To love David Lynch is to love postmodern confusion. His films excite his audience, while also puzzling them. Meaning is fleeting -- there for a moment before dissolving into a whole new layer of confusion and contradiction. Ironically, however, one of his most postmodern works might also be his easiest to understand.

Though it plays out like a postmodern textbook, eschewing meaning and being the amalgamation of disparate scenes from a canceled television series, Mulholland Drive has a definitive path that might be easily explained. While no meaning is absolute, especially in Lynchian worlds, it's as if his quest to salvage Mulholland gave it a discernible structure, each piece being linked together. Though to give meaning to the affair is so distinctly not postmodern,a careful viewing reveals a relatively straightforward and metaphoric film.

What's most shocking about Mulholland Drive is how often it seems like an obvious and deliberate embodiment of postmodernist theory. In the early twentieth century, modernism strove to explore and hold on to individual identity in a chaotic world -- to find meaning, sift through fragments, and make sense of a crumbling environment. After the second World War, however, postmodernism descended. Still reacting against realism and taking ideas of fragmentation and meaning to a new level, postmodernism thrived in chaos, seeing it as something to which no sense can be made -- where a quest for meaning is futile.

But the feature is more than just a chaotic environment where meaning is elusive; the film plays out many theories of postmodernism, including:

Jean Baudrillard wrote about copies (simulacrum) and their resulting hyperreality, which questions how we distinguish what's real and what's fantasy. Furthermore, he wrote of the body as useless in The Ecstasy of Communication, stating: "As soon as this screen is no longer haunted by its actors and their fantasies, as soon as behavior is crystallized on certain screens and operational terminals, what's left appears only as a large useless body, deserted and condemned. The real itself appears as a large useless body." Some examples in the film:
  • The film itself questions two realities, and what makes fantasy.
  • The jitterbugging dancers in the beginning are only a handful of dancers copied over and over to look like many.
  • There are many instances of a useless body, from director Adam as a puppet of mobsters, to Luigi Castigliane spitting out espresso, to Diane Selwin feeling hollow, unable to bring herself pleasure. But the most obvious and flamboyant example is Mr. Roque. He's played by little person Michael J. Anderson as a full-sized man, the body looking like a useless prosthetic that doesn't move.

Fredric Jameson
wrote of pastiche -- instances of imitation -- as "blank parody," where the meaning behind parody is lost. He also wrote of the "death of the subject," where individualism is a thing of the past, and moreover, never really existed in the first place. Some examples:
  • Often, people or scenarios are copied within the film, from the initial dancers to the mere fact that the first part mirrors the second. It even applies to the meaning of the Hollywood system, pushing out cookie cutters, keeping up appearances. Betty's reality is a pastiche of Diane's reality, which in itself, is flawed. She remembers Camilla as romantic perfection, which is nothing more than a false creation.
  • Diane Selwin and Betty are, quite literally, the death of the subject. Betty never existed, and Diane's death reveals the probable falseness of Betty's reality.
  • With the film, Lynch strives to kill the Hollywood dream and icons, revealing both as nothing more than false imitations of a false ideal.
  • Silencio features a singer who doesn't sing, and musicians who don't play. It's all a recording. "Everything is an illusion."
Jacques Lacan theorized that we do not have a "self" until the mirror stage, which he called "an identification ... namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image."
  • Rita acts out Lacan's mirror theory literally by looking in a mirror, seeing a Rita Hayworth poster, and assuming an identity. An air of nervousness immediately falls away as she becomes visibly calm and content about having a self ... even if that self is false.

Obviously, Lynch didn't sit down with a manual and create a blueprint for postmodernism. But nevertheless, his work embodies these traits very obviously, right down to the fact that the movie itself attempts to find a meaning or path from disparate parts meant to be told on television, over time.


At its simplest, the film reveals the death of dreams, the harshness of reality, and the falseness inherent in Hollywood's idyllic, cinematic dream. This comes from both the plot and its filmmaker. In the film, we're presented with the juxtaposition of a generic, cookie-cutter aspiring actress, and a dejected and struggling woman whose life is falling apart. As a filmmaker, Lynch took his would-be television series footage and re-purposed it to show his disenchantment and disappointment with the Hollywood system that canceled show, before leaving the system altogether.

We have two stories joined together by a blue box and club Silencio, where everything is an illusion. At first, there is Betty's cheery, positivity-laden adventure as she's coddled by security. Her acting skills are stunning, her hair and attire are perfect, and she has an aunt who gives her an apartment to temporarily live in; it's perfection. She's not struggling and is therefore secure enough to get carried away in Rita's mystery. But as she insists on digging into the truth, the security crumbles. As she's told everything is an illusion, her body quite visibly convulses, trying to reject the truth. A blue box is discovered, which fits Rita's strange blue key, and the world is flipped.

Betty is actually Diane Selwin, the decomposing girl at the heart of Rita's mystery. She wakes up, and lives obsessed with memories of a better past, emotionally decomposing rather than physically. She loved Camilla Rhodes (Rita), and struggled to make it as an actress. But Camilla left her for their director (Adam), and took her fame, success, and happiness. As a result, Diane is a shell. She cannot feel, even as she tries to masturbate and find release. Her memories of passion and happiness lay out of her reach. She's a visual mess, continually humiliated by the woman she loves. Desperate, she turns to murder, thinking revenge will alleviate her pain. A normal key, painted blue, will tell her when the deed is done.

One might see the first part as a dream before the fact, a premonition of what is to come. This, of course, is fair -- there's no limit to the possible meanings of Lynch's postmodernism, and that link is obvious. But we must consider the box and the placement of the stories. We're shown dancers (Diane's origin), then blurriness and a bedroom (Diane's death), then Betty's world (Diane's reimagined world), then Silencio (the crumbling of the fantasy), and then Diane's world and death. The box appears at Silencio, and when it is opened the world changes for the worst.

Rita's key not only symbolizes her death, it's also her means of opening the truth behind the pastiche. The box acts like Pandora's box. According to myth, one which laid a blueprint for Adam and Eve, Pandora was the first woman, created by Zeus, and given a jar or box that she was not to open. When she did, evil rushed out and covered the world. She shut it, and all that was left inside was hope.

It seems likely that Betty's world is that bit of hope and desire captured and unable to break free from the evil reality, slightly peppered with the grimness of reality. Diane reimagined as Betty is too idyllic to exist outside of Hollywood and our own fantasies, though she faces a dark mystery. Moreover, all of the players in Betty's world seem to embody what Diane would reimagine real-world people like if she were in a hopeful fantasy. After hearing the joking story about Adam's ex with the pool man, he suffers a humiliating defeat in Betty's world. "This is the girl," which Diane says when she reveals who she wants killed, become an ominous phrase in Betty's world, something that will tear everything apart, and which foils Betty's potential for stardom. In fact, in Diane's world, the ride on Mulholland Drive signifies the end of her happiness and romance, as well as her grip on the world, while Rita's ride creates a new opportunity for Diane -- as Betty -- to love her, while also revealing the mystery doomed to end this fantasy.

Can she have the dream before the reality and death play out? The two seem too interconnected for that to be.

When the cowboy asks Diane to wake up, does she actually wake up out of a premonition and see it acted out horrifically, or does she simply realize that Betty was the hope that died with Diane as she shot herself? The box was part of the mystery in Betty's world, and it was up to them whether they wanted to open it. When Rita did, Diane was forced out of the fantasy and into reality, just as Camilla forced Diane out of her romantic Hollywood dream. Furthermore, in Diane's world, the box is held by the scary nightmare man behind Winkies, from which those super-smiling old folks come rushing out, as super-little people able to crawl under Diane's locked door, growing, and chasing her into her bedroom to suicide.

It's as if her hope assaults her, and she's unable to take it. Perhaps Betty is an alternate life flashing before her eyes as she died, or a post-death fantasy, which, once she accepts and releases, allows her to move on. But hope doesn't completely die, or if you're an optimist, wins out in the end. Her death is followed by ghostly images of Diane and Camilla, or Betty and Rita, white and slightly transparent -- smiling and happy like they are ghosts in heaven, which links back to the smiling faces of Diane and the elderly couple during the jitterbug.

However, the film does end back at Silencio, with the word said once again. To dream of heaven for these characters seems as falsely hopeful as Diane's creation of Betty. Ultimately, it's all in illusion.

Rather than ask questions, I'm simply going to ask for your questions, interpretations, and thoughts this week. Let 'em loose below.

As for next week, I've been avoiding writing about this particular movie. Like Heathers, pick number one, I've given a lot of attention to it here at Cinematical. Why rehash old praise? Well, life dictates that I cover something I know inside and out, and there's no way I can just keep this film out of the mix, since it's one absolutely worthy of your time.

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Before Sunset | Add it to your Netflix queue

Last Week's Film: Hot Fuzz
categories Features, Cinematical