Friday, January 1, 2010

Top Films of the Decade: #1 Mulholland Dr.

Mulholland Dr.

Today I'm joining Film Comment, The Village Voice, Time Out New York, and indieWire to call Mulholland Dr. the best film of the decade. This wasn't a difficult decision. A cinematic sugar rush, dizzying and dazzling, Mulholland Dr. bursts with moments of pure inspiration. It challenges and rewards in equal measure, making it the most satisfying film in David Lynch's 30-plus year career. The writer/director injects his nightmarish style with healthy doses of heart and humor to lure us into his film's world. Mulholland Dr.'s immediate pleasures turn its macro-level puzzle into something inviting, hypnotic, and even fun.

Let's start with those immediate pleasures, or what I'll call the micro-level. Mulholland Dr. began as an open-ended pilot for ABC, which accounts for its disjointed first hour, when characters appear and vanish without much warning. ABC rejected the 94-minute pilot, leaving Lynch with a string of mesmerizing sequences and no resolution. These standalone vignettes rank among Lynch's most memorable scenes, ones worth revisiting again and again (if Lynch would allow scene selection on his DVD, that is). Who can forget The Espresso Man, The Winkie's Diner Man, The Hitman, The Cowboy, or, towering above them all, the Club Silencio? These sequences play like museum pieces of Lynchian filmmaking, each with their own set of bizarre logic. Yet Lynch continually grounds the MoMA-style surrealism with humor, suspense, and sheer visual bravura. The sequencing isn't off-putting or pretentious; it's haunting, -- a shape-shifting dream with no beginning or end.

Divorced from the rest of Mulholland Dr., standalone scenes like this lose none of their power.

Here's a list of every inspired choice I noticed while re-watching this scene just now: Starting the scene mid-siren to create an immediate sense of unease; the lead actor's big eyebrows make him instantly memorable; the slow line-delivery mounts tension; the way the camera hovers higher and higher over the characters' shoulders, making the lead look increasingly vulnerable; the lead's unnerving grin as he talks; the quality of the monologue, which would frighten me even without Lynch's audio/visual mastery; the ominous sound design, which creeps in so slowly that one barely notices its stranglehold on the scene; the shot of Man B standing at 2:57, which merges reality and the dream world in a flat two seconds; the way Man B's comment remains inaudible (and thus creepier) at 3:15; the way music and sound blend into one unsettling soundscape -- for example, at 3:26, when Man B opens the front door, we hear a splash of audio that somehow sounds like music and cars whooshing at the same time; at 3:41, the change slat on the phone booth is pulled down, which highlights the not-quite-right feeling of the scene; the use of silence during the scene's big reveal.

And I'm sure I missed some gems. Elsewhere, a cowboy with no eyebrows, an espresso snob, and a bungling hitman emblazon the film with unforgettable moments, each detached from the primary narrative like glorious little tumors. So how does Lynch string these scenes together to form a coherent feature film? Having written himself into a corner with a defunct TV pilot, Lynch, so to speak, runs up the wall, turning the whole film in on itself. I subscribe to the "classical interpretation" of Mulholland Dr., which posits that a good two-thirds of the film exists in Diane Selwyn's head.

Now we've come to the macro-level. Lynch's visionary structure allows him to explore Hollywood as a "dream factory." The dream sequences in Mulholland Dr. all reference specific film genres and stars. Most obvious, the movie's lighting, setting, and central mystery echo film noir, with at least one blatant reference to the genre classic Sunset Boulevard. As a love story, Mulholland Dr. evokes broad Hollywood melodramas; notice how over-the-top Naomi Watts' performance registers in the first two-thirds of the film in comparison to her naturalistic turn after her character awakens from her dream. Also in this world, Hollywood operates like a gangster film, complete with shadowy mob bosses and brawny henchmen, while hired assassins mangle killings in a Tarantino-style farce. Even a cowboy, once the emblem of American cinema, makes an appearance.

The list goes on. At every turn, Lynch alludes to film history. Why? To capture the subjective experience of his protagonist, Diane Selwyn -- a would-be actress. Selwyn moved to Hollywood, fell on her face, fell in love, and got dumped. That's her reality. Her dream, a 100-minute wish-fulfillment fantasy, comprises the first chunk of Mulholland Dr. To embellish this dream, she taps into a reservoir of movie images, genres, and cliches. The stuff that drew her to Hollywood in the first place. In promoting Mulholland Dr., Lynch always used the same terse catchphrase: "A love story in the city of dreams."

Which leads to my last point: For all its beguiling ambiguities, Mulholland Dr. can make you cry. And I don't mean "cry" at the beauty of Lynch's images or at the elegant way his plot strands coalesce. I mean good-old emotionalism. Amidst nods to cinema's past and an elaborate narrative structure, Lynch crafted a real romance -- the first of his career. Watts' unhinged performance deserves enormous credit here. The violent disconnect between Dream Betty and Real Diane makes Mulholland Dr. one of the great films about jealousy and the ways it warps the mind. When I think of jealousy, I think of the image accompanying this post. That's the magic of Lynch's film: It experiments with cinema, employing visionary techniques, to chart one of the most primal and universal emotions on the map.

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