In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

Many people will love Mulholland Drive, I am sure; and the fact that my admiration is mingled with profound annoyance perhaps says more about me than about the movie. It is David Lynch's best film since The Elephant Man (which remains, for me, the pinnacle of his achievement). It is better than the goofy Eraserhead and the creepy Blue Velvet, and far, far better than Lynch's terminally confused TV show Twin Peaks. It is so good that it raises unbelievably high expectations, which it then dashes to the ground in a display of bravura narcissism. "What? Me fulfill expectations? Who do you think I am?" it seems to say. Such behavior may be acceptable in a Quentin Tarantino or a Curtis Hanson or a Joel Coen, but in David Lynch, who is more talented than most of his peers combined, it is disappointing.

The movie is nearly two and a half hours long, and it is often deliberately slow, in the manner we have come to expect from Lynch (the unzipping of a purse, for instance, may take an agonizing five seconds--complete with an overly loud zipping noise set against suspenseful silence). But it is never dull. From the smashing credit sequence, which consists of jitterbugging dancers shadowed by cloudy white faces, to the final moments of the film, when a fatal shot is fired, you will find yourself gripped by the unfolding narrative. The problem is, it unfolds more like a vast, unwieldy tarp--the sort of ragged plastic sheet you keep in your basement and never get all the kinks or crinkles out of--than it does like a neat map or a carefully drawn puzzle. David Lynch has a fine disregard for plot: He thinks of it as a mere springboard for emotionally rich images. This is all very well if you are making Last Year at Marienbad or some other piece of modernist tripe; but if you are aspiring to the level of the great films noirs, as Lynch's movie explicitly does, then the approach has serious shortcomings.

For most of its length, Mulholland Drive seems to be a fascinating mystery centered on two women, Betty and Rita. Betty, played by the astonishingly versatile Naomi Watts, is an aspiring actress fresh from Ontario, Canada; she has come to Los Angeles to live in her aunt's temporarily vacant Hollywood apartment and break into the movies. But when she reaches the apartment, it is already occupied by a beautiful woman (played by the sultry Laura Elena Harring) who calls herself Rita, after Rita Hayworth; she can't remember her real name because she's just been in a terrible car accident that rendered her completely amnesiac. We saw the accident, and we saw Rita nearly get killed by men with guns just before that, but we have no idea why this is happening to her. In her purse she finds a wad of cash and a strange blue key that doesn't seem to unlock anything obvious; gradually, she recalls a few things, like the name Diane Selwyn and the street Mulholland Drive. Piecing these elements together, Betty and Rita jointly try to solve the mystery (which also includes demonically powerful gangsters, a smart-ass movie director, an untalented starlet named Camilla Rose, an odd young man who sees visions of death, a cowboy who makes poetically worded threats, a Spanish-flavored nightclub featuring lip-synch acts and weird magicians, and a host of other clues too numerous and bizarre to list). In the course of their quest, the two women fall in love, and the scene in which they initially go to bed with each other is one of the most delicate, remarkable love scenes I've ever encountered in a film.

Betty is too cheerful and naive to be believed, but we accept the premise because it is, after all, a David Lynch movie, so we expect reality to be slightly distorted. Ditto for the fact that Rita seems to have a new outfit for every scene (though she arrived at her aunt's apartment with only the dress she had on) and that Betty seems to know her way around Los Angeles awfully well for a newcomer ("Take us around the back," she says to a cabbie about a watched apartment complex--but you have to be pretty familiar with Los Angeles to know that just about every apartment building has a back, for car access). You may catch these discrepancies as they fly by, but you write them off to the general Lynchness.

As it turns out, however, there is a more mundane explanation: It was all a dream. Or rather, it was something taking place in the mind of Betty (who is really named Diane Selwyn) during the minutes, or hours, or weeks, or months between the death of her lover, Rita (who is really named Camilla Rose), and her own death. Diane/Betty, we learn, has hired a killer to murder the betraying Camilla/Rita, who ran off with the smart-ass director; and the success of the execution has made Diane so miserable, guilty, or crazed that she ends up killing herself. But this explanation comes so suddenly and perfunctorily into the movie--taking up only the last 15 minutes or so and leaving most of the "clues" completely unaddressed--that I would not expect most viewers to grasp it. When I saw the film, many audience members sat dumbly staring at the long list of final credits, as if waiting for the real solution to appear in writing on the screen. And even if you can piece together this "real" story, it is a terrible disappointment--not only because it fails to tie up most of the rich plot strands lovingly drawn out during the rest of the movie, but also because it is so much more pat and boring than the powerfully attractive fantasy story.

It is possible for a great movie to give us a fantasy and then take it away from us, as Hitchcock notoriously does in Vertigo or as The Wizard of Oz does in a different way. But if this technique is to work, we must get something in exchange for giving up the fantasy; we must have something to carry away with us that is at least as valuable, so that we don't feel cheated by the exchange. David Lynch has yet to learn this. The feeling of loss at the end of Mulholland Drive is not the same as the loss we feel at the end of Vertigo. The latter is a rich emotional experience that matches the movie that preceded it, while the former is the result of our very reasonable sense of having been unfairly deprived. Lynch clearly knows how to proffer extravagant gifts in great profusion. What he still needs to master is how to take them back.