WHAT IT WAS
David Lynch's _Mulholland_Dr._ began life as a television series pilot
commissioned by ABC for the 1999-2000 season. Like Lynch's legendary 1990-1991
foray into network television, _Twin_Peaks_ (which later spawned the criminally
underrated 1992 prequel feature, _Twin_Peaks--Fire_Walk_with_Me_), the engine
driving the "Mulholland" pilot is a mystery centering on a young woman.
The pilot begins on a dark stretch of the titular, windy road in the
Hollywood Hills, where said woman (Laura Elena Harring, a long way from doing
the lambada in the 1990 camp classic _The_Forbidden_Dance_) narrowly escapes an
attempted hit, thanks to a freak traffic accident. While she stumbles away from
the scene with her life, she doesn't come away with her memory, and she
ultimately holes up in a nearby apartment that happens to be empty--at least
when she first gets there; she is soon greeted by perky aspiring actress Betty
(Naomi Watts), the fresh-from-Deep Water, Ontario niece of the apartment's
regular tenant. Betty and the amnesiac woman, who takes on the name "Rita"
after looking at a poster for the Hayworth-starrer _Gilda_, become quick
friends, and Betty vows to help Rita recover her lost past.
Also like _Peaks_, _Mulholland_ is an ensemble piece, and while the
Betty/Rita storyline is the main concern, there are other subplots that play out
in the background. One that directly relates to the main story is that of a
clumsy hitman (Mark Pellegrino) out to finish the job on Rita. Another major
thread has less direct relation: one involving Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), a
hot Hollywood director who's being forced to surrender casting control--and
perhaps more--to some mob types.
While the characters, setting, and situations, not to mention the more
noir-based flavor, are quite distinct from _Peaks_, the pilot-based portion of
_Mulholland_Dr._ (which is rather easy to recognize as roughly the first 100
minutes of the film's total 146-minute run time) more than recalls that earlier
series. Some characters are even direct analogues to those in _Peaks_: Betty's
golly-gee enthusiasm at cracking a case is a more extreme take on FBI Agent Dale
Cooper's similar work attitude; the creepy mob figure who sits in a curtained
room is played by none other than _Peaks_' diminutive curtained room resident
Michael J. Anderson, wearing an oversize body; and the information-imparting
ways of the _Peaks_ character of the Giant continue in the form of the Cowboy
(Monty Montgomery). That character--and, in one standout sequence, the
hitman--offers some scene-stealing doses of typically absurdist Lynchian humor.
Most _Peaks_-ish of all is the unsettling, unpredictable atmosphere. Once again
Lynch regular Angelo Badalamenti (who has a memorable cameo) composes a
haunting, dread-filled score that highlights the underlying danger and evil that
threatens to surface at any given moment.
WHAT IT COULD HAVE BEEN
ABC passed on _Mulholland_Dr._ as a series, reportedly because
higher-ups found it--shock of shocks--too weird. (The network instead went with
_Wasteland_, the Kevin Williamson-created twentysomething drama that ended up
flaming out after a scant two months on the air.) But based on the intoxicating
narrative groundwork he establishes, there's little doubt that Lynch could have
had another watercooler sensation along the lines of first-season _Peaks_. If
that series, with its focal families living in a small town filled with dirty
secrets, can be seen as Lynch's take on the old school TV soap, then all
indications suggest that a regular _Mulholland_Dr._ series would have been his
uniquely off-kilter spin on the slick '90s breed of sudser, with its young,
Aaron Spelling-ready cast members (interestingly enough, Harring toiled for a
year on that producer's short-lived daytime drama _Sunset_Beach_) intertwining
in an apartment complex that--perhaps not so coincidentally--bears eerie
resemblance to the _Melrose_Place_ compound.
WHAT IT BECAME
A year after _Mulholland_Dr._ was officially pronounced dead as a
television project (talks with other networks went nowhere), Lynch secured
financing to morph his open-ended pilot into a self-contained feature. That the
final 40 minutes or so do not offer a clean and conventional resolution to the
many dangling threads that had been carefully introduced will certainly be a
source of endless irritation to many a moviegoer. However, this should be a
reason for relief; it's not in Lynch's blood to come up with tidy solutions, as
so clearly illustrated by the half-hearted quickie wrap-up to the "Who Killed
Laura Palmer?" mystery in the European version of the _Peaks_ pilot.
Call it either brilliant or boggling (or maybe even both?), there's no
denying that the course that Lynch decided to take is nothing short of
astonishing. Instead of serving up a capper to a previously unfinished work, he
redefines the whole--or, rather, _refines_ it. Most attention will be paid to
the many surreal occurrences in this final stretch, but far more important than
the surface trickery is what it accomplishes: redirect the focus from events and
characters to the film's raw emotional core. In scattering events and
identities with seeming randomness, Lynch apparently says that such particulars
are moot; what matters are the emotions boiling within the people--in
particular, the person played by Watts, whose virtuoso performance is a wonder
on par with the film's daring transformation.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than _Mulholland_Dr._'s most
startling scene, where Betty and Rita go to a creepy nightclub/theatre and sit
transfixed as a woman onstage warbles a heart-crushing, a cappella, Spanish
version of Roy Orbison's "Cryin'." Just about everything about the scene has
the air of the unreal--the strange woman with the blue hair in the box seating;
the blurred lines between singing/speaking and lipsynching in the show, not to
mention those between the languages--except the intimately devastating emotional
impact of the singer's lament of lost love (which proves to hold even more
resonance as the film goes on).
At first glance, the simple, single-sentence--or, rather, "single-line,"
since it's technically just a phrase--synopsis offered in the _Mulholland_Dr._
press kit appears to be a classic case of Lynch playing coy. But once one sees
the maddening, masterful _Mulholland_Dr._, one would be hard-pressed to come up
with a more accurate and appropriate description of the experience than "a love
story in the city of dreams."