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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Fear and Desire: The Fracture Point in the Films of David Lynch by Adrienne Redd

Mulholland Dr. (2001) and Lost Highway (1997) are two of the most mysterious films ever made. This essay argues that in both films, as in some other works by David Lynch, there emerges a fracture point between waking and delusional portions of the narrative.

Balanced on either side of the fracture point, there are two story frames in both Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. — an external (but still unreliable) set of perceptions from a disturbed and unstable protagonist and an extended delusion which fulfills the protagonist’s most urgent desires.

Complementary to the understanding of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. are Blue Velvet and Eraserhead, the first full-length film by Lynch.

Lost Highway concerns a morose and narcissistic jazz saxophonist, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). At a party which he attends with his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), she flirts with the host, Andy (Michael Massee). A few minutes later, Fred is approached by an ominous man in black (Robert Blake), referred to in the credits as the “mystery man”), who tells him, “We've met before … At your house. Don't you remember? …”

The couple drives home and their conversation in the car reveals Fred’s jealousy. Then it appears to be late at night and tension peaks as Renee calls out with increasingly fearfulness to Fred as she walks through their dark and empty house. Next we see a static-filled, black and white video of Fred having apparently just murdered Renee. The film skips forward to Fred’s guilty verdict and finds him on death row. One night, newly installed in prison, he cries out to the guards for aspirin for the pain in his head; he then writhes in pain, head in hands and experiences an apparition of the man in black standing at the doorway of a shack engulfed in flames. In the morning (from the point of view granted to us through the film) there is a physically different man in Fred’s cell, whom his jailers identify as Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty).

Not being able to continue to hold this new occupant, the jailers release Pete. The story proceeds with Pete Dayton as the protagonist. He is in his early twenties, lives with his parents and works at an automobile repair shop. A customer of the shop, a tough and threatening older man named Mr. Eddy (also referred to as Dick Laurent, and portrayed by Robert Loggia) prizes Pete’s ability to repair his car and seems genuinely fond of Pete. Pete meets and begins and affair with Mr. Eddy’s much younger girlfriend, Alice Wakefield, also portrayed by Patricia Arquette.

Some reference has been made in the earlier story frame, as Fred and Renee returned from the party, to Renee’s former association with or employment by pornographers. Alice has a similar connection and in a noirish plot construct, she persuades Pete to rob a man she knows, who “always has a lot of cash” so that she and Pete can run away together. In a nightmarish scene with amateur pornography projected larger than life onto the wall, the robbery of this man (the same Andy who hosted the party) turns into a murder and it seem as though Alice is poised to betray Pete. He nonetheless accompanies her to a shack in the desert (the same edifice Fred has envisioned in flames). Identities become unstable (with Bill Pullman again portraying Pete/Fred); Mr. Eddy/Dick Laurent arrives, in pursuit of Pete and Alice. Fred kills him and completes the circle of the story by going to his own house and buzzing the intercom to say, “Dick Laurent is dead,” (the first line of the movie). Fred then flees into the night on the lost highway, chased by the police.

The first segment of the film, before Fred’s vision in prison, is the waking story frame, or at least Fred’s (incomplete and misleading) memory of the events leading up and immediately after Renee’s death. In the days preceding Renee’s murder, the couple received several video tapes, first showing the outside of their house, then showing the couple sleeping. The third video tape shows Fred covered in Renee’s blood, kneeling by her body, apparently having just killed her. Earlier after receiving the first two videotapes, Fred and Renee summoned two detectives (phlegmatic, dim and caricatured as Lynch’s detectives can be). Renee tells them that Fred hates video cameras and Fred adds, “I like to remember things my own way. ….How I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” This clues us in that we are watching Fred’s recollection of the external frame of the story. It may also give an explanation as to who shot these tapes. In Mulholland Dr., as I discuss below, I believe we are watching events as they happen. In Lost Highway, the videotape is merely a metaphor for Fred’s memory of the murder of Renee and the days leading up to it. Perhaps receiving the tapes is also a metaphor for both Renee and Fred’s growing awareness. The detectives, as in Mulholland Dr., may not have ever existed at all, but were merely stock characters.

One possible explanation of Fred consuming headache and his vision of the burning shack is that Fred has disassociated. The medical term for this is disassociative identity disorder and used to be known as multiple personality disorder. Extraordinarily rare and disputed by some psychologists as to whether it even exists, disassociation is thought to occur in childhood when the waking self is subjected to unbearable abuse and plunges into a fugue state while another splinter of self takes over. The relevance here is that Fred cannot bear what he has done and so his waking self (the one who murdered his wife) is pushed below consciousness and an alter ego takes over. This alter is younger, more virile and, most importantly, can start over with Renee/Alice.

Fred’s vision of the burning shack is the fracture point of his life and his consciousness. This film as in many of Lynch’s films (and, in fact, in the work of other surrealists, such as Buñuel and Dali) employs a private vocabulary of images. In this case, house equals head. When the man in black, also a fragment of Fred, exchanges words with Fred at the party, he tells Fred, “As a matter of fact, I'm there [at you’re your house] right now… You invited me. It is not my custom to go where I am not wanted.” Consistent with the mythology of vampires, the man in black has been invited by Fred, whose jealous has been aroused by Renee’s tipsy flirtatiousness. If we identify the man in black as jealousy personified, his saying that he is “at [Fred’s] house means he is in Fred’s head. Perhaps he is the trigger to Fred’s jealous rage at Renee or perhaps he is the fragment who commits the actual murder.

The second portion of Lost Highway including the affair with Alice is then extended wish fulfillment, but Fred’s memory of violence and death cannot be suppressed for long and emerges in the final scenes. Fred’s flight into the darkness concludes with his death throes behind the imagined wheel of the car as the electric chair ends his life.


Mulholland Dr. concerns a perky, starry-eyed actress named Betty Elms, who wins a jitterbug dance contest and arrives from small town in Canada to stay in her aunt’s Los Angeles apartment and try to be a Hollywood star. Into Betty life (and apartment, just as it is being vacated by the aunt) stumbles Rita (Laura Harring), a lovely brunette who has just narrowly survived a car crash (and failed assassination). Not being able to remember her name, Rita seizes upon “Rita” from a poster of the 1946 film noir Gilda, with Rita Hayworth.

Thinking that she is friend of her aunt’s and tenderly welcoming her, Betty invites Rita into her bed, saying it will be more comfortable. They make love (in the only sexy sex scene in all of David Lynch’s work) and at 2 a.m. in the morning, Rita entices Betty to the Club Silencio, where, during the performance, Betty begins to shake and weep and opens her purse to find a blue cube. The setting snaps to another frame of the story, in which Betty becomes Diane Selwyn (a name Rita had remembered as possibly her own name)

Mulholland Dr. is more fully realized in terms of the double frame and there is a much more coherent statement to the film. The first point to the scene in Club Silencio is to reveal that up to this point in Mulholland Dr., what we have seen is merely the internal wish of Diane Selwyn/Betty Elms. The second point is that not only are the images on the screen an illusion of projected light, but what they seem to portray is also an illusion. At Club Silencio, the master of ceremonies intones to the audience, “No hay banda.” The translation from Spanish is, “There is no band [playing the music you hear.]” David Lynch is speaking through the master of ceremonies and he is reminding you that you are only watching a film.

There are actually two fracture points in Mulholland Dr., the first during which Betty reaches into her purse for the blue cube — and the second one is when the Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) the director of the film (who has rejected Diane/Betty) announces at the party at the end of the film that he is going to marry Camilla. This second fracture point takes place in the more real of the two frames is the trigger that precipitates the events of the film — Diane/Betty’s hiring a hit on Camilla and subsequently killing herself out of guilt and despair.~~~

The entire narrative of Blue Velvet remains at the waking level, but there is one fracture point revealing the protagonist’s deepest apprehension (which is being sucked into the corruption of the other characters whom he encounters.)

Blue Velvet is a noirish crime mystery in which a charming young man, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) undertakes to solve a kidnapping in his seemingly idyllic small town in the mountains, Lumberton. The film is an extended exploration of the nature of innocence (another film essay for another day) but the film also contains a fracture point.

Jeffrey becomes involved with Dorothy Vallens, whose husband is being held prisoner to ensure her submission to a demented drug dealer, Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) who has a sexual obsession with her. In a pivotal scene, Dorothy invites the much younger Jeffrey into her bedroom. As they copulate, Dorothy whispers, “What do you want to do?”

“I’m doing it,” replies Jeffrey.

“Are you a bad boy? … Do you want to do bad things?” She asks and implores him to hit her.

“No,” he protests. “I don’t want to hurt you. I want to help you.”

He tells that he knows something of her situation and asks her to go to the police.” As the word, “police” leaves his lips she roughly struggles with him. To subdue her, Jeffrey strikes her with the back of his hand. Flames (another Lynchian motif) of internal desire flare. Jeffrey is aroused and strikes her again and the camera comes close on her red mouth. She is also aroused by the violence. This scene is Jeffrey’s break with his illusion of the goodness of the world and his own good intentions (though he returns to the illusion of innocence at the end of the film, symbolized with the animatronic (but actual stuffed) robin holding a bug in its mouth at the end of the film.


The narrative of Eraserhead is an extended nightmare but it also contains a fracture in one set of perceptions revealing an even more primal fear below, that of being subsubsumed by the life energy of one’s offspring. No moment of Eraserhead (1977), David Lynch’s eerie expression of a man’s apprehension about fatherhood, takes place in external reality. The film is rendered even more difficult to understand because its disturbing scenes rely on a private vocabulary of symbols — squirting, oozing body fluids, sperm-like wriggling creatures, a bare bush that rolls into the room, etc. Nonetheless, given the context of three other Lynch films, one can make sense of the psychological meaning being conveyed.

The film begins with a sickened anthropomorphic god who pulls levers to bring into physical reality the (sexual) desire of the protagonist, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance). Henry receives an invitation from his an estranged girlfriend (Charlotte Stewart). He goes to dinner at her parents’ to be asked by her mother, “Did you and Mary have sex?”

Apparently Mary has given birth to something. “They’re not even sure if it is a baby,” says Mary’s mother. The film proceeds to show the travails of having a newborn, who wakes in the night and whose needs and ailments are hard to understand and contend with. Out the stress of this experience, Mary leaves Henry and goes back home to her parents and Henry is left alone to take care of the thing (that looks very much like a fetal horse).

The film is deeply hallucinatory, so the scenes don’t necessarily follow with much causal order (see my discussion of Mulholland Dr.) After Mary has left, we find Henry standing nervously turning a horizontal rod at the side of a room as a bare bush on a papier-mâché mound rolls into the center of the room and begins to spew dark fluids. As Henry stands there, his fingers twirling the rod, his head pops off and up through his neck thrusts the head of his malformed issue.

This decapitation impels us into a street scene in which a boy eagerly snatches up the head and takes it to a factory where erasers are apparently made out of heads.

The “fracture point” of Eraserhead is the physical depiction of both Henry’s horror at his offspring (the puppet was affectionately called Spike by the crew and cast who worked on the film) but more significantly at his own mortality. When a man (or woman) has a child they are literally and metaphysically replaced... Conversely, to kill one’s child is to deny the flow of time, to deny mortality and to become godlike or at least, inhuman. (See the future essay on the subject of patrifilicide — the crime of killing one’s children).

It is not Henry but Spike who is the eraserhead. Having a child will erase your head because when you reproduce you simultaneously become truly mortal and the inexorable cycle of life will be completed with your death.

Arguably, the fracture point could be called the central event of any narrative, whether that be a film, opera or novel. In Lynch, it takes on a distinctive significance because it is a break between one reality frame and another. This hypothesis is not a conclusion but a starting point and I look forward to exploring it further as Lynch makes more movies.


This essay is based in the research done for a film lecture given by Adrienne Redd at the County Theater in Doylestown, Pennsylvania on May 10, 2005 and again on September 29 and October 5, 2005 at the Ambler Theater and Bryn Mawr Film Institute respectively.

I’d like to extend my enthusiastic gratitude to John Toner, Pam McCloskey, Michael Lunney, Richard Bunker, Michelle Folkman, David Briggs, Alan Charlesworth, Chris Hartleben, Ethan Holland, Lori Mukai and Oliver Assiran and everyone who allowed me to test out ideas on them, who shared their ideas with me, who extended moral and logistical support and who tolerated my talking interminably about (and occasionally compelling them to watch) David Lynch for more than a year.

If there a fracture point, or series of fracture points within a greater dream (composed of sub-dreams of differing narrative cohesions) in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) they are the extended montage from Agent Chet Desmond's disappearance through Philadelphia, and the room above the convenience store, up to and possibly including Agent Dale Cooper's time at Deer Meadows, if one accepts a theory articulated in Wrapped in Plastic that the first frame of the film is dreamed by Dale Cooper. This is too elaborate a set of arguments to explore here, so I toss it out for further contemplation later.

Unless one counts Wild at Heart, the sexiness of which is destroyed by its humiliation of woman at both the narrative and metanarrative level.


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