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 Band, Pretty 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.