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American Imago 62.1 (2005) 101-123

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The Dreams That Blister Sleep:

Latent Content and Cinematic Form in Mulholland Drive

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"The dreams that blister sleep boil up from the basic magic ring of myth."
—Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces


Few motion pictures have bedazzled, confounded, or provoked viewers more than David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001). Dismissed by Rex Reed (2001) as "a load of moronic and incoherent garbage," but hailed by Philip Lopate (2001) as "compelling, engrossing, well-directed, sexy, moving, beautiful to look at, mysterious and satisfying," it has garnered both some of the harshest epithets and some of the most lavish praise in recent cinematic history.1

Never intended as a theatrical feature, Mulholland Drive was conceived as a television pilot, but rejected by network executives after its first screening as "too dark and too weird" (McGovern 2001). For more than a year the project languished on the brink of abandonment, but it was ultimately acquired by a French production company that enjoined Lynch to transform it into a feature motion picture. The director recalls having had no idea how to proceed. Then, in a thunderclap of epiphany, inspiration struck him: "it was a most beautiful experience. . . . Everything was seen from a different angle. Everything was then restructured, and we did additional shooting. Now, looking back, I see that [the film] always wanted to be this way" (Macaulay 2001). [End Page 101]

Lynch's own coyness and teasing refusal to reveal much about the film has only added to the confusion surrounding his masterpiece. "Don't look for answers in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive," writes Owen Gleiberman (2001), who describes the plot as "a pretzel that never connects with itself." "If David Lynch's goal is to baffle," adds Jean Tang (2001), "Mulholland Drive has done him proud."Kenneth Turan (2001) dubbed the movie "a mystery that doesn't want to be solved," while Glenn Kenny (2001) quipped: "You laugh, you wince, you fall in love, you hold your breath, you cringe, you mutter 'Oh my God.' . . . The only problem is exactly what the hell happens in this movie?"

Not every critic, however, has found the movie to be so maddeningly incomprehensible. Some have argued that it makes sense, especially when viewed from the perspective of a dream. "The movie proceeds not with logic but with dream logic," wrote one critic (Allen 2001), while a second described it as being "constructed entirely in the language of dreams" (Taubin 2001). Others have concurred that the dreamlike design provides a gateway into the meaning of the film, but have found this pathway to be too difficult to follow.

This paper is based on the premise that the key to understanding Mulholland Drive begins with the recognition that its diabolically intricate form is a dream that obeys the rules set forth a century earlier in Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). While the nineteenth-century scientific community largely viewed dreams as nonpsychological phenomena, Freud revolutionized our understanding by finding them to be purposeful mental communications linked to the happenings of waking life. His Interpretation of Dreams stands for the proposition that while dreams often appear to be inexplicable and bizarre, they resonate with unconscious meaning. Despite Lynch's disavowals of interest in psychoanalytic theory, the convergence between Mulholland Drive and Freud's royal road to the unconscious should not be greatly surprising.2 Indeed, beholding this movie through the lens of Freudian dream-analysis throws it into sharper focus by revealing much of its hidden psychological complexity. [End Page 102]

The Movie as a Dream

From the first moment that the lights go down, Mulholland Drive projects an otherworldly quality, signaling the viewer's passage into a Lynchian dreamscape. As Frederick Lane, a psychiatrist who was interviewed by Tang (2001) for her...


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