Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Drama, Mystery, Romance, Thriller

Rated R

147 minutes

It’s well known that David Lynch‘s “Mulholland Dr.” was assembled from the remains of a cancelled TV series, with the addition of some additional footage filmed later. That may be taken by some viewers as a way to explain the film’s fractured structure and lack of continuity. I think it’s a delusion to imagine a “complete” film lurking somewhere in Lynch’s mind — a ghostly Director’s Cut that exists only in his original intentions. The film is openly dreamlike, and like most dreams it moves uncertainly down a path with many turnings.


It seems to be the dream of Betty (Naomi Watts), seen in the first shots sprawled on a bed. It continues with the story of how Betty came to Hollywood and how she ended up staying in the apartment of her aunt, but if we are within a dream there is no reason to believe that on a literal level. It’s as likely she only dreams of getting off a flight from Ontario to Los Angeles, being wished good luck by the cackling old couple who met her on the plane, and arriving by taxi at the apartment. Dreams cobble their contents from the materials at hand, and although the old folks turn up again at the end of the film their actual existence may be problematic.

The movie seems seductively realistic in several opening scenes however, as an ominous film noir sequence shows a beautiful woman in the back seat of a limousine on Mulholland Drive — that serpentine road that coils along the spine of the hills separating the city from the San Fernando Valley. The limo pulls over, the driver pulls a gun and orders his passenger out of the car, and just then two drag-racing hot rods hurtle into view and one of them strikes the limo, killing the driver and his partner. The stunned woman (Laura Elena Herring) staggers into some shrubbery and starts to climb down the hill — first crossing Franklin Dr., finally arriving at Sunset. Still hiding in shrubbery, she sees a woman leaving an apartment to get into a taxi, and she sneaks into the apartment and hides under a table.

Who is she? Let’s not get ahead of her. The very first moments of the film seemed like a bizarre montage from a jitterbug contest on a1950s TV show, and the hotrods and their passengers visually link with that. But people don’t dress like jitterbuggers and drag race on Mulholland at the time of the film (the 1990s), not in now-priceless antique hot rods, and the crash seems to have elements imported from an audition, perhaps, that will later be made much of.

I won’t further try your patience with more of this mix-and-match. Dreams need not make sense, I am not Freud, and at this point in the film it’s working perfectly well as a film noir. They need not make sense, either. Conventional movie cops turn up, investigate, and disappear for the rest of the film. Betty discovers the woman from Mulholland taking a shower in her aunt’s apartment and demands to know who she is. The woman sees a poster of Rita Hayworth in “Gilda” on the wall and replies, “Rita.” She claims to have amnesia. Betty now responds with almost startling generosity, deciding to help “Rita” discover her identity, and in a smooth segue the two women bond. Indeed, before long they’re helping each other sneak into apartment #17. Lynch has shifted gears from a film noir to a much more innocent kind of crime story, a Nancy Drew mystery. When they find the decomposing corpse in #17, however, that’s a little more detailed than Nancy Drew’s typical discoveries.

What I’ve been doing is demonstrating the way “Mulholland Dr.” affects a lot of viewers. They start rehearsing the plot to themselves, hoping that if they retrace their steps they can determine where they are and how they got there. This movie doesn’t work that way. Each step has a way of being like an open elevator door with no elevator inside.

Unsatisfied by my understanding of the film, I took it to an audience that hadn’t failed me for 30 years. At the Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I did my annual routine: Showing a title on Monday afternoon, and then sifting through it a scene at a time, sometimes a shot at a time, for the next four afternoons. It drew a full house, and predictably a lot of readings and interpretations. Yet even my old friend who was forever finding everything to be a version of Homer’s Odyssey was uncertain this time.

I gave my usual speech about how you can’t take an interpretation to a movie. You have to find it there already. No consensus emerged about what we had found. It was a tribute to Lynch that the movie remained compulsively watchable while refusing to yield to interpretation. The most promising direction we tried was to delineate the boundaries of the dreams(s) and the identities of the dreamer(s).

That was an absorbing exercise, but then consider the series of shots in which the film loses focus and then the women’s faces begin to merge. I was reminded of Bergman’s “Persona,” also a film about two women. At a point when one deliberately causes an injury to the other, the film seems to catch on fire in the projector. The screen goes black, and then the film starts again with images from the earliest days of silent film. What is Bergman telling us? Best to start over again? What is Lynch telling us? Best to abandon the illusion that all of this happens to two women, or within two heads?

What about the much-cited lesbian scenes? Dreams? We all have erotic dreams, but they are more likely inspired by desires than experiences, and the people in them may be making unpaid guest appearances. What about the film’s material involving auditions? Those could be stock footage in any dream by an actor. The command about which actress to cast? That leads us around to the strange little man in the wheelchair, issuing commands. Would anyone in the film’s mainstream have a way of knowing such a figure existed?

And what about the whatever-he-is who lurks behind the diner? He fulfills the underlying purpose of Lynch’s most consistent visual strategy in the film. He loves to use slow, sinister sideways tracking shots to gradually peek around corners. There are a lot of those shots in the aunt’s apartment. That’s also the way we sneak up to peek around the back corner of the diner. When that figure pops into view, the timing is such that you’d swear he knew someone — or the camera — was coming. It’s a classic BOO! moment and need not have the slightest relationship to anything else in the film.

David Lynch loves movies, genres, archetypes and obligatory shots. “Mulholland Drive” employs the conventions of film noir in a pure form. One useful definition of noirs is that they’re about characters who have committed a crime or a sin, are immersed with guilt, and fear they’re getting what they eserve. Another is that they’ve done nothing wrong, but it nevertheless certainly appears as if they have.

The second describes Hitchcock’s favorite plot, the Innocent Man Wrongly Accused. The first describes the central dilemma of “Mulholland Dr.” Yet it floats in an uneasy psychic space, never defining who sinned. The film evokes the feeling of noir guilt while never attaching to anything specific. A neat trick. Pure cinema.

Pale Flower (1964)

Action, Drama, Foreign, Thriller

Rated Unrated

96 minutes

At the center of “Pale Flower” stands a very quiet man, closed within himself, a professional killer. He works for a gang in the Yakuza, the Japanese Mafia, and as the film begins he has returned to Tokyo after serving a prison sentence for murder. He did the prison time as the price to be paid for committing a murder, but although we see his gang boss several times, even in a dentist’s chair, there is no effort to make him seem worthy of such loyalty. He is an ordinary older man. Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), the yakuza, seems loyal more to the ideal of loyalty, a version of the samurai code. It is his fate to be a soldier and follow orders, and he is the instrument of that destiny. He thinks his crime was “stupid,” but he is observing, not complaining.

“Pale Flower” is one of the most haunting noirs I’ve seen, and something more; in 1964 it was an important work in an emerging Japanese New Wave of independent filmmakers, an exercise in existential cool. It involves a plot, but it is all about attitude. Muraki, elegantly dressed, his hair in a carefully stylized cut, his eyes often shielded by dark glasses, speaking rarely, revealing nothing, guards his emotions as if there may be no more where they came from. He glides through nights and an underworld of high-stakes gambling clubs and hooker bars, but lives in a rude and shabby room as if it is merely a cave for sleeping.

After his first night back in his familiar world, he goes to a clock shop where Shinko (Chisako Hara), his young lover, lives and works. She clings to him abjectly, and they have sex without ceremony. He betrays no affection. He advises her to find a husband and start a family. He returns to the customary life of the gang without ceremony, as if dwelling on the prison term would be unseemly.

He likes to gamble. The movie began with a gambling sequence, there are several more of them, and visually they’re as elegantly composed as a scene by Ozu. The director of “Pale Flower” is Masahiro Shinoda, whose visual choice is widescreen black and white and whose characters move with the grace of Antonioni’s at about the same time. That Shinoda worked a an assistant to Ozu may explain some of his precise framing. The gamblers play the Flower Card game involving thick cardboard chips that click when they touch; listen carefully to the sound track by Toru Takemitsu, the masterful composer who, Shinoda says, told him “record all the sounds and I will use them.” He segues from the clicking of the cards to recorded tap-dancing and then to discordant chords, as if the rhythm of the game gives way to angular interior emotions.

Seated across from Muraki is a beautiful women, very young, who gambles with the same recklessness she uses to meet his eyes. This is Saeko (Mariko Kaga). Like Muraki, she has no small talk and betrays no emotions. She seems equally indifferent if winning or losing. There is a man at the games who does not play. He is Yoh (Takashi Fujiki), said to be a new employee of the boss. He sits against the wall, regarding the room with aggressive objectivity. Shinoda uses a series of shots in which Muraki leans back to regard this man, who returns his gaze as if to say, “I would kill you or anyone else without a second thought.”

Saeko asks Muraki if he knows of a game with bigger stakes. She seems addicted to excitement. She betrays emotion only twice, when after a high-speed drag race on empty city streets she begins to giggle almost orgasmically, and again when she giggles after they are almost caught in a police raid. She says that “Yoh,” the malevolent newcomer, seems “exciting.” Perhaps she finds it exciting, too, that Muraki is a murderer.

Shinoda chose Ryo Ikebe as his star when the actor was at a low ebb, having been fired from a play for freezing onstage. In an interview included with the new Criterion edition of the film, the director recalls Ikebe, depressed, asking, “Why do you want me? I’m just a ham actor.” But Shinoda had seen him in Ozu’s “Early Spring” (1956) and other films, where he was sleekly handsome, and he says he wanted to feel the quality of a man down on his luck. In this film, Ikebe reminds me of the also handsome Alain Delon in Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Samourai” (1967), another film about a detached hit man. Here the performance depend on Ikebe’s ability to maintain a Charles Bronson-like impassivity. It is the quality of a man wary of emotion, and the story depends on how he becomes helplessly becomes fascinated by Saeko because she seems even more distant and guarded than he is.

He warns her against drugs. One night she tells him she has shot up. She says a friendly doctor gave her the shot. But Yoh has the skin and the aura of a drug addict. What does Muraki think? He never reveals. But when the boss asks for a volunteer to murder the boss of a rival gang, Muraki says he’ll do it. He doesn’t have to. The boss has already given him an exemption because he’s just finished one prison term. If you meditate on why Muraki volunteers, I think you will close in on his motivation, and find the theme

In his interview, Shinoda shows himself familiar with avant garde art. He was chafing at working within the studio system, and even though “Pale Flower” was produced by the major studio Shochiku he considers it an independent film, and so, apparently, did the studio. “After the screening, the writer said it wasn’t the film he had written,” he recalls, “and that was the excuse the studio needed.” At a loss for how to deal with it, Shochiku shelved it for months, although when it was finally released it was a great success, no doubt because it captured the sense of both film noir and the emerging European art films.

The writer, Masaru Baba, began with a novel by Shintaro Ishihara. His approach was apparently conventional, and he disagreed sharply with Shinoda about the gambling scenes. “We just write ‘they gamble,'” he told the director. Shinoda nodded, kept his peace, and used the novel as a basis for shooting the extraordinary card games. The film makes no effort to explain how the game is played, but is visually acute about the details: The goading rhythm of the croupier, the ritual of a card withdrawn from concealment and folded within a cloth, the placing of bets. Shinoda gives great attention to the implacable faces of Muraki, Saeko and (at a greater distance) Yoh. The gambling scenes are not about the game but about the emotional signals being exchanged by these three; Shinoda has little interest in the other players.

Not many scenes take place in daytime. The film is shot mostly indoors, or outdoors on sometimes rainy streets. The opening establishes Tokyo, but Shinoda shot mostly in Yokohama, where an older look and many narrow lanes gave him a feeling he was looking for, of the night pressing down on Muraki. One cat-and-mouse foot chase through empty streets and shadows is particularly well done.

Although the tone of the film is set by Takemitsu Toru’s discordant score, a late climactic killing is scored by an aria from Henry Purcell’s opera, “Dido and Aeneas.” It goes to slow motion, and is intercut with unexpected stained-glass windows. What is happening here, as you will understand when you see the film, is the equivalent of an orgasm created by Muraki for Saeko.

Film noir is almost always about a central figure who is destroyed by his flaws. This figure often tries to live by a code, even a criminal code, but is defeated by some kind of moral weakness. In noir the fact that you’ve killed someone may not be a moral failing, but simply an expression of the duties of your milieu. Muraki has schooled himself to not feel, and to not care for Shinko, who cares for him. But by her very inapproachability, the mysterious Saeko defeats his defenses and sets in motion those decisions that cause him to kill again, and trap himself. At the end of the film, he discovers what his choices have left him with. It is an ending of bleak sadness and empty destiny.