Gone Fishin’

David Lynch Casts a Line Into the City of Dreams

David Lynch's Mulholland Drive barrels through a funhouse of the director's longtime obsessions: splintered psyches and multiple identities, enigmatic brunets and vulnerable blonds, red drapes and ominous dwarves, amateur sleuthing and coffee connoisseurship. But what starts out like a greatest-hits anthology eventually reveals itself as a mind-blowing, context-shattering remix.

At last week's New York Film Festival press conference, in addition to the usual questions that might be expected to greet a new Lynch movie (dead-end inquiries about "the monster behind the diner"), there was curiosity about the feature's unique architecture (two-thirds linear mystery, one-third decomposing nightmare), its troubled origins (a TV pilot, rejected by ABC two years ago), and the relationship between the two.

The 55-year-old Lynch, for his part, remains unflappably tight-lipped. Someone asks him what material from the pilot was cut after he shot new scenes to fashion a stand-alone feature. "It wouldn't help you to have them," he says in his amicable foghorn. Someone else wonders about the direction Mulholland Drivewould have taken on television. "The series is dead," Lynch fires back. Another pointed inquiry about unused footage elicits blatant exasperation: "No, no, no, no. It's a putrefecation [sic] of the mind to talk about it."

"Endings are terrible things. They can have a great beauty, but only if they leave room to dream."
Photograph by Robin Holland
"Endings are terrible things. They can have a great beauty, but only if they leave room to dream."

Chain-smoking blue American Spirits and sipping an enormous cappuccino in a hotel suite the following day, Lynch says he doesn't mean to come off as cryptic or coy. "I'm not reluctant to discuss it. It's hard to explain, and I don't think I've been explaining it properly, what a gift it was. When you start out making an open-ended TV pilot and then switch to a feature film, it's very interesting what the mind has to come up with to solve certain problems. It would be very risky to do that on purpose. It would be absurd, but the ideas that came in wouldn't have occurred if it had been done a normal way, so ABC did me a huge service by allowing it to go that way and then killing it."

The rebirth of Mulholland Drive, which opened on Monday following sold-out festival screenings over the weekend, was facilitated by funds from the French studio Canal Plus, after what Lynch's producer, editor, and domestic partner Mary Sweeney calls "some very delicate negotiations." ABC was planning to air the 88-minute pilot as a TV movie in the spring of 2000. "David began proceedings with the DGA to have his name taken off," says Sweeney, "but it was all resolved in time."

Lynch says a resuscitation strategy still eluded him even after the deals were complete. "I was secretly pretty panicked, and panic isn't a friend of creation. It's like trying to go to sleep; it doesn't work too good. So I don't know how it happened, but one day I sat down in this chair, and over the next half hour the ideas came in all at once. They changed how I saw stuff that had been shot."

Indeed, Mulholland Drivethe feature is precariously situated on a fault line between clashing vantage points. The movie's first 90 minutes or so concern the role-play-intensive, Céline and Julie-like attempts of a blond aspiring starlet (Naomi Watts) and a brunette amnesiac (Laura Elena Harring) to determine the latter's identity. The perspective shift comes when Lynch enacts a deck-shuffling sabotage of the primary narrative, at the same time suffusing it with unexpected pathos. (Think of how any given Twin Peaksepisode is retroactively bruised by the lacerating pain of the prequel Fire Walk With Me.)

Lynch refuses to speculate on how a Mulholland Driveseries would have evolved. He hadn't scripted any subsequent episodes, and insists that he hadn't given plot development much thought. "I like to not know where I'm going," he says. "With a continuing story, you just need enough to get started but not too much to kill the pull of the unknown. That's the thrill of it—to be lost and feel your way to the next step, not much further." Lynch says when he and Mark Frost, his writing partner on Twin Peaks, started working on the series, they hadn't yet determined the identity of Laura Palmer's killer. "When you think about something, I believe it goes out in the air, just like a radio signal. So whenever we got close, we would dance away from it."

The Mulholland Drivepilot reunited Lynch with a former adversary. He still believes ABC, in forcing him to solve Twin Peaks' central murder too early, was partly responsible for the show's decline, and he was so livid after the network canceled his 1992 sitcom On the Airthat he painted a wooden board with the words "I will never work in television again." Lynch claims not to understand the workings of the TV industry at all, or even watch much of its product, but says he finds it a hopelessly alluring medium all the same. "I'm a sucker for a continuing story, so I went there again, knowing the negative side. I just wanted to enter into a world longer. I dodged a bullet."

Lynch's self-defeating attraction to series television meshes with his belief that "endings are terrible things. They can have a great beauty, but only if they leave room to dream." Fittingly, both Mulholland Driveand his sinister psychogenic-fugue neo-noir Lost Highway(1997) defer conclusions by trailing off into circular infinities. Lynch tends to shy from any overly specific discussion of his work, reverting instead to an all-purpose mantra: "I go by ideas." He's at once unfailingly good-natured and ingeniously evasive, capable of absorbing almost any question into an ever ready stream of banal abstraction and homespun metaphor, sprinkled with gee-whiz-isms and the occasional weirdly edifying koan.

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