Readers Write In #188: Blind on the Boulevard : Decoding Mulholland Dr. from David Lynch’s ten clues

Posted on May 22, 2020

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(by Piyush Pratik)

In Blue Velvet, David Lynch chopped out an ear. With Mulholland Dr., he chopped up an entire narrative. Widely renowned for making no sense at all, this classic lacks any officially ‘approved’ interpretation (any work of art worth its salt would). Now, since there is no fear of the filmmaker ever dismissing my readings as trash (Lynch rather enjoys seeing theories pop up around this film), and since my need for a closure to the open-ended narrative is overwhelming, here go my two cents.

The entire movie upto Betty waking up as Diane is in fact, Betty’s dream/alternate reality. Only dream logic can explain the sequences in the said part : a mobster company hell bent on getting Camilla a part in a film without any practical reason, Camilla Rhodes existing simultaneously as a blonde haired actress and as a woman who has forgotten her name, the Silencio club sequence that features magical realism in sound effects (instruments play at will, and a host is intent on stressing that all of it is an illusion). Even the way it ends, with Rita being sucked into the blackness of the blue box (thus ceasing to exist, since she can no longer be in a dream when the dreamer has ‘disappeared’) recalls a typical dream sensation of falling through endless depths. One salient feature of dreams is that the sequence of events is preordained by our subconscious, but the progression is not. Hence we find leaps from one event to another that satisfies the overall narrative, but would be deemed irrational in the real world. In Betty/Diane’s dream, the subconscious throws elements from her real world into a swirling soup that assigns places to objects and roles to people quite randomly, hence giving rise to a confounding maze that beats the Labyrinth in its complexity.

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Contained within the original DVD release is a card titled “David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller”. And now, we shall use these ten clues to suit our explanation and help our case. Here we go:

ONE. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: At least two clues are revealed before the credits.

The first clue:
The film opens with a group of people jitterbugging in flashy dresses and a technicolor background, twisting and jiving to a lively tune. Permeating this atmosphere of innocent joy are the spirits (literally so, their translucent images drift in and out of the frame, accompanied by a low droning) of Betty, along with Irene and her husband. The first time we see the old couple is at the airport, and we learn that both of them have grown extraordinarily fond of this girl over a flight. And if that sounds too idealistic, they amp it up by expressing absolute certainty of the fact that she would make it big (as if to emphasize their weird presence, the camera leaves them in the car with a creepy long smile). The old couple, therefore, represent the old-world innocence, the naïveté, the can-do enthusiasm Betty/Diane arrived in LA with. By the end, these very dreams of hers come clawing back to hunt her down, haunting her visions, drilling the gap between her high hopes and her sad reality into her. The fact that almost every other character of the dream finds a real-world equivalent, and that this old couple only grows more bizarre and distorted by the end almost entirely establishes them as a dream-only entity.

The second clue:
We hear a short sniffle as the camera swings over red sheets (presumably from a character’s point of view) and falls on a red pillow. These accoutrements are encountered in the very room that Diane wakes up in, thus confirming that the swinging, clumsy camera movement in the earlier shot was a filmic translation of Betty losing conscious sense and falling into a reverie. The earlier image of the spirits falling into and out of focus seems to mirror Diane drifting in and out of dreams.

TWO. Notice appearances of the red lampshade.

The red lampshade firmly pins the dream sequence in a real location (Diane’s bedroom). Since this location physically comes too close to reality, the shot of the lampshade in the dream is also the most ambiguous, just touching upon the ringing telephone and going away, back to the elaborate efforts of the mafia to get Camilla the role. The first time we see it, it’s a place marker. Using this information, the second time around, we figure out how Betty/Diane’s subconscious redesigned an innocent invitation to a party into a macabre machination.

THREE. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?

Of course, the title is The Sylvia North Story -apparently, a story of a woman (and as evidenced by the kissing-in-the-car scene, a love story). Since this film (along with Camilla’s fling with the director) was instrumental in sparking jealousy in Diane’s heart, her dream uses it not as a situation to react to (because otherwise, she should have ideally fainted on seeing a twin of Rita here), but as a trigger that sends her running back to reality – finding her own real self, Diane Selwyn. One might draw parallels between the Cinderella story (which also involved breaking of an illusion with time) and her running away as a particular hour approaches. That Booker is a Prince Charming equivalent fits with Diane’s jealousy towards him for winning over Camilla. Here, she is the one he’s smitten by.

FOUR. An accident is a terrible event—notice the location of the accident.

The location is 6980, Mulholland Street, the director’s house in the real LA. Allow me to take a detour here to suggest a tribute to Chinatown, another magnificent neo-noir film. Chinatown was ostensibly based on a story involving one of the founders of LA called – you guessed it – Mulholland. Perhaps this subtle knowledge of her city’s history ensures that Rita/Camilla’s story in the dream ‘begins’ here. And then having her run into the Sunset Boulevard (I think the Mulholland Dr. stylisation is a riff on the Sunset Bl. stylisation) is of course a nod to another classic noir, Sunset Bl, which also featured a failing actress picturing success in her dream world.

In Diane’s mind, the stopping on Mulholland Drive is precisely when her world begins to unravel (Camilla takes her to the party from here, and everything comes crashing down). Hence, like a snapping of unacceptable frames off reels, her mind snaps at this location and projects her wishful thoughts. The accident does happen (no doubt a nod to the hitjob Diane commissioned), but it swerves away from reality by having Rita/Camilla escape and giving her a new beginning (bathed in blood, confused, dazed and lost, she could well be a metaphor for a newborn).

FIVE. Who gives a key, and why?

Now, there are two keys we see being given. One is the key given by Coco to Betty and the other is the blue key given by the Hitman to Diane. The first key could be read as a bond of acceptance – in real world, Coco is the director’s mother, and is disapproving of Diane. The first key would thus, signal Betty’s entry into her dream world. The second key, however, is given in the real world, and we never find out what it is supposed to open. Therefore, in the dreams, the same blue key just exists (like that time travel paradox, where an object has existed forever without invention), and unlocking the blue box causes the dream to crash on itself. The key is a symbol of Diane’s regret (in the end, Irene and Co. slip put of the blue box and come screaming into Diane’s house), and the whole dream exists till this regret is unlocked (by Diane herself, she is both fascinated and repelled by it) bringing the sense of reality rushing back in.

SIX. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.

A) The Robe:

We see the robe, red and gorgeous, when Rita is covered by Betty with it. We also see Betty simultaneously removing her aunt’s note from it. This would signify Rita acquiring a new identity, starting out with a blank slate. She has forgotten how terrible Diane was, and now Betty is a sweet good Samaritan for her. The opposite happens when we see Betty/Diane in a robe in real life. The robe is ash-white, loosely hanging, nondescript. The generous woman in the alternate reality becomes a poorly dressed woman now.

B)The Ashtray:

The ashtray in the first red lampshade sequence is an echo of the neighbour in real life who comes to take her own ashtray away. Notably, in the dream, she does want to come along and collect her things left in number 17. Also, we see the ashtray in the final scene where Diane finally breaks down, and it serve as a visual bridge between her normal self (while dealing with her neighbor) and her anxious, freaky, devastated self.

C)The Coffee Cup:

The coffee cup is first seen with the Diners at Winkies. Since we treat this as the dream, it obviously is lifted from her own real living room, where we see a similar cup. Also, the Winkies scene juxtaposes several elements stored in her subconscious – the man Diane sees standing at the counter, the homeless man behind the wall of graffiti, the payphone that takes the dream into another detour where Betty is a hooker (and also the name of the waitress there, which gives dream Diane her identity), even the photo that Diane gives to the Hitman (the resume finds its way into the dream in the hands of Mobsters). The dream takes an inconsequential detail (the blue box) and builds it into something significant. A blue box becomes central to the existence of the dream. The entire purpose of the dream, in concrete terms, is to find the key to the box.

SEVEN. What is felt, realized and gathered at the Club Silencio?

We sense regret, the sense of loss, and reconciliation. The entire sequence of Betty and Rita sitting wordlessly, being swept along the melody, makes no logical sense. But emotionally, they both understand and forgive one another. They hold each others hands, and find solace in one another. The dream has ended on a wish-fulfilment level. Hence the immediate appearance of the blue key, which ends the narrative.

More than the characters, it us who realise that the film thus far might have been a dream. The way the camera enters the club -leaping up and swooping down in large waves, swinging in like a roller-coaster ride into the club – sets us up for the revelation. Then the narrator comes, and hammers home that all we are seeing is a dream – as if to illustrate this very fact, he disappears in a puff of smoke (a motif repeated when Diane shoots herself – her existence was an illusion, now gone forever).

Now what do we gather? Physically, we gather the last object to be obtained in this mission-dream – the key, of course. Emotionally, we have gathered that the bond between these two characters might have a history hitherto hidden from us. Logically, it stops us from piecing the narrative threads together and conclude that the leaps in space and time it takes are beyond our mundane world.

EIGHT. Did talent alone help Camilla?

In real life, yes and no. It is undeniable that her chemistry with the director helped her stay on the project, but that probably happened after she had been signed. At any rate, talent did power Camilla to a massive leading role. However, Diane in her jealousy, tries to erase both these elements in her dream. She knows how Camilla got her role, but is adamant not to accept it. This refusal is mirrored by her dreams, which suggest that mobsters had unfairly tilted the balance in Camilla’s favor. It’s some sort of explanation, however twisted and ridiculous, and gives her some sort of solace, even if temporary and unreal. She also makes Bob Booker deadly opposed to casting Camilla (and makes his wife throw him out of his house), and later, when he sees Betty, we see subtle hints of his attraction towards her, and his utter lack of care for the Blonde Rita/Camilla.

NINE. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkie’s.

See Notes under Coffee Cup.

TEN. Where is Aunt Ruth?

In real life, as stated explicitly, dead. She goes to Canada in the dream, ostensibly for shooting a film. Notably, Betty/Diane’s original home lies in Ontario, Canada. Just as she arrives in Aunt Ruth’s place to emerge out of oblivion, Aunt Ruth slips into her place, having been glimpsed only once. The act of leaving in the dream might have been a subtle metaphor for ‘leaving forever’. It might also denote Diane’s inability to get over the loss of a mother figure in an alien city where she needs someone to look after her – she is emotionally needy, as manifest in her obsession with Camilla and refusal to let her go.

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The most delightful aspect of this half-dream, half-real interpretation is that it frees us from explaining any loose ends in the first part – even if elements don’t map out one-to-one, it’s not a deal-breaker. The narrative leaps, the logical gaps, the whimsical detours all start making sense, simply because nothing makes sense in a dream. And that is my most preferred way to savour such narratives – they defy reductionism, the very result we desire out of our study. Mulholland Dr is half an untethered vague text, and half a coded amorphous explanation. Only, the meaning keeps changing from viewing to viewing –

PS. Please don’t be bothered by that open-ended sentence.