Mulholland Drive: The Personal and the Post-9/11 World

glow of street light in suburban area at night

Ironically, this photo was taken in the Inland Empire.

I first saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive as a freshman at U.C. Berkeley. It was screened at Wheeler Hall in the auditorium where I would later listen to Professor Leon Litwack, whose lectures on antebellum America, with their dramatic deliveries fit for the History Channel, would inspire me to study history. I have a lot of memories of lectures at Wheeler—Todd Solondz’s intriguing awkwardness, David Byrne rambling about PowerPoint, falling asleep in Pychology 101—but two memories stick out the most. One is Litwack recounting President Nixon “giving bombing directives while drunk” and the other is watching Mulholland Drive. Somewhere in there lies a connection.

After watching the film at Wheeler, I walked back to my dorm puzzled, talking with other students about the bizarre plot and possible interpretations. Later that night, when I was alone (or at least retired to the bottom bunk of my three-person room), I was gripped by anxiety over some of the images and symbols in the film, particularly the man behind the dumpster and Diane Selwyn’s corpse. I was frightened by the irrational belief that these images would never leave my mind.

The exact timing of the screening at Wheeler is hazy to me. I recall it being one of the first non-welcome events I attended as a freshman, which makes sense temporally since the film was released in May of 2001, and it would have taken some months for it to pass through theaters and to a college screening. This would have placed the event around 9/11, either right before or right afterwards.

As I moved through my early-to-mid 20s, Lynch stuck in the back of my mind as the director of that unique and unnerving film from freshman year, a name I would mutter in group settings to prove I understood something about film, but still with a bit of nervousness since I knew relatively little about Lynch’s other work. I think there was one subsequent viewing of Mulholland Drive during that period, but the themes present in the film had not yet “clicked” with me.

In my late twenties I experienced my sister’s suicide, and shortly thereafter, the death of my grandmother and the loss of my childhood home in Orange County where she helped raise me. My family and childhood had imploded in a matter of a few years. I began to watch particularly dark films, mostly psychological thrillers, with regularity. I would look forward to the late hours of the night when, my girlfriend asleep in the bedroom, I would sit on the couch immersed in the soft glow of the flat screen, cocooned in the “gaze” of film. The psychological reasons for this are many and probably better topics for the therapist’s office than this piece.

During this time, I became a more serious ‘student’ of Lynch, examining his films and shows in greater detail. I had several revelations about his style and themes, all of which seemed interconnected.

The Uncanny

In his films, ordinary objects, spaces, and sounds are made strange and therefore frightening. An isolated phone, a dark hallway, or the ambient whine of machinery all become menacing. Things that should remain hidden are revealed, such as the monster behind the dumpster (in some perspectives representing American homelessness) in Mulholland Drive, or the personal/domestic life of a couple secretly recorded and re-played in Lost Highway. Lynch borrows so heavily from the uncanny that, in my opinion, the easiest way to understand the ambiguous concept first detailed by Freud is to watch his films.

As an aside, I’ve come to believe that Lynch’s personal interest in meditation helps create works of art that are steeped in the uncanny. Meditation seems to remove the veil, so to speak, and ordinary sights and sounds become novel and strange. I remember searching for interviews and lectures by Lynch and becoming annoyed at how much he talked about meditation, but now I do believe that it is a key to understanding his work.

Dreams and Intuition

In my opinion, no other artist conveys the world of dreams better than Lynch. His labyrinth-like plots and various cinematic techniques (lighting, colors, out-focus shots) make his films almost indistinguishable from dreams. This aesthetic is summarized well by a line from the famous “Winkie’s” scene in Mulholland Drive:

I had a dream about this place. Well, it’s the second one I’ve had, but they’re both the same. They start out that I’m in here, but it’s not day or night. It’s kind of half-night, you know? But it looks just like this, except for the light. And I’m scared like I can’t tell you.

All of Lynch’s films seem to pull heavily from intuition as opposed to rationality. An obvious nod to this fact is Dale Cooper’s intuitive techniques and experiments as an FBI agent in Twin Peaks. One could say that Mulholland Drive itself was born of intuition, or random chance. It started out as a serial TV show for ABC, but it was subsequently dropped. Lynch then rewrote the script into a feature film. In this way, the “real-life” story of the film mirrors its content: a Hollywood dream is broken, and morphs into something more frightening. It seems that some of the most powerful films are created with this mirroring effect, such as Herzog’s real-life (and larger than life) trials and tribulations making Fitzcarraldo.

The American Nightmare

Almost all of Lynch’s films and shows deal with an evil force or nightmare lurking below apple-pie America. His films are riddled with often campy Americana: diners, classic Hollywood “stars,” the “jitterbug,” James Dean types and motorcycle rides to make-out spots, to name just a few. He then embeds this imagery in uncanny imagery and non-linear plots. There is thus always something lurking behind the white-picket fence; one just has to focus their gaze (or meditate on it) to see the devil in the details.

Circling back to the unconventional development of Mulholland Drive, this juxtaposition appears almost accidentally. The initial serialized segments and characters were embedded into a very non-linear plot, following the fiasco with ABC. The result is that viewer is made to anticipate the pacing and character development of a TV series, which never comes true, as certain narratives loop back or disappear entirely. (For more on this topic, check out this academic article.)

It’s worth nothing that even the films title connects with this dream/nightmare dichotomy. William Mulholland’s monomanical pursuit of the dream of Los Angeles created nightmares like the St. Francis Dam disaster and the apocalyptic landscape of the Salton Sea.

The Film Watching Back

What arguably makes Lynch’s film most unique is that they are open to infinite interpretation, while retaining meta-narratives and themes. This allows for a two-way viewing experience, through which certain meta-themes are imparted on the viewer, for instance, the “American Nightmare” narrative from above, while the viewer also injects his/her own personal meanings and emotions into the film. I wish I was better versed in post-modern philosophy and theory, as I am sure that there are connections here with ideas proposed by the likes of Deleuze and Lacan.  I suppose any great work of art carries this experience, but my gut tells me that the medium of film combined with Lynch’s style make the experience one-of-a-kind.

It is this last point that inspired me to start this piece on a personal note. Analyzing my connection with Mulholland Drive, I can’t help but to draw connections between the film, the decade in which it came into my life, and the themes described above. One could say that all of this is a result of the “film watching back.”

Personally, the 2000s were bookended with tragedy and with the turbulent revelation of a nightmare below the American Dream. The first part was the collective experience of 9/11, which occurred within the first month of becoming independent and starting college as an adult. I think this had psychological effects that separate my contemporaries (those graduating high school in 2001) from both those before (Generation X) and those after (Millenials). Not only did 2001 mark the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood, is also marked the monumental paradigm shift from the pre to post-9/11 world. One could say that other events (for instance, Vietnam) had already pulled back the curtain from behind the American Dream, but 9/11 was particularly focused and resonant, with the dream literally “shattered.” When the towers dropped, what remained hidden had been revealed, in this case, the seething resentment of America harbored by Islamic terrorists and other groups around the world.

The second part was the personal experience of death and loss within my family at the end of the 2000s. My sister’s suicide revealed the problems in our family, in particular a family legacy of suicide, which remained hidden underneath a Southern Californian shimmering of beaches and fancy cars. The fact that it took place in our house, which was subsequently repossessed by the bank, a direct result if the predatory loan practices of the late-2000s financial crisis, formed a connection between the personal and the collective.

Dreams and symbolic imagery abounded during this period. Growing up, I often had dreams of my childhood house that was somehow “familiar, yet different” and contained rooms that terrified me. Years later, after our home had been foreclosed upon and purchased by new owners,  I returned to my childhood house (at night, for some reason) to see it still “looking the same, but different.” I also recalled at some point after the tragedy a poster that I had in my room during high school, a painting by Gottfried Helnwein called “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” which shows James Dean walking alone under a grey sky and though flooded street in New York City, where I moved shortly after my sister’s death.

Taking this decade into account, it is no mystery why I felt such a strong connection with both Lynch’s cinematic style and Mulholland Drive. I agree with Time Out New York’s summary of the film:

Can there be another movie that speaks as resonantly — if unwittingly — to the awful moment that marked our decade? […] Mulholland Drive is the monster behind the diner; it’s the self-delusional dream turned into nightmare.

The anxiety I felt as a freshman was the collective-personal unfolding of the “dream turned into nightmare.” The film truly “gets” Los Angeles and by extension Southern California. Blazing sunlight, such as that which surrounds Betty as she steps off the plane and the Hollywood apartment complex, creates spaces of shadows, such as the area behind the dumpster, the neighborhood of Club Silencio, and the terrifying interior of Diane Selwin’s condo. With Hollywood being America’s myth-making machine, this dichotomy is broadcasted out past the hills to America at large. In this sense, to watch Mulholland Drive is to gaze at our lives in post-9/11 America.

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