Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Collection Project: The History of the World in Telephone Numbers

When I first saw Mulholland Dr. (d. David Lynch), I wanted to know what it all meant. This is only natural. From the magnificent early scene set at a diner called Winkies (one of a chain, we're told, adding to the tediously ordinary setting) that ends with a man being frightened to death by a thing behind a dumpster, to the miniature old couple scurrying out of a paper bag in order to harry poor Naomi Watts into [something something SPOILER], the film adds one insane mystery after another, until, on first viewing, I was simply watching closely, desperately closely, hoping for the tumblers to click.

They never did, and still haven't, although I've heard any number of theories trying to explain the plot of Lynch's film. All of these theories are boring, and diminishing. They range from the roughly specific -- "It was all a dream, or half was a dream, or it all flashed through Watts's head as she died" -- to the vaguely thematic --"It's a movie about identity". This last one has become particularly irksome to me, because it seems as though any time a film is described as being about, or having something to do with "identity", the case must then be closed, because the deliverer of this truth tends not to have any follow-through. In Mulholland Dr., Naomi Watts appears to be playing two distinct characters, with some overlap, or maybe not. Maybe she's one character, and the nice one is a delusion, while the nasty one with the gun and money for a hitman is the real person. In any event, apart from the obvious point, which is that people present one version of themselves for public display, while keeping the "real" person tucked up inside their brains, what does the film say about identity? And if it says nothing more than I've just done here, then isn't that hopelessly banal, to the point that it's not even worth mentioning?

Still, though. When I first watched the film, one moment in particular, a line of dialogue, sparked my brain, and I became very excited to see where Lynch would take this idea. In the scene, the hitman (Mark Pellegrino) is meeting one of his shady underworld contacts in the man's grubby office, and the hitman points to a book on the man's desk and says "Is that the book?" The man says yes, and that the book contains "the history of the world, in telephone numbers." What, I thought, could that possibly mean? My interest in shadow histories, as a fictional device, was mightily perked, and after Pellegrino shoots the other guy in the head and takes the book, this element of the film goes precisely nowhere. The book is never mentioned again, and the rest of the scene -- apart from a loose link to the car accident that opens the film -- serves only to introduce the hitman, who will pop up, briefly, later on.

I used to think, and sometimes still do, that if Lynch had the will or imagination to tie all this stuff together -- and not just the stuff I've mentioned, but the thing behind the dumpster, the Cowboy, the midget, the "This is the girl" guys, and so on -- then Mulholland Dr. would be the greatest piece of storytelling in the history of the medium. And maybe, at one time, this was Lynch's ambition. Okay, I sort of doubt that, but given that the film was originally intended as a TV series that, following the network's decision not to pick it up, Lynch reconfigured and added to, in order to turn it into a movie, it's certainly possible that the "telephone numbers" line, and the book, would have meant something more, in later episodes of the series that never happened, than the throwaway bit of strangeness it ultimately is. what? When I watch Mulholland Dr. now, I simply revel in all that throwaway strangeness, as well as the strangeness that has a firmer grip on things. Like, for instance, the Cowboy (Monty "Lafayette" Montgomery), one of Lynch's greatest creations, one who, for my money, blows the similar Mystery Man (Robert Blake) from Lynch's Lost Highway clear out of the water. The Cowboy is probably one of my favorite film characters, but what to say about him? He's strange and creepy, and what the heck is that guy talking about? Also, did you see him in the background that one time?

The problem is that talking about films, especially films like this one, can sometimes smooth things over too much, and you find yourself stating the obvious things that the film itself left unstated, and whatever grabbed your attention and imagination while watching the screen loses its hold (I'm reminded of a DVD extra on the Criterion disc of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life, in which Jonathan Lethem seems to want everybody to know that he recently read a whole book that was all about the 1950s). Worse still is trying to explain what the filmmaker never wanted to explain in the first place. I've said before that, in too many people's minds, the word "mystery" has come to mean "something that is solvable", and that, to me, is the danger of ruthlessly hammering away at a film like Mulholland Dr., in the hopes that it will crack open, and inside will be a giant banner with an answer scrawled across it. You're going to ruin the movie for yourself. Your answer is probably wrong, too, by the way, but that won't matter. As long as you believe it, the film will have no power left.

You won't ruin it for me, though, because there is no answer to Mulholland Dr. I mean, really, there isn't, but there certainly isn't one that accounts for all of its madness. Besides that, I'm over that particular phase of my neuroses, the one that demands an answer from everything (okay, I'm mostly over it). Now, when I think of Mulholland Dr., I think of a story I heard about Lynch, when he was at a press conference for his next film, the even more obscure (which really doesn't quite cover it) Inland Empire. A reporter asked him what the film was about, and Lynch pointed to the poster, which was hanging behind him, and said "It says right there." He was talking about the tagline, which is "A Woman in Trouble". That's good enough for me.


Greg said...

Holy fuck! I kid you not (and really, I'm not kidding) when I tell you that, out of all movies that have ever been made, this morning I almost wrote up Mulholland Drive! What in the hell are the odds?! I even watched a few scenes from it again. I'm still kind of floored by this quite frankly. I mean, I show up here and you've written about Mulholland fucking Drive!

Okay, I'm starting to recover. Anyway, I think there is a definite story, I just don't know what it is. Essentially it's whatever you want it to be. I don't necessarily agree that coming up with an answer results in diminishment though. One of the great joys of art is digging into it to discover something deeper. If that means coming up with your own version of events, that's great. I do agree with you that if done prosaically where everything fits into an identi-kit (the old people are her parents, the cowboy is her brother, etc) then, yeah, it's all downhill from there.

What I'm saying is I have come up with a million explanations in my head as to what it's all about and each time it's fun and enlightening to do. And then the next time rolls around and the story changes.

I know this is going to sound odd, considering how much non-story is in this movie, but you might want to add a spoiler warning before the whole "taking her own life line" in the opening paragraph (or just take it out) because, whatever this movie's about, that is definitely the climax and oddly, had I known that going in it might have spoiled the experience for me, to a degree.

bill r. said...

You're right, I removed the spoiler.

I guess I probably shouldn't be so concrete about explanations ruining the movie -- it's just that I've never heard one that, if I bought into the theory, wouldn't have ruined it for me. I just think the whole thing is so nuts, and important more as nightmare/mood film, that trying to make it something that it's not isn't going to work.

I don't think I said there wasn't a story, did I? I wrote this so fast over lunch, maybe I did (can't re-read it now!), but I don't mean that. Sure there's a story. It's just that, as you say, what the story is, and what it all means, is sorta kinda hard to pin down.

You should write about MULHOLLAND DR. anyway. Why not?

Greg said...

Maybe I will. I have a copy from i-tunes on my hard drive so I can watch whenever I have my laptop with me. It's a mesmerizing film in so many ways.

And also, incredibly erotic, which is not to be undersold in this day and age of so many erotically dead-on-arrival movies out there.

Jake T. said...

To me, one of the reasons this movie is so incredible is that Lynch manages to walk an extraordinary tightrope act wherein he gives just enough information where we're aware that there's certainly a story there, but he leaves enough open so that we, the audience, really have to do our part in creating it.

I think it takes some pretty phenomenal faith for the audience on Lynch's part to do that. I've seen people try to do this on many occasions, moreso in theater and literature than in movies, and most of the time it's ABYSMAL. Lynch, to me, nails it, and it's one of the hardest things for an artist to do, particularly in a medium as rigid and literal as film tends to be.

I think it's great that I know exactly what that movie means to me, but I'd never argue against another person's interpretation, because this truly is a movie that allows, nay, requires people to have their own personal reactions to it.

Ed Howard said...

I agree with Greg and Jake that this film — one of my favorites, which at this point I've probably seen more than any other single film — succeeds so well because it actually balances carefully between narrative and non-narrative elements. I think there's a story to the film, but no story can completely encompass its totality: there are too many loose ends in any theory, too many little bits and pieces that won't fit unless you resort to some pretty tortured rationalizing. But then other aspects of it fall neatly into place and conform to a narrative structure. It's a delicate balance, and one that Lynch pulls off perfectly here; it's a little more precarious in, say, Lost Highway, which I still like a lot but isn't quite as satisfying.

And then of course in Inland Empire he rejects that balance entirely in favor of a dizzying array of possible stories, none of which ever lead beyond their own peculiar orbit. That's satisfying, too, just in a very different way.

bill r. said...

in this day and age of so many erotically dead-on-arrival movies out there.

I guess, but I'm a pretty easy mark in that regard.

Jake and Ed - I'm not disagreeing with either of you. In fact, I'm agreeing with you. Yes, there's a story, but an attempt to constrain the story, and restrict it by saying "This means this, and this ties to that for this reason" is finally a pretty boring exercise, when it comes to this particular film, and others like it.

It's not like I think MULHOLLAND DR. is just some hazy mix of crazy images. I don't think that at all. If I did think that, I wouldn't like the film very much. The line that Jake says Lynch walked here, I'm completely behind that. And I also don't reject the idea that a person can have developed their own personal "meaning" for the film. I just, sort of, you know...don't want to hear about it. I do think that theories about the meaning of MULHOLLAND DR. are dull, and pretty useless, at least to my enjoyment of the film.

I guess I just prefer to stand a little bit outside of Lynch's crazier movies, looking at these things happening that have no obvious meaning to me, because I'm not a part of it. It's like watching a fight from across the street. You don't know why it's happening, and it might be horrible to see, but you're going to watch it anyway.

Tony Dayoub said...

"This means this, and this ties to that for this reason" is finally a pretty boring exercise, when it comes to this particular film, and others like it.

I get what you're saying. I really do. But sometimes, and in the case of Lynch in particular, offering up a reading of the film can be the beginning of a wonderful conversation, debate, and even disagreement. Often, these conflicting readings can yield some new perspective which brings specific details to the fore.

For example, your focus on "the book which contains 'the history of the world, in telephone numbers'" mollifies what has always been for me a basic flaw which inhibits my enjoyment of the film. That is, I'm constantly hyperaware of the untethered mini-plots which dangle loosely from MD due to its original incarnation as a TV pilot.

By honing in on this, the little people, etc., and taking these narrative dead-ends on in the terms in which Lynch presents them, as part of a closed-ended movie, you give me a new appreciation of the film.

bill r. said...

Tony, it's very possible I come off too rigid in this post. I completely agree about opening up conversation and disagreement about movies, and Lynch in general. It's just that this particular film only truly works for me as a deliberately senseless nightmare. No other take on the film has ever worked for me, and -- and I truly don't mean this to sound rude or arrogant, it's just my experience with this movie -- any other take leaves me shrugging.

Of course, I'm well aware that when Jake said earlier that:

because this truly is a movie that allows, nay, requires people to have their own personal reactions to it.

...he was obviously including my take, so when I plug my ears and hum so I can't hear anybody tell me that MULHOLLAND DR. is (get this!) all a dream, I sound, at best, kind of silly.

As for having a hard time ignoring MULHOLLAND DR.'s origins as a pilot, I can understand that. It probably doesn't help that certain parts of the movie are very clearly part of the pilot (Billy Ray Cyrus, even the "history of the world in telephone numbers" scene) and others aren't (naked lesbians). But I don't know, I guess because this is Lynch, and because he was able to shape something that is obviously pretty extraordinary anyway, I find it pretty easy to roll with everything. Maybe not Billy Ray Cyrus so much, but everything else.

Grant L said...

Lynch said the same thing at the Seattle Inland Empire premiere to someone who was foolish enough to ask what the movie was about. I'd agree with your last line for the most part, but am also with Greg in that I don't think that knowing a bit more about what the artist was on about (provided that they know what they were on about, of course) isn't automatically a bad thing. One big example I can think of offhand is that reading Arthur C. Clarke's novel version of 2001, which pretty much spells out the entire story, did nothing but enhance my love and appreciation for the film.

As far as Mulholland Drive goes, I'm mostly with the claque (which includes Naomi Watts) who thinks that the first 2/3 of the film is a dream, and the last 1/3 is a combination of the reality that led up to the dream and the fevered mindstate that drives her to finally kill herself. The published screenplay of Lost Highway includes an interview with Lynch in which he said that one of his starting points for the story was OJ Simpson. He started wondering how someone who'd committed murder would be able to walk around in daily life, knowing this was true of themselves. This became a big part of the stories of Fred Madison and Diane Selwyn (it's always seemed to me that the two films are versions of the same basic story), who have both committed murder (Diane by proxy) and who are so horrified at themselves that they have gone as far as denial can go, to a place where they try to completely disassociate themselves from their actions. With Fred he actually tries to become someone else...whether this happens in actuality or whether it's all in his head is up for grabs. Diane does too, but it's not as extreme...she just lies down to sleep and have a lucid dream in which she makes the story come out right this time. Of course, in both cases the attempt is doomed to failure, as conscience and reality begin poking their way through more insistently, until they can't be denied.

There are, as mentioned by others, plenty of bits that don't fit, which is great, too...narrative is only one part of a film. But the above take on the film doesn't feel reductive to me at all, in fact quite the opposite.

bill r. said...

But it does diminish it for me. That's just my reaction to the film, and to pretty much any "it's a dream/hallucination" narratives. To me, that's a sure-fire mystery killrt, and I can't imagine why anyone would ever be satisfied with it. If you are, more power to you, but I really can't stand it.

John said...

Yeah, I tend to side with Bill here. Much of the power of Lynch's work comes from the intriguing but maddeningly elusive logic that runs through most of it. Is there some definite meaning being revealed? Maybe, but even then maybe we shouldn't expect it to make "sense" in our limited understanding.

It is great when movies provoke thought and discussion and give rise to multiple interpretations. I don't agree, though, with the idea, often expressed as "the reader/watcher decides", generally associated with works that don't resolve into straightforward implications, or with clear-cut beginnings and endings. No, the reader decides nothing, all they can offer are guesses, in the end.

bill r. said...

Yes -- it's all guesses. And it's when people have an air of certainty about those guesses that I start to get frustrated. I've heard people say, about both MULHOLLAND DR. and INLAND EMPIRE, that they MAKE PERFECT SENSE! And if you don't think so, THEN YOU WEREN'T PAYING ATTENTION!

Plus, there's a difference between what a filmmaker offers up as their inspiration for a particular film, and what's actually on-screen. Grant, what Lynch says about Simpson, and living with the fact that you've committed murder, makes a certain amount of sense, but there's so much in the film that throws the whole thing into a cocked hat. Like the Cowboy. The Cowboy really fucks up some theories, but good.

Dean Treadway said...

My assessment of MULHOLLAND DR. at is probably one you'll hate, Bill. I still urge you to read it. Even though I've come up with my answer, the film still has extraordinary power for me because of many of the mysteries we still find in it. But, like it or not, the film DOES make sense, in the larger scheme of things. I guess I'm saying I disagree with your well-posed argument against looking for logic in the film. It has this, yet it also contains a lot of delightful or scary red-herrings, like most dreams do.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

I've always bought the dream theory But unlike most "it was a dream" reveals, I don't find it diminishing at all.

In fact, realizing that the story of Betty is the fantasy of Diane makes the whole movie, for me, almost unbearably sad. Her fantasy of being her girlfriend's first and only love ("Have you done this before?"), or being so talented every Hollywood slickster is astonished, or failing only because evil men are keeping her from deserved success, or of the director who kept her down being powerless and persecuted---these are all the fantasies that movies normally uncritically cater to, and it was very moving to see the need for those fantasies presented as the outcome of terrible guilt and shame. Watching it the first time, I thought the first 2/3 were really funny; now I tear up every time someone praises Diane, because I keep seeing the little girl in the background, gripping her dolls tight and ordering them to tell her she's pretty.

Part of why I think Mulholland is Lynch's best film is that the long delay in production forced him to analyze his impulses much more than usual (TM may have also been a factor. Unlike Inland Empire (which I enjoy but am not much moved by), all the pieces do tie together, and they become much more emotionally resonant when they cohere.

bill r. said...

Dean and Fuzzy - I appreciate you guys checking in, and you make your cases well. But those readings simply do not work for me. And I don't really think saying that everything that doesn't fit the theory is a red herring is enough. That's my whole point. You could develop any number of theories about what's going on in the film, as long as you're willing to exclude what doesn't fit. My approach is that everything matters, nothing doesn't fit, but what it all adds up to is not for us to know.

Greg said...

but there's so much in the film that throws the whole thing into a cocked hat. Like the Cowboy. The Cowboy really fucks up some theories, but good.

Well, if someone wants to go with the basic story we've all discussed (Naomi Watts having a dream then waking to her depressing real existence) then the cowboy is just someone holding her back, a powerful nameless figure pulling the strings. For me, the character that fucks theories up better is the guy who dies of fright behind Winkies. I mean, how's that figure into anything? Sure, other characters eat there, and meet with a hitman, but what does some guy dreaming about a man behind Winkies, then seeing him and dying, have to do with anything?

By the way, one of my favorite and biggest laughs in the whole movie is when the hitman (I can only ever call him "Jacob" now thanks to "Lost") shoots through the wall and runs next door and the large woman says, emphatically, "Something bit me bad!"

Also, worse theory ever is this extensive one I read online somewhere where the whole movie is an allegory for the story of Jesus. Man, that interpretation is a hoot!

bill r. said...

But the Cowboy appears in both the "dream" and the "reality". That's why he screws up the theory.

Ed Howard said...

But the Cowboy appears in both the "dream" and the "reality". That's why he screws up the theory.

Not really. Naomi Watts' subconscious dreaming mind picks up on people she saw at the party and throws them into her dream. In the dream theory, the cowboy is just some random guy in a costume she sees walking by in the background of the party, and he makes enough of an impact on her mind that he turns up in the dream.

Greg, I've always thought that the whole hitman scene was Lynch's tribute/parody of Tarantino. Something about it just gives me that vibe; maybe it's the comical, over-the-top treatment of violence, and also the way Mark Pellegrino delivers his lines in that exaggerated whine, kind of like the injured crooks in Reservoir Dogs.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Not to be a complete pedant, but as regards the Winkies:

The Winkies is where Dianne hired the hitman (note the mirroring glances to the counter in both the dream-talk scene and Dianne-at-the-diner). In her dream, she imagines the Winkies as a place controlled by an evil presence, one that's specifically external. As elsewhere in the dream, she's desperately trying to externalize her own guilt onto shadowy forces, as though they, not she, are responsible.

Here, as everywhere, her mind is rebelling---the references to dreaming and waking are the sound of her consciousness trying to force her to acknowledge just how thin this self-protecting fiction has become, and she eventually has to kill her fictional avatar off to regain control of the story (I believe it's right after this scene that she settles on "Betty" as her surrogate). Indeed, much of what gives the movie such an emotional charge for me is the way Dianne, as the author of the first half, is so clearly trying tospeak to herself. Much of the tension in the movie is the tension between the storyteller's urge to conceal her crime and to reveal it; it's like a cinematic version of Notes From The Underground.

As for the Winkies Monster returning: It's important to note that when I say the first part is a dream, I don't mean it isn't real. One constant in Lynch's work is his insistence that subjective states are just as real as objective states, and therefore dreams are just as real as events. The Winkies Monster is as real, in the movie's world, as Dianne, and Lynch is actually pretty sympathetic to Dianne's belief that there's an evil monster out there in the world that makes people do terrible, selfish things.

Greg said...

she eventually has to kill her fictional avatar off to regain control of the story (I believe it's right after this scene that she settles on "Betty" as her surrogate).

I got to be honest, that feels a little like what skeptics call post-dictions (as opposed to predictions) with folks like Nostradamus, where their fans take a quatrain that says "and the frog did leap upon the pad as the cricket reigned in Venus" and somehow pull World War II out of it. In other words, once you've settled on a specific theory you can retrofit it to make sense no matter what wrench gets thrown into the works.

Look, I don't believe any true artist ever produces a random piece of work. Works of art are inspired and come from somewhere in the mind of the artist and every part of them is done with purpose. I do believe there is a basic story here because David Lynch is an artist and no artist is satisfied just throwing random chunks together, anyone can do that. I believe Lynch had a story in mind that was to him, perhaps, no more than a feeling (a way he often describes how he comes upon stories and characters, he gets a feeling from something) and there's enough there that one can pull out heartbreak and love and revenge and form their own story with what Lynch has given us, and he's given us plenty to work with.

In other words, I think it's great to go with whatever story works best for you out of this movie but I honestly don't think any of us have in mind exactly what David Lynch had in mind. In fact, why can't the first 2/3 be the reality and the last third be a horrible nightmare in which everything goes wrong. Tiny old people are more dreamlike/nightmarish than anything in the first 2/3rds anyway. Why not that theory? It can be any way you want it because, I believe, Lynch provided a good 50 percent of the story and then stopped. The rest is up to you.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Well, but isn't all art criticism post-dictions? We saw an event, and then we retrospectively try to fit it into some order, whether or not the creator intended it to have that order? That's why all criticism, like all art-making, is personal. The "best" theory on a work is the one that explains all or most of the artistic decisions, in a way that seems to honor the subjective emotional effect of the work.

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Anonymous said...


Greg said...

Never mind, Fuzzy, those last two commenters summed it all up perfectly. They put us both to shame!

I'm going to watch this movie again this week! Great discussion here and at Cinema Styles.

bill r. said...

I was going to delete the spam, but now I can't. Thanks a lot, Greg.

Frank B said...

I just saw this last night, at the Castro Theater. Good timing.

"In fact, realizing that the story of Betty is the fantasy of Diane makes the whole movie, for me, almost unbearably sad."

I agree. Above all else, this is a sad, sad story. Not tragic in the classical sense, because Diane is a nobody; but pathetic and heartrending.

I always find myself sitting there stunned, rattled and devastated as the credits roll, regardless of how many times I've seen the film. I can imagine being in that situation -- not necessarily having put a hit on someone, but being alone and lost, besieged by phantasms and ready to throw in the towel. (Does it strike anyone else as odd that Diane would keep a pistol in her bedside table? I never really thought about that before. This film is a good argument against that practice.)

I also agree with Fuzzy's last comment. Putting the pieces together in a satisfying way doesn't cheapen the experience for me at all. The emotional effect is the same, independent of whether the narrative makes "sense" or not. But if you prefer to avoid consciously puzzling it out and would rather just float along for the ride, that's cool, too. I'm sure Lynch would tell us there's no right or wrong way to watch his movies.

GregT said...

Mulholland Drive does ultimately make sense as a lucid narrative (unusually for David Lynch) but it doesn't have to for you to enjoy it, because ultimately it's about the search for answers, and our desire to make ones that are more interesting than the truth.

The early parts of the film are, yes, Watts' dream, and the images and go-nowhere plots and inconsistencies in it are Watts attempting to explain and rationalise and fill in the answers to questions from her real life in ways that make her life meaningful, make it larger and better than it is, make it Hollywood instead of Buttfuck Arizona or wherever it is she won the dance competition.

There's a hitman; in real-life he's prosaic and ugly, but in her dream he's THE hitman, a pivotal player in the history of the world in telephone numbers. There's a key; it's significant to her but insignificant to the hitman but both in her dream and in reality it changes the world, makes it darker, and makes a woman go away. Is a man in a cowboy costume a boring man dressing up as a better and wilder time, or is he actually more than he appears, rather than less?

The more people search for bigger and better answers in Mulholland Drive, the more it makes its point.

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The scariest movie I've ever seen in my whole life.