Before arriving at the Whitney Humanities Center last Saturday night, it hadn’t yet dawned on me how relevant my experience this past summer was to David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. I had seen the film before, and I had enjoyed its strange, dreamlike atmosphere in the same way that one enjoys any universe not wholly our own that touches upon our innate desire for wonder. In discussing Mulholland Drive, Graham Winfrey of IndieWire opines, “People are prepared to look at things that are ambiguous and mysterious and uncertain. They’re along for the ride in the same way that they’re along for the ride in their own dreams.” Lynch certainly provides a ride — one fueled by mistaken or forgotten identities, eerie nighttime encounters, and blurry distinctions between the real and imagined. Thus, in going to see Lynch’s iconic film for a second time, I readied myself to savor its bizarreness once again, and better comprehend its dizzyingly surreal plot — if doing so were indeed within my power. Once the film began, however, I realized that I wasn’t merely watching the film for the second time: Instead, I was being thrust back onto a familiarly dark and lonely road, one that I found myself on not three months ago.
First it’s best to give some context. Released in 2001, Mulholland Drive depicts what is often believed to be the dream of a failed actress named Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts), in which several interpolated storylines intersect and ultimately (perhaps arguably) come together, à la Pulp Fiction. The film opens on the street for which it is named with a woman (Laura Harring) suffering from amnesia following a car crash. Eventually finding an unlocked apartment and adopting the name Rita upon entering it, the woman befriends another woman whom we are encouraged to believe is Betty. Together, Rita and Betty search for the only person Rita can remember — Diane Selwyn. As this adventure progresses, we are invited to follow the parallel story of film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who is pressured by the mob to cast another actress in his film production instead of Betty. A series of puzzling events ensue, and we are left to decipher who actually exists, and what in the world has happened.
Mulholland Drive snakes its way through the hills of Los Angeles, which is exactly where I was going in early June for an internship. After a few days, my dad — who had flown out to help get me settled — departed, and I was mostly alone. Several of my friends from Yale were also living in the LA area (or reside there on a more permanent basis), and their presence brought a dose of normalcy and comfort to my experience. But watching Mulholland Drive last Saturday, the character claiming to be Rita resonated with me. The fear and confusion that she experiences after waking up without her memory became real to me. When I first watched the film I was intrigued by the external situation of Rita’s plight, but this time Rita’s emotions took on new life as I recalled my own fear that summer — fear of not knowing exactly where I was headed. What was it that I was chasing so many miles from home? Beyond a stated notion that being around the filmmaking industry would be cool, I had only a murky understanding of my purpose in Los Angeles. Though induced by circumstances entirely different from those of Rita, I too felt an unsettling lack of direction, not merely with respect to the geography of Southern California.
I remembered driving back home from a show at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood — one of the best nights I spent out there, particularly because I was with a friend and the laughs were plentiful. Getting into the car I had rented a couple of weeks prior, I was once again alone, navigating alien streets in the obscurity of night. It was strange. After taking a detour among near-empty roads through the hills, I saw it: the sign for Mulholland Drive. Admittedly, Lynch’s film of the same title crossed my mind. I thought to myself, this is where Rita’s odyssey began; this, many critics argue, is where Diane Selwyn’s subconscious was brought to life. But as soon as the sign was there, it was gone, and darkness swallowed all but the fifty feet of road in front of me. Though I forgot about seeing the sign shortly thereafter, watching the film pulled me back to it, as if its memory had been summoned from the abyss of amnesia.
Today, things are a lot clearer. In both a literal and a figurative sense, I am no longer on Mulholland Drive, even if the screening transported me back there for a few hours. I’m back on the East Coast, where the roads also wind but the path is known, as are the familiar faces along it. Mulholland Drive — and Mulholland Drive — have both receded into the darkness.