This Magic Moment
Michael Joshua Rowin on Mulholland Drive

Of all the songs used in the films of David Lynch, Roy Orbison’s needles-and-pins ballad “In Dreams” should most obviously be called upon to summarize the director’s personal mythology. In dreams, of course, are where Lynch’s films take place, whether the ostensibly real locales are the postindustrial urbanscapes of Eraserhead, the Victorian London of The Elephant Man, the future sand-castles of Dune, the suburban netherworlds of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Lost Highway, or the mythical American road of Wild at Heart and The Straight Story. Characters blur together, violently transform, materialize without warning; startling, picturesque environments herald grotesque discoveries; absurdity and tragedy intermingle without the slightest concern for decorum or good taste.

All this is standard fare in Lynch, our greatest living American filmmaker. So let’s take a different approach and posit Lou Reed’s cover of “This Magic Moment” as a better Lynch theme. I thought of it when choosing, on an intuitive reflex, Mulholland Drive for this single shot symposium on the basis of the deceptively simple reason that shots don’t belong to the Lynchian lexicon. To apply something like a Christian Metz-esque “syntagmatic” deconstruction of Lynch’s films makes as much sense as performing a note-by-note analysis of “In Dreams.” Sure, Lynch is a consummate pro and clearly knows how to compose shots and link them with dazzling visual expression, but the man thinks in and constructs Moments. Magical ones. Emotional ones unabashedly out of range from the rigid cause-and-effect logic employed by academics when studying, say, a tracking shot from Weekend or the final montage sequence from L’eclisse.

What constitutes a Moment and why does Lynch continually seek it? Firstly, a Moment is the time it takes for Something to happen. For Lynch, down time cannot exist in cinema—Something must occur, whether strange, silly, sensational, sick, sexy, or sad. But never frivolous. The various Moments always culminate in a grand portrait, elusive as direct, clear-cut meaning might be. For Lynch that meaning has not a little to do with the tragedy of love—its ideal purity, its underlying vulnerability, its ferocious ability to change reality and destroy its hunters. Every Lynch Moment serves this end, manufacturing dark, light, comedy, melodrama, tranquility and violence through the overwhelming intensity of desire. Thus, not montage in Lynch but combustibility; not close-ups but heartbreaks; not cut-aways but revelations. These magic moments.

Giddiness of the Absurd

This past March, for the first time in a long while I watched Blue Velvet on the big screen, on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary. Though excited, I approached this viewing cautiously, not because of Blue Velvet itself—does its status as watershed in American filmmaking need to be restated?—but because during my first experience watching Blue Velvet among a paying audience a few years before, I witnessed, to my horror, people actually laughing at it. And I’m not referring to the chicken-walk scene or Lynch’s other bits of cornball humor—most spectators laughed right through most of the film, including Isabella Rossellini’s infamous scene, bruised and naked staggering across a perfectly manicured lawn. Were people so jaded and closed off to raw horror that the film’s passionate expressions of innocence and corruption were no more than embarrassments?

My second theatrical Blue Velvet experience provided the answer. While audience members once again laughed at poor Dorothy Vallens whimpering “You put your disease in me,” I finally recognized what I had initially missed—Lynch wants exactly this reaction of giggly discomfort. Like being unable to contain nervous laughter after learning of a calamitous event, the disorientation of Lynch’s world overwhelms and leaves us untethered to our normal civility. That’s why everything in Lynchland exists in a state of heightened, foregrounded artificiality, unreal and completely real all at the same time as in a dream. Offering for our convention-plagued eyes logic and situations that so heavily defy believability, Lynch knows best to play fair and allow us the option of laughing, recoiling, giving ourselves over, or all three. In return he asks for our faith in his ability to show us his—and our—dreams, fantasies, wide-awake nightmares in untarnished, unmitigated form, as awkward, cheesy, and disturbing as they can be. That’s a fearless act, and the only thing that can provoke these raw reactions is the veritable Moment (Linklater would call it holy), designed as it is to shock and catch the viewer unawares. Half-afraid chortles are just as valid as gasps and frightened silences. I’ve witnessed all these take place at screenings of Lynch films, and they testify to the power—and not cheap sensationalism—of his images. Even a relatively unremarkable shot—or Moment—can demonstrate how this works, and how Lynch works us.

“He’s the One Who’s Doing It”: The Shot

Nothing special, really, a simple cutaway.

It comes towards the end of Mulholland Drive, after Diane, a new or possibly antecedent incarnation of Betty Elms, pays a seedy hitman to off her now ex-girlfriend Camilla, who appears to be the same woman as the amnesiac Rita earlier in the film— before Lynch plunged us into this alternate reality. The meeting takes place at Winkies, a diner that served as an important setting twice before: once when Betty and Rita noticed their waitress wearing a “Diane” name tag, a possible clue to Rita’s real identity; and before that the place where a man with thick eyebrows takes a friend (his psychiatrist? a detective?) in order “to get rid of this God-awful feeling.” The source of this feeling: a dream “about this place,” Winkies. Thick Eyebrows, as we shall call him, details his dream: “Well, it’s the second one I’ve had, but they’re both the same. They start out that I’m in here, but it’s not day or night. It’s kind of half-night, you know? But it looks just like this, except for the light. And I’m scared like I can’t tell you. Of all people, you’re standing right over there, by that counter. You’re in both dreams, and you’re scared. I get even more frightened when I see how afraid you are, and then I realize what it is. There’s a man, in back of this place. He’s the one who’s doing it. I can see him through the wall. I can see his face. I hope that I will never see that face ever outside of a dream.” The shrink attempts to reenact the dream and then have Thick Eyebrows walk to the back of the Winkies to see there’s no one there, to relieve him of his fear. But impossibly, ridiculously—as per normal in Lynch—there is a man. If the burnt thing in rags by a dumpster can be called a man. Thick Eyebrows collapses in shock.

In the third Winkies scene the elements from the previous ones, plus others, get completely jumbled, their meanings complicated and confused. The hitman hands Diane a key—echoing the oddly shaped thing that opened the box to the dimension we now find ourselves—telling her that she’ll need it to unlock something important after the job’s done. When she asks what it opens he just laughs maniacally. The same waitress from earlier now sports a Betty name tag. Diane notices this and then looks over toward the diner’s counter. Now, the cutaway—there stands Thick Eyebrows, in the same place the shrink stood during the dream reenactment. A lightning bolt of recognition passes between these previously unrelated strangers, as if the refugees from separate dreams found themselves inexplicably eyeing each other from afar, colliding in the faultless pursuit of love and fear—this magic moment. But what is really going on here?

Before answering this question I’ll have to digress with another personal experience of Lynchland. While watching Mulholland Drive the first time in a tense state of anticipation, the first Winkies scene, plus a number of others, rankled me—they not only had nothing to do with the main story, but also seemed to be in the film for the sole purpose of fleshing out its runtime. It was a well-known fact that Lynch had salvaged Mulholland Drive from the pilot of a rejected television series, and the dead and loose ends that were piling up two-thirds of the way through Mulholland Drive looked a lot like the wreckage of Laura Harring’s limousine, the signs of a project in desperate need of a proper gestation period. The biggest head-scratcher: after their first scene, what had happened to Thick Eyebrows and his psychiatrist? As absorbed as I was in the tale of Betty, Hollywood ingénue, Rita, mystery woman, and hotshot director Adam Kesher, I couldn’t help but wonder what all the weirdness in Winkies could possibly have to do with them. A friend of mine once opined that after Blue Velvet Lynch had bought into the legend of his own weirdness and started creating self-conscious, often wearily contrived scenes such as these to live up to his reputation. Was the first Winkies scene one of these? Was Mulholland Drive nothing but a collection of them? My faith in Lynch had me confident that he would in some way make this scene work retroactively, but even this time I couldn’t figure how.

That’s why the cutaway to Thick Eyebrows in the third Winkies scene is so stunning. Suddenly on a subconscious level, everything comes together. The name switches and identity changes, the rearranged, symbolic objects, the profound sense of déjà vu—we’re clearly experiencing the moment in which Diane starts gathering the pieces to create the “dream place” where she can flee her pain and the consequences of her nefarious deeds. We’re experiencing the magic of creation, even if that magic resides in the need for escape, forcing the “dream place” to be filled with paranoia and darkness, crowded in by demons and clowns ready to fling back the covers of security. This disillusionment has already occurred in Mulholland Drive in the scene at Club Silencio, where Betty and Rita learn their world “is all an illusion” by way of a demonstration of sound-image discordance even more poignant and disarming than Dean Stockwell’s “In Dreams” karaoke in Blue Velvet. “Don’t play it for real until it gets real,” enigmatically advised a director to Betty even earlier on—the two lines concerning the fragility of appearances come to mind right at the cutaway to Thick Eyebrows. For here is a shot that for all intents and purposes should have the viewer throw up her hands in complete frustration with Mulholland Drive’s avoidance of narrative rationality; it’s one that, like the cutaways to the woman dancing on top of the car in Blue Velvet, could intentionally invite divisive (not derisive) chuckles of disbelief. But it usually never does—and I’ve seen the film enough times in the theater to chart different reactions—because it jolts us into an almost reflexive understanding of what Lynch is doing.

Because “he’s the one who’s doing it.” With the most basic of cinematic tricks, the cut, Lynch not only makes the gravity of Diane’s make-believe palpable but also calls attention to his own sleight of hand, the illusory nature of it all. Maybe, as in a dream, all the characters are really Lynch himself—at once Betty/Diane, getting swept away by the power of a self-styled fiction; Thick Eyebrows, standing at a distance from it, watching it unfold and perhaps fearing it; and the man “in back of this place,” behind a wall, producing its personal and universal resonance. Here “Don’t play it for real until it gets real” might as well be Lynch’s credo, treading as he does on the dusted-up chalk line of reality. In the magic moments of his cinema, Lynch plays it for real only when it gets real, which is never and always in the phantasmic fever of celluloid dreams.