On the one hand is the past that can neither be abolished nor forgotten, but from which we can derive almost nothing that will orient us in the present or help us to imagine the future. On the other hand, there is the future without the least shape. Every day we are at the mercy of some invention, some accident, either practical or intellectual.—Paul Valéry, "The Outlook for Intelligence"1
Unlike the body . . . which protects the organism by means of a spatial boundary between inside and outside, the barrier of consciousness is a barrier of sensation and knowledge that protects by placing stimulation within an ordered experience of time. What causes trauma, then, is a shock that appears to work much like a threat to the body's spatial integrity, but is in fact a break in the mind's experience of time.—Cathy Caruth, "Violence and Time:Traumatic Survivals"2 [End Page 373]
The film Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001) begins with a spectacular automobile accident on the road that leads in and out of Hollywood.3 The crash scene is preceded only by an opening jitterbug montage and then a distinct but enigmatic shot of wrinkled sheets in a darkened bedroom, a location that will not become familiar until the end of the film. This image dissolves into a nighttime exterior scene, an image of the road sign that bears the film's title; it appears to be lit by moving headlights. In the dark of night, a limousine navigates the winding road, the cityscape of Los Angeles visible below, and the opening titles come and go. To the bewilderment of the passenger in the backseat (a double character played by Laura Elena Harding, who will be known first as Rita and later as Camilla), the driver parks the vehicle on the side of the road. "We don't stop here," she says. The driver turns around and, pointing a handgun at Rita, tells her to get out. But this suspenseful moment is itself suspended, interrupted by a crash: presently, the stationary limousine is hit head-on by a speeding car full of screaming, drag-racing teenagers.4 Following the collision's initial explosion, an enormous plume of dust and smoke fills the frame for several seconds. This smoke screen masks a transition to the accident's aftermath, as a pair of barely perceptible dissolves effectively attenuate the interval separating the before and the after, obscuring the wreckage while also elongating the duration of the crash's initial shock (figure 1). The drive, which had already been paused inexplicably (the driver's motivation is never explained), is further derailed by the accident, an instantaneous impact that erases the memory of its only survivor.
As the smoke clears, the woman emerges from the wreck and stumbles away; a streak of blood down the side of her face indicates that she has sustained a head injury, though the wound itself remains hidden under her dark hair. Rita sets off on foot, down through the woods and into the Los Angeles landscape, where she will spend the first half of the film working to resolve her identity. Later, during the darker second half, the film will return to the same location to stage a parallel scene in which the film's other doubled character (played by Naomi Watts, first called Betty and then Diane) is hit with an emotional shock, which suggests a retroactive reading of this opening accident scene: Is one of them a fantastic revision or premonition of the other? For now, Rita disappears into the woods and descends into Los Angeles with no identification and no memory.
Amnesia, a well-rehearsed aftereffect of head injury in narrative cinema, sets a mysterious stage and supplies the film with an instantaneous shot of narrative momentum. Rita's head injury is blunt, which is to say, violently instantaneous and effectively invisible. By [End Page 374]
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