Lynch's 10 Clues decoded

Solving the mystery of Mulholland Dr.

Published: Jan 20 2015, 01:01:am

Saturday, May 1, 2004
MULHOLLAND DR. Music by Angelo Badalamenti. Written and Directed by David Lynch. Running time: 147 minutes.

THERE IS A STORY that Alfred Hitchcock used to tell on himself. Once, during the making of his 1945 feature Spellbound, a thriller partly based on producer David O. Selznick's experience with psychotherapy, leading lady Ingrid Bergman stepped forward to argue a plot point with the director.
    Hitchcock wasn't interested in a debate, and told her so.
    “It's only a movie, Ingrid,” Hitchcock said.
    The same can be said for writer-director David Lynch's “difficult” film Mulholland Dr. Even though its graphic interface – the narrative that appears on the screen – looks confused, complex and even incoherent, it's running a standard operating system that responds to all the stock commands. (Lynch admits as much in his offer of “10 clues.”)
    A movie is “only a movie” because the filmmaker and the filmgoer share an understanding of the program code being used. Without thinking about it, we translate a motion picture's “grammar” into a story-telling language — specific combinations of sight and sound that shape our understanding of what we see and hear during a feature film.
     It's only when someone like Lynch turns up, apparently speaking in tongues, that we're confronted with the way in which cinema actually communicates meaning.
    One of the best books on this topic was written by a University of Florida English professor named Robert B. Ray. In A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema  (Princeton, 1985), Ray asserts that “the American Cinema was established as escapist.” [p. 31]
     To this he adds: “The American Cinema's habitual subordination of style to story encouraged the audience to assume the existence of an implied contract: at any moment, the audience was to be given the optimum vantage point on what was occurring on screen. [p.33; emphasis added]
     Put another way, the movie-maker not only undertook to deliver entertainment, but he promised to do all the work.
     Lynch, by contrast, has established a reputation as an artist – he trained as a painter — who shares the work load with his audience. Not content just to tell us a story, Lynch insists that we think about how we “read” film. In Mulholland Dr., he has made a movie about making movies that appears to deliberately violate Hollywood's “implied contract.”
    Like Hitchcock, Lynch is a classic trickster. His Mulholland Dr. is a puzzle in which the pieces are presented to us out of order. Once we've sorted them out, though, an understandable picture will emerge.
     We are two steps away from explaining Lynch's own “10 clues.”
    Step One involves a quick review of the two well-established film traditions that Mulholland Dr. draws upon.
     Step Two is a straightforward plot synopsis of the movie. Finally, we'll look at each of the “clues” and show how it supports our reading of the film.
    In 1892, an American journalist and Civil War veteran named Ambrose Bierce published An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. A short story, it was based on the idea that at the moment of death, your life flashes before your eyes. In it, an accused spy who is being hanged by enemy troops enjoys an extended fantasy of escape and reunion with loved ones as he dies.
    The life-death flash has inspired a number of filmmakers, including Paul Fejos (The Last Moment; 1928) and Canada's Paul Almond (Journey; 1972), both of whom open their stories with a drowning.
    In 1963, director Robert Enrico's adaptation of Bierce's story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge won the Live Action Short Subject Academy Award. Enrico's film was the second screen version of Bierce's story. The first, called The Spy, was made in 1932 by a Hollywood director named Charles Vidor, who would go on to make a number of pictures starring Rita Hayworth. Among them was Gilda (1946).
     In Mulholland Dr., David Lynch shows us a young woman, apparently suffering from amnesia, choose the name “Rita” from a movie poster on the wall of a Hollywood apartment. The poster is for Charles Vidor's film Gilda.
    A second tradition long established among film-makers is making movies about movie-making. An entire sub-genre, it includes three versions of A Star Is Born (1937; 1954; 1976).
      Among the themes explored by these films is the idea of Hollywood as a “boulevard of broken dreams.” The classic example is Billy Wilder's 1950 drama Sunset Boulevard, a movie that opens with the body of its narrator floating face down in a swimming pool.
    Mulholland Dr. Is quite clearly within the movie-about-the-movies genre. And it's no coincidence that the film opens with its amnesiac accident victim descending from the titular Mulholland Drive to Sunset Boulevard (both streets clearly identified by signposts).

The Story: Having arranged the murder of her lesbian lover Camilla Rhodes, a despondent and guilt-ridden Diane Selwyn commits suicide. At the moment of death, she experiences a self-absolving fantasy of her life as she wished it had been.

    Lynch divides his film into two parts. The first two-thirds are Diane's life-death flash, her final “Hollywood dream.” In it she “stars” as Betty Elms, with her ex-lover Camilla co-starring as the amnesiac Rita.
    The last third of the picture is Diane's reality, her final moments leading up to her suicide. It begins with the male character identified as The Cowboy opening her apartment door and saying, "Hey pretty girl, time to wake up."
    This is the structure of Mulholland Dr.
    Its subject – illusion and identity – become clear only after we've “read” its story. Lynch points the way with his “10 Clues.”

David Lynch's 10 Clues to Unlocking the Thrills of MULHOLLAND DRIVE
1. Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: at least  two clues are revealed before the credits.
2. Notice appearances of the red lampshade.
3. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again?
4. An accident is a terrible event ... notice the location of the accident.
5. Who gives a key, and why?
6. Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup.
7. What is felt, realized and gathered at the Club Silencio?
8. Did talent alone help Camilla?
9. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind Winkies.
10. Where is Aunt Ruth?

Clue 1. In the beginning  
    During my years as an “analytical voyeur,” I noticed that American movies invariably observe a “three-minute rule.” Within the first three minutes of  the picture, the audience is told what kind of a movie it's watching. A combination of sound and image identifies the film's genre and puts the viewer in the mood for what is to come.
    In this regard, Lynch plays by the rules. What we see are young dancers jitterbugging, with multiple images of the same couples sharing the screen. The dancing is punctuated by white, shimmering images of a young woman and an older couple that fade in and out. The picture loses focus as we hear the sound of breathing.
    The picture returns to focus, showing us red bedclothes, then the road sign: Mulholland Dr. What this tells us is that this movie involves a doubling up of characters in the narrative (our first clue: duplicate dancers) and death (our second clue: ghostly images, the standard film grammar for dead people).
    Lynch moves smartly from a ghost image of Naomi Watts, the actress who plays both Betty Elms and Diane Selwyn, to the out-of-focus bedclothes and heavy breathing (our third clue: a blurred image is film grammar for semi-consciousness). The intense red colour is meant to shock us (our fourth clue: red implies blood, anger, violence and, on a road sign, full stop).
    Then we are shown a road sign. It does not say Mulholland Drive; it says Mulholland Dr., which, when connected to the images that led to it (suggestion of semi-consciousness, bedclothes), could be read as “Mulholland Dream.” Before the credits, Lynch signals that we're watching a classic Ambrose Bierce death-dream.

Clue 2. Red lampshade
    It is located beside the telephone in Diane Selwyn's Sierra Bonita apartment-bungalow. The first time we see it is early in her life-death dream. The telephone is ringing but no one answers.
    The next scene is Betty Elms's arrival at Los Angeles International Airport, the character's first appearance in the film. Echoing the red bedclothes from the film's opening, the red lampshade tells us that the next face we see – Betty/Diane – is the character having the death-dream. Because Betty/Diane is a Hollywood hopeful, her life will flash before her eyes in the style of a Hollywood movie.
    The second time we see the red lampshade is during the film's final third. The telephone's ringing interrupts Diane, who is masturbating on her living room couch. It signals that she has come to the end of her journey.
    The next scene is a flashback to the real events that led her into despair: the humiliating party at 6980 Mulholland Dr. and her meeting with Joe Messing, the hitman, at Winkies on Sunset Blvd. to put out the contract on Camilla Rhodes's life.

Clue 3. Film's title
     As Adam Kesher watches from his director's chair, a young woman enters the studio set to perform her audition song, “I've Told Every Little Star.” We hear an offstage technician announce “Sylvia North Story, Camilla Rhodes, Take One.”
    Later, during the party scene at 6980 Mulholland Dr., Diane will recall that she had auditioned for The Sylvia North Story and that the director, Bob Brooker, “didn't think so much of me.” This is one of Lynch's clues that the first two-thirds of the film has all been a dream incorporating elements from Diane Selwyn's real life.
    During the party we see most of the people Diane has cast in her personal Hollywood fantasy.  So, who is (or was) Sylvia North?
     Neither Google nor the IMDb could come up with a Sylvia North with any obvious Hollywood connection. However, it is interesting to note that the #30 bus in Snoqualmie Valley, Washington, is the “Sylvia North.” David Lynch filmed his 1990-1991 television series Twin Peaks on location in and around Snoqualmie Valley.

Clue 4. An accident  
    By opening his film with an accident on Mulholland Dr., Lynch is placing his film explicitly within the movie-about-movie-making genre. He also tells us that this film will be about the devastation that Hollywood ambitions can have on individual lives.
    He wants us to link the dream-sequence automobile accident with the reality-sequence house party where Camilla's humiliation of her ex-lover Diane tips Diane into the despair that leads to both their deaths.
Clue 5. A Key  
    There are actually three keys, two of them given to the Betty/Diane character. The first, an ordinary door key, is given to Betty by Coco, the apartment manager, in the dream sequence. It opens the door to Aunt Ruth's apartment where Betty will find “Rita.”
    The second is an ornate blue key found, after Betty's telephone conversation with Aunt Ruth, in Rita's purse (along with a great deal of money). When Rita uses the blue key to open the blue box from the Club Silencio, she disappears.
    In a flashback from the film's reality sequence, Diane receives a blue key from Joe, the hitman. It will be his signal to her that Camilla is dead. We see it on Diane's coffee table as the reality sequence begins. Diane wakes up and lets in her female neighbour to collect her things. When the neighbour reaches for her memorably ugly mosaic ashtray, we see the blue key.
Clue 6. The robe, the ashtray and the coffee cup
    Lynch is telling us how to separate flashbacks from real time in his film's final third. In real time, Diane Selwyn wakes up and lets her neighbour in to collect her things. The neighbour tells her of a visit by “two detectives” and leaves.
    Diane masturbates, hears a knock on the door, hallucinates the tiny, elderly couple, bolts for her bedroom and shoots herself. Lynch wants us to notice that Diane is wearing the robe and holding the coffee cup in real time.
    We know it is a flashback when she says “Camilla, you've come back” because her robe is gone, a drink glass has replaced the coffee cup on the coffee table and the ashtray, removed minutes earlier by the neighbour, is back.
    That coffee cup, by the way, appears to have been filched from Winkies. We will see it later in front of Diane when she is talking to Joe, the hitman.
     Not just a murderess, but a thief!

Clue 7. Club Silencio
    Lynch throws it all at the wall during Betty and Rita's visit to the odd after-hours club. He has the show host tell us flat out (in three languages, no less), “it is an illusion.”
    A singer collapses but her song continues because “it's all recorded.”
    Throughout the film, Lynch is making comments on Hollywood and the film industry, and an academic study of Mulholland Dr.'s themes would have a lot to say about the Club Silencio.
    As to the clues, however, all we need to note is that this is the moment in Betty/Diane's dream when she fully grasps what she has done and what she must do. There is a thunderclap  — a gunshot? — and Betty trembles, as she does in the masturbation sequence.
     Betty/Diane now feels the guilt for what's happened to Rita/Camilla. She realizes that Rita's earlier insistence that Betty “go with me somewhere” was an invitation to join her in death (the big Silencio).
     Betty gathers up the blue box into which Rita will disappear, and into which Betty/Diane will follow in the film's final third.
Clue 8. Talent
    Less a clue than a provocation, Lynch's eighth question invites us to answer back “which Camilla?” In her dream, Diane separates Camilla her lover (represented by the amnesiac Rita) from Camilla the ambitious actress (represented by the singer that director Adam Kesher is forced to choose under threat).
    In her reality flashback, Diane sees Camilla encourage Kesher's infatuation, rehearsing a kiss with him in the automobile on the film sound stage. In both cases, Camilla achieves success that is not strictly the result of acting talent.
    At this point, Lynch wants us to notice that the words “this is the girl” — the sentence that both Luigi Castigliane and The Cowboy insist that Adam Kesher must say in choosing Camilla Rhodes — are the same words Diane uses to Joe, the hitman, in passing her sentence of death on her former lover.

Clue 9. Winkies  
    Three scenes are set at Winkies, a diner located on Sunset Blvd. Two are within the dream sequence, the first one being the meeting between a young man and an older one in which the young man describes a recurring dream of a monster with an ugly face in the alley behind the diner.
    The scene occurs early in the film, immediately after the accident and Rita's finding her way into Aunt Ruth's apartment. It is meant as a signal that what we are watching is indeed a dream.
    Winkies is next seen as the location of Betty and Rita's phone call to the police, and where they are served coffee by a waitress significantly named Diane.  
    Finally, in the reality scenes, it is the place where Diane Selwyn pays Joe $50,000 to kill Camilla Rhodes, and is told “when it's finished, you'll find this [the blue key] where I told you.” They are served by a waitress significantly named Betty.
    The man behind Winkies represents the ugly truth of what has been done there. In the first scene, the young man is struck dead when he confronts it.
    The third scene is followed by a visit to the alley during which we see a derelict playing with a blue box, and the release of the tiny couple, from whom Diane will flee into her bedroom to commit suicide.
Clue 10. Aunt Ruth
    In Diane's dream, we see Aunt Ruth leave her apartment with luggage and get into a cab. Betty tells us she is off working on a movie being made in Canada.
    Later, at Adam Kesher's engagement party, Diane tells Kesher's mother, Coco, that her aunt died and left her some money. With his final clue, Lynch is inviting us to look beyond the structure of his film – with which we are now thoroughly familiar – to its various themes and subtexts.
    He wants us to ask “who is Aunt Ruth?” Let me speculate that Aunt Ruth symbolizes Hollywood itself. In reality, Lynch tells us, she's dead.
    But the dream never dies, so Aunt Ruth – Hollywood – is off working on a movie in Canada. Here's an American filmmaker making a wry comment on so-called runaway productions, and the vigour of production in places like Toronto and Vancouver.

    Lynch's 10 Clues go a long way to opening up Mulholland Dr. His subject, as I said above, is the interplay of illusion and identity. In her final moment, Diane Selwyn sees her life as having been a Hollywood melodrama. Lynch presents this as both tragic and inevitable.
     Some additional clues we might consider:
    ILLUSION: Betty's first words in the film are “oh! I can't believe it.” Betty tells Rita “It will be just like in the movies. We'll pretend to be someone else.” Diane's neighbour tells Betty and Rita “I switched apartments with her.” Rita cuts her hair, and Betty says “you look like someone else.”
    IDENTITY:  The advertising line on the poster from which amnesiac Rita takes her name: "There never was a woman like Gilda!" Rita tells Betty, who is phoning Diane Selwyn: “Strange to be calling yourself.” When Betty tells elderly neighbour Louise Bonner that “my name's Betty,” she's told “No it's not.”
    SUBJECTS FOR FURTHER STUDY: Recurrence of the number 16 – 1612 Havenhurst (address of Aunt Ruth's apartment); 16 (Adam Kesher's room at Cookie's); "16 Reasons Why I Love You" (song performed by the first singer at Kesher's film audition).
    Lynch, as I said above, insists on sharing the work load with his audience. In preparing his film for release as a DVD, the director specifically refused to allow the inclusion of a chapter-search function.
    Otherwise, he invites us to enjoy.