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.
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.