Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 34, June 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Sinnerbrink

 

Cinematic Ideas:

David Lynch's _Mulholland Drive_

 

 

The enigmatic films of David Lynch have been interpreted from a variety of perspectives. Among these we can find Lynch the postmodernist ironist, Lynch the transgressive neoconservative, and Lynch the visionary explorer of the unconscious. Martha P. Nochimson's recent study, for example, presents an eloquent case for regarding Lynch as a Jungian 'surfer of the waves of the collective unconscious', whose films combine the intuitive embracing of subconscious Life Energy with a celebration of the creative power of Hollywood mythology. [1] For Nochimson, Lynch's transformation of the masculine action hero into intuitive 'boundary crosser' shows the redemptive quality of his cinematic vision, which we experience sensuously rather than comprehend rationally.

 

Against Nochimson's 'New Age' Lynch -- 'the poet of a Jungian universal subconscious spiritualised Libido' [2] -- Slavoj Zizek has argued that Lynch's films can be said to expose the subject's 'fundamental fantasy': the 'ultimate, proto-transcendental framework of my desiring which, precisely as such, remains inaccessible to my subjective grasp'. [3] According to Lacan, this is the traumatic unconscious fantasy framework that renders consistent the (gendered) subject's image of self-identity and coherent experience of social-symbolic reality. From this point of view, according to Zizek, _Lost Highway_ can be read as presenting the dissolution of the 'fundamental fantasy' sustaining the male character's (Fred Madison/Pete Dayton's) identity, a dissolution prompted by paranoid suspicions about his wife Renee's (Patricia Arquette's) infidelity and his own sexual inadequacy. For Zizek, the two parts of the film, the Fred/Renee story and the Pete/Alice story, are therefore related as social reality and fantasy. Lynch's achievement is to confront the subject's social reality with his fundamental fantasy, to show the co-existence between 'the aseptic drabness of social reality and the fantasmatic Real of self-destructive violence'. [4] At the same time, _Lost Highway_ also manages, Zizek contends, to resolve the deadlock between classical and postmodern *film noir*, staging both alongside each other as two interpenetrating but 'irrationally' connected parts of the film.

 

For all its enlightening power, Zizek's attempt to reconstruct the narrative logic of _Lost Highway_, via a Lacanian psychoanalytic reading, suffers from what I would call a reductive 'rationalism' in its philosophical approach to film. By reductive 'rationalism' I mean the tendency to treat films as illustrations of theoretical concepts or ideological perspectives that can be properly deciphered only once submitted to conceptual analysis or subsumed within a philosophical metalanguage. Against this approach, which certainly has its theoretical advantages, I want to suggest that a philosophical encounter with film should be an exercise in mutual reflection, cinema reflecting upon philosophical questions through its own medium, and philosophy reflecting upon cinema as mode of thinking in its own right. From this perspective, philosophy does not occupy the position of a conceptual metalanguage on film, informing us philosophically 'what film is' or what a particular film 'really' means. Rather, it is a matter of showing how *film itself is a kind of philosophising*, and how philosophy reflects upon what cinema forces us to think, sense, and experience. This view is well expressed in Stephen Mulhall's reflections on his philosophical approach to the _Aliens_ quartet:

 

'I do not look to these films as handy or popular illustrations of views or arguments properly developed by philosophers; I see them rather as themselves reflecting on and evaluating such views and arguments, as thinking seriously and systematically about them in just the ways that philosophers do. Such films are not philosophy's raw material, nor a source for ornamentation; they are philosophical exercises, philosophy in action -- film as philosophising.' [5]

 

Lynch, I want to suggest, can be regarded as a cinematic philosopher-artist, presenting thought through sound and image ('ideas', to use Lynch's term). In what follows I shall explore this thesis by considering one of Lynch's most challenging films, _Mulholland Drive_, a film that we can 'understand' by being attentive to not only to its complex narrative structure, but also to the role of what I shall call 'cinematic Ideas'. Although Lynch never really explains what he means, I take cinematic Ideas to mean visual and aural sequences that combine images and sounds liberated from a purely narrative function with images evincing a complex cinematic reflexivity. This striking conjunction of sensuous immediacy and complex reflection is the hallmark of Lynch's cinematic world. In a manner recalling Kant's 'aesthetic ideas', Lynch's cinematic Ideas are presentations of the imagination that exceed conceptual determination and linguistic expression. They are inexhaustible imaginative representations open to infinite interpretation. [6]

 

As Lynch fans have surmised, the greater part of _Mulholland Drive_ seems to be an extended 'dream/fantasy sequence' that occupies around two-thirds of the film. In the final third we see a version of the 'real events' that led Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) to arrange the murder of her former lover Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring), an event culminating in Diane's psychotic breakdown and (possible) suicide. This is the way many critics approach the film, although most also acknowledge the limits to any straightforward 'dream/reality' interpretation. [7] At the same time, the references to _Sunset Boulevard_, to _Gilda_, to film production and direction, but also to performance art (in the Club Silencio sequence at the end of the film), all suggest that this is a film about Hollywood as well as a reflection upon the fantasmatic nature of film itself.

 

According to Lynch's enigmatic DVD 'Synopsis', _Mulholland Drive_ has a tripartite structure, which I suggest we can summarise as follows: 1. 'She Found Herself the Perfect Mystery' (Diane's dream/fantasy: Rita's car crash, the Mafia subplot, the mystery of Rita's identity, and discovery of a woman's corpse); 2. 'A Sad Illusion' (Rita's transformation and the unravelling of Diane's dream/fantasy: the Club Silencio revelation that her love for Rita, her fantasised dream version of events, and the Hollywood dream factory, are all illusory); 3. 'Love' (The 'real' story of Diane's affair with Camilla, Camilla's betrayal of Diane, Diane's plot to have Camilla murdered, Diane's psychotic breakdown and apparent suicide, and the final dissolution of the 'fantasy/reality' framework). To be schematic, the first two-thirds of the film comprise Diane's fantasised/dream version of events (Parts One and Two), while the last third (Part Three) presents the 'real' version of events from which Diane's fantasy/dream version, which we see first, is retroactively constructed. At the same time, elements from each part intrude upon the others, blurring the boundaries between dream, fantasy, reality, and cinematic worlds. As I shall discuss, the film ends on a decidedly 'undecidable' note, with the dissolution of any stable narrative framework that would allow us to separate the dimensions of 'subjective fantasy' and 'objective reality'.

 

 

1. 'She Found Herself the Perfect Mystery'

 

Part One (with its intentional play on 'herself') is best described as Diane Selwyn's dream or fantasy version of herself as 'Betty Elms', a wish-fulfilling rationalisation of events that absolves her of responsibility for Camilla Rhodes's death. It begins with the flickering image of a sign, 'Mulholland Dr.', and a dark limousine in the night, snaking its way along Mulholland Drive, accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti's haunting theme. We witness the terrible car accident that befalls 'Rita' (Laura Elena Harring) just before she is about to be killed, her dazed escape into the Los Angeles night, and her hiding in a retro-chic Lynchian apartment.

 

Thus far, the narrative is straightforward, with obvious allusions to _Sunset Boulevard_ and _Kiss Me Deadly_. But with Rita falling asleep on the bed, we cut abruptly to a young man (Dan) sitting in a Winkie's diner on Sunset Boulevard. Dan proceeds to describe *his* dream, or nightmare, in which he is seated at this same Winkie's table, utterly terrified, and sees his companion (Herb), perhaps his therapist, looking across at Dan from the counter. Dan tells his companion, 'there's a man . . . in back of this place. He's the one . . . he's the one who's doing it . . . I hope I never see that face ever outside of a dream'. They both head outside to confront Dan's nightmarish fear, and sure enough there *is* a man out back, an abject homeless 'bum', whose piercing gaze is enough to make the young man collapse and die.

 

The film then takes another unsettling turn. We see a striking sequence of images: the mysterious Mr Roque's ear and mouth (Michael J. Anderson), as he delivers a curious telephone message ('The girl is still missing'); the back of a large man's head, who conveys this message ('The same') to another party, reduced to a muscular arm, who then calls up a room with a red lamp and dark telephone. (As we later learn, this telephone and red lamp are in Diane's own apartment, which only deepens the mystery of who is behind the plot to have Rita killed). At this point, however, we can only assume that the missing girl must be Rita, and that her life is in danger from unknown malevolent forces.

 

We are then introduced to the radiant Betty Elms, Diane's fantasised version of herself, who has arrived in Hollywood ('from Deep River, Ontario') to pursue an acting career. We follow Betty's arrival in Los Angeles, accompanied by the helpful 'grandparent' figures of the opening sequence. We follow Betty to her Aunt Ruth's magnificent (Lynchian) apartment, where she discovers the mysterious Rita in the shower. (Aunt Ruth, we learn later, is dead, and has left Diane an inheritance, which she spends on hiring a hit man to kill Camilla). In Diane's fantasy, Camilla is a beautiful stranger who is left amnesiac after a car accident. When asked for her name, the stranger says 'Rita', inspired by a glimpse of Rita Hayworth in a movie poster for _Gilda_. The 'perfect mystery' Betty has found herself -- which Diane herself turns out to be -- is to discover *who* this beautiful stranger is, to solve the mystery of Rita's, and thus her own, identity.

 

This is where the complicated Mafia/Mr Roque subplot comes into play. It is part of Diane's elaborate dream/fantasy as the innocent Betty, who sacrifices her own chance at success in order to help Rita hide her true identity. For Diane the significance of this elaborate conspiracy plot is manifold. It provides a rationale for why director Adam Kesher cannot choose her alter ego Betty for the lead in his film (effectively replacing Rita/Camilla). It provides a way for Diane to split Camilla Rhodes into an idealised love object (Rita), and a despised fake (the blonde Camilla Rhodes played by Melissa George) linked to the criminal underworld. Finally, it enables Diane to displace her terrible guilt over the killing of Camilla Rhodes into a convoluted plot involving various malevolent and powerful figures.

 

Inside Ryan Entertainment offices director Adam Kesher is being counselled 'to keep an open mind' about re-casting his lead actress (presumably Rita, who is 'still missing'). Mafia mobsters the Castigliane Brothers inform the protesting Kesher that, 'It's no longer your film': he cannot choose the lead actress because she has already been chosen. 'This is the girl', Kesher is told, and we are shown a headshot of a young starlet (Melissa George) bearing the name 'Camilla Rhodes'.

 

The line, 'This is the girl', we later realise, is a repetition of Diane Selwyn's instruction to Joe, the blonde hit man: 'This is the girl', meaning the 'real' Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring) whose murder they are plotting. The young starlet (Melissa George), who in Diane's fantasy appears as the Mafia's choice for the lead in Kesher's film, reappears in the third part of the film as dark haired Camilla's new lesbian love interest. Within Diane's fantasy, the starlet (Melissa George) is 'Camilla Rhodes', while the 'real' Camilla Rhodes (Laura Elena Harring) becomes the amnesiac Rita, target of a murderous plot, who finds refuge with innocent Betty.

 

The rest of this first part concerns Betty's quest to solve the 'perfect mystery' of Rita's identity. They open Rita's designer purse and discover two disturbing clues: a large amount of money and a beautiful blue key. (As we shall discover, this triangular key -- perhaps alluding to the triangle between Diane/Camilla/Adam -- is the key to Rita's identity but also to Diane's (murderous) desire.) The key and the money trigger Rita's memory: 'Mulholland Drive: That's where I was going!' They hide the money in a hatbox and head off to find out whether there *was* an accident on Mulholland Drive the previous night. At the same Winkie's diner we encountered before, Rita observes the nametag of a waitress with short blonde hair -- 'Diane' -- and has a flash of recognition: 'Diane Selwyn. Maybe that's my name!' A telephone call to D. Selwyn -- 'It's strange to be calling yourself!' remarks Betty, in a moment of irony -- reveals that Rita is not Diane after all. 'That's not my voice', Rita observes, 'But I *know* her', as she most certainly does.

 

This irony is deepened in Betty's rehearsal of the scene for her upcoming audition. The cliched script has Betty and Rita acting out a scene that reflects and anticipates the torrid love affair between Diane and Camilla. Rita plays the more experienced seducer while Betty is the corrupted innocent, driven to toy with the idea of murder in an ambivalent expression of desire and despair. Betty's stunning performance, turning the hackneyed scene into a moment of dangerous passion, reveals her talent. At the same time, it also prefigures the despairing and violent end to the traumatic relationship between Diane and Camilla.

 

A casting agent whisks Betty off to meet exciting young director Adam Kesher. Betty of course arrives just after Kesher has obediently chosen the Castigliane designated girl, the blonde 'Camilla Rhodes' (Melissa George), as the lead for 'The Sylvia North Story'. Betty and Adam lock eyes in a Hollywood moment of recognition, electric with possibilities: *this* is 'the girl' for Kesher, perhaps as a lover and as a future star. But just when Diane/Betty's dreams are about to be realised, she rushes off to help her beloved Rita. (In reality, the depressive Diane's audition was a dismal failure; she didn't get the part, which went to Camilla; but she did start an affair with her, which turned toxic and violent).

 

With Betty in a smart grey suit (recalling Madeleine in _Vertigo_), they track down Diane Selwyn's apartment, and break in to investigate. The first part concludes with the shocking discovery of a corpse (fusing Diane's blonde hair with Camilla's black dress) rotting in a bedroom that in 'real life' belongs to Diane herself. The mysterious amnesiac, the beautiful Rita, is somehow connected with a woman's murder. In reality, as we later learn, the reverse is true: it is Camilla who has been killed and it is Diane (not the Mafia or Mr Roque) who is responsible for her death. In Diane's fantasy turned nightmare, however, the corpse Betty and Rita discover is a fusion of them both: it stands in for Camilla's murder (hence the short black dress) but also prefigures Diane's suicidal end (hence the blonde hair). With this 'impossible' encounter the first part comes to a shocking end. The traumatised Rita runs from the apartment, silently screaming, as the image multiplies and shatters, along with Rita's fractured identity.

 

 

2. 'A Sad Illusion'

 

Part Two begins with Betty helping Rita to cut her hair and don a blonde wig. This caesura now reverses the roles between Betty and Rita, with Rita coming to the fore and Betty retreating into the background. The hair cutting, at one level, implies that Rita, with her money and key, is connected with the corpse and must therefore change her identity (becoming in effect a reflection of Betty/Diane). At a deeper level, however, it suggests that Diane tacitly acknowledges her own guilt, turning Rita into her double after it becomes clear that Rita has been involved in a murder. Once this transformation/reversal is complete, Betty and Diane can consummate their relationship and make passionate love. We see a striking image of their sleeping faces merging into one (an allusion to Bergman's _Persona_), which is interrupted by Rita's otherworldly chanting of the word 'Silencio'. She wakes up, as if from a trance, and they head off -- amidst disorienting images of the darker parts of LA -- to Club Silencio, an elegant 'underground' theatre.

 

This is probably the most extraordinary sequence of the film, the 'eye of the duck scene', as Lynch would say. [8] The devilish 'Magician' hosting Club Silencio unmasks what we are seeing and hearing as illusion: 'no hay banda! There is no band, it's all a tape recording, and yet we hear a band . . . it is an illusion'. It is the aesthetic illusion of cinematic performance, of the sounds we have been hearing, of the images we have been watching. We hear a thunderclap, see flashing blue light, hear a muffled explosion (recalling the sound we hear at the very end of the opening Jitterbug sequence), sounds which prompt Betty to shudder uncontrollably. His task of unmasking illusion completed, the Magician disappears in thick smoke (recalling Rita's car crash and anticipating Diane's suicide).

 

Then we see 'Cookie' -- who earlier appeared as the flophouse proprietor helping Kesher hide from the Mob -- introducing Rebekah del Rio, 'La Lloranda des Los Angeles', who walks on stage in a daze to deliver her Spanish rendition of Roy Orbison's 'Crying'. [9] Rebekah del Rio's performance is a crucial moment in the Club Silencio sequence (which is divided into the Magician's unmasking of what we've been seeing and hearing as illusion, and Rebekah del Rio's 'message' to Rita and Betty, revealing the illusory nature of their love). As Betty and Rita watch, distressed and mesmerised, Rebekah del Rio collapses and 'dies' on stage, Cookie carrying her from view, while her disembodied voice reaches an exquisite crescendo. Del Rio's performance and (symbolic) death thus stage aurally and visually the death that Diane has reinvented as her fantasy love affair with Rita. Betty and Rita apprehend that what we have seen is an illusion, that the love between them is impossible, for Rita, as Camilla, is *already dead*.

 

The Club Silencio sequence is a perfect Lynchian cinematic Idea, synthesising the aesthetics of pre-conscious experience with a self-conscious reflection upon cinematic illusion. It evokes the night-world of art, and of unconscious desire (Rita's chanting of 'Silencio! No hay banda!). It evokes the underworld of the Hollywood 'dream factory', the suppressed Hispanic world of culture (expressed beautifully by *La Lloranda's* performance). It performs the aesthetic power of cinema, of the disembodied voice, the liberating ambiguity of cinematic illusion. And it is also the aesthetic medium for the unconscious message that Rita and Betty apprehend through Rebekah del Rio's song and startling collapse on stage. The key to the mystery is now revealed: what we have been viewing is a fantasy version of what has *already happened*: Rita/Camilla's death, recorded and transfigured through beautiful cinematic illusion.

 

Having intuited these meanings, Betty opens her bag and finds a mysterious blue box, the key for which Rita had found in *her* bag earlier in the film. Betty and Rita rush back to the apartment to unlock it and resolve the mystery of Rita's identity. At this point, Diane's fantasy starts to disintegrate. Betty disappears as Rita recovers her bag and puts the key in the box; she opens it, the camera disappears into its black core, and the box falls to the floor. Here we touch the dark secret of Betty/Diane (her murderous desire), and the truth of Rita/Camilla's identity: her brutal murder, which becomes the source of Diane's death wish, her desire for *Silencio*.

 

The second part concludes with a transitional sequence: a puzzled Aunt Ruth returns to a now tidy apartment (so we are still in Diane's fantasy since Aunt Ruth is dead). The location momentarily sways and vanishes to reveal the dark corridor in *Diane's* apartment. We see two images of the dead woman we saw earlier. First, a woman in a black dress sleeping on the bed in Diane's apartment, as the Cowboy looks in, saying, 'Hey, pretty girl. Time to wake up.' And then the same woman, now a rotting corpse -- a fusion of Diane and Camilla in death -- as the Cowboy looks in again and departs in silence. [10] A loud knocking at the door marks the transition to Diane Selwyn's 'real' bedroom, with the same dark pink bed sheets, pillows, and green blanket that we saw at the end of the Jitterbug sequence that opened the film. At this point, we return to 'real life', with a pale and lifeless Diane awakening in her drab apartment.

 

 

3. 'Love'

 

Part 3 rehearses the 'real' story of Diane's failed relationship with Camilla, her plot to kill Camilla out a desire for revenge, and her psychotic breakdown and suicide. As Diane awakens, we see how different she seems from Betty (her hair is mousier, her teeth are poor, she seems drained of all vitality). Diane is in a state of depression, or of shock, shuffling to open the door in her dirty robe. The terrible deed has been done, signalled by the blue key left on Diane's coffee table. Her neighbour's mention of 'three weeks' since they swapped apartments provides us with a timeframe, as does the ashtray she has come to collect, clearly visible on the table during flashbacks of the affair between Diane and Camilla. Diane hallucinates the luminous image of Camilla, dazzling and unearthly: 'You've come back!' Diane cries before the uncanny figure. The image cuts suddenly -- crossing the line in a disorientating manner -- to a now composed Diane, standing where the apparition of Camilla previously stood. Has there been a temporal jump? Are these the moments before Diane fantasises her alternative reality? The film gives us no firm answers, or rather offers multiple possibilities.

 

What follows is a flashback sequence, deftly cutting from depressive Diane and her cup of coffee to a hot and sweaty Diane making love with Camilla. Camilla abruptly cuts short their lovemaking: 'We shouldn't do this anymore'. 'Don't *ever* say that!' Diane warns, trying to force herself on Camilla. 'It's him, isn't it?' Diane asks, meaning Kesher. The disintegration of their relationship is crushingly portrayed in a scene where Camilla makes Diane watch her and Adam rehearsing a kiss that clearly signals the reality of their own passion. [11] This breakdown culminates with Diane's painful masturbation scene: a failure to climax that signals -- through blurred, jerky, point of view shots of the stony wall -- not only her tears and humiliation but the disintegration of her fantasy and her growing desire for revenge.

 

In a reprise of an earlier sequence, we cut to a telephone ringing in Diane's flat -- the same telephone near the red lamp that we previously saw in the Mr Roque/Mafia subplot. In this earlier sequence, the mysterious Mr Roque conveyed a cryptic message -- 'The girl is still missing' -- that culminated in the call to the black telephone by the red lamp in what we now see is Diane's room. In the 'real' version of events, however, it is Camilla calling to invite Diane to come to a party at 6980 Mulholland Drive. Now the opening sequence of the film is repeated, with the same limousine snaking its way at night, but this time with Diane in the back seat. The same music and dialogue are heard as before but now with a different sense: 'What are you doing!' asks Diane, 'We don't stop here!' Instead of a gun appearing, however, Diane is met by Rita, who smiles and leads her hand-in-hand up to Kesher's party.

 

The uncanny effect of this part of the film rests on its repetition, reversal, and displacement of elements that were differently configured in the first two parts. At Kesher's party Diane meets the 'real' Coco -- actually Adam's mother, who is decidedly cool rather than welcoming towards her -- and tells her sad story: 'I'm from Deep River, Ontario . . . I always wanted to come here. I won this Jitterbug contest. That sort of lead to acting, wanting to act.' Her Aunt Ruth died and left some money that would allow her to follow her dream (but which she will spend on destroying Camilla). Diane and Camilla met on the set of 'The Sylvia North Story', but Camilla got the part that Diane wanted, the lead role (director Bob Brooker didn't like her, whereas her fantasy performance is stunning). Coco pats her hand in a vague gesture of sympathy.

 

Four vignettes follow that provide the source material for Diane's fantasy. As Diane drinks her coffee, Kesher amusingly tells of his marriage break-up: 'I got the pool, and she got the pool guy!' Kesher's quip provides the germ for his fantasised humiliation by his cheating wife and her beefcake lover (Billy Ray Cyrus). With Camilla and Kesher laughing together, Diane sees an older man (Angelo Badalamenti) staring at her aggressively from across the room. As Calvin Thomas has argued, this becomes the source image for the espresso-vomiting Castigliane gangster who acts out the abject disgust that Diane feels because of her humiliation at the hands of Adam and Camilla. [12] Then the girl we have seen previously as the one foisted on Kesher (Melissa George) comes over and kisses Camilla sensually, glances knowingly at Diane, and walks off. This minor but devastating event provides the source image for Diane's vision of the girl designated by the Mafia to get the lead role. In reality, this girl is Camilla's new lesbian love interest, usurping Diane, who recasts her in her dream/fantasy version as a sullen Mafia puppet. Then we see the 'Cowboy' briefly in the background, who becomes the bizarre enforcer sent by Mr Roque to warn Kesher to 'fix his attitude' and choose the right girl. In a final moment of humiliation, Adam and Camilla laughingly announce their engagement, as Diane cries in quiet rage.

 

From this flashback we jump forward to the 'real' Winkie's diner scene where Diane is doing her evil deal: 'This is the girl' she tells Joe, the blonde hit man, shoving a photo of dark-haired Camilla Rhodes before him. The 'real' Betty, however, turns out to be a cheerful Winkie's waitress with blonde hair reminiscent of Diane's, her face and nametag coalescing in Diane's reinvention of herself as Betty Elms. Diane's elaborate dream/fantasy thus allows her to rationalise her failure in Hollywood, to displace her guilt about Camilla's death to another party (Mr Roque and/or the Mafia), and to preserve her fantasy image of Rita as idealised object of desire. The Mafia conspiracy and the sinister Mr Roque thus serve no other narrative purpose than to exonerate Diane, to expiate her own guilt through a beautiful (cinematic) illusion.

 

Back in Winkie's Diner, Diane opens her purse and hands over the money. 'When it's finished', the hit man tells her, holding up a blue key, 'you'll find this where I told you'. In Diane's fantasy, this becomes the stylised triangular blue key that *Rita*, rather than Betty, finds in her bag. Indeed, it is only after Betty experiences intimations of the truth during Rebekah del Rio's song and symbolic death that she can discover the *other* half of the mystery, the blue box that she finds in *her own*, rather than Rita's, handbag. Her terrible secret can finally be unlocked.

 

While sealing the deathly deal, Diane looks up and sees the young man at the counter (Dan) whom we met earlier in Winkie's diner. In Diane's dream/fantasy, Dan (rhyming vaguely with Diane) becomes the personification of her own suppressed conscience, embodying the 'god-awful feeling' of guilt that is crystallised in Dan's fatal encounter with the evil force (the 'bum') behind Winkie's. This again is an inversion that neatly deflects guilt from Diane, attributing it to an abject source of evil outside of herself, literally behind the Winkie's diner where she sealed Camilla's fate. We know what the blue key means (Camilla has been murdered). 'What does it open?' Diane asks, as the hit man laughs. For what this Lynchian Pandora's Box reveals is the seductive, mysterious, and nightmarish world of _Mulholland Drive_ itself. By way of an answer to Diane's question, the camera returns to the back of Winkie's Diner, now bathed in red light, where we find the abject 'bum', sitting by a fire and fondling the blue box. He puts it in a paper bag and lets it drop to the ground (a decayed version of the opening of the blue box, which Rita too drops to the floor in Aunt Ruth's apartment). The camera pans down to the discarded box from which screeching figures, the old couple that Betty met on her way to LA, come scuttling out.

 

We cut to a shot of the blue key on the coffee table in Diane's apartment, hours later on the day after Camilla has been killed. Diane stares at the key on the table, her face and body trembling. There is a loud knocking (perhaps the two detectives looking for Diane?) as we see the miniature 'grandparents' climb in under the door. Amidst flashing blue light, and maniacal laughter, Diane's eyes begin to flicker as screams fill the air. The creepy couple, now adult-sized, chase the terrified Diane into her bedroom. Screaming Diane collapses on her bed and shoots herself in the mouth. Eerie smoke rises above her, like the smoke from the car wreck that saved Rita from her death and Diane from unbearable guilt.

 

The smoke dissolves to several images superimposed on each other: the face of the abject 'bum', now melancholy and serene, the stage curtain of Club Silencio, the LA skyline at night, illuminated by lights, smiling images of Betty and Rita, blindingly white, resolving finally to the empty interior of Club Silencio, bathed in fluctuating blue light. This cinematic Idea crystallises all the essential elements of _Mulholland Drive_, showing them coexisting simultaneously in different, yet interconnected temporal dimensions, narrative lines, and subjective points of view. Finally, we dissolve to the mysterious androgynous figure with blue hair, glimpsed earlier in the Club Silencio sequence, now sitting alone in the empty theatre, regal and remote, whispering the closing word of the film, 'Silencio'.

 

This extraordinary concluding section raises many intriguing questions. One is whether what we have seen in the film *really is* simply Diane's dream or fantasy, in contrast to the 'real' version of events that comprises the third part of the film. There are certainly many visual and aural cues to think that this is the case. Yet this approach presupposes that we should reconceptualize what we see in the first two-thirds as a subjective fantasy, taking what we see in the last third as the 'objective reality', the true account of the events narrated in the first part. This separation of fantasy and reality, however, is precisely what the concluding sequence undermines, since the film does not conclude with Diane's suicide but rather with a reprise of the image of the abject 'bum', seemingly only a fantasy projection of Diane's murderous impulses. Now that she has killed herself, the image of the 'bum' floats disconnected from her subjectivity, taking on an uncanny life and force of its own. It could be that this last sequence comprises the fantasy images of Diane's dying consciousness, concluding with the real moment of her death: the final *Silencio*. At the same time, however, we can view this final sequence as a crystallisation of the entire film: the close-up of bum's face, the smiling images of Betty and Rita (with blonde wig), the LA night skyline, and Club Silencio curtains, all coexisting within the cinematic dream world of _Mulholland Drive_.

 

This would suggest that the film *does* adopt an 'objective' point of view in the concluding sequence. These images are not simply expressions of Diane's subjective fantasy, or her psychotic breakdown, which means that we can no longer separate her fantasy world from the 'objective' diegetic world of the other characters. The concluding images float in an indeterminate zone between fantasy and reality, which is perhaps the genuinely metaphysical dimension of the cinematic image. [13] Once these images are no longer anchored to the subjectivity of a character, or located within the objective diegesis of the narrative, they become inexhaustible cinematic Ideas that escape our attempts to determine any possible definitive meaning.

 

Lynch's genius is to achieve this simultaneous reflexivity and sensuous immediacy through cinematic Ideas that combine popular culture with aesthetic modernism, lyrical fantasy with unconscious trauma, Romantic love with sexual mystery. This is achieved in a film that presents a powerful critique of the destructive hegemonic power of Hollywood, while performing a marvellous demonstration of the creative possibilities of cinematic art. The mystery of _Mulholland Drive_ is how these dimensions of fantasy, trauma, and art can coexist, magically transfigured, within the Lynchian world of cinematic Ideas.

 

Macquarie University

Sydney, Australia

 

 

Notes

 

My thanks to Louise D'Arcens and Doris McIlwain for invaluable insights, and to Calvin Thomas for permission to cite his excellent study of the film.

 

1. Martha P. Nochimson, _The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood_ (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).

 

2. For Zizek, Nochimson is 'focused on the flow of Life Energy that allegedly connects all events and runs through all scenes and persons, turning Lynch into the poet of a Jungian universal subconscious spiritualized libido' -- Zizek, _The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's _Lost Highway__ (Seattle: Walter Chapin Centre for the Humanities, 2000), p. 3.

 

3. Ibid., p. 20

 

4. Ibid., p. 13.

 

5. Stephen Mulhall, _On Film_ (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 2.

 

6. For Kant, an aesthetic idea is 'an intuition of the imagination' that resists determinate conceptualisation, 'so that no language can express it completely and allow us to grasp it'. See _Critique of Judgment_, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indiana: Hackett, 1987), pp. 215-217.

 

7. See, for example: Bill Wyman, Max Garrone, and Andy Klein, 'Everything You Wanted to Know About _Mulholland Drive_', _Salon_, October 23, 2001 <http://archive.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/2001/10/23/mulholland_drive_analysis>; accessed 19 September 2004. Allen B. Ruch, ''No hay banda': A Long, Strange Trip Down David Lynch's _Mulholland Drive_', _The Modern Word_, 6 February 2003 <http://www.themodernword.com/mulholland_drive.html>; accessed 25 January 2005. For a dissenting view see Martha P. Nochimson, ''All I Need is the Girl': The Life and Death of Cinematic Creativity in _Mulholland Drive_' in Erica Sheen and Annette Davison, eds, _The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions_ (London: Wallflower Press, 2004), pp. 165-181.

 

8. See Nochimson for Lynch's explanation of the 'eye of the duck scene', _The Passion of David Lynch_, pp. 24-27. This is a seemingly gratuitous moment that prefigures the end but without being a conventional narrative climax.

 

9. Critics have passed over the use of Hispanic performers in the Club Silencio sequence, which evokes the hidden underworld of Hollywood, and suppressed artistic culture of Los Angeles. Thus in Betty's fantasy, 'Cookie' plays a Hispanic underling (the helpful proprietor of the flophouse where Kesher hides), but returns in the Club Silencio sequence to introduce Rebekah del Rio, 'La Lloranda of Los Angeles'. As Nicholas Gessler points out (thanks to Stanley Allen), ''La Lloranda' (literally 'the weeping woman') is an Hispanic folk tale about a woman who is jilted by her husband. In despair she drowns their two children in the river, then after nights of weeping in remorse she drowns herself. Her ghostly sobs are often heard in the night'. See Gessler, 'David Lynch -- _Mulholland Drive_: An Independent Analysis', 29 September 2002 <http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/geog/gessler/topics/mulholland-drive.htm>.

 

10. We see the Cowboy twice (in Diane's bedroom) because, not Kesher, but *Diane* has 'done bad', as we soon learn.

 

11. This scene perhaps forms the basis for Betty's powerful audition scene kissing Woody Katz, where she acts out kooky director Bob Brooker's cryptic advice: 'Don't play it for real until it gets real'.

 

12. See Calvin Thomas's convincing analysis of this scene as a paradigmatic case of the Freudian dream-work in his 'It's No Longer Your Film': Condensation, Displacement, and Abjection in David Lynch's _Mulholland Drive_' (unpublished manuscript).

 

13. The 'metaphysical' dimension of the cinematic image would be that which lies beyond the manifest content and conventional form of the image. For Lynch, this would mean the dimension of pure cinematic Ideas, complex sound and image ensembles that resist conceptual explication and linguistic translation.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Robert Sinnerbrink, 'Cinematic Ideas: David Lynch's _Mulholland Drive_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 34, June 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n34sinnerbrink>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Save as Plain Text Document...Print...Read...Recycle

 

Join the _Film-Philosophy_ salon, and receive the journal articles via email as they are published. here

 

Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

PO Box 26161, London SW8 4WD, England

Contact the Editor (remove Caps before sending)

 

Back to the Film-Philosophy homepage