How David Lynch Manipulates You: A Close Reading of Mulholland Drive

David Lynch mess­es with your mind. You’ve prob­a­bly heard vari­a­tions on that obser­va­tion before, as like­ly to come from peo­ple who love Lynch’s films as from those who can’t stand them. Unlike most “nor­mal” film­mak­ers, who tell sto­ries com­fort­ably ensconced in the real­i­ty that the tra­di­tion of cin­e­ma has built, Lynch has always told his sto­ries in a cin­e­mat­ic real­i­ty of his own, built out of the exist­ing ele­ments of cin­e­ma but bolt­ed togeth­er by him in sur­pris­ing and often unset­tling ways. Hence his name’s long-ago con­ver­sion into an adjec­tive: David Lynch movies are Lynchi­an, and it falls to we who watch them to deal with the psy­cho­log­i­cal effects — fright­en­ing, thrilling, com­plete­ly dis­ori­ent­ing, or some com­bi­na­tion of those and more — that Lynchi­an­ness stirs with­in us.

In the video essay “Mul­hol­land Dri­ve: How Lynch Manip­u­lates You,” Evan Puschak, bet­ter known at the Nerd­writer, breaks down Lynch’s process of mind-mess­ing, at least as it works in one par­tic­u­lar scene of one of his best-known and most acclaimed films, Mul­hol­land Dri­ve. Lynch, Puschak explains, “uses expec­ta­tion as a tool. He wields expec­ta­tion — the expec­ta­tion that comes from what we know about film, about its his­to­ry, the his­to­ry of sto­ries, and from our human­i­ty — with the same nuance and pow­er as some­one else might use light to cre­ate a vari­ety of moods in a space.”

Mul­hol­land Dri­ve, which seems to begin as the sto­ry of a would-be blonde ingenue arriv­ing in Hol­ly­wood with dreams of mak­ing it big, gets fur­ther and fur­ther off kil­ter as it goes, lever­ag­ing the osten­si­ble stiff­ness and even corni­ness it dares to present at the begin­ning to deliv­er a much dark­er and more com­plex cin­e­mat­ic expe­ri­ence in the end. “All through­out the film, from the over­dubbed dia­logue on down, David Lynch has made us privy to the veneer of things,” says Puschak. “It’s all curi­ous­ly two-dimen­sion­al, and that puts us on our guard, since sur­faces are what we get. Lynch encour­ages us to exam­ine those sur­faces, always remain­ing detached enough for a dis­in­ter­est­ed, crit­i­cal view of what we’re see­ing.”

But “as with every­thing that Lynch does, this two-dimen­sion­al­i­ty, this flat­ness, is also a decep­tion. While we think we’re on our guard, supe­ri­or to the cloy­ing emo­tions of Hol­ly­wood wish-ful­fill­ment, Lynch rel­ish­es drop­ping the bot­tom out, show­ing us just how unpre­pared for and sus­cep­ti­ble we are to emo­tions that our soci­ety trea­sures or deeply fears.” In Mul­hol­land Dri­ve he accom­plish­es this over and over again by using ancient Hol­ly­wood stereo­types, film noir tropes, a night­club singer lip-sync­ing to a Roy Orbi­son song in Span­ish, a cave­man liv­ing behind a Sun­set Strip din­er, Ange­lo Badala­men­ti spit­ting out an espres­so, Bil­ly Ray Cyrus, and much more besides. And as both Lynch’s fans and detrac­tors must sus­pect, he no doubt has a few more ways to drop the bot­toms out from under his audi­ences in his tool­box yet.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sur­re­al Film­mak­ing of David Lynch Explained in 9 Video Essays

What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchi­an: A Video Essay

An Ani­mat­ed David Lynch Explains Where He Gets His Ideas

David Lynch Mus­es About the Mag­ic of Cin­e­ma & Med­i­ta­tion in a New Abstract Short Film

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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