Critical Postmodernism in Mulholland Drive
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I find David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive to be quite a compelling film. The film is filled with twists and turns and is a strange, yet convincing as a dream would be. The viewer is challenged into attempting to decipher the illusion of a secret which they just cannot seem to work out. The viewer is placed in an awkward situation of being called to face a challenge of solving a mystery, yet having no capacity or means to do this. However, we get the feeling that Lynch’s main thrust is the juxtaposition of the emptiness between the failure of comprehension and the desire to comprehend. The film revolves around an indistinct epicenter that is dominated by a blue box and a huge bum, but even while the clues are generated continuously, it soon becomes evident that the epicenter of Mulholland Drive is a vacuum.
Mulholland Drive may be analyzed from the perspective adopted by Slavoj Zizek in analyzing the death drive and pleasure principle. According to Zizek (2009), a psychoanalyst would make an analysis of the patient’s illusions, fantasies, and dreams as means that the patient uses to mask the emptiness felt in not being in sync with their identities and social world signifiers. Through outlets such as dreams the patient can live a fantasy, thus papering over the emptiness. The fantasy will, however, never be completely realized, resulting in a fracturing of the symbolic order and in a way an accomplishment of manifest destiny. The patient will ultimately experience a reoccurrence of the emptiness which they try to avoid. The experience of the emptiness between the two deaths in fantasy and reality is a juxtaposition of terrifying monsters, as well as sublime beauty. It is the essence of trauma evident in the middle of symbolic order.
Mulholland Drive is successful in the portrayal of both aspects of terror and sublime beauty. Lynch’s film is papered with a violent vibrant mix of blue and red which offers the background for the interpretation of Zizek and Lacan’s theory of two deaths and the aspect of symbolic order as seen in dreams. Zizek draws much of his theory from the fundamental aspect of Freud’s psychoanalysis. Freud’s theory of dreams as put forth in psychoanalysis offers a good theoretical hypothesis for the analysis of postmodern uncertainty in dreams. The old theory of perception being equated to reality is no longer valid. Errors that are observed in dreams are now referred to as hallucination. While Lynch and Zizek accept the logic, they assert that Freud’s assertions regarding hallucinations or irrationalities are not only present in dreams but also in real life.
Even as the theory seems complicated at first glance, Mulholland Drive offers an explanation making the comprehension easier to the viewer. The character Betty is a character that the viewer gets to interact with for 90 minutes. She suddenly disappears only to reappear in a different setting named Diane. The characters, settings, and props from the previous two acts are reintroduced in the third act. It would seem that Lynch is affirming that what had happened in the first two acts was a dream and that the third part is what is reality. However, the film is a reaffirmation of Zizek’s concept of the emptiness that informs both reality and dreams. Diane experiences the same emptiness in real life just as she experienced in the dream.
In order for the theoretical dichotomy of reality/dream emptiness and symbolism to be viable, it is important that a distinction of Betty and Rita’s world be confirmed as a dream. It is important to note Lynch’s assertion that the dream world faces a constant intrusion from the real world. According to Lacanian theory the conception of fantasy allows the individual to deal with the core of trauma of emptiness. As such Diane’s dreams are her way of coming to terms with the sadness and emptiness in her life. The theory fits into Lynch’s film through the various complications whose determination of dream or reality is complicated. There are various events which seem to suggest layers of dreams. For instance, Dan asserts that he dreamt of a monster behind the restaurant twice. He asserts that two dreams he has had have essentially been the same. Lynch is asserting that the entire film is a kind of a dream in its own way thus having no meaning. He seems to reaffirm Zizek’s assertion that the fantasy is brought about to fill the emptiness in both reality and in dreams. Rita has a belief that sleeping will help get rid of her amnesia by asserting that “I thought sleep would help bring back the memories”. For Rita the belief in dreams having the capacity to offer her a new identity and filling the emptiness is so strong. She has the belief that an experience of life as Betty may serve to fill the emptiness in her life. On awakening she soon realizes that the dream has no capacity to fill the void of real life.
The most compelling example of the emptiness concept of both reality and dreams is portrayed by the blue box. The blue box in the film is deemed to be the representation of the answer to the mysteries of the character’s lives. Rita comes across the key to the box when she is searching for her identity and deeply believes the box will offer her answers. However, the viewer soon comes to realize the box is empty. The end of the film shows the monster looking with concentration at the box then discarding it as worthless. The issue is made even more complex by the existence of another similar blue box in the film. Betty hides Rita’s key, money and purse which are a symbol of her identity in a blue box. Following the happenings at Club Silencio, Rita takes out her key from the cylindrical box and opens the square box. This is a demonstration by Lynch that the box poses more questions rather than answers. The key which is a symbol of the attempt at comprehension of the void is placed in another blue box, thereby asserting that neither can offer an answer to the mysteries of Rita’s life. Upon coming into wakefulness the void left behind just be faced yet again in the world of reality.
Diane’s symbolic death is represented by the opening of the blue box at Club Silencio. According to Alemany (2002) the symbolic death is deemed to be the fulfillment of destiny. Thereby the symbolic death of Betty is placed immediately at the point at which she is deemed not to be of any use. The third act portrays Diane as a pathetic excuse for the glamorous life craved by Betty. A failed actress, Diane is offered cameo appearances by Camilla out of pity whereas Betty is a talented actress with a bright future. Betty and Rita hold each other in high esteem as compared to Diane and Betty whose relationship is filled with violent eroticism and bitterness. The performance at Club Silencio is the final event bringing Diane to a comprehension if the futility of her dreams. Just like the music on the stage Diane comes to the realization that her existence is merely an illusion. The same way we are able to hear instruments that we like, Diane has created the same through her fantasy of Betty in order to evade the void in her life. However, the emptiness in her life is inescapable even in fantasy and, hence Betty becomes irrelevant in her life and dies.
Zizek makes a link between history and the two deaths, especially Benjamin’s Walter’s reading of revolutions as a historical materialist. The symbolic complex networks of meaning that can be attributed to a happening is only possible way in future. All happenings of the past have the emptiness inherent in reality. According to doCarmo (2009), the real revolutionary situation is an attempt at comprehension of the symbolic realization which may only be done through repetition. In this instance the revolutionary circumstances are comparable to Diane’s dream which is an act of redeeming her life. On the other hand, since history is derived from reevaluation of the past this redemption is an exercise in futility. Since her history already has an aspect of looking into the future, it is inevitable that Diane’s fantasy would be a failure as it is driven by a need to disguise the emptiness of the present. Miklitsch refers to this as the loss of master power which results from the unmasking of the performance mechanism (2008). Therefore as soon as Betty comes to the realization of the performance mechanism driving her existence, the symbolic death of Diane and Betty is inevitable.
The happening of Diane’s death at the end of the film is a presentation of the dreariness of her world in reality since it happens between the fantasy and real world symbolic deaths. The dream world is intruded upon by reality just as reality is intruded upon by the irrational. For instance, upon waking up she imagines Camilla in the kitchen only to realize the image is hers. The temporality of the reality of Diane’s images is a suggestion that her life is empty since the images are so much like dreams. Objects such as the piano ash tray and the blue key are present in some scenes and absent in others to reinforce temporality. This further complicates and blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy.
The task of the historical realist is to make time come to a standstill and its condensation into directly attached moment which goes round the unbroken line of evolution. Zizek’s view of historical happenings being of great significance in the present through reoccurrence is analogous to Lynch’s depiction of time in Mulholland Drive. Diane’s dream is a look back into time attempt to find meaning for present reality. Her dream is devoid of the completeness she would like since it goes against the laws of time. The dream is always interrupted by the voidness and realization of the futility of the attempt. For Lynch’s film, the repetition is achieved through not having a clear timeline and the instance of having answers that are to be found in both blue boxes.
Zizek’s conception of historical underpinnings enables the viewer of Mulholland Drive get a better understanding of the film that goes beyond simple psychoanalysis. It enables the viewer to get a new understanding of how the film ought to be watched. In order to get a good understanding of the film, it is important to re-watch it since that is when the images start to make sense. The effaced signal of a happening usually becomes of value in the future by becoming realized through symbolically being a part of the history of the subject. As such the first two acts in the film may be analyzed and incorporated into the film in a retroactive perspective.