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Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Nonlinear films and the anticausality of Mulholland Dr.

by Adrienne Redd

warning: contains spoilers
partial list of film discussed:
Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Lost Highway (1997)
Memento (2002)
Identity (2003)
21 Grams (2003)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Life's but a walking shadow in Mulholland Dr. and perhaps it signifies — not nothing — but an _expression about the nature of film and art. "Dream logic" was how Roger Ebert characterized the film when it came out in 2001. I think the events of the film are not merely asensical, but anti-sensical. Mulholland Dr. is an elaborate demonstration of a noncausal universe.

Director, David Lynch has taken to the next level the nonsequential time depicted in films like Memento, (2002), 21 Grams (2003), Identity (2003), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). In each of these four, one can piece together the story once one gets one's head around the idea that time is not running continuously or forward as it appears to in our reality; however, Mulholland Dr. presents something entirely different.

In Memento, there some question of whether the protagonist, Leonard Shelby has imagined a man, Sammy Jankis, with the medical condition of the inability to form new memories or whether Leonard has appropriated Sammy's story to mask his own guilt in killing his wife. I believe that the film demonstrates by the end that Leonard accidentally killed his own wife and that there is no murderer upon whom to wreak vengeance once he tracks him down. Even with Shelby's self-deception, we the viewers are not necessarily deceived (Teddy Gammell is not the murderer of Leonard's wife, that much is clear) and the events of the film are logically connected, the backwards sequence and unreliability of the narrator notwithstanding.

Like another David Lynch film, Lost Highway, Identity employs as a plot device the very rare condition of disassociative identity disorder). But here again, even with internal, subjective reality, the causality and logic are not impossible to reconstruct. The character, Ed (John Cusack) who initially seems to be the protagonist of the film, is one of four or more alter egos. A former cop, he is the competent self (like Victoria in the case of Sybil Dorsett). We meet him in the first reality shell and not until the end of the film do we realize that the waking self is an insane prisoner, Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince). There are various other fragments, including a homicidal child (Timmy, played by Bret Loehr) whom we are ultimately led to believe has committed all the murders. The point is that, if we accept the multiple personality explanation, it is possible to reconcile the event, however subjective or jumbled, with a reality like our own.

The ultra-short segments of 21 Grams are presented out of order so that the form of the film echoes its own meaning, which is that we make sense of our lives, that they don’t necessarily have intrinsic meaning. In comparison to the other films here, 21 Grams actually has the most conventional structure.

Similarly, in Eternal Sunshine, aside from the science fiction of being able to erase memories from people’s minds, there is nothing supernatural or unreal happening, and even the subjective events (such as burrowing into Joel Barish's childhood) can be reconciled with our conventional experience. Familiar causality (though with the pieces or events moved around) is still firmly in effect. Though we may be shown events out of sequence, one event causes another in the same way that we understand events to cause one another in our everyday reality.

In Mulholland Dr., it is as though a prankster has printed similar (but not identical) pictures onto wood and then cut up the pieces into similar (but not identically-shaped) jigsaw puzzles, mixed the pieces and sold them as a puzzle that can never fit together to form a single coherent picture. The film offers three pictures which cannot fit together: The protagonist, Diane's wish or dream about Betty and Rita; the "waking" but distorted picture of the last hours of Diane's life and the implied “logical” reconstruction we try to make of Diane's most likely life.

With the experience of movie-logic that we bring to this supposed narrative, we expect the loose ends to be tied up. We expect the "mysteries" to be solved. Who is Rita really? How did Diane Selwyn die? Who wanted to murder Rita/Camilla and why? We only get partial answers that partially fit.

Think also of the work by graphic artist, M.C. Escher, entitled “Ascending and Descending.” The work depicts figures on a never-ending staircase, drawn in such a way that they can be perceived as either ascending or descending. Our brain makes sense of the images but the never-ending staircase can’t physically exist in the space we inhabit.

~~~ Lynch as a surrealist painter

Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and to an even greater extent, Lost Highway were striving toward Mulholland Dr. All three make some allusion to films noir, which were frequently crime dramas, but largely abandon the attempt to solve anything. In Blue Velvet there is still some pretense of trying to unravel the mystery, though the loose ends and motivations of characters are not actually tied up. Lost Highway is even more challenging because we may not realize that most of what we see in the second half of the film is an internal, wished-for reality on the part of the protagonist — an attempt to escape the guilt of having killed his wife. (See my essay of December 2005).

The questions or mysteries in Mulholland Dr. can never be answered, so we must look instead for patterns. David Lynch was a painter before he made films and his films are to a great extent a continuation of the antirepresentational and polemical dialogue of modern art.
One set of patterns is that there are great many pairings in Lynch’s films and specifically in Mulholland Dr. in which these occur mostly among female characters. It is in these pairings that, I believe the viewer can find meaning (rather than just saying, "I saw the weirdest movie…" as Ebert does, though I do agree with Ebert that Lynch “has been working toward Mulholland Drive his entire career.”)

~~~ Pairings of female characters

Rita the amnesiac (later called Camilla) is first paired with would-be actress, Betty, whom we meet in the earlier frame of the film. This is conveyed through the elegant portrayal of their love scene and the fact that Rita (thinking she is perhaps hunted) dons a blonde wig for the scene that follows.

Double identity as a theme is also prefigured in Betty's breathless speech about actresses and movie stars, "Well, I couldn't afford a place like this in a million years... unless, of course, I'm discovered and become a movie star. Of course, I'd rather be known as a great actress than a movie star. But, you know, sometimes people end up being both. So that is, I guess you'd say, sort of why I came here..."

Rita and Betty are paired more subtly in that they are both searching for something; both find themselves in a new place, not their own place. (None of the characters is ever "at home," unless we count the final scene where the director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is throwing a wrap party after The Sylvia North Story is finished. Clearly, he is not "at home" when he find his wife in bed with the pool maintenance man.) Both Rita and Betty are alone in the world and are looking forward in time (and as an amnesiac, Rita can only look forward; she can't look back).

Furthermore, Betty and Rita are each paired with Diane Selwyn, whom we ultimately learn is the protagonist. Betty is paired with Diane because Betty is the wished-for identity of Diane; and “Diane Selwyn" is also a name "Rita" remembers (and thinks might be her own name). As she tries to place a call to D. Selwyn, whose name she finds in the phone book, she says to Betty, "It's strange to call yourself."

In another pairing, Diane Selwyn has also swapped apartments with a woman in her apartment complex, though we don't learn why and don't find out much about the tenant who has agreed to the trade (perhaps it was another unhappy love affair, like that of Rita/Camilla and Betty/Diane).

The central and most disturbing pairing is between Diane Selwyn and Betty Elms. Surrealist painter employed a private vocabulary of images. As is the case in Lost Highway, house (apartment) might be Lynch’s symbol for head. The swap of residences might refer to splinters within oneself and the fact that Betty is merely a fragment of Diane Selwyn, the waking personality.

The possible future identities of actress-and-movie star accentuate the sad pairing of Diane Selwyn, failed lover, bit part actress, murderess, failure and suicide with Betty, her own dream of what she could have been (or once was), full of starry-eyed innocence and promise. (Interestingly, Diane/Betty seems to be and is said other characters to be fabulous in her audition with Chad Everett (perhaps a reference, via casting to bad, hokey actors) and her stellar audition (which doesn’t get her the part) contrasts with the amateurish reading of the same scene between Diane/Betty and Rita).

Rather than through content (such as the dialogue or “text” of the film) double identities and pairings convey meaning through form. The twins, doubles and variously associated pairs of characters in Mulholland Dr. and elsewhere in Lynch’s work signify double vision — the viewer is asked to doubt not only the events but even the framework of the film’s “reality,” and not only this films reality but the reality of all art, the same statement that that another surrealist, René Magritte famously made. Before the eyes of the viewer is a picture of a pipe with the words under it, “"Ce n'est Pas une Pipe" or “This is not a pipe.” Correct. It — the painting — is not an actual pipe. It is a picture, that is to say, an illusion, of a pipe.

The meaning of Mulholland Dr. is that we the viewer are seeing not only illusion but illusion of illusion.

~~~ Illusion of illusion

After the scene in the late night theater, Betty morphs into the murderously bereft Diane, but she is also morphing between life and death and her teeth even become a bit sallow and greenish. Before this, as she sits in the theater with Rita/Camilla, regarding the strange performance on stage, she begins to shake violently (as Fred Madison does in the final scene of Lost Highway).

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.]” There are two points to this pivotal scene. The first is to remind the viewer that the film itself, is and can be nothing more than a flickering illusion on the screen, like the recorded music at Club Silencio. There is no reality, only the illusion and the way it stimulates images inside our brains. This scene is David Lynch’s brain sending a telegraph to our brains commenting on the illusion that there is any “reality” in between (our brains).

The second point is that the master of master of ceremonies (and the lyrics of the Roy Orbison song, rendered in Spanish as Llorando) are telling Rita/Camilla that she is already dead and telling Betty/Diane that she will soon be dead, but worse than that Rita and Betty do not exist at all. Not only have all of the events (see my essay of December 2005) up to this point in the film been merely Diane Selwyn’s dying wish fulfillment, but Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla are illusions of illusions. They are images flickering on the screen of a dying woman’s heartbroken desire.

À propos of Lynch as a surrealist, Freud is said to have commented about Salvador Dalí in 1938, "When I look at the work of an old Master, I immediately seek the unconscious, but when I look at a surrealist painting, I look for the conscious.” Similarly, we look for the logical in Lynch (though we don’t find it).

After the fracture point, it is almost as though Betty/Diane is decomposing before our eyes. The scorned and fallen Diane/ Betty is also paired with the waitress while meeting with the incompetent hit man in Winkies, since the waitress's name tag says, "Betty." (One device in depicting dreams in films and literature is that people and objects in the “real” world are picked up and irrationally plugged into the dream frame).

Betty/Diane is also seen riding in the limo and imperiously speaking the same line that Rita/Camilla speaks in the beginning of the film: "We don't stop here." The verb tense of this line is revealing; Betty/Diane doesn't say, "We aren't supposed to stop here" or "We weren't supposed to stop here" or "We aren't stopping here." She says, "We don't stop here," as if her words were the reality, but they aren't. She is saying this line as the car is stopping. The point is that she (and we) are so deeply committed to our own perception of reality that we can't imagine that we could be wrong. She is wrong at the moment she is saying the line and doesn't realize it. (Interestingly, though, the would-be killers (in the previous version of the scene with Rita) are also mistaken about what is going to happen next.)

Rita (Laura Harring) assumes the name Camilla Rhodes in the final 30 minutes of the film; there is also a connection both between her and the other Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) whom Adam Kesher auditions for his movie. And because they are both auditioning, there is also a connection between the other Camilla Rhodes and Betty (who gives an eerily superb audition in contrast to some of the intentionally wooden acting in the film).

There are numerous other pairing of characters between the wish frame and the waking frame of the film, such as the Cookie Park hotel manager/ and the M.C. of Club Silencio (Geno Silva). At Club Silencio these mirages, time slips and identity confusions seem to be catalyzed by the blue cube. However, just as there are internal wish fulfillment versions or dream manifestations of people, the blue cube is merely the dream version of the blue key which Diane is told (by the hit man) that she will find when Camilla’s murder is complete. This is why she finds it in her purse at the conclusion of the scene at Club Silencio. The cube appears; the murder is complete and we and she are yanked back to the waking frame of the story.

~~~ Who is the blue-faced women?

The blue cube suggests yet another pairing between Diane and the homeless man who literally frightens Dan (Patrick Fischler) to death (the man telling his friend about a bad dream in Winkie's). The homeless person whom we see later with the blue cube affords another pairing of women, since he is portrayed by Bonnie Aarons, a pretty, young actress, not a decrepit man. Yet another mysterious connection between two characters. That this homeless person could scare someone to death is also emphasizing the pre-eminence of dream power over waking life.

Ultimately, the point of the pairings, is that Betty is not really the bum, nor is Betty Elms really Diane Selwyn, nor is Diane Selwyn really a ghost, nor are Betty and Diane alter-egos of one another. There is no "really" or reality. All of these identities are true and none are true. None of the fragments is related to another in a sequential or causal way. It's never possible in our reality, the one that we mostly inhabit, to see one's own rotting corpse, though it might be possibly in the world of nightmares.

Those of us who enjoy non-linear films may anticipate that "Ah-ha" of saying, "Here I am back again at the point of overlap in this circular narrative. Now I see." This is a tease and Diane’s speaking the same dialogue does not explain the confusions of identities. It doesn't work logically in any real, physical, objective world for Betty/Diane Selwyn to have arranged for the murder of Rita/Camilla before or after the director's party. Diane's suicide has neither happened before nor after the party at Adam Kesher's house. There is no clear moment when Camilla (Melissa George) becomes Camilla (Laura Harring), etc.

When the film hasn't advanced and a tree now grows through a child's head on the developed film, it's not that one image is the real picture and that one could scrape away the illusion. "No hay banda." There is no band playing the music. There is no solid reality or a single paradigm to explain what we seem to see. There is only absurdity, silence, silencio and all it can be filled with is more illusion. It is also fitting to set this film in Los Angeles, city of angels, city of dreams, city of the movie-making industry in which everyone wants to be in the movies and every movie star has a dozen identities or no identity. The protagonist’s name may even be a reference to two giants of the industry: “Selwyn” from [David O.] Sel[znick] and [Samuel Gold]wyn. This also underscores the movie poster for Gilda and Camilla's appropriation of this name provides such important controlling images for the film.) Rita Hayworth once said of this defining role, “Every man wants to marry Gilda and [is disappointed to wake up with] Rita.

Lynch quite specifically wants the characters (who can be props of a sort in his films) to escape their embodiment. He wants to remind us that "this is not a pipe.” The character is not the actor or actress but an abstraction created by the making of movies. Lynch begins this work with the numerous pairings in Twin Peaks, continues it in Lost Highway and achieves it in Mulholland Dr.

What do the ominously grinning older couple have to do with the slippage of logic?• (As clichéd personification of treacle sweetness, they are the reminder to Diane that she has lost the innocence of Betty, and so she shoots herself. Why is the dwarf (à la Twin Peaks) pressuring Adam Kesher to put Camilla in his movie? (Because this is Diane’s convoluted explanation for he “didn’t think too much of [her] as she says at the dinner party. Who is the blue-faced women who closes the film with the one word, "Silencio"? (Perhaps she represented an actress who survived the Hollywood meat grinder, like Ann Miller, who portrays the apartment manager in the dream frame and Adam Kesher’s mother at the end of the film. Such a survivor would have see many "Dianes" try to succeed and burn themselves out as waitresses or worse. And what has the cowboy to do with all of this? (Perhaps he represents an earlier and clearer moral code). Even films as different as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Chinatown (1974) and Phantasm (1979) we get some answers. In Mulholland Dr. we won't ever conclusively settle these questions and that's not because the film is flawed. Lynch wouldn't even try to close every circle as Quentin Tarantino does in Pulp Fiction (1994)

David Lynch announced at the Cannes International Film Festival that he will release a new film in 2006 entitled Inland Empire. If he never made another film, however, he achieved in Mulholland Dr. (2001) what he had been working toward for a quarter century. The purpose of this noirish excursion into the subconscious is not a non-linear narrative but an anti-linear, anti-causal narrative — the quintessentially [though Lynch hates the word] postmodern film.

• With the bad miniaturization, wooden movements and squeaking voices of these two, I am put in mind of an episode of Star Trek (1966 season) entitled "Catspaw.” This is relevant to Mulholland Dr. because the shrinking, dying beings at the end of the episode have only just been revealed as mere illusions of humans — in the moments just before their death.


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