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Mulholland Drive

The Irrational Post Modern


In Sight and Sound, critic Graham Fuller writes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as giving a field day to amateur psychoanalysts, before reading the film with a degree of psychoanalytic interpretation himself. But we should think of Lynch less as a filmmaker who utilises Freudian symbols; more as a filmmaker generating, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, ‘metapherein’, a word Hannah Arendt suggests in her introduction to Benjamin’s Illuminations that should be read as a metaphor ‘understood in its original, non-allegorical sense…to transfer. For a metaphor establishes a connection which is sensually perceived in its immediacy and requires no interpretation, while an allegory always proceeds from an abstract notion and then invents something palpable to represent it almost at will.’ Such an approach allows us to escape from necessarily reading the film as in two distinct parts, with the first, lengthy section the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a struggling Hollywood hopeful and the second as nightmarish reality that comments on the first ‘deluded’ section. Better perhaps to see both sections as virtual, and to try to find out what is central to their virtuality, to work out how they utilise their metaphors, and to what these metaphors allude.

Let’s say the first section works chiefly off the idea of curiosity, that Lynch is interested less in a story of a Hollywood hopeful, than of a young woman possessed of intense inquiry. Here young Betty arrives in Hollywood determined to become a successful actress and perhaps also a serious one too. But as she arrives at her actress aunt’s house in Los Angeles she finds a beautiful woman in her shower who, it transpires, has lost her memory, and Betty becomes more readily involved in helping ‘Rita’ find her memory than in pursuing her career. In one key scene she’s given a wonderful opportunity to meet Hollywood’s hotshot young director, but instead she holds to an appointment with Rita that suggests her curiosity about Rita is greater than her interest in pursuing Hollywood fame. For it’s as if Lynch wants to suggest that a career is preconception; curiosity contingent, and that to pursue the former over the latter is to foreground the anticipated self over the undefined subject. Here the undefined subject pursues the unknown over the noun, the enigmatic mystery over the solidifying of one’s social being. At one moment Betty excitedly suggests the pair of them should explore the city – a mystery for Betty who’s new to LA, and a mystery for Rita who might know the town but has lost her memory of it. If it is true Lynch is more interested in contingency over preconception, then would it not make more sense for him to adopt not Freudian symbols but indefinable metaphors, just as he suggests freedom over the constraint of preconceived existence? From such a position we should perhaps think less of characters than of occupied spaces; that ‘Rita’ – who adopts the name after looking at a poster of the film Gilda – and Betty exist as metaphors more than characters. They represent a space between the symbol and characterization.

It is in such an approach that dichotomies and categories collapse: just as the dream/reality divide falls apart so also does the idea of ready character. It’s as if the key question Lynch’s film asks is what do we need to make sense of feelings? Do we need conventional narrative and characterization, or can we slip feelings through an interstice that gets more directly to one’s feelings than the projection/identification demanded of people and plotting? This is a big question, one that recalls Paul Schrader’s ironic comment on Cat People, “I planned the movie to adhere to the logic of dreams. Trouble is, I had to show it to people while they were awake.” How, Lynch might be asking, does one create a cinema of dream logic that goes beyond dream reasoning and can still make sense to the waking viewer? We might say that it’s a process not of increased assumption (the sort of comprehension Fuller demands) but of a greater willingness to decrease assumption. In Schrader’s comment there’s an acceptance of impossibility, of making dream films for reasoned minds.

No such assumption resides in Lynch’s work. The waking mind will watch the film, certainly, but how far can Lynch take one into a world that isn’t just awake, but constantly awakening, awakening to the possibility of the interface of dream  and being awoken, of being shocked into new thought, as Antonin Artaud might have said.  From such a perspective we might think Lynch is a surrealist, but somehow the word doesn’t do justice to a filmmaker whose work usually has loose narrative and characterisation and a sense of curiosity that fits in quite neatly with suspense cinema. It’s as if Lynch wants something of the inexplicablity of surrealism, but neither to confound our attempts at meaning, nor to play up the knowingness of aesthetic symbolism, but instead to emphasize the allusive possibilities in subjectivity. What we mean by this can be pinpointed if we think of Lynch’s interview on the BBC with Mark Cousins, where Lynch talks about ‘the eye of the duck’ scene. In Lynch’s view the eye of the duck touches upon notions of mise-en-scene without reducing it to a question of technique; but instead expands it to become a question of immediate perception. This is partly a question of busyness or rarefication in the field of vision, where what one sees creates degrees of agitation or frustration.

In Lost Highway, for example, much of the first forty five minutes plays on rarefication, where suspense is generated out of absence; while the rest of the film generally plays up agitation, where tension is generated out of presence. The literal absence that ties into the perceptual absence is in the general, sexual and emotional dimension of saxophonist Fred’s spouse, and also in the absence of signifiers of reasons for lust and fear in Fred’s life. Where in the longer, second section, after Fred seems to have morphed into the young mechanic Pete Dayton, the emphasis lies in presence: the lust for Alice whom he regularly has sex with in motel rooms, and the fear of Mr Eddy, who warns him to stay away from Alice. From this perspective we need to think less of concrete characterization and of narrative, than the liquidity of modes of feeling. The issue in both Lost Highway and Mullholland Drive isn’t about narrative contortions and character swapping as ends in themselves, but as ways in which we can access forces and layers of consciousness. As actress Naomi Watts, who plays Betty in Mulholland Drive says, “[Lynch] wants you to think, to bring something to the creative pot. He works with intuition and he believes we have absolute understanding and truth within us all about everything, but it’s up to us to access it.”

From such a position we might ask whether conventional notions of art predicated on character and narrative are hindrances to this accessing. In our understanding of narrative and character we may be understanding art but are we in the process denying the complexity of our state of being? In much art our notion of being is affirmed the way language affirms our sense of self. We are, in each instance, articulate: we articulate. But if we accept the Latin root articulatus we realise that it means to separate into joints, into dividing distinctly. Both art and language have followed this articulation, through grammar in language and genre in art. But each has also pursued the inarticulatus, in the neologistic in language, in the avant-garde in art. This is something Gilles Deleuze describes quite well when he suggests “our brain becomes our problem or our illness, our passion, rather than our mastery, our solution or decision. We are not copying Artaud, but Artaud lived and said something about the brain that concerns all of us: that ‘its antennae turned towards the invisible…’”

Once the antennae is turned towards the invisible this needn’t of course mean the denial of sense, it merely means the denial of the sense that has already been made. When Lynch generates his own version of mise-en-scene criticism we could assume he’s baffling us out of a combination of bloody-mindedness and a pejorative inarticulacy, or we could say that he’s trying to find more precise terms for his feelings than the already thought has given him. Thus we notice in Lynch the eschewal of conventional notions of mise-en-scene, as the description of the ‘eye of the duck’ and the denial of psychoanalytic symbols in his work allow for a self-expression constantly on the edge of sense. Hence, when Lynch makes two apparently contradictory statements within the one BBC/Cousins interview – that films should be ends in themselves without the demand for interpretation, and then later talks about each viewer having his own take on the film – we should think less of contradiction than of a deeper sense within the apparently non-sensical. For here actually Lynch is making perfectly good sense, the sort of sense made not out of superficial reasoning, but profound emotional articulation as he offers an emotional consistency. What he’s suggesting is denying the sort of interpretation that involves clear aesthetic intent – specifics about lighting and imagery in relation to intention – but allowing the sort of interpretation based on an individual’s intuitive response to the work.

We might say it’s the difference between ‘fact knowledge’ and ’emotional knowledge’. That ‘fact knowledge’ presents itself to the world as known – names, dates, established techniques, homages etc. – but emotional knowledge is what makes itself known in the process of thought and thinking. It’s as if what Lynch asks for is that one brings to his films not the fact knowledge of the professorial or the expert, but the emotional knowledge of the indecisive. To do otherwise would be to superimpose the already thought on the burgeoning thought, and this helps explain why Lynch is interested in undermining character and narrative. How does one maximize the provisionality of meaning if one then allows for identification with people and stories? What can be gained from liquifying these elements? Perhaps it allows for feeling to come across in a purer form, so that we see characters less as fictional embodiments than as feeling vessels.

This is ostensibly the Hitchcockian side to Lynch, where critics, and Hitchcock himself, have talked about the way the director can switch identification based on the engineering of suspense, as if character is less important than the cinematic ability to manipulate. But Lynch takes this in a very different direction. If for Hitchcock the collapse of identification serves the exigencies of suspense cinema as he plays with issues of identity in, say, Vertigo, North by Northwest and Psycho, Lynch quite literally collapses characterization, and leaves us with feelings that can’t readily be located in Hitchcockian terms. While Hitchcock often rationalizes our buried fears – Deleuze has talked of Hitchcock as the great director of relations, of images where, in Rohmer and Chabrol’s words “the whole aim of the film is only the exposition of a reasoning…”, and cheerfully creates what many would call, in the best sense of the term, ‘ciphers of tension’ – we can see by adopting the term ‘vessels of feeling’ that Lynch reverses the process.

Of course this has much to do with the way each makes films – Hitchcock talked of careful story-boarding, Lynch in the BBC interview mentions two moments of cinematic contingency. During the making of The Elephant Man, Lynch earned the nickname ‘Lucky Lynch’ after a first take of Anthony Hopkins looking at the titular character and the director noticed a tear in Hopkins’ eye. There was no need for a second take and Lynch had his contingent moment. In Twin Peaks – Fire Walk with Me, he cast a sound engineer in the role of the evil Bob, and then found in one shot during a particularly tense sequence that the sound engineer was reflected in a mirror in the scene. The cameraman suggested a retake – this was after all a sound man caught accidentally in the shot, but Lynch kept it in – was it not also evil Bob that he’d caught on camera? Thus if the relations Rohmer and Chabrol talk of when writing on Hitchcock indicate the ‘exposition of reasoning’; in Lynch the relations made are suggestive and constantly opening up to possibilities beyond any notion of established form and aesthetic purpose.

But of course it isn’t enough to say Hitchcock and Lynch work differently; it’s as if there is something Lynch wants to do with the conventions that Hitchcock was central to setting up. But this rejection of conventions should perhaps be seen once again not as intent but as an intuitive move beyond what suspense cinema usually does. This may help us to explain why Lynch both is and isn’t post-modern. He is post-modern in the sense that he takes elements of the thriller and fashions them in a new mode, but he seems to lack the self-consciousness that marks the post-modern tone so central to films like Body Heat, Suture and Reservoir Dogs for example. Such works offer a strong sense of deliberate deja vu, of ‘afterness’, where Lynch – and this helps explain the mobius strip quality critics see in Lynch’s work – seems both before and after.

His mixing of modes, his lurching from drama to comedy and back again in Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, indicate the post-modern. Frank in Blue Velvet is both ‘real’ villain and cartoon incarnation of evil. Mr Eddy is crime lord peddler of porn and a dutiful follower of the Highway Code. And yet the post-modern often suggests the awareness of its post-status. We could call it the rational post-modern, practised especially adeptly in film by Tarantino. But Lynch is closer to an irrational post-modern, where he creates out of the artefacts of earlier culture a pop-unconscious that is diametrically opposed to Tarantino. Thus the white picket fences and the red fire engine at the beginning of Blue Velvet, the Doris Day style demeanour of Betty in Mulholland Drive, aren’t self-conscious pastiches or parodies of the fifties, but appear like detrital elements of an unconscious bringing them forth. If rational post-modernism wants to give irony to shallowness, wants to give to cliches a further superficiality by ironizing them, Lynch wants to give them a depth they’ve earned by virtue of lodging themselves in one’s mind.

This is Lynch’s curious post-modern innocence, and the before and after of his work. He doesn’t play the cliches straight, but neither does he play them ironically.  Lynch plays them with the intuitive awareness that they’ve been accessed from his own reservoir where the history of cultural usage gives way to individual recollection. Hence Lynch refuses giving to cliches the accumulated pressure of things, of evolving tropes, but instead offers them as undiluted aspects of emotion. We can of course laugh at Betty’s Hollywood ambitions, but it would be too simple to assume Lynch is doing likewise. When in Mulholland Drive Betty performs an audition Lynch suggests two things at once. First he shows us that Betty’s a decent actress, and secondly that there is enough ‘meat’ even in the hoary script she’s working with to find a depth within it. Lynch seems to be looking for not the external echo of the post-modern but the internal echo of the primal, of finding ways to access emotion using whatever means that allow him to get closest to the feeling. Whether that be the eye of the duck notion in conversation, or the cliches out of fifties film and TV drama, the aim is to find whatever works deeply. We can say then that Lynch is fashioning for himself a symbolic language, but he reinterprets the symbolic and arrives at the ‘metaphoric’ Benjamin alludes to by denying tropes, cliches and cultural bric-a-brac given a socially accepted spin, by (as Arendt would say), using words (and images) inventing something palpable to represent the tropes etc. almost at will.

This may help us move towards the sort of left turns Lynch’s work seems to make, and why we can’t expect to put together the parts in the causal manner Hitchcock demands when he says “if the audience does know, if they’ve been told all the secrets that the characters do not know, they’ll work like the devil for you because they know what fate is facing the poor actors. That is what is known as ‘playing God’. That is suspense.” This is relevant to Hitchcock’s generally closed system, but Lynch’s more open form demands not suspense but something closer to immanent tension, to a collapse of the ‘articulatus’, for the permeation of an ambient coalescence of categories. There is the key line from Blue Velvet: ‘what are you, a detective or a pervert?’ What may be central to Lynch’s work is the rejection of moral categories Chabrol and Rohmer saw as Hitchcock’s ‘crime and punishment’ pattern whereby, in Raymond Durgnat’s words, “some sin, or moral lapse, maybe so small as to be invisible to the mortal eye, brings down the wrath of God in the form of Suspense from Hitch.” Good and evil lack categories in Lynch and function instead as enveloping moods where characters are caught in whirlpools of feeling over events they can dictate. Thus in Blue Velvet the optimism of the ending – with Jeffrey Beaumont recovering from his ordeal in the underworld, and Dorothy reunited with her child – seems to contain within it a continuing sense of depravity that no amount of apparent closure can contain. If we’re all both detective and pervert, Lynch seems to be saying, if we must accept that out of evil can come hope, then must we not accept that out of hope can come evil? In the smalltown of Lumberton one evil has been conquered, but are Dorothy and Jeffrey now happy in their return to non-nocturnal life, or are they ineradicably aware of their own intense involvement with the dark side? After all, Jeffrey and Dorothy didn’t just get mixed up in the underworld, they found alter-identities of sadism and sado-masochism within that world. It is one thing to eradicate Frank from the world, it’s another to eradicate from oneself the feelings that found an outlet in that environment.

What Lynch is so often getting at in his work is that man, or woman, is the sum total of his being in the universe. If that world incorporates evil, then one is incorporated within that evil; or, by the same token, incorporated by good within a world that is more or less devoid of evil. Whatever Rita’s past, its eradication through amnesia allows her to be open to stimuli more effectively than if she were processing the information with the aid of a developed, thirty year plus consciousness. Innocence here isn’t an accepted category, a moral category, but a mode of being one adopts if devoid of the consciousness of guilt and in the company of fellow innocence. What Lynch sets up here, we could say, is a way of creating a form for the revelation of his subjectivity, of perhaps notions of good and evil, innocence and guilt, that aren’t a priori, but contingent. He doesn’t require a superstructure any broader than that required for pushing his instincts into the realm of sense. Fuller may say “nor is it illogic that characterises Mulholland Drive, but dream logic, which permits a stream of non sequiturs and cul de sacs…” but he still feels the need to make sense of the dream, to say that for all Lynch’s illogical touches there is a deeper logic that means the first two thirds is the dream that the third ‘reality’ act comments upon. But, as Gaston Bachelard has said, “Contradiction…is the law of the unconscious.”  The unconsciousness’s job isn’t to make sense, the sort of formal sense Fuller demands of Lynch’s work, but instead to make known, to intuit and bring from the unconscious possibilities to consciousness. Whether this comes from dreams or from idle thought or concentrated thought doesn’t really matter. The purpose is to make known. To think too much of dream logic is just to incorporate answers to what remains in a state of flux.

What matters in Lynch’s work, what makes Lynch significant, is the degree to which he retains this flux. For one of the big problems with dream logic is that it’s nevertheless an applied logic to the indeterminacy of dreams. Such an approach assumes that there is sense to be made of the oneiric, but if Lynch is interested in feelings over structural forms, then superimposing dream reasoning denies us the intuitive relationship to film Lynch provides. Fuller’s belief that the first two  thirds is the wish-fulfilment fantasy of a last third that details a horrible reality tells us more about his need to read Lynch’s film as a cultural artefact than it does about the degree of accessing the film manages to reveal. To fit Lynch too snugly into dream logic, into surrealism, into the post-modern is to throw nouns on a filmmaker whose importance lies in evolving possibilities in the invisible, in the ‘inarticulatas’. Rita and Betty, or their later incarnations, Camilla and Diane, are better viewed not as who they are and what the film means, but as spaces allowing for feelings to be felt and thoughts to be thought. Fuller’s interpretive approach reminds one again of Arendt’s comments on Benjamin. “The allegory must be explained before it can become meaningful, a solution must be found to the riddle it presents, so that the often laborious interpretation of allegorical figures always unhappily reminds one of the solving of puzzles even when no more ingenuity is demanded than in the allegorical representation of death by a skeleton”. Such an approach offers a double problem. Not only does it reduce art to the status of a crossword puzzle, it also assumes that the person who solves the puzzle has also solved it for others. It is this superimposition of fact knowledge, of making an objective sense, however limited, that imposes itself on the individual sense Lynch is looking for in the BBC interview. Lynch brings to mind Godard’s great comment that TV unites and cinema individualizes. We must be wary of critics trying too hard to turn cinema back into television (no matter if of course, Mulholland Drive was a TV series ditched by its producers and salvaged by French cinema company Ciby). As Lynch says, “I think that intuition gives you an inner knowing, but the weird thing about inner knowing is that it’s really hard to communicate that to someone else.”


©Tony McKibbin