Cultural Engineers & Their Nightmares
By Thomas Millary · 13 February 2024
Under the Hollywood Matrix, Part III: A Review of David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive"
“There’s a man, in back of this place. He’s the one who’s doing it.”
In one of the opening scenes of David Lynch’s 2001 highly-acclaimed film Mulholland Drive, Dan, played by Patrick Fischler, displays a growing sense of dread as he describes his terrible dream to his friend Herb. Embarrassed, Dan sits across from Herb at an unremarkable diner called ‘Winkie’s’, explaining that he’s feeling haunted by two recent nightmares. Within the dream, Dan is at Winkie’s, with Herb standing by the counter, both of them feeling frightened. Through the wall, Dan explains how he could see the face of the man causing the terror – “I hope that I never see that face, ever, outside of the dream.” “So, you came to see if he’s out there?” Herb inquires. Dan confirms, “To get rid of this godawful feeling.” The two get up to investigate, Dan’s anxiety increasing as he sees Herb move to the same location as he stood in the nightmare.
What follows is a flawless exercise in Lynchian horror, over a full minute of the two men slowly walking around the building and descending stairs toward an alley, with Dan helplessly marching toward his worst fear. Lynch simply delivers exactly what Dan described – the screen is suddenly filled with the filth-covered face of a hobo who slides into frame from behind the alley wall. While neither the ill-fated Dan (who collapses into fright-induced unconsciousness or death) nor the monstrous figure are revisited until much later in Lynch’s surrealist masterpiece, the scene’s uncanny replication of nightmare logic and its theme (the manifestation of a grotesque reality) linger over the rest of the film.
Mulholland Drive‘s narrative revolves around aspiring actress Betty (played by Naomi Watts) who arrives in LA and quickly befriends a beautiful amnesiac (played by Laura Harring) who takes the name Rita. Elusively surreal depictions of Hollywood conspiracy overlay the narrative, as the two embark on a mystery to discover Rita’s true identity, eventually becoming sexually involved. In the film’s final twenty minutes, the plot shifts to Watts portraying a jilted lover named Diane, an LA burnout driven to despair and madness by her jealousy concerning a successful actress (portrayed by Harring).
Boundless ink has been spilled toward interpretation of Mulholland Drive’s dense and dreamy symbolism, but the general consensus is that the first two hours should be interpreted as Diane’s wish-fulfilling dream. In the waking world of the film’s final act, Diane meets with a hitman at Winkie’s Diner, hiring him to murder her ex-lover. In this interpretation, ‘Dan’ is simply another patron Diane happens to notice in Winkie’s as this exchange is taking place, with Dan’s hobo encounter symbolic of Diane’s repressed guilt concerning her murderous secret and her despair over the total failure of her romantic Hollywood dreams.
As detailed by the previous entries in this series, Mulholland Drive is only the first production in which actor Patrick Fischler is curiously cast in a hobo-related role. Seven years after Mulholland Drive, in the second season of the prestige drama series Mad Men, Fischler plays a comedian who clashes with protagonist Don Draper, the iconic adman, whose formative childhood experience was being taught a life philosophy based on “the hobo code.” Still later, David Robert Mitchell’s 2018 Hollywood-themed mystery film Under the Silver Lake cast Fischler as ‘Comic Man’, a zine-artist who explains the hobo code to the slacker protagonist Sam, who has found the hobo symbol for “stay quiet” mysteriously drawn on the apartment wall belonging to his vanished neighbor, Sarah. Comic Man also confirms to Sam that elites encode pop culture with secret messages, both to condition the public and to communicate with each other. As in Mulholland Drive, Fischler’s Under the Silver Lake character fears a monster, a nightmarish figure called the Owl’s Kiss (“a member of a longstanding American cult with origins in trade and finance”). Just like Dan, Comic Man meets the precise fate that terrifies him, with the Owl’s Kiss breaking into his home and murdering him.
All three of these Fischler/hobo encounters involve the intersection of media and the divine feminine. Mad Men uses tarot symbolism to push the message that Don Draper must be totally deconstructed and then redeemed via immersion into a multicultural media matrix associated with perfect maternal love (as well as with Coca-Cola and New Age spirituality). Under the Silver Lake depicts the protagonist Sam as failing in his quest to save his love interest and experiencing the extreme disillusionment of discovering that his pop-culture idols were manufactured by cynical elites. The film concludes with the now homeless antihero coming close to suicide but instead choosing to watch a classic Janet Gaynor film, having sex with a maternally coded neighbor woman, and seeing the “stay quiet” symbol now written on his own wall.
Each of these properties depicts the ability of media industries (whether entertainment, advertising, or both) to destroy the lives of those that participate in them, yet each holds some level of reverence for those same industries. Mad Men is unapologetic in its message: advertising is truly good, if only harnessed in service of New Age multiculturalism rather than Christian patriarchy. Under the Silver Lake treats sinister conspiratorial realities even more explicitly than Mulholland Drive, yet it leaves viewers with the impression that any who probe into these mysteries will either be destroyed or reabsorbed into consensus reality after sufficient disorientation.
While the conversation between Dan and Herb refers to Lynch’s hobo (credited simply as ‘Bum’) as male, the nightmare figure has a distinctly witchy appearance, and was in fact played by a woman (who would later be cast as ‘The Nun’ in the 2018 horror franchise of the same name). When asked if Lynch ever explained to her what the hobo represents, actress Bonnie Aarons recounts that Lynch simply said “Everything.” This vagueness, of course, is part of the mystique of Lynch’s filmmaking: “It’s better not to know so much about what things mean or how they might be interpreted or you’ll be too afraid to let things keep happening,” said once the filmmaker expressing concern over how overinterpretations of his work take away from “the potential for a vast, infinite experience.” (Of course, remarks such as these have done nothing but increase speculation about the significance of his films.)
Lynch is much less ambiguous when it comes to promoting his spiritual worldview. The filmmaker is the world’s highest-profile advocate of transcendental meditation (TM). (The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace exists solely to promote education concerning the spiritual technique.) Over the decades, Lynch has consistently commented on the unified field of consciousness accessible via meditation, and how this higher consciousness informs his imaginative process: “I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper.” When “you dive down into that ocean of pure consciousness… You can catch ideas at a deeper level. And creativity really flows.”
While Lynch has stated that “Transcendental Meditation doesn’t have anything to do with Hindu religion,” his unfilmed screenplay ‘Ronnie Rocket’ ends with a depiction of the dark mother goddess Kali, and Lynch himself has spoken of Hindu concepts such as the Kali Yuga epoch: “We live in the Kali Yuga. The Kali Yuga lasts 432,000 years, and we are only 5,000 years into it. However, there are times within the Kali Yuga when it is possible to bring a Golden Age, and this is that time for us! Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has brought out the technologies to make this happen, and we are now in a transition to that Golden Age.”
Lynch believes that the world can be saved by promoting so-called “peace-creating groups” – people who meditate together and therefore “enliven this field of peace within so powerfully that it affects collective consciousness in the most positive way.” On numerous occasions over the years, the director has framed social unrest as an opportunity for the transformative power of unified consciousness to manifest. In a 2009 interview with the Jerusalem Post, criticizing the Israeli government for its lack of interest, Lynch remarked “I’m not going to back off until they get a peace-creating group – tell them!” In 2006, when interviewed by Alex Jones concerning their respective skepticism of the official 9/11 narrative, Lynch constantly steered the conversation toward adopting TM as a solution: “There’re so many problems in our world, so much negativity. Don’t worry about the darkness, turn on the light and darkness automatically goes. Ramp up the light of unity within.” “You support raising questions?” asked Jones. “I support raising unity,” responded Lynch.
Lynch’s most controversial comment however came in 2018, when speaking of then-President Donald Trump he said: “He could go down as one of the greatest presidents in history because he has disrupted the thing so much. No one is able to counter this guy in an intelligent way.” Lynch subsequently tempered those comments, stating that despite Trump’s potential he was presently causing “suffering and division”. Hardly a secret right-winger, Lynch voiced support for Black Lives Matter during the height of Floyd-mania in 2020, going as far as posting a video that included a sign reading “BLM. Peace. Justice. No Fear,” and commenting that “I believe that we as a whole world are going through a transition. These so-called bleak times are necessary to go through in order to get to a much, much better place.”
Lynch has also, on more than one occasion, hinted that the transition to the golden age will entail the widespread revelation of dark realities. Commenting on his 1997 film Lost Highway during his Infowars interview, the director remarked that although the mind can trick itself to hide horrible truths, “in the long run, nothing stays hidden.” Discussing his 2020 BLM support, he similarly described how “more and more things, horror stories, have come to life and people have been dealing with these things for decades. More things will come out.”
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Apart from the very real historical entanglements between Hollywood and the mob, US intelligence agencies and the Department of Defense have had a hand in the making of thousands of films. Disturbing allegations of ritual murder and child sex trafficking in Hollywood have also been credibly levied by industry insiders such as Richie Albertini. Lynch’s ephemeral depiction of Hollywood evil provides an easy way out for those who are aware that powers and principalities lurk within the imaginative domain of filmmaking.
The Club Silencio’s Magician recalls an iconic piece of dialog from the series Twin Peaks, Lynch’s popular surrealist mystery drama. “Through the darkness of future past, the magician longs to see. One chants out between two worlds; fire walk with me.” While a perfect descriptor of a Lynchian spiritual approach to filmmaking, wherein the director is a shamanic figure, guiding viewers between worlds, the poem is an explicit indication of demonic possession within the show and its film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1991). In his novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks, series co-creator Mark Frost even connects the passage with Crowleyan magician (and father of American rocketry) Jack Parsons.
The figure of the magician being related to manipulation and demonism provides an unintentionally unsettling undertone to a passage in Lynch’s book Catching the Big Fish, in which he quotes from the Upanishads: “Know that all of Nature is but a magic theater, that the great Mother is the master magician, and that this whole world is peopled by her many parts.” Lynch again quotes from those Hindu scriptures: “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.” (Lynch has associated this quote with his 2006 film Inland Empire, which again links cinema to the breakdown of reality and dream worlds).
Perhaps Lynch was not being coy when he told Bonnie Aarons that the hideous face of her character represents “Everything.” The Winkie’s Bum may indeed be the clearest possible expression of a worldview in which there is never any option other than further immersion into the oceanic feminine dreamworld, no matter how horrifying it reveals itself to be.
In the other entries of the Fischler/Hobo saga, Mad Men‘s Jimmy Barett and Under the Silver Lake‘s Comic Man have their respective counterparts in Don Draper and Sam: anti-heroes who slowly are revealed as hobos and absorbed into the religion of the goddess. But Dan has no such counterpart. Every figure present within the film is already a fixture in the mind of the Great Mother. Here, the goddess is not presented as a maternal fantasy in which the degraded masculine can find dissociative comfort, but openly revealed as the monstrous reality of dissociation without end.
Before their glamorously erotic love scene, the two heroines alter Rita’s hair so that she appears similar to Betty, indicating a masturbatory narcissism to their romance – a narcissism which later manifests itself through the cruelty of their ‘real world’ relationship. Camilla replaces Diane and taunts her with open displays of physical affection toward both her male fiancé and new lesbian lover. Diane is destroyed by her obsessiveness toward Camilla, coveting her in large part because Camilla is successfully obtaining the worshipped-starlet status that Diane herself longs for (a status indicated by the dream-fantasy of Camilla taking the name ‘Rita,’ after Rita Hayworth).
Earlier works of Lynch already depict men who are consumed by the sadomasochistic draw of feminine sexual desire – movies such as Blue Velvet and Lost Highway. Mulholland Drive attempts the bolder feat of glorifying the self-destruction internal to the Hollywood goddess herself. Concerning the ill-fated female characters of both Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, Lynch has gestured toward the most archetypal of Hollywood sirens: “You could say that Laura Palmer is Marilyn Monroe, and that Mulholland Drive is about Marilyn Monroe, too. Everything is about Marilyn Monroe.” (Indeed, Lynch and Frost once came close to adapting a Monroe biography entitled ‘Goddess’.)
The hobo sequence enacts the most frightening of jump scares by telling us about a horrible face, walking us directly toward it, then showing exactly what has been described. The Club Silencio Magician continually yells at us that we are going to see a trick and then successfully tricks us anyway. Another sequence emphasizes that we’re about to see Betty recite from a poorly written script but then mesmerizes the audience with an exchange that feels as real as anything else in the film, via Betty’s earnest and sexually charged performance.
Mulholland Drive is a reminder that as long as we find art irresistible, we will be continually complicit in our own deception. Seeing nothing outside or prior to the dreaming body of the Great Mother, Lynch embraces a logic of perpetual doubling down. More symbols, more worlds, more layers, more entities, more dreams, always giving rise to more interpretations. A cascade of self-devouring complexity, flickering back and forth with a stultifyingly-simple New Age worldview in which the word ‘consciousness’ is repeated ad nauseam. There is a striking complacency to this approach, which the dark forces he depicts likely find eminently useful.
Lynch is well aware that something is wrong with the modern world (“that godawful feeling…”). Our imaginations are haunted and dark secrets are buried; evil, both human and metaphysical, makes itself known throughout the creative realms he traverses and crafts. Like Don Draper finding salvation in a Coke ad and Esalen, Lynch hopes that movies and transcendental meditation will naturally convert this darkness to light.
Under the Silver Lake offers the maternal embrace of Hollywood to those who are willing to forget all that they’ve learned about conspiratorial realities. Mad Men promises a comforting ‘spiritual but not religious’ worldview and the joys of consumerism to white Christian men who submit to the new world. Mulholland Drive offers the enjoyment of creative excellence to those who linger in the Lynchian maze without considering the terrifying consequences of what he depicts. The message is the same: simply seek internal bliss amidst the chaos, and, surely, a golden age lies right around the corner.
“Silencio,” whispers the woman in the balcony. “Stay Quiet,” declares the hobo code scrawled on Sam’s wall. The Hollywood cult of the Great Mother depends on our obedience to these messages. But it is possible for us to break this spell. We need to simply take the cultural engineers at their word when they tell us that all they have to offer is nothing more than a dream.