Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 7, March 2003



Daniel Coffeen


This is Cinema

The Pleated Plenitude of the Cinematic Sign in David Lynch's _Mulholland Dr._



Elusive Signs


At the crash scene, two cops look on. They do not seem terribly bright; their stare is neither intent nor contemplative. One says to the other, holding an evidence bag: 'Could be unrelated.' And then: 'Could be someone's missing.'


Signs proliferate: keys, glances, a purse, a midget, a moustache, a golf club, sunglasses, fire, a hair-do, regurgitated espresso, a cowboy. It's as if every prop is trying to tell us something. But meaning eludes us: the paths assumed by these signs follow unheard-of laws. The police will do us no good here. The consummation of these signs remains obscured as the viewer remains on edge, at the juncture of signification, the sign apparently disappearing at the precise moment of its enunciation. As the cop says: 'Could be someone's missing.'


In this world, order is construed according to a peculiar cinematic sense. And while it could be that someone is missing, it seems more likely that there is no someone per se, hence no one is missing. Here, signifiers slide along the texture of celluloid so that when one follows a sign expecting to find a stable referent, one finds something missing.


We are therefore not meant to decode the film. If the viewer looks closely or a second time, the film will not whisper its revelations. This is not a puzzle in which all the varied pieces will eventually fall into place; this is not allegory. Nor is it a whodunit. If we continue to look on as Lynch's cops (following clues that will lead to an answer), we will be confounded. (This seems to be how many people watch this film; peruse reader reviews at, say, the Internet Movie Database, and you'll see what I mean.)


We should have suspected. The title, _Mulholland Dr._, cannot quite be spoken: it is a visual glyph. There is a different language spoken here, a thoroughly cinematic language, with its own acrobatics of the sign. Try to say the title as you normally would and you'll find yourself slurring.


This is not an irony that slips behind the back of the viewer only to signify once out of sight, a private joke. This is not the matter of a private semiotics. No, the director holds nothing back. There are secrets but they are not the secrets of the filmmakers; the whispers remain inaudible to all: *Silencio*. The significance of _Mulholland Dr._ will be revealed indirectly, in a kind of articulate silence, like Kierkegaard's incognito Jesus. [1]


The camera work equally belies our identification with any mode of knowing. Shots are rarely expositional; the camera is not neutral. But neither does it follow a perspective, a line of sight -- conceptual or subjective -- with which we can identify. The camera seems to be neither participant nor observer. Just as the camera seems to mimic a subjective eye, following a character's line of sight allowing the viewer his own line of sight, the camera shifts. The shots inside Winkie's diner, for instance, are dizzying. At first, the camera follows the conversation. But then it nestles behind one character's neck, before moving slurredly across the table, just off-kilter, following a line of sight that is neither the character's nor the director's nor any idea or plot or concept or genre that we can identify. There is a looking, and there are signs, which at once entangle, seduce, and elude us.


This is not the work of *differance*. [2] These signs signify; there is neither lack nor deferment. This is what makes Lynch's films so creepy, so menacing: someone, something, somewhere understands these elusive signs. For Derrida, there is nothing but play because there will never have been a there there. But for Lynch there is a knowing, a knowing that is completely different, thoroughly alien. His films are essentially paranoid. In Lynch's world, we are all K -- but we're also L, M, Z, and A.


While not drifting within the play of *differance*, nor are we in Merleau-Ponty's phenomenological sign as gesture. For Merleau-Ponty, signification is a metonymic process: the signifier is continuous with the signified. Together, they forge a gesture or sign-affect. 'The gesture', Merleau-Ponty writes, '*does not make me think* of anger, it is anger itself'. [3] The gesture does not point to or designate something which is over there -- a thought or thing or event; the gesture is a distribution of the physical and the meta-physical -- bodies, breath, notions, concepts, ideas. The sign qua gesture is not a signifying function but is itself a moment, a component, of the meaning-event.


We find such gestures at work in Wong Kar-Wei's exquisite _Chungking Express_. _Chungking Express_ is a stream of varied affects, a cinematic stroll happening in the now, more or less bereft of signs. For Wong Kar-Wei, filmic language insists; it does not point elsewhere. In Wong's films, there is a present ambience of active parts. As Deleuze might say, Wong Kar-Wei makes film stutter, makes it slide along its own enunciative trajectory, splaying its speech along the planes of its own tongue. [4] We witness the dynamics of affect rather than an acrobatics of the sign. If _Chungking Express_ proffers undulating planes of vibratory immanence, gestures that happen now, _Mulholland Dr._ proffers the uncertainty of a signifier that's always looking over its shoulder for an obscured signified.


For all the twists and turns, _Mulholland Dr._ is not the realm of Hitchcock. As Deleuze argues, for Hitchcock the event arranges characters into a certain dynamic that is cinematic production. [5] Take _Rope_: the opening murder informs every exchange at the dinner party. The tension of the film turns on the manner in which the murder inflects the respective characters and their relations. For Hitchcock, it is precisely this economy of events and psychological subjects that forges the realm of film. But for Lynch, the relationship between characters and events is less clear. In some sense, _Mulholland Dr._ is nothing but events, events without characters, nothing but the relentless assembling of signs. As these are events without cause and hence without effect, Lynch does not allow us recourse to psychoanalysis. There is no deep-rooted ambivalence, no burbling id, no stew of explanation.


Hitchcock enjoys psychology. To him, film is the mechanics of the psyche -- often absurd, irrational, erroneous but always explainable as he remains within the confines of the psychoanalytic subject (the finale of _Psycho_). For Lynch, despite the persistence of dreams, the dreamwork will not suffice. The very possibility of a character remains dubious: the signs that constitute this or that character will never be realized once and for all. Lynch's characters are like any other Lynchian prop: signifiers that slide, pointing this way and that, following beguiling paths of movement.


There's not even a psyche to locate. At the presumed center of the film, a center that will never have been a center, are two women, each with multiple names, with varying amalgamations of signs each with a different organizing mode. One, stripped of memory, assumes a cinematic signifier, 'Rita', injured and vulnerable starlet, before transforming into Camilla Rhodes, manipulative diva. 'Camilla' is itself borrowed from a blonde who exists only as a headshot, an actress already in character as a 50s singer, and as a lesbian temptress. A local economy of signs in which signifiers and signifieds slip and slide and double and borrow and swap: an elaborate tropology.


The other -- what do I call her? Betty? Diane? -- is clearly doubled once as signifiers slide along the surface of the film and she moves from doe-eyed naif to drug addled wash-out, scorned and vengeful. But this is not the first time we witness her signs sliding. In what is probably the film's most poignant moment, we see her transform before our eyes from naif to sexpot as she auditions for a film within the film. But she will never have been centered; her signifiers are in perpetual flux, alternately accelerating and slowing. From the getgo, she is acting: there is no 'real' Betty or Diane. 'Diane' is visually, then aurally, consumed at Winkie's only to be spit back out of this cinematic engine. Identities do not stay still as signifiers and signifieds slide along the sleek surface of the film as the interiority of the subject -- or of any object for that matter -- is thoroughly infiltrated by the cinematic, splayed along a tape that is pervasive. As we're told: 'It's all tape.'


Lynch's characters are quite different from those of Wong Kar-Wei. In _Chungking Express_ and _Fallen Angels_, characters function as present affects, assemblages of force, local coherences of color, mood, style. Bereft of depth, they move through a cinematic space that is dynamic, local, insistent, playful. In _Mulholland Dr._, on the other hand, characters are assemblages not of force but of signs. As the film moves, so does the constitution or coherence of these characters, as they trade, borrow, swap, lose, and steal signs.



A Mobius Sign


The sign is predicated on a movement between here and there. But where is there? The presence of this 'there' haunts film (just as it perhaps haunts all media, including the talking, writing person): where is the there of the camera? With whose eye does the camera watch?


The cult of the director allows for a ready answer: why, it's David Lynch! But as _Mulholland Dr._ makes violently clear, the director is not the one in control. Films tend to turn to meta-cinematic means as a way of stabilizing this decentered production, this roaming, disembodied eye. Plot, character, genre, morality all guarantee that a knowing eye is in control. Who's watching? Whose eye is this we're seeing through?


Why, it's a middle-class white love affair; a comedy of errors that resolves itself; a farce; a tale of people being people. It's a benevolent, honest, omniscient eye. Or it's the turbulence of the scene infecting, inflecting, the camera: everything's shaky in this love affair, including the camera. Think of the opening sequence of Woody Allen's _Husbands and Wives_.


The avant-garde proffers other options. For instance, the camera is a subjectivity, perhaps not the director's but it is an eye with a perspective or the possibility of a perspective even if not conceptually enunciated -- Bergman's _Persona_. Or else the camera becomes itself, not a subjectivity but a medium. I'm thinking of Michael Snow's _Wavelength_, a continuous 45 minute zoom in, at the end of which sits an image of a wave. _Wavelength_ is cinema as formal exercise; it maps a possible movement of the camera as a perceptive vehicle while simultaneously revealing, if not parodying, a basic premise of narrative: the climax.


Lynch will have none of this. The camera in _Mulholland Dr._ is neither expositional nor subjective. Nor is the medium the message: when film speaks, it is already inflected with its own history, with its own style. Turn the camera on and there will already be something there. For Lynch, film is the totality of cinema, its history, its formal limits and freedoms, its texture, its syntactics. A tale of sorts is told but the camera is not telling this tale.


But then who, or what, is watching? As the two women enter Silencio in the presumed cover of night, who is it that follows them, as if from a distance, only to quicken its pace beyond a human pale? Who, or what, moves across the table at Winkie's? What perspective is it that looks outside the limousine to a world of dizzying micro-cuts, as if vision were itself perforated and deformed?


We discover the answer inside amidst the din of silence; an odd answer, yes, but an answer, an answer that will have already set in motion these bizarre acrobatics of the sign. 'There is no band,' we are told, 'it's all a recording. It's all tape.' The answer is: cinema. Cinema is watching. (This is explicitly played out in _Lost Highway_ as a video tape, shot from an impossible perspective, is laid at the doorstep.) The line separating the real from the recorded has always already been erased. The camera captures what has already been recorded. There is no off-screen presence that either assures or undermines our mastery as film watchers and filmmakers. On the contrary, the presence is precisely *on* screen: it is the screen itself that watches, the screen folded back on itself, at once watching and watched, recorded and recording, a cinematic circuit of endless mobility, a mobility that wrinkles the sign.


_Mulholland Dr._ is not a film about film; it is a film *of* film. This is film telling its own tale, in its own language (according to Lynchian logic). The camera proclaims this: a shot from on high surveys the 'Hollywood' sign but from an impossible perspective that is neither of a person nor of an omniscient narrator. The shot is not stable; the camera moves, catching the sign in its sight, an announcement on the go.


This same impossible and seemingly discontinuous perspective repeats itself, moving over Hollywood and Los Angeles, over the city of dreams. These are not scene setting shots that then hone down on the subjects. It is a mobius revelation as the film twists around to speak itself. This is film revealing itself, exposing itself before our eyes. Simultaneously, it is cinema presiding over its jurisdiction: itself.


The *there* of film, the there of the sign, will never have been off-screen. These signs will not consummate behind our backs. They may be obscured for the present moment by the movement of the film as it winds itself through the projector and through the world. In the cinematic world, all is always already recorded, all is always already in motion, all is always and already watching and being watched. Signifiers and signifieds slide along, meeting at odd angles, according to surprising trajectories in a dance of collision (the cars, Betty seeing Diane dead), collusion (the two Camillas, the hit man giving Diane the key), and elision (the two men in Winkie's, the black book, the dreadlocked face).


There will never have been subjects. In the opening sequence of swing dancers, we are already slipping and sliding, twirling back on ourselves, swapping roles and positions. The dancing couples are not unique; each is at once iconic and multiplied. The film then folds over itself, transposing multiple sequences at once, a trick of light, a flickering, the pure possibility of cinema. The personal is not erased because it will never have been.


Stripped of memory, we become cinematic icons: 'Rita' running down the streets of an LA dawn we've seen before. We are Betty, all doe-eyed and eager, dreaming of the big screen. We are Coco, the old Hollywood kook/marm. And yet film remains in motion, disallowing icons their iconic status: things don't stay still long enough for a the sign of an icon to seamlessly discover its signified. Rita becomes Camilla; Betty becomes Diane; dreams become reality; reality becomes _Mulholland Dr._.


Here, film touches itself: a lesbian consummation. But this will not be a pure consummation of the sign, like finding like, signifier nestling in the bosom of the signified. Here, everything is always and already cinematic, always and already splayed along the texture of film. Breasts are artificial, the scene straight out of pornography -- almost. And yet this is not ironic winking: it is cinematic appropriation, a pathos that is at once real and unreal, waking and dream, now and recorded.



The Pleated Plenitude of the Cinema-Dream Sign


There are inevitable blind spots: the moment separating sleep from waking, the movement through the blue box, the point of Betty's disappearance and Diane's appearance. These disjunctures certainly forge semantic gaps. But this is no de Manian blindness, the blindness of the enunciating subject, a defining semantic aporia that propels language. [6] For Lynch, the world is always and already in motion; de Man's disjunctive distinction between constative and performative is superseded. The enunciation has always already been recorded, *parole* and structure thoroughly enmeshed as the eye that watches becomes the eye that is watched and the observer is folded into the texture of the celluloid.


There is no lack, then, but a kind of plenitude. Signs fold and unfold amidst the revelation of cinema. Despite the presence of secrets, nothing is hidden. There may be shadows -- cinematic shadows, shadows as much of light as of its absence -- but these are due to the twisting of the filmic fabric, the complexity of the cinematic twist, the inevitable black hole separating sleep from waking.


For Lynch, cinematic language is a dream language. But dreams do not refer to waking life; they are not symbolic or secondary. Like writing for William Burroughs, Lynch's film is a transcription of a dream logic. [7] Dreams, like film, work the world over. But it is a reworking that will never have been secondary; waking does not precede dreaming. As _Mulholland Dr._ shows, dreams may very well come first. In psychoanalytic logic, dreams refer to the waking world along the same trajectory as the signifier refers to the signified. But once dreams are no longer secondary, once waking and dreams have been twisted so thoroughly together that while they remain distinct their collusion, collision, and elision is inevitable, the signifier will not seamlessly find its signified: the two become intimately wound up with each other, all folds, knots, and pleats. Take Kansas and Oz and twist them together as you'd twist close a bag.


What emerge are circuits of slippage, local economies of the sign: signs as swirling eddies of signification, signifiers and signifieds twirling around, in and through each other. And yet this is not the metonymics of the phenomenological gesture, the embodied communication of Merleau-Ponty. Here, there is metaphor, disjuncture, the activity of the sign. And while this sign encounters elisions, its line of sight obscured, it will never have been blind. This is the cinema-dream sign, at once fully revealed and thoroughly twisted.


University of California, Berkeley





1. Indirect communication is of course an essential component of both Kierkegaard's philosophy and his own rhetorical strategy. For his discussion of Jesus as incognito, see _Practice in Christianity_ (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991), pp. 127-142.


2. See Jacques Derrida, _Margins of Philosophy_ (Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 1-28.


3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, _Phenomenology of Perception_ (London and New York: Routledge, 1962), p. 184.


4. Gilles Deleuze, 'He Stuttered', in Constantin V. Boundas and Dorothea Olkowski, eds, _Gilles Deleuze and the Theater of Philosophy_ (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).


5. Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_ (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 200.


6. For Paul de Man, language is defined by the aporia between the now of the enunciating subject and the has-been of what is enunciated. The linguistic subject can never quite catch up with himself; the constative is always trailing the performative. See Paul de Man, _Allegories of Reading_ (New Haven, Connetticut: Yale University Press, 1979).


7. See William Burroughs, _My Education_ (New York: Viking Press, 1995), as well as the opening pages of _The Western Lands_ (New York: Penguin, 1987).



Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003


Daniel Coffeen, 'This is Cinema: The Pleated Plenitude of the Cinematic Sign in David Lynch's _Mulholland Dr._', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 7, March 2003 <>.


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