Remain in light: Mulholland Dr. and the cosmogony of David Lynch

As our ten-yearly poll to find the Greatest Film of All Time gets ever closer, B. Kite considers David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. in the light of the Vedanta-inspired spiritual philosophy that underpins all the director’s work.

B. Kite

from our March 2012 issue

David Lynch

David Lynch

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.


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.

The pauses get stretched even further in some of Lynch’s more single-mindedly comic modes, though even here the emphasis on discomfort and infirmity – the way the duration is prolonged by highlighting the strain of motion – teases the edge of excruciating. (Sticking with Twin Peaks, think of the way Lynch chose to start the second season by opening small eternities in the interactions of Agent Cooper, bleeding to death on the floor of his hotel room, and the world’s oldest bellboy.) Both the slowness and the strain remind me a great deal of Laurel and Hardy (though as far as I know Lynch has never expressed any particular fondness for them). But Laurel and Hardy viewed under specific circumstances – on TV, where the absence of audience reaction leaves the pauses hanging strangely suspended in bouncy music.

And you were there, and you, and you

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

‘Figuring out’ Mulholland Dr. became something of a game on the film’s initial release, with consensus gradually settling on an interpretation that posits that the long first section of the movie, with Naomi Watts as bright-eyed Betty, is nothing more than the guilty dream of Watts’s sullen, heartbroken Diane, after having paid a hit man to have her former lover Camilla (Laura Elena Harring) snuffed.

It’s fine as far as it goes – Lynch has planted enough Oz-ish cameos and references in the wrap-up to make the reading tenable. But under it the movie feels a little lumpy, as if the proliferating subplots were really retained just because Lynch happened to like the scene or felt some loyalty to the performer and devised excuses afterwards. It seems a stretch to believe that of the director who said of Fire Walk with Me: “We had to cut a lot of scenes we shot because they didn’t fit with the rest of the story. I was sorry that I couldn’t use everybody again, but you have to admit that many of the people of Twin Peaks didn’t have a direct connection with the death of Laura Palmer.” Those excisions made FWWM’s Twin Peaks a much chillier place than viewers of the TV show were expecting, stripping anything resembling ingratiating detail from the story in favour of one of the most relentlessly grim plot trajectories imaginable. The conclusion was in place from the start: Laura Palmer would be raped and murdered. All viewers could do was follow her down – and at the time of the film’s release, few cared to make the trip.

It would have been relatively easy to streamline Mulholland Dr. along a similar track, but I don’t think Lynch’s decision not to do so was a failure of nerve; I think it might be because his notions of the relations between dream and reality may be more complicated than the prevailing interpretation allows.


Lynch introduced screenings of Inland Empire (2006) with a quote from the Upanishads: “We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.” The world of Lynch’s films is created by consciousness, striated by POVs from figures major and minor sending their vision outwards as if knitting the space in tandem, subject to fluctuations and surges due to the momentary intrusions from parallel radiations of outside consciousness.

Rather than stable positions, all of these worlds are overlapping fields, and the seeming dominance of any one is a matter purely – relativistically – of which clusters of consciousness the film happens to orbit. As Lynch told Peter Henne of Film Journal International, “You know, films are a world within a world. And maybe it’s a world within a world within a world – within another world. It’s a really beautiful thing how lost we are, and we want to get even more lost sometimes.”

Since each of these worlds is simultaneously present, the spaces of Lynch’s films are consistently trembling with immanence and humming under the pressure of another space potentially asserting itself. The drones and thrumming reverberations with which Lynch likes to line his environments also serve to remind the viewer of his or her own peculiar interiority, like the ringing in the ears that asserts itself when one is alone in a silent room. The central mystery of Lynch’s work lies in this tension, the perpetual folding between outside and inside.

No hay banda

The Club Silencio sequence of Mulholland Dr. lays down the movie’s operative metaphors: recording and synchronisation. With recording, an action once performed is always available and potentially present, while synchronisation is a matter of matching the movements. But the sequence places special attention on moments of de-synchronisation, when the movements break away – the trumpeter lifts his horn from his lips, the singer collapses – yet the song continues. Following this line allows us to briefly trace another story that the film may be telling, one that to my mind makes more sense of its shape.

It begins after death, as Diane is forced to re-experience her actions and their repercussions in what Tibetan Buddhism calls the bardo state. But at the moment of Camilla’s execution, Diane’s consciousness jerks back, forestalling the moment with a crashing car, and thus desynchronising her karmic record. With this new-found freedom from consequence, her consciousness extends centrifugally, spinning a new world and a new self, re-allocating figures to new plotlines. The job, then, for whatever agents of order the universe may possess, becomes to desynchronise this dream in turn and bring it back in line with the initial recording. Under this interpretation, the film doesn’t split between a dream and a reality, but offers instead two realities – or, to paraphrase the Winkie’s patron who suffers a run-in with the dumpster demon, the same dream twice.


Angels and demons make occasional appearances in Lynch’s work, but his pantheon more typically consists of figures of ambiguous aspect, standing just this side or the other of the space between worlds. Entities of the threshold and the margin, these cowboys, log ladies, decrepit waiters, giants, little men in big suits, eccentric neighbours, magicians and crack addicts share certain traits, one of which is an alienation from language. Their every utterance seems to emerge from a shared consciousness that finds words at once too abstract and too limiting, as if time and the material world that gave rise to speech operate on precepts foreign to them. Hints, warnings and encouragements are translated through gesture, metaphor and slightly skewed banalities. Those who would follow such admonitions are required to adopt similarly associational thinking.

The threshold entities speak a language that provokes association without binding the listener to any directed intent. Lynch has spoken of how the incidental conjunction of a few words (“deep river,” “lost highway”) is enough in itself to “set [him] dreaming”. In other contexts, he has spoken of how certain denotative uses of language shut off vision by setting up blocks of prefab meaning in front of the complicated wonders before his eyes (“rotting cat carcass”). To make the juncture especially severe, one might say that in Lynch’s films any speech that isn’t direct affirmation (“Damn fine coffee!”) or dreaming within language is either an act of aggression or a risky step into a field that’s likely land-mined. Here, as elsewhere, one can find the basic operations already at play in Eraserhead:

MR X (conversationally, forcefully): “Well Henry, what do you know?”
HENRY (recoiling): “Uh… I don’t know much of anything.”

This is the girl

One of the great attractions of this reading of Mulholland Dr., is the way it reconfigures some of the film’s sinister criminal elements – the Castigliane brothers, Mr Roque – into thug angels or perhaps the karma police. Their mission is to desynch Diane’s dream by undermining a key stage in its trajectory: Betty’s audition for the director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). The two lock eyes in some shared awareness of alternate outcomes, but it only lasts a moment, and then she is shunted back on course – back to the bungalow that pins the twinned realities, and a confrontation with her own corpse that gradually unspools the world she has built.

But even as it collapses, it may be that some Good Witch in the wings has granted Diane/Betty three wishes: the first to force Rita/Camilla to confront her dead body, the second to have sex once more in innocence, outside the shadow of their shared history, and the last, at Club Silencio, to compel her former lover to experience her sadness, distilled into song. At least one of them seems a pretty nasty and vindictive wish, but Lynch at this point is unwilling to judge. The blue box opens and the universal mechanism slides into synch as the Cowboy pokes his head through the door: “Hey pretty girl. Time to wake up.”

Revision (14 February 2012): The last paragraph of this essay has been slightly expanded, at the author’s request, from the version published in our March 2012 issue.

  • The 100 Greatest Films of All Time 2012

    The 100 Greatest Films of All Time 2012

    In our biggest ever film critics’ poll, the list of best movies ever made has a new top film, ending the 50-year reign of Citizen Kane.
    Wednesday 1 August 2012

See our Greatest Films of All Time poll

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.