For his next trick David Lynch changed tack and shifted gears completely to tell the true story of Alvin Straight, a man who travelled across America to visit his estranged and ailing brother…on a lawnmower. The film was made independently based on a screenplay from Lynch’s frequent collaborator Mary Sweeney and even filmed chronologically along the route that Straight took from Iowa to Wisconsin.
After a successful debut at Cannes, the film was picked up by Walt Disney Pictures for distribution. In a case of art imitating life imitating art, Richard Farnsworth who played the title role was stricken with bone cancer during filming and so much of the frailty he exhibits on screen is in fact real. The following year Farnsworth would tragically commit suicide aged 80.
The Straight Story (1999)
At the time, people were puzzled as to Lynch’s decision to direct this film. The film is an elegiac and languid road trip with Alvin Straight coming into contact with many people on the road, each of them puzzled by his preferred mode of transport. Before leaving each person Straight manages to impart some pearls of wisdom he has gathered during his lifetime. That’s about it for the plot really but the film is more of a mood piece, a whimsical heart warming mood and not exactly something that Lynch has been previously best known for. In hindsight Lynch seems like the only person who could have made this.
His fascination with the strangeness of the everyday and the characters that live in small town America is present in the film but looked at through a very affectionate lens. The film is beautifully shot by Lynch’s regular collaborator in the 1980s; Freddie Francis really captures the warm colours and the beauty of the landscape in Middle America. Lynch and Francis manage to make things like a bicycle race and a rainstorm seem beautiful and other worldly. Adding to the overall thing is Angelo Badalamenti’s wonderful score which may well be the best thing he has done for a Lynch production.
Richard Farnsworth is brilliant in the role and deservedly garnered an Oscar nomination. Sissy Spacek is also brilliant as Straight’s handicapped daughter. All of the actors Straight meets along the way are every day normal types you see as you go about your business all the time. The script gives each of them a moment with Straight where they tell their tale and each of the performers naturally just fits into the scene.
The Straight Story got nothing but praise from critics and some 12 years later still is held in high regard. For all the darkness present in much of Lynch’s work, here was a film that showed he was capable of great sentiment and emotion without going all clichéd and sugar-coating things. It stands up as one the best films Lynch has made and the first time he worked from a script in which he didn’t have some kind of input.
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Mulholland Drive was originally conceived as another television series for ABC set in the mysterious underworld of tinsel town. Rumour is that this grew out of the spin off show that was planned for the Audrey Horne character from Twin Peaks. The plot of Mulholland Drive would have a central mystery much like Twin Peaks but would spin off and involve different sub plots and characters.
Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Justin Theroux were cast and filming of a pilot commenced budgeted at 8 million. Then ABC executives saw the pilot and were mortified. They thought that Naomi Watts and Laura Harring were too old to be TV stars and were not impressed by the slow pace and close ups of dog poo. Thus the plans for a series and the pilot were shelved, surprising considering that four years later the same network would pull the trigger on JJ Abrams Lost which kept viewers hooked for years.
A year or so after filming the pilot, Canal would approach Lynch with the intention of providing him with funds to go and film an ending to the pilot with the view of turning it into a film. Lynch was initially reluctant to do so but when he found that ABC had dismantled all the sets and loaned out the props he was struck by an inspiration and knew how to finish the piece so it could be a film.
Mulholland Drive debuted at the Cannes film festival in May 2001; it was a smash hit with the critics. Lynch went on to win the Prix de la mise en scene (best director) award at the close of the festival. After having been booed with Twin Peaks; FWWM nine years previously it was a major vindication for Lynch having his work celebrated by the notoriously picky French critics. The critical reaction wasn’t just limited to France either; the film got four stars from Lynch’s harshest critic Roger Ebert. The film was awarded the best film of 2001 award by many critics’ circles and eventually David Lynch received another academy award nomination for directing at the 2002 Oscars.
Mulholland Drive starts with a half in and out of focus jitterbug contest before fading down to someone falling asleep and then fading up on a car driving down the titular road. In the car we meet Rita (Laura Harring) a beautiful young woman who is about to be shot dead when a car with joyriders crashes into them. The film then follows amnesia stricken Rita as she stumbles down the hill and into the rented home of wannabe actress Betty (Naomi Watts). Betty is initially shocked to discover Rita but gradually warms to her and tries to help her figure out who she is.
In the meantime across town director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is being pressured by some mafia types to cast a certain girl in his film. When he refuses he finds his life starts going wrong in increasingly hilarious and disturbing ways. Betty and Rita discover a lot of money in Rita’s bag as well as a blue box that they cannot open. They are lead to Club Silencio where they discover some mysterious beings in some kind of bizarre cabaret show. Identities shift and timelines move and we realise what we have actually been watching and that reality is far more tragic than the idealised dreams that we have been watching.
When I first saw this film I did not enjoy it, but Mulholland Drive has grown on me the more I have watched it and now I consider it to be David Lynch’s best work so far. The reason I think this is his best work is a combination of the performances and the hugely emotional pay off with the scenes that were added to the original pilot. Naomi Watts is quite simply amazing in this film playing a role from two different angles, first she is all naïve and enthusiastic which comes across as really false (but you later realise this is intentional) and then when things change and as we the audience, start to realise what is really going on she becomes more and more dangerous and desperate.
The finale that was shot when the series didn’t work out really gels well with what was initially filmed and the ending is one of the most heartbreaking things that Lynch has ever done. I would have loved to have seen where this would have gone had it been taken to series. The first hour and a half of this is definitely setting up plot threads for an ongoing series, you have the inept hitman prone to bad luck, the director under pressure from the mob and the two detectives (played by Robert Forster and Brent Briscoe) who pop up once and never again.
Despite this feeling of incompleteness, Mulholland Drive still works as a whole film and feels like it has a very definite ending. Of all of Lynch’s later even stranger work this feels like it is the easiest to understand. Again its wide open to interpretation but the general consensus seems to be that this is both a critique of tinsel town as a machine that chews up young talent and spits them out a and the first half of the film is the idealised version of one such young wannabe’s life in Hollywood but reality can’t stay out and thus we get the second half where we learn the bitter fate that met a young actress. In many ways Mulholland Drive is a great companion piece to Lost Highway, both films deal with shifting identity and time being out of whack in Los Angeles.
Lynch would use Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey again in an obscure, surreal sitcom called Rabbits for his website that would feature in a later film project. Lynch would also work with Justin Theroux again in a similar but completely different film.