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Cinematic meaning in the work of David Lynch; Revisiting Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.


What does a Gap commercial have to do with Mulholland Drive?

Mulholland Drive, David Lynch's most recent and popularly acclaimed film, opens with a montage of young couples dancing the jitterbug against a solid purple backdrop. This sequence is clearly modeled on a series of Gap ads that featured attractive young couples swing dancing against bright monochrome backdrops, which were all over the airwaves around the time Lynch originally shot Mulholland Drive as a TV pilot in 1998. It may strike us as odd that the director of Eraserhead (1979), whose name can hardly appear in print without adjectives like "cult," "surreal," and "disturbing," would begin a film with a reference to a Gap commercial. And yet in many ways the sequence is in keeping with Lynch's other work. In the sequence, the excessively inflated, artificial exuberance of the commercials is pushed to a kind of breaking point; as the tempo of the music escalates and brightly lit shots of an impossibly happy young woman and an eerily grinning elderly couple begin to flicker on and off the screen, the atmosphere crosses over from energetic and fun to discomforting, even menacing. It is as if the sequence cannot sustain the counterfeit sense of joy that it is trying to convey, cannot manage to conceal the uneasiness and desperation that are lurking just beneath the surface of the image. Since as far back as Blue Velvet (1986) Lynch has specialized in staging iconic or cliched images of American culture in a way that both celebrates the collective power of the images and reveals the disturbing resonances of what they conceal. In this sense, the jitterbug sequence enacts in a condensed form a complex ambivalence at the heart of Lynch's aesthetic: the way the cinematic image* can create moments of startling power and irresistible appeal while at the same time revealing itself as an illusion, an artifice concealing something that we don't want to acknowledge.


However, the sequence also points to a relatively new aspect of Lynch's cinema. In Blue Velvet or the Twin Peaks television series, the iconic or cliched images that Lynch subverts seem culled from some sense of collective cultural consciousness and do not explicitly evoke a discussion of the cinematic image per se. Even the multiple references to The Wizard of Oz in Wild at Heart (1990) seem rooted more in Oz's mythological status within popular cultural than in the way it functions specifically as a work of cinema. However, starting with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Lost Highway (1997), and culminating in Mulholland Drive (2001), which is set in Hollywood and introduces the filmmaking process into the narrative itself, there seems to be an increasing desire on Lynch's part to reflect on the process by which cinematic meaning is made.

This recent focus of Lynch's work has received almost no attention from critics and commentators. This may be understandable to a certain degree considering that its most explicit manifestation is in the most recent film. Before the release of Mulholland Drive it may have been difficult to perceive any significant links between Fire Walk with Me, which was considered an aberration by most at the time of its release, and Lost Highway, which seemed to indicate something of a new direction for Lynch. Compounding this problem is the fact that both of the major books on Lynch, Michel Chion's David Lynch (1) and Martha P. Nochimson's The Passion of David Lynch (2), were written before the release of Lost Highway (both books do have codas briefly discussing the film, though Chion's is only available in an untranslated 1997 French edition). Aside from matters of timing however, this neglect is also indicative of an unfortunate trend that has developed in the critical community concerning Lynch. There is a persistent reluctance to enter into a serious, in-depth examination of Lynch's work; with a few exceptions--including the works by Michel Chion and Martha P. Nochimson, as well as Slavoj Zizek's study of Lost Highway (3), which I will discuss below--the predominant attitude seems to be that whatever Lynch is up to, you are free to love it or hate it but there is no use trying to understand it.

Of course, a reluctance to over-rationalize every aspect of Lynch's films is understandable and appropriate. However, this is quite different from the refusal to engage in any detailed analysis that we encounter in most of what is written about Lynch. (4) Whether he is being lauded as innovated and daring (5) or maligned as self-indulgent, even immoral (6), critics rarely make much effort to support their opinions with carefully considered readings of his films. I will try to reverse this trend by investigating Lynch's increasing interest in explicitly exploring the nature of cinematic meaning through a close examination of Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.


The new directness that characterizes Lynch's recent explorations of how the cinematic image generates meaning materializes in a few basic ways. One of the most noticeable of these is an increasing number of explicit allusions and references to other films. Lost Highway quotes, among other things, Maya Deren's Meshes in the Afternoon and Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly. Mulholland Drive also employs multiple allusions, including nods to Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard and Ingmar Berman's Persona, as well as numerous references to Lynch's own previous films.

The first thing that needs to be addressed is the fact that Lynch's use of reference and quotation does not seem to fit comfortably within any of the theoretical frameworks that are usually used to discuss these techniques. This may, in part, be why these aspects of his recent films have been overlooked. As Zizek notes, it is relatively common for theorists and critics to refer to Lynch in passing as a postmodern filmmaker. Lynch's films contain a self-conscious mixture of high art and popular culture and often seem to emphasize dazzling stylistic surfaces over narrative coherence, all of which situates his work within a host of postmodern issues. In Zizek's words, "the enigma of the coincidence of opposites" that one finds in Lynch's work "is in many ways the enigma of post-modernity itself." (7) However, when one examines Lynch's films closely, his relationship to postmodernism becomes more problematic.

For instance, Lynch's cinematic references and quotations seem to operate quite differently from the way post-modernism conceives of theses devices. Lynch's reference are taken from a broad range of cinematic genres and periods--from early experimental cinema to television commercials to European art films to classical Hollywood--but the effect is markedly different from what is usually considered a postmodern approach. Unlike, say, Todd Haynes' use of Sirkian melodrama in Far from Heaven, Lynch's allusions do not function as references to specific, fixed cinematic codes that he wishes to speak through, or to speak of. Nor do Lynch's allusions function as pastiches of cinematic surfaces, as do the quotation-packed films of, say, Guy Maddin or Quentin Tarantino (two otherwise dissimilar postmodern filmmakers). Nor, on the other hand, do Lynch's references seem to function in the more modernist sense as attempts to self-consciously link his work to a recognized tradition or history of the cinema--after all what cinematic trajectory could possibly include both Maya Deren and a Gap commercial? So, what is Lynch's relationship to the films that he references?

One thing that distinguishes Lynch's approach from that of postmodernism is that Lynch does not seem to consider cinematic styles and genres as fixed modes of representation that construct various notions of a Real to which we can never have direct immediate access. How then does the Real function in Lynch's work? I will try to illustrate that, for Lynch, the cinema is capable of achieving a specifically cinematic Real; that is to say that for Lynch the cinema is capable of generating meaning in a way that connects us with an aspect of the Real in a more direct and immediate way than is possible in everyday experience. As we will see, Lynch's allusions and quotations all function to reveal this concept of the cinematic Real through instances of its presence in other films. What is essential about this concept is that the cinematic image does not attempt to represent the Real, rather it creates a viscerally affecting experience for the spectator which opens up access to the Real in a unique and powerful way; the Real is accessed not through the act of representation, but through the experience of mediation.


In this sense, Nochimson is correct when she says of Lynch that:
 His belief in the image as a possible bridge to the real does not
 depend on any abstract framework, rather on a visceral sense of the
 essential truth of an empathetic [...] relationship with art. (8)

However, for Nochimson, this "bridge to the real" has to do with allowing "the finer aspects of our subconscious energies" to "conform us to the life-affirming energies of nature." (9) In my view, attempting to fit Lynch's aesthetic into this sort of questionable psycho-cosmological system is unnecessary and only further obscures what is actually going on in his films.

On the opposite spectrum, Zizek rejects this "New Age" interpretation, of which he finds Nochimson's book "exemplary," and instead proposes a Lacanian reading of Lynch. Zizek understands Lynch's films as attempts to bring the spectator to a confrontation with "the comic horror of the fundamental fantasy"--the Lacanian "Real-impossible" which can never be directly accessed, the unnamable trauma or objectless desire that is not grounded in reality and always eludes being represented directly as fantasy. (10) Regardless of the legitimacy of his Lacanian interpretation (on which I am not qualified to comment), Zizek does touch upon what seems to me an important aspect of Lynch's cinema. Zizek's ideas about the "Real-impossible" in Lynch's work fit well with my belief that, for Lynch, cinematic meaning is forged through access to a cinematic Real which enables viewers to viscerally experience affect and emotion in a uniquely powerful way that is detached from a rational, narrative cause and effect structure. Now, in order to develop these ideas, I will turn to a more detailed discussion of certain relevant aspects of Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.


From Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, through Lost Highway, to Mulholland Drive, one can trace certain significant stylistic and narrative continuities in relation to Lynch's growing concern with explicitly investigating the cinema's unique affective power. One important feature of this is that Lynch increasingly stages episodes that re-enact the revelatory process of cinematic discovery and understanding that he wants his films to offer their spectators. Examples include: In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me: the strange FB1 video monitor scene featuring David Bowie as Phillip Jeffries, a lost, spectral agent, and the dream scene that begins with Laura entering a moving photograph on her bedroom wall; in Lost Highway: the sinister video images of the camcorder wielding Mystery Man/Robert Blake, and the hyper-noir world of the film's second half; in Mulholland Drive: Diane/Naomi Watts' audition scene and the crucial Club Silencio sequence.


These are variations on a type of sequence that can be found in virtually all of Lynch's films. In his earlier work, these usually take the form of a theatrical/musical performance set on some sort of stage, with the main character watching in the audience. Examples include the Lady in the Radiator in Eraserhead, the opera sequence in The Elephant Man, and, in Blue Velvet. Dorothy/Isabella Rossellini's performance of the title song as well as the Ben/Dean Stockwell's lip sync performance of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams". These scenes bring the narrative to a halt and give full force to the cinema's capacity to create viscerally affecting moods and emotionally revealing moments through the combination of sound, music, image, editing, and acting. The theatrical/musical performances in these episodes always introduce or reveal something crucial to the character that watches them, initiate some emotionally potent but intangible realization that will change his or her outlook

from that point on. As spectators of the film Lynch wants our response to mirror the reaction of the spectator-character within the film. We are also powerfully affected and come to some sort of intangible realization, not only through our experience of the theatrical/musical performance, but also through witnessing the character's unsettled response to that performance. In this way, these episodes function as distillations of the power Lynch sees in the cinematic image.

In these earlier films it is always a private revelation that the characters experience. In Eraserhead, the Lady in the Radiator is Henry/Jack Nance's private fantasy of escape; in The Elephant Man, being at the theatre for the first time is a private thrill for John Merrick/John Hurt, since no one else can understand how much it means to him; in Blue Velvet, seeing Dorothy's performance awakens a new kind of desire within Jeffrey/Kyle MacLachlan which he can't admit to anyone else, and Ben's "In Dreams" performance is moving to Frank/Denis Hopper in some strange way no one understands, which is in turn terrifying to Jeffrey in some way no one else seems to recognize. When this type of theatrical/musical scene re-appears in his later work, Lynch alters it in significant ways. This is particularly true in Fire Walk with Me and Mulholland Drive, where the episodes become not private revelations for one character, but shared realizations that occur between characters within the film.

In Fire Walk with Me this occurs when Laura Palmer/Sheryl Lee goes to the Roadhouse bar and sees the performance by the Blue Lady/Julee Cruise. At first this scene functions in a similar way to the above examples, Laura is privately moved to tears by the ethereal performance, which seems to be speaking directly to her tragic fate. But then Donna/Moira Kelly appears, having followed Laura there. Donna sees how the performance is affecting her best friend and this brings her to tears as well. Then, when Laura sees that her despair has been exposed to Donna, this initiates a moving scene of one-upmanship between the two friends in which Donna insists on trying to accompany Laura on her self-destructive path. In Mulholland Drive the corresponding scene is the Club Silencio sequence. In this scene the momentary bliss achieved between Betty/Naomi Watts and Rita/Laura Harring collapses as they are moved to tears and convulsions by a powerful Spanish a capella lip sync performance of Roy Orbison's "Crying," which somehow reveals to them that, like the song they are hearing, their relationship is "not real, it's all an illusion."

These two scenes differ from their predecessors by making it explicit that the type of specifically cinematic meaning that is exemplified in these episodes must take place between people, as the result of some shared recognition or understanding. Perhaps we can now start to see the value of Nochimson's comment about Lynch's belief in "an empathetic relationship to art." In the earlier scenes this was implied through the way the scenes functioned for the spectator of the film: we were affected largely through witnessing the way the spectator-character was affected by the performance. In these later examples this crucial aspect of shared recognition is dramatized within the scenes themselves.

Lost Highway also contains an interesting variation on the previous form of theatrical/musical performance sequence. In this case, the main character is not a spectator in the audience but a performer on stage. Jazz musician Fred Madison/Bill Pullman is playing saxophone in a club when he sees his wife Renee/Patricia Arquette in the audience, leaving with another man. This contributes to the suspicions and mistrust that will escalate to the level of murderous rage. Interestingly this scene, which is framed as a memory, is presented in silence; we don't hear the music Fred is playing. We could see this scene as an inversion of the musical/performance episodes in Fire Walk with Me and Mulholland Drive in that it portrays not some shared recognition between characters but their total incapacity to communicate or understand each other (although for the viewer, the sequence itself communicates this void between them beautifully). (11)

It is important to note that in the above examples, from Eraserhead to Mulholland Drive these episodes are staged as theatrical or musical performances, and never explicitly reference the cinema itself, though their power for the viewer clearly derives from the way the event of the performance is cinematically expressed. Lynch seems to want to avoid any directly self-conscious or self-reflexive depiction of the cinema, most likely because these are moments when he wants us to be fully invested in the cinematic image, not self-consciously critical of its mechanics or aesthetics. However, with Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive, Lynch begins to experiment with ways of staging these proto-cinematic episodes so that they involve elements which link them more directly to the mechanics of the cinema. The presence of some kind of disembodying technological device often plays an important role; video cameras, TV monitors, tape recorders, telephones, answering machines, and radios appear frequently in Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. However, the actual act of filmmaking is still absent (even for the most part in Mulholland Drive), thus preserving the potential for the viewer's full emotional investment and avoiding any distancing effect. I will return to this new type of proto-cinematic episode after examining some other important aspects of Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.


Most of what has been written on Mulholland Drive resists the interpretation that the first section is some kind of dream/fantasy and the second section depicts the "real" events and characters behind the dream/fantasy. (12) This resistance seems to arise because critics and commentators sense that this interpretation will not solve all of the films mysteries. In many ways this is absolutely correct; no attempt to work out the plot in terms of what is "real" and what is not could ever succeed in discovering what is most important in the film. However, it is curious that no one makes any effort to reconcile this with the fact that in the second part of the film Lynch provides a number of hints and clues that seem to serve no purpose other than to explicitly encourage a dream/fantasy vs. reality interpretation of the narrative. This apparent contradiction seems to me one of the most significant aspects of Lynch's method, especially in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. (13)

While discussing Lost Highway, which has a similar two-part, fantasy vs. reality structure as Mulholland Drive, Zizek makes the insightful claim that, in the film, fantasy and reality do not have a horizontal relationship, in which one supports the other, but rather a vertical relationship wherein they exist in parallel, each feeding off and sustaining the other. (14) We might add that in Lost Highway it becomes essentially impossible (or meaningless anyway) to definitively designate one side as fantasy and one side as reality. All that can be said is that that there are two separate realms of action, each of which seems to be ontologically distinct from the other, and that the relationship between them seems to be structured along somewhat similar lines as the relationship between reality and fantasy. On the other hand, Mulholland Drive does seem to indicate which section could be read as dream/fantasy and which as reality. However, by constructing the narrative backwards (fantasy first, reality second) Lynch makes it nearly impossible, on a first viewing anyway, to connect all the "clues" of the second part with their manifestations in the first part because the transition between the two sections is so initially disorienting and unexpected. Thus, we can say that in both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Lynch confuses the distinction between fantasy and reality that the films themselves seem to set up.

Why would Lynch construct what seem to be ontologically distinct realms and then present them in a way that defies definition or categorization? One effect seems to be to give primacy to the cinematic image over narrative coherence. This certainly doesn't mean that there is no narrative explanation, but if one tries to reduce everything to the level of narrative meaning one misses an essential feature of Lynch's work. On the other hand, it would be equally mistaken to deny the existence of any narrative logic and to insist that Lynch simply strings together a series of powerful, loosely connected, free floating images. A crucial aspect of Lynch's cinema is clearly the complex dynamic at work between the type of meaning that is derived from narrative logic and the immediately affecting, visceral experience of the cinematic image, the way the two modes of understanding feed off and merge with and resist each other all at once.

We could say that Lynch acknowledges that the two states fantasy and reality can be distinguished according to a certain narrative logic, but at the same time he also calls attention to the fact that this division can only take us so far; the most important mysteries will always remain beyond the reach of all narrative explanations. It is not so much that the line between the two states is unclear, rather that the relationship between them is more enigmatic and complex than is usually acknowledged (in the cinema anyway). It is in the mysterious, uncanny atmosphere that results from this complex fluctuation between reality and fantasy that Lynch sees the true potential for the kind of meaning that only the cinema can generate. The cinematic image is able to give expression to the mysteries that always remain unaccounted for by the narrative, and the viewer is able to experience and comprehend them in an immediate, visceral way. This is more valuable to Lynch than solving a film in a narrative sense. In his own words:
 To me, a mystery is like a magnet. Whenever there is something unknown
 there is a pull to it [...] When you only see a part, it is much
 stronger than seeing the whole. The whole might have a logic, but out
 of context the fragment takes on tremendous value of abstraction. (15)

In considering these issues, it is illuminating to examine some important general structural features shared by Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive.


Each film features two clearly distinct narrative sections. In Fire Walk with Me, the first section revolves around two FBI agents investigating the murder of Teresa Banks/Pamela Gidley in the town of Deer Meadow; the second section tracks the last few weeks in the life of Laura Palmer/Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks, before she is murdered by the same man who killed Teresa (Laura's father, Leland Palmer/Ray Wise). In Lost Highway, the first section centers on the increasingly strained relationship between jazz musician Fred Madison/Bill Pullman and his dark haired wife Renee/Patricia Arquette which escalates until Fred kills Renee; the second section is about the torrid affair between Pete, whom Fred has mysteriously transformed into, and Alice/Patricia Arquette, a gangster's moll who looks exactly like Renee, except that she is a blonde. In Mulholland Drive, the first section revolves around the growing intimacy between Betty/Naomi Watts, a perky Hollywood newcomer with ambitions to be a star, and Rita/Laura Harring, a sultry amnesiac, as the two search for the latter's true identity; the second section deals with the deteriorating relationship between a washed up Hollywood wannabe named Diane/Naomi Watts, who looks exactly like Betty, and Camilla/Laura Harring, a rising starlet who looks exactly like Rita, which ends when Diane hires a hit man to kill Camilla, and then kills herself.

The event at the center of each of these three films is a murder that has been committed because of a doomed sexual relationship. In Fire Walk with Me, this is the killing of Laura Palmer by her own father Leland, who has been sexually abusing her. In Lost Highway, Fred is driven to kill Renee by an increasingly maddening combination of suspicion, sexual humiliation, and resentment. In Mulholland Drive, the jilted, bitter Diane hires a hit man to kill her former lover Camilla, after the latter becomes engaged to a man. But in fact, there are actually two crucial murders in each film, the second coming as a direct result of the first. In Lost Highway, the second murder is that of Dick Laurent/Robert Loggia, a gangster with whom Renee is involved. In Mulholland Drive, the second killing is a suicide rather than a murder, and occurs when Diane shoots herself, unable to live with what she has done to Camilla. In Fire Walk with Me, the murder of Laura Palmer is technically the second murder, though it is primary in terms of narrative importance. The murder of Teresa Banks precedes it chronologically, but this still fits the pattern we have identified since this murder is still a consequence of the doomed sexual relationship that ultimately results in Laura's murder (Leland kills Teresa, a teenage prostitute he has been seeing, after he learns that she is involved in prostitution with Laura).

In all three films, despite the literal chronology of the main narrative, there is a sense that both murders have already taken place at the start of the film. In Fire Walk with Me, Teresa Banks is killed in the very first scene, and most viewers will know that Laura will be killed at the end of the film because of the TV series (and if they were unfamiliar with the series they would know from the advertising of the film, which promised to reveal the last days of Laura Palmer). Lost Highway, with its looping Mobius-strip structure, literally begins and ends with the same two events, both of which are directly connected to Renee's murder, as well as that of Dick Laurent. These are: the announcement on the intercom that "Dick Laurent is dead," which is first received and then delivered by Fred, and a car speeding down a highway at night, accompanied by David Bowie's "I am Deranged." In Mulholland Drive, the first thing we see after the jitterbug sequence, is a point of view shot of someone, breathing heavily in a manner that suggests distress, falling back into bed. At the end of the film we will realize that these are, most likely, the final moments before Diane kills herself. And although we see Rita narrowly escape being killed by hit men in the first full scene of the film, we later find out that her counterpart in the second section, Camilla, is killed by a hit man hired by Diane. Thus, in all three films, the two crucial killings are in some way contained in the very beginning of the film, suggesting some alternate chronology of events to the one we are given on screen, loosening the constraints of conventional linear narrative logic.

In both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive the two part structure functions in a similar way, which, as we have already discussed, has something to do with fantasy and reality. One part depicts the events leading up to the central murders (the first part in Lost Highway, the second part in Mulholland Drive). The other part can be interpreted as an attempt to restage or re-imagine the basic circumstances that led to the murder in hopes that this will lead to a different ending. Then, when this attempt to take back the murder ultimately fails, it reveals in a new light the original motives behind the murder.

The structure of Fire Walk with Me works in a slightly different way. From this perspective the film's relationship with the TV series is crucial. In a sense, the investigation of Laura's murder, which provided the spine of the series, was a continuous attempt to re-imagine and restage the physical circumstances of the murder, as well as a continuous refusal or inability to acknowledge the unsettling emotional circumstances of that murder (the abusive incestuous relationship between Laura and her father). Fire Walk with Me can be seen as an attempt to re-imagine the world of the series in a new way (this is the main purpose of the first part of the film, which is set in the anti-Twin Peaks town of Deer Valley) which ultimately comes to the same conclusion, thus, again revealing in a new light the circumstances and motives behind the central murder.


What we can conclude from these structural similarities is that, in all of these films, the murders and the motivations behind them--which is to say the emotions behind them--form the core of truth around which the rest of the action revolves. In Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, we could even say that the murders are the only events that we can be certain definitely occurred. For Lynch, the emotional/affective circumstances surrounding the murders effectively constitute the Real in the films. If we are to say we understand either of these films, this must mean that we have grasped the affective/emotional logic behind the events of the murders, not necessarily the literal circumstances of their occurrence. We understand the desperate humiliation and rage that drives Fred, in Lost Highway, and Diane, in Mulholland Drive, to such an awful, unthinkable extreme as murder (though our understanding in no way excuses them). We understand the confusion and hopelessness that torment Laura in Fire Walk with Me and drive her to such severe, self-destructive behavior, which in turn torments her guilty father and drives him to kill her (though again, our understanding neither condemns her nor excuses him). In other words, we understand the emotional/affective causes and consequences of the events, which do not always translate into the kind of rational cause and effect logic that is usually used to structure a narrative.


For Lynch, one of the great powers of the cinema is its capacity to uncover and reveal this emotional/affective logic, which otherwise appears irrational and incomprehensible. This same seemingly irrational logic may be similar to that which governs unconscious subjective states, and this accounts for the dreamlike atmosphere of Lynch's films, as well as for the frequency with which scenes of dreams, fantasies and memories appear within the films. However, to insist, as Nochimson does, that Lynch's whole body of work is founded on some notion of the "liberating power of subconscious energies" is misleading. Lynch is not trying to recreate these subjective subconscious states or even to represent them accurately. He is aware that the cinema differs from them in a number of crucial ways, and, moreover, that it is precisely from these differences that the cinema derives its true power. Cinematic meaning is not a totally subjective, isolated (and isolating) experience, as is dreaming, fantasizing, remembering, etc. Rather, as we have already seen, for Lynch cinematic meaning is a shared experience, generated between people. And we don't need Nochimson's appeal to some quasi-Jungian notion of the collective unconscious to explain this. Whether this empathetic relationship takes place between individual audience members, between filmmaker and audience, or between performer and audience, the important thing is that a film is a concrete phenomenon and exists in the world, not just in the mind of a single person. The cinema is able to give palpable expression to the internal, irrational logic of emotional/affective states, and thus enables us to communicate them in way that would otherwise be impossible. We can perhaps see more clearly now the significance of the FBI security camera scene in Fire Walk with Me and the mysterious videotapes in Lost Highway: both speak to the capacity of the cinematic image to express, give external form to, what would otherwise remain a subjective, seemingly irrational logic.

The reason that the cinematic image is capable of this is that somehow, despite the overwhelming predominance given to narrative in the cinema, it has developed into a form that allows what should appear as great gaps in narrative logic to be accepted as making some kind of sense beyond conventional narrative logic. Here we can start to see the role of cinematic references and allusions in Lynch's later work, particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Lynch's main points of references here are Hollywood films that feature some strange, irrational logic. This is most pronounced in the second part of Lost Highway, which is structured around numerous references to Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, one of the most unusual film noirs of the 1950's. Aldrich's film brought into the open and exploded (literally) all of the irrational, paranoid, nihilistic, sadistic, apocalyptic undercurrents that were lurking just below the surface of most noirs. Similarly, Mulholland Drive features numerous allusions to Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (including the very title of the film). Narrated by a corpse we see floating in a pool in the very first scene and featuring a hauntingly disorienting sense of time, Wilder's film tells the story of how Hollywood sucked the life out of a failed screenwriter and a few others. As we have already noted, what Lynch is alluding to in these films is not their place within the cinematic cannon, nor is it their stylistic surfaces. Rather, what is crucial about these films for Lynch is the way that they explicitly allow a seemingly irrational emotional/affective logic to clash with, and at times overtake, a more conventional narrative logic. These films thus become prime instances of what I have called a specifically cinematic Real in Lynch's work, a unique conception of the way that cinema generates meaning.


We can now see that the function of this fantasy/reality structure in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive is not simply some convenient or clever narrative device, nor is meant it to reveal anything precise about the actual relationship between fantasy and reality (which is why psychoanalytic readings of Lynch can never really be satisfying). Rather Lynch stages these realms as distinct, even opposed, in order to enable himself to fully explore the cinema's potential to create a type of experience for the viewer that crosses between and overlaps the experiences of fantasy and reality that we are used to. For Lynch, cinematic meaning conflates the subjective, phantasmagoric truths that we imaginatively invent in our dreams and fantasies with the literal, quotidian, shared truths that constitute our sense of everyday reality, in order to unearth the affective/emotional truths that are otherwise so difficult to grasp.



All three films feature different realms that clearly have a distinct ontological status from each other. As we have already discussed, in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, the two narrative sections clearly belong to two ontologically distinct realms that seem to have something to do with the relationship between fantasy and reality, and yet cannot ever quite be definitively delineated by these terms. Characters and situations from one section reappear transformed or altered in some way in the other section, however, in both films there are also characters that exist in the same form in both sections and that seem to have some understanding of the relationship between the two realms: the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, and the elderly couple in Mulholland Drive are the clearest examples. The existence of these characters seems to speak to the existence of yet another realm that appears to oversee the other two and move between them. In Fire Walk with Me, on a literal level the two narrative sections both appear to have the same ontological status and are distinct from each other only by the time and place of their setting, though as both Chion and Nochimson point out on a thematic level the town of Deer Valley functions "like a black hole somewhere in the universe, it is the absolute negation of Twin Peaks, an anti-Twin Peaks." (16) However, in Fire Walk with Me there is also an ontologically distinct realm that links the two narrative sections. This corresponds to the overseeing realms in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive but is even more developed and intricate than in those films. This is the realm of the Red Room and its host the Man from Another Place, as well as a number of characters, including Mike the one-armed man, Bob, and the Old Woman and the Masked Boy. And of course, there is FBI agent Dale Cooper/Kyle MacLachlan, who is unique in that he is clearly situated within the realm of the basic narrative--he is investigating the murder of Teresa Banks and will, we know, be investigating the murder of Laura Palmer--but he has access to the more elusive other realm as well.

It would take a detailed analysis of each of the films to work out the precise role of these individual characters within their respective films. However, we should be able to see that the function of the strange characters that populate the mysterious overseeing realm in Lynch's work is clearly not to signify his belief in some literal hidden dimension, nor is it to represent some aspect of a character's psyche or some abstract force (such as "evil"). Their true function is to dramatize the way cinema can move between and participate in seemingly distinct realms of existence (such as fantasy and reality) without ever quite belonging to either one. These characters provide a sort of cinematic consciousness that belongs to the film itself, apart from any single character. Like the Mystery Man in Lost Highway, who is simultaneously here and there, inside and outside, real and imagined, for Lynch the cinematic image always inhabits a space in between fantasy and reality, never entirely one or the other (and never simply mixture of the two either), never exclusively inside a single subjectivity but never outside subjectivity altogether.


In each of the three films, the transition between the two sections features one of the new types of proto-cinematic scenes that we touched on before, involving more direct references to the cinema. This is significant because it illustrates that what is most important about the two-part/multiple realm structure that Lynch uses is the specifically cinematic way that we are able to move from one section/realm to another.

In Fire Walk with Me the proto-cinematic episode is the strange scene in which agent Cooper comes into the FBI office and insists on acting out a dream he has recently had. He proceeds to stand in the hallway positioned under a security camera for a moment, and then rushes into the security room around the corner to check the monitor. He does this three times and the third time he checks the monitor he sees that his image has remained frozen on screen, so that he appears to simultaneously be in the hallway and be in the security room looking at the monitor. Then, on the monitor we see a man emerge from an elevator at the end of the hall and walk past Cooper's frozen image into the main office. Cooper leaves the security room and rushes into the office where he is told that the man is an agent named Phillip Jeffries/David Bowie who has been missing for sometime. Jeffries then begins to utter a string of frantic, confused, disconnected phrases about someone named Judy and a room above a garage, as a frenetic montage begins featuring characters (including the Man from Another Place, Mike, and Bob) in eerily effected shots (reverse audio and image, superimpositions, slow motion, etc ...). When this montage ends, Jeffries has vanished and Cooper and the others are told by the front desk that he was never there. But when they check the security tape, sure enough it shows Jeffries coming down the hall past Cooper's frozen image.

In Lost Highway the transitional episode is a culmination of a series of scenes in which Fred and Renee receive mysterious videotapes that show up on their doorstep. The first tape shows grainy black and white shots of the outside of their house. The second begins the same way but then cuts to an even grainier shot moving through the hallways inside the house, a shot that we had previously scene as Fred's point of view in a dream in which he was looking for Renee. The third tape, which Fred watches alone, has the same two shots as the previous tape, but adds an even grainier shot that continues into the bedroom where Fred sees himself standing over Renee's bloody corpse with a knife in hand. From this point the film cuts to Fred already in police custody for the murder.

In Mulholland Drive there are two main transitional scenes of this kind. The first is Betty's audition scene, in which she transforms a cliched, soap opera caliber script into a distressingly seductive and emotionally potent performance which provides a glimpse of the pain and desperation that will consume her when she becomes Diane in the second part of the film. This scene is unique among the other proto-cinematic episodes in that it concerns itself not with the way sound, music, image and performance combine to generate cinematic meaning, but rather, illustrates that this can be achieved solely through the unsettling, irrational, seemingly miraculous power of acting in the cinema, its ability to express otherwise indescribable emotional/affective states (17). The second proto-cinematic transitional episode in Mulholland Drive is the Club Silencio scene, already discusses above, in which the revelation of the disembodying technology behind the powerfully affecting illusion of the heart-wrenching performance effectively undermines and destroys the illusion of bliss that momentarily existed between Betty and Rita.

In fact, when we look closely at the films we see that almost every time elements from one realm seep into and destabilize the other, every time the mysterious overseeing realm disrupts the narrative, Lynch communicates this through the use of some special cinematic technique such as slow motion, reverse motion, strobe lighting, superimpositions, distorted images, overtly stylized use of sound or music, etc. These moments occur too frequently throughout the films to make a full list, but examples would include the following.

In Fire Walk with Me:

The reverse sound and motion in the Red room

The scenes in which the old woman and the masked boy materialize from nowhere and then dissolve into thin air

The slow-motion drone of the ceiling fan outside Laura's bedroom, which we see whenever her father has sex with her

The unusual sound mix in the traffic jam scene in which the one armed man confronts Laura and Leland

In Lost Highway:

The Mystery Man's face appearing to Fred superimposed over Renee's face, which follows their failed lovemaking and his dream about killing her

The backward exploding beach house that appears to Fred in prison before he transforms into Pete

The flickering slow motion shot of Alice accompanied by Lou Reed's "Magic Moment" that occurs the first time Pete sees her (which is also the first time we see her as Alice the blonde)

The strobe lighting and lens distortions that occur first as Pete wanders down the halls of Andy's house looking for Alice, then later as Fred walks through the halls of the Lost Highway Motel searching for Renee

In Mulholland Drive:

The scene at the film studio in which Betty and a young director named Adam exchange a long, meaningful, slow-motion gaze accompanied by the 50's pop song "Sixteen Reasons"

The superimpositions that multiply the images Betty and Rita so that they fan out overtop of each other, which occur right after they find Diane Selwyn's corpse

The numerous strobe and fog effects, as well as the physically impossible appearances and disappearances that occur in the Club Silencio sequence

The miniaturization of the elderly couple and the strobe and smoke effects that occur as the two of them chase Diane into the bedroom and drive her to shoot herself

The blue box into which the camera disappears at the end of the first section

Lynch is routinely accused of self-indulgence for his repeated use of these kinds of stylistic devices, which many see as empty, self-indulgent, MTV inspired flourishes (18). However, we should now be able to see that, on the contrary, these devices are an integral part of Lynch's complex concept of how cinematic meaning is generated.


Discussing the ceiling fan in Fire Walk with Me, Chion says that such elements in Lynch's work should not be taken symbolically, "nor can they be reduced to some primary function. They are life itself, vital power, absurd, ever-present." We could add that, for Lynch, these stylistic devices create space for a kind of special cinematic perception, they grasp "life itself" in a specifically cinematic way. These are moments in which the normal boundaries of time, space and identity become less rigid and the lines dividing past and present, memory and fantasy, dream and reality become blurred, momentarily freeing us from conventional, linear, cause and effect logic and giving us access to a more intangible and complex affective/emotional experience. These moments enable us to perceive events in their totality somehow, cause and effect, intention and consequence, hope and regret, desire and resentment, all rolled into one inextricably tangled web and experienced viscerally in a sustained flurry of sound, image, music, and performance. In this sense, Nochimson is correct in her insistence that Lynch wants to free us from the limiting perspective of rational order, but her claim that he is trying to open us up to the "liberating powers of the subconscious" is misleading. It would be more accurate to say that he is trying to open us up to the liberating powers of the cinema.

Michael Vass is a filmmaker based in Toronto. He recently received his MFA from York University and is currently a directing resident at the Canadian Film Centre.

*Throughout this essay I use the term 'cinematic image' to refers to the all forms moving image/sound combinations (the emphasis on the role of sound in Lynch's cinema can hardly be overstated)--including television, video, and film--as Lynch makes no a priori distinctions between the way these mediums function.


1 Michel Chion, David Lynch, Trans. Robert Julien, British Film Institute, 1995.

2 Martha P. Nochimson, The Passion of David Lynch: Wild At Heart in Hollywood, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1997.

3 Slavoj Zizek The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway. The University Of Washington Press, Seattle. 2000

4 A recent exception to the reactionary approach is George Toles' superb examination of Mulholland Drive in the Fall 2004 Film Quarterly

5 Stephen Holden on Mulholland Drive: "By surrendering any semblance of rationality to create a post-Freudian, pulp-fiction fever dream of a movie, Mr. Lynch ends up shooting the moon." in "Mulholland Drive: Hollywood Seen as a Fun House Fantasy" New York Times 10/06/2001

6 Roger Ebert on Lost Highway: "it really is all an empty stylistic facade. This movie is about design, not cinema ... I felt jerked around." "Lost Highway review" Chicago Sun-Times 02/27/1997

7 Zizek, 3

8 Nochimson, 9.

9 bid. 9

10 Zizek, 43-44

11 These sequences, in all of their manifestations, also speak to the importance of music and sound in Lynch's concept of a cinematic Real. In each of the sequences discussed above, it is the music (or lack thereof in Lost Highway) that carries the emotional and affective force and which opens up a new understanding in the spectator-characters and in the viewers. As the Club Silencio scene makes explicit, it is the music itself, not necessarily even the lyrics, which generates the bulk of meaning in these scenes.

12 As examples of this see Nochimson's review of Mulholland Drive in Film Quarterly Fall 2002 (vol. 56, #1) and Philip Lopate's "Welcome to L.A." Film Comment Sept/Oct 2001 (vol. 37, #5)

13 The exception to this critical trend is the previously mentioned piece in by Wyman, Garrone and Klein, which provides the most thorough and well considered version of the fantasy' vs. reality interpretation that I have encountered.)

14 Zizek, 35.

15 David Lynch, Lynch on Lynch, ed. by Chris Rodley. Faber and Faber Limited, London, 1997, 231.

16 Chion, 148.

17 For more on this scene see the George Toles article mentioned above.

18 As examples of this, see Stephanie Zacherek's review of "Lost Highway" at
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Author:Vass, Michael
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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