"In heaven everything is fine," sings a character in David Lynch's first feature, Eraserhead. The cheery, off-key blandness of the tune betrays its real message, which is that everywhere else, nothing is so great. Lynch's new film Mulholland Drive, a zonked out tour de force, starts out as pop-art noir, saunters into comedy of manners, then lumbers--it would seem to careen, but for the snail's pace--into romantic tragicomedy and surrealist horror. It's sheer pastiche, a mix-and-match foray across genres and styles, and whatever sense it makes answers only to the logic of whimsical despair. Though its conviction is that of private fantasy--hermetic, self-satisfied, and patient in its own compulsions--that quality of antic desolation makes it seem very representative of contemporary sensibilities.
A car coasts to a stop somewhere on Mulholland Drive. Two men in a diner recall one morning the bad dream one of them had the night before. A naïve young woman arrives in Los Angeles to break into the movies. One by one, these plots announce themselves with enigmatic, unhurried reserve, interrupted from time to time by the odd shock. Occasionally, with buoyant languor, the plots reach out toward one another. A pretentious filmmaker, with the horn-rimmed specs, pseudo-wit, and blank looks that define his type, is under pressure to cast an ingénue, but he resists. Despite such random cross-references, the plots never really join. At a certain point you stop wishing they would, and even start hoping they won't, knowing that convergence would be more disquieting than this incongruity.
Three spectral figures lurking behind the scenes exert oracular control over the proceedings, though the motives or the consequences of these manipulations cannot be determined. One of these figures will be familiar to Lynch enthusiasts: A degraded and deformed double of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, an ectomorphic figure who sits in the center of a dark, empty room, shown in insinuating wide-angle. He is flanked by a goon and is watching a little monitor suspended in deadened air. Pinheaded and long-limbed, this homunculus seems at once spurred by maniacal designs and completely free of human desires, even "evil" ones, and he's too staunch, too inattentive, really, to watch--assuming there were something to see. He's Lynch's grotesque embodiment of abstract power, omniscient, vacant, and cryptic. The other two such figures--a ham-handed cowpoke and a bewigged, aristocratic matron who hunches in a theater box like the Phantom of the Opera--are, respectively, more proactive in a menacing yet bumbling way, and more remote. Three faces of power: mountebank, bantam-cock, and blue-blood--and in the movie's free-associative vocabulary, the three evoke real connotations, from Dr. Caligari (Mabuse's cousin) to Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, or George W. Bush.
Such referents are rare, though, in a film so bent on emotional autonomy. It's a borderline movie--in the sense that some people are diagnosed as borderline personalities--but where other aesthetic exercises in schizophrenia might hover on the border between dreams and waking life, this one lingers in that liminal territory between bad dreams and full-fledged nightmares. If it seemed to be concerned enough with its audience to bother about achieving effects--as it does in only a few powerhouse scenes--these would involve the feeling of something settling in one's lungs, and staying there. But even though the movie does not really communicate such effects--it's too locked up in its own swampy, darkish head--it still has them. Many viewers will find the film, in some literal way, suffocating.
What's locked up inside that head is the usual set of Lynchian coordinates: accidents, forgettings, breathless near-recognitions, metamorphoses--a sequence of intensely private images, treated as if they were archetypal. The movie is fiercely charged with an oppressive sense of anxiety, but it's free-floating; the characters themselves mostly don't know it's there, and their obliviousness makes it worse. (In this regard, it has something in common with Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, to which it darkly alludes.)
The first half of the film returns to the faux-happy-ending territory of Blue Velvet, with its sense of vacuousness triumphant--shiny happy people smiling away their cares, even down to the pop songs they mouth compulsively. The second half splits the difference between the operatic anomie of Fire Walk With Me and the unbound circuitry of Lost Highway. Such intense self-reference, hardly unknown in modern movies, signals the autistic condition of the movie's elaborate, withdrawn interior. How Mulholland Drive fits into Lynch's career reveals more about the film's elusive meanings than does anything in the movie itself. Lynch's work as a whole mounts a sustained, skeptical inquiry into the possibility of sincerity in the postmodern world. Blue Velvet suggests that violence is the only real form of sincerity left: The psychopath played by Dennis Hopper acts with authentic volatility, by contrast to the banality of the hypocrites who surround him, voyeurs who don't want to take responsibility for their illicit desires. The Straight Story, Lynch's previous and seemingly most conventional film, may in its way be his most experimental. It invests a wholehearted, counterintuitive faith in sincerity as redemption. In the wake of the current film, that experiment seems even more moving in its willful conviction than it did at the time. Mulholland Drive reverts to ever more extreme forms of a surrealism that temporize on the evasion of unconscious desire; the movie declares this evasion a general and unavoidable circumstance that means we're all inevitably liars--and shows up The Straight Story, by implication, as a dead end.
Mulholland Drive, the street, is a road made up of successive dead ends, each of which yields further distance just when you feel you've reached a terminus. It snakes through the Hollywood Hills, winding now north, now east, now west, now south, among--first on one side, then the other--bluffs covered in sun-blanched desert brush and sudden abysses that disclose dizzying glimpses of the haze-mottled city far below, from which Mulholland Drive seems insulated since the street is so hard to get to, and so hard to get off once you're on it. Placards prohibiting littering are surrounded by detritus--a discarded box of old porn magazines, a corroded water heater turned on its side, and in place of "Adopt-A-Highway" posters, the treacherous sides of the road are adorned by "Adopt-A-Canyon" signs. Though the class stakes are hard to read--celeb manses side by side with hovels--the street illustrates perfectly the seedy grandeur of Los Angeles, and if streets can have a subject, the subject of this one is disorientation. It is to streets what L.A.'s Bonaventure Hotel is to buildings.
The source and meaning of Lynch's fascination with Mulholland Drive should be clear. The street is like a real-world actualization of the subterranean maze Lynch's camera suddenly penetrates at the beginning of Blue Velvet. Unlike, say, Sunset Boulevard--a largely commercial strip that cuts straightforwardly through the many villages the city tries vainly to encompass--Mulholland Drive is all about privacy, isolation, and the derangement of the ordinary senses. Lynch's film is the anti-Sunset Boulevard: Though Billy Wilder's classic movie is lightly tinged with Hollywood surrealism, its moralistic point concerns corrupting influences of Hollywood's artifice on personal character. Lynch takes corruption for granted, as a causeless condition; innocence in his characters is always seen as funny, or absurd. The Hollywood satire of Mulholland Drive feels a little arch, and quite genial--in a way these scenes are the most accessible in the film--until you see how it grounds the more general malaise the movie so pitilessly regards.
Lynch is drawn to pop culture not as nostalgia or mass appeal, of course, but because of how it mingles private and public registers of consciousness. Pop songs take on intensely individual meanings even as they remain widely familiar signs, and the fake images of pop culture sincerely influence basic forms of people's identities--casting doubt, for Lynch, on the very bases of identity itself. If this movie has a key, it is in a scene that seems at first marginal: Two women wander into a theater where another woman, alone on stage, sings a Spanish version of Roy Orbison's "Crying." (Orbison's "In Dreams" anchored some of the imagery of Blue Velvet.) The song is beautiful, the voice pure and remarkably full, and the women, watching and listening, are moved deeply. Then, without warning, the singer collapses. But the voice, which had seemed so immediately dependent on her bodily presence, continues. Two men shuffle in and trundle the woman away, and still the song--full, pure, beautiful--goes on. One of the great scenes in movies, it lays bare the illusion of presence that movies are predicated on. Most films strive to make the shadows on the screen seem compelling, to persuade us that what isn't really there actually exists. In Mulholland Drive, Lynch takes on again the still terrifying possibility that what actually exists isn't real.