Think about it for a second: there is possibly an alternate universe out there where Mulholland Drive became a television series after its pilot got picked up by ABC and became a cult favourite in the style of Twin Peaks, Lynch’s previous foray into hour-long network television drama.
Of course, as we all know, things didn’t work out that way. In fact, there was a possibility that the pilot was going to sit on a shelf, a ninety-minute production that would never see the light of the day until Studio Canal put up the cash to allow Lynch to film extra material to turn it into a feature film.
The results, released into movie theatres in 2001, would be critically acclaimed and in later years be regarded as one of the greatest films of the 21st century, ranking highly in the most recent Sight and Sound list of the greatest films ever made, and in the case of BBC Culture, being ranked as the greatest film made in the 21st century itself.
The interesting thing with Mulholland Drive is that there are aspects of the film which seem like they were set up to be covered further in later episodes of any potential television series, and yet could also possibly be seen as little segue into plot strands that aren’t actually meant to go anywhere and may simply be just part of the deeper, more complex strange narrative of a David Lynch production.
Like many a great noir, the film is set in Los Angeles, beginning with a car accident on the curves of the titular road. The sole survivor of the crash, a dark-haired woman (Laura Harring) who adopts the name of Rita after seeing a poster for the movie Gilda which starred Rita Hayworth, takes solace in an empty apartment where she eventually meets Betty (Naomi Watts) who has recently moved to LA and to the apartment in question which belongs to her aunt, in order to pursue an acting career.
It may sound like the stuff of a Los Angeles set noir mystery, but because this is David Lynch, it ends up being a hell of a lot more complex, deeper and mysterious, with further fuel added to the fire based upon its somewhat tortured production history.
The last time Lynch went to ABC to produce something it was Twin Peaks and the results ended up not only launching, for a short time at least, a pop cultural phenomenon, but possibly changing the entire course of American television, becoming a year zero for much in the way of quality American television that followed.
In fact, one could even argue that as a television production, Mulholland Drive was ahead of its time. Lynch’s pitch and the filming of what was then considered the pilot took place in 1999, just on the cusp of the onslaught of quality genre and cinematic television that was about to emerge in the light of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under on HBO, while ABC itself would launch the lightly Lynch flavored world of Desperate Housewives five years later and the intense mystery serial of Lost at the same time.
It was, in the end, their loss, and the gain of cinema.
Being a Lynch-directed film, Mulholland Drive is beautifully filmed, produced and boasts a superb music score courtesy of Angelo Badalamenti, who himself makes a cameo appearance in one of the film’s most memorable scenes (who knew espresso could evoke such a reaction).
The engrossing plot does a superb job of twisting and turning in directions that might appear to go nowhere, but which may mean everything, and which leaves one wondering that if the production had been picked up by ABC, where they might have gone. The film shoot that weaves in and out of the plot, Betty’s attempt at launching an acting career and the central mystery at the heart of the narrative concerning Rita’s identity feel like plots that could run and run.
Robert Forrester is ranked highly in the cast credits and yet only appears in a brief scene at the start which possibly indicates that his character of the police detective investigating the car accident that sets of the plot was probably going to appear throughout any subsequent series (he had more scenes for what would have been the pilot but they ended up on the cutting room floor when it became a movie instead).
For ninety minutes or so, Mulholland Drive is very conventional by Lynch standards, or as conventional as Lynch can get and could be seen as his most accessible piece of filmmaking since he brought Twin Peaks to the screen. One can see where it began life as a feature-length opening to a television series. Like the “Pilot” to Twin Peaks, arguably the greatest opening episode to any television series in the medium’s history, it has an engaging pace, beautifully constructed sense of mystery, wonderful introductions to its core cast, and the manner in which it’s all backed up by beautifully haunting Angelo Badalamenti music is intoxicating and wonderful.
With the series not picked up, Lynch came up with an ending to the story thanks to Studio Canal putting up the cash to allow Lynch to complete the movie and the results made for one of modern cinema’s most dazzling and complex films.
The film takes a substantially darker turn in its last hour, with Betty and Rita finding themselves at the Club Silencio, complete with a haunting performance of Roy Orbison’s Crying by Rebekah Del Rio and the eventual discovery of a blue box that takes the audience and the characters in to what appears to be a completely different narrative.
The last hour of the film makes one feel that the majority of the film been a dream, cooked up by Diane (also Naomi Watts) in order to deal with her own disappointments at her acting career and rejection by Camilla (also Laura Harring). That appears to be the general consensus, but sometimes it feels like it’s way too easy an explanation for what we’ve just watched as if Lynch wants us to think that in order to hide some other greater detail.
Being a David Lynch film, Mulholland Drive is left open to a lot of interpretation. The portion of the movie that was made up of what would have been the Pilot is one of his most accessible productions, although it would have been typically different from anything else airing on television at the time, with the portion making up the ending he came up with after the fact being typical of his interests in surrealism and nightmarish imagery.
The final moments of the film itself are some of the most terrifying material he has ever filmed and while it appears to answer one of the film’s most key questions (whose corpse does Betty and Rita discover on that bed), this being Lynch it ends up leading to even more questions.
Mulholland Drive is a brilliant evocative slice of neo-noir with its brilliant use of Los Angeles setting, sense of mystery, along with the humorous fact that everything going on appears to be centered around the film industry, from Kesher’s film to Betty trying to make it big as an actress, while even the darker, emotionally intense last hour of the film, still retains its focus on Hollywood and the film industry, it just views it through a darker lens than the more lighter, amateur detective and bad espresso flavorings of the first ninety minutes.
As great a film as it is, there’s a sad part of you that wonders what a full television series of Betty and Rita being amateur detectives trying to solve Rita’s identity would have been like. Naomi Watts makes for a fun wannabe actress/detective for the bulk of the movie and there’s no denying that the chemistry between herself and Harring is sweet, before coming deeply sexual and then distressing for the last third of the runtime.
Then again, there is a touch of irony to that. Mulholland Drive is a film that begins with material made up of a failed television pilot before a mysterious key and blue box takes us out of that world and into an alternative one where the first ninety minutes never happened, or if it did, it did so in either a dream or an alternate reality. Maybe that’s the key to unlocking the hidden meaning behind Lynch’s narrative, or maybe it’s a simple case that Hollywood just takes your dreams, churns them out and destroys them, like Diane’s hope of a career or love for Camilla, or a director’s hope to make a new television series.
Are you a fan of Mulholland Drive? Let us know what you’re watching this Noirvember…