David Reading David: Lynch as Auteur of “Sincerity”

Auteurs: David Lynch, David Fincher, Frank Capra, & Richard Linklater

A panel presentation at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference in San Diego, CA

Panel 2264 | Film III | April 17, 2017

  • David Reading David: Lynch as Auteur of Sincerity (Matthew Pincus)
  • How it’s Done: Observations on David Fincher as Process, Obsession Auteur (Sam Meister)
  • A Dialogue on the Fringes: Spiritual Engagement in the Films of Richard Linklater (Victor Benning)
  • The Conflicted George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (Paul Peterson)

David Reading David: Lynch as Auteur of Sincerity

In “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace attempts to explicate a depiction of an artist or filmmaker who enacts a sincerity called for in his earlier essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” The latter text, published five years earlier, argues postmodern irony (the literature of John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Ishmael Reed among others) has been subsumed by media and culture for economic and corporate interests. To counter this effect, Wallace argues for writers “Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction” (81). To Wallace, Lynch is just such an artist who stays both true to himself as a director or auteur, and who investigates U.S. society and culture through a genuine expressionism in his films.

David Lynch first stays true to himself by having complete control over the entire filmmaking process of any movie he directs. Further, as Wallace argues in his essay, “He does pretty much what he wants and appears not to give much of a shit whether you like it or even get it. His loyalties are fierce and passionate and almost entirely to himself” (192). Wallace goes on to note this may make Lynch a pathological narcissist or a genius, but certainly there may be a case for the latter considering the effect he has had on the independent film industry over the last forty years. He has a signature auteur style aptly called Lynchian defined by Wallace referencing, “‘a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter’” (161). These scenes are evident in all of his films, but used most precisely and effectively in his 2001 movie Mulholland Dr.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theories of desiring-production and the BwO (the body without organs) described and elaborated on in their two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1972, 1980) can aid in what Wallace finds both fascinating and authentic in Lynch’s films. Wallace suggests towards the end of his essay, “Lynch is not interested in the devolution of responsibility, and he’s not interested in the moral judgments of characters. Rather, he’s interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil” (203). These spaces are explored in the characters Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts), who at one point in the film is a burgeoning, cheerful movie actress sheltering the amnesiac Rita who wanders to her home after surviving a car crash. In the later second iteration she is a deeply jealous, depressed movie actress out of work who has been dumped by Camilla Rhodes (Rita), a successful movie actress she is shamed by. Diane hires a hitman to murder Camilla and, in her guilt and shame for conspiring to kill her, commits suicide. Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts emphasize Wallace’s reading of Lynch as a filmmaker who investigates evil in individual American characters as well as society and culture undercutting master narratives of the American Dream and American exceptionalism.

The most straightforward interpretation of Mulholland Dr. is to state the first part of the film is a dream, or rather a wish-fulfillment fantasy concocted in Diane Selwyn’s head. She reimagines herself as Betty Elms, a young burgeoning actress who shelters and falls in love with Rita. The second part of the film is her waking up to reality, and her shattered American Dream of becoming a famous and wealthy actress in Hollywood. This is also reinforced by the presentation of the film director Adam Kesher, who in her dream is wealthy, but whose wife is unfaithful. In this dream, Kesher is directing a film whose production is taken hostage by mobsters. Further, his bank accounts are frozen and he is forced to cast Rita as the lead in the film. In the second iteration, or reality, Adam Kesher is also a wealthy director, but he is to be married to Camilla. Diane is invited to a party in order to be humiliated and shamed at having ever thought Camilla could be in love with her. This dreamscape is so lavishly elaborate it seems almost impossible for one individual to create such a narrative in the span of what seems to be an afternoon nap. The film also does not explain how dream sequences such as the bum behind the diner, Betty and Rita attending Club Silencio in the middle of the night to hear a recorded Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” and the appearance of a sinister cowboy enter into Diane’s reality.

Desiring-Production is a concept, which can help to contextualize these latter scenes, which seem absurd or nonsensical if placed in the straightforward reading of dream followed by reality. Deleuze and Guattari argue, “Hence everything is production: production of productions, of actions and of passions; productions of recording processes, of distributions and of co-ordinates that serve as points of reference; productions of consumptions, of sensual pleasures, of anxieties, and of pain” (Anti-Oedipus, 4). Desiring-production is an unconscious, productive force that unlike the repressed, Freudian “Id” can become a productive, mechanistic force of creation. Deleuze and Guattari throughout the text refer to desire as something that does not presuppose a lack, but is already a functioning, inventive force in everything one does. Reading Mulholland Dr. as a dream, and then reality of Diane Selwyn presupposes that the character’s unconscious possesses a lack, which needs to be fulfilled. Rather than interpreting Diane’s emotions through moral values of depression, shame, guilt, and fear, one could see the whole film as creating desires of an American imaginary. This would help to place the cowboy, an imaginary of the American frontier, and trope of American exceptionalism in the 19th century. Also, the depiction of a horrid, filthy bum behind the diner could be a desiring-outburst so to speak of the failure of the American Dream, where in cities like Los Angeles (or any metropolis), there are ubiquitous camps of homeless citizens.

The BwO connects these moments of desiring-production, where the film Mulholland Dr. is a mechanism or machine in which scene is a fabricated assemblage molecularly criticizing and commenting on these American master narratives. Deleuze and Guattari suggest, “The body without organs is not an empty body stripped of organs, but a body upon which that which serves as organs (wolves, wolf eyes, wolf jaws?) is distributed according to crowd phenomena, in Brownian motion, in the form of molecular multiplicities” (A Thousand Plateaus, 30). The term BwO is an extended metaphor for a network of connections in which each assemblage or part works in tandem with one another. This can be as varied as different roles in an activist group, different positions at a bank, or in this particular instance different scenes or aesthetic symbols in a film. It does not place “moral judgments,” as Wallace notes, on a movie, but rather explores how different segments or encounters with moments in the film interact with a viewers’ conception of America’s cultural imaginary. This tends to make an audience viewing a Lynch film uncomfortable because of the way Lynchian moments challenge, and confront one’s stable connection to themes such as the American Dream, and American exceptionalism. As Wallace comments, “And in response to my discomfort I’m going to do one of two things: I’m either going to find some way to punish the movie for making me uncomfortable, or I’m going to find a way to interpret the movie that eliminates as much of the discomfort as possible” (208). Most studio films, and those distributed among major American theater chains reaffirm master narratives rather than challenge them. Most critics or viewers of Lynch will generally commit to white (decipher an interpretation by ignoring or omitting certain scenes of the film) or black (disregard the film as bad) interpretations rather than looking at it through the lens of a BwO examining deep anxieties and personal fears about beliefs and values in America.

Mulholland Dr.’s scenes of absurd or existential farce are effective because they have a straight forward interpretation of dream to reality to fall back upon. Well-regarded Lynch films such as Blue Velvet (1986) and The Elephant Man (1980) both have linear narratives to rely upon despite bizarre scenes that exist within the film. The same could also be said of the television series Twin Peaks (1990-91), but the films Eraserhead (1977), Wild at Heart (1990), and Inland Empire (2006), all have Lynchian moments, but do not afford the viewer any logical interpretation. This is crucial for developing what Wallace describes: “Art, after all, is supposed to be a kind of communication, and ‘personal expression’ is cinematically interesting only to the extent that what’s expressed finds and strikes chords within the viewer” (199). Lynch, when he divests a multiplicity to the viewer inserting both narrative and existential scenes working as a BwO divests assemblages that create desiring-productions with liberty for interpretation; this produces a sincere intimacy that allows the viewer to affirm or challenge master narratives still omnipresent in a culture that clings to a façade of dream-like freedoms. The American Dream died with Miller’s Death of a Salesman, yet it is still ubiquitous in television commercials. American exceptionalism died with the Vietnam War, yet it continues to be a repeated mantra for politicians.

Two scenes that would be defined as absurd are Adam Kesher’s encounter with the cowboy and Betty and Rita’s trip to Club Silencio. The latter scenario shows two women, after a sensual love scene, go to a late night L.A. club seemingly hidden down an alley. A magician, as emcee, presents the idea the club is all an illusion in which the whole of the stage, and the place, is shadowed by a blue hue. The singer lip-syncs a song, and then passes out on stage with the song still playing because it is a recording. The auteur seems to reference in this instance filmmaking itself. As David Andrews comments, “Lynch is not just reminding us Diane’s dream is an illusion, but that the whole cinematic experience is an illusion, a filmstrip, ‘a tape recording.’ Lynch has fractured more than the surface of the dream narrative, he has fractured the entire film” (35). Rita eventually finds a key which, when she returns to the apartment, fits the mysterious blue box, a latent object obsessed over in the first part of the film. This key supposedly unlocks the metamorphosis from Diane’s dreamscape to reality, but more aptly changes her from Betty to Diane. The blue box does not appear again, but the key does as confirmation for Diane from the hitman that Camilla has been murdered. She stares intently at it on her coffee table before running to her bedroom to shoot herself. The key could be interpreted as emblematic of the guilt and shame she feels for executing her vengeance against the lost love of Camilla. The blue box then would be emblematic of her depression and loneliness she is attempting to ward off through a fantastic imaginary.

David Lynch ruptures the illusion of filmmaking itself by meta-referencing a pre-recorded, predetermined object shot and edited at multiple points in the past allowing for an interpretation other than the psychoanalytic reading from Diane’s point of view. Rather, Mulholland Dr. is a BwO comprised of two separate films assembled and connected through the desiring-production created in the break of Club Silencio. Betty achieves the American Dream and is refracted against her mirror image, Diane, who is shattered by the reality that many actors and actresses are unemployed washouts in the vast wasteland of Los Angeles. Club Silencio is a manifestation of the blue box emphasized by the effective use of blue lens filters, the confrontation many people have with the anxiety and fear (especially in the entertainment industry) of either success or failure. Lynch confronts the myth that everyone in America can be a successful capitalist because a capitalist system is, in essence, one of inequality where there are both rich and poor, residents and homeless. Blue takes on the aesthetic significance of a depression and loneliness that can ensue from dwelling or brooding on the realization of this myth. Roy Orbison’s “Crying” sung in Spanish makes sense in this context, as Mexico is a nation of deep inequality with an economy America is more clearly resembling despite a perceived superiority.

The cowboy, and the bum in back of the diner encountered in the first section of the film are manifestations of these deep anxieties over the myth of the American Dream. The cowboy in his encounter with Adam Kesher at a ranch seems to be in on the conspiracy with the mobsters controlling production of his film, but also his presentation and the setting seems autonomous from them. The cowboy states that if the director fulfills his demands, he will see him one more time, if not he will see him twice more. The man is shown in two screenshots before Diane wakes up saying, ‘Hey pretty girl, time to wake up,’ split by a shot of a corpse on a bed. In Betty’s reality the man is an image of an all-powerful eccentric who can control the will of others.  He foreshadows the suicide of Diane in Lynch’s logic through his two reappearances in between the two realities of the film. The cowboy, as an aforementioned trope of American exceptionalism, controls others through verbal demands that end either in submission or violence. Further, the cowboy could also signify the wealthy elite in America where the top 1% control 35% of the nation’s wealth, and have a virtual stranglehold on the means of production and consumption in the economy. The bum is the mirror, or refracted image of the cowboy: a horrible, detestable, and dirty figure lingering, and hidden in America’s unconscious memory. He represents those individuals who haven’t achieved the American Dream, who have visibly failed to earn success in capitalism, but are willfully ignored by other citizens. Looking back to the 19th century, the bum could also represent the violence inflicted on slaves and Indigenous Americans, violence which has been buried in historical accounts in favor of adopting a progressive master narrative of Manifest Destiny, pushing a frontier of freedom and liberty farther west.

Existential scenes that jar and disrupt the narrative of Mulholland Dr., that produce “nightmarish visions” as Wallace calls them allow for a deeply intimate, and personal encounter within this gray area of multiplicities. Wallace says of these moments responding to critics’ dismissal, and yet they don’t seem to make the obvious point that these very heavy Freudian riffs are powerful instead of ridiculous because they’re deployed Expressionistically, which among other things means they’re deployed in an old-fashioned, pre-postmodern way, i.e. nakedly, sincerely, without postmodernism’s abstraction or irony. (198)

Wallace views Lynch as a sincere artist because powerful cinematic moments are expressed rather than projected, or interpreted on screen as “heavy Freudian riffs.” Thus, an audience is not told a story to affirm or reject American master narratives, but experience them and allow reflection of the investment in such a value. Lynch’s films could be defined much more readily as rhizomatic, machinic assemblages making innumerable connections between each of its intensities, or desiring-productions. As Deleuze and Guattari describe, “A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles” (A Thousand Plateaus, 7). Thus, there is not a rooted, or arborescent interpretation to Lynch’s films that states the value of believing in a progressive master narrative when in a post-postmodern world they are designed to masquerade as propaganda for the control of a larger, global apparatus of capital control. A viewer can project an interpretation that validates their own moral values and master narratives, but then again will miss many of the complexities and subtleties that make a film like Mulholland Dr. both a compelling and perceptive experience.

It is important to note there is an infinite multiplicity of connections to be made in Mulholland Dr. that facilitates many interpretations other than the dominant dream to reality psychological narrative of Betty Elms imagined as Diane Selwyn. As Paul Giles notes of Wallace’s fictional project that would be relevant to Lynch, both men attempt creative work, “that opens up crevices in the monolithic structures of corporate America and confronts the question of personal authenticity even within a global framework of displacement and irony” (341). Lynch in Mulholland Dr., and in his most recent film Inland Empire, reflects on how psyches are effected by large metropolises, and a global urban sprawl interacting in an ever more ruthless capitalist dystopia. He has not made a film in a decade, but no one has been able to duplicate his style of art in the ongoing post-postmodern era. Robert Rushing in a similar gesture to the earlier definition of Lynchian suggests, “Lynch’s brilliance is in giving this most ordinary of material truths (and yet a material real that film always works to conceal) the enigmatic, the fascinating and fantasy-inducing quality of the image” (30-1). The scenes which disrupt a common narrative in Mulholland Dr. are those ordinary scenes that carry a latent, but fabulated logic of reality. Lynch’s film I would argue carries an even more prescient resonance to America’s political, social, and cultural climate in 2016 than it did in 2001.


  1. Lynch was influenced by German Expressionism of the 1920s as a filmic style and movement in films such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by Robert Weine, The Last Laugh, Nosferatu and Sunrise by F.W. Murnau as well as M. by Fritz Lang.
  2. This is evident in superhero films such as Spiderman and The Amazing Spiderman films, or Superman movies as well as The Avengers.  Transformers could also fit into this category. This is not to say there aren’t major studio films, or superhero films (Batman: The Dark Knight, Deadpool) that do buck this trend, but they are few and far between when compared to the ones that are escapist affirmation of American values.

Works Cited

Andrews, David. “An Oneiric Fugue: The Various Logics of Mulholland Drive.” Journal of Film & Video 56.1 (2004): 25-40. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Helen R. Lane, and Mark Seem. New York: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1984. Print.

Giles, Paul. “Sentimental Posthumanism: David Foster Wallace.” Twentieth Century Literature 53.3 (2007): 327-344. JSTOR. Web. 1 Jan. 2016.

Rushing, Robert A. “Blink: The Material Real in Caché, Mulholland Dr., and Doctor Who.” Post Script 30.1 (2010): 21-34. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 Apr. 2016.

Wallace, David Foster. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. New York: Little Brown, 1997. Print.

Wallace, David Foster. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” 256-353.

Wallace, David Foster. “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” 146-212.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” 21-82.

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