Mulholland Dr. is getting a well-deserved re-release and that brings with it an opportunity to reflect again on its particular charms, including its complex, elliptical structure.
Mulholland may well be David Lynch’s masterpiece, though plenty will argue the same for Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man or Inland Empire. The Elephant Man is definitely the most conventional and therefore the most readily accessible of his films, but there remains a particular satisfaction in getting to grips with Mulholland’s structure and thereby arguably getting more out of it than something with a more traditional through-line.
For the uninitiated (for shame!), Mulholland Dr. is about (as much as it is really about anything) a wide-eyed young actress arriving in Hollywood, meeting an amnesiac car-crash victim and getting caught up in a reality-bending story of film-making, brokenness, mutating identities and a strange blue box. There is one scene in particular where the camera plunges into the said box and then emerges from it into a new reality where previous characters are now played by different actors and Naomi Watts’ character has changed completely. It is a jarring transition, but rewards perseverance, delivering a thought-provoking meditation on identity and dreams.
Mulholland Dr. is far from the first time Lynch has messed around with narrative structure. The infuriatingly elliptical and opaque Lost Highway also delivers mutating characters and a story that literally loops back in on itself, as a character rings his intercom at the end of the film, having answered that intercom in the film’s earlier scenes. But as hard as such structures might be to wrestle with and make sense of, they remain more satisfying than simpler, spoon-fed structures that don’t necessarily require much attention or reward repeated viewings. Of course, narrative complexity is not the only path to go down and films such as The Raid and Die Hard are narratively propulsive and hugely satisfying without screwing around with timelines in the manner of something like Donnie Darko, but a film like Lost Highway represents a respectful invitation to an intelligent audience to get to grips with something that is not going to be served on a plate, tied up with a pretty bow.
Pulp Fiction of course remains one of the most readily heralded examples of an overlapping narrative, with one key character dying in an earlier scene, only to be resurrected to walk off into the sun set in the final scene (albeit one chronologically earlier than the one depicting his demise). One of the enjoyable elements of watching the film is working out how the different stories (it is essentially a compendium of intersecting tales rather than one single plot) fit together and as much fun as the script and set pieces are, there would be arguably much less fun to be had if the film were simply laid out in strict chronological order.
After an early scene with Jules and Vincent in black suits, we then see them enter Marcellus’ bar in t-shirts and shorts and wonder what happened, having to wait until the film’s final segment to see the gaps filled in. As Lynch did with Lost Highway (though in a far more complicated fashion), Quentin Tarantino is inviting us to pay attention, to join up the dots and to invest in the story. It is arguably of a piece with Michael Mann’s Miami Vice in that respect – another film that doesn’t sign-post the plot developments or rely on clunky exposition, instead dropping us into the action and insisting that we catch up or get out of the way.
Arguably one of the trickier narrative structures to get a handle on, Memento was Nolan’s calling card and led to The Dark Knight trilogy, The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar, all of which dealt with skewed timelines and perceptions of reality to one degree or another. Memento is in fact easier to get to grips with than an explanation of the structure might make it appear, with the story broken down into 10-ish minute segments that match the protagonist’s limited short-term memory capacity. Those segments are then played in reverse order, so that the last 10 minutes of the story are the first 10 minutes to be shown on screen. It results in the audience needing to remember what happened “afterwards” and frankly leaves us all with memory problems. Much like other twisty-turny stories, you can generally keep a handle on it while you’re watching, but much like Guy Pearce’s ill-fated protagonist, the longer you leave it, the harder it becomes to recall and explain what happened.
The Shining / 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick has arguably given us two important “mangled narrative” features, though they could not be more dissimilar if they tried. Although The Shining has, for the most part, a very straightforward narrative structure, at the end we see a photo of a gathered party at The Overlook Hotel, from many decades before the film’s events, a grinning Jack Nicholson to one side. As the barman told him earlier – you’ve always been here.
By contrast, 2001 sees an astronaut pass through a star gate, before seeing himself at different ages. Much like the finale of Nolan’s Interstellar, we are clearly moving around in both time and space and (less like Interstellar) it is wholly open to interpretation what is going on.
It is more than just a question of time travel (otherwise Looper, BTTF, Star Trek et al would feature in this article) – the stories themselves are clearly to some degree folding in on themselves. The satisfaction in both cases is the opportunity to make your own assessment of what has happened and what it means – analysis and interpretation – which for all its pyrotechnics, Fast & Furious 6 is never going to give you.
To put it mildly, this is not an easy watch, which somewhat undermines the argument that skewed narratives are enjoyable. Having said that, Irreversible manages to avoid the pitfall of being clever for the sake of showing off and instead uses a reversed chronology to cast events in a wholly different light and to rob an act of vengeance of any sense of catharsis and make it instead feel like an act of unprovoked brutality. Rather than see Monica Bellucci’s horrific ordeal first, then her boyfriend’s act of revenge, we instead watch a devastatingly violent assault by him, only seeing the reason for it at the end of the film, by which point the assault has become disconnected from its reason.
It is an undeniably bold move and as with the best films that deal with uncomfortable subject matter, avoids gratuitousness and instead causes us to consider what violence really is and whether it ever really serves a purpose. Not an easy tightrope to walk for what is ostensibly a rape-revenge film and could have in lesser hands been every bit as terrible as that reductive description often connotes.