Mulholland Drive, Dreams and Defamiliarization
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” - Russian Writer, Viktor Shklovsky
Defamiliarization, coined by Shklovsky, is when you take a familiar way of looking at something and make it strange or obscure in order to alter your perception of that thing, allowing you to experience that thing in a new way or a new angle. This helps force the individual to alter their state of formula in spite of themselves.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
“Working over the ideas that occur to patients when they submit to the main rule of psychoanalysis is not our only technical method of discovering the unconscious. The same purpose is served by two other procedures: the interpretation of patients’ dreams and the exploitation of their faulty and haphazard actions.” - Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud
You must see a film twice to see it for the first time….
Mulholland Drive (2001) is an abstract, surreal piece of masterful cinema. It’s considered one of the most thought provoking films ever made where pimple faced high schooler’s to Rhodes scholar’s painfully deconstruct the film’s narrative. The director David Lynch has been often asked in interviews what the film actually means. Like many artists before him, he says it’s left up to the viewer to decipher, not the artist’s own interpretation of the piece. The viewer needs to allow the art to wash over their consciousness so it can seep into their sub-conscious and hopefully resonate. Language can often ruin the essence of abstraction, when one autopsy’s a particular piece of an art form.
This is why defamiliarization is so important in art because of the problem of desensitization with familiarity. If an artist is able to keep pushing his art away from meaningful symbolization then the viewers of the art will always keep wondering. And that’s the key, to keep the flow of wonder alive within us and not to allow complacency to soften our sensory perception of the world outside our minds.
Despite the above mentioned idea of leaving all interpretations up to the viewer, I do believe in the art of film critique, and thus will mildly dive into the interpretation ofMulholland Drive. I will also warn those who have not seen the film to stop reading any further as I will be revealing many plot details and character analyses.
Using the Freudian iceberg approach, I’ll begin with a look at the surface content of the film, above the water as it were and discuss the protagonist’s ‘pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.’ I use T.S Eliot’s Prufrock line because of the “ungeheures ungeziefer”, the seething and malicious, bottom feeding nature of the depressed, lonely protagonist, who’s found herself lost in a symbolic dark forest in her neurotic mind without being able to find her way out.
The ambitious film is about obsession, jealousy, envy, suicide and murder. But like all of Lynch’s films, that’s the surface elements to a much deeper psychological meaning. The real genius of the film is the multi layered aspects of its challenging structure. But if this maze of a film has a nucleus it’s Diane Selwyn, a druggy, actress wannabe that never made it and her envious obsession over Camilla Rhodes, an actress that did make it. After a complete breakdown of all of Diane’s hopes and dreams, culminating at a dinner party where Camilla becomes engaged, she hires a hitman to kill Camilla. When the job is done Diane in her apartment has a complete psychotic breakdown and shoots herself in the head thus ending her misery. Fade to Black, story over.
The film is also a critique on the Hollywood myth, a place where people go for fame and fortune…
Mulholland Drive is one of the most mind bending films ever in the history of cinema. But it’s likely that mostly everything we see in this film, especially the first half, is all part of a masturbatory fantasy fever dream Diane had before she finally committed suicide ending the film. (I would also like to note that this is a psychological and philosophical theory, there are many out there that will differ and that is the magic of such a magnificent film.) In her dream, her fantasy sees Camilla in a car accident on Mulholland Drive while in a limo. A place at the end of the film, we see Diane exiting a limo and is met by a boastful Camilla. Camilla in the dream is Rita, a woman without memory, a woman with no identity to get in the way of Betty, the depressed Diane’s image of herself as a young, beautiful actress on the eve of her stardom.
There is two worlds coexisting in Diane’s dream; one is the self-fulfilling fantasy of getting what people always want, fame and recognition. That’s how Lynch sees the Hollywood dream being sold to the unexpected. The second is the detective story with Betty and Rita that interferes with the first fantasy, but still fulfilled the fantasy of solving anything that gets in her way and getting the girl. The reality of our waking life will find its way into dreams when often uninvited.
Adam Kesher’s the director of the film within the film, within a dream. The poor guy is run through the ringer. Crazy mob guys order him to cast the lead actress in his film without his consent. This obviously irritates him deeply and he storms out only to go home and find his wife in bed with another man. He then finds out that the production has been shut down on his film and mob guys are after him. A mysterious cowboy in the desert hills of southern California threatens him with his life, in a very nice and pleasant way, to choose the girl they want in the production. This is all Diane’s hatred toward the man in her mind stole her girlfriend from her, he is also the man who didn’t cast her in the starring role of his film. Kesher in Diane’s reality is on top of his game purposing to Camilla.
It’s time to wake up…..
At the director’s dinner party close to the end of the film, a humiliated Diane meets the director’s mother, who sees her with pity and contempt becomes her landlady in her dream, the jovial and wholehearted Coco. The fat man across the room becomes the espresso hating gangster in her cinematic fantasy dream. The cowboy at the party in the background she notices becomes the cowboy that threatens Kesher in the dark hills. Camilla becomes Betty’s dependent, a loving person with a desperate need to know the truth. A person Betty carries throughout their investigation.
In Diane’s dream the hitman become the pimp. But the reality is he’s the killer, he’s the one that kills the love of her life as requested and paid for by her. The conversation at the beginning of the film between two men in Twinkie’s, the same diner Diane make’s her Faustian deal, is an acknowledgement of the reality of her hiring a hitman to kill a person, told in the dream within the dream about a monster at the back of the diner. A homeless man, seen later holding the blue box, where the repressed reality of the murder resides.
The beginning of the film shows the jitterbug competition that Diane won many years ago and then her head hitting her present day pillow. Learning that she got the blue key from the hitman, hence validating the assassination.
Then the two older folks that Betty pleasantly parts with at the airport in the beginning and later appears psychotically chasing her into her bedroom, seemingly causing her to shoot herself in the right temple, were likely representation of her parents or grandparents, symbolizing a time before all of this craziness thus responsible for waking her up from her dream to see if she is okay. Not to their knowledge they woke up a psychotic person, when reality stormed in, Diane wakes, there are a series of flashbacks, Diane and Camilla on her couch, half naked, and Camilla insisting Diane to stop feeling her up. Then came the humility, the guilt, the hatred and sorrow of the waking reality. Too much to bare, Diane kills herself.
by Christopher Barr
[Source: Movies and Philosophy Now, September 2013]