David Lynch is a Prophet for our Time

... and Mulholland Drive is his greatest revelation yet.

Ken Preston

5 November 2023

Mulholland Drive
It’s like a hieroglyph you’re always on the verge of translating or a lover’s sphinx-like expression in bed that suggests betrayal, devotion or something in between. [1]

The first time I watched David Lynch’s waking dream of a movie, Mulholland Drive, I was underwhelmed and extremely confused. This is ranked number eight by the British Film Institute in the greatest 100 movies ever made poll? I must have missed something!

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But in the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The film’s haunting, beautiful images of Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, Rebekah Del Rio singing in Club Silencio, the mysterious blue box and the secrets it contained, all had become lodged in my brain.

The second time I watched Mulholland Drive was at The Electric Cinema in Birmingham. As the credits rolled, the woman sitting next to me turned to her partner and said, ‘What the fuck have I just watched?’

Well, quite.

Rebekah Del Rio in Mulholland Drive

As for me, I was stunned. I now realised that Mulholland Drive was not your regular movie with a conventional plot and narrative. It’s a beautiful, terrifying, haunting puzzle, a dream that turns into a nightmare, a love story, a murder mystery, a horror story, an homage to Old Hollywood, and yet an indictment of its grubby, deceitful workings at the same time.

After a second viewing, I felt I was now on the verge of discovering its secrets, unwrapping the layers of mystery to find the beating heart of meaning within. Maybe a third viewing would do it.

Maybe.

Hollywood is eating itself. Disney has already swallowed up Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox, and Pixar, Amazon Studios has eaten MGM, Comcast gulped down DreamWorks Animation, and Sony has digested Columbia.

We live in a world of Netflix movies by numbers, franchise films including sequels, remakes, and reinventions, and where critically acclaimed directors like Martin Scorsese struggle to find the financing for their latest project.

And then there is David Lynch. His last movie was Inland Empire in 2006. It was shot on a tiny budget and promoted with an even tinier marketing budget. Here he is sitting on Hollywood Boulevard with a cow, attempting to garner a best actress nomination for Laura Dern.

David Lynch sitting on Hollywood Boulevard with a cow, advocating for an Oscar nomination for Laura Dern.

Lynch tried working within the Hollywood system, and failed.

But then prophets are never recognised for what they are in their time. Instead, they are stoned and ostracised, and only when they die they are held up as beacons of light and wisdom.

David Lynch is a prophet for our time.

And Mulholland Drive is his most profound revelation.

Naomi Watts and Lara Harring in Mulholland Drive

I don’t even know where to start discussing Mulholland Drive. I wasn’t even sure I should write about it all, as many others have already critiqued and deconstructed its mysteries far more skilfully than I can. Not that anyone has managed to explain it.

No, Mulholland Drive will forever remain a mystery, and whatever interpretation of its meaning is presented to its creator, David Lynch, he will always reply, ‘Yes, you’re right.’

So, let’s start with the plot, shall we?

At first glance, Mulholland Drive is the straightforward tale of a young aspiring actress, Betty Elms (played by Naomi Watts in what turned out to be her breakout role), arriving in Los Angeles, who becomes entangled in the mystery of a beautiful woman known only as Rita (Laura Harring) who has lost her memory. Betty sets out to find out who Rita is, and we seem to be headed into Nancy Drew Mystery Stories’ territory.

Except … when Betty first arrives in LA, she is with two travelling companions, an old couple she met on the plane. They are warm and friendly and wish Betty good luck in her career as an actress. Cut to the old couple in the back of their taxi as they leave and they are maniacally grinning. They obviously know something we don’t, and it’s not good.

From this initial setup the plot of Mulholland Drive fractures and veers off into unknown realms involving gangsters, a sinister homeless person living behind a diner, a mysterious blue box, an inept hitman, dreams, nightmares, a romance, and a third act in which Naomi Watts and Laura Harring play completely different characters to the ones they started with.

Confused yet?

We’ve only just begun.

A close up of Dan Hedaya in Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive began life as a TV pilot for a series that never happened. Television studio ABC wanted to cash in on the popularity of Twin Peaks, co-created and written by Lynch and Mark Frost. But when Lynch submitted his first edit, the ABC executives got nervous, and responded with a long list of notes detailing the changes that they required, and insisting that the running time be cut from two hours to eighty-eight minutes.

Lynch made the changes and cut the running time, but it wasn’t enough to save the project. Lynch found out the series officially wasn’t a go in mid-May as he was leaving for the airport headed to Cannes with The Straight Story, and he’s admitted to feeling a wave of euphoria when he heard the news. He felt that the cut of the show that was then in play had been butchered and was relieved to learn it would die a quiet death. [2]

A year later and Lynch was able to buy the negatives off ABC after Studio Canal Plus stepped in to provide the finance for turning the pilot into a feature film. Miraculously, the cast and crew were available for a further seventeen days of shooting. The characters of Betty and Rita were transformed from preppy girl investigators to lovers, and Mulholland Drive, like the road, became a twisting, mysterious thing unto itself.

Released in 2000, this greatest of all David Lynch’s movies prophesied the fractured times we live in.

But he remains strongly part of the zeitgeist for deeper reasons: the times have caught up with him and become more Lynchian, more bewildering, fragmented and subject to shocking disruptions. [3]

You can even get ‘Directed by David Lynch’ stickers for your windows, so that when you look outside, you can make sense of what you see. I’m considering putting one on my TV every time I watch the news.

Directed by David Lynch window sticker.

If you haven’t seen Mulholland Drive, then you must, but don’t just watch it the once, because your initial reaction will almost certainly be, ‘What the fuck have I just watched?’

Watch it a second time, and allow yourself to be swallowed up by its mystery.

We are living in Lynchian times, so we might as well go back to the movie that predicted it.

Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive, screaming as hands reach out to grab her.

2. Room to Dream, by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna

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