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.
But...so 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.