The “Persona Swap” of Mulholland Drive; Dir. David Lynch


Last night, I went downtown to the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca (after a debacle involving all trains on the A, C and E line being rerouted to Brooklyn, skipping entirely my stop at Canal, so I ended up sharing a cab downtown with two nice stranded ladies) to see Mulholland Drive, which was being played in the small screening room. Miriam Bale, film writer, and curator of film series (I have met her before – most notably at this memorable occasion) – gave a talk beforehand. This is part of a project she is working on that I find very intriguing: She calls it the small genre of “persona swap”. She is working on a big article about it, and I very much look forward to it. “Persona swap” films involve two women, usually blonde and brunette, who switch roles, or merge into one over the course of the film. She had a fascinating list of other films in this sub-genre, the most notable being Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, which is similar to Mulholland Drive in that they are both about actresses (my thoughts on Persona here). I really enjoyed Miriam’s talk, I enjoyed the fact that she placed Mulholland Drive (one of my favorite films of all time) in a context, and it gave a grounding-point, something to think about as the film unfolded. That is what really good film criticism can do. I can enjoy something viscerally, and I also make my own connections, obviously, but I love to listen to someone who has thought deeply about films through their own particular filter, and can express that, convey that.

I remember seeing Mulholland Drive in the theatre, back when it first came out, and it is one of the most thrilling, unforgettable movie-going experiences I have ever had. I cannot even express why, I can’t point to one thing, either in the film or in me, that generated such an intense response. The film operates with “dream logic” (thank you, Miriam), and so every scene, in and of itself, feels logical and true and connected, but what are the threads holding it together? Why the sense of dread? What the hell is it behind the dumpster at that diner? Well, you don’t need the answers when you operate with dream-logic. Dreams have their own universes, they operate on a primal level, jumpstarting your fight-or-flight response, and that was what it felt like watching Mulholland Drive for the first time. There are a couple of stand-out scenes for me, ones that have lodged themselves into my brain stem, and will never ever leave. Even if I never saw the film again, I would remember the scene in the midnight vaudeville theatre. I would remember Naomi Watts’s audition scene. I would remember that creepy cowboy in the corral. I would remember that final third of the movie, the sudden switch and switch-back, which is so disturbing it seems to wipe out all that you have seen before. There are some classic great scenes here. Not “great” as in the way people use that word casually to describe anything better-than-good. I mean “great” as in “one for the books”. These are scenes that live on, after you see the film, taking on their own life in your imagination. One of the creepiest and best things about seeing Mulholland Drive for the first time was that I knew it as I was seeing it. I knew that I would never forget the movie, that I would never stop thinking about, pondering it, worrying over it … no matter how much I tried to forget it, or tried to block it out.

It cuts to the very core of identity, and I so much liked Miriam’s perceptions on this score, because it helped clarify my own vaguer thoughts about it. In the film, Betty (played by Naomi Watts) calls a number and whispers to her co-conspirator (played by Rita Hayworth lookalike Laura Harring), “It’s strange calling yourself.”

The creepiness of that line, made even more creepy at the end of the film, when you realize who it was she was actually calling, is at the center of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

A masterpiece in every sense of the word, Mulholland Drive still weaves its spell around me and I have seen it many times since that first time in the theatre. I have memorized certain sections of it, even the camera angles (Justin Theroux looking over his shoulder at Naomi Watts as he films the scene in the recording studio, the dark approach to the corral, Naomi Watts straddling Laura Harring and looking down at her, the camera from underneath, so that Watts looks truly demonic), and yet even with memorization, the film does not become stale or predictable. As a matter of fact, repetition helps. Not to get “clarity”, or “meaning”, because I think that is missing the point here. I have in my mind a murky sense of the “story”, and what really happened, but – similar to Moby Dick, where if you focus on the meaning, you strip the book of its magic (or, to quote E.M. Forster, you “silence” the book)- Mulholland Drive lives on a plane where meaning is relative, where identity is fluid, where dreams become reality and vice versa, where the questions you most want to ask and most fear to ask (“Who am I?” “How do I fit in here?” “What is my ‘role’ in life? Am I playing that role well or should I be re-cast?”) reverb through an echo chamber miles under the earth, buried in the subconscious minds of the characters. They come upon moments that seem startling, or frightening, but underneath the original fear, is a sense that I know this. I have been here before. The way deja vu works, when you think you are remembering something real, and then you just remember that you saw such things in your dreams. The amnesia of “Rita”, played by Laura Harring, is a perfect metaphor. She doesn’t even know her own name. She doesn’t know where she was going the night of the car accident, she remembers nothing about her life before. She gets flashes, and they are always terrifying, as though what she is about to remember is far worse than the oblivion of amnesia. Her mind refuses to remember.

Both lead actresses give spectacular iconic performances.

Mulholland Drive is a mystery to be contemplated, a dream-space to be inhabited, and in the screening room, in downtown Manhattan, on a Saturday night, there was a small audience, maybe 50 people, and the sense of anticipation was palpable. I heard one man say to someone, as he sat down (and this was a stranger he was sitting next to), “I am so excited. This movie is a masterpiece.” I feel the same way.


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5 Responses to The “Persona Swap” of Mulholland Drive; Dir. David Lynch

  1. the moviegoer says:

    Just watched it again recently. Even the foley – the click-clack of heels on Franklin Blvd, the dripping of the rejected espresso, Lynch’s trademark industrial groaning – possesses unbelievable psychic resonance. To think that he repurposed this film out of a pilot episode for a tv series that only introduced a stream of characters for future episodes is pure cinema sorcery.

  2. red says:

    // To think that he repurposed this film out of a pilot episode for a tv series that only introduced a stream of characters for future episodes is pure cinema sorcery.//

    I didn’t know that. Wow!

    And you’re right – the film is resonant – it has stayed with me in the same way that I vividly remember some of the dreams I had as a little girl. It’s that weirdly powerful. It feels MORE true than real life.

  3. Kristin says:

    So glad you finally did a post on this film! I too cannot escape some of the imagery, and I agree with your comment that it sometimes feels more real than reality. The entire scene at Silencio is amazing…and Rebecca Del Rio singing “Crying” in Spanish may be my favorite piece of music in a film ever.

    It’s been a while since I watched this…I will have to get it out again.

  4. Hypnia says:

    So amazing to be reading this blog for the first time and come across this entry about persona swap movies. Years ago, when I was a film student, I became utterly fascinated with movies in which characters merge, exchange personalities, and/or trade fates. If you’ve not seen Performance, directed by Nicholas Roeg, it’s another of those, but stars James Fox and Mick Jagger. Must see. Really. I knew in the theater that I would never forget this film; it is surrealistic, mesmerizing, and intensely disturbing. Performance and Mulholland Drive are both masterpieces of this mini-genre. Tangentially related explorations: The Petrified Forest is also of interest (possible inspiration for Performance?). More external identity projections and identity fluidity: doppelganger legends, The Secret Sharer by Conrad

  5. red says:

    Kristen – yes, the closeups of her face as she is singing – the teardrop, the crazy eyeshadow – how ROUGH she looks – on the verge of collapse – cutting out to Betty and Rita in the audience holding each other and weeping: I totally understand why that would be your response to such a performance.

    One of the most brilliant scenes I have ever seen, bar none.

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