The Malleability of “Mulholland Drive” at 20

May 16, 2021   •   By Suzanne Enzerink

IN MY FIRST YEAR of graduate school, I went to a house party predominantly attended by film students. The air was slightly pretentious, and, with a deep love for film but a limited cinematic vocabulary, I felt both happy and intimidated. A guy I did not know asked me what my favorite film was. Feeling some pressure to give an appropriately lofty answer without lying altogether (other films that came to mind were mostly 1980s slashers), I told him it was Mulholland Drive. His eyes lit up. “Wow, mine too. I have a theory about the cowboy…” The guy — henceforth known as “Mr. Cowboy” — ended up harassing me for the better part of a semester, forcefully demanding that we go for lunch or dinner or coffee to discuss the genius of Lynch. The one time I caved and agreed to meet him, he sat waiting with an overpriced meal for two already ordered, revealing only then that it was his birthday and that he had chosen to spend it with me, trying to guilt me into something more. It made me uncomfortable that I shared something so intimate — a favorite film — with this person. After all, if we shared the same taste, felt affected so deeply by the same text, did that not then mean there was some commonality between us?

Four years later, I found myself in Los Angeles with my best friend, rewatching Mulholland Drive in the small casita we called home for a few weeks, a stone’s throw from the film archive I had grown confident enough to research at. Earlier that day, we were nearly hit by a car on the titular road, as I did not know it was not exactly walkable when I had an Uber drop us off in proximity of the fictional address where some of the film’s key events take place. Realizing my mistake, we ambled our way down through what Google Maps identifies as the Outpost Estates, and, to complete the adventure, decided to watch the film, entirely unglamorously, on a Roku.

It was only here, in Los Angeles, that it finally dawned on me: rather than an aberration, Mr. Cowboy’s behavior mirrored exactly the type of predatory, deviant whiteness that Lynch often takes as his subjects. He exemplified exactly the kind of white men that Lynch focuses his work on: those who believe that society is in decay, that the spirit of American grandeur is slipping from their very hands, tugged away by women, by people of color, by anyone who does not subscribe to their vision of labor or domesticity. Mr. Cowboy’s engagement with the film was no coincidence, but rather the result of his identification with a key plot line. Part of Mulholland Drive’s enduring appeal is indeed in the impossibility of pinning down its meaning, as many critics have noted, but the other part is the perpetual relevance of this insidious Americanness and how frequently it can be appropriated, weaponized, and dangerously misunderstood.

A month later, critic Frank Guan teased out Lynch’s relation to whiteness in a brilliantly expansive feature for Vulture on Lynch’s racial politics. Lynch’s films, Guan notes, are undeniably and unsurprisingly white — part and parcel of Hollywood’s damaging investment in whiteness — but are novel in “the way he makes whiteness speak and turn its gaze upon itself.” Mr. Cowboy, ironically, had missed this last memo, instead inadvertently perpetuating the uncritical whiteness that Lynch skewers in his art.

As my experience illustrated, and what Guan misses, is that this whiteness is also inextricably gendered. Lynch’s depictions of whiteness cannot be separated from the scripts of masculinity that are entangled with them. Mulholland Drive, in its haunting vision of an absurdist society where mistreatment of women is normalized and rewarded, departs from its contemporaries. In Lynch’s work, culpability does not fall on singular protagonists; there is no attempt to redeem or explain, no mitigating circumstances, no glamorization of killers. There is not even a linear story or a moral.

The whiteness of Lynch, and his lens into it, is thus different from its early 2000s peers. As Chelsea Davis recently noted for LARB, the turn of the century witnessed a slew of films — from American Psycho to American Beauty — that reinforced the myth that “white men are the stars of the American narrative,” a genre propelled by the anxiety that white men were ultimately forgettable.

The recourse for this anxiety, sadly, has often been violence. An unhealthy attachment to whiteness and violence against women often go hand in hand. Many domestic terrorists, in addition to white supremacist beliefs, have records of abusing women. Some specifically target women or others who are seen as threats to their white heterosexual privilege. Davis observes that although the films she analyzes “are at times critical of their leads,” they cannot “picture a world where Americanness is embodied in any other way” than by white men.

And while Lynch exposes these toxic forces, Mulholland Drive offers something else. Here we get two women front and center, and their ultimate ruin is not the director’s subconscious patriarchal vision manifesting, but a meditated comment on how society is programmed to bring about such ruin. Lynch, even though he hasn’t always hit the mark exactly, knows he’s making a critique, but this myth of white masculinity is so pervasive that some of his fans take it as uncritical gospel. Watching Mulholland Drive today, we must tend to this misreading. It is true that Lynch’s films — all of them — are almost unbearably misogynistic at times, but so is the society through which these movies circulate.

The persistent relevance inevitably inflects the viewing experience. While I have no doubt that some cinephiles will think I am debasing Lynch's artistic vision by reading Mulholland Drive through the lens of contemporary political resonances — after all, the adage holds, the best art refuses to be bound by temporal particulars — this relevance instead evidences the film’s unfortunate timelessness. My intention is not to reduce Mulholland Drive to a tale of political morality, but to take seriously this question of why, more so than any film that tries to speak directly to the political climate (ahem, Crash), it remains so hauntingly apt.

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This month it has been exactly 20 years since Mulholland Drive premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. While the film initially did not even recoup production costs in the US — a $7 million box office yield against a $15 million budget — it has since cemented its place in cinematic history. The film has been analyzed by numerous scholars, has topped critics and audience lists alike for best film of the 21st century, and arguably remains Lynch’s most critically beloved — and if audiences are to be believed, best understood — work of cinema to date. I am not, however, writing this retrospective because of its presence on these lists. As film scholar Elena Gorfinkel cautioned in her brilliant essay “Against Lists,” lists “consolidate and reaffirm the hidebound tastes of the already heard,” further marginalizing the work of directors who are not white, cis, male, or American.

Instead of adding to the hagiography of either Lynch or the film, a better question is what Mulholland Drive can still tell us in this specific moment, after everything about it has seemingly already been said by everyone who has cared to say it. Lynch’s work has been described by recent scholars as self-reflexively and intentionally white and male-centered. To be clear, Lynch is no Captain Ahab, and there is no killing of the great white whale that is Hollywood, either metaphorically or representationally. But in Mulholland Drive, and in his larger oeuvre, Lynch invites reflection on these categories of identification, even if some of his own philosophies and personal commitments make the political critique fall somewhat short.

So, what did Lynch give us 20 years ago?

Mulholland Drive, of course, does not lend itself to capture in a few phrases. It is a palimpsest of Los Angeles, its obscene glitz and glamour, its homeless, its cutthroat environment, its dehumanization of people to their sheer physical forms. In this, it is also a palimpsest of the US itself. We meet Betty (Naomi Watts), at first sight a walking cliché of the wide-eyed aspiring actress fresh off the bus, except that Betty already has an advantage over the other ingenues: an aunt who lets Betty stay in her lush apartment for free as she embarks on her silver screen dream. It is in this apartment that Betty first meets Rita (Laura Harring), a brunette suffering from memory loss after a mysterious car accident the night before. The two women become intimate as they navigate the city together, a city unknown to them both, trying to piece together Rita’s real identity. This sequence culminates in their infamous love scene.

Meanwhile, in a parallel world, the two women meet a less happy end — Rita is Camilla Rhodes, a seductive actress abandoning her female lover Diane (the parallel world version of Betty) to get hitched to a film director (Justin Theroux). As Diane’s personal and professional life flounder, she dissociates out of grief over her lost love and puts out a hit on Camilla before finally turning the gun on herself. The final scene superimposes footage of the two women side by side over the city that brought them bliss in one version and ruin in another. But this recap is necessarily reductive. For one, it leaves out all supporting characters, some of whom exist in the diegetic realm of the women, while others seem entirely removed from it.

The main suggestion is the same, however, in all these subplots: society conditions us to treat women badly, a mode so pernicious it extends to how women come to treat other women. Lynch’s settings are often dark, oppressive, and grotesque, and Mulholland Drive is no exception. Even the most saccharine moments foreshadow that this joy is not the true nature of society through close-ups of a fake toothed smile, a handsy scene partner — to be a woman in a Lynch film, or to view one, is to be perpetually uncomfortable. The injuries visited upon women in Lynch’s films, including Mulholland Drive, are numerous. Rita is hit by a car; Diana loses her partner to a man. Todd McGowan notes that the first half of the film depicts “an experience of fantasy” and the second an “experience of desire,” in which the object of lust remains out of reach. However, the first part of the film is not simply the singular redemptive fantasy of a scorned, heartbroken woman, but indicative of the violence that women endure every single day in a world centered on male privilege and pleasure. Camilla does not simply abandon Diane romantically, but breaks faith with every shred of their intimacy by mocking her to please her new male partner. This mockery is the true betrayal: not only is feminine sexuality disciplined into heterosexuality, but it entails violent rejection and disavowal of queer attachment.

One of the ways that troubles such a celebration of Lynch’s critical dissection of whiteness and male privilege is that the director has himself at times swayed into the ambiguous territory of cultural appropriation. There is something to be said for critics that note the jarring dissonance between Lynch’s private spiritual life — animated in its entirety by an embrace of Tibetan and Hindu spirituality — and his screen worlds. If Lynch’s entire oeuvre, in his own understanding, is linked to the philosophies he has adopted from Hindu sacred texts, transcendental meditation, and Vedic physics, why are there no people whose ancestors originated these texts in his films? These are not fleeting investments for Lynch. A recent profile in The New Yorker, “David Lynch’s Industrious Pandemic,” credits the director’s ability to “plug into the socket of our collective unconscious” to his transcendental meditation practice, ongoing for 47 years and so important to Lynch that he founded a foundation to promote it. The David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts, part of Maharishi International University in Iowa, is oriented entirely around Vedic practices drawn from the university’s namesake, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. [1]

While Lynch has not courted political controversy otherwise — besides a 2018 interview where he seemed to celebrate Trump that he later clarified [2] — this does raise the question of whether Lynch’s oeuvre runs the risk of replicating an unfortunate current in the white West: to celebrate and endorse culture without materially supporting or advocating for the people it belongs to. Mulholland Drive invites meditation on the darker states of our current world, both two decades ago and today, but here too, the only prominent racialized figure — Laura Elena Herring’s Rita/Camilla, who reads Latina — meets a dire end.

Whereas in 2001, dissecting the toxic, suffocating nature of whiteness by a white “prestige” director was a cinematic unicorn, this kind of engagement now reads differently. Mulholland Drive prefigured a strand of whiteness that would first surface spectacularly after 9/11, just six months after the film’s release, and would resurface under Trump. While this dissection is just one element of the film’s narrative, the universe that Lynch created in the film relies entirely on these structures of control and suffocation. Women, people of color, queer people, and everyone at the intersections of these identities, will readily recognize these structures today.

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Twenty years after its release, Mulholland Drive remains as much of a mystery as it was on the balmy spring day it was released. There have been no Rowling-esque reveals by Lynch that rewrite the narrative or verify the myriad theories in circulation about the film. He has done exactly what any good director knows to do: let the film speak for itself, let it speak to others in any way they hear it. In college, a still-closeted friend found in it a refuge for her unnamed desires. Mr. Cowboy found in it a validation of his self-perceived sophistication. I myself found in it the language of duality and complexity, of resisting the urge to ascribe meaning to everything and instead embrace uncertainty. I also found it in a language for loss. As happy memories imploded, including those of my time in Los Angeles, Mulholland Drive had prepared me for the real world better than any other film had done.


Ultimately, Mulholland Drive persists precisely because everyone who has offered an interpretation cannot escape the nagging thought that theirs is not the definitive one. The bogeyman emerging from behind the trashcan — itself a controversial figure, his soot-covered face invoking the specter of blackface — does not depict a singular discrete fear, but demands us to confront our personal ones. Given Lynch’s interest in meditation, this is perhaps unsurprising. We are asked to interrogate ourselves, again and again, in search of some kind of absolution. This is both the film’s strength and its downfall, depending on your perspective. Mulholland Drive, ostensibly, performs a wide-reaching critique of society, yet, at the same time, is so abstract and esoteric that it also lends itself to readings that perpetuate the exact toxic myths and inequalities that Lynch takes aim at. Everyone gets something different from it.

While suggesting certain truths about the grotesque desires at the heart of the American project, Lynch has ultimately made a film that lends itself only to personal meaning — and meaningful rewatching. The first time I saw it, I noticed very different elements than I do today, post-Trump and post­­­–Mr. Cowboy. This repeated viewing, I venture, would please Lynch. It invites the kind of personal work that can eventually lead to communal shifts in consciousness. No one is static, and neither need the world be. We need to face the demons within us, in order to collectively face the institutional toxicity of white masculinity in Hollywood and beyond. Twenty years from now, Mulholland Drive will not be the same to me, and it is precisely there that we find its power.

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Suzanne Enzerink is an assistant professor of American Studies and Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.

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[1] An essay by Michael McGuirk, one of the program’s MFA students, offers a fascinating window into the day-to-day life of the university: https://mikemcguirk.medium.com/the-dark-arts-of-cinema-inside-the-david-lynch-school-of-cinematic-arts-33fed6d38e8b

[2] Lynch’s only other notable political engagement came in the form of a Black Lives Matter banner in one of his daily videos, a sign of support celebrated by his fans.