Let’s Keep Talking About Mulholland Drive, Shall We?

Commenter-Charles had some interesting things to say about the film (and I hope you enjoy the Flak tracks Charles!):

I love MH, and wrote a synopsis of its structure back when it came out on dvd for some friends. There’s 2 schools of thought on Lynch, that he’s a irrationalist (an image that he tries to spread in his popular interviews) and that he’s quite rational (but a certain type, namely one who doesn’t provide answers before the question). I believe his narratives are too tightly structured to place him in the former category, as MH demonstrates (contrary to the outlook of, say, Martha Nochimson). Your dream within a dream scenario points to what I see as Lynch’s dismantling of the Hollywood dream while still using film’s oneiric qualities (what’s Reason to do when it falls through the rabbit hole? The only rational thing it can, adapt). There’s too many specific connections between the earlier dream sequence and the later reality sequence and the embedded flashback sequences (e.g., the key being there and then missing and how it clears up the significance of the box) for me to believe that this segment is on the same plane as the earlier one. But the last shot of the ghosts over Hollywood, in what seems a nod to Anger’s cover to Hollywood Babylon (but it’s a been a little while since I’ve seen the film), seems to either be a nod to Hollywood’s potential and inevitable lure, or a final bit of cynicism, or (probably) both. Anyway, the film strikes me as using dream (i.e., film) to critique dream (i.e., the Dream Factory) while casting a skeptical eye on itself (i.e., being a continuation of the factory through it’s allusions to Classic Hollywood to reinforce its meanings, such as the reversal of the homosexual love triangle from GILDA, from which Rita gets her name). But I look forward to hearing the commentary to see where they go with it. Thanks. Charles

Good stuff Charles! Although, just to defend my interpretation a bit, what do you make of the fact that “Silencio” is present in both parts of the film–and, even more importantly, that Betty & Rita see Diane dead before this tableau can possibly have taken shape in “real” life? I don’t think there are any definite answers to this question, and there certainly is a lot of textual evidence to support the Diane-is-real/Betty’s-a-dream interpretation… Still, even if that’s what Lynch intended, he can’t (as you say) seem to help undermining himself with stuff that doesn’t fit with the rational explanation, and I love that! It doesn’t suit me at all to believe that the only thing in that box is one paltry crime of passion!

Couldn’t the correspondences be more of a comment upon the fact that, no matter what “mode” we think we are dreaming in, we always dream according to certain patterns? And we’re never quite able to dream (or live or think!) our way past the moment of ultimate fulfilment/catastrophe? If this were merely the story of one woman’s disillusionment, it could never have held my brain in its thrall for this long! I prefer to think of the film as a breathtaking expresson of my own personal credo–the universe isn’t broken, it is a break-up!

I’ll try to get back to some comics soon–but it’s not easy right now friends!

Bon Soir!



  1. I don’t mind MH talk, it really is one of my favorite films. On the subject of Lynch undermining so there is no rational explanation: I think Lynch has created a sort of mystery that isn’t meant to be solved as much as it is meant to be admired for being such a mystery.

    Not that trading interpretations isn’t fun and stimulating but it seems once someone thinks they’ve got “the answer” you’ll find Lynch put something in the film to throw a theory off.

    What of the clues Lynch includes in the DVD package? I don’t think those help anybody solve anything as much as they are just more red herrings to throw you off. That Lynch, he’s such a trickster!

    -Ian Brill

  2. mullholland drive has a structure, but is it a “tight” structure? well, its rigorous to itself– the wacky hitman scene and the director versus the pool boy scene both share the same comedic tone, the bit where the underlings communicates with the single-word speaking midget-y boss occupies the same sense of dread as the Cowboy scenes.

    but while i know you dislike considering authorship questions (which… may be oversimplifying or mis-stating and i apologize), the thing i’m always stunned by at the end of mullholland drive is its origin as an ABC television pilot and that sense that he found the movie after that experience had been completed. early on in the movie, it does have a television aura to it (that robert forster cop scene, say)(its what i like about the movie, that so many scenes have so narrative point besides their own texture and, i don’t know, sensation), but for an organically created work … the logic of it feels inescapable. and that organic feel sort of emphasizes the dream like quality in a way. i have a hard time divorcing myself from that knowledge, i guess, is basically all i’m saying here.

    (for interest re: the pilot, the tad friend article from the new yorker is a fun read(though likely not one useful for your purposes at all)… i like friend’s entertainment writing in the new yorker so i was happy when i found this:

    and as for “Diane is real”… given the last image of the movie or second to last (the bit with the old people i need to watch through my fingers), even accepting that premise she can only be real to a point. but again, i’m not sure i watch with that same interest as the more interesting character to me is the Lynch Los Angeles, and Diane and Betty– neither of those are the real Los Angeles, they’re both just opposite poles. though i’ve never really grasped how the Cowboy fits into Diane’s Los Angeles but i overfetishize the Cowboy who’s really not that interesting a character probably (besides on the surface — that guy’s cool!- level)… and just that idea that whichever universe you occupy, the other one winds up in your dreams whether you want it there or not… its hard to get wrapped up in the Diane-Betty question since both those Los Angeles’s are … equally unreal places (well, Diane maybe slightly less so)…

    geez, sorry, i’m not sure i have much coherent to say about it, but its a fun movie.

  3. Regarding ‘silencio’: I’m pretty sure that Lynch got that from Fellini. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which movie: it’s either LA STRADA or THE WHITE SHEIK where the word figures prominently (I think it’s the former, which is about surviving crushed dreams, after all), but I’d have to go back and rewatch both to make sure. That and his blue-haired lady are allusions to one of Lynch’s favorite directors. I’ll have to watch the film again, but it’s my memory that the word appears every time Betty/Diane (and the audience) is awakened a little more. Consequently, it’s the last word of the film. Just so we’re on the same page, Dave, there’s 3 narrative realms in the film: the dream, reality and the flashback. The last is embedded in the second, and the second follows the first. Lynch seems to be fixated on destiny figures, such as the White Witch in WILD AT HEART and the Bum and/or the Blue Haired Lady here. I’d argue that the mechanical bird at end of BLUE VELVET functions similarly, namely as a medium between the diegetic and the audience, questioning the reality of the story and of the audience’s reception. Anyway, the dream characters are brought back at the end, which suggests to me, not that everything in the diegesis is pure dream, but that anything within the film is artifice (“dream”). But, as the emotive power of the film should indicate, Lynch is a real believer in the artifice.

    Anyway, to Ian, ‘silencio’ is one example where those dvd clues aren’t red herrings. What I’d recommend is coming up with a hypothesis of the film and then testing them against those clues. At least, that’s what I did, not reading them until after I’d come up with some possible explanations. Another example is the key on the table. It’s the “key” for for understanding the difference between what’s flashback and what’s present in the final 3rd. Anoher is the opening sequence containing the jitterbug (Diane’s past) and the subjective shot going towards the red pillow. I either can’t remember or haven’t worked out some of the others, but I’m inclined to think all are actual clues to the authorial intent.


  4. p.p.s., before anyone suggests that ‘silencio’ is Spanish for ‘silence,’ I found this Italian proverb on the web:

    “Il silencio è d’oro e la parola è d’argento.” (Speech is silver, silence is golden.)

  5. First, I haven’t listened to the Flak commentary, so forgive me if I’m repeating that interpretation.

    Now, I’m always surprised at how people view Mulholland Drive primarily as an intellectual mystery to be solved, rather than as one of the saddest, most emotionally devastating movies ever made. Anyway, I’ll get back to that. Here are some thoughts…

    As far as the two halves of the movie being equally ‘real’, I think that the film’s structure itself prevents that interpretation: the fact that the second half comes temporally after the first immediately makes it more ‘real’. Also, it’s clearly Diane who falls asleep at the beginning of the movie, as her awakening before ‘the second half’ is clearly a counterpoint to that beginning. Taking it as a given that Diane is the ‘narrator’ of the first half, the interesting question, to me, is whether she is still the ‘narrator’ of the second half. The striking difference between the two halves is that in the first half Betty is never judged (Rita is a non-entity, which Betty/Diane can form as she will), while in the second half she is always judged– she is cast out of her ‘small god’ status, cast out into the world, always aware (almost exclusively) of how other people judge her. The distinction has little to do with ‘sordid’ versus ‘sentimental’, and everything to do with experiencing the world as being-for-yourself versus being-for-others (to steal Hegel and Sartre’s terms). This is why the second half seems more real– because Camilla is an Other as Rita is not– Camilla can judge Diane, and Diane is always aware of herself as an object to be judged. Since Camilla’s judgements seem imbued with cruelty, I think that it is still Diane who ‘narrates’ the second half– an omniscient narrator would not be so subjective. Which only supports your view that both halves are equally real: each half presents a picture of a mode of existence, and both modes of experiencing the world are equally real, and are interdependent.

    But, as I said before, the second half is more real because it comes after the first, which brings me to the movie’s ‘plot’. You describe it as ‘one woman’s disillusionment’, but that strikes me as a tremendous oversimplification. It’s not disillusionment, it’s heartbreak– the realization that the Other whom Diane loved (i.e. whom she wanted to be an object for) has chosen another object instead. Since Diane’s objectivity has been cast aside by Camilla, her place as an object in the world is unstable, and she can only view herself as the repulsive object that tried desperately to cling to the Subject (Camilla). Thus, she tries desperately to reassert her Subjectivity, by reducing the other Subject to an object– which she can only do by killing it (a drastic Eternal Sunshine procedure). And isn’t this what so many people do after a breakup, when they suddenly decide they must hate that person who they loved a month or two earlier? Of course, Diane really did love Camilla, she really did view her as the ultimate Subject; so, having killed Camilla, Diane only exists through her memories of Camilla– specifically, memories of killing her. Having killed the infinite subject, Diane has no choice but to kill herself, the finite object.

    All of which is why I think the walk up the wooded path to the party is the most stunning scene in the movie, and is filled with an almost unbearable sadness. Although the bubblegum-love-song audition scene is also pretty spectacular.

    Of course, I haven’t even mentioned the ‘dream of Hollywood’, which is the dream of being loved by the world, and so reappropriating the world by becoming the central object in it. This seems to be secondary to the love story (although of course they’re similar existential stories): Betty chooses to return to Rita in the midst of the audition scene, when she clearly ‘could have had it all’ right then.

    Wow, this turned out to be really long. Anyway, thanks for the many interesting thoughts.

  6. P.S. Sorry, I forgot to leave my name (I’ve never replied to a blog before… although your ideas about authorial intent have made me come pretty close a few times).

    -Adam Pound

  7. thanks for the input folks!

    Adam:I really like your manner of distinguishing between the two narratives–it’s the difference between screwball comedy (in which the protagonists seem to have the freedom to make anything they wish of their lives/story) and film noir (in which powerless figures of desire are pulled by their heartstrings toward an inevitable doom)…

    But don’t forget! Betty isn’t nearly as “free” in her storyline as she (and you) are claiming!
    1. if this is a dream (and of course it is), then all of it–including the Adam parts–are expressions of Betty/Diane’s plight… “This is the girl!” is not merely a nod to weird Hollywood politics, it’s a statement about romantic obsession. Wouldn’t you consider the Cowboy’s whole speech a judgment of Betty? (the Flak guys interpret it as Diane’s vengeance upon/castration of Adam, and there may be something to that–but I don’t feel it myself! One of the reasons the audition scene hits me so hard is that, right there, we realize, without quite understanding it, that, in the context of the Betty narrative, Betty is Adam!)

    I agree with you about the power of the walk up the hillside. Perhaps it sounded dismissive when I described the “Diane is real” interpretation as reducible to the statement that “this is a story about one woman’s disillusionment”, but I assure you, I do feel the emotional weight of the Diane sequences (although I don’t want to choose between feeling the film and thinking about the structure–I’m compelled to do both!)… I think both aspects of the film are part wish-fulfilment and part self-torture/castigation/admission of powerlessness… “This is the Other I must love” isn’t <>so different, after all, from “this is the Other I must kill”… Each of these hard-determinisms force an ending, an opening of the box, and a silence…

    keep ’em comin’!!!


  8. Regarding the compulsion to both ‘feel the film’ and ‘think about it’s structure’, I couldn’t agree more! Of recent films, only Magnolia inspires the same degree of both compulsions.

    So, then… You’re right, Betty isn’t entirely free– sorry if I implied that. It’s Diane, the narrator, who has the power in Betty’s narrative: Betty is how Diane wishes she were, and, as such, Betty is an object for Diane. To steal some more terms from Sartre, Betty is the positional self and Diane is the non-positional self (though only in Betty’s narrative). But, as far as I’m concerned, even the non-positional self, the ‘pure’ self isn’t really free, though it has power; and this is especially true in Mulholland Drive. Diane has no control over how she views herself, either in her wishful thinking or in her self-loathing– she has no control over her own narration. The only person who has any control is the ‘man in back of this place’.

    I’ll have to watch the Cowboy scene again to see if I agree that his speech is a judgement of Betty, but I definitely agree that it’s not a vengeance upon Adam. Adam is presented as an entirely sympathetic character in Betty’s narrative– it’s only in Diane’s narrative that Adam is portrayed as despicable. I took this to mean that Diane, in her role as narrator of Betty’s narrative, had the capacity to forgive Adam, to view him as ‘put upon’ as she was (have you seen the Good Girl? It’s great). But, as you say, the Adam she forgives is really only a part of herself, part of the story she wishes were her story. I also agree that each narrative contains some degree of the other’s defining characteristic; just like experience, the different modes of narrative continually fold together, and, as you say, they also continaully break apart. (It’s the Hegelian dialectic depicted in movie form!)

    As for loving the Other being similar to killing the Other (or at least similar compulsions), both are certainly driven by the same desire for self-unification (by trying to make oneself entirely object in the first case, entirely subject in the second case), but the way the experiences play out are certainly wildly different!


  9. A few other thoughts:

    It’s often been said that Lynch is skeptical of language, and MH seems to support that. Hence, silence reveals artifice, leading to realization. The apex of this being at Club Silencio where singing keeps going after the singer stops and instruments keep playing after the player stops. It’s immediately after that that the dream breaks down.

    And I agree with Adam that the film moves from interiority to exteriority, with all the characters in the first part being a constructed extension of the real Diane (“Betty”).

    On intellect and emotion: Contrary to the popular division and even some of Lynch’s own protestations, the more one thinks about his films (but particularly LOST HIGHWAY and MH), the more emotive they become. For example, the more you understand the story of MH, the more feeling you get out of the Crying scene. At least, that’s the way it worked for me. All of this isn’t so surprising if one makes the analytic distinction between emotion and feeling, the former (as Noel Carroll argues) has a conceptual component. Lynch’s films evoke a lot of feeling (sentiment?), but always filtered through thought.

  10. Charles (it was Charles right?) wrote:
    On intellect and emotion: Contrary to the popular division and even some of Lynch’s own protestations, the more one thinks about his films (but particularly LOST HIGHWAY and MH), the more emotive they become

    Absolutely! And it’s no accident that these two are far and away my favourite Lynch films! I’m not interested in “puzzle films” (I never want to see Memento again–sure it’s fun, but what does it have to say about the human condition? nothing powerful, that’s for sure. In the final analysis, it’s basically just a cinematic version of those SAT questions that ask you to find the next number in the sequence…I kind of like doing them, but once once they’re done, that’s it! They don’t stay with you. That’s certainly not the case with Lynch…)

    Ultimately, affect and intellect can’t be separated from one another! The only reason things affect us is because we are able to conceive of them otherwise! That’s pretty basic, but it’s true, I think. We tend to be overwhelmed by emotion when the unexpected occurs–but there is no “unexpected” without expectation… There is no joy without our ability to conceive the reverse; likewise, there’s no mourning without memory, which both reifies and plays variations on past experience… This is big game–and Lynch pursues it relentlessly!

  11. I’m partial to the view that there just isn’t a “real” layer in Lynch’s films, at least not the ones of his I like best (Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway). I have the impression from interviews that this is closest to his view of things: everything that is solid melts into air, to steal a phrase. (“Trifles light as air”, to steal from Alan Moore, while I’m at it.) We project ourselves into the hopes and fears of others; they project themselves into ours; time and chance happen to us all.

    — Bruce Baugh

  12. I think that Lynch’s films are very logical, but they follow dream logic, which tends to be much more intuitive and fanciful than the real world variety.


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