Doppelgangers and Dreamscapes:

The Cinema of David Lynch

(Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive)

By Jen Johans
(Quotes from IMDb)

Lynch on MEANING:

“[My films] mean different things to different people.
Some mean more or less the same things to a large number of people.  It’s okay.  Just as
long as there’s not one message, spoon-fed.  That’s what films by committee end up being,
and it’s a real bummer to me.  Life is very, very complicated, and so films should be
allowed to be, too.”

Lynch on HUMANITY:

“I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense.  I think it makes
people terribly uncomfortable.  It seems like religion and myth were invented against that,
trying to make sense out of it.”


“To give a sense of place, to me, is a thrilling thing.  And a sense of place is made up of
details.  And so the details are incredibly important.  It they’re wrong, then it throws you
out of the mood.  And so the sound and music and color and shape and texture, if all those
things are correct and a woman looks a certain way with a certain kind of light and says
the right word, you’re gone, you’re in heaven.  But it’s all the little details.”

*Note: Contains Plot Spoilers*

David Lynch is one of those unforgettable directors whose bravery, daring, passion, love of
surrealist mystery, single-mindedness of vision and expressionistic qualities make him
one-of-a-kind.  This being said, he is also one of the most disturbing filmmakers of our
time and one whose work, for me, goes to the extremes in my reaction from hatred to
reverence, with only a few of his pictures being in the middle of the scale.  I first became
acquainted with Lynch as a child sneaking in to the family room while my parents watched
Twin Peaks on television.  To this day, the opening bars of Angelo Badalementi’s score
from the show and the image of Kyle Machlachlan still send shivers down my spine.  I was
fascinated, frightened and curious to learn more about Lynch, but after reading enough
about him to grow wary, decided to view his films when I was a bit older and began, of
course, with the film that is nearly synonymous with his name.  

In the nightmarish and perverse
Blue Velvet—Lynch made a dangerously kinky
exploration of the dark side of suburbia that was so risky to most studios that producer
Dino DeLaurentis “had to set up his own distribution company D.E.G., in order to get the
film into theatres,” (IMDb).  
Blue Velvet helped put Lynch back on the map after his first
cult film
Eraserhead led him to exciting opportunities such as making The Elephant Man
for Mel Brooks and being offered but turning down a chance to helm
Return of the Jedi for
Star Wars series creator and Lynch fan George Lucas.  The excess of his sci-fi epic Dune
threatened to ruin his reputation and label him a one hit wonder until he concocted a tale
about a young man (Machlachan) and woman (Laura Dern after Molly Ringwald’s mother
objected to her daughter starring in such a graphic film) who uncover a mystery in a small
American town that resembles television shows of the 1950’s.  However as Tim Dirks writes
on, “beneath the familiar, peaceful, ‘American-dream’ cleanliness of the
daytime scenes lurks the sleaziness, prostitution, unrestrained violence, and perversity—
powerful and potentially—dangerous sexual forces that may be unleashed if not

The mystery the two kids uncover leads them to becoming involved in the plight of a
beautiful, troubled lounge singer  (Isabella Rossellini in a role that launched her) who has
been forced to become the sexual slave of a sadistic madman (played by Dennis Hopper—
who else?) who is holding her husband and child hostage.  Although many actors declined
the role of Hopper’s Frank, it has been reported to IMDb that Hopper himself said, “I’ve
got to play Frank.  Because I am Frank!”  

Frank’s actions in the film are so repulsive and terrifying—especially in his sexually
violent behavior towards Rossellini that some critics balked at the film, most notably
Roger Ebert who objected to the violence against women.  In his review he notes:

    "Rossellini is asked to do things in this film that require real nerve.  In one scene,
    she’s publicly embarrassed by being dumped naked on the lawn of the police
    detective.  In others, she is asked to portray emotions that I imagine most
    actresses would rather not touch.  She is degraded, slapped around, humiliated
    and undressed in front of the camera.  And when you ask an actress to endure
    those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an
    important film."

He ends the review with an accusation lashed at Lynch (who after filming became
Rossellini’s lover for a number of years): “What’s worse?  Slapping somebody around, or
standing back and finding the whole thing funny?”  In the footage from his television show
with Gene Siskel, that is included on the
Blue Velvet DVD by MGM, Siskel answers Ebert’s
attacks by saying she’s a woman and actress who made the choice and he’s sure she’s fine.  
When he suggests that Lynch is using Rossellini like Hitchcock did with Janet Leigh in
Psycho—playing with his audience like a piano, Ebert says he’d only be willing to be played
like a piano if the song is worth listening to.  I admit that I did struggle greatly with the
scenes involving Rossellini as well, but agree that like Siskel noted, she did make a choice
to star in the film but I do think it’s a dark and dangerous work and not nearly worthy of
all the cult-like praise that has been heaped onto it over the years.  Despite that, I do
admire it for its craftsmanship and haunting qualities—one can see the way that Lynch
used some of the ideas from the film (such as allusions to the Lincoln assassination, the
highway at night, etc.) in his later works… and we would have to wait until the new
millennium for his masterpiece,
Mulholland Drive.  However, the film is a fascinating case
study—a “surrealistic, psychosexual film… a throwback to art films, 50’s B-movies and
teenage romances, film noir, and the mystery-suspense genre,” (

David Lynch is fascinated by doubles—throughout his career, his films are full of alter
egos, doppelgangers, opposites, contradictions and usually these doubles take the form of
two women (one with blonde hair as Dern in
Blue Velvet with Rosselini’s dark haired
vixen).  In
Mulholland Drive, he gets the opportunity to explore doubles and opposites in
countless ways.  The film is undoubtedly his masterwork and the one that made me
appreciate all his earlier films a bit more as, like Ebert said in his review,
Drive seems to be
the film he was heading towards all his career.  

The film stars Naomi Watts as a perky blonde aspiring actress who arrives fresh-faced and
optimistic in Hollywood.  She meets a mysterious dark haired beauty played by Laura
Elena Harring, who escapes near death twice as the film begins but suffers from amnesia
and allusions to Rita Hayworth and the film
Gilda are made early on in order to pay
homage to its noir roots.  

In my research I uncovered that a deceased young actress and former Lynch assistant
named Jennifer Syme, (to whom the film is dedicated), inspired Harring and Watts’s
characters.  Syme, a former girlfriend during the 90’s of Keanu Reeves (and tragically the
mother of his stillborn child in 1999) died in a horrific car accident when her Jeep crashed
into a row of parked cars in Los Angeles.  Not much is known about Syme but it’s clearly a
labor of love to the actress who died after Lynch had begun working on it.  

Mulholland Drive continues, we’re thrust into a nightmarish mystery of surrealism,
fantasy, and it’s an extraordinary puzzle to behold.  The film earned Lynch the Best
Director title at the Cannes Film Festival (he shared his award with Joel Coen for
The Man
Who Wasn't There
) and proved to be an inspiring success story of never giving up in
Hollywood.  Originally filmed for ABC as a television series that they ultimately
abandoned, the French film company Studio Canal bailed Lynch out by giving him seven
million dollars to finish his dream project and release it as a film.  The breathtakingly
visual opus salutes Lynch’s early training as a painter and art student.  It is truly one-of-a-
kind as we follow along on the journey, confused but basically understanding Lynch’s
ideas until the last thirty minutes of the work inexplicably changes course and sets
everything against what had proceeded.  

Roger Ebert explains: “The movie is hypnotic; we’re drawn along as if one thing leads to
another—but nothing leads anywhere, and that’s even before the characters start to
fracture and recombine like flesh caught in a kaleidoscope.”  The film is confusing to say
the least but its rewards are rich—it does well to watch it with a friend or someone to
bounce ideas off of, although there’s a number of great explanations available online
( is the best one but Buckland’s book
Teaching Film Studies breaks it down even
simpler).  Although, like Lynch shared, we’re not really supposed to have one conclusion
to come to at the end—are the women the same, different, and what has happened?  He
offers ten clues to unlocking the secrets that are listed inside the DVD and online for fans.
However, like Ebert shares, “this is a movie to surrender yourself to.”  He continues:

    If you require logic, see something else.  Mulholland Drive works directly on the
    emotions, like music.  Individual scenes play well by themselves, as they do in
    dreams, but they don’t connect in a way that makes sense—again, like dreams.  The
    way you know the movie is over is that it ends.  And then you tell a friend, “I saw the
    weirdest movie last night.”  Just like you tell them you had the weirdest dream.
(c) Jen Johans.
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