The Mesmerizing and Alienating Experience Called Mulholland Drive

By Mahsa Pakzad

Have you ever felt like not watch­ing movies for a while just because you saw one that’s so damn good you knew watch­ing any­thing else after it would just dis­ap­point you? This is the spell that Mul­hol­land Dri­ve has cast on me.

David Lynch’s 2001 movie was cho­sen by a BBC poll as the best of the 21st cen­tu­ry, yet for me, it’s more than that. For me, it’s the def­i­n­i­tion of art. Maybe that makes me too much of a New For­mal­ist, but I do believe that what counts in a work of art is not the ‘what’ but the ‘how’. Lynch takes what could sim­ply be a les­bian love sto­ry and explores its oth­er dimen­sions – jeal­ousy, tox­i­c­i­ty, rival­ry, and betray­al – while at the same time inter­twin­ing it with a Hol­ly­wood dream. Though this is fas­ci­nat­ing, it’s not what sets it apart. What ‘does’ set it apart is how Lynch tells this sto­ry in the form of an unnerv­ing, haunt­ing, sur­re­al­is­tic, Freudi­an mystery/thriller.

Even if you’re not a For­mal­ist, what stays with you after watch­ing Mul­hol­land Dri­ve is not its sto­ry, but an expe­ri­ence, a feeling.

After a while, you’ve expe­ri­enced the eeri­est, seem­ing­ly-most-uncon­nect­ed scenes, and you are increas­ing­ly irri­tat­ed at how you can­not make sense of any­thing at all. As things get more and more alien­at­ing, they begin to make sense, and as they do, they get more mad­den­ing than ever. You start to real­ly get what Freud meant by “unheim­lich.” The film nev­er stops over­whelm­ing you or destroy­ing all bound­aries of real­i­ty, night­mares, hal­lu­ci­na­tions, past, present, and future. The present, though, is the most intan­gi­ble of all. As Lynch explains, “many times dur­ing the day, we plan for the future, and many times in the day we think of the past. … There is some kind of present, but the present is the most elu­sive, because it’s going real fast.”

Mul­hol­land Dri­ve, if all else for­sak­en, is out­stand­ing in its depic­tion of a trou­bled dream world. As bizarre as the scenes seem, they make per­fect sense when you con­sid­er how dream logic/illogic works and how dreams reflect our denial, rev­e­la­tion, fears, and desires. The movie por­trays this aspect in so many pre­cise details that we can per­fect­ly relate and say “exaaact­ly, this is exact­ly what dreams are like, espe­cial­ly if you have eat­en too much or have a fever” – a stranger you saw at a restau­rant ran­dom­ly appears in your house; some­one who looks like your col­league appears to be your broth­er; you for­get to wear pants to work and notice it too late; and the cof­fee you spilled the oth­er day reap­pears and ruins every­thing. About the film’s atmos­phere, David Lynch once said in an interview,

the weird thing about inner know­ing is that it’s real­ly hard to com­mu­ni­cate that to some­one else. As soon as you try, you real­ize that you don’t have the words, or the abil­i­ty to say that inner know­ing to your friend. But you still know it! It’s real­ly frus­trat­ing. I think you can’t com­mu­ni­cate it because the know­ing is too beau­ti­ful­ly abstract. And yet poets can catch an abstrac­tion in words and give you a feel­ing that you can’t get any oth­er way.

If that is so, then he’s a poet indeed, so art­ful­ly cap­tur­ing and con­vey­ing the most abysmal, untouch­able, and intri­cate of human expe­ri­ences. Nat­u­ral­ly enough, he refrains from explain­ing his movies, believ­ing the expe­ri­ence to be dif­fer­ent from view­er to view­er. So I would say no more, either. Expe­ri­ence Mul­hol­land Dri­ve and let it work its dark magic.

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Mah­sa Pakzad is an M.A. stu­dent of Anglo­phone and North Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture and Cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Göt­tin­gen. She has a pas­sion for film and dig­i­tal media analy­sis as well as iden­ti­ty stud­ies. By voca­tion, she’s had a hand or two in teach­ing, jour­nal­ism, media man­age­ment, trans­la­tion, and social work. For her, life is all about expe­ri­enc­ing and discovering.