Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive

This Is Not a Movie

David Lynch makes a two-hour intro to literary theory. Who needs “ceci n’est pas une pipe”? We have “no hay banda.”

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The critics warn us that David Lynch’s new cinematic event, Mulholland Drive, is a film to be experienced. It’s brilliant, they say. Really. Just give yourself to it. Don’t expect logic, just go for the experience.

So experience it. Accept its premises. And walk out wondering why so many people spent so much time, money, and talent to bring it to you.

What is it in your unconscious that keeps nagging you? Strange moments, discarded memories. Oh. My. . . . You shudder as you remember that painful descent into cultural limbo, the years you spent in graduate school . . .

And then you recognize that Lynch is indeed a genius. He’s pulled back the curtain to reveal places like Harvard as the gratuitous institutions they’ve become ever since graduating the Unabomber (and other like-minded lunatics) who can justify terrorism all too easily with the moral indifference of postmodernism. In attempting to push the envelope of cinema, Lynch discovered that he had to push an entire syllabus. And he’s pulled it off. He’s given us a narrative experience of graduate seminar LIT 300, "Introduction to Theory of Literature."

And his genius makes Mulholland Drive preferable by far over the course. Heck, the soundtrack alone is a big improvement, and even though it dragged in spots, two and a half hours is better than a whole protracted semester. Even better, there’s no need to plow your way through Lacan: you can get your neo-Freudian irrationality directly through Lynch’s dreams.

Consider the parallels: Course and movie require the same amount of mental focus, are equally confusing, require just as much post-prandial discussion. They are intentionally obscure texts. Even the sex and violence is the same—look at Foucault, not to mention that the biographies of many theorists read like a series of bad Hollywood screenplays (indie studios—take note).

As we enter the world of the film, we see an accident that strips "Rita" of her memory. The amnesiac device as central plot element disappeared gratefully from mass cinema in the mid-fifties, but Lynch resurrects it here for what it can tell us about postmodern identity and, let’s admit it, for some lesbian sex scenes that just wouldn’t have passed the censors fifty years ago. As Rita and Betty begin their quest for her identity, they have a purse full of money and a key with no lock. Rita’s memory brings them finally to Club Silencio and the movie’s turning point.

At Club Silencio, Rita and Betty find the puzzlebox that fits their key. But it’s a Pandora’s puzzlebox, and as it opens, their carefully constructed pseudo-reality falls apart. Silencio is the club of the knowledge of good and evil, the place where life’s curtain is pulled back to reveal the movie’s core horror: No hay banda.

Club Silencio is a paradox, a surreal entertainment, a self-consciously un-live cabaret that trumpets its artificiality. It’s a Milli Vanilli fanclub—surreal, unreal, yet evocative. "No hay banda," shouts the club’s emcee: There is no band. It’s a simulacrum with a stellar sound system. Nothing you see or hear is real. Sufficiently advanced technology, indistinguishable from magic. Or dreams.

Rene Magritte, This is not a pipeLiterary theory took a left turn that led right to deconstruction with Saussure, Freud, and the concepts behind Magritte’s "Ceci n’est pas une pipe." This is only a picture and words about a pipe. There is no inherent connection between word and meaning and reality. Words are arbitrary. It is foolish to rely on them. Nothing can be fully known. So nothing is real. It all comes down to power. As a literary idea, this is so late-eighties. As a film trope, it’s about as de rigueur as rigor mortis.

No hay banda. The text—the book, the film, the song, the relationship, the person, real life—is what you see in it, what you make it. The text is irrelevant. The author is irrelevant. It’s all about power—social and sexual, conscious and unconscious.

No hay banda. It all comes down to play. We can manipulate things as we will. We’re here to play with your emotions. You cannot trust your senses. You can’t remember who you are, and if you could, you can’t trust your memories. What is dream? What is real? Betty? Rita? Diane? Your identity is a construct. As is your sexual persona.

No hay banda. Life itself is a construct. It’s a movie in a movie in a movie. What is real in the world of the film? What is real in the world of the film inside the film? In the world outside? "All the world’s a stage," and we are merely players—actors and reactors. How we read our lines depends on who’s doing the scene with us. Meaning in life is irrelevant, contextual, transient.

No hay banda. Lynch and literary theory are honest about what this means. Awareness of our radical uncertainty corrupts everything. "It’s been that sort of day," says Adam, the putative director, as he submits his casting choice to the mobsters. As Chuck Palahniuk puts it in Invisible Monsters (of which Mulholland Drive may be a simple variation), "Conditions change and we mutate . . . This is the world we live in. . . . Just go with the prompts." The audience is placed in the same position as Adam, Betty and Rita: vulnerable to those wielding power, our choices constrained by toughs with a veneer of civilization, our actions largely determined by forces we cannot see or comprehend. Trust and love are the casualties. It’s all in Freud, Marx, Lacan, Derrida, Irigaray. And Foucault. What’s left? Power. Sex. Death.

For all that I’ve been instructed not to run this film through a logic grid, I do. I find a meaning—perhaps even the "right" meaning. (Why not? The nice thing about literary theory is that if I’m right, I’m right, and if I’m "wrong," I’m still right in wresting this interpretation from the text since no one has standing—or presence—to dispute with me.)

For all its opaqueness, Mulholland Drive makes some things clear. We’ve seen all this before: the betrayed ingenue gone mad with jealousy. The mobsters. The hit men, the murder-suicide. All the old Hollywood clichés run through the blender. The trite gets a patina of sophistry. And in doing so, the film hints at the state of literary theory. Dreams and illusions covering profound pain, diversion and money covering raw power, style and glamour covering the merely banal. All necessary in the wake of "Ceci n’est pas une pipe."

No hay banda. If there is indeed no band, if this glimpse behind the curtain is a true vision, we’re left with despair. Rita and Betty weep in Club Silencio. If we yet long for something trustworthy, for someone to love us, say the theorists, our disillusionment is all the more necessary. Self-deception is an understandable reaction. But not a sustainable one.

Psychiatrists say dreams are the housekeeping the brain does on the stuff of our lives, and if Mulholland Drive is an extended dream, it has meaning for all that.

No hay banda. Lynch helps us experience the pain of disillusionment. If it all comes down to power, anyone who wills—even the weak—may seize and wield it in some measure. When Adam’s wife betrays him, he attacks her certainty in return, pouring pink paint on that which she relies, the diamonds-are-forever that are a girl’s best friend.

The betrayal of Betty/Diane’s love and trust is a disorienting car wreck that comes out of nowhere. It drives her from shock to acting to action. "All she wants in life" is now tied to the purse, the money, the power of the hitman’s blue key. And what about that purse, all that wealth gathered to purchase death and despair? You don’t have to look too hard to see a parallel with the literary theorists—just skim a biography or three (try Foucault).

If it all comes down to power, as with Betty in the end, it all comes down to nothing. The movie’s conclusion is about as satisfying as you’ll get from LIT 300. And perhaps that’s the point.

Author, author.

Peter Edman edits Metaphilm.
posted by editor ::: October 22, 2001 ::: philms ::: (2) Comments