Jeffrey:I’m seeing something that was always hidden. I’m involved in a mystery. I’m learning. And it’s all secret.
Sandy:You like mysteries that much?
Jeffrey:Yeah. You’re a mystery. I like you. Very much.
Blue Velvet (1986)
Film narratives are designed to pique an audience’s interest primarily through conflict and revelation. Conflict is at the heart of simpler narrative forms – the Hollywood action blockbuster for example – and easier to understand. Revelation is a step removed, created through the need to discover not merely resolve, and it requires the audience to think, sometimes even as the on-screen characters do. This is the mode of storytelling that most interests David Lynch – revelation through the unravelling of mysteries and secrets.
The traditional mystery film, the Conan Doyle/Agatha Christie narrative model, sees a crime committed and a solution sought. The detective involved isn’t necessarily an authoritative figure, such as a policeman, but such figures are often present in the story – and not always to aid the main protagonist. Twin Peaks begins ostensibly as a murder mystery, with its primary investigator Special Agent Dale Cooper, the authoritative detective. But others also work the case: James, Donna, Maddy and Audrey, the young amateur sleuths. An analogous premise occurs in Blue Velvet with Jeffrey and Sandy’s recreational detective work contrasting with the police operation’s more traditional investigative methods. The differences are quite striking: the young are always innocent but curiosity leads them down dark paths, whilst the police are professional because it’s their job.
In Blue Velvet these authority figures can prove to be corrupt, as evil as they are good. In Twin Peaks Cooper’s calling to his profession bears signs of a youthful curiosity, which has subsequently led him to early career success. A similar calling resulted in his one-time partner Wyndom Earl pursuing an altogether darker path, the yin and yang of the esoteric FBI.
Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet are, in many ways, traditional mystery stories told from a skewed angle, one in which amateurs and professionals work towards the same goal using different methods, often on different sides of the moral divide. Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE take this a step further. They are mysterious mysteries, in which a potentially criminal event has occurred but the crime, if there is one, is a mystery itself. The key to Mulholland Dr.‘s first mystery – who is Rita? – is a case of identity discovery, the twist being that one of the investigators is the person they are investigating. But the film goes deeper because the possessions found on the amnesiac Rita indicate that a crime may have been involved. The biggest mystery is finding out what other mysteries there are to be solved.
INLAND EMPIRE explores events connected with the murders of the actors in the original film – were they murdered or could the story be an urban myth? But this leads to further mysteries and the complications surrounding actress Nikki’s professional life, private life and psyche. Similarly Lost Highway begins with a basic, if creepy, mystery – who is sending Renee and Fred videotapes of their apparently secure house and why? – and soon spirals into several overlapping mysteries involving multiple personalities, murder and deceit.
‘Sometimes a wind blows and the mysteries of love come clear’
blows and the mysteries
of love come clear’
Mysteries don’t have to revolve around the process of solving crime or potential crime. As Jeffrey says, ‘You’re a mystery. I like you. Very much’. There are mysteries all around us and the biggest, the greatest, is love. It’s the one mystery that binds characters as diverse as John Merrick, Albert Rosenfield, and Sailor and Lula. Although much of Lynch’s work is dark, the heart of all this anger and conflict is often about unravelling the mysteries of love. That love does not conquer all but ascends triumphantly into the heavens is another existential mystery that shrouds Lynch’s work. The closing of Fire Walk with Me shows the love of a father and daughter reunited despite the incestuous violence that has led ultimately to their deaths. The mysteries of love lie in forgiveness and peace; enlightenment is the result of striving, of unlocking a wider consciousness.
The influence of surrealism in Lynch’s work cannot be overlooked. The fundamental understanding of the term can be seen as the unravelling of dreams and dreamlike logic. In the world of David Lynch the border between the waking world and the unconscious one is often breached, a cinematic equivalent of Dali’s Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate, a Second before Waking Up (1944). Mysteries in the waking world and the unravelling of dreams are tightly intertwined, and in more than just a Freudian or Jungian way. They are often relational or cryptic, messages to be decoded, secrets. Dreams invade the waking world and the language of dreams becomes one that helps characters make sense of their environment and predicament – it allows them, and the audience, to unravel the meaning of what is around them.
Dreams don’t have to make rational sense in the cold light of day, they just have to feel right emotionally. This is the key to unlocking the secrets they contain. They have their own internal logic that relates to the real world, even if it is entirely separate or disparate from it, even if it is fragmented and disjointed, non-linear or confusing. Unlocking the secrets of dreams is key to the development of Paul Atreides in Dune, unravelling the dream allows him to form a rebellion, gain power and ultimately become the Kwisatz Haderach. Similarly Cooper’s dream in Twin Peaks is central to the entire series and the film Fire Walk With Me; the meanings that are contained in one short sequence resonate throughout the whole show, peeling layers away as more of its secrets materialise. The creatures that inhabit the worlds outside of ours seep in through the cracks, becoming part of waking reality. The old couple in Mulholland Dr. and the fungus-covered bum behind Winkie’s Diner inhabit a space ‘between two worlds’.
‘In the worlds of David Lynch, the repression hides multiple meanings, each solution’
the repression hides multiple
meanings, each solution’
Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway and INLAND EMPIRE have been interpreted as dreams – Betty dreaming from any of a number of points in the film, including the title sequence, or Fred flashing back on his life at the moment of execution, a blur of confused and contradictory memories, or indeed any of Nikki’s multiple personalities. Where Lynch differs from many other filmmakers is that his dream states and waking states can co-exist. Henry’s dreams in Eraserhead invade his world to the point where its denizens are as real as his girlfriend and his child. In The Grandmother the fantasised grandmother is real, part of the boy’s waking dream, but ignored by his parents.
Dreams play such a part in Twin Peaks that their interpretation is brought out in the open – rather than just require the viewer to analyse the dream, it is also analysed within the film, intrinsically bound to the plot. Instead of supplying one explanation of a dream, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound(1945), the world of Twin Peaks seeks to delve beneath each of the layers of a dream to determine different solutions. Spellbound uses the language of psychiatry to explain the meaning of dream symbols because the film is about the psychiatric process, and the revelation of a secret that has been repressed by a disturbed patient provides the solution to the film. In the worlds of David Lynch, the repression hides multiple meanings, each solution revealing further mysteries. Making sense of the dreams in Mulholland Dr. or Twin Peaks results in the discovery of further secrets, not just a solitary solution.
The waking dream is generally a secret for the character to unravel – be it Paul Atreides’ attempt to work out his destiny in Dune or Dale Cooper’s to glean the meaning of the Giant’s mysterious utterances following his shooting in Twin Peaks. These waking dreams, occurring on the borders between the dream world and the material world have just as many layers but are initially less cryptic because their primary messages are solved transparently in the narrative. The Giant’s clues – ‘there is a man in a smiling bag’ and ‘without chemicals he points’ – are solved and explained by Cooper as he slowly uncovers their meaning and begins to trust the messenger. This leads both us, and Cooper, to believe the Giant’s secrets are easy to interpret given the right circumstances, but like any dream secret there are more depths to delve into. The superficial questions are basically riddles. The deeper secrets lie elsewhere. ‘The question is – where have you gone?’ turns out, along with ‘The owls are not what they seem’, to be the more pertinent conundrums offered by the Giant and the springboard for the entire second series. Like Cooper’s dream, though, we are never made fully aware of the extent of the secrets contained in the Giant’s speech as each revelation ultimately poses more mysteries.
‘Uncovering the unknown allows us to experience a child-like wonder even in the heart of the nightmare’
allows us to experience a
child-like wonder even
in the heart of the
One of the main examples in which the language of dreams is used in the real world is in Fire Walk With Me where Lil, the sour faced communicator of FBI boss Gordon Cole gives a coded message to two Special Agents. Unravelling Lil’s communication gives the audience as well as the detectives a grounding in how to interpret the secrets and mysteries not only this film but of all Lynch’s waking dream conundrums. Again, though, not all the layers are revealed. Despite the fact we have illustrated explanations of Lil’s messages there is still more to fathom, in this case the meaning of the blue rose. Everything seen has meaning beyond surface interpretation; secrets are revealed only by freeing conscious thought, exploring the wider possibilities, however obtuse. Not only secrets themselves but the language of secrecy pervades: ‘Laura was full of secrets’ (Twin Peaks), ‘I’ll tell you a little secret – I want to die’ (Blue Velvet), ‘I know the secret. The worm is the spice…’ (Dune), ‘We all got a secret side, baby’ (Wild at Heart). Each questions how much the audience and the characters really know.
In Mulholland Dr. public exasperation about the film’s meaning led Lynch down an unprecedented path. Always reluctant to discuss the meaning of his films – they are, after all, journeys of discovery where outside interpretation can destroy the joy of piecing together the puzzle for oneself – Lynch published 10 keys to unlocking its secrets. The questions that he suggests the viewer asks – ‘Pay attention in the beginning: 2 clues are revealed before the credits’ and ‘Where is Aunt Ruth?’ – range from the apparently banal to the unanswerable or plain indecipherable. In pointing us towards certain additional pieces of information Lynch allows us to view it in a meta-light of revised emphasis, armed with insider knowledge from the filmmaker. Yet ultimately nothing he suggests can illuminate further that contained within the film – the material is that of emphasis, not of additional revelation. The result is simply a further layer of secrets. If people greeted Mulholland Dr. with admiration, albeit that of confusion, some of the reception for the similarly elliptical INLAND EMPIRE was vitriolic. Many initially considered it to be three hours of impenetrable nonsense. However, despite the fact that it doesn’t give up its secrets easily, it is coherent and thoroughly engaging. If it was weird for the sake of it, and didn’t offer the audience a challenge, it could be dismissed. Isn’t it so much better to be able to question and debate the intricacies of the plot and individuals’ interpretations of the mysteries held deep within?
Film at its best is about wonder and discovery, of entering new worlds. Uncovering the unknown allows us to experience a child-like wonder even in the heart of the nightmare. Mysteries and secrets allow us to participate in the film, solving puzzles and empathising with the characters. Conflict exists to relate the audience to the screen on a purely visceral level, secrets entice the emotional and intellectual responses that can make cinema so rewarding and, sometimes, infuriating. In dreams he talks to you but through secrets he engages with you.
The extract above appears in the book under the title ‘Unlock the dream, solve the crime – mysteries and secrets in the films of David Lynch’. The book is available for purchase now. Please follow the links provided and support Kamera by doing so.