‘Mulholland Drive’ (2001) and the Artifice of the American Dream

The American Dream is defined as an ideal that every American citizen should achieve success through hard work and determination. Hollywood has been perpetuating this notion through film for decades, telling their audiences that they will be happy and live a prosperous life if you simply work hard for it. David Lynch, an American born director, is one of the first of his kind to stray away from injecting false senses of hope to his movie-goers. In 2001, he wrote and directed his masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, a film that exposes the façade of the Hollywood Dream Factory. Starring Naomi Watts as ‘Betty’, an unassuming idealist who comes to Hollywood bright-eyed and bushy-tailed with hopes to become a movie star. By the third act, the audience learns that Betty is just a dream-like version of her true self, ‘Diane’, who has been destroyed by the Hollywood machine. With a runtime of 147 minutes, Mulholland Drive goes beyond reason and explanation and channels the unconscious for the power of imagination. David Lynch removes himself from the Hollywood norm and instead shows us the dangers of hope and belief.

If Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense, then David Lynch is the master of Surrealism. One of the major tenets of the Surrealism movement is the idea that the rational mind suppresses the power of imagination. To many, especially on the first viewing, Mulholland Drive may seem illogical with its unconnected sequences and unexpected juxtaposition. And like most of his filmography, trying to apply what we know as rational thought and logic will result in completely missing the point. Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming use wistful, stardust imagery to masquerade the merciless unpleasantries of movie making. The atmosphere is dreamy, but a stark reality is looming nearby. Through his direction, Hollywood is, at first, as glamorized as it always is on film, but later on Lynch makes the audience absolutely repulsed by the machine that runs it. A common medium in Surrealist art is recurring motifs and symbolism, and Lynch uses those techniques throughout Mulholland Drive in Diane’s dream life of Betty and in her own subconscious mind. Motifs like the red lamp shade, the blue key and the monster behind Winkie’s, all appear in both worlds. The outlandish, seemingly uncanny characters and images in the film are used by Lynch to jolt the audience out of their comforting assumptions programmed by cinema history. Taking a note from renowned Surrealist influencer, Sigmund Freud, Lynch too legitimizes the importance of the unconscious in revealing valid human emotions and desires, including repressed sexuality. In Betty’s idealistic life, she is a blossoming young woman with sexual feelings towards Rita (Laura Harring), which are later returned and met with love and bliss. But in the harsh reality, Diane is forced to repress how she feels for Camilla because she will be rejected. This contrast shoves the emptiness and hopelessness of reality right in the viewer’s face. 

When Betty arrives in Los Angeles for the first time, she is a naive and vulnerable dreamer. She wants to be one of the great actresses in history. She meets a nice lady on the plane and tells her about her dreams, but as the lady wishes her luck, the dialogue seems unnatural, almost overdubbed, and obviously read from a script. It is a surface, one-dimensional exchange, which automatically raises the viewer’s guard because something is just slightly off about it. Someone like Betty is the perfect target for Hollywood to exploit and manufacture into what they want. This is Lynch’s way of expressing the studio system standard of putting women into boxes of stereotypical narratives. He is mocking them, exposing the lack of creativity Hollywood tends to have when writing female characters. Betty’s storyline is so depthless and shallow, that she is essentially forced to transition to assert self-sufficiency. That change begins when Lynch dips into the Neo-Noir pool and introduces Rita, an amnesiac who shows up in Betty’s apartment. She has no idea who she is or what happened to her, but her forgotten identity and fractured reality opens Betty up to wild curiosity. Rita brings her into a world of adventure, lust and danger. Later on, to the audience’s surprise, they learn that the Betty and Rita they’ve come to know in the first two acts are simply a fabrication of Diane Selwyn’s mind. She reimagined and reinvented her life into one where Camilla/Rita loves her and depends on her, and where film directors are dying to cast her. This echoes the American consumerism culture in which movie-goers are unable to work out their grievances in real life, so they resort to fantasy and escapism. By the end of the film, the emptiness and disappointment of reality is too much for Diane, and she takes her own life in the midst of a horrifying hallucination. With this layered, intricate character, Lynch has set up one of the most impressive bait and switches in recent cinema history.

Betty looks at Rita longingly.
Betty (left) looking longingly at Rita (right). Image courtesy of Criterion/Universal Pictures

Mulholland Drive was voted the number one greatest film made in the 21st century by the BBC. A group of over a hundred movie critics curated the list, and likely chose Lynch’s 2001 film to top it because of the way he manipulates his audience and puzzles his viewers. He uses the expectation movie-goers have been conditioned to believe through film history as a tool to trick them in the same way a lighting setup creates a certain mood. The definition of expectation is a strong belief that something will happen. Betty starts off as such an ordinary, recognizable character, the audience gets invested in her success yet are weary of danger because of her pure innocence, they expect her to get exploited. So when the twist in the third act is revealed, the audience is left in awe because they get submerged into the terrifying nothingness that they were warned against. The flatness in the first half of the film is an intentional deception. The audience is unsuspecting, unprepared, and incredibly susceptible to the emotions that society craves and fears. The classical Hollywood narrative that they are so accustomed to gets completely flipped in front of their eyes. Right before the switch, they believe they are finally getting a key, literally, to unlock the mystery set up in the first two acts, instead they are faced with the brutal reality of Diane’s unfulfilling life. An important part of any film is to have something that is at stake, whether it’s the hero’s family or a damsel in distress. In Mulholland Drive’s case, what’s at stake is the audience’s belief. In the famous Club Silencio scene, the Magician (Richard Green) repeats, “No Hay Banda.” There is no band. It’s all an illusion, just like the allure of Hollywood and just like the American Dream. Diane came to Los Angeles from Deep River, Ontario and she was expecting the thrill and glamour that she has seen in films her entire life. Instead, she was brought into a world where women are sexually exploited just to get roles, and where money trumps story in every circumstance. A world where a monster is actually just a homeless man, where art is just a disguise for industry.

What David Lynch does not only in this movie, but in all his movies, is unparalleled in filmmaking. He is one of the rare artists that is willing and capable of exposing the demons and skeletons in the very industry he creates in. He doesn’t try to reinvent classic cinema like a lot of modern directors do, he invents a new normal and abolishes the standard of selling your audience false hope. Instead of perpetuating the American dream, he dismantles it. As a viewer, you will exit this movie speechless, it will mess with your mind and leave you with a need to face whatever reality you have been avoiding thus far. It will make you reconsider everything you have come to be familiar with. What is success? What is failure? What is a dream? What is reality? Mulholland Drive challenges reason and logic, and drops the curtain on the false narrative and false hope created by the heavily perpetuated notion of the American Dream. Instead of going to a movie to escape your current reality, David Lynch creates a movie watching experience that will ultimately force you to question the authenticity of the world around you.

Header image courtesy of Universal Pictures