David Lynch Could Tell You, But Telling Gets Old

After going to the largest Mulholland Drive fansite, it looks like one question is on everybody’s lips and fingertips: what actually happened? What did those images mean? Unlike The Godfather, where someone might jump straight into the absent father-son relationship driving the film’s tragedy, a successful discussion of Mulholland Drive would have to first convince you that either one or two blondes existed, that the film wasn’t a hallucination within a dream, and that maybe, just maybe, there’s enough substance in this hypothetical plotline to support a psychological reading.

Heck, even other films with a potentially confusing narrative, say Godard’s A Bout de Soufflé, still get people to talk about style instead of narrative, but Mulholland Drive, that flick keeps people excited and thrilled to find out what they exactly saw on that screen. What other fan site would spend so much time deciding what actually happened in the film?

It isn’t impenetrable enough for internet forum critics to shun (now that is a film I would love to watch once, and probably only once): indeed, the film can even support pithy psychoanalytic interpretations that are persuasive based on a little amount of evidence. But looking at the post in a little bit detail, things begin to get fuzzy when the critic begins to describe actual plot points of the film.

Bananna says that Adam struggles with an identity crisis over selling out his creative freedom, and yet nothing in the movie suggests, one way or the other, that he projected a lot of artistic expression into his work. Outside of potentially gratuitous responses to bad luck, there’s little past to his character given from the filmmaker.

In fact, besides this petty squabble, Bananna makes a pretty big jump at the end of the post: “if the movie is indeed Diane’s point of view…then she exhibits traits of a narcissistic”. An entire reading of a character in the flick that starts from a supposition, an educated guess. Other readings of the film, even serious criticism of it, dependon making a leap of narrative faith at least to some extent, during the film.

The opening scene, that digitally composed conga line eventually super-imposed with menacing and sterile figures in anticipation, most directly asks this question when the opening scene fades into an image of the frat guys partying in a top down jeep. The film switches from displaying undoubtedly artificial to suspiciously real footage, and its first visual cue is a street sign. Nothing is more real than a street sign, and I mean that in a profound way. Unlike an object in reality, a street sign grants a name and identity to whatever street it’s on. Instead of being real, it creates the reality in the film of “Mullholland Dr.”, the street, actually existing. Would the street still be “Mulholland Drive” without that street sign?

When this image is juxtaposed so quickly with obviously unreal footage, it makes you, the audience sitting in your chair, picking your nose because it’s really dark when the film is on: you have the power to impose your own street signs on this movie! But it’s kind of hard work, and people crash in these streets:

So one of the most exciting questions to answer about Mulholland Drive to answer is why such a coy film, so thrifty with its meaning, can manage to get critics to watch it over and over again. How can people find so much substance in a film that is so elaborately, and persistently, ambiguous? Lost and X-Files have both milked the same cow, but those remain fan driven spectacles compared to the more cerebral narrative complexity confusing anyone in a seat at a movie theatre. Why do critics, time and time again, say that they like this movie?

The obvious answer is that some prestigious people like to say that they like such a “complex” movie: it makes them feel smarter when other people who claim to not understand it.

Hopefully you won’t fall into that trap, dear and hypothetical reader! It’s precisely because of how brilliantly fortified the movie is against people making claims with it. It’s the kind of film that makes you question the credibility, or even significance, of viewing things. Instead of other, more straight-forward films that might direct your attention from point to point, treating its audience as a classroom lecture more than anything else, Mulholland Drive leaves itself open to your eyes. You can follow the names on Winkie’s name tags, you can imagine half of the movie’s events as an elaborate dream of multiple characters, but in any case, you are certainly never reminded of any events from the past that gain significance after the narrative has developed.

*** Nothing is more real than a street sign ***

Instead of the debriefing style from an action blockbuster, this is more a walk home from work, or class. When a random sight of a diner name tag refers to a time you went there once before, when a fairly straightforward plotline of a recovering amnesiac is interrupted by two men going to a diner to talk about dreams, these almost meaningless interruptions gain meaning when contextualized together. What meaning they gain is hard to say, but it could serve as a clue that the other, completely unrelated plotline of a woman wanting to audition for a role, is in fact a dream, as a scene similar to the described dream occurs much later.

Regardless, other moments in the film have a similar suggestive power, and almost all of these theories of the film directly stem by the moments the film refuses to show. Does time flow as normal after Betty and Camilla seem to switch identities? Or did “Rita” have a relationship with Camilla before having that accident? All of this intrigue, and complexity from the muteness of the film, in not clearly describing when events take place.

Even stray images of a man sitting down in a wheelchair suggest a much different movie involving a grey éminence grise behind the film’s plotline, controlling major events.

Or he could just be an old geezer

And that respect from Lynch, that daunting privilege to make meaning out of the movie, is really what defines the experience of watching the movie. To really know it, you have to spend some time forming connections between its events, getting to know it intimately through the possible narrative that it could be, or not getting to know it at all, reflects the relatively haphazard way one can bumble through life: as a detective sorting through clues to find the ultimate meaning to everything, or one can be an endlessly walking individual, not content to stay on image too long, but just swept up by looking at the visuals and not interrogating the narrative.

I mean, it’s not like the film shies away from blatantly appealing to the most wealthy demographic to market towards in America: the white male in his twenties, about to grow into a professional adult:

There's also gratuitous gun violence at one point

So, all of this has skirted the enterprise of deciding what’s real and what isn’t about this film: each theory has its virtues that can’t be discounted. The classical interpretation is tidy and boring. Hard to fault, but feeling spurned by a lover isn’t that refreshing a theme.

Another is much better:  Diane’s dream replays her sexual abuse as a youth. After being abused, an aunt and uncle wanted to keep things quiet, so they gave Betty some money, which allows her to follow her fantasy of acting while living in a very spacious and well decorated apartment. This explains how she has so much without earning a cent in front of the camera, and why she’s so eager to be living by herself in Los Angeles without a job, because it’s away from the big bad monster of her dad. It also gives a little bit of dimension to Diane’s lesbianism. After suffering from a sexually abusive male,  sexual relations with people that don’t remotely resemble her uncle seem even more attractive, too. giving at least some character motivation for her to kiss another girl when she has made no move to do so earlier in the film.

Unfortunately, this theory doesn’t actually hold any water because dreams do not take place over as much time as Betty and Diane’s story. I once had an incredibly long and elaborate dream involving a zombie apocalypse where I met and hung out with Zombies from Atlanta, College Station, and the Appalachian Mountains (the first were the coolest: they enjoyed riding motorcycles into each other to make the biggest splat while the undead organs of past participants regenerated. The others just liked punching each other, and singing dreary folk songs, respectively).

The Original Zombie On a Motorcycle

I can also never recall having a period of sleep in my dreams. They all seem like a continuous ticker tape of emus trying on Batman costumes.

No, with dreams normally occurring much differently than the film’s, one starts to wonder whether or not some of these moments are actually dreams. There are also very few actually impossible occurrences as befits a dream. It’s much too tame and in control, to be a dream at all. Furthermore, because the movie does not date its events, perhaps “Rita” going into the black car near the end of the film happens right before the events shown at the start of the film, where the frat boy crash happens. The movie comes full circle this way, and doesn’t descend into being a dream.

This theory loses a little credibility when you realize that Camilla sits next to “Rita” before the car moves at the end of the film, and she is nowhere to be found in the car. So Camilla would have had to leave the car before the accident, but that requires a lot of action not shown by Lynch. Don’t know what to do about the monster behind Winkie’s besides label it symbolism and forget about it.

Instead of believing in this, I would like to make even more of the film reality than that: David Lynch, throwing frames of unknown actors, death, and lipstick lesbian sex at a crowd of film viewers, is the Truth, resulting in a dizzying narrative of doubt an the audience learning to trust David Lynch after more and more facts are ascertained. At first, the audience is disconcerted by the tangled narrative that they found. Only after considering that maybe there is more to the movie than a series of disconnected images do they learn to trust an author, and, eventually, an interpretation of the film.

*** David Lynch, throwing frames of unknown actors, death, and lipstick lesbians, at a crowd of film viewers, is the Truth ***

That his movie has fashioned so many complex and mutually exclusive interpretations only stands as testament, not to his individual skills in making cinema, but to the innate ability, or urge, of humans to impose meaning on a narrative that eludes an easy summary. It commands, and rewards, attention, but, more than that, it forces the audience to think for themselves or constantly question the narrative’s events.

Maybe the disconcerted dreamer at Winkie’s diner had the entire movie pinned down before it even really began. His friend asked why we were here, and he responded “to get rid of this awful feeling”. That’s what compels the fans to devise a theory or plot about the movie, to force it to make sense when Lynch has made plenty of effort to contradict and obscure his own narrative.

In this way, it’s a movie whose audience response reveals meaning not as a fixed, attainable state, but as a human compulsion. At the very least, I can admit to feeling relief when I started to read the various Mulholland Dr. theories, and they actually made sense. This compulsion can also be brilliantly fertile, like the theory that Diane represses memories of sexual abuse, or it can be a little more desperate (say, the theory that Diane suffers post-abortion grief). Either way, no matter what truth has been believed, the journey, the form, are what’s important and memorable about the film. This makes the film feel true and emotionally powerful, as piecing its narrative resembles a communal experience more than a piece of art.

-P

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