A Letter to David Lynch on the 20th Anniversary of Mulholland Drive

Dear David,

I am writing to you this October 12, 2021, 20 years after the release of your intricately designed, painstakingly assembled neo-noir masterpiece Mulholland Drive—awarded at the Cannes Film Festival, obsessed over by fans, and now memed endlessly by Twitter accounts enthralled by the agony of Patrick Fischler—to ask you a simple question. I don’t doubt that you’ve gotten this question before, perhaps from critics who describe your films as “post-Freudian pulp fiction fever dream[s],” like Stephen Holden in The New York Times, or “psychological cul de sacs,” as David Sterritt so ingeniously wrote for The Christian Science Monitor. At least my question might interest you more than another argument over whether Twin Peaks: The Return is TV or a movie, since you haven’t seemed too bothered by categorization distinctions before. I promise not to mention Dune! And I know that you are very busy with your daily YouTube weather reports, and you might not have time to answer! That’s fine, I get it, I’ll be brief. Here goes: 

What the hell, man? 

Maybe that question is too broad, but I mean it seriously, truly, and genuinely. I have thought it for nearly 10 years, since first watching Mulholland Drive with no idea of what I was getting into. Then, over and over as I worked backward through your career, which so often puts a sensual spin on questions of body horror, applies dream logic to cases of mistaken identity, and argues that the imaginary barrier between the real and surreal doesn’t hold so fast. In Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, all the various iterations of Twin Peaks—it’s all there! 

But those explorations are most acute in Mulholland Drive, a film that has given me more nightmares than any other. Yes, any other. More than Audition, more than The Blair Witch Project, more than The Shining, more than Candyman, more than The Ring, more than The Vanishing. All those films are scary. For one of your TV shows or movies, though, a descriptor like “scary” is laughably narrow. A Lynch joint is somehow simultaneously intimate and all-encompassing—less about the reactive moment of being afraid, and more about how that fear transforms you in its wake. About reconciling who you are after a moment that doesn’t quite make sense, or that feels confusingly familiar; that feels like you’ve lived it already, or like you’ve already anticipated its occurrence. About losing yourself, and not recognizing who returns. 

Are you the primary architect of my fears? Or do you simply tap into whatever my anxieties and angsts already were? “A film by David Lynch” causes a level of apprehension that is practically unmatched, even though your works don’t exactly rely on the kind of monsters that built Universal Pictures or Hammer Film Productions. Instead, you’ve pioneered a cinematic style that has its own descriptor—Lynchian—and that is disturbing in its suggestion rather than its explicitness. 

Time and space don’t follow their normal rules. Identities are doubled, tripled, repeated ad infinitum. Our consciousness can be fractured, and corrupted, and polluted. All in all, Lynchian means unshakably unsettling and unspeakably other, and Mulholland Drive is the masterpiece that makes this vision real. Every scene feels like a trespass on someone else’s memories, and the film’s purposefully fragmented narrative feeds into this asynchronicity. What does anything have to do with anything else? Although Angelo Badalamenti’s evocatively spooky score reverberates through it all and adds unifying tone and texture, at first it’s hard to say where else the connections are. 

The neo-noir vibe of the gorgeously chic woman (Laura Elena Harring) in a car traveling upon Mulholland Drive, and the no-nonsense efficiency of a pair of police detectives played by Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe, jaggedly contrast with the overly earnest cheeriness of aspiring actress Betty Elms (a never-better Naomi Watts). “I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star, but sometimes people end up being both,” she says, all smiles and sunshine, and her optimism about the industry butts up against the catch-22 ensnaring movie director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). Kesher, in a subplot that feels like Lynch aiming daggers at the nepotistic machinations of Hollywood, is being leaned on by mobsters to cast a certain actress in his upcoming movie. “It’s no longer your film,” they say, and they’ll do whatever it takes to intimidate Kesher into acquiescing control.   

All of that is fairly grounded stuff. But you had to get weird with it, right? You had to get weird with it. So there’s that long dalliance with Joe the assassin (Mark Pellegrino) bungling a job and leaving three bodies on the floor instead of just one. (His “I can’t do everything by myself, man!” is the pained complaint of overworked laborers everywhere.) There’s the Billy Ray Cyrus cameo. There’s the strange blue cube and accompanying blue key. And there’s the reality-questioning nature of Club Silencio, and the hauntingly pained cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” that Rebekah Del Rio sings on its stage. “I was alright for a while/I could smile for a while,” Del Rio croons in Spanish, and those lyrics fit nicely with the warning Betty’s mysterious neighbor Louise (Lee Grant) gives her: “Someone is in trouble. Something bad is happening.” 

What that “something bad” turns out to be rearranges all the elements of Mulholland Drive. The passion Rita and Betty grow to feel for each other, and the steamy chemistry Watts and Harring share. The creative bankruptcy Adam accepts for the promise of a payday, and the self-satisfied smugness Theroux injects into his character. The meaning of “This is all a tape recording,” a meta reveal from Club Silencio’s magician (Richard Green) that refers to more than just the performance Rita and Betty watch when they visit the venue. These disparate puzzle pieces mostly fit together like that blue cube and key, except for one: the diner scene. 

Your career is dotted through with these moments of horribly drawn-out tension and practically fourth wall-breaking aggression, isn’t it? I’m thinking specifically of Twin Peaks and The Return (BOB leaping over the couch; the Woodsmen staring into the camera), and generally of your willingness to let the uncanny cross over into the direct. And so it goes with the segment in Mulholland Drive that arguably makes the least logical sense, but also has the greatest visceral impact. Had you seen Fischler previously on Nash Bridges or NYPD Blue? Did you know he had that expressive of a face, and that level of control? Because if Mulholland Drive is a film fashioned in the dream world, in that space between reality and regret, then Fischler’s Dan is its North Star. His panic burns so pure that it becomes a subconscious guide for us, and an exemplification of the kind of cosmic horror that can await us in the most innocuous of places. A dumpster in the back of a diner is the home for a figure who plagues Dan’s dreams, who takes over his reality, and who conveys to us the idea that inexplicable things happen to ordinary people—and there’s not much any of us can do about it. 

My understanding is that Fischler is surprised by the legacy of that scene. As he told Cultured Vultures in 2017, “It’s very odd for me that that’s what it became. It wasn’t on anyone’s minds. I mean, I don’t know what was on David’s mind, but it was certainly not on mine.” Was it on your mind, David? It had to be, right? Because every element of this scene works together to reach into my chest and squeeze my heart so hard that it stops. The close-up of Fischler’s frozen, anguished face once Dan realizes that the dream he was describing is a dream he is actually in. How the audio drops out, the sunlight grows blindingly bright, and cinematographer Peter Deming pushes us forward to the dumpster, like we are operating in the same daze as Dan. And, most unnervingly, the unnatural slinkiness with which the dirty, dank figure played by Bonnie Aarons reveals itself from behind the dumpster enclosure, holds our gaze, and smiles. 

I did not like it! And yet I cannot purge it from my memory, either—this suggestion that the most banal life experiences walk on a razor’s edge between ordinariness and extraordinariness, in the purest sense of that word. That’s your whole deal, and I keep going back to it, even as it turns me into a quivering mess. Remember what I said earlier about all my nightmares caused by Mulholland Drive? Way to go, David. You’re a genius and also a masochist. Thanks for being you. 

With begrudging affection,

Mulholland Drive is streaming on Showtime. 

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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