Are you getting tired of the Lynch posts? I promise this will likely be the last one for a bit, as even I’m feeling the need for a break now. Anyhow, having surveyed different films from across his career and re-re-watched Mulholland Drive, two things are apparent: the first is that the man is my favourite director, and the second is that I’ve boringly come around to agreeing with the critics that Mulholland Drive is probably the best thing he’s done. It ranks with Spirited Away and 2001: A Space Odyssey as a movie that has both been pretty foundational in shaping my aesthetic tastes and has surprisingly weathered the test of time, still retaining its power after the novelty has worn off (and here’s an odd observation: Spirited Away and Mulholland Drive both were released in 2001). But it was only in light of his other stuff that the understanding of its achievement as a David Lynch film really clicked for me.
Like a lot of very talented and imaginative people, Lynch chafes against artistic limitations imposed upon him. But also like a lot of talents those limitations play a big part in honing his abilities. His debut film, Eraserhead, is balls-to-the-wall crazy, but, like the original Star Wars, the low budget production limitations enforced a kind of discipline, and the result is a movie where every scene and every shot is carefully considered and contributes to the whole. You never get the sense that something there exists simply because the director wanted it in.
With Blue Velvet, however, Lynch’s idiosyncracies feel a bit out of hand; a lot of the interesting thematic content and drama feels upstaged by shock value. A few years later, the TV show Twin Peaks shows the director revisiting similar ideas. But the limitations of early 90s network television forced him to get a lot sharper in how he approached it. The show also reveals a side of him that is very attuned to serialized storytelling and what makes for good TV, proving himself very adept at throwing out all the dramatic hooks to keep a long-term narrative afloat.
Mulholland Drive, by a happy accident, splits the difference: it was a failed TV pilot that was reworked into a feature film. It brings the discipline of his TV writing/directing to the big screen, while also adding the further challenge of discipline of wrapping up what was originally intended to be a much longer story within the span of 2.5 hours. And the remarkable thing is that the solution to this challenge turns out to be a very Lynchian one: an act of narrative self-immolation that turns out to be more satisfying than any more conventional resolution. It’s a movie which plays to all his strengths as a filmmaker and as a result manages to be his most emotionally poignant – and watchable – work. Like Eraserhead, everything that went wrong with the project turned out to its benefit.
As much as I like picking apart Inland Empire, I’m not quite sure if my current enthusiasm will last in the same way (and, frankly, there’s only so much home-video quality footage you can take before you begin to long for actual cinematography). Unravelling Mulholland Drive only makes it more unsettling and haunting, and it remains to be seen if Inland Empire has a similar return on its investment.
Since I mentioned Star Wars, I’ll close with a tangential thought: how would George Lucas’ career have fared if he hadn’t stepped away from the directorial chair after his unexpected hit?