I’ve seen, including in journals of theory, critics who swear by the reading that the first half of Mulholland Drive is a dream or something and the second half is real. I hate this reading. I have the sense that it misunderstands the movie so deeply as to do a kind of violence to it.
First caveat: If this post comes across undercited, it’s because I’m too frightened to consult sources that don’t broadcast whether they believe Mulholland Drive is a dream, since they might force me to endure my own smug irritation. I hope to work this through someday in psychotherapy.
Second caveat: This reading could very well be what Lynch intended; but I prefer my version of the movie, so, in the age-old tradition of women watching male-directed lesbian movies, I choose to pretend for a little while that he doesn’t exist.
I’ll go on. This dream-or-something twist pretends it’s so clever, and it thinks you’re so stupid. It provokes a flinch of repulsion and offense. The same as when you ask a man at a party about what he’s been watching lately and he says with a smirk, “Have you ever heard of a little director named David Lynch?”
I don’t like being condescended to about ideas my interlocutor would assume I’d had if he gave me the benefit of thinking I was reasonably clever. This is how it feels to hear, “has it ever occurred to you that part of a movie could be not real?” Of course it has. None of it is real. It’s a movie. No movies are real.
In general, interpretations of anything along these lines don’t interest me — “it’s all a dream” or “it’s all a hallucination” or “it all occurs in the moment before she dies”. These readings pretend to break out of the delusion at the heart of film but actually re-entrench it. That delusion, I mean, being that anything exists in a film.
I prefer to read that Mulholland Drive is much more interested in turning over this delusion than replicating it. Mulholland Drive is interested in what it means to make meaning out of what is essentially a more or less ordered collage of simulated images.
Moreso than two halves, the friend I first saw it with noted that the movie functions as a loop. The attack on Camila/Rita that starts the film turns out at the end to be Betty/Diane’s attempt to bump her off. You could start the movie over again and watch events unplay from that point a second time.
But the loop is also a Mobius strip (filmstrip). The black book possessed by the hitman when he meets with Diane must have been paradoxically stolen after his attempt on Rita’s life. The conversation he’s having with the friend he shoots in the head seems to be about an unexpected car accident. (And, in that scene, it sounds like the accident is the friend’s story, not his.) By implication, this accident could be the accident that Camilla survived. It appears to be only then that the hitman steals the book–so he didn’t have it before the accident occurred.
Or is that whole scene about a different car accident, coincidentally parellel? The trick of Mulholland Drive is that as soon as you ask this question, you’ve lost. There is no way to know whether the car accident is Camila’s car accident or another one, because there is no car accident. There is no reality being communicated to us through the dialogue. What is on the screen is all there is.
So, any speculation about what occurs offscreen, about the interpretation of ambiguous information, is pure projection. Or else it requires retreat to petty formalist instincts to make a point—such as the instinct that causes my desire to protest that if Lynch was trying to make a movie that is a woman’s dream sequence, the digressions into the dramas of a variety of men, from which she is completely absent, are surely beside the point.
(Of course, my dialogist could argue, those sequences are only the shaggy buildup justifying Diane’s fantasy, in which she is the doomed muse of a famous director, who recognizes her on sight as the perfect leading lady, but is forced to spurn her by those malevolent artless forces: producers. But here we go– we’ve lost again. Also, what about Winkie’s?)
The repetition of the loop cues from incidents at Club Silencio. Here, a Lynch representative appears onstage to tell the audience very directly, both the one onscreen and the one outside, that regardless of how convincing the illusion looks, the figures before us are making no sound. Ceci n’est pas un Silencio, or what have you.
This should cue us that the movie isn’t supposed to be interpreted as a sequence of literal events or even a representation of a sequence of dreamed events. It points again at the hollowness, the lack, at the heart of film. And indeed, the people on screen are also not speaking, because their voice is recorded in a seperate track that has been spliced back over their faces to line up precisely to the microsecond. The simulation of speaking goes unquestioned everywhere but here.
I haven’t seen Twin Peaks or Inland Empire, but my friend said something else interesting—that Lynch is working through the same themes throughout those works with nearly identical formal tools. This of course is common practice among creators, and it lies at the heart of auteur theory as classically articulated. Some core instability draws a filmmaker to repeatedly explore particular themes and questions, trying to approach them from new angles or with new characters.
This is another loop, one in which authors and readers both participate. Isn’t there something obsessive-compulsive about this loop? The desire to recast new figures in our fantasies, over and over, declining archetypes through a paradigm of settings and contexts, hoping to come to some new closure with the same templates. For instance: I often find myself writing about characters who are embedded in some ideological structure that hates them, who are rigorous about their dogma, punishing themselves and others, because they see that as long as they maintain perfect behaviour they can narrowly avoid destruction. Closeted priests, loyal kicked dogbodies and so on. You might go ahead and call it “repetition compulsion”.
Our comfort in this process of identification and projection onto fiction relies, at the naive level, on how internally coherent the narrative of the fiction is, how much it “suspends disbelief”. And hence the general frustration with parts of movies that don’t “make sense” or have minor errors in continuity (iMDB “goofs” section &c.)
I would speculate a corollary of this reliance on internally coherent fiction is the bent in our media landscape toward indulging the type of “lore thinking” or “wiki thinking” that has become the basis for the whole bombastic psychoimperialist Marvel-Disney Tetsuo fleshbeast. When I say lore thinking, I’m describing a style of media engagement whose aim and reward is mastery over the diegetic facts of the content and the corresponding ability to fantasize about its other possible configurations. To create an allowance for lore thinking, the creators design an ever-increasing ensemble cast, insert crossovers and easter eggs for “true fans”, minimize ambiguity except where it allows for theorycrafting, and encourage completionism.
(I’m indebted primarily to the Ranged Touch podcast network for theorizing on this tendency in a variety of places and giving it a name. I think my source here was their Homestuck podcast. I was hoping this was an established idea that I could cite somehow without mentioning Homestuck, but I asked them, if you call sending a message on Discord asking, and it appears to be a novel alchemy of components.)
The reader who interprets media this way—and I’m not exempting myself, I did read Homestuck—prioritizes the meaning that is made within the fiction and are paying less attention to the way the fiction inter-relates with all that exists outside it, including a critical examination of their own reactions to the text. Apolitical, purely fetishistic and fantastic interactions with text prevail over engagement with reality.
I see dream-or-something readings as an outgrowth of this tendency, in which the knowledge that the film is not real is soothed by the rationalization that only a part of the film is not real, while the rest is still available for unreflexive identification and projection. Despite the surface-level weirdness of the all-a-dream reading, it is actually an indulgent comfort to the viewer who wants movies to “make sense”: we don’t need to confront the fact that the two halves of the film don’t fit together as a coherent narrative, and that no film must fit together as a coherent narrative, if we can stretch to construct a reading of the film in which the halves somehow come together.
Maintaining that reading, the reader remains unresponsive to her own interoceptive experience of the images she is presented, alienated from her own experience of reality, feeling emotion only through watching the emotion of sufficiently well-faked imaginary people.
The compulsive, uneasy, nightmarish looping quality of Mulholland Drive functions formally as a representation of this process of turning fiction into psychoanalytic grist. Yet it frustrates and resists that same process.
Mulholland Drive is like a koan. I’m not enlightened, so forgive any misinterpretation, but the same process occurs in at least my mind when I consider one of those koans where a master is asked an idle question to which he responds something like, “Mu,” or “Sun face Buddha, moon face Buddha.” The absurdity, the nothingness, of the answer throws the entire frame of the question into doubt. The master seems to be saying something like, Who cares? You’re trying too hard. What you’re looking for—you can’t find it this way.
On coming home from Club Silencio with the box, the women examine it together with flushed affection and strangeness until Diane/Betty steps offscreen. Camila/Rita looks up in alarm and says, “¿Dónde está?” I get the impression that in this instant, when the convention of filmic reality is interrupted, Camila/Rita might become half-conscious of her nature as an imagined shade projected on a plane (the frame, a box) inside a container (a TV or computer monitor—anyway, a box).
Despite my dislike of all-a-dream readings, I find something affecting and tragic about readings of a film that imagine into the characters this vague intuition of the strange constraints they live under (I talked about this in my previous blog post on Hannibal as well.) The first place I encountered this was in Jean Anouilh’s play Antigone, which writes Antigone bitter–as she is compelled for seemingly no reason other than conviction to perform the ritual action that will lead to her execution–bitter in some inarticulate way about whatever force is pushing her along the path, whether it’s internal or external to her self. Anouilh has the Chorus comment (in the Lewis Galantière translation):
In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquility. There is a sort of fellow-feeling among characters in a tragedy; he who kills is as innocent as he who gets killed; it’s all a matter of what part you are playing. Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped. The whole sky has fallen on you, and all you can do about it is to shout.
I would only argue that actually, we all live in a tragedy, in the sense that we are all going to die, and only sometimes do we feel trapped, restful or sympathetic to others in the same plight, i.e., everybody. At other times, we blissfully go about our lives and allow the knowledge of the end to remain submerged under the surface of our minds.
I completely acknowledge that these readings also re-entrench filmic delusion. The characters can’t realize any such constraints, because again, the characters don’t exist. But an artful rendering of the concept acknowledges that it’s trite to go too deep into the delusion and pretend that the characters would wake up enough to become angry, to confront the creator, or to wrench away from their fate. None of us can do this to God, at least not in a way that creates any satisfying result. Instead, as happens to all of us, the characters become briefly, transcendentally aware that something wrong is happening to them, something outside their comprehension–and then the knowledge fades away, and they return to quotidian unawareness with a dread of the lack that can’t be articulated.
Diane/Betty disappears from the world because she left the frame. There is nothing outside the frame except for you, watching. There is nothing in the frame except dots of colour and light.