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Mulholland Drive: A Philosophical Treatise
By Vanessa Long

Mulholland Drive combines elements of suspense, temporal trickery and insight into the human condition to create what is arguably one of the most accomplished works of David Lynch's directorial career. Human fallibility and the nature of subjective reality are Mulholland Drive's shifting points of interest, and the character of Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) is our entry point into them. While David Lynch's first stand-alone female antagonist is a decidedly troubled character, a philosophical study of her actions can reveal just where her character went so wrong.

The progression from beginning to end in Mulholland Drive leads us through two parallel lines of action, divided into how Diane Selwyn wishes her life could have been, and how it actually was. Diane Selwyn's story is suspensefully delivered via time release, leading its audience into a state of false belief about her throughout almost the entire duration of the film.This is effected through the movement of a block of scenes from the beginning of Diane Selwyn's story to the end of Mulholland Drive's plot, so that its narrative ultimately exists of a two hour long flashforward and a 25 minute flashback. It's only once Mulholland Drive comes to a screeching halt that its audience has received all the pieces with which to actively put Diane Selwyn's story together for themselves.

From the point of the great spatial and narrative shift in Mulholland Drive which has become known as 'the last 25 minutes', we view the high point of Diane Selwyn's arrival in Hollywood to pursue what looks to be a promising career as an actress. However, in a relatively short period of time, Diane falls prey to a succession of serious set backs in life. Unable to attain either steady or satisfying employment in her chosen field, nor able to enjoy the support and respect of either her family or her peers, Diane seeks vicarious success through becoming romantically entangled with successful actress, Camilla (Laura Harring), only to wind up being painfully and publicly jilted by her.

In the wake of these set of events, Diane quickly becomes caught within a miasma of depression, paranoia and perceived hurts from which there is no easy exit. Diane begins to view her ex-lover as a living reminder of her failures in life and resolves that she must be rid of her and all that she represents. But there is no final redemption on the other side of such an act for Diane, whose rising guilt, coupled with everything else that's recently gone so bad in her life, finally sends her into the arms of suicide.

Poised within the hallucinatory portal between life and death, Diane is presented with the opportunity to play her life over. Within the all too beautiful world of Diane's imagination, to which the first 2 hours of Mulholland Drive is devoted, Diane rearranges the aspects of her life into a perfect form. Much like Shadow of a Doubt, Diane's world is a charmed one, featuring a hint of mystery around every corner. In this world, Diane, who is now known in the film as Betty, is a beautiful, talented young actress and well loved daughter who will clearly have Hollywood at her feet in no time.

Into this world, Diane also manages to bring her dead lover back to life. Rewriting history to have her escape the attempt on her life that Diane herself staged, Camilla emerges in Diane's life again as a helpless, mysterious stranger with no memory of the past. The note of danger with which Diane re-enlivens the memory of her lover allows Diane to have her all to herself, in secret. This act finally allows the power balance shift in Diane's favour, and the girls are able to fall in love all over again. But this fantasy world can not last forever, as even in her wildest, dying dream, Diane is unable to imagine anyone but herself profess their love first in that relationship. And ultimately, it is her lover who shakes Diane out of her dream world to tell her that her fantasy world is a facade, and that she must now let her dying mind be silent.

On the topic of the perception of reality, philosopher, John Searle asserted that:
... The thesis that there is a reality independent of our representations identifies not how things are in fact, but rather identifies a space of possibilities... External realism articulates a space of possibilities for a very large number of statements.

Into just such a space, a dual scenario film like Mulholland Drive can emerge. Both parts of Mulholland Drive make use of key aspects of fundamental ontology - people, places, events, and reinterprets their external reality through the lens of Diane's subjective reality. While you're watching Mulholland Drive, both of its parallel narratives seem equally plausible, but its only after stepping back from them at the completion of the film that you realise that they are in fact two subjective statements on external reality - paradoxically related, and indicative of the ability that we all have to place broad interpretations on real life events. Mulholland Drive effectively provides both a commentary on the nature of subjective reality as it's depicted on film, and as we experience it in real life.

The idealised first portion of Mulholland Drive's plot reveals just how high Diane Selwyn's hopes for her future in Hollywood were. She clearly believed herself to be an actress of extreme talent, and one for whom a single audition would be enough to launch her career. This leads in a manner of moments onto not only further casting opportunities for Diane, but also the kind of self-confidence that would allow her to turn down auditions at will.

The first portion of Mulholland Drive also reveals the kind of idealised personal relationships that Diane sought in life. It becomes clear very early into the film that Diane didn't just want her parents to support the choices that she made in her life, but actually imagined that they existed to support her. At the start of Mulholland Drive, Diane's parents accompany her at the airport on her big trip to Hollywood, giving her constant encouragement. We don't hear them exchange any conversations between themselves. Diane's parents smile all the time. And when they are finally alone in the cab together, they just laugh, like two great barrels of hot air. We can not imagine Diane's parents having an interior life, because Diane does not envisage it.

In much the same way, Diane also remolds her spirited girlfriend Camilla into the frightened form of amnesiac, Rita. This act reveals Diane's desire to have a partner in life with neither friends, family or a history to distract her. Diane imagines Camilla without either a will to defy her or a memory, and thus the new Camilla emerges, a blank canvas upon which Diane can paint her deepest desires.

Philosopher, Seneca believed that people could avoid the pain of bitter disappointment in their lives by never allowing their expectations to rise above the level of reason, by expecting the unexpected (both good, and more importantly, bad) and by not seeking to find judgments on their character in sets of external events.

The first portion of Muholland Drive clearly reveals to us that Diane Selwyn's expectations in life were highly unattainable, frequently self-centered, and in the latter part of the film, mostly unvoiced. Diane clearly never factored bad fortune into her plans in life, and thus, was wholly defenceless when faced by it.

In the second portion of the film, Diane clearly took the series of disappointments which befell her to heart. When failure on the career and home fronts became entrenched in Diane's life, she interiorised it, and saw it as an inescapably cruel judgment on herself. The best example of this is at the point in the film when Camilla and Adam laugh nervously before the public announcement of their engagement, while Diane stands crying in the shadows, imagining their laughter cruel and derisively directed at her. Diane instantly interpreted those events as a slight against her.

Seneca might say that Diane's interpretation of and reaction to Camilla's engagement was perhaps born of "a certain abjectness of spirit", a deep-seated belief on Diane's behalf that she was not only a public subject of ridicule, but deservingly so. Diane consequently reacted to Camilla's engagement with a frustrated, unfettered rage. Whether Diane's character would have been capable of the destruction that she brought upon Camilla if not for her own suffering is an academic point, but perhaps it didn't have to be that way.

As throughout the history of philosophy and drama, the topic of suffering is not an alien one to the character's in David Lynch's films. John Merrick suffered greatly in The Elephant Man (1980), so too did Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini) in Blue Velvet (1986), Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Fred Madison (Bill Paxton) in Lost Highway (1997), to name but a few. Some of these characters managed to learn from their suffering, others did not. In can be argued that Mulholland Drive's Diane Selwyn belongs to the latter variety.

Writer, Hubert Selby Jr once mused on the topic that:
... The function of suffering is to let me know that my perception is skewed. What I'm doing is judging natural events in such a way that I'm creating suffering within myself... (in life) you have pain over certain conditions, certain situations that occur, and if you just say, 'Here I am, I'm going to experience the pain', you don't suffer. (But it is) the resistance, and the degree of resistance, to the natural phenomenon of life that causes tremendous suffering ...

It can be argued that Diane's downfall was caused by her unrealistically high expectations in life, and her inability to adapt to or reassess them amongst a set of changing circumstances. For this, Diane suffered greatly, but even suffering didn't have to be her end.

Philosophers throughout history have emphasised the redemptive qualities of suffering. Friedrich Nietzsche even went so far as to say:
To those human beings who are of any concern to me, I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill treatment, indignities, profound self contempt, the torture of self mistrust and the wretchedness of the vanquished.

These words were inspired by Nietzsche's firm philosophy that great happiness could only be attained by those who had also endured great suffering in their lives.

It can be argued that the character of Diane Selwyn in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is the very antithesis of such a worldview; a picture of unresolved suffering, perhaps born out of what Hubert Selby Jr describes as 'the great American dream of pain avoidance', and the product of a comfort seeking society.

That's not to say that there isn't a hint of redemption in Mulholland Drive for Diane Selwyn, as her dream world exhibits a certain lucid cyncism in relation to the business of acting. It is clear in this world that Diane has realised that the playing field is not even for actors and that actors are not always cast on the basis of their artistic skills; as something as arbitrary as 'a name' can be enough to secure an acting role. The realisation that artistic decisions can very easily be held to ransom by producers and film financiers is also present in the surreal events of the first part of the film. This portion of Diane's dream proves that life experience has taught Diane something about her chosen field- something that perhaps she always knew, but was unwilling to admit to herself, having deferred to the judgments of producers and directors throughout much of her life.

In Diane Selwyn's death and rebirth into a new understanding about her chosen field, she exhibits an ability to find what Friedrich Nietzsche describes in his theories on the experimental subject as "new defences against the fact of pain". The reassessment of her life that Diane undergoes holds out redemptive possibilities for her character.

Schopenhauer once wrote that in the most compelling works of art:
The poet takes from life that which is quite particular and individual, and describes it accurately in its individuality; but in this way it reveals the whole of human existence... though he appears to be concerned with the particular, he is actually concerned with that which is everywhere and at all times.

In a certain light, Diane Selwyn's story can be seen to be both particular to her and representative at the same time of many young actors who have struggled to make themselves known against the somewhat misleading backdrop of money, fame and easy fortune that Hollywood projects.

It can be argued that a broader and more subtle kind of social commentary is also at work in Mulholland Drive. In this day and age, where technological determinism dictates the rhythms of global culture and public sphere debate barely exists outside of television, it serves as little surprise that many of us, much like Diane Selwyn, have grown up with an expectation of instant gratification in our lives. And much like Diane Selwyn, few of us can predict with any certainty what effect our dreams will have on our perceptions, nor can we fully gauge what our reactions will be in times of difficulty. As Schopenhauer also wrote,
We should always be mindful of the fact that no man is ever very far from the state in which he would readily want to seize a sword or poison in order to bring his existence to an end; and those who are far from believing this could easily be convinced of the opposite by an accident, an illness, a violent change of fortune - or of the weather.

Through the character of Diane Selwyn, Mulholland Drive brings to the fore the fragility and the fallibility on which the human condition is based. Lynch's use of two parallel narratives in conveying Diane Selwyn's story well exhibits the effect that perception has on our comprehension of, and reactions to, sets of external events. David Lynch's latest film exploration of the darker side of human existence is well wrought, emotionally charged, and most of all, timely. Mulholland Drive is clearly a film with designs on the philosophical zeitgeist of the new millennium.

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