Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mulholland Drive -- illusions and ambition

Director: David Lynch, 2001.

Lynch (Elephant Man) got a best director Oscar nomination for this movie but I don't understand why. This is a confusing and ultimately disappointing film, one that cannot be recommended.

First off, I found it very weird with characters becoming other people. Second, there is some disturbing lesbian sex scenes that are unneccessarily graphic. Finally, there is no redemptive thread that ties it together and makes this movie worthwhile. Like No Country for Old Men, the 2007 Best Picture, grace is absent from Mulholland Drive. But at least No Country made sense as a narrative. Mulholland left me scratching my head.

I had heard positive reviews of Mulholland Drive. Also, I wanted to see it as many of the LA detective novels have scenes set in Mulholland Drive. But most of the film's action occurs elsewhere, and it is only the start and end that takes place on this famous curving road high above Los Angeles.

Mulholland Drive opens with a sense of mystery. A limousine with a beautiful brunette stops on Mulholland Drive, and one of the men pulls a gun on her. As she wonders what is going on, another car collides leaving the two men dead and the woman dazed, with amnesia. She makes her way down into LA where she falls asleep in the bushes outside an apartment. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) disembarks a plane at LAX she is a perky Canadian come to Hollywood to become a movie star. She makes her way to her aunt's apartment where she finds the mysterious brunette in the shower. "Rita" (Laura Harring) has a bundle of cash in her purse and no recollection of how it got there or who she is.

This is an intriguing storyline. The first half of the movie plays out like a mystery with the two women pursuing leads. But when Betty lets Rita sleep in her bed, though she has only known her a couple of days, sparks fly and Betty declares her love for Rita. A key insight comes when Rita awakens Betty at 2am and leads them to a strange nightclub where the on-stage impresario declares, "It is all an illusion." He is referring to more than just his act. sex is declared in the Bible as a sin. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says: "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones." (Rom. 1:26). They had stopped worshiping him, their creator, and exchanged the truth of God for a lie. The sex scene is quite troubling. Yet, Jeffrey Overstreet in his very insightful and helpful interpretation of Mulholland Drive, offers an alternative explanation of this scene as something other than lesbian sex.

Lynch throws in other odd characters, such as a cuckolded film director, an enforcer cowboy, and a hitman, some of whom really don't add to the plot, while others are related but in strange and surreal ways. Then, as the movie moves into its second act, Betty becomes Diane, a failed actress, and things are really not what they seem. Overstreet points out, a key to understanding Mulholland Drive is found in the pre-credit sequence at the start of the film. We see couples dancing against a blue screen, with shadows moving through them, and pictures of Betty flashing up in front of them. This is followed by a short shot of a red pillow. This is a dream. As Betty says in the first act, "now I'm in this dream place." Perhaps this is deeper than the throwaway comment it appears at first blush. Indeed, the tagline says this film is about a woman in search of herself in the city of dreams.

The underlying theme of Mulholland Drive is the illusion of Hollywood's goodness and glamour. Underneath the facade is an ugly beast. Betty seeks the fame and fortune of being a star or even a great actress, and is driven by ambition. But the seduction of tinseltown has its effect, and there comes a point of no return. Beneath the mask of niceness Betty/Diane is cold and selfish, ready to do anything to achieve her dreams. The girl-next-door naivete gives way to greed and then bitterness and finally jealousy. And jealousy cannot bear another person to have what it wants.

Mulholland Drive does bring us face to face with our own masks. Naomi Watts gives a powerful performance transforming from the naive Betty to the cruel Diane. In so doing it forces us to view our own visages. Who do we see in the mirror? What lies beneath the mask? We all hide something, some part of our being that we don't want others, even those closest to us, to see. Yet, the more transparent we can become the easier it is to live authentic lives. Paul commands us to "live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness." (1 Tim. 2:2) This kind of living is open and honest to ourselves and to others.

Ambition and seduction are two more themes. Ambition itself is not wrong. But unchecked it can become a vicious master. Combined with the seduction of temptation, it can lead to the easy way to success where corners are cut and sins committed. In contrast, Jesus said "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it" (Matt. 7:13). As you consider your ambitions, Mulholland Drive asks the question, What are you willing to do to achieve your ambitions? What sins or crimes will you commit to become successful? Indeed, the cost of unfettered ambition is simply too great.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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