by Mark Fisher
David Lynch’s two latest films — Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire — present a kind of acute, compacted weirdness. While often perplexing, Lynch’s earlier work, including the film Blue Velvet (1986) and the television series Twin Peaks (1990-91, with a third series currently in production), presented what at first glance could appear to be a superficial coherence. Both the film and the TV series were — at least initially — constructed around the opposition between an idealised-stereotypical smalltown America (not dissimilar from the one depicted in Dick’s Time Out of Joint) and various other- or under-worlds (criminal, occult). The division between worlds was often marked by one of Lynch’s frequently recurring visual motifs: curtains. Curtains both conceal and reveal (and, not accidentally, one of the things that they conceal and reveal is the cinema screen itself). They do not only mark a threshold; they constitute one: an egress to the outside.
In Mulholland Drive, released in 2001, the stability of the opposition which had structured Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks begins to collapse. No doubt this is partly because of the shift away from the small-town setting, and the new focus on LA. Lynch’s customary preoccupation with dreams and the oneiric is now refracted and redoubled by the mediated and manufactured dreams of the Dream Factory, Hollywood. The Hollywood setting proliferates embedded worlds — filmswithin-films (and possibly films-within-filmswithin-films), screen tests, performed roles, fantasies. Each embedding contains the possibility of a disembedding, as something that was at a supposedly inferior ontological level threatens to climb up out of its subordinated position and claim equal status with the level above: figments from dreams cross over into waking life; screen tests appear at least as convincing as the exchanges in the supposedly real-world scenes that surround them. In Mulholland Drive, however — rendered in the onscreen title as Mulholland Dr, with its suggestion of Mulholland Dream — the overwhelming tendency appears to move in the opposite direction: it is not so much that dreams become taken for reality, as that any apparent reality subsides into a dream. But whose dream is it anyway?
The “standard” interpretation of Mulholland Drive claims that its first half is the fantasy/dream of failed two-bit actress Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts), whose actual life is allegedly depicted, in all its quotidian squalor, in the second half of the film. In the first part of the film, Betty assists an amnesiac brunette (Laura Haring) — the victim of a failed murder plot — to recover her identity. The brunette assumes the name “Rita”, after Rita Hayworth, a name she sees on a film poster, and she and Betty become lovers. In the second part of the film, “Rita” is now Camilla, a successful actress, and the object of bitter jealousy from the failed and jaded Diane, who lives in a miserable apartment in Hollywood. Diane hires a hitman to kill Camilla, before apparently committing suicide. According to the standard interpretation, aspiring actress Betty — who arrives in Hollywood seemingly not only from a small town but from the past (she has just won a jitterbugging competition!) — is Selwyn’s idealised image of herself. The opposition between the idealised place and the underworld(s) that structured Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks has now become an opposition between two personae: naïve small-town Betty versus hardbitten LA-resident Diane.
In an online review, “Double Dreams in Hollywood”, Timothy Takemoto pointed out that one problem with the standard interpretation is that the second part of the film is, in its own way, as dream-like and as saturated in melodramatic tropes, as the first. “What is some woman in a run-down apartment in Hollywood doing having an affair with a movie star, that is about to get married to a famous director? Where does she get the money to pay for a hitman?” Takemoto’s view is that both the first and second part of the film are dreams. Diane is not the dreamer; the “real dreamer is elsewhere”, and Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla are all fragments of this (unseen) dreamer’s disintegrated psyche.
Whether or not this view is correct, I think that Takemoto is right to argue that there are two scenes in Mulholland Drive which merit particular attention: the scene about dreams in the diner, and the scene in Club Silencio (perhaps the most powerful sequence in the entire film). In the diner scene, a man called Dan is talking to someone who appears to be a psychiatrist about a dream he has had twice. The dream is set in the very diner in which they are currently sitting (Winkie’s, on Sunset Boulevard). In the dream, Dan is terrified by a figure with a blackened, scarred face, who lurks in a hinterland space behind the diner. In a bid to defeat the power of the dream, the two men walk out to the back of the diner — where the scarred figure is waiting, and Dan collapses, perhaps in a faint, perhaps dead.
The paradoxically entrancing Club Silencio scene acts as a gateway between the two sections of the film. With its red curtains, Club Silencio is evidently a threshold space. Betty and Rita enter the club, but they do not properly emerge from it; they are afterwards replaced/displaced by Diane and Camilla. I described the scene as paradoxically entrancing because it is ostensibly demystifying. Like some cinematic equivalent of Magritte’s This Is Not a Pipe, the Club Silencio performance tells us that what we are witnessing is an illusion, whilst at the same time showing that we will be unable to treat it as such. The host of Club Silencio, a kind of magician-compere figure, repeatedly tells the audience (those in Club Silencio, as well as those watching Mulholland Drive), “There is no band. It is all recorded. It is all a tape. It is an illusion.” A man emerges from behind the red curtains, appearing to play a muted trumpet; he takes the trumpet away from his mouth, but the music continues. When the singer Rebekah Del Rio appears to deliver an emotionally wracked version of Roy Orbison’s version of “Crying”, we are seduced by the power of her performance. So when Del Rio collapses but the music plays on, we cannot help but be shocked. Something in us compels us to treat the performance as if it were genuine.
There is of course nothing less mendacious, less dissimulatory, in cinema’s history of illusion than the scene in Club Silencio. What we are seeing and hearing — the film itself — is indeed a recording and nothing but. On the most banal level, this is the material infrastructure which the “magic of cinema” must conceal. Yet the scene haunts for reasons other than this. It points to the automatisms at work in our subjectivity: insofar as we cannot help but be drawn into Silencio’s illusions (which are also the illusions of cinema), we are like the very recordings by which we are seduced. Yet these illusions are something more than mere deceptions. Like the scene with Dan in the diner, the Club Silencio scene reminds us that dreams and “illusions” are conduits to a Real that cannot ordinarily be confronted. Dreams are not only spaces of solipsistic interiority: they are also a terrain in which the “red curtains” to the outside can open up.
Ultimately, Mulholland Drive is perhaps best read as something which cannot be made to add up. That is not to say that the film should just be considered fair game for any possible interpretation. Rather, it is to say that any attempt finally to tie up the film’s convolutions and impasses will only dissipate its strangeness, its formal weirdness. The weirdness here is generated in part by the way that the film feels like a “wrong” version of a recognisable Hollywood film-type. Roger Ebert remarked that “there is no solution. There may not even be a mystery.” It could be that Mulholland Drive is the illusion of a mystery: we are compelled to treat it as a solvable enigma, to overlook its “wrongness”, its intractability, in the same way that, in Club Silencio, we are compelled to overlook the illusory nature of the performances.
In Lynch’s 2006 film, Inland Empire, it is as if the kind of slippages, incoherencies and conundrums we saw in Mulholland Drive are pushed much further, to the point where there is no longer even the prospect of tractability. For all its many film references, Inland Empire does not even seem to resemble any Hollywood template. If the weird is fundamentally about thresholds, then Inland Empire is a film that seems to be primarily composed of gateways. The best readings of Inland Empire have rightly stressed the film’s labyrinthine, rabbit-warren anarchitecture. Yet the space involved is ontological, rather than merely physical. Each corridor in the film — and there are many of Lynch’s signature corridors in Inland Empire — is potentially the threshold to another world. Yet no character — the word seems absurdly inappropriate when applied to Inland Empire’s fleeting figures, figments and fragments — can cross into these other worlds without themselves changing their nature. In Inland Empire, you are whatever world you find yourself in.
The dominant motif in the film is another kind of threshold: the hole. A hole cigarette-burned into silk; a hole in the vagina wall leading to the intestine; a hole punctured into the stomach by a screwdriver; rabbit holes; holes in memory; holes in narrative; holes as positive nullity, gaps but also tunnels, the connectors in a hellish rhizome in which any part can potentially collapse into any other. The cigarette burn hole could serve as a metonym for the film’s entire psychotic geography. The hole in silk is an image of the camera and its double the spectating eye, whose gaze in Inland Empire is always voyeuristic and partial.
With Inland Empire, world-haemorrhaging has become so acute that we can no longer talk about tangled hierarchies but a terrain subject to chronic ontological subsidence. The film appears at first to be about an actress, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) who is to play a character, Sue, in a film called On High in Blue Tomorrows. But there is no stability to these personae, nor to the hierarchy which would treat Sue as “less real” than Nikki. By the end, Sue appears to have subsumed Nikki, and seems not to be inside in any film that would be called On High in Blue Tomorrows. “Reflexivity without subjectivity”, that perfect description of the unconscious, is a phrase that is exceptionally apt for Inland Empire’s convolutions and involutions. Nikki Grace and the gaggle of other personae which Dern plays/Grace hosts (or fragments into) are like de-psychologised avatars: holes that we cannot help treating as mysteries, even though it is clear (to us, if not to them) that there is no hope of any solution.
“Something got out from inside the story”, we are told of the Polish movie which Nikki Grace’s filmwithin-a-film is remaking. In Inland Empire — which often seems like a series of dream sequences floating free of any grounding reality, a dreaming without a dreamer (as all dreams really are, since the unconscious is not a subject) — no frame is secure, all attempts at embedding fail. The temptation to resolve the film’s conundrums psychologically (i.e. to attribute the anomalies to phantasms issuing from the deranged mind of one or more of the characters) is no doubt great, but should be resisted if we are to remain true to what is singular about the film. Instead of looking inside (the characters) for some final key to the film, we must attend to the strange folds, burrows and passageways of Inland Empire’s weird architecture, in which no interior space is ever secure for long, and gateways to the outside can open up practically anywhere.
excerpt from the book: The Weird And The Eerie by Mark Fisher