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Nobody can dispute that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is a work of art. Fragmented geography, no-frills set designs, multi-layered interpretations and a solid soundtrack by composer Badalamenti — not to mention a complex plot revolving, both literally and figuratively, around dreams.
The recent publication Back to Mulholland Drive: Minimal Fantasy, originally published in French in 2017, goes a step further: it studies Lynch’s cult classic as a starting point for, and as an influence in, contemporary art. According to the book’s editor, the art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud, Lynch helped to create an artistic style that could be called “Minimal Fantasy.” The term refers to an aesthetic of seeming mundanity mixed with surrealism, horror, and the uncanny.
Back to Mulholland Drive is the written expansion of the 2017 art exhibition Retour sur Mulholland Drive, which Bourriaud curated in the sunny city of Montpellier. Apparently, Bourriaud was unsettled by rows of palm trees and endlessly good weather, just as the viewer senses something uncanny in the seemingly shiny and tranquil Los Angeles of Mulholland Drive. Without getting into too much detail, the film’s pleasant setting starkly contrasts with the slow unraveling of the three main characters, who move through a surreal and fragmented urban dreamscape.
Bourriaud gathered the works of 24 artists, each of whom owed some artistic debt to Lynch. The artworks are explored in some detail in the first part of the book, which examines the ways that psychological tension in David Lynch’s work inspired particular artists.
Director Rodrigo Garcia, for example, created Who—What?, an installation that features a close-up of the frightening homeless woman in Mulholland Drive (she is described as half bum, half Macbeth witch) and an elaborate chandelier. Its purpose? “Like in David Lynch’s films, the answers, as long as they exist, will appear in people’s dreams,” Garcia states in a short essay in the book.
Likewise, in order to channel the Lynchian theme of the mirror image, which appears in everything from hairstyles to plotlines, Swedish multimedia artist Ylva Ogland created an installation titled Transmutation Ritual, a teepee In front of a pale pink wall containing collages featuring her alter ego — as she calls it, her “mirror twin” Snöfrid. “One time my sister and I ate pancakes on the mirrors [sic] edge with the Oracle,” ‘Snöfrid’ says in a short essay in Back to Mulholland Drive. “David Lynch joined us, we offered him some pancakes with gold syrup (for strengthening the I) and some powder of rose quartz.” It is a strange, and perhaps Lynchean, passage. “He showed us the box and the key, we felt a physical attraction to them, we wanted to be in their anti-matter.”
While the eight essays in the book make Back to Mulholland Drive more than a simple catalog, its contents do little in terms of expanding on the artistic understanding of David Lynch’s film. Instead, the written contributions fold themselves into a vicious cycle of devotion to the symbolism of Mulholland Drive. (An attentive copy edit would have helped, too: at one point in the book, the character Diane Selwyn is referred to as Diane Sullivan.)
Take, for example, Pavel Cazenove’s essay “Blue Lynchean Nightmare. Analysis of a Series of Plastic Objects in Mulholland Drive.” Cazenove first cites Jacques Aumont’s theory of the cinematic object, but after a winding journey he concludes that a blue box in a pivotal scene simply “refers to the emptiness of death and destruction.” He believes that a mysterious triangular key in the film implies that Mulholland Drive is a film à clef “to which perhaps only the author knows the secret.” (Glad he cleared that up.)
In “Memory, Identity and Desire: A Psychoanalytic Reading of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive,” Murat Akser tries to replicate Slavoj Zizek’s approach to Lost Highway by using Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan to untangle the fascinating mess of the film: he actually sees the two segments of the film as one being the dream of another dream. Fans of the movie Inception will surely appreciate Akser’s theory — but why should a book about art deal with a psychoanalytic approach just to try to find an underlying logic to Mulholland Drive’s plot?
Though these authors make a legitimate attempt to understand the film using psychoanalysis and film history, thoughtful rigor is ultimately abandoned in favor of a plot-specific analysis about how the film’s twists and turns actually make sense in the mind and movie of David Lynch. In the end, while the visual artists are able to show, figuratively, how Lynch influenced art, the essayists try too hard to crack the mystery of Mulholland Drive. All viewers probably do the same (what does the blue-haired woman wearing an elaborate pompadour coiffe, the one who utters “Silence” before credits roll, actually represent?). But focusing more on the aesthetic Lynch helped to inspire could have offered some respite from tedious questions about Mulholland Drive’s Möbius strip-like narratives. There is more than enough writing, from almost every possible angle, devoted to that.