Remain in light: Mulholland Dr. and the cosmogony of David Lynch
by B. Kite
Sight and Sound
Despite the accusations of incoherence sometimes made against them by critics who ought to know better, the films of David Lynch seem to share a remarkably consistent cosmogony that can be sketched as follows: the soul originates in light and unity and has its home there. Although this unity can never in fact be divided, the soul takes on the guise of individual identity, or separateness, and enters the theatre of the world. Once in place, it often forgets its origins and mistakes its role for its being or, in dim intervals of recollection, believes itself so soiled by violence or dark multiplicities of desire that it imagines itself isolate, forever drifting, alone and homeless. But that is the ultimate illusion, and the bleakest. The soul’s essence remains untouched and untouchable, and after however many cycles of rebirth its eventual homecoming is assured, has happened, is perpetually happening. It only remains for the soul to wake up in order to realise it never left. Nearly every Lynch film has a happy ending.
Some of the movies show a full revolution of this cycle (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Inland Empire), some show only a portion (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Mulholland Dr.), and some none at all (Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, The Straight Story). But even in this latter category it’s present by reference and implication: think of Sandy’s dream in Blue Velvet (1986); the repeated injunction “the sleeper must awaken” in Dune (1984); or the Wizard of Oz conclusion of Wild at Heart (1990). (Indeed, the above sketch could easily be reworded into a plot summary of The Wizard of Oz – the film if not the book – which may account for the frequent references to it in Lynch’s work.)
Lynch is, in short, a religious or spiritual artist in the same loosely categoric sense that one might apply the term to William Blake or Tarkovsky, and the fact that this goes so often unrecognised by critics may be because the religion in question isn’t Christianity. It’s basically the Indian Vedanta, with an admixture of the somewhat cartooned gnosticism that Harold Bloom once hypothesised underlay every example of “the American religion”.
The vision is essentially monist, but representations of superficial dualism – and of the corrupt gnostic demiurge – recur in a number of films. Fire is his sign and insects are his agents: in Eraserhead (1976) ‘Man in the Planet’ – the guy who yanks the gears that set the whole clanking machinery of creation in motion – sits by a window, brooding and badly burned. In Mulholland Dr. (2001) the clacking of mandibles grows louder as the camera approaches “the one who’s behind all this” – the charbroiled hobo behind the dumpster. The opening of Lynch’s films are often encapsulated creation myths: Blue Velvet’s offers a geologic cross-section of this dualist tendency – here, the lawn and there, the bugs.
Something about that road in particular
Mulholland Dr. holds a peculiar position within Lynch’s body of work. A greater commercial and critical success than any film he’d made since Blue Velvet, it’s also more overtly marked by the (commercial) conditions of its making than anything else he’s been involved with – indeed it’s structured in response to them. It was initially commissioned as a pilot by ABC Television, then rejected for unspecified reasons. An infusion of French money allowed Lynch ten additional days of shooting, provided he could find some way to wrap the dangling story threads together. And the film as it stands bears every mark of those divisions, running about two thirds pilot, one third new material.
It’s hard to ignore this split, since the two sections move so differently – and especially since the first moves exactly like a TV pilot, throwing out a new plot strand and group of characters every ten minutes or so. This was undoubtedly a factor in its greater popularity, since the pilot material offers a friendlier welcome than much of Lynch’s recent work and the completed film also suggests a tidier, puzzle-box structure – a mystery contained within comfortable, explicable parameters as opposed to the disconcerting tendency of both earlier and later films to open out into the cosmos.
HOLDING THE POSE
The space between worlds is theatrical, some sort of stage set, because it’s here that the conditions of life flatten into representation and its motions are distilled into an essential form or substance. “Give me your garmonbozia,” says ‘Man from Another Place’ in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and the subtitles helpfully gloss this term as “pain and suffering”. A lifetime’s production of pain and suffering is equivalent to a mid-sized bowl of creamed corn in both volume and texture, we discover, as it splatters across the Red Room’s zigzag floor. These entities appear to feed on strong emotion – for Lynch, as for Rilke, we are the bees of the invisible. Earth is “a learning world”, Lynch told author Greg Olson, and the curriculum appears heavily weighted towards the twinned subjects of suffering and love.
Such distillation to essence and attraction to extremes, in a slightly less severe form, might also serve to characterise the various modes of Lynchian performance. He’s singularly brave and direct in his approach to heightened emotion, which makes him a rare creature in a modern movie menagerie that generally prefers to peer into such areas through thickets of irony. His approach is stylised but not mocking, though his proclivity for searching for new tones through the contrast of disjunctive elements – say Deputy Andy’s crying fit on the discovery of Laura Palmer’s body in the Twin Peaks pilot (1990) – frequently lands somewhere hard to peg. He seems to draw a frame around each beat and hold it in place for independent observation for a moment before moving on.
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