It’s such a consistent trope of Lynch’s aesthetic, his way of forcibly separating his vision from reality. He wants it to be apparent, even in the way that ordinary people are saying ordinary things, that what we’re watching is artificial, constructed, fabricated, not real. And then, once we’re assured that it’s just pretend, just a fantasy, he hits us with shocking blasts of reality, like Watts’ breathless audition, or the violent sequences in Blue Velvet, or the sight of Laura Palmer’s blue-lipped corpse at the beginning of Twin Peaks. I can understand being put off by the typically Lynchian performances, but I also think that Lynch wants you to feel this way, wants you to be so destabilized that the intrusion of the real will be that much more unexpected and unsettling.
On the other hand, not every little thing Lynch does is imbued with conscious meaning. He is in many ways a very intuitive, visceral filmmaker, and a lot of his best work can’t be explained. One of the dangers of the famous Salon article analyzing the film’s plot is for people to conclude that, OK, now we understand what’s going on in the film, that’s it, it was all a dream. That seems, to me, far too glib in the face of the complexity this film has to offer. While the Salon article is compelling, and coheres with my own impressions of what’s going on in the film on a narrative level, it unfortunately creates the impression that, beneath a tricky structure that needs to be decoded, Mulholland Drive is just a narrative film like any other. I don’t think that’s true. Mulholland Drive isn’t Memento or Pulp Fiction, where time-jumping narrative gimmicks are deployed to obscure what would essentially be a rather traditional story if it were told linearly. This film can’t be told linearly, it’s not a puzzle to be solved, its knots can’t be completely unwound, even if on some level we can say it’s about a scorned, struggling, vengeful actress dreaming that she’s an innocent, talented actress just discovering love for the first time.
I think it’s a mistake to take any of this too literally, and some of the film’s elements are certainly just Lynch’s baroque flourishes: like Mr. Roque and the espresso-spitting gangster (brilliantly played by composer Angelo Badalamenti), both of whom are mostly there to suggest the grand conspiracy that Diane/Betty imagines is preventing her career from flourishing as it should. Did these figures need to be so strange and quirky to fulfill this narrative or symbolic function? Of course not, so maybe you’re right to call them Lynch’s “why-the-fuck-not” moments, but that’s just the way the Lynchian world works: people are always bigger than life, and more often than not derived from Hollywood “types” rather than realistic people. To answer your implicit question above, the “oddness” of many of Lynch’s images and characters are worth paying attention to, not necessarily for any deeper meaning or narrative function, but for their own sake, as outgrowths of Lynch’s unique aesthetic, his warped interpretation of Hollywood generic norms.
JB: See, I don’t disagree with that. But even if one approaches Lynch expecting surreality, the blue key that unlocks Mulholland Drive doesn’t come along until late in a movie that’s just shy of two-and-a-half hours. I think it’s asking a lot of an audience to hang on so long when there’s no guarantee of eventual satisfaction. Remember: Lynchian films might be an experience, but they aren’t always pleasant—and I’m not just referring to his penchant for the macabre. I mean, Billy Ray Cyrus is in the film, for crying out loud, and his acting is no more or less stiff than most of the other actors. Honestly, I don’t even know what to think about that, but I know I don’t find it engaging. Meanwhile, I don’t buy the argument made by many (not necessarily you) that Lynch ultimately “doesn’t care.” Bullshit. Of course he cares. One can’t label the guy an abstract genius who is calculatingly daring and then turn around and say he doesn’t give a shit. But I’ve heard it done before.
Often, discussing Lynch reminds me of listening to a debate among philosophy and English majors high on innumerable drugs (or just pot), who prattle on about this author or that director, who go through their Beatnik phase, who have the whole world figured out. Some never evolve beyond that, but quite a few of them grow up and, only a few years later, look back on themselves and determine that they were full of shit. Usually this is attributed to the arrogance of youth, and that’s part of it, but there’s also this: Try hard enough, and you can project almost any meaning onto almost any thing. I would never imply that Lynch is careless or absent-minded, but then again: The swamp-thing that lives behind the diner ... what the fuck? Sure, we can assign it meaning. We can explain it away. We can say that it’s a typically nightmarish vision, perfect for the plot. But, as I previously suggested, that kind of logic opens the door for anything under the sun. The “cop-out” element applies to the dream aspect of Mulholland Drive because under these non-restrictions, Lynch can’t make a wrong move. Everything is permissible, because if it doesn’t make sense it wasn’t supposed to. How convenient.
Having said that, let’s drift into the meta again for a moment by leaving Lynch aside. I’d like to propose that, connotatively speaking, there’s a difference between “suggestion” and “symbolism” in art, and it has to do with our perception of the artist’s intent. For example: At the end of The Graduate, the shot of Benjamin, his arms outstretched, banging on the church window, at least suggests Christ on the cross. That’s as far as I’d go. I see Benjamin, I see his crucifixion pose, and I make this comparison. But if I instead say that Benjamin symbolizes Christ, I’m implying that the director and actor are making a direct and purposeful allusion—that there is conscious intent to evoke Christ. If so, that might change my perception of the scene.
Now, I’m a firm believer that intent doesn’t trump realization when it comes to art. I don’t care what a filmmaker intended to do, I care what he did. So, don’t answer the riddle of the mysterious Anton Chigurh/Sheriff Bell non-confrontation at the end of No Country for Old Men by telling me what was written in the book or the screenplay, or by telling me about footage that wasn’t included in the final cut. None of that applies. The final cut is the final cut, and that’s the story, and that’s the film, for better or worse. Intent, in that context, is irrelevant.
However, as The Graduate scene perhaps reveals, perceived intent often does—should?—have an impact on our reaction to the material. And that leads me here: Ed, hypothetically speaking, what if Lynch himself doesn’t know why there’s a swamp-thing behind the diner? What if it symbolizes nothing? What if it serves no larger purpose? What if Lynch just thought it was a neat idea in and of itself, and so he threw it in there with all the care of a guy picking out his socks. If that were true, if Lynch were an accidental genius as often as a meticulous one, if in fact his films don’t make sense even to him and are just intentionally inscrutable artworks designed to have us project our own unique meanings onto them, would that lessen your appreciation of him as a filmmaker? Would it enhance your appreciation? Hypothetically speaking.
EH: That’s not entirely hypothetical, actually. Lynch often is an accidental genius—or at least an intuitive genius, which isn’t quite the same thing but is close enough. If you asked him to explain his films or specific things in his films, you might get a gnomic “I don’t know” or “Figure it out for yourself.” If he were the kind of guy who’s more inclined to speak openly about his own art (like Lynch worshipper Richard Kelly, who does his work a grave injustice by trying to explain it), you’d probably get a really tortured pseudo-mystical rap that wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying or enthralling as the films themselves. Too-literal explanation is the enemy of art like Lynch’s. To answer your question, I don’t think it matters if Lynch is always conscious of the effects of his films; it’s enough that they’re there. In fact, his films are rich in meanings, themes and images about which Lynch would probably seem pretty inarticulate if he ever tried to speak about them.
But that’s why he works in a visual medium in the first place. Lynch isn’t a writer, or at least not a particularly great one judging by the fragments of writing I’ve seen by him. He’s a painter, and a photographer, and as a filmmaker he’s much closer to a crafter of images and moments than a proper storyteller. Lynch certainly “cares”—he wants to make deeply personal artworks and have people watch them—but he is not inclined towards analytical or explanatory thinking. His films leave a lot of loose ends as a result, things that can’t be rationally worked out the way we expect everything in a good narrative film to be. And his films are also as a result multi-layered and resonant in ways that are not necessarily obvious on first glance, and that might not even be conscious for the filmmaker.
Rather than diminishing these films, however, if anything it enriches them, because Lynch’s subconscious is apparently a deeply fascinating place, and a lot of really incredible things bubble up from the primal parts of his mind. Take, as an example, the story of the director of Mulholland Drive’s film-within-the-film, Adam (Justin Theroux). During the first two-thirds of the film, he has his movie taken away from him, his ex-wife cheats on him with the pool guy, he gets beaten up, covered in pink paint and is hunted by all sorts of shady characters. After the film descends into the blue box and out again, it becomes clear that, on the level of the film’s narrative, all of this is “just” an elaborate revenge fantasy, Diane’s projection of violence and humiliation onto the man who, in “real life,” stole Camilla from her. But what’s striking is that Lynch makes Adam a very sympathetic character. We don’t hate him the way Diane does: we feel for what he’s going through. So the director’s story takes on shadings that are not only different from its narrative meanings, but diametrically opposed to the content of the narrative. Adam, the villain of Diane’s story, becomes instead a secondary protagonist, a stand-in for the audience and, as a filmmaker character, for Lynch himself, working out anxieties about the loss of control, artistic integrity and compromise, and the degree to which our choices and attitudes are really able to affect our lives.