In a series of reviews and blog posts filed under the heading "Auteur Theory," I have made it a project to revisit the career of cult director David Lynch, rewatch his entire feature filmography in sequential order, and chart the progression of this iconoclastic artist through both his highs and lows.
"Auteur Theory" Article Index
"This is the girl."
By any reasonable standard, 'Mulholland Drive' is the last artistically significant film that David Lynch has made. Judging by the current state of his career, it may well be the last that he ever makes. After nearly a decade spent relegated back to the fringes of the film scene, the director returned to prominence in 2001 with a new movie that netted him a Best Director trophy at Cannes, an Academy Award nomination for the same title (his third), and a level of both critical and popular respect that he hadn't seen since the heyday of 'Twin Peaks'. The word "masterpiece" gets tossed around a lot in reference to 'Mulholland Drive'. Personally, I find it a very uneven, problematic work that grasps for (and occasionally reaches) greatness, but also shows clear signs of the artistic decline that the filmmaker would soon plunge into.
Admittedly, part of the problem may be my own cognitive inability to separate what the film is from what it almost was, or how it came into being. 'Mulholland Drive' started life as the pilot episode for what was originally to be a new primetime TV series. Even though his feature 'The Straight Story' had been a box office failure, key players at parent company Disney were impressed enough by it (and by the fact that noted iconoclast David Lynch could produce a mainstream-friendly movie within the studio environment) that they invited him to work with the ABC network again. Despite his lingering feelings of resentment over the cancelation of both 'Twin Peaks' and his sitcom 'On the Air', and perhaps against his better judgment, Lynch allowed himself to be lured back by promises that the corporate culture had changed in the intervening years, and that he would be allowed greater artistic leeway this time around.
Inspired by the possibilities of developing another long-form narrative, the director shot a two-hour pilot (a little over 90 minutes without commercials) about a naïve Hollywood starlet named Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) who meets an amnesiac brunette calling herself Rita (Laura Harring) and stumbles into a bizarre 'Nancy Drew'-meets-'Blue Velvet' psychosexual mystery in the City of Dreams. The story was part classic film noir, part behind-the-scenes showbiz satire, and entirely infused with Lynch's signature style and thematic preoccupations. Like most of his works, the episode had a multi-layered, twisty storyline peppered with quirky characters and surreal touches. It was extremely promising, and could have grown into a fascinating television drama.
Needless to say, the network hated it. Absolutely hated it.
As soon as Lynch screened the pilot, the programming executives immediately pulled the plug and canceled all plans for future episodes. Officially, their rationale was that the program was "too violent" for television. (Mind you, this was the same network that aired the envelope-pushing 'NYPD Blue' at the time.) Industry buzz claimed that the show was actually just too weird and the folks at ABC didn't understand it, which seems like a much more likely explanation. In any case, the network held onto 'Mulholland Drive' for a while and toyed with the idea of radically re-editing it behind Lynch's back (and against his objections) to air as a TV movie of the week. Eventually, even those plans fell through, and the whole project fell into limbo.
This experience left a very sour taste in David Lynch's mouth. Displeased at his shoddy treatment, the filmmaker fought to regain the rights to his project, a goal that he accomplished about a year later. With new funding from European backers, Lynch reassembled critical members of the cast and shot an additional hour of footage to wrap up his TV episode as a self-contained feature film.
Structurally, the first 96 minutes of 'Mulholland Drive' are essentially that original TV pilot episode with only minimal tweaks. A strange Jitterbug-dancing montage has been tacked onto the beginning as a prologue, the opening credit text was replaced with a new font (the old version was better), the previously-deleted Winkie's Diner sequence (which appeared in the script and was presumably shot during the original production) has been reinstated, and several other minor bits and pieces have been shuffled around. Otherwise, the first act of the movie is pretty much what was intended to air on television.
The precise juncture where the TV pilot ends and the new footage begins is extremely easy to identify, almost hilariously so. It's punctuated, at literally the very moment when the TV-safe footage runs out, by an explicit sex scene that obviously couldn't air on network television. From that point forward, the movie is propelled into decidedly R-rated territory, and the narrative seemingly breaks down into an increasingly surreal series of scenes that radically deconstruct and reinterpret everything that we'd seen earlier.
In its way, this is an ingenious solution. Because the TV episode was never intended for a quick resolution, and has many characters and plot threads still at the very beginning of their arcs, Lynch decided that there was no point in attempting to tie up all of his loose ends. Instead, he simply yanked the rug out from under the whole thing. If 'Mulholland Drive' feels like two completely different movies that have been slammed together, that's exactly what it is. For new viewers unfamiliar with the director's previous works, this can be something of a mind-blower.
Lynch's existing fans should be less surprised, especially any who've seen his 'Lost Highway', from which most of the last hour of 'Mulholland Drive' is recycled. The director has grafted the prominent themes and stylistic devices from that earlier movie onto this one, and spells them out using the exact same symbolism and cinematic language. If anything, the puzzle pieces are almost too simple to assemble this time. For as seemingly weird as the movie gets, all of its plot points eventually fall neatly into place, and Lynch even takes great pains to spell them out. 'Mulholland Drive' is by far the easiest of the director's "difficult" films. It plays like "David Lynch for Beginners." Honestly, the "No hay banda" monologue is so on-the-nose with its instructions for how to interpret itself as to be almost insulting.
'Mulholland Drive' is also a very sloppy production, perhaps Lynch's most chaotic and unfocused since 'Wild at Heart'. It could stand to lose at least a half-hour or more off its beginning. It's filled with scenes and characters from the TV pilot that go nowhere and could easily be cut. Robert Forster's police detective was originally intended to be a recurring character, and had two scenes in the pilot, but has here been reduced to a single non sequitur cameo. Why is he still in the movie? I find myself asking that about a lot of things in the film. I'm sure that Lynch may have planned for these storylines to better interact and play out over a season or more of television, but as the film stands, they don't lead to anything and serve no purpose. In fact, some of these scenes (including almost the entirety of the storyline involving Justin Theroux's movie director character) contradict the film's ultimate revelation. How could these events happen, if a certain character never sees or knows about them? Major plot holes like this could be fixed with some judicious trimming, but Lynch was apparently too attached to the material to let it go.
Keep in mind that I say all this as a longtime Lynch fan whose opinion is very possibly colored by having far too much inside information about the film's production. If I didn't know its history, or if I hadn't previously read the original script and seen the TV pilot version, would I still feel that the director had merely reached into an old bag of tricks to throw something together for the new ending? I can't answer that question.
'Mulholland Drive' is one of David Lynch's most acclaimed and successful films. Clearly, a great many people have been able to connect with it more than I have. Even if it may be a less disciplined work than something like 'Lost Highway' (which I personally consider a stronger effort), it's also much more accessible and less alienating in tone. Indeed, one of the movie's greatest strengths is the way that it lures viewers in with the largely conventional storytelling in its first half, before it spins off into wild insanity in the second half. Unlike the chilly and intellectual 'Lost Highway', 'Mulholland Drive' has sympathetic characters and a strong emotional payoff. Naomi Watts, a relative unknown at the time, also delivers a stunningly complex performance that quickly and deservedly shot her into stardom.
More so than almost any other filmmaker, David Lynch is able to create startling images that indelibly burn into a viewer's subconscious. 'Mulholland Drive' has a number of such scenes. Betty's mesmerizing movie audition, for example, manages to outdo the Bobby Peru scene in 'Wild at Heart' for sheer creepiness and dark eroticism, something that I thought would never be topped. The later "Llorando" sequence is both achingly beautiful and has devastating emotional power. In those, and many other striking moments that transcend the boundaries of conventional filmmaking, 'Mulholland Drive' demonstrates more ambition and genuine vision than most directors are able to conjure in an entire career. That's enough achievement to celebrate, regardless of any other perceived flaws.
The North American distribution rights to 'Mulholland Drive' are currently held by Universal Studios Home Entertainment. That studio released the film on DVD back in 2002, but has shown no interest in issuing it on Blu-ray to date. In Europe, the movie's rights are held by Studio Canal, which released it on Blu-ray through several distributors in late 2010.
The copy under review here comes from the UK, distributed by Optimum Home Entertainment as part of the Studio Canal Collection line. The UK disc seems to have gone in and out of print a few times since first release, but is currently in stock at Amazon UK at the time of this writing. Should that prove unavailable, a comparable edition was also released in France under Studio Canal's own label. Aside from the text printed on the packaging, the disc itself is otherwise identical. Upon playback, a menu will prompt you to choose from a list of countries. The option you select will determine the studio logos and menu languages to follow. Choose United Kingdom for English menus.
Both the UK and French Blu-rays are packaged in a slim Digibook. The Blu-ray is locked to Region B playback and will require a compatible Blu-ray player to operate. The disc will not function in a standard American Blu-ray player without a region code modification. The bonus features on the disc are also encoded in either PAL standard-def video or 1080i high-def at 50 Hz.
Like all discs from the Studio Canal Collection, the music played over the Blu-ray's main menu is deafeningly loud. It's at least 20 dB louder than the movie. I strongly recommend that you mute your volume before the menu loads.
Since the dawn of DVD, David Lynch has expounded his hatred for chapter stops on video discs. He feels that a film is "a continuum" that must be watched from beginning to end every time. The DVD of 'Mulholland Drive' had no chapter stops at his insistence. Technically, this Studio Canal Blu-ray has been authored with chapter markers. However, in a perverse twist no doubt of Lynch's design, the disc has only a random access chapter menu. No matter which of the ambiguous options you choose, there's no telling where in the movie you'll end up. Even selecting the same option multiple times will result in different destinations. To further rub salt in the wound, chapter-skipping forward or backward during movie playback has been completely locked out from user control. I'm sure that David Lynch cackles with glee every time a viewer curses his name for this annoyance.
Studio Canal had also previously released 'Mulholland Drive' on the (now-defunct) HD DVD format back in 2007. I no longer have that disc available for comparison, but I recall being disappointed with it and feeling that it was only a small visual upgrade over the DVD edition of the film. Either the Blu-ray was improved over that older disc in the three years between, or maybe I'm just in a more generous mood these days. (I'm viewing on a better projector, among other things.) Whatever the case, judged independently now, the Blu-ray strikes me as being fairly respectable.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer may be a little soft at times and have only fair detail, but it's still a clear improvement over standard definition. A mild veneer of film grain is visible and appears unmolested by digital tampering. Colors look excellent, especially the luscious reds of lipstick and painted fingernails. The disc has no obvious issues with edge ringing, Digital Noise Reduction or compression artifacts. I don't know if this is really the best that 'Mulholland Drive' can ever look, but it's certainly not the worst.
It's worth noting that the majority of the movie was originally shot for television on a limited budget. Its photography has always looked a little cheap in comparison to some of Lynch's other films. Fortunately, it was composed with 16:9 HD broadcasts in mind, so the framing translates well enough to the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio that has been preserved on this disc.
Fans of the movie may recall the minor controversy about "censorship" that erupted when it was first released on DVD. During her nude scene at the 99-minute mark, Laura Harring's crotch area was digitally obscured to block out her pubic region. David Lynch eventually confirmed that he did this himself. Enraged viewers (primarily teenage boys) raised a firestorm of protest on the internet that had no effect at all on anything and was soon forgotten. The same optical blurring is present on all home video editions of the movie, including this Blu-ray, as a requirement of the actress's contract. With that said, the scene in question is already cloaked in heavy shadows, and the effect shouldn't even be visible unless you deliberately pause the frame and raise your Brightness to ridiculous levels (which, naturally, countless horny viewers have tried to do). At normal viewing conditions, this is a non-issue.
In regard to sound quality, I can say with certainty that the Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is an improvement over the earlier HD DVD, which suffered a pitch increase problem common to Studio Canal discs at the time. Similar to the effect of PAL speedup, actors sounded liked they'd huffed helium. That was corrected for the Blu-ray, which has accurate pitch and sounds fine.
'Mulholland Drive' is officially the film where David Lynch decided that he was done with surround sound. Although technically encoded as 5.1 channels, the soundtrack has no rear channel activity at all, subtle or otherwise. Instead, it has very wide swings in dynamic range. The Jitterbug prologue is bold, brassy and very loud. The next scene transitions from whispered dialogue to a huge rumbly car crash in an instant.
Throughout the movie, the audio varies between dull-sounding periods to crisply recorded and extremely well-mixed passages. The fidelity of the "Sixteen Reasons" and "Llorando" sequences are outstanding, while the sound mix is a little murky elsewhere. Some of the weird noises that Lynch likes to layer into his audio beds get buried and could use better clarity. I suspect that a lot of this has more to do with the original production than a disc transfer problem.
Most of the extras on the Blu-ray previously appeared on DVD editions released in Europe.
Also included inside the UK Digibook packaging is a booklet with David Lynch's "10 Clues" (which are cryptic and vaguely patronizing) and an essay from Little White Lies editor Adam Woodward.
Even as a David Lynch fan, something about 'Mulholland Drive' holds me back from wholly embracing the movie, mainly a feeling of redundancy to some of the director's earlier works that I prefer. Nevertheless, it's a good film (likely the last good film he'll ever make) with a handful of incredible scenes that rank among some of his best.
It's a shame that this import Blu-ray is locked to Region B. While that isn't a problem for me, it will be for many other viewers. If not for that issue, the disc has satisfying technical aspects and supplements, and is a worthy purchase for fans of the film.
Reportedly, a German Blu-ray edition of 'Mulholland Drive' included in a David Lynch box set from that country is region-free. A new Region A Blu-ray is scheduled for release in Japan on October 2nd, 2012. I haven't seen either disc and can't comment on their quality.