[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: David Lynch is a filmmaker who has haunted my mind since the first moment I saw one of his films. This is especially true of Mulholland Drive I vividly remember my confused, stunned reactions the first time I saw this film. It was in the afternoon, and when I stumbled outside afterward, into bright daylight, everything looked strange, somehow subtly changed. I'd spent over two hours in Lynch's world, and in the time I'd been lost there it was as though the real world had been infected with Lynch's unsettling aesthetic. It was a unique experience. I can't remember another film that shook me up and destabilized me so thoroughly, and I've returned to it, and to Lynch's work in general, compulsively ever since.
Perhaps because they have such a profound, visceral effect on me, I find the precise character of Lynch's films to be elusive, hard to explain in concrete terms. I've never happened across a better synopsis of their effect, though, than the one offered by the novelist, essayist and critic David Foster Wallace. In 1996, Wallace was asked to visit the set of Lost Highway for Premiere magazine, and in response he produced a witty essay that was explicitly not a "behind the scenes" piece but an attempt to come to terms with the ineffable quality of Lynch's cinema. In the midst of this article is a passage that I want to offer as a starting point for our discussion, since it couldn't do a better job of encapsulating my own responses to Lynch if I had written it myself.
"David Lynch's movies are often described as occupying a kind of middle ground between art film and commercial film. But what they really occupy is a whole third different kind of territory. Most of Lynch's best films don't really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretative process by which movies' (certainly avant-garde movies') central points are understood. This is something the British critic Paul Taylor seems to get when he says that Lynch's movies are "to be experienced rather than explained."...
"Nor are they seductive, though, at least in the commercial senses of being comfortable or linear or High Concept or "feel-good." You almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to "entertain" you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: you don't feel like you're entering into any of the standard unspoken/unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of a point or recognizable agenda in Lynch's films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don't. This is why his best films' effects are often so emotional and nightmarish. (We're defenseless in our dreams too.)"
Jason Bellamy: I can't tell if you've jumped into the deep end of the pool or the shallow end with that quote, and maybe that says something at the outset about the elusiveness of Lynch. In general, though, I agree with the passage by Wallace, and I surely relate to the destabilizing effect of Mulholland Drive as you described it. That's Lynch alright. Indeed, we are defenseless to his abstractions. Watching a Lynch film is like waking up in space. We're so accustomed to A-Z narratives—even if they start at K, flash back to A and then flash forward to T—that we are conditioned to the idea that movies move forward or backward. Lynch is too dynamic for such restraints. His films come at us from above, from below, from the side, from our blind spots, from places we didn't know were there to be occupied. Whether this is some kind of genius filmmaking mutation, essential for the survival of the species, or some kind of disorder, interesting in its abnormality but ultimately detrimental, is a conversation for later. In the moment, we at least agree on how a Lynch film operates and affects—at least some of the time.
Mulholland Drive is an apt window into Lynch, because for so much of its running time it's about as conventional as Lynch gets before becoming about as unconventional as Lynch gets. It's like a boxed set experience in one film. Watching Mulholland Drive again for the purpose of this discussion, I found it to be as captivating and confounding as I'd remembered it. It's typically inexplicable—not just in terms of plot, but in terms of its overall effect. At the moment, trying to consider the entire film in my mind—a monumental task in and of itself—I vacillate between thinking that it's the heartbreaking work of a staggering genius and an inauthentic, glossy self-indulgence by an artist who takes himself too seriously. The real answer, I'm sure, is somewhere in the middle. These are not my conclusions. These are the emotions that Mulholland Drive stirs within me. That said, you adore this film. So let's move away from the big picture for a moment to concentrate on the film itself. I assume you'd call it a "great" film, perhaps even a "masterpiece." So here's a challenge: With the knowledge that you'll have the entirety of this conversation to state your case in detail, for the moment tell me why Mulholland Drive is great ... in 250 words or less.
EH: For me, the heart of the greatness of Mulholland Drive is the famed Club Silencio sequence, which provides the blueprint for enjoying (and understanding) the film as a whole. This is the moment where David Lynch steps into the film and announces, "Here I am," where the magician reveals his secrets. He's reminding us that we're "just" watching a movie, that everything we're seeing is fake, "an illusion," and yet no less affecting for its artificiality. This scene is the film's aesthetic and thematic core because Mulholland Drive is a tribute to the beautiful lie of movie magic. The preceding two hours were a mélange of self-conscious genre references (noir, Western, mystery, sexploitation, melodrama, action) but Lynch doesn't mock or parody these genre clichés; instead he glories in the endless capacity for creativity and emotion still contained, waiting to be unleashed, in even the most hackneyed Hollywood scenario. We see this also in the audition scene, where lame material is transformed by sheer talent into something electric and awesome. It's this generous quality that I most love in the film, the way Lynch seems to really care about art's ability to move, change and provoke us. The film is about a young woman who tries to transform herself through an artful act of imagination, and Lynch invites us to care as deeply about her constructs, her imaginary self (or selves), as we do for the glimpse of the "real" her we see in the final half-hour of the film.
JB: And here I thought I'd given you a nearly impossible challenge. I like your encapsulation. Brief though it is, it provides me with a deeper reading of the film than I took away myself based on only limited viewings. More specifically, it takes my seemingly disparate reactions and suggests that, yes, they do fit together in a relatively tidy whole. There's quite a bit to react to here, but you started with the Club Silencio sequence, and that seems fitting, so let's continue.
If that surreal display is the "blueprint for enjoying (and understanding) the film," you might also agree that it's the linchpin, too. Already to that point, the movie has been typically Lynchian—weird, creepy, somewhat depraved, not to mention vibrant and compellingly oblique—but the Club Silencio sequence is when the LSD hits the bloodstream. In the passage you quoted from Wallace, he notes correctly that we "almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to 'entertain.'" I agree with that, and I'm down with that. Perhaps Lynch simply intends to provoke. Good enough. But this leads me to the first of what I'm sure will be multiple Lynch-inspired philosophical questions:
If we agree that the main strength of Lynch's filmmaking is its ability to render us defenseless, couldn't it also be argued that the intentional inscrutability of Lynch's work is its biggest downfall? Yes, we're vulnerable to these images, at least at first, but the natural human reaction when violated (made uncomfortable) is to emulate an armadillo and curl into a ball—physically, emotionally or cerebrally. Some would say, "That's on the audience. If they can't take it, it's their problem." But is that accurate? Lynch might not want to entertain us, and he certainly isn't out to set box office records, but he does want his films watched, or else he wouldn't make and distribute them—they could just live in his head. Lynch wants to share. He wants to provoke. He wants to communicate. Yet if he causes a moviegoer to shut down, his/her experience ends before the movie does, as if waking one's self from a nightmare. After that, the rest of the film is essentially irrelevant to that person. So I guess what I'm asking is this: If Lynch's style is so discombobulating that it pushes me away before it finishes delivering its message, if it makes me want to give up rather than keep trying, is that a fault of Lynch or of me?
EH: All I can say is, no matter how confounding and inscrutable Lynch's films can be—and this one is by no means his most inscrutable—I have never been repelled by them, never tempted to "give up." This is because Lynch's filmmaking is very modular: he thinks as much in terms of crafting individual moments as he does of the whole film. There's a reason that he was able to salvage Mulholland Drive from a rejected television pilot by adding new material and making it seem like the film was always meant to be like this. There's a reason that Inland Empire is able to incorporate ideas and images from Lynch's digital shorts and experiments (like the absurd Rabbits) and fluidly blend it all into the whole. Individual scenes, like the audition or Club Silencio or the conversation with the cowboy or the creepy Robert Blake phone call sequence in Lost Highway, can stand on their own as self-contained modules, separate from the films that contain them. This approach obviously encourages a very different kind of viewing, one that necessitates taking the film moment by moment, scene by scene, at least at first. (And the hypothetical armadillo-like viewer you mention would still have experienced many of these isolated moments before giving up, and I suspect Lynch would be OK with that.) It's only later that one realizes there's actually a story here (even, in the case of Mulholland Drive, a surprisingly straightforward story), that the little pieces start fitting together into something coherent. The first time one watches a Lynch film (other than, naturally, The Elephant Man or The Straight Story), it inevitably seems like just a string of random moments, most of them compelling and moody in their own right but not really logically understandable. It's only when you return to the films, or even just turn them over in your mind for a while, that what had seemed like randomness and surrealism-for-its-own-sake begins to take on form.
This is why Wallace emphasizes watching a Lynch film as an "experience," and certainly an active experience. These films undoubtedly require a certain level of complicity on the part of their audiences; if the viewer turns off, refuses to engage, then the film will never mean anything, will never come together in the way Lynch clearly intends it to. On some level, every film (or at least every film worth any attention) requires something of its audience. Lynch asks more than most, but then I'd argue that the rewards of his films are unique enough to warrant this extra effort; you may, of course, disagree.