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MINDGAMES: Mulholland Drive

By Jeremiah Tessier and William Sharp

Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and its impact on our daily lives brought the science of dreams into popular discussion beyond simply the spiritual and mystical.

Mulholland Drive 2

In the book, Down the Rabbit Hole, Gregory (2016) writes, “As we move downward [from consciousness to unconsciousness] we experience an affective charge—thoughts become feelings. We approach the dream in its own realm. Here the surety of signs gives way to the ambiguity of symbols. Literalism gives way to metaphorical thinking. The rational, causal view of the world breaks down, and we are left to experience the awe of uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt. We have begun the journey. The dream is the ticket. The price of the ticket is uncertainty” (p. ix). Nowhere in my recent experience do we get a chance to see the dream work as clearly as we do in David Lynch’s (2001) Mulholland Drive.

BGSP’s movie series this spring 2016 was created around the theme of MINDGAMES.  To kick off the season, Professor Emily Kales of Northeastern University, who helped organize the series, spoke on the structure of the film and (SPOILER!) established that the first 90 minutes is a dream.  Whose dream? That can be debated and was as part of the March 18th event. Drs. Mara Wagner (BGSP Faculty member) and William Sharp (also of Northeastern—both last minute substitutes for Dr. Danielle Egan of St. Lawrence University)—assisted to bring the psychoanalytic notions of dreams and psychosis into the discourse.

For Freud, dreams served as a way to preserve sleep when the conscious mind was not working. Dreams are both wishes and fears and represent inner conflicts.  Freud (1900) writes in The Interpretation of Dreams, “If I eat […] highly salted food in the evening, I develop thirst during the night which wakes me up. But my waking is preceded by a dream […]. I dream I am swallowing down water in great gulps and it has the delicious taste that nothing can equal but a cool drink when one is parched with thirst. [But] I am a good sleeper and not accustomed to be woken by any physical need. If I can succeed in appeasing my thirst by dreaming that I am drinking, then I need not wake up in order to quench it. This, then, is a dream of convenience. Dreaming has taken the place of action, as it often does elsewhere in life.”

Jeremiah Tessier, BGSP Master’s candidate, was first to verbalize how Mulholland Drive can be interpreted as a dream which fails to contain the conflict, and the dreamer is faced with the “return of the repressed.” If we assume the dreamer to be Diane in this scenario, (SPOILER) we assume Betty, the naive and innocent one, and Rita, the amnesic woman who seems to be in a lot of trouble—she barely escaped her own death at the start, and a purse full of cash—are parts of Diane. Diane’s conflict centers on taking out a hit on her love interest, Camilla.

Once the full conscious mind comes back online—the last sixty minutes of the movie— the psychic conflict overwhelms Diane. The once “scarily happy” elderly couple from the start of the film, who wish Betty luck, come back. They cross over from the dream world into the real world as taunting pint-sized versions of themselves. When it is impossible to tell the real from the dream, we have entered psychosis.  As is sometimes an action brought on by entering a psychotic state, Diane shoots herself as the source of the conflict seems to be coming from within her own head (not the monster-couple). The ultimate way to quiet the mind, the ultimate “silencio,” is where the film ends–suicide.

For clinicians with a psychoanalytic lens, the movie can also be viewed as a first session. The beginning of the movie simultaneously makes sense and is utterly incomprehensible. Like a first session, all of the material the clinician will come to know quite well through treatment is presented; however, we just don’t know how to make sense of it. Only after “taking the journey down the rabbit hole” does our vision becomes clear and we can frame our otherwise disorienting experience.

It would be an understatement to say that Mulholland Drive is unsettling. Lynch masterfully plays with the viewer’s expectations around symbols we have come to think of as pre-loaded with certain values and associations. Old folks (as pictured above) – must they be friendly? One may think of the colloquialism, “sweet little old lady” and its diametric opposite “cranky old man,” but Lynch goes beyond this binary pair, or perhaps it is not that he goes beyond, but that he goes through. The elderly couple seemed to shift quickly, to always be on the move oscillating between a series of points on a grid. Are they friendly? Are they dangerous? Could it be both? Do they know something we don’t? Are they conspiring against our heroine? Dr. Wagner remarked about their scene in the limo, “This is the scariest scene yet.” Dr. Sharp agreed. The elderly couple goes through a series of positions, eliciting various feelings along the way. (See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s ideas for more on grids, points, and shifting identity.) This dynamic is ripe for the psychoanalytic approach, as the symbolic meaning the viewer may derive from the elderly couple in the dream is not inscribed for us or immediately available as a convention. Rather it is determined, very much like unconscious content within a session, by the phrases, images, or events that appear before and after the appearance of the elderly couple in the film, or associations in the session.

Watching the film, being in the process so to speak, adds to the disorienting quality of the movie. This is in part because as the viewer, we can’t immediately put a finger on “it,” so to speak. We can’t fit “it” into what developmental psychologists might call a schema. Thus the experience could be said to fall into what our contemporary sociological field calls a discursive gap. Regardless, the viewer knows something is off; something is not quite right here.

It may very well be the case that we cannot initially grasp the strange forms presented in Mulholland Drive precisely because we cannot afford to and we don’t want to. We have a vested interest in not grasping it—what is called resistance in psychoanalysis. Like the conflicts hidden in dreams, however, we also want to talk about them.