How Postmodern Ideas of Deconstruction Relate to David Lynch’s Film Mulholland Drive
Analysis of highly postmodern film of David Lynch Mulholland Drive (2001)...
Name: Jolanta Jasiulionyte Unit title: Postmodernism Word count: 2212 + 183 (footnotes) Essay question: How Postmodern Ideas of Deconstruction Relate to David Lynch’s Film Mulholland Drive Unit’s lecturer: Phil Gomm Date: 10 December 2010
As Keith Booker, writer on Postmodern Cinema, notes, what David Lynch produces have been central in academic discussions of postmodern film. This essay analyses Mulholland Drive (Lynch, David; 2001) and how postmodern ideas are reflected there or could be used to interpret it (the film). Postmodernism1 is both a historical and cultural phenomenon, which gained a reputation for complexity and inaccessibility.“ One of the key problems … is the overwhelming scope of theoretical and popular media definitions of what constitutes postmodern culture… it can encompass everything in the contemporary cultural sphere” ( Garret; 2007:15). It is a vast topic which holds many writings on a variety of complex ideas it holds. In order keep this essay direct and focused a reader will be presented with the key ideas behind deconstruction, only one of postmodern thoughts. Essay will lead you trough the basic plot of the film after what a note on film’s purposeful likeness to Hollywood’s cinema will be made. Further and following analysis then attempts to explain the evident difference to the typical Hollywood film and
possible ideas underneath it by first concisely explaining
the thoughts and theory of postmodern deconstruction and paralleling examples. Following this model step by step essay leads to new and more indepth interpretations of the possible meanings of the film towards its conclusion. Main Body To begin with, the main plot of Mulholland drive is as it follows; at the very beginning dark-haired beauty ( actress Laura Elena Harring) survives a car crash on a remote section of Mulholland drive after she was about to be killed. Dazed and shocked she goes back like a “broken doll” to the civilized part of the city into an apartment she finds open. Soon after she realizes loss of memory, she doesn’t remember her past or identity anymore. Meanwhile full1
The term Postmodernism in Thesaurus Dictionary is defined in its most concise essence, as any of a number of trends or movements in the arts and literature developing in the 1970s in reaction to or rejection of the dogma, principles, or practices of established modernism in.
blooded blonde, newly arrived to Hollywood, Betty Elms (played by Naomi Watts) settles in the same apartment, while she attempts to break in to movies in her own right. Two women encounter each other and from that point on both try to piece together Rita’s (one which lost her memory) mystery and discover her real identity. At first sight, the audience is being introduced with a typical Hollywood film plot. “Mulholland Drive… draws upon numerous classic Hollywood motifs to construct a narrative that situates itself within a number of traditional Hollywood genres “(Booker; 2007:25) The author of Postmodern Hollywood emphasizes the use of established film conventions of Hollywood cinema in Lynch’s film. Director includes genre’s iconography (recurrent visual icons), stock characters, typical themes and central narrative patterns. To give an example, the character who experienced the car accident takes her name from a poster for the Rita Hayworth2 (Vidor, Charles; 1946) and as Booker notes, she indeed has the sultry sexiness of Hayworth.
Fig.1 Character (Laura Elena Harring) names herself Rita after noticing poster of Rita Hayworth in Gilda (Vidor, Charles. 1946) An identifiable grammar and conventional syntax in Mulholland Drive is used to construct a recognizable Hollywood’s product, to generate the energy and interest, it is a starting point on which other ideas are further constructed. On the other hand film doesn’t stop with the conventional guidelines, there is an introduction of something not clear at first sight. Reviewer Roger Ebert 2
Rita Hayworth is an American film actress, who attained fame during the 1940s
marks, “The movie is hypnotic; we're drawn along as if one thing leads to another--but nothing leads anywhere”. (Ebert, 2001) Like word by word we expect an idea to be finally explained and revealed, a scene by scene we also expect to reach the closure in Mulholland Drive , as it would be delivered in any other conventional Hollywood film. Far from being lead towards the closure, the audience discovers new plots and characters. “Lynch strives to kill the Hollywood dream and icons, revealing both as nothing more than false imitations of false ideal” . After the plot is set using conventions of a typical Hollywood film purposefully,
quite literally resets itself. Established characters are reestablished again, continuously used subplots suggest new genres of the film and so on. This all perhaps serves to convey director’s alternative point of view towards cliché scenario: the idyllic Hollywood dream being nothing else than (Hollywood’s itself) social construct3. It could be said, that the film illustrates one of the main postmodernist points. That is relativism and skepticism4 towards presented realities. As it will be discussed further in the essay, it questions the singularity and competence of truth by employing the means used to convey it. But to get back Mulholland Drive, in the first part of the film, Betty, the cheery optimistic soon-to-be-famous film star finds herself in the safe and nurturing world, (the perfect flat to stay, promising people she meets and so on).
Social construct, idea/phenomenon “invented” or “constructed” by a particular culture or
society. Skepticism – philosophical position holding that knowledge is limited, because of the existing mind ( or other) limitations 4
Fig. 2 Betty meets Los Angeles But she insists on helping the lost and confused Rita and finding out the truth in the mystery (the transition point in the film). The peek point is reached when two women are in the club “Silencio”, where all shows are weird pantomimes. Show’s lead performer then explains: “It’s all an illusion” (Mulholland Drive; 2001). Booker makes an interesting note that as Betty is told everything is an illusion her body physically convulses as if trying to reject what’s just being expressed.
Fig 3. Rita and Betty in Club “Silencio” Its as if confidence in the stability of the everything she had prior to this point was taken away by only this short, mind-opening phrase. Seyla Benhabib notes in Postmodernism, a very short introduction, “Transcendental guarantees of truth are dead” (booker; 2002; 29). Afterwards her world is flipped to a somewhat unstable place ( the alternative representation) where illusions and unfulfilled dreams are constant players, and we get to see Betty no more, now she is her opposite, Diane, emotionally decomposing and depressed, second rate actress.
Figure 4. Diane’s World
To continue the analysis of the film, it is necessary to introduce substantial figures in forming postmodern notion. Jacque Derrida5 is one of the philosophers who worked on some of the key ideas of postmodernism. Derrida’s work takes up Ferdinand Saussure theory of signs developed in 19th century, which essentially states that a sign is constructed of two parts, the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the part we perceive (for example, shots within the film) and the meaning we associate with it is the signified. Christopher Butler, concisely names French philosopher’s major contribution to postmodernist attitude. : “Derrida goes on from form of conceptual relativism to suggest ways in which all conceptual frameworks … can be criticized ‘ (Butler; 19) He suggests new views towards conceptual systems 6. Derrida suggests what is known as deconstruction and it is means to question, analyze and subsequently reorganize the classical views of the world and what is regarded as “the truth”. Deconstruction is used to break, bring disorder in well-established notions about reality. Film language can be seen as another form of conceptual system (it has symbols, rules, set conventions which serve to signify certain meanings), which
might as well be used to break the false representations of reality
(idyllic Hollywood dream) by deconstructing the well-established views and introducing alternative ones. That is essentially what was done in Mulholland drive and what audience gets to experience when seeing the rest of the film after characters’ visit in the club “Silencio”. But just to get back to Derrida, he suggests in what particular way languages corrupt to represent the reality or ideas. As Butler concisely summarizes it: all conceptual systems are falsifying and distorting hierarchies. Languages tend to structure and categorize themselves into binary oppositions (for example man’s opposition is woman; day’s opposition is night and so on).To add more, Jacque Derrida (15 07 1930 – 8 10 2004) – French-Jewish philosopher who’s works are associated with post-structuralism and postmodern philosophy. 6 Conceptual system is a symbol, typically associated with a corresponding representation in language or symbology, that denotes all of the objects in a given category, their interactions, relationships between them. Examples of conceptual systems are language, philosophical theories, film grammar. 5
not only many of the relationships are made wrong or are too rigidly fixed, but also one side of the opposition is held as a transcendental7 signifier, a preferred one. To put it in film’s context, Betty is a perky blonde, a promising soon-to-be famous star with everything else complimenting her. Betty is Hollywood’s idyllic dream’s preferred opposition and Diane is the binary opposite to her. According to Derrida we then rely upon and employ the transcendental oppositions to do the organization of our experiences, assumptions for us ( “I should be this, do that because this is good and avoid all the other because it is bad”). We establish our views towards the world accordingly disregarding the possibility of many relationships might be wrong, therefore our assumptions on reality as well. For derridean’s the revelation of the hidden interdependence deconstructs them. “Deconstruction … practices an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system … To deconstruct an opposition is to undo it and replace it, to reinstate it with a reversal that gives it a different status. ’’ (Cobussen,2007) When binary opposition is deconstructed it uncovers the hierarchy within it and the attention is flipped away from the privileged one to its opposite. So Betty soon after club “Silencio” becomes Diane, and the attention now is paid to that depressed and emotionally decomposing second-rate actress, Diane is. The same is done with Rita’s character. The confused and therefore scared Rita is in fact a highly successful actress with the happiness and fame Betty once was meant to have. But by no means has deconstruction seeks to replace the established meaning with a new one. “It uncovers the contingent origin of the binary hierarchies and it does so not with the purpose of providing a better foundation for knowledge , but in order to dislodge their dominance and to create a space 7
Transcendental - surpassing, or superior
that leaves room for difference, ambiguity”. (Cobussen,2007) Once a binary opposition is deconstructed, (likewise with Betty-Diane) it becomes an inconsistent and equivocal concept. Indeed ambiguous, for even after characters and plot changes it still doesn’t offer a fixed meaning of the film or how it actually turns out to be. Both Betty’s and Dian’s world , one might note , is constructed in a way not to be fully believable: Betty’s world looks to be too light, too promising , Has a lot in common to a fairy tail.
Figure 5. Betty in Los Angeles On the other hand Diane’s world has elements of surreal playing in it: miniature people, scary demons, smoky visions ect.
Figure 6. Diane’s suicide But to put it in Lynch’s words: “Film is a language, it speaks to people, but not always with words and solely with the intellect, so it takes a certain attitude… to arrive with your own conclusion” (On the way to Mulholland drive; 2001) It could be interpreted that director himself marks the intended construction of ambiguousness in the film. For he notes one has to choose a certain attitude, a standing point, under which differing meanings can be come up with. 8
Therefore Diane’s-Betty’s and Rita’s-Camilla’s story fits under a term of undecidable8, an unsettled concept. ”Undecidables are characterized by their virtue of being able to function within certain oppositions that are essential for certain argumentation, but undermine these oppositions at the same time because of their double meaning” (Cobussen, 2007) In other words, if something is an undecidable it both functions within the binary oppositions an, at the same time, falls of its category because of the multiple meaning it holds. Unsettled concepts sits between determined poles (in Mulholland Drive we see both Betty’s and Diane’s depictions as two clearly pronounced constructs without clear suggestion whether one of the characters is only a projection of the “real” version of character) and suggest one meaning onto another, bring together as well as separate the possible closures simultaneously. To sum up the point, the most you can get when a concept is unsettled (deconstructed) is postponement of meanings.
“Whenever it is two true and
honest arguments, there can never be one conclusion reached and rested on, for it becomes a structure of postponing when you agree on one meaning while suppressing the other” (Cobussen, 2007) The findings one comes up with depends highly on the standing point one chooses, though still it is instable and open to constant changing. Postmodern man therefore no longer seeks for a unified truth within unsettled concepts, so doesn’t this film: “This movie doesn't feel incomplete because it could never be complete--closure is not a goal” (Ebert, 2001). Conclusion To summarize this essay’s findings, the film starts of presenting conventional plots to generate the energy. It then purposefully introduces confusion to question the idyllic Hollywood’s dream truthfulness. As one could expect security and fore most reliance upon old realities crumbles as characters (as 8
Undecidable - Derrida describes undecidables as verbal properties that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) oppositions; they resist and disorganize such oppositions without ever constituting a third term (Cobussen)
well as the audience) encounter alternative representations of reality and identities. At the same time, film doesn’t attempt to replace or offer better meanings, instead it tries to open up and leave some space for one’s own interpretations. “ it does not explain, does not complete its sequences, lingers over what it finds fascinating, and dismisses unpromising plotlines” (Ebert; 2001) The film is purposefully ambiguous so to make meanings assigned to the film inconsistent and equivocal, constantly postponing each other as it is viewed in different ways. Therefore, as key postmodern thought suggests, there are no universal truths, everything is only relative and depended on the standpoint we choose , that all is only one’s own interpretations.
Illustration List: Fig.2. David Lynch. (2001). Betty meets Los Angeles.[Film stills].From: Mulholland Drive. USA. Les Films Alain Sarde. Fig.3. David Lynch. (2001). Rita and Betty in Club Silencio.[Film stills].From: Mulholland Drive. USA. Les Films Alain Sarde. Fig.4. David Lynch. (2001). Diane’s World.[Film stills].From: Mulholland Drive. USA. Les Films Alain Sarde. Fig.5. David Lynch. (2001). Betty in Los Angeles.[Film stills].From: Mulholland Drive. USA. Les Films Alain Sarde.
Fig.6. David Lynch. (2001). Diane‘s suicide. [Film stills].From: Mulholland Drive. USA. Les Films Alain Sarde. Bibliography: Cobussen, Marcel. (2007). Introduction to Deconstruction. http://www.cobussen.com/proefschrift/200_deconstruction/210_hierarchical_oppositions/hierarchical_o ppositions.html. (Access date 26th Novemeber 2010) Cobussen, Marcel. (2007). Undecidables. http://www.cobussen.com/proefschrift/200_deconstruction/220_undecidables/undecidables.htm (Access date 26th Novemeber 2010) Cobussen,Marcel. (2007). Pharmakon http://www.cobussen.com/proefschrift/200_deconstruction/220_undecidables/221_pharmakon/pharma kon.htm (Access date 26th Novemeber 2010) Cobussen,Marcel. (2007). Supplement http://www.cobussen.com/proefschrift/200_deconstruction/250_supplement/supplement.htm (Access date 26th Novemeber 2010) Bartyzel, Monika. (2010) Cinematic Movie Club: Mulholland Drive. http://blog.moviefone.com/2010/08/27/cinematical-movie-club-mulholland-drive/.(Access date 27th November 2010) Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood, What’s New in Film and Why it Makes us Feel so Strange. (2007). USA: Praeger. Butler, Christopher. (2002) Postmodernism A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press Inc. David Lynch – On the Way To Mulholland Drive.(2001). 7 July 2009. At: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJgf1PRxaQ8 . (Accessed on 5 November 2010) Ebert, Roger. (2001). Mulholland Drive. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article? AID=/20011012/REVIEWS/110120304/1023 (Accessed 10 October 2010) Garret, Roberta. Postmodern Chick Flicks. (2007). New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Mulholland Drive. (2001). Directed By David Lynch [DVD]. USA: Les Films Alain Sarde Kuersten, Erich. (2008) Naomi Watts. Cinema's Postmodern Mother of Mirrors http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/59/59naomi.php (Access date 14 november 2010) Richards, K. Malcolm. Derrida Reframed a Guide for the Art students. (2008) New York: Palgrave Macmillan.