Mulholland Dr. is a crazy, roller-coaster ride of a movie. I enjoyed Mulholland Dr., but that is not to say I ever knew what was actually happening (I didn’t). Nonetheless, I felt fully invested in the characters (real or not) and their emotions. Thus when the movie ended, I was completely satisfied with what I had experienced and had very little motivation (beyond writing this blog entry) to go online and dissect the many twists and turns the movie’s plot has to offer. Judging from the countless websites and forums discussing the film’s narrative structure, however, not everyone feels this way.
The interpretation that works best for me, and apparently many of my classmates, is definitely the classical theory. It is (relatively) simple and the idea that first portion of the movie is a dream fits very well with the aesthetic choices and tone of that section. My understanding of this theory (and the film itself) suggests that we are witnessing Diane Selwyn’s dream in which she imagines her life as a successful, bright actress named Bettie who finds love with her mysterious house guest, Rita. We later find out that, in reality, Diane is a depressed, struggling actress whose failed love affair with movie star Camilla (the real-life version of Rita) has driven her to hire a hit-man to kill her former lover. Diane then apparently commits suicide soon after waking from this dream.
No matter how simple an explanation of Mulholland Dr. may be (“it was all a dream” is a popular example), the film undoubtedly contains a complex narrative structure. Although Jason Mittell focuses heavily on the distinction between serial and episodic storytelling to define narrative complexity, he also mentions the subtle use of analepses and dream sequences. No matter which theory one chooses to apply to Mulholland Dr.¸ the events of the film almost certainly do not occur chronologically—a definite sign of narrative complexity, especially because the chronology remains unclear after the movie ends. Further complicating the narrative is the apparent use of an extended dream sequence. As Mittell states, “conventional programs have often used dream or fantasy sequences,” but what makes Lynch’s employment of this device “complex” is his refusal to make the distinction obvious. Even the emotional aspects of the film’s story are complex as emotions are not always explained and motivations are often ambiguous.
That being said, I would not classify this as one of Mittel’s “puzzle films.” Mulholland Dr. rarely seems to place as much importance on deciphering narrative clues as it does on conveying moods and emotional themes. As such, I think that with Mulholland Dr. there is probably a higher correlation between audience pleasure and narrative complexity because an intellectual understanding of the narrative is not required for enjoyment. This, in my opinion, distinguishes the film from other complex movies like Inception, which had an abundance of entertaining twists and turns to follow, but did not leave room for any emotional ties between the audience and the characters (judging by the box office and critical reception I’m in the minority, but I truly did not care if Leonardo DiCaprio and Juno made it out of dream-world). Nobody is particularly likeable in Mulholland Dr., but Lynch and the actors had me caring about them.
I think that many people are attracted to complex narratives because they are often successful in ensuring audience involvement. Whether or not the audience cares about the characters, they can still feel as if they are interacting with the film if there is a narrative puzzle to solve. For me, what makes something like Lost (which coincidentally shares a few cast members with Lynch’s film) a masterpiece is its ability to fully immerse me in its complicated plot while fundamentally remaining a series about people that I feel invested in. If the latter had not been present, I would have been one of the millions of viewers who stopped watching due to the lack of “answers.” The same holds true for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (one that Mittel simplifies as a “puzzle film”). As such, good storytelling can certainly coexist with complex narratives, but a balance needs to be retained—characters should not come across as pawns in a filmmaker’s game. Understandably, some people hate complex narratives for the simple reason that it can easily distract the audience from the characters. Some would rather not feel the need to “work” to access a story and its characters. If a story offers me something beyond a crazy plot to enjoy (as Mulholland Dr. does), its narrative can be as complex as its tellers see fit.
Note: If you’re interested, here is a great article by Roger Ebert about the movie that I agree with on a few points.