Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A.,
The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.
When I asked my friend Michael, who’s my go-to film buff, about the film Mulholland Drive he posted a gif from a Lynch film with the sentence “Get yourself some damn good coffee.” The best coffee I’ve ever drunk in my entire life has come from my mother’s French press, but I need to get to Wallace and Lynch.
I watched Mullholland Drive for the first time with my father. I’m not entirely sure if that satisfies David Foster Wallace’s criteria of what qualifies as “Lynchian” but it feels like it should. Mom and M were out of the house, I can’t remember the specific cause, and so Dad, who had been taking a film course to satisfy a credit for his bachelor’s degree, brought home the film telling me a friend of his in the class had suggested it. There was also some mention that the film might have a lesbian scene in it, but to be honest that, like most of the actual film, is a bit blurry enigma. What I distinctly remember is the feeling that I had seen this film before in caricatures of typical “independent films” either on Family Guy, The Simpsons, or else one of the numerous television shows I watched at the time. Images would appear that were so surreal or absurd while the music tended either to put me on edge or else push me steadily towards madness, and by the time Naomi Watts and Laura Herring wound up in bed together the scene wasn’t really all that out of place, though my teenage hormones made it a bit of a distraction. The reason I bring up my father is that for a moment there was an event in which a grown man and his teenage son were sitting in the dark, watching two women fuck on the screen, sitting on separate couches unaware of what the other’s expression was.
To be fair I’m not sure you could call the sex scene in Mulholland Drive “fucking” so much as heavy open mouth tongue based kissing coupled with some light nipple rubbing.
This is a rather awkward, yet strangely fitting, introduction to serve my purpose. This essay is not so much a review of Mulholland Drive, but rather a review of an essay that I had no idea would actually leave such a distinct impression upon me. And the odd part is the essay in fact made me remember a film I had seen and so when I began this piece I wondered what would be better approach: write about the film or write about the essay which is writing about another film entirely for the most part but said first film wasn’t made when the essay was written so is there an ethical concern writing about a film and using the essay to support this argument and eventually I just said screw it and went forward.
David Lynch Keeps his Head is the fifth essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a book I bought partly because I had begun Infinite Jest but also because a friend of mine had bought the book before me and raved about it (he was a creative writer but one of the smart ones who tried to push himself creatively in what he read and wrote about) and after he and I lost touch I encountered the book again at a friend’s house while I was watching her dog. The cover strikes you immediately, largely because it’s comically grotesque, with a little boy with an obscenely large head licking his chest while steam pours out from his ears. I wonder at times if I compromise whatever artistic credibility I have when I write things like this, but the book is most certainly worth your time and money if only because you’ll be able to freak out your mother and girlfriend (or boyfriend, we’re open minded here at White Tower Musings) for a month with the cover. Once you get bored with that you can read about watching television or else how David Lynch is a genius, but the movie is Dune is absolute swill.
Reading the essay, I was constantly remembering the general feeling that Mulholland Drive created particular during three specific quotes. Wallace says in section 10 of the essay:
If the word sick seems excessive to you, simply substitute the word creepy. Lynch’s movies are inarguably creepy, and a big part of their creepiness is that they seem so personal. […] It’s the psychic intimacy of the work that makes it hard to sort out what you are feeling about one of David Lynch’s movies and what you are feeling about David Lynch. (166).
Even though it’s been years since I watched the film I can’t disagree with Wallace in this passage because to this day there’s still a miasma of psychic shock and recovery that was watching the film. That’s not hyperbole, just an effort to convey the lingering sensation of watching a Lynch film, a good Lynch film. It’s not so much that the film is grotesque the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Hostel is, nor are his films psychologically terrifying the way The Shining or Psycho were(though I did jump when the grotesque homeless man first appeared). These films are genre based films, specifically horror, and the fundamental aspect of horror is that once the first experience is done it is possible to overcome the experience and, possibly, even laugh at it later. A great example of this is the Paranormal Activity films and just about any Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The films of David Lynch are not horror films however for even after you have processed the experienced there is a discomfort and emotional awareness that doesn’t leave the viewer. David Lynch as a director has probed into the viewer psyche and, if I may use a grotesque metaphor here, effectively licked the inside of their skull leaving a lasting membrane the viewer can still feel decades after the fact.
Grotesqueness is part of the man’s aesthetic however, for unlike the previously established gore-filled horror-genre films, Lynch’s movies are attempting something different creatively.
Wallace offers up a great assessment:
The absence of linearity and narrative logic, the heavy multivalence of the symbolism, the glazed opacity of the character’s faces, the weird ponderous quality of the dialogue, the regular deployment of grotesques as figurants, the precise, painterly way screens are staged and lit and the overlfush, possibly voyeuristic way that violence, deviance, and general hideousness are depicted—these all give Lynch’s movies a cool, detached quality, one that some cineastes view as more like cold and clinical. (167).
He continues this later on by noting:
When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier—we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. (167).
This is most certainly the case for me as I look back again to Mulholland Drive. The main storyline is…damn near impossible to describe, and so I won’t bother to attempt to except to address the character of Betty/Diane. Played by Naomi Watts the narrative, such as it is, follows Betty as she encounters a woman known as Rita who has suffered a terrible car crash and can’t remember who she is. Betty recently moved to Los Angeles and many critics and fan of the film have noted that she comes to embody the standard naïve outsider hoping to make it big in L.A. Most of this is certainly true, for Betty freely helps Rita after her accident and by the end of the film she has seemingly been destroyed as she eventually buys into the grotesque realities of the Hollywood system. She’s an aspiring actress, and when the plot flips, and Rita is revealed to be a successful actress, betty is left a shriveled waste of malevolent intent. It’s not enough that she has failed, she has exploded because of her kind nature.
There are other numerous subplots to the film, such as the director Adam whose life is steadily destroyed by forces controlled by a mysterious and grotesque dwarf in a room with a single light, as well as the man who opens the film suffering a terrible nightmare about seeing a grotesque man behind a “Winkies.” These stories exist and possess a great relevance to the “plot” but because the narrative is disjointed, and because the film is shot in a way that is often dream-like the viewer is left to try and assort the various pieces together hoping that they can find some meaning.
Betty is a sympathetic character however, and by the end of the film it’s painful to see she has fallen from that kindness which once defined her.
Betty Elms: She’s letting me stay here while she’s working on a movie that’s being made in Canada. But I guess you already know that. Well, I couldn’t afford a place like this in a million years… unless, of course, I’m discovered and become a movie star. Of course, I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star. But, you know, sometimes people end up being both. So that is, I guess you’d say, sort of why I came here.
Betty Elms: I’m sorry. I’m just so excited to be here. I mean I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dream place. Well, you can imagine how I feel.
By the end of Mulholland Drive Betty’s fall is tragic since it came from such an idealistic high however the narrative delivery makes it difficult at times to really be sure that her end result, the character Diane Selwyn, isn’t the actual reality and that Betty may not be so much a figure of sympathy but really just the imagination of Diane attempting to construct a narrative in which she’s actually the sympathetic character who’s just a victim of abuse and manipulation. What is important to note however is that this structure does not make it difficult to watch Lynch’s film, in fact it only informs it more. Betty is either the victim of evil, or else a perpetrator of it, and at a certain point there isn’t much of a distinction. At least, as Wallace suggests, in a Lynch movie.
Wallace addresses this in his essay:
It’s not just the fact that twisted people do hideous things to one another in Lynch’s films, these critics will argue, but rather the “moral attitude” implied by the way Lynch’s camera atrocities in Lynch movies are never staged to elicit outrage or even disapproval. The directional attitude when hideousness occurs seems to range between cynical neutrality and an almost voyeuristic ogling.
The claim, though, that because Lynch’s movies pass no overt “judgement” on hideousness/evil/sickness and in fact make the stuff riveting to watch, the movies are themselves a- or immoral, even evil—this is bullshit of the rankest vintage, and not just because it’s sloppy logic but because it’s symptomatic of the impoverished moral assumptions we seem now to bring to the movies we watch. (203).
This is an important passage, not just for David Lynch Keeps his Head, but for review writing in general. A few weeks past I wrote a review of Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram which was about television’s affects upon culture, creative writing, and Postmodern consciousness. While writing this review I noted how often Wallace had to keep reminding his reader that television was not a cancerous sore on the face of humanity, and one passage in particular says it far better than I could:
I am concerned to avoid anti-TV paranoia here. Though I’m convinced that television today lies, with a potency somewhere between symptom and synecdoche, behind a genuine crisis for U.S. Culture and literature, I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited upon an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes. (36).
Violence is frequently, and accurately, coupled in our society, and those who contribute to media should be conscious of what they are actively placing into the universe. The only problem is that because television and film-watching are both “passive” exercises you “receive” the medium rather that “actively” generating some part of it yourself, there has arisen an “elitism” coupled with bullshit morality in our society and so film makers who explore violence will always suffer the wrath of people who are bothered or disturbed by violent or perverse content. Lynch’s movies freely employ violence, this is a fact, but not to the level that it becomes pornographic or gratuitous. As Wallace wrote, whatever violence exists within his universe the acts performed and recorded do not provided a kind of malignant catharsis, nor are they designed to be employed as black humor. Death, pain, destruction, and murder just are.
This is a problem and I recognize it immediately because human beings don’t like ambiguity, or ambiguity of this caliber. Trying to explain that something just is, doesn’t fit into the narrative structures that human beings live their lives by. In the Judeo-Christian faith that was I surrounded with as a young man, acts of evil or monstrosity were performed because there was an evil supernatural tempter swaying the will of human beings in the form of The Devil. As I got older, and received more education, I learned that human beings’ motivations could also be swayed by economics, there are financial reasons for evil deeds because people are greedy or hungry. Adding a bit more complexity to this sexuality becomes a factor in the compelling of people to violence, for sex inspires passions that blind people to reason and so a lover may be drawn into a fit of violence after he catches his boyfriend in bed with two other men, or a wife may kill her husband’s mistress because she won’t share him. These are examples of causes and effects that fit narratives most people would recognize and be comfortable with, but Wallace brings up an important point when he notes that violence in David Lynch films aren’t about narratives because in Lynch films narratives are contorted, twisted, and may not even be real.
It makes sense that that concept would disturb people, because it’s a narrative structure people are unfamiliar with, or uncomfortable with, because it seems at first to suggest that violence happens for no reason at all.
Human beings since their infancy have needed an individual or location that possesses an “other” quality so that they can justify their existence. This sentiment is probably best expressed in the movie Scarface when Tony Montana drunkenly leaves the restaurant:
Tony Montana: What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy!
As for Wallace himself he manages to find some kind of conclusion, or creative recognition in the violence that occurs in Lynch movies:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them.
This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, frce. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of nourish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movie’s world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villans seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literallt possessed. […] And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it’s not because Lynnch is “endorsing” or “romanticizing” evil but because he’s diagnosing it—diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it’s hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from.
Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, Love, redemption […]. (204-5).
This was a rather long quote, but it was necessary to get to the end of this essay. Technically speaking Wallace’s essay is about him visiting the set of David Lynch’s then upcoming film Lost Highway, which I admit I haven’t seen. The only Lynch films I’ve seen are Mulholland Drive and Dune, which as I as well as Wallace note really isn’t a Lynch film at all, but the first film left a permanent impression on me. Reading Wallace’s essay then made me re-evaluate the experience so that Lynch as a director became not just a man who made weird and unwatchable films, but an important artist whose vision and philosophy towards art wasn’t that much different from my own.
Lynch as an artist seems to be always attempting to understand the forces that compel human beings, either by their own force of will or by outside influence. Looking at Mulholland Drive this last impression of evil seems more and more relevant for ultimately every character falls prey to the evil forces that seem to occupy the city of L.A. Betty and Adam both are human beings trying to fulfill a narrative of their own life until outside forces, evil forces, eventually corrupt their will and force them into paths they don’t desire or can live with in the case of Betty.
Human beings are comfortable fitting into narratives, and so when a director purposefully eschews narrative structure and directs the audience to observe stories in a position that seems outside the traditional structure, the natural response is to be disturbed. This is only proof however that a real aesthetic reaction has taken place.
Rather than simply call Lynch “sick” or “warped” the reader who watches a Lynch films and feels tremendously bothered by it, which for the record Wallace most certainly was and he even describes his experience seeing Blue Velvet with a group of friends in the essay, shouldn’t just say that Lynch is “sick” and leave it at that. There are many films which are designed to simply entertain the viewer and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, a problem with only watching such movies is that one becomes trapped into the standard narrative tropes and so when a film comes around, or a film maker, who violates that norm the reaction becomes to label him as “sick” or “evil” when all he has really done is attempt to question the rhythms of humanity.
One last point should be addressed however and that’s the idea I introduced at the beginning with my little anecdote: what is a Lynchian moment? A teenage boy watching an erotic moment in a movie with his father most likely doesn’t satisfy that idea, but on some level I believe it does. Wallace defines it as best he can for the reader:
An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Potter Stewart-type words that’s definable only ostensively—i.e. we know it when we see it. (161).
It’s fair to state the fact that a great number of men have rented, bought, or downloaded Mullholland Drive simply to watch Naomi Watts and Laura Herring kiss and touch boobs. It’s a lamentable fact, largely because a great many of these men have entirely missed what a truly strange scene they’re actually watching. Yes, two beautiful women are engaged in an erotic act, but by the time the viewer gets to this scene it is an act rooted in the Lynchian structure of the film, which is a fancy-pants way of saying it’s fucking weird. Weirder than this is watching this scene with your father, but let me at least save the old man from any embarrassment by noting that the pair of us bonded afterwards by noting at the same time that “that movie was fucking weird man.”
You know it when you see it. It’s like great coffee, you know it when you taste it, and afterward you’ll never forget it.
In case the reader is at all interested I’ve included a link to a few videos related to Mullholland Drive
The opening “Diner” scene which taught us to never pay attention to dreams or to buy cheap coffee:
The “Coffee scene” which reminded us that napkins are important:
The “lesbian” scene, which really isn’t a “lesbian” scene at all and I highly encourage you to avoid reading the comment section because it will make your skin crawl:
And a brief interview with David Lynch where he responds to a question about Mullholland Drive and discusses the idea of “abstractions”:
And finally here’s an interview with David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose promoting the book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again talking about David Lynch and the epiphany, his words, he experienced after watching the film Blue Velvet with some friends:
I legitimately hope that I haven’t put anyone off see in Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet. I acknowledge that I’ve made the film sound like either a surreal unwatchable film or else a bad porno, so allow me one last moment of your time when I say that Mulholland Drive is most certainly worth your time as a film. If I can’t convince you, please remember that a recent BBC Poll put it at the Number 1 film of the decade and Indie Wire explains this out if you follow the link below: