I recently watched Mulholland Drive for the first time. My friend told me he watched it back to back with one of my favorite films, Sunset Boulevard, and told me he saw many similarities.
Sunset Boulevard is one of those films that I’ve watched at least once a year since I was in college (emphasis on at least), and that I can’t seem to grow out of. It’s full of a dreamy, other-worldly quality that makes it a truly timeless film for me. Sunset Boulevard is an exquisite film because it is not only visually stunning and perplexing, but because it taps into something that is sadly timeless about the tragic underbelly of the Hollywood dream-machine; something Nathaniel West warned us about in The Day of the Locust years prior and something that Lynch would warn us about in Mulholland Drive years later.
I don’t want to make this about Sunset Boulevard, but rather wanted to provide some framework for understanding the reasons why Mulholland Drive blew my mind. Lynch has said that Sunset Boulevard is one of his favorite films, that he is in awe of Wilder’s aesthetic and that he could watch the film forever and it’s also not hard to see how he used the film almost like a blueprint to tell his own version of the dark side of Hollywood. Lynch’s film is, well, much more “Lynchian”, which is to say it relies much more on dream-logic and cares less for conventional narrative than Sunset Boulevard.
This reliance on dreams and dream-like qualities is really a hallmark of Lynch’s films, which skirt all roots in the real world. His films are melodramatic or even operatic at times, and are always tinged a quality that always serves to remind us they are not of our world.
These hallmarks or staples of Lynch’s visual aesthetic share a remarkable similarity to one of my favorite singers and songwriters, Roy Orbison. I think it is no surprise that Lynch has used his music in pivotal moments in not just one, but two of his most celebrated and notable films.
I see Orbison’s influence everywhere in Lynch’s work, for Orbison is a singer who, much like Lynch relies more heavily on tone or mood or ambiance. Orbison’s crooning is melodramatic as are his lyrics, and both are drenched with a sort of cryptic heart ache. This is often matched by swelling strings that often send the music into the realm of operatic and or otherworldly. Even many of Orbison’s lyrics are tinged with a surreal or undefined quality that might even be described as Lynchian, lines like “the candy colored clown they call the sandman.” It is beyond obvious that candy colored is, in fact, not a color at all, and yet it is arguably one of the most beautiful and impressionistic lyrics in pop music.
When Dennis Hopper repeats this line “the candy colored clown the call the sandman…the candy colored clown…”, and Dean Stockwell lip syncs In Dreams in Blue Velvet, things instantly change. Hopper delivers the terrifying “I’ll fuck anything that moves, hahaha!” before literally disappearing into smoke, and then we are on the road, joyriding with Frank.
The scene in Mulholland Drive featuring Orbison parallels this in many ways, for it is a clear dividing line between the two halves of the film, separating us from dreamland and the real world. When the singer delivers a heart-wrenching performance of Crying a cappella and in Spanish on the huge stage at Club Silencio, we are clearly not in the real world. Naomi Watts weeps because she knows that it has all been an illusion as the magician has just informed us before disappearing into smoke, and as is demonstrated when the singer belting out Crying collapses mid song while the vocal track continues.
Like in Blue Velvet, Lynch again utilizes a performance of one of Orbison’s songs to signal something important to us, to, in some way, link the real world to the dream world, or to act as a harbinger or signal towards the dream. Even though Watts’ character believes she has been taking care of and nursing Laura Herring back to health, the truth is when she is weeping in that theater, clinging to her, she is really crying over the loss of that dream, the loss of that fantasy. For the reality is much, much crueler than that. In Blue Velvet, Booth must be obsessed with In Dreams, carrying a cassette tape recording of it with him, one images to just take out and any moment and force someone to play, only to be whipped into a violent frenzy when he seems to realize that, much like the protagonist in the song, the pleasure is only in dreams, and not real at all. In the haunting scene where Stockwell lip syncs the song into a disembodied light bulb, Frank seems instinctively to know to turn the tape off right before Orbison confesses that it has, indeed, all been a dream, “but just before the dawn/I awake and find you’ve gone…”
Frank does not want to wake from his dream, and neither does Watts’ character, but where Frank continues on his fantasy trip with a frightening “joy ride” filled with drugs and cronies, Watts is instead propelled back into her tragic reality as Diane.
To me, Lynch and Orbison both occupy a space in their respective art forms as singular voices. Each seem to traverse or explore more dream-like or subconscious terrain and each bring back a vision that is unique, that is, perhaps, candy colored.