Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Double Feature: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mulholland Drive


Warning: here be spoilers. (Though since I am still not entirely sure what Mulholland Drive was about, it is hard to spoil it).


At first glance, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) are not obviously similar. The first is a science fiction film that covers millions of years of human evolution (in a linear fashion), and explores issues around technology and extraterrestrial life. Lynch's film is a drama set in Hollywood, and is a mysterious neo-noir tale of dreams, reality, and identity. Kubrick's film is famously light on dialogue, while Lynch's film is full of elliptical conversations. However, both films are visually striking, and the story of each is propelled forward by a mystery.

The greatest similarity between 2001 and Mulholland Drive (and is what connected these two films in my mind) is the sudden change that happens at the end of the second act. These changes are triggered by mysterious objects which alter the reality of the previous action. In 2001 the monolith appears throughout the film, slowly influencing the progress of human evolution. Dark, opaque blocks of something, the monoliths have the ability to move around, and even communicate with each other, implying an inherent consciousness and intelligence (or that they are controlled by beings that possess these qualities).
http://momentumbooks.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/hotel-monolith.jpgAstronaut Dave Boorman, who is part of a space mission to Jupiter, encounters one of these monoliths orbiting the planet. It transports him through space and time. He then finds himself in an 18th century style room where he watches and experiences his own 'evolution,' as the ageing process is sped up, assumedly by the monolith. Boorman is re-born a Star-Child, a new, uncharted phase of life for humans.

  In Mulholland Drive, early in the film, Betty and Rita discover a blue key in Rita's purse. There is no hint as to what it opens (nor does Rita remember why she has it). After a bizarre performance at a club called 'Silencio' Betty and Rita suddenly find a blue box in Betty's purse. How did it get there? Moments before Rita opens it with the key, Betty disappears from the room. Opening the box triggers a sudden change in the plot: the characters Betty and Rita change to Diane Selwyn and Camilla Rhodes respectively. Other characters from the film appear but all the relationships have changed; and places previously visited are visited again but have different emotions attached to them. A cafe that was the scene of dialogue about dreams is now where Diane (Betty) hires a hit man to kill Camilla (Rita). Another blue key is mentioned in this scene: the hit man says she will find it on the table when the hit is completed. 
The mystery surrounding these two objects also connect the two films. In neither 2001 or Mulholland Drive is it explained where they come from. The monolith simply appears on earth in the first act, then another is uncovered on the Moon, another orbiting Jupiter, and it is the last thing that Dave Boorman sees as a human. One could assume that it is some type of alien life, but its motivation is not obvious. We also do not know if it is benign or malevolent. Perhaps it is simply a conduit for supremely evolved beings to influence other lifeforms. Who knows.

Because Rita is suffering from amnesia at the beginning of Mulholland Drive she cannot explain what the key is for. The mystery of the box's appearance in Betty's purse is also never explained. The second blue key that appears in the third act is somehow related, but again the 'how' is not obvious. As it is a key that unlocks a box, it is tempting to read them as a metaphor for Rita unlocking the truth of this world: that it is in fact 'untrue,' a fabrication. Is identity something we fabricate for ourselves? And if so, are our ideas about other people also creations, even acts of private storytelling?
Perhaps the strongest connection that these two movies have is that they are to be experienced rather than explained. Because of this, they stand up to multiple viewings as audiences try to decipher what they mean. (I will use this as an excuse if this post is hard to follow: it's the fault of the films, I tell you!).

Like many great films, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mulholland Drive ask us questions about who we are as a collective group, and how we relate to each other within that group. The questions are not easy, nor do they necessarily prompt positive answers.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that you actually watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and Mulholland Drive back-to-back. I believe that would leave you mentally spent and highly confused. After both I needed time to absorb what I had seen (and occasionally heard). If you are the type of person who likes things neatly wrapped up at the end of your movies you will probably be mortally frustrated by them or rather bored.

If you have seen them, what other films did they remind you of?


  1. I once read a comment to a post on Mulholland Drive that explained the plot a critique on religion. It sort of added up, but it just goes to show many interpretations there are to that movie. I liked the movie, but it is also massively frustrating. Almost intentionally opaque to annoy us.
    2001 is a visual feast and I enjoy it for that reason. As a story it seems to confuse itself so you wonder if Kubrick really knew where he was heading. I saw parts of the set on an exhibition in Berlin some years ago and it was totally awesome to see yourself among the primates in the desert.
    As for comparisons I think you can pick a random French Nouvelles Vague film from the sixties (like Alphaville). They all contain the same apparently meaningless storyline that is actually a comment on something else entirely.

    1. Thanks for the comment!
      Mulholland Drive does seem deliberately frustrating, but I was intrigued enough to not let it bother me (too much). The religious reading of it sounds interesting, though I didn't get any hints of that from the film. In my head it is about the Hollywood dream (though what about it exactly I am not sure).
      I read an early draft of 2001's script, and have also read the book. They both explain things in clearer terms, and the early draft even had a voiceover for the whole end. Lucky you getting to see the sets, that would have been fabulous.
      I must confess my knowledge of the French Nouvells Vague is limited to the 400 Blows, though I have read theory (but naturally that is not the same as actually seeing the films).

  2. A very thought-provoking comparison. It's intriguing to compare apparently dissimilar texts and see what each reveals of the other. I haven't seen "Mulholland Dr." so can't really comment on it (but I enjoyed your write-up). The film that strikes me as most reminiscent of "2001" is Malick's "Tree of Life", as we've discussed before. Another, somewhat more obscure, film comes to mind as well: Ermanno Olmi's "Genesis". Like "2001" it begins at the beginning and has very little (if any) dialogue, relying heavily on spectacular visuals. Yet it shows very little that specifically relates to Genesis, lending it a very abstract yet naturalistic quality that resembles "2001". It interweaves the biblical narrative with the daily life of an ancient nomadic tribe, and juxtaposes both with inter-cut scenes of the modern world. In that sense it spans a considerable period of time, but in a much less linear fashion than Kubrick's film. It's held together by narration from the first chapters of Genesis (provided by an elder of the aforementioned nomadic tribe). It's a very haunting film that, while it lacks an express 'twist' in the second act, leaves ample room for interpretation and wonder. You really hit the nail on the head when you say that some “movies...are to be experienced rather than explained”.
    I look forward to reading more!

    1. 'Genesis' sounds intriguing, I shall look out for it.
      I will probably do a '2001' and 'Tree of Life' comparison in the future, though a re-watch of both films will need to happen!
      Though '2001' is a science fiction film, and I can see its influence in almost all science-fiction films since, I often think of it in relation to non-sci-fi films like 'Mulholland Drive.' Unlike many sci-fi films, where technology and humanity is looked at from within, '2001' feels like it is looking from outside at humanity.

    2. Interesting point about '2001' looking in on humanity rather than out from it. 'Genesis', by contrast, feels very human despite the minimal characterisation throughout. It's probably not on a par with Kubrick's and Malick's work, but I like it quite a lot. There's a clip on YouTube (from the original Italian version) which gives a sense of the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCu8HesHsdI.

  3. There is a clear visual reference to Kubrick's 2001 in Mulholland Drive, a film that is filled with references to classic movies (Gilda, Vertigo, Persona, etc.) Behind the diner the "bum" replaces the ogre or monster-id figure from the first half of the film. The "bum" is shown tinkering with the sleek blue box that Camilla appeared to disappear into in an earlier scene. The image of the matted hair neanderthal-like bum playing with the sleek box visually recalls Kubrick's cavemen from the first part of 2001.

    1. Clearly I had not made that connection, but I can definitely see it. Thanks for the comment; next time I watch the two films I shall look out for more clues like that.