Do you remember the postcards? The clues to solving the movie’s mysteries…
They always seemed strange to me, as if here was another game, an inside joke, a director’s ruse to play with the audience; and perhaps the commercial possibilities; could they really tell us so much? Though I could be wrong; for I never looked at them.
To understand a film we should have a sense of its totality; details can help of course; but to view it as some cipher to decode, or a crossword puzzle with arcane clues, is surely to see it wrong; and will lead us astray. It can become some minor exercise, a sort of train spotting (which if truth be told is a lot of what film fandom is about – they know so much about the details), where symbols and signposts are noted and listed; maybe even freeze-framed and recorded. But this is like saying you understand the Weimar Republic because of the facts you write in your notebook…. Are dates and names really enough to grasp that time and place? This doesn’t seem right, for to understand a film we must have a sense of its feel, for it’s there its meaning will lie.
So what is it about?
We are taken inside a young woman’s dream. We are not looking for signs and symbols, although they do exist, but we are experiencing the texture, the warp and woof of the dream itself. With its mixture of the real and surreal; of extremes of happiness and menace; of so many things jumbled up…. There is an idyllic beginning, a Hollywood innocence; a first love and immediate success, almost too good to be true; and we have gangsters and clowns; and cowboys…. Cowboys! What is going on?
David Foster Wallace, in a classic essay on Lynch, wrote of the obviousness of his metaphors: Freud is all over his movies; his ideas pasted in big bright letters for us to read. Thus Frank in Blue Velvet having sex with his “mommy”, while Jeffrey Beaumont looks on; and then his aside to this same Jeffrey, the somewhat dull, but innocent, American hero, “you’re just like me.” Frank (the name itself of course!) is Jeffrey’s dark side, all that nasty sex and violence, deep in his unconscious. Out it comes for us to see; and to be explained away and killed off so that Jeffrey can live safely again in his small town America. All very easy, if we know even a smidgen of Freud. However, Foster Wallace notes something important about the symbolism of these films: they are meant to be obvious, for the images are not really symbols but exist in their own right to give depth to the psychological interplay of the story - they are there not be recognised so much as felt. For he argues, and I think correctly, that at heart Lynch is an expressionist, who uses distortion and strange images to convey heightened forms of experience.
In his classic The Interpretation of Dreams Freud defined a dream as a fulfilled wish; which the analyst could decipher, bringing out the unconscious thoughts that determine a patient’s neurosis. Mulholland Drive is an almost a Freudian case study; although he’s not there at the end to save her.
Apart from a few moments the film is all dream…
It starts off so innocently, and so full of hope. Her lover has survived a murder attempt; and she has just arrived in Hollywood, fresh and full of youth. She meets a woman and they fall in love, for the first time... She wins a role, and they go in search of her lover’s past; her lost memories… Full of energy and self-confidence she takes the lead, they become amateur detectives; though perhaps they’re therapist and patient investigating the dream itself – what memories has she forgotten; what lies hidden in her unconscious? Meanwhile cartoon characters and a monster (all consuming dread?) jump in and out of the narrative. The sort of weird events, or extreme distortions of everyday reality, one would expect in a dream. So there they are, for us to see; and to worry and be confused about. As we should, of course; what is going on? The search for the lost memories continues, and another plotline emerges, of a gangster bribing the director to get his girlfriend into a film. And this too becomes all confused, strange and complicated… As the film progresses the two women begin to resemble each other, until at the theatre of ventriloquism (Silencio), they are almost alike. Another Freudian idea: there is a moment in love when our empathy is so great that the beloved’s identity merges with our own.
They cannot stop crying and rush back to the apartment. She finds a box that fits the key (see what Foster Wallace means?), and everything changes; the film goes all topsy-turvy.
What has happened?
The ventriloquists. We believe we are seeing a woman singing; but she is miming another’s words… the illusion breaks; and she falls (dies?) while the song continues. This is the climax of the dream; the wish has been fulfilled and our heroine begins to slowly wake up. The mannequins start to disappear and like a kaleidoscope the voices and bodies are shuffled around, giving us new configurations with meanings that surprise and confuse us.
It is a nightmare, as she finds the memories she once sought. The dream unravels, with scenes given more coherence, while the characters names change. Also their personalities: she didn’t get the part, she was not the leading lady; nor the dominant partner in the relationship. No! She is the weak one. Abused and manipulated by her lover, she becomes murderously jealous; and arranges her death. But in her dream she got her lover back, the murder failed; she also changed their characters (her biggest wish?); while reclaiming the innocence of their first love. The dream collapses, the wishes fade, and she remembers she has murdered her lover. Unable to bear the memory, the dream ends. She blows herself away.