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Mulholland Drive: Can Film Be Philosophy?

If you study this Lynchian fever dream philosophically, it metamorphoses from a cinematic jigsaw into a subversion of traditional film narrative that provokes philosophical inquiry through emotion.

Mulholland Drive is one of those films that makes you think, “Was that deep or just fake deep? Am I not getting something?” It’s set up like an archetypal Hollywood thriller, deliberately playing on the cliché journey of a wide-eyed blond Betty, an aspiring actress who arrives in Hollywood only to get caught up in the chaos of a dark, mysterious tale. The scenes lure you into the fold of anticipation, only to leave you more disoriented than you were when you sat down. 

It is not uncommon to find your internet history filled with ‘explanation’ and ‘film analysis’ videos from YouTube, nor to fall further into a smorgasbord of theories written by pseudo film critics and amateur conspiracy theorists. But that’s only the beginning. If you study this Lynchian fever dream philosophically, it metamorphoses from a cinematic jigsaw into a subversion of traditional film narrative that provokes philosophical inquiry through emotion.

Film philosopher Robert Sinnerbrink addresses this gap between philosophical inquiry and active, emotional engagement with his theory of autonomous mood sequences. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is an example of how the aesthetic and narrative of a film can interact to affect the viewer’s emotions. However, the film’s autonomous mood sequence suggests that narrative alone cannot engage the spectator as actively as it could by also interacting with aesthetic features.

Films which provide a clear, linear narrative share common ground with traditional philosophy in their structure, closure, and coherence. Narratives deliver knowledge while simultaneously absorbing the viewer in this fictional representation it creates. By carrying ‘messages’ they mimic the conclusion of philosophical arguments. What distinguishes cinematic narratives from philosophical thought experiments are also a film’s ability to provoke emotional responses by creating an understanding of narrative structure. Cinematic devices lack the need for a clear narrative because the aesthetic which engages our emotional responses can be driven through mood sequences.

Sinnerbrink’s autonomous mood sequence idea is a better alternative to understanding the value of film to philosophy because aesthetic properties are unique to the cinematic experience. An autonomous mood sequence is when mood takes on a primary, rather than supporting,role in the composition of the film’s fictional, ‘Lynchian’ world. It saturates the narrative without fully substituting it..This mood sequence is often created through aesthetic features, such as lighting, props, set design and camera angles. While narrative can guide the spectator through a thought process, it alone cannot prompt active reflection with it philosophically.

The first part of Mulholland Drive is a soft-coloured construction reminiscent of badly produced Hollywood movies. But this is established in order to draw attention to the Club Silencio scene later- the red room where Betty and Rita go to search for answers. A kind of ‘dream within a dream’,  it is a stylised autonomous mood sequence that replaces narrative content with sensation. The singer’s emotional performance creates an art of composition while the dark colours in the empty street and alleyway create an impending feeling of anxiety and mystery. The camera’s rush towards the opening door produces exhilaration and the first few shots and camera movements around the gate, doors, and boxes allude to the mystery key they find, evoking an impending fear in the viewer. The magician explains, in several languages, that everything is an illusion before Betty begins uncontrollably shaking. Perhaps this signals the deterioration of her fantasy or even creates a parallel to Diane’s murder and Rita’s car crash, which may have occured in the same time-space.

In Mulholland Drive, narrative is abandoned in favour of soundscape, colour, and staging, such as the blue placed around the room amidst the dominance of red. While the magician plays a clarinet with a muted trumpet sound and the music of the ‘live performance’ is ironically taped, Betty’s discovery of the key is a similar illusion. 

The key, part of the fake narrative, is not meant for the purpose they assume. Nevertheless, despite our knowledge that these scenes are an illusory construction, our conscious and unconscious processes create a reflective mood which coincides with their own emotional crying. Despite their unclear purpose, the characters’ tears nevertheless affect the spectator. 

Mulholland Drive’s autonomous mood sequence therefore highlights the power of aesthetic features in engaging our experience of both real and virtual worlds. As the creation of mood both works with and overpowers the narrative meaning, cinema can perform in philosophy creatively through aesthetic and affective means.

By unravelling a seemingly straightforward narrative, Lynch allows for a philosophical, self-reflexive investigation of the nature of film which cannot be achieved through linear narrative or any non-cinematic format. He utilises film as a tool for guiding our philosophical reflection on the very nature of film by exploring the relationship between illusion and the real. 

A straightforward interpretation of the two confusing narratives could argue that Lynch plays on dreams and reality by showing an alternative dream-world experience for the two protagonists. However, this intentional lack of a coherent, linear narrative and the constant questioning ultimately draws attention to the film’s aesthetic coherence. The viewer is encouraged to read into the role of different aesthetic devices that reveal the horrible reality lurking underneath the initially idyllic portrayal of American life.

The audience’s mental work at the beginning of the film is rendered almost futile after the second narrative comes into play. This is what causes audiences to watch, re-watch and re-examine its aesthetic features again as one begins to recognise the same people from Diane’s ‘dream’ world in her real life.

Unlike the traditional Hollywood film which places narrative at its core, Mulholland Drive dismantles the narrative form by placing narrative secondary to cinematic style. Aesthetic properties in this film are superior to the traditional requirements of narrative scenes, settings or plots because the autonomous mood sequence allows for a saturation of narrative structure.

This affective subversion of narrative features mirrors the puzzle of philosophy – it provokes a cognitive and emotional self-reflection on the film experience by exploring the relationship between fantasy and reality, along with the power of cinema and imagination. 

As films can be both artistic and philosophical, a synthesis of both some form of narrative structures and autonomous mood sequences can complement one another to promote philosophical inquiry. There is a unique relationship between the audio-visual interaction of narrative with affective features, which ultimately work together to enable us to go beyond what we are easily able to make sense of.

Even if you’re not a film philosophy buff or a fan of Lynchian cinema, Mulholland Drive provides just enough lesbian romance, glamour and randomness to make it worth a watch. Or twenty.

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