. Also, in Betty’s dream world her aunt is a famous actress who is letting Betty use her luxury apartment while she’s away on a foreign film shoot. In reality Dianne’s aunt is dead and had left her just enough money for a small apartment.
This magical dream vs. stark reality world is epitomized in the contrast between the magical blue key that goes to the mysterious blue box of Betty’s dream, and the ordinary yet menacing blue key, which is left after the murder of Betty’s former lover.
You can see Betty’s delusions, her escape from reality, in the way she romanticizes her self and her affect on others. But isn’t Lynch saying that Hollywood is the ultimate dream world a.k.a. the dream factory? And of course, in true Film Noir style, the dream becomes a nightmare.
The strange nightclub:
In the nightclub, the sleazy MC speaks of things not being as they seem. A horn player and a singer are found to be lip-syncing. This is Lynch’s salute to the magic (or deception) of movie making, the escape from or to reality. Think the demented MC of “Cabaret.” This is dramatically illustrated by having the woman sing “Crying” in Spanish. Betty and Rita cry during this song. Are they crying because they understand the lyrics or are they crying for their own lost innocence? When the woman collapses on stage and the singing continues, the two girls stop crying and look on in shock. Are they shocked because they were taken in by the act? Is Lynch saying that we are all taken in by the façade of the movies, as the MC has already implied?
Using the dark side of Hollywood as the central theme Lynch shows us the loss of identity that comes with it. He conveys this in an obvious, acting sense (consider Betty's two contrasting rehearsals of the same scene). But Lynch also employs this in the plot. Rita has the most obvious case of identity loss. She has amnesia, a common movie malady, and appropriately takes on the name of a real actress. By the end of the movie Rita and Betty appear to have switched rolls. Betty even drives in the back seat of the same car going up the same road that Rita had in the beginning of the movie. The audience is left wondering at this point just who is whom. Lynch shows the audience the schizophrenia of the film world when Betty calls Diane’s phone at one point and says, “it feels weird calling yourself.” Later in the film we find out that Betty actually is Diane.
Near the end of the movie we find that Diane had gotten her dream name from the nametag of a waitress at the diner, a common cliché first job of many actresses. Earlier in the movie Betty notices that the waitress’s nametag says “Diane”. There appears to be a foreshadowing recognition on Betty’s face but it passes.
Hollywood History and Time Period:
The cowboy that is the threatening thug appears as a perverse Tom Mix, an early Silent movie cowboy. This is one of Lynch’s many little nods to Hollywood’s past. He also has hired famous names from the past for the movie. Ann Miller, a 1940’s Hollywood hoofer, Chad Everett, a TV heart throb from the 1970’s. David Lynch also sends up musicals with his depiction of the 1950’s bebop rehearsal. There’s even a 1940’s jitterbug contest opening the movie. And of course, there’s Betty doing a poor imitation of Marlene Deitrich. Finally, there is an undercurrent of Film Noir throughout the film, building to the ultimate tragedy so common to that genre.
Lynch also incorporates many of his old film devices and side references. He utilizes his now famous flickering lights in the scene with the cowboy at the ranch. There are flickering electrical noises so common in Eraserhead in the scene when the killer shoots a vacuum cleaner. And he also employs cultural references. Each of his films seems to be timeless in that they appear to take place in the 1950’s and yet have modern problems, dilemmas and artifacts.
In the nightclub scene the Spanish singer belts out her song on a stage reminiscent of the singer and stage in Henry’s little heating grate world of Eraserhead. But the singer in Mulholland Drive also has another reference. As she sings “Crying” she has a fake tear on her cheek. Is this Lynch’s little reference to Opera ala the clown in “Barber of Seville?”
And, in typical Lynch fashion, there are also characters and scenes that don’t seem to fit into the plot. This, I believe, is Lynch being weird for the sake of being weird, Lynch allowing himself to have fun, to be artsy. In David Lynch’s movies, as in the real world, sometimes shit just happens. However, despite the oddness, I believe Lynch has an overall meaning to this movie. If you are at all familiar with Lynch’s art work as well as his early movies, you are also aware that at times he does appear to be displaying weirdness for the sake of weirdness. But he also paints his analogies and metaphors with a broad brush. At a minimum, I think most critics would agree that he definitely is poking fun at the Hollywood movie machine. However, I definitely think that a number of the critics are just lazy and prefer to think the movie meant nothing at all, that Lynch is just trying too hard to be avant garde. I think this is just too easy a cop-out.
Some basic similarities between the Betty in the movie and the real Black Dahlia, Betty Short:
· The attempted murder in the movie takes place in the hills overlooking the “
· Like Rita (who not so coincidentally takes on the name of the famous actress, Rita Hayworth), Elizabeth Short had dark hair and always wore black.
· Elizabeth Short was known as Betty to her friends.
· Betty Short left a small town in
· Both Betty Short and Betty in the movie slept with women.
· Both died violently.