Hailed by critics as the best film of the 21st century , David Lynch's Mulholland Drive is a surrealist puzzle of dreamlike narratives defying conventional logic and explanation. The genius of the film lies in its ability to invite a multitude of interpretations operating at different levels, leaving the audience to piece together the director's true intention. Given the open-ended quality of the Mulholland Drive , I will offer, in this essay, my own interpretation of the film as a demonstration of a process commonly discussed in modern interpretations of Eastern spirituality—the ego death resulting from a paradox. I will begin by examining the definitions of ego, ego death, and paradox, before demonstrating my interpretation through a close reading of three key scenes from the film: the diner conversation at Winkie's, the clumsy hitman's botched job, and the show of illusions at Club Silencio.
To arrive at this thesis, we should start by examining the concepts of ego, ego death, and paradox. The term ego is used in modern interpretations of Eastern spirituality to convey a sense of being a separate entity created by an accumulation of thoughts and emotions. In the words of Eckhart Tolle, an influential spiritual teacher, the ego is "a false self, created by unconscious identification with the mind" .
For instance, the ego is the concept we have of ourselves, informing our perspectives about how we should navigate in the world, how we should relate to other objects and beings. Tolle also points out that a primary objective of the ego is self-preservation, as "it constantly projects itself into the future to ensure its continued serval and to seek some kind of release or fulfillment there" . With this definition in mind, then ego death refers to a "complete loss of subjective self-identity" and a transcendence of the ego illusion , where the consciousness behind the egoic veil breaks its identification with the veil and directly engages with reality.
As a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation , Lynch is undoubtedly sensitive to the idea of ego transcendence. In an interview about the inspiration behind his art, Lynch made the following comment illustrating the distorting power of the ego: "If you don't know what it is, a sore can be very beautiful. But as soon as you name it, it stops being beautiful to most people" . As a mechanism neurotically interested in self-preservation, the ego labels sores as disgusting because it is threatened by infection and disease, for it is attached to the integrity of the physical body. Such a perspective is limited and does not capture the fullness of reality, thereby preventing us from otherwise seeing, as Lynch points out, "a great beauty of organic phenomenon" .
Since the egoic perspective is a limited, systemic representation of reality, it is inherently fragile rather than robust. To an intelligence whose purpose is to avoid disease, a sore cannot be both disgusting and beautiful, for the latter meaning is incongruent with its self-preserving goal. However, reality is complex, nuanced, and multi-dimensional, making the brittle, egoic representation vulnerable to logical inconsistencies. One type of inconsistency is the paradox – a statement that is self-contradictory despite valid deduction from acceptable premises . An example of a paradox is the statement "I always lie." From this we infer that the statement itself must be a lie, which means it must be the case that "I don't always lie." However, "I always lie" and "I don't always lie" cannot both be true: the statement contradicts itself.
Given these definitions, I will move on to the close reading of three key scenes demonstrating the process of ego death by paradox. A first key scene demonstrates the ego's reaction to a threat it is disturbed by. This is the scene of the dialogue exchanged between two men sitting at Winkie's near the beginning of the film. One of the men is explaining his reason for coming to Winkie's, which involves a recurring dream in which he is frightened by a man at the back of the restaurant. Upon hearing this explanation, his companion asks "So, you came to see if he's out there?" Instead of agreeing with the statement, the dreamer replies with: "To get rid of this god-awful feeling" .
From this exchange we see that finding out about whether the frightening-looking man exists is only secondary to the dreamer's compulsion to resolve an emotional disturbance. This contrast highlights a compulsion characteristic of the an egoic reaction, for fear is necessarily a product of the self-preserving ego. If the dreamer did not identify with his ego, he would have no preferences over the events that happen to him, including ones that may get him killed. In that case, fear would never manifest itself because it would have no reason to exist; a person without preferences has nothing to fear and cannot be disturbed because every outcome appears equally favourable. Therefore, Lynch is showing us, through contrast, the ego's reaction to a threat it is disturbed by.
A second key scene illustrates how the ego functions to "fix" a situation or handle a threat. This is the scene involving a hitman that shoots someone with a silenced pistol in an office space. As he is wiping the gun clean and placing it in the dead man's hand to stage an apparent suicide, he accidentally pulls the trigger and the bullet goes through the cheap office wall, shooting the woman next door and causing her to scream. "With a sense of 'just more stuff I got to do'" , the hitman moves begrudgingly to the room next door. Hilarity ensues as he tries to strangle the woman and drag her back into the other room, only to be witnessed by the janitor down the hall. He then has to lie to the janitor that the woman is dying and he is in fact trying to save her. The janitor seems half convinced but walks into the room at the moment the hitman shoots the woman, making him a witness to the crime. The hitman then has to shoot the janitor, whose finger flicks on the vacuum cleaner he brought from the down the hall at the moment he collapses. The hitman then shoots the vacuum cleaner to shut it off, only to short out the vacuum's internal wiring, triggering the building's fire alarm .
As audience members, we find the clumsy hitman's nonchalant attitude humorous and ridiculous, but there is nonetheless something logical about his actions. Since the hitman has already committed to creating a perfect cover for the crime, it only makes sense that he must kill the woman next door and then the janitor as well. This represents a psychic inertia and unquestioning aloofness that is characteristic of the functioning ego. The hitman doesn't seem to consider the possibility that all of this subsequent actions to fix the situation are causing him to create a bigger mess and may in fact start contradicting his original intent of being stealthy. This is because, since the ego assumes a limited perspective of reality, it only knows how to fix a situation from the vantage point of that limited perspective — like the common saying "if your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail." Moreover, since the ultimate goal of the ego is self-preservation, it resists enlarging its limited perspective to fix some situation because doing so creates a paradox where the ego is really trying to get rid of itself in its attempt at self-preservation. However, as some situations become harder and harder to contain, "the hammer" is no longer sufficient and the ego has no choice but to unravel itself through the paradox. This brings us to the final act of the essay and what is arguably the film's centrepiece.
The third key scene is the show that took place at Club Silencio. In this famous scene, the curtains of illusion are pulled back, as both the main character—Betty/Diane—and us—the audience—are exposed to the paradoxical reality. The scene starts out with a magician repeatedly shouting "no hay banda"—Spanish for "there is no band"—whilst music is playing in the background. Then a man with a muted trumpet comes to the front of the stage, miming to the trumpet sounds played by a background recording only to let go of the trumpet halfway through, revealing the illusion as the trumpet sound goes on. After this act, a Spanish singer takes the stage miming to a sad song with great emotionality. Watching this, Betty and Rita are touched by the heartbreaking performance and cry while holding hands. The singer then falls down on stage but her voice continues to sing, yet again reinforcing the reality of the whole performance being an illusion .
A preliminary reading of this scene draws out Lynch's breaking of the fourth wall and his making of a meta-commentary on the fundamental paradox of cinema. As audiences we are aware of the film being an illusory construction, yet we allow ourselves to be unquestionably entranced by the film's emotional arc, crying and smiling and shivering in fear alongside the characters in a moving picture; this is just like how Betty and Rita cry at the Spanish singer's mimed performance. If the purpose of emotions, in their original sense, is to help us react to, navigate, and organize reality, then shouldn't our knowledge of films being illusory eliminate our emotions towards them? This meta-commentary is a meaningful reading but it could be taken even further: if we can react this viscerally to some moving pictures that we consciously know to be fake, who is to say that we are not also entranced by the illusory dramas of our lives created by the ego and believing it to be reality?
In essence, the ego, throughout its existence, is driven to act in the best interest of the self it is attached to. Like the dreamer at Winkie's, the ego is set in motion by emotional disturbances introduced by threats to this self. Like the clumsy hitman, the ego handles these threats using the primitive tools at its disposal from the limited perspective it assumes. However, at one point the ego, in its neurotic attempts at fixing situations to resolve threats, may stumble across a paradoxical solution in its attempt to preserve the self that necessitates the elimination of the ego. This is the moment the ego, in its attempt to get rid of some god-awful feeling, realizes that it was the only thing causing the god-awful feeling to exist in the first place — the dreamer at Winkie's dies at the sight of the frightening looking man because they are one and the same. This is the moment the ego, in its attempt to create the perfect cover up for a crime, realizes it is actually making a bigger mess, contradicting the original purpose. This is the moment the ego, in its attempt at understanding reality, realizes that it is the ultimate obstruction towards understanding reality, and therefore it cannot be real—it must be an illusion.
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