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The Box and the Key

Oct 19, 2010 in Film, Guest Posts

For a good five or six minutes after the movie ended there was a notable silence and everyone just sat there in expectation of there being more to come—a final scene which would explain what we had all been watching for the last 2½ hours. Needless to say, such a scene never arrived and so eventually everyone filtered out of the theater looking like hostages who have just regained their freedom, desperately trying to readjust to a world they had once known but which had recently become subsumed by something far stranger. In this case, subsumed by David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.

My girlfriend and I had both seen and loved his previous movies, so we went in with a good idea of what to expect and weren’t disappointed. We spent the entire journey home in the same curious silence in which we had left the screening, and it was only the next day that we discussed it openly, as if it had been a traumatic experience that had taken us time to come to terms with. It took several days, but we finally started to put all the pieces together and form a vague shape of what the movie had been about and what it had all meant. We resisted the obvious option of Googling the meaning precisely because we wanted to figure it all out for ourselves—or at least attempt to.

Ever since I’d first seen Lost Highway a few years earlier I had fallen in love with the rare but engaging style of a book or movie being a mystery in and of itself. While I enjoyed traditional detective mysteries in which the protagonist cleverly and gradually unraveled the puzzle, they were all just about taking the pieces which the author had given you and figuring out the one, true combination of how they all fitted together. There was an answer there, a singular truth—you just had to figure it out or leave it up to the protagonist to do it for you. If the butler did it, then the butler did it—that was that. But with these Lynchian, mystery-within-a-mystery-style narratives, before you could answer the question of whodunit you first had to answer the question whathasbeendone? And if your answer to the first was different from someone else’s, then inevitably your answer to the second was even more diverse.

Lynch’s style of filmmaking is a rarity, at least in terms of what makes it as far as even art house cinema screens, so I found myself hunting for these few gems which had the same root quality of challenging the audience to make sense of what they are watching. We randomly picked up Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession during a visit to our local independent video store Alphabet Video in Edinburgh, and I was enthralled while watching it. Raised frequently as an inspiration for, or precursor to, Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, Possession is a hysterical masterpiece about a couple living in Germany and the wife’s infidelity with not only her lover Heinrich but also, quite possibly, a strange, Lovecraftian creature. Some years later came Michael Haneke’s Cache, about a middle-class French couple who start to receive videotaped recordings of their house. These vague threats lead the husband, George, played by Daniel Auteuil, to revisit an event in his past which never becomes truly clear but which might well be at the root of the mystery. Haneke, in his book Film As Catharsis, said that his films:

“are intended as polemical statements against the American ‘barrel down’ cinema and its disempowerment of the spectator. They are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus.”

He certainly is true to his words, leaving the audience with the aforementioned insistent questions thanks to a final scene which seems to subvert what little answers the viewer might have found for themselves up until that point.

And talking of final scenes, it’s encouraging to note that these sorts of creations aren’t just restricted to art house cinemas—witness Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for example. While it’s not as difficult to penetrate as Haneke’s Cache or Lynch’s Inland Empire, it is proof that challenging movies can work within the realms of a big budget as well. British film critic Mark Kermode stated that Inception was one of those rare films which made no attempts to overexplain everything to the audience and didn’t pander to the lowest common denominator. It effectively told the audience to keep up, as it wasn’t going to make any attempt to slow down and let you catch back up again. The final scene, as with Cache, expertly and deliberately throws everything back up into the air to ensure the audience will be thinking about it for days to come. Donnie Darko is another great example of a more mainstream movie (although it only became as successful as it did well after its initial release) which weaves varying elements, placing them like jigsaw pieces before the viewer, then leaving it to them to decide the best way to arrange them to make sense of it all.

The only difference with the more mainstream attempts is that you feel that all the pieces that are needed to solve the puzzle are, at least, there somewhere—whereas Lynch et al. are often accidentally-on-purpose losing a few pieces before giving it to you to play with. In his book Catching the Big Fish, Lynch has a chapter titled “The Box and the Key,” which refers to a scene in Mulholland Drive in which Betty and Rita find a key that unlocks a strange blue box. The chapter has only one sentence, which reads:

“I don’t have a clue what those are.”

Personally, I take everything Lynch says with a pinch of salt, particularly in relation to how firm a grasp he has of what the final product he comes up with will be before he gets there. I believe that he has a far greater understanding of what his films mean than he is letting on yet deliberately obfuscates not just the movies themselves but also his own perception of them.

What this all boils down to is a love of mystery. I watch and adore these movies, and books like them, not because I want to have all the answers but because I enjoy asking the questions. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been reading or watching a mystery and have been fully engaged right up until the final revelation scene that slots everything into place. This is why the killer did it. This is how he did it. When those questions are answered, for me anyway, it is often so unsatisfying that I find myself wanting to return to that moment just before the revelation. I want to go back to that moment of mystery, where so many more things are possible.

So, having watched Mulholland Drive well over a dozen times now, what do I think about the box and the key? To be honest, I don’t have a clue what those are.

And I like it that way.

Simon Logan the author of the industrial fiction novels Katja From The Punk BandPretty Little Things To Fill Up The Void, the industrial short story collections I-O and Nothing Is Inflammable and the fetishcore collection Rohypnol Brides, as well as many other short stories.

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10 Responses »

  1. I had the same exact experience watching Lost Highway. Myself and my three friends sat in near silence for most of the 45 minute ride home after the film. And we cannot hear Roy Orbison (thanks to this film and Blue Velvet) without giving each other that knowing look, followed by laughter.

  2. Very nice column, Logan.

    And I agree–I love the fact that the filmmaker/writer suggests this puzzle-without-an-answer and then refuses to solve it for the audience after the fact. There’s something of the magician in that, and I have always been drawn to this kind of artifice. It’s kind of exhilirating. There has always been something pleasing, viscerally pleasing, about a situation that is presented in a film or in a book that has a multitude of different explanations but no RIGHT one. This is why I have always been drawn to Lynch’s–and Nolan’s, and Guy Maddin’s–movies.

    Ironically, I do not think fiction, crime fiction, does as good of a job as it could of this kind of cognitive dissonance. There are reasons for this. The audience, for the most part, doesn’t want it; the history of the genre is linked pretty inextricably with pulp conventions. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that…) I understand all this. I am the first to admit that there is something pleasing about the lean, clean solution-after-solution quality of a lot of crime fiction. But where are the great crime surrealists in American 21st century crime? They’re virtually nonexistent. Yes, you’re right that at the heart of this kind of (let’s call it) quasi-surrealism, there is mystery, which is the beating heart of what crime writers are doing. But there’s a critical difference: in Lynch’s films, the mysteries stack, one on top of the other, throughout the filmic experience; in a modern American crime novel, the mystery is often the central aspect and is usually laid bare by the book’s end. This is the difference of a world; the mystery reader can always, always, assume that the central question inside their novel is going to be unraveled. The viewer of a Lynch film cannot make that assumption, and for me this is what makes the puzzle-box qualify of the Lynch film at times–stress that–more pleasing than your average mystery novel.

    I’ve always thought that there is a fear of the unknown within myster/crime writing, a hesitation about the Untidy Solution, and so you have a lot of sameness in the crime genre. That’s unfortunate. I would love to read a crime novel, a “mainstream” crime novel, that illicits the kind of upside-down feeling a David Lynch film does. I’m still waiting.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Will, and I wholeheartedly agree about the lack of this style of narrative in books as opposed to movies. I think some of it comes down to the techniques which are available to filmmakers making it easier for them to play with convention and ideas of reality and unreality a little more though to an extent I wonder if it’s just up to writers to come up with their own techniques which suit the literary form more.

      I vaguely recall a short story by Whitley Strieber which starts off normally then suddenly the prose starts to address the reader directly by referring to the protagonist as “you” instead of “they”. It was extremely jarring and effective at pulling the rug out from under the reader’s feet and I don’t see why techniques like this couldn’t contribute towards a literary equivelant of Lynchian films.

      For me I feel the saddest moments in traditional mysteries is after the reveal, when all is explained. It’s like the mystery, before that point, is occupying a quantum superposition of all possible explanations then suddenly BAM, it collapses down into a single outcome and in that moment you lose all other possibilities.

  3. I loved the experience of watching Mulholland Drive in a theatre and now like to watch the DVD on rainy days. But if there is a David Lynch festival is a big theatre, I’ll be there.

    The feeling and not the knowledge of what those things are is what I came away with; he is a genius filmmaker.

  4. No work of fiction is finished until someone experiences it and you only get from the party what you take to it. Er, what was I on about? Oh, yes. Lynch leaves you satisfied and wanting more. There’s mystery for you!

  5. As an artist, I think it is important to leave your work open to interpretation, not just to yourself but to others as well. I think great art will mean many different things to many different people. I also think as an artist you need to reserve the right at some point in the future to say – this is maybe not what I originally intended or conceived, but this is what this means to me today. I think the need for art to come “prepackaged” with only one defined meaning is because many of us have been conditioned to think of art exclusively as a product; a result of the commercialism of our society.

  6. I’ve been scratching my head over Mulholland Drive for years now. I dug Lost Highway, and broke down and Googled just what the heck it was about. Once I had that, I enjoyed the movie more, but that’s because I understood what Lynch was headed for. And no, you don’t need answers fed to you so long as questions are clearly asked and leave room for you to insert your own answers.

    But I will throw two more “not going to spoonfeed you the answers” examples: Lost and Southland Tales.

    I LOVE Soutland Tales. There’s a tone there, a groove and a narrative flow that ultimately doesn’t give you answers, but you can fill in your own blanks.

    Lost, however, promised answers, but delivered very few. To me, the finale of Lost spoiled the whole series since it’s obvious the creators had no idea how to answer their own questions.

    And I guess that’s what this comes down to: Who should answer the questions posed by creative works? Can the audience fill in their own assumptions, like with Lost Highway and Donnie Darko. If so great.

    On the flip side, though, too many messy, confusing and just plain sloppy works are defended by their creators by saying “I’m not going to spoon feed you answers!”

    Well, it’s not about the answers, but the questions that are posed.

  7. Good article!

    Reading this, I found myself oddly comforted – I adapted GK Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ for the stage recently, and I’m directing it in a few months; the end of the book (and indeed, adaption) is very much like that – it inspires more questions and leaves the whole thing very…open. I’m gambling on the UK theatre-going public will be open to that sort of thing…I reckon they will be. Reading this, at least I know there are other people who like it and not just me

    In fact, while researching, I listened to the Orson Welles radio adaption and he put it perfectly in his introduction:

    “It must be wonderful to be famous” – according to the story that’s what the young lady said to the fat man, the fabulously fat, the fantastic, the famous fat man, when he took her to lunch at a fashionable restaurant and everybody turned and stared.

    “Tell me”, she said, “do people always recognise you, does everybody always know who you are?”
    “Well my dear”, said Mr Chesterton, “if they don’t, they ask”.

    Mister Chesterton’s ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ is a little like that. Roughly speaking it’s about anarchists – it was written, remember, in the boom of bomb-throwing, in those radial, irresponsible days of the nihilists; and roughly speaking, it’s a mystery story. It can be guaranteed that you will never, never guess the solution until you get to the end – it is even feared that you may not guess it then.

    You may never guess what ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’ is about – but definitely, if you don’t, you’ll ask.

  8. Mulhulland was great, but I was disappointed with Inland Empire—

    I thought Lynch had learned one important tip from Antonioni: if you’re going

    to slow down audience perception, you must use stars in the roles

    (as Antonioni mostly did) or if not stars then as attractive faces as possible—

    I spent the entire IE saying to myself now wouldn’t this be more

    interesting absorbing if Laura Dern weren’t there (or what’s his name who played

    her lover), if instead of Dern he had cast practically anybody else (hell,

    half the women in the Lifetime Movie Channel films would have been

    better in the part) . . . maybe Lynch did it deliberately, casting the dratted

    dull Dern, in order to frustrate his audience— if so, he succeeded with me!


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