The moment in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” that resonates most deeply with me, and there are a few, takes place inside the club known as “Silencio.” “Silencio! No hay banda,” the announcer “says” to the crowd, explaining that there is no band, no live performance. It’s all taped. It’s all a recording. It’s all an illusion.
Lynch gives us a few shots, one from the balcony where Betty and Irene are sitting, another in close-up of the emcee, and a third from his side profile revealing a blue-haired woman sitting zombie-like in the luxury box above. The lights begin to flicker in a blue haze as the emcee vanishes, and Betty starts to shake uncontrollably in her seat as thunder begins to rumble in the theater. A new host steps out to introduce Rebekah Del Rio, a singer playing herself who performs “Llorando,” a Latin cover of a Roy Orbison song, “Crying.” She’s dressed in red and black with a glint of red and yellow makeup beneath her eye. She’s first seen from afar, then in close up as she builds in dynamics. She’s barely fighting back tears and absolutely wailing, and Lynch cuts back to Betty and Irene unable to hold back their own. And then, she collapses, topples to her side as her siren song continues on tape.
It’s all taped. It’s all a recording. It’s all an illusion. This moment marks an important turning point in the film, in which the reality that Betty and Irene think they belong to begins to unravel. There’s no “unlocking” the tiny blue box they hold, or for that matter any of the movie’s secrets. All of “Mulholland Dr.’s” mysteries, noir trappings and bizarre twists have been part of some surreal movie magic, completely artificial and cinematic. It’s ALL a recording.
And yet Del Rio’s song packs an emotionally devastating wallop. It’s completely abstract and strange, but it’s the most passionately felt moment of the film. The emcee’s introduction and their arrival at Club Silencio alone portray a sense of other-worldly mystery, but for a brief moment Lynch’s framing creates an illusion of safety and intimate reality. We feel very close to this performer, she feels utterly real, and when she collapses as though her soul has left her body or was never there to begin with, it’s crippling.
A few weeks back “Mulholland Dr.” was voted the #1 film of the new century by a BBC poll of critics. As a result it’ll be the film years from now that budding young movie buffs and brave general audiences will “challenge” in the way they have for decades with “Citizen Kane.” Being the best of all time bears a heavy burden. And just as upon my first viewing, they’ll be disappointed. They’ll fight to unpack its many unusual and complex plot threads and twists, and they’ll miss its emotional impact, it’s simultaneously harrowing, gut wrenching and entrancing moods.
Time and again Lynch intercuts the film’s surrealism with fleeting moments of familiar, cinematic safety and territory. Another that comes to mind also involves a song, this time a ‘50s pop song inside a recording studio. It’s only after a few moments that it’s revealed the studio is part of a film set, with several women auditioning for the lead part. Our mind races to piece together Betty’s arrival on set, the arrival of the girl the director Adam is supposed to recruit, but for that brief sequence, those thoughts of what’s happening and why dissipate.
“Mulholland Dr.” isn’t just great cinema but a movie about cinema. If you want to know why “Mulholland Dr.” became the number one consensus pick over any of the others, it’s because better than any film of the last 16 years it has embodied the power of cinema within the thread of its narrative. While it has a complex story and many elements that continue to unravel no matter how many viewings you devote to it, it’s because Lynch has imagined a dream world in which the illusion of reality is called into question, in which anything is possible, and he’s quite transparently the one pulling the strings.
Among the other movies in the Top 25 of the BBC List, several are about dreams, memories and our sense of reality within the movie’s world. Other than “Mulholland Dr.” the critics voted in “Memento,” “Cache,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Lost in Translation,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “Holy Motors,” “The Act of Killing,” “The Tree of Life,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “Spirited Away” into the Top 25. These movies are about a lot of things, and all of them highly different from what Lynch has accomplished. But at their core they’re dreamy films alive with cinematic technique that test a sense of reality and suggest cinema’s power to do so.
“There’s a man. In the back of this place. He’s the one who’s doing it,” a man says to a detective at a tacky diner called Winky’s. “I hope I never see the face outside of that dream.” If “Mulholland Dr.” at times feels disturbing, the nightmarish face at the back of that Winky’s comes to mind. We don’t often want to see our reality shaken or revealed to us outside of that safe illusion. But doing so can be remarkably powerful, and no film this century has done that quite so well.