Jitterbugging couples and dark shadows against a purple background, the opening scene of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive

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Dance+: Mulholland Drive

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Jitterbugging in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive
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Yasen Vasilev
Dance can slip through the nets of convention and identity – just like the films of David Lynch

Mulholland Drive begins with a jitterbug…

In its twentieth anniversary year, Mulholland Drive has already been voted the best film of the twenty-first century in a BBC critics poll. Named after a road in the Hollywood hills, famous for its celebrities, the film is set in Los Angeles where, as director David Lynch once noted, there are jokes about how everyone is writing a script. Yet for Lynch, the people are yearning not necessarily for fame, but for self-expression.

In a 2020 interview, Naomi Watts, one of the film’s stars, said that after 10 years unsuccessfully auditioning in LA she ‘didn’t know who she was any more’ until she was offered the role in Mulholland Drive. The line is echoed in the movie itself: ‘I don’t know who I am’. In the movie, though, this loss of self is reclaimed as a creative act, the opposite of the exhaustion of the fixed, self‑expressing subject.

That loss or unknowing sounds ‘Lynchian’ – a word that has come to indicate surrealist techniques imposed on everyday American life to reveal the corruption behind the façade. Dance in his films has been perceived as part of this nightmarish reality or as an expression of the inner world of characters. But that’s not all that it does.


Lynch keeps returning to dance…

Mulholland Drive opens with a hypnotic jitterbug dance contest scene, where dancing shadows, retro dance footage and Naomi Watts with an elderly couple are superimposed, one on top of the other, on a purple screen. The interplay between dancers and their shadows, who take on a life of their own, foreshadows the way the dramaturgy of the movie will be set in motion – with characters slipping out of identities and with a constant doubling of characters, scenes, locations, lines and recurring details.

Actually, what’s so eerie about this scene is not only the doubling effect but the way the jitterbug, a dance once considered uncivilised and out of control, today looks quite formalised and structured. It reveals bodies moved by ideology, with roles and movements prescribed, and with a lot of social pressure hidden behind the cheerful jumping. There is very little free will in these social interactions. This is what Naomi Watts’ character, with her naive smile, doesn’t yet know but will learn the hard way (think of one of the film’s last scenes, where she is a misfit in a carefully choreographed Hollywood party).

This cryptic movie spawned numerous interpretive theories, the most common ones privatising the dream story within a psychotic consciousness, even though Lynch continuously stresses the experience over the message, and refuses to discuss the meanings of the film. Privatisation obscures this critique. For before they were stripped of ideology and co-opted as pure aesthetic, surrealist techniques of manipulating form had a political stance.

Lynch’s movies are an aesthetic deconstruction of the American dream and the society of winners and losers it produces – epitomised best by Hollywood, whose industry has been one of the two legs exporting it internationally, the other being the military complex. Lynch often reinforces cinematic clichés only to fail our expectations; he works within tradition in order to subvert it. By inventing interventions on the level of form, he performs critique, while at the same time creating an alternative.


Blue Quote Mark

Oh, you can actually do that? Without any consequences?

Blue Quote Mark

I first saw Mulholland Drive when I was making my own first attempts at scriptwriting. I remember being struck by the characters swapping names and identities, and thinking: oh, you can actually do that? Without any consequences? It felt liberating and game-changing. Even more telling was that this level of freedom came from lost funding – Mulholland Drive was actually a rejected pilot for a new TV series which then found French funding and turned into a full-length feature. It is a good reminder of the autonomy of art, its power to disrupt the established order and rehearse new realities.

Lynch offers his characters a fluidity of identity in a world where they’re not fixed into socially determined categories. Fantasy can thus be interpreted not only as an escape from reality, but as a creative act of reimagining: reality as it could be. Lynch doesn’t stick to one option or the other. His movie is not only a critique of power structures, not only an empathic psychological exploration of failure, not only a queer love story; it is all of those at the same time, and it defies any attempt to be fit into a (blue) box: ‘It’s an experience, not an intellectual thing.’

The same can be said about dance. It is embodied but it transcends the self, identity and social standing. It is a concrete language of abstraction that has the potential not only to express and reflect but to reimagine the world and set it in motion, redistributing affects to both performers and audiences. 


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