The Criterion Collection
The second to last David Lynch movie was famously almost a TV show. “Mulholland Dr.” was to be the filmmaker/transcendental meditation spokesman’s return to television after the disastrous second season of “Twin Peaks” and the quickly canceled “On the Air.” He shot a 90-minute pilot, and like many before and after it, it was instantly rejected. (Lynch claims on the film’s new Criterion set that the executing exec watched it at 6 a.m. while exercising and making calls.) But not everyone is David Lynch, meaning not everyone has French financiers who will come to their aid. Lynch found himself with enough money to transform it into a theatrical movie, but he didn’t go the easy route. Or, rather, he did: He simply presented the pilot as it was shot, then tacked on an additional 45 minutes, which didn’t so much wrap things up as drag it into a more phantasmagorical (and R-rated) ether.
Watching “Mulholland Dr.” again in the midst of this Second Golden Age of Television makes it feel rich and strange in a different way than most Lynches. We expect the non-sequitur weirdness, the unplaceably off moods, the moments and sequences that occupy a space between reality and dreams. We know there will be an element of camp vaguely reminiscent of another ’70s midnight movie god, John Waters. (For one, both like to drudge up faded, and now aged, icons. “Mulholland Dr.” boasts Ann Miller and soap star Chad Everett, just as Waters likes to grab the likes of Tab Hunter and Patty Hearst.) We know that Lynch will never explain the meaning of what happens, and maybe we know to just go along with it. Instead of “solving” “Mulholland Dr.” like a puzzle, we can tease out usual Lynch obsessions, like the slippery notion of identity, secret societies and, in this case at least, the annoyances of Hollywood.
But we also experience two mediums at war with each other. TV and film have different looks, different means of communication and very different pacing. Film is jam-packed, trying to cram a story in two hours or so. TV is episodic, not only in that there are actual episodes, but in that it rarely wastes a scene. They have to be long, ironically because TV shooting is much quicker. If you’ve grouped everyone on a set, it tends to not be for something that lasts only 20 seconds of screentime. TV makers have to be more economical with their time and resources, and they also have to recognize that, for viewers, TV watching tends to be less intense moment-by-moment than it is with a film. At home the attention is easier to sag, just as it’s more prone to inspire more languorous watching. A TV viewer doesn’t like what they watch to be busy, like a Michael Bay film; they like slow burns, chatty scenes, characters and relationships that grow over time. They like things to be clear; if something’s inscrutable, it will all make sense in a future episode.