by Tom Casey on December 26, 2009

David Lynch stimulates creative inquiry. Watch this youtube posting and then enjoy the essay, which I invite any writer, lover of films or fan of David Lynch to expand on.

Tom Casey

Oscar Wilde said, “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.” This is particularly true for David Lynch. He remains vague about his work, and most of his fans can’t articulate why they are moved by it. Film critics won’t say they understand him, using broad terms like “post-Freudian” or “impressionistic”, avoiding in most cases any attempt at exegesis. Something is happening but nobody seems to know what it is.

Lynch is difficult because he is original; his work escapes easy understanding because he makes demands on his audience. To enter his world and keep it legible requires knowledge of the American experience and psychology. He takes meticulous care to fabricate an atmosphere that is, culturally speaking, a collation. At times the music is not our music, the clothes are none we wear, the behavioral idiom is out of pace, yet we see ourselves. Strange at the beginning, by turns exaggerated and contrived, and by the end stranger than anything we could have imagined, his world is finally recognizable as our own. If genius is the ability to make connections, David Lynch is a genius of film who connects the process of inner experience to the objects and individuals from without that mold and influence it.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE is a film preoccupied with identity. On its surface, it is the story of a young woman who won a dance contest and a chance to have a Hollywood audition. Though by no means clear until much later in the film, she has mediocre talent and falls prey to destructive seductions that turn her dream into a nightmare and destroy her. But what Lynch has done with this Hollywood cliché is magical. It’s all in the telling: his trick is to hide his story by cryptically putting it right in front of you. He tells you what he’s doing while he’s doing it, knowing that, time after time, the viewer’s conventional expectations will lead to wrong conclusions, raising the level of confusion and suspense.

Like BLUE VELVET, MULHOLLAND DRIVE is a mystery. Each of Lynch’s characters is in pursuit of something—Betty of her dream, Rita of her identity, Adam of his autonomy. Each story is compelling as Lynch makes it unfold, but it is from an emotional rather than a rational language of meaning that these characters are depicted. This is important to realize; it’s why Lynch is unintelligible to so many. Without Freudian understanding, the depth of his insight and the richness of his art cannot be comprehended consciously. The meticulous clues that he puts before you—sometimes literally in your face—will be misread or overlooked.

Not that that matters to David Lynch. His films leave audiences reeling because he specifically addresses himself to the unconscious. When he misses, Lynch still conveys a vision of rich texture. DUNE, WILD AT HEART, and LOST HIGHWAY are lesser achievements. He walks a fine line. These films can seem like the rant of a madman, eerie for a truth hidden in voluble nonsense, but they are unmistakably the product of David Lynch.

When he hits, the result is stellar. BLUE VELVET is his brilliant success; MULHOLLAND DRIVE is his masterpiece. These films work because at their core is an essence about us as human beings. BLUE VELVET, an Oedipal allegory, takes a tour through the mindscapes of sex and guilt in a young man processing the shock of his father’s heart attack. MULHOLLAND DRIVE similarly works from the inside out, but it’s canvass is much larger, challenging the validity of American optimism. By using the metaphor of dreams, he exults in the conflict between the ideal of Hollywood as a dream machine, and the corrosive realities of life.

Dreams, their compressed images, elaborate distortions, and inherent psychopathology are grist for Lynch. Dreams can be beautiful and turn terrifying. Dreams always express a wish, often reversing facts of the waking world. More importantly, as Freud insisted, the dream is the dreamer. Hollywood creates the dreams of our culture, projecting the sex and violence of our collective Id. Id is very much the springboard for David Lynch.

For most of the entire film, MULHOLLAND DRIVE is a dream being dreamt by a young aspiring actress named Betty. This is not explicit, though in typical fashion Lynch has put it subtly in front of us: in the opening scene the camera plays on a pillow and we hear the sound of a person sleeping out of range. In a subsequent scene Betty says, “This is the place of dreams.”

Then the camera follows a limousine traveling at night on Mulholland Drive. It soon becomes a hearse of sorts, and that subliminal impression, once planted, remains. Throughout the film/Betty’s dream, the characters and their actions must often be inverted to understand their interplay as continuous to the fabric of the story. By this calculus it is Betty, not Rita, who is searching for her identity, and the story of Betty’s triumphant audition is her wish that she had not, in reality, failed. When Adam, the director, meets her eyes and seems to fall in love with her, we should suspect the truth is his indifference. When Rita begins to sense that she is responsible for a murder, Freud’s delineation of dreamwork points to Betty. In dreams, manifest content masks latent meaning; there are layers and layers.

Dreams are constructed from images of waking life: we later discover the sources of Betty’s dream material: the dark angular man in the diner, the waitress’s name tag, a blue key, are reproduced in Betty’s dream with a significance they did not have when she casually encountered them. But we don’t know that to begin with. We do know that walls, doors, windows, boxes, and bed are the symbols of Betty’s entrapment. Violence, tempered in her dream as cartoon gangsters shorn of their menace through slapstick, should be viewed with foreboding, for everything is its opposite. Gangsters are Hollywood; the Cowboy is also Hollywood, but here too, his mythic strength is denatured. He is cast as a betrayer who speaks for the mob’s insistence on Camilla for a starring role (against the dream’s Betty/Rita). Ridiculed relentlessly by Adam and so stripped of his status as icon, the Cowboy is not a benign protector, rather he seems more a genderless demon who awakens Betty/Diane to what we shortly learn is Diane’s horrible reality.

MULHOLLAND DRIVE is consistently true to its vision, and so honest in its manner of expression that Lynch can have his characters do anything that human beings are capable of doing and never seem gratuitous. The lesbian affair between Betty and Rita is as credible in the dream as it seems in reality between Diane and Camilla. There are no ideal overtones in the real relationship, which is in fact a destructive union riven with ungovernable passions. In one of the last scenes Diane masturbates furiously, missing her orgasm repeatedly as a final frustration before the barrier to guilt gives way and parental homunculi creep under the doorway, exploding into the room as an Id-fueled horror of accusation.

There are many scenes that bring this film up. Silencio, the Satanic theater where Betty and Rita are introduced to the end of illusions, is a hall of grief, where truth and the immanence of death are presented as the seductive lie of prerecording. Rebekah Del Rio sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying” a capela in Spanish, a lament of lost love and lost dreams. Death, as the end of relationships, as willful insistence on delusion, as the vagrant visage in his dark squalor, finally takes possession of all secrets.

The actors are superb. Naomi Watts (Betty) takes your breath away as Lynch gives her talent full range. Justin Theroux as Adam and Laura Elena Harring as Rita give Hollywood its full twinkle of hollow glamour. Proust wrote that there is no access to something original because, by virtue of its originality, it defies analysis, it can only stand apart with a life of its own as a reference to subsequent works that may evolve under its influence. “In short, this art which is so complicated is in fact the only living art. It alone expresses for others and renders visible to ourselves that life of ours that cannot effectually observe itself and of which the observable manifestations need to be translated and, often, to be read backwards and laboriously deciphered.”

David Lynch is such an artist, and MULHOLLAND DRIVE is such a film. Any attempt to force his meaning will fail; he will not be understood too quickly, and perhaps never in the same way by different viewers. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare, all we can hope for in time is to be wrong about him in a new way.

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