In his autobiography, legendary filmmaker Luis Buñuel wrote, "Somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination...despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether."
Bunuel knew that most moviegoers don't like puzzles: Why leave us baffled when we just want to be entertained? Perhaps because some of the best movie moments are ones whose perplexities spawn endless theories and debates. What was that fetus rising over Jupiter in 2001? What was glowing from the briefcase in Pulp Fiction? If we'd had everything spelled out for us, these would be lesser films.
David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is an even tougher nut to crack. This is no G-rated feel-good movie, like 1999's The Straight Story. Returning to the more familiar Lynch territory of Lost Highway and the like, Mulholland Drive is a film that only hits its stride after two hours. It leaves you knowing arguably less about its characters when you leave the theater than when the film began. But give Lynch a chance. Like a nightmare you wake from in a cold sweat, Mulholland Drive is all the more gripping for its enigma.
The story concerns a Hollywood starlet (Laura Elena Harring) with amnesia and a doe-eyed blonde named Betty (Naomi Watts) who's just off the plane from Canada with naïve Tinseltown dreams. As the pair searches for the woman's lost identity, they traverse Hollywood's shady back-room deals and laughable contempt for artistry--you know, pretty much the real place. If that's not bizarre enough for you Lynch fans out there, note that the head studio executive is played by the dancing midget from Twin Peaks (Michael J. Anderson), who's given a full-size body to render his head several sizes too small. Ironically, sexual fireworks between the female protagonists (which would be exploited in most other films) form Mulholland Drive's moral center.
Originally conceived as an ABC television pilot (the show was dropped before airing), Mulholland Drive's first two hours employ a relatively straightforward narrative style. Truthfully, the action here is a little slow, and there are numerous side plots and characters, intended to be expanded in future episodes, that essentially go nowhere. But it's in the film's half-hour finale, shot independently after the series was canceled, that Lynch indulges in his freaky Peak-y side. Without giving too much away, the story suddenly gives way to an alternate reality where characters' identities occupy the other side of a two-way mirror and shadowy conspirators thwart their every last move.
The film has as much in common with avant-garde traditions as with Hollywood's, and its twisted logic is as unsettling as it is inexplicable. Yet this is Lynch at his best. More than any other filmmaker, he's able to render the caustic psychological quicksand of our dreams. And Lynch knows it's always the nightmares we remember most. After watching Mulholland Drive, all the trivialities of everyday life outside the theater take on new meaning. Lynch taps into something vital, even if we're not sure what it is.
Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave., 223-4515. 7 and 9:45 pm Friday- Thursday, Oct. 19-25. Additional shows 12:45 and 3:45 pm Saturday- Sunday.
In conjunction with Mulholland Drive's nationwide release, Lynch's long-awaited website, www.davidlynch.com, will be launched Friday.
Mulholland Drive earned Lynch a tie (with Joel Coen) for Best Director at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.