Wednesday, September 14, 2011


In September, on Slate, Bill Wyman wrote this about Mullholland Drive, Memento, Waking Life, and Donnie Darko, four films released in the months before September 11, 2001 but that, for him, evoked something essential about that day:
A central character separates, in one way or another, from life, from the reality of being. Each film evocatively creates a heightened sense of reality for its characters that we the audience inhale as well. Each features a shock, a wrenching sideways, whether from that plane engine falling on a suburban house to the revelation that something is very, very wrong with poor Betty. The tragedy that hangs over each story is another similarity: In each case, the dread of loss touches the audience in some fundamental way...In each of these signal works, a sense of humanity, of the great worth of every life—and a shuddering appreciation of the apocalypse that accompanies every individual death—is palpable.
I want to speak now about David Lynch's Mulholland Drive because, of all of these films, it resonates most powerfully with the "wrenching sideways" September 11th still represents for me. I ask you to watch the scene below which is, for me, among the most terrifying in all of cinema.'s the second one I've had, but they're both the same. They start out that I'm in here...By disrupting our syntactical expectations, "Dan's" stilted language immediately communicates the moment's hallucinatory wrongness. There is his pale face, which becomes more discolored and sweaty as the scene proceeds. You can see him fighting against his mounting panic, struggling to maintain a relaxed expression--a struggle which only makes his face appear more contorted. There is the yet-unseen figure of the dark man behind the wall: He's the one that's doing it. Finally, there is the awful moment when Dan realizes that either he has not escaped from the nightmare, or the nightmare has invaded his waking life.

In many ways, this scene, which comes very near the beginning of the film and whose characters (apart from the diner itself) never appear again, is a template for the rest of the film. At the heart of Mullholland Drive is a deeply unhappy woman, her elaborate, desperate dream, and a great rupture that shears her from herself. As with Dan's nightmare and the film itself, this dream (or vision, or work of wild imagination) is ontologically unstable. It borrows and reconfigures facts from the waking world and burlesques that world's atmospheres and sensations. In return, the dream bleeds itself back through the gauze of everyday life. We never quite know what is fact and what is hallucination, what is "real" and what is imagined. This is a source of great dread.

* * *

Here I will defer to David Foster Wallace's great essay on Lynch's Lost Highway to help describe the way it feels to watch the first part of Mulholland Drive. Wallace argues that a thing feels "Lynchian" when "the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's perpetual containment within the latter." Among the most significant examples of this containment is Lynch's fascination with the mundane artifacts of daily life. No director since Hitchcock has invested everyday objects with as much totemic dread as Lynch. In Mullholland Drive, lamps, name tags, light bulbs and especially that blue box and it's blue key give off a sinister glow. The key difference: with Hitchcock, every filmic element is nested perfectly within his careful, ingenious plots. That teacup terrifies because we know that it's being used to poison poor Ingrid Bergman; that telephone turns us cold because we sense that it will collude in some dreadful act. In Lynch's films, objects are similarly transfigured but their meanings are more open ended. They derive their significance less from their relation to the plot's mechanics than from the film's broader, more ephemeral perceptual world; their only logic is the opaque, disembodied logic of dreams. Thus denatured, these objects become foreign and strange, signifying something hidden and nameless and vast.

In keeping with Wallace's idea that darkness is contained within the mundane: throughout much of Diane/Betty's dream, Lynch communicates a profound sense of dread through bright light and high color. The film's first hour radiates high-contrast reds, yellows and blues and is saturated with a painful Los Angelene brightness, a brightness that Betty--a parody of cute, frumpy American naivite--exudes in equal measure.

The platinum colors, the wide, constricted smiles and the alarming optimism all brim with a suspicious, itchy falsity. It isn't so much that these things are hiding something terrible; instead, we sense that, like those totemic objects, they themselves are somehow terrifying. This sense is reinforced by a dark, industrial drone, an airy hum that pervades the film and often blossoms into a menacing minor chord. It seems to emanate from the substance of the world itself, putting lie to Betty's optimism and rendering even the screwball-ish elements of the film's first section grotesque and unsettling.

Throughout Mullholland Drive's first hour, we are visited by strange voices, voices that seem to pierce the dream's bright sheen and communicate to us from the world beyond. Louise, a woman with hooded eyes and a black shawl comes to Betty's door and tells her in a panicked voice, "...Someone is in trouble! Something bad is happening!" Later, Adam, the director, meets a ghostly figure named The Cowboy who delivers bizarrely drawled, syntactically tortured koans, coded messages from some unseen power. All of these things--the light, the sounds, the objects, the cryptic sayings--impart a deep ambience of suspense, of some looming terror. But the source of that suspense remains mysterious; the film brims with a feeling of abstract existential menace--there's a man...he's the one who's doing it-- a dark presence under the skin of everything. Something bad is happening.

* * *

In the weeks and months after September 11th, I had some really awful dreams. Dreams of burning cityscapes, dreams of a thick, acrid smoke enveloping the city, dreams of white-sheeted children with terrible, bloody faces. Other times I would lie awake in bed almost paralyzed with panic, a heat rushing from my guts to the surface of my skin. The air molecules around me felt thick and still and geologically heavy. The frantic, multiplying thoughts in my head were not my own.

Everyday things became dreadful. Newspapers, TVs, the sounds of airplanes, police sirens, the mail, the noises of the city all sent small measures of toxic dread circulating through my body. Reality had been sundered and the world's substance now seemed deeply, irrevocably changed. Violence and fear had pervaded everyday life and were now enmeshed in it. Terrible things that had once felt so abstract and distant were now very close and very real. The world had become sinister and there seemed to be no way to escape. As a woman I met that September put it to me, with matter-of-fact resignation: "nowhere is safe."

One particularly unmooring element of this was the way that the disaster spun its awful aura in all temporal directions. Of course, both the present and our new future seemed suddenly unfamiliar and frightening. But more curiously, the past also felt infected. We came to see that reality before 9/11 was, as Wyman puts it, "heightened." I take that to mean: our culture had wallowed in a bored, almost campy self-parody. The optimism was too shiny and bright, the complacent self-involvement too engrossing. Even that morning, they sky was just too blue, the light too clean and pleasant. This past, like Betty's smile, now felt ominous and suspect. It was a deeply kitschy cultural moment and if David Lynch has shown us anything, it is that kitsch can be terrifying. In retrospect, it seemed that terror had been woven into the fabric all along.

Mulholland Drive's temporal structure speaks to this strange phenomenon. On its driest, most simplistic level, the film's chronology is relatively straightforward: Diane, a struggling actress, falls in love with Camilla; Camilla wins a role that Diane had desperately coveted; Camilla breaks Diane's heart by taking up with the film's director; Diane, by now deeply depressed, has Camilla killed; Diane re-imagines the entire scenario in a dream (with Betty and Rita assuming the Diane and Camilla roles) before finally killing herself.

Of course the film doesn't really work like this (and is considerably less interesting when seen this way). From the viewer's perspective, the dream occurs "before" any of the other events in the film--but an awareness of the film's conclusion has seeped into its emotional logic. Those awful events, including the death of the dreamer herself, are the source of the dream's sense of dread and foreboding. What's more: while the events within the dream unfold more or less chronologically and occupy a full three-quarters of the film's running time, the "waking" section's temporal scheme is fragmented and kaleidoscopic; events are doubled, elided, shifted in and out of sequence.

The result is a narrative shaped more by psychological, emotional and textural ambience than by a sequence of events. This kind of ambience mirrors the character of memory itself. In memory, as in dream, we create collages of image and sensation. We discover new stories in the mesh and pulse, in the shifting strands of wild perception. Through memory, the past becomes an ambient, perpetual present, a present that declares itself not through chronology or causation but through an ebb and flow of image and sensation. This is merely an element of everyday consciousness. But in the time after September 11th, this feeling became dreadful. The poisonous terror of that day seemed to radiate out into all temporal spheres: into our visions of the future, into our memories, into the abiding present.

But what was this terror? What exactly were we afraid of? Certainly, there was the fear of extreme, sudden violence, the very kind of stark fear that terrorism is meant to inspire. It is unquestionably terrifying that death could, without warning, rain down on you out of a clear blue sky and that our quotidian living spaces could be turned against us so suddenly and so profoundly. But nestled within that quite comprehensible fear is something more opaque and primordial. It is this kind of terror, at once nameless and omnipresent, that Lynch refers to by enfolding the horrible within the banal and that he conjures so powerfully in Mulholland Drive.

Our windows, we were told, were not sealed tightly enough. Poisonous air would surely leak through the cracks. It seemed that our bodies--vessels that we are taught to believe are discrete, self-contained objects, sealed off from the dangerous outside world both by our physical skin and by the skin of identity--were too porous, too riddled with perforations and respiring orifices. Those of you who were there will surely remember the acrid, burned smell that pervaded the city in those days. At all times, it felt, this toxic wave could penetrate our skin and compromise our bodily integrity.

Mulholland Drive speaks to this fear by strongly suggesting that we are not the discrete entities we believe ourselves to be. It does this first by questioning the notion that our voices are authentic emanations of our selves. In one scene, we see five singers performing a fifties bubble gum song. But as the camera pulls back we see first that they are in a recording studio, then that they are being filmed and finally that the studio itself is a set on a sound stage. The music is a recording; the physical space is a stage; the performance is a scene in a film-within-a-film. Later, in the beautiful (but really unsettling) "Silencio" scene, a singer performs an intensely moving Spanish-language version of Roy Orbison's "Crying." Betty and Rita (not to mention the viewer) are profoundly moved. Only when the singer collapses and the singing continues do we realize that the music was a recording. By severing the song from the singer, these scenes gently undermine the idea of the self as an expressible thing.

The skepticism goes deeper still. In perhaps the most disorienting of the film's many challenges to narrative expectation, the characters' identities are shown to be deeply unstable. Sunny Betty becomes morose Diane; Rita, a gentle amnesiac who poaches her name from a picture on the wall of a stranger's home, becomes hard-hearted Camilla. As actors, both characters assume new identities with frightening ease.

This instability is visually animated in two of the film's most striking moments. In the first, an image that calls to mind Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Bergman's Persona, Rita dons a blonde wig and becomes Betty's double, an empty vessel absorbing her counterpart's identity. (Not coincidentally, Ullman's character was also an actress, although mute, not amnesiac.) And in one of the film's most hallucinatory sequences, Rita and Betty venture into Diane Selwyn's dark apartment in an attempt to discover Rita's identity. When they find a horrifically decomposed body inside--belonging, we later discover, to none other than Diane--they flee in terror. As they emerge into the daylight, having just laid eyes on the dead body of the dreamer herself, on the creator of the very world they inhabit, the two characters dissolve into a halo of multiple exposures. As if cued by their awful vision, the ephemerality and multiplicity of Betty's and Rita's identities are laid bare.

In these scenes and throughout, Mullholland Drive calls into question the notion of a fixed reality and an idealized, integral self. The characters are multivalent and contingent; the border between inside and outside, self and other, is fluid. In an even remotely benevolent world, this fluidity and mutuality could be understood as perhaps our greatest attribute, the fount of our humanity and compassion. But the Hollywood of Mulholland Drive is a cruel, lonely place, a world of shadowy conspiracies, radical independence and deep isolation. And in such a world, to lose ones' integral selfhood is catastrophic.

We only really begin to understand this when we see the banal nightmare that is Diane's waking life. While the dream was bright and colorful, this new reality is gray and wan. Diane herself is a pale shadow of Betty, her dreamworld avatar. Her skin is sallow, her eyes sunken and bloodshot. While Betty exuded a painfully optimistic energy, Diane is jaded and tired. Her anger and grief have driven her to unthinkable acts and made her a grotesque, almost unrecognizable, version of herself. All of the flowing pluralities of identity, the mediations of self and voice, the layers of consciousness serve to illustrate Diane's loss of herself. And this loss, this apocalypse, as Wyman puts it, is, for me, the source of the film's deepest horror and the germ at the heart of our post-9/11 fear: that reality has been ruptured; that history has become a nightmare; that in the new world, we are not who we believe ourselves to be; that where there once was a self is now, at best, only a confluence of external forces or, at worst, a corroded, atomized reservoir of anger and fear.

* * *

In the margins between waking life and dream, between yesterday and tomorrow, between self and non-self, there is a cloud of unknowing; this is where we live; this is where the music comes from. But in Mulholland Drive's Los Angeles and, I fear, in too much of our own paranoid, atomized, bleakly mediated world, this unknowing, this disequilibrium, is a source of dread and loneliness and suspicion. The world outside cannot be trusted. These people mean you harm.

1 comment:

David Roth said...

Really, really good stuff. Also harrowing, but that's how it goes.