Consider the Fugue: No Hay Banda/It Is All An Illusion

The next installment in the ICA Cinematheque season Consider the Fugue (6 - 27 August) is David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001).

James King

13 Aug 2013

The next installment in the ICA Cinematheque season Consider the Fugue (6 - 27 August) is David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001). Film & Cinema Co-ordinator James King examines how the film emerges as an articulate dramatisation of the psychogenic fugue. [Contains plot spoilers].

It is perhaps apt that a film that takes as its central subject thwarted ambition and the nature of failed dreams started life as a cancelled television series. In 1999 the American broadcasting network ABC commissioned David Lynch to write and direct a two-hour pilot episode, with the intention of developing it into a full series, almost a decade after his ground-breaking but ill-fated Twin Peaks (1990-1991) had forever changed the landscape of television drama with its unique blend of fetishised small-town Americana, soap-opera melodrama and nightmarish surrealism.

However, when Lynch delivered a working cut of his new pilot - a strange and non-linear Hollywood thriller - the footage utterly confounded executives at ABC; the project was promptly abandoned and the lost pilot seemed doomed to circulate underground networks as a low-quality bootlegged VHS. Twelve months later news of this unseen work had reached legendary French producer Alain Sarde; an avid Lynch admirer, Sarde called up the director and begged to see this fabled lost-episode. Lynch relented and mailed a tape across the Atlantic, Sarde loved what he saw and secured $7 million of funding for additional material to be shot so the pilot could be released as a feature-length work. After some initial hesitation, and much transcendental meditation, inspiration struck Lynch – he saw the opportunity for a complete metamorphosis of his original open-ended continuing story concept into a far more complex and cohesive feature-length work. The cast was reassembled for re-shoots and the end result was Lynch’s formidable masterpiece Mulholland Dr. (2001), which will be the second screening in the ICA Cinematheque’s Consider the Fugue season. The film offers us a heart-breaking depiction of the fugue narrative, revealing its therapeutic purpose and the true extent of its cathartic potential.

The narrative structure of Mulholland Dr., although often disorientating upon initial viewing, emerges as a remarkably articulate dramatisation of the psychogenic fugue. This coherence of expression can largely be accredited to the overt visual and narrative delineation between the realms of fantasy and desire. Despite its enigmatic opening images – which will be discussed later – the film starts out as a deceptively conventional thriller: a dark-haired woman (Laura Harring) is driven along Mulholland Drive at night in a black limousine. Suddenly the driver pulls over, holds a silenced pistol to the Woman and orders her to get out of the car; the other chauffeur climbs out to remove her by force if necessary. Just as it appears that the Woman is to be assassinated, a car-load of drunk teenagers come tearing round the bend and smash into the limousine, killing the would-be hitmen outright and knocking the Mystery Woman unconscious. After regaining her senses, she flees the scene and staggers down the Hollywood Hills into the city of Los Angeles, taking refuge in a recently-vacated apartment off Sunset Boulevard.

The audience is then presented with the parallel narrative-trajectory of Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), a naïve young blonde from Deep River, Ontario, who has ventured to the city as an aspiring actress. Aunt Ruth has loaned Betty her apartment whilst she shoots a film in Canada, but when Betty arrives from the airport she finds the Mystery Woman in the shower, who now calls herself Rita. Betty assumes Rita is a friend of her aunt’s, but when it transpires that Rita is a stranger suffering from amnesia, the good-natured Betty decides to take her under her wing and help solve the mystery of Rita’s past. This relationship quickly turns to romance, climaxing with an intimate sexual encounter, Betty boldly proclaiming her love for Rita.

After the women have made love, as Betty drifts into sleep, Rita starts to chant in Spanish: 'Silencio. Silencio. No hay banda…'. Possessed with intent, apparently remembering something from her forgotten past, Rita takes Betty to a late-night underground theatre: Club Silencio. The two women watch a bizarre performance in which a magician repeatedly informs the audience that this is 'all an illusion,' revealing the show to be an elaborate tape recording – this revelation elicits an uncanny reaction from Betty, who convulses in a mechanical, almost epileptic manner. The performance culminates in singer Rebekah del Rio lip-synching to her own Spanish-language rendition of Roy Orbison’s 'Crying', her mime-act utterly convincing until she collapses onstage, seemingly dead; two morbid stagehands drag her body behind the curtains. After the surreal performance Betty finds a strange blue box in her handbag, with a hole in the top that matches a blue key Rita found in her bag after the car accident. The women return to Aunt Ruth’s apartment and Betty uses Rita’s key to open the box, revealing a dark abyss inside that seems to swallow Betty, for she disappears and the box falls to the floor – at this point the narrative disintegrates, and the repressed truth is finally revealed.

The last third of the film, presented as a series of jolted and temporally-fractured scenes, makes it apparent that Betty Elms is actually Diane Selwyn, a struggling actress who came to Los Angeles after winning a jitterbug contest in her hometown of Deep River, Ontario; and Rita is Camilla Rhodes, also an actress, who had a relationship with Diane but subsequently left her for director Adam Kesher after landing the lead role in film-within-the-film The Sylvia North Story. Camilla is for Diane the impossible object of desire. Consumed with jealousy, scorned lover Diane hires a hitman to kill Camilla, but when she receives the blue key – a sign that the murder has successfully taken place – Diane’s mind revolts. This is the point at which the psychogenic fugue occurs: unable to accept the traumatic reality of events, Diane retreats into a constructed fantasy in which Camilla is still alive (as Rita), the assassination attempt thwarted by a freak car accident, allowing Diane to come to her rescue (as Betty), their affair re-imagined in a fictional romantic narrative.

This fantasy, however, provides only temporary solace and is riddled with uncanny elements that hint at its fragile infrastructure. When it inevitably disintegrates, Diane has to again face the reality that she has killed her lover. Plagued by hallucinations, Diane suffers a complete psychological breakdown and shoots herself in the head with a pistol. Yet in the last moments of the film the audience is presented with images of Diane and Camilla together, smiling ecstatically, their faces superimposed over a panorama of Los Angeles at night (as seen from Mulholland Drive), high-strings reverberating on the soundtrack, poignant and evocative. The screen finally dissolves into Club Silencio: the empty stage, a lone woman wearing a blue wig utters the last word: 'Silencio.' As the credits roll one senses that, even in death, Diane has finally found peace, released from her deadlock of frustrated and impossible desire.

Despite the film’s elaborate narrative-structuring, the psychoanalytic journey of Diane is concisely prefigured in a series of enigmatic opening images: jitterbug music rises on the soundtrack as two couples dance frantically against a purple backdrop, their images duplicated and overlapping in a moving visual collage. Over this dance, Betty’s face, accompanied by an elderly couple, is superimposed, out-of-focus and flickering about the screen – foreshadowing the turn to fantasy (or psychogenic fugue) in which Diane attempts to escape this deadlock by creating her own idealized doppelgänger, Betty. Yet these images quickly dissolve into a hand-held, blurred point-of-view shot that hovers above a bed, heavy breathing prominent on the soundtrack. The camera finally plunges into the pillow and darkness engulfs the frame. This last shot symbolizes the dissolution of the fantasy as Diane is forced to encounter the gaze of the traumatic Real: she experiences the loss her lover, the impossible object, and realizes that the objet petit a, Camilla’s desire, is an empty void.

If, as Todd McGowan claims in his remarkable essay 'Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and its Vicissitudes', Lynch’s films hold the worlds of fantasy and desire as separate (thus allowing them to intersect), then one must investigate how they are held separate.[1] In Mulholland Dr. the formal differences between the first section (fantasy) and the second (desire) facilitate this division: by presenting the two sections of the film in contrasting visual styles, the realms of fantasy and desire (or social reality) are split into separate diegetic spaces. The fantasy section of the film is characterized by an aesthetic that reflects traditional Hollywood studio productions: continuity editing, luscious lighting and harmonic musical scoring. These elements are, at times, used to uncanny excess, emphasizing the constructed nature of the fantasy.

This excess is evident in an early scene which introduces the character of Betty as she arrives in LA: having just landed at the airport, Betty rides down the escalator, accompanied by an elderly couple she has befriended on the flight over. Throughout the scene flattering lighting emphasises Naomi Watt’s wholesome beauty: blonde hair, fair skin and gleaming white teeth. Angelo Badalamenti’s score accompanies the scene’s sense of excitement and wonder, synthesized chords rising extravagantly as Betty notices a sign: ‘Welcome to Los Angeles.’ As Betty and the couple part ways, their exchange unusually warm for people who have simply shared a flight together, the editing adheres to the shot/reverse-shot pattern based upon the 180º axis of action used to ensure narrative continuity since the early days of Hollywood. [2] The aesthetic excesses of this fantasy world appears deliberately cinematic – a self-conscious atmosphere further emphasized by the blatant allusion to Billy Wilder’s Hollywood-noir Sunset Boulevard (1950) eight-minutes into the film, as the camera pans up to a street sign: ‘Sunset Bl. 7200 W’. The apparatus of cinematic fantasy-construction is here out in the open.

The second section of the film, depicting the world of desire, presents an aesthetic diametrically opposed to the first: the rules of continuity editing are flagrantly broken; the camera violently racks focus; scenes are presented temporally fractured and the lighting that made Betty appear so striking is here used to emphasize Diane’s physical blemishes and imperfections. In one scene Diane stands over a sink, her appearance haggard – no make-up, hair askew, wearing an unwashed T-shirt and dirty dressing gown – she turns to look off-screen left, her face fills with joy as she exclaims 'Camilla, you’ve come back.' The next shot reveals Camilla, smiling placidly back, wearing red lipstick and a matching dress, her eye-line matching Diane’s. The camera cuts back to Diane as her face falls and horror fills her eyes – the next shot reveals Diane standing where Camilla was, still wearing her dirty robe. This jolting editing technique not only highlights the absence of the impossible object in this world, but is also used to move seamlessly into a flashback of Camilla and Diane’s break-up, disorientating the audience as to the temporal location of events.

The formal discrepancy between the two sections is further emphasised in a harrowing scene displaying the frustrating nature of Diane’s deadlock of desire. Unable to possess the object of her affection, Diane masturbates furiously on her couch. Unlike the slick cinematography that characterized the airport scene, the camera here racks dramatically in and out of focus on a stone fireplace, the frame shaking about as it presents Diane’s hysteric point-of-view; the sound of her sobbing dominates the soundtrack.  A close-up shot reveals Diane’s face: tears streaking down her cheeks, her eyes red and sore, teeth gritted. Her solitary act is interrupted by the sound of a telephone ringing, her head whips round in response. The next shot reveals the ringing machine on a small table next to an ashtray and a red lamp, yet when Diane wanders over to the phone, she is now in full make-up, wearing a red dress, indicating that another temporal ellipsis has occurred. Whereas scenes in the fantasy-section moved forwards in a continuous chronological progression, the world of desire is characterised by a sense of temporal inconsistency, reflecting Diane’s frustrated, distraught psyche. In separating these worlds of fantasy and desire into two diegetic spaces, Lynch creates the possibility for their intersection, as McGowan claims:

'Keeping desire and fantasy separate allows Lynch to depict the point at which they interact, and it is at this point – the edge of desire and fantasy – that the gaze manifests itself. Hence, Lynch’s films… uniquely facilitate an encounter with the gaze, even though this encounter is only momentary.' [3]

Despite recognising the radical potential for a facilitation of an encounter with the gaze of the Real that Lynch’s films provide, McGowan fails to recognize, even in his book The Impossible David Lynch, that Lynch depicts this point of intersection as a physical space – in the case of Mulholland Dr., this space is Club Silencio. [4]

As Betty and Rita make their way to the theatre, the formal integrity of the fantasy-narrative begins to fall apart, reinforcing McGowan’s claim that fantasy always: 'breaks down and loses its consistency at its edges.' [5] A wide-angle shot presents Betty and Rita hailing a taxi, lens-flare from streetlights and the cab’s headlights distorting the image. The camera slowly tracks in on the two women, yet as it approaches them it racks violently out of focus, the frame shaking uncontrollably – throughout the duration of this shot the sound is muted to the point of inaudibility. The audience is then presented with a static extreme-long shot of the cab pulling up outside the theatre, the sound again muted – as the women climb out of the car the camera is seemingly detached from its tripod and charges towards the club entrance as Rita and Betty slip inside. This unusual cinematography, combined with the muted sound, serves as a Brechtian alienation technique, a breaking of the fourth wall that reminds the audience of the constructed nature of the filmic image, of the cinematic fantasy.

The theatre itself bears more than a passing resemblance to a cinema: with balcony seating and prominent red curtains – a staple of Lynchian iconography – invoking the curtains that cover a cinema screen. Greg Toles describes how the theatrical performance is instigated when a: 'Fellini-esque master of ceremonies clearly… explains to us how sound and image lead separate lives in this illusion-saturated setting.' [6] Although accurate in description, Toles neglects to identify that this 'elaborate counsel about sight and sound splitting' the emcee imparts is functioning to expose, to Betty and to the audience, that this fantasy-narrative is an elaborate illusion. [7] The emcee’s antics on stage – which involve a trumpet player emerging onstage, convincingly playing his instrument as notes are heard, until he pulls the piece away from his mouth, revealing the sound to be a tape recording – serve to communicate that, although convincing on a sensory level, fantasy is artificial, a desperate attempt to escape the deadlock of desire. Although Diane may have constructed a scenario in which she can be with her object of desire, this is only avoiding the truth of her loss.

Lightning flashes and thunderous sound effects encompass the stage as the emcee stares directly at Betty: with the constructions of fantasy exposed, the worlds of fantasy and desire here intersect and implode - the emcee’s look becomes the gaze of the traumatic Real. When forced to encounter this gaze, Betty’s body starts to convulse, as if experiencing a fit or seizure, such is the power of this encounter. The emcee then disappears in a cloud of smoke, himself an illusion of Betty’s fantasy. As Rebakah del Rio mimes her song 'Crying,' Betty and Rita weep, Betty/Diane’s encounter with the Real finally allowing her to mourn the loss of her impossible love object, Rita/Camilla.

Deadlock of desire, turn to fantasy, encounter with the Real – this circular process is what Zizek describes as the ‘psychoanalytic cure’ in Enjoy Your Symptom!:

Herein lies the 'effect of truth'… when I draw a childhood trauma out of the shadowy world of 'repression' and integrate it with my knowledge, this radically transforms the symbolic horizon that determines my present 'self-understanding' – after accomplishing it, I am not the same subject as before.[8]

Zizek’s model demonstrates how Diane’s encounter with the gaze of the Real has brought about a self-understanding that, despite her suicide, accounts for the transcendent nature of the film’s final images. This is the therapeutic function of the fugue narrative: by integrating the Real into her knowledge, Diane has changed her symbolic horizon, finally releasing herself from the deadlock of desire that drove her to despair. By confronting the traumatic truth of her reality, she is able to experience the genuine loss of her lover that was only avoided in her psychological retreat into fugue-fantasy, and through this experience Diane is finally able to achieve catharsis, to find some kind of peace and enlightenment.

[1] Todd McGowan, 'Looking for the Gaze: Lacanian Film Theory and It’s Vicissitudes,' Cinema Journal, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Spring, 2003), p.40

[2] David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction [Seventh Edition] (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), p.310

[3] McGowan, p.40

[4] McGowan, The Impossible David Lynch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)

[5] McGowan, 'Looking for the Gaze,' p.40

[6] Greg Toles, 'Auditioning Betty in Mulholland Drive,' Film Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Autumn, 2004), p.12

[7] Toles, p.12[8] Slavoj Zizek, Enjoy Your Symptom! (New York: Routledge, 1992), p.37


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