Haunted by Seriality: The Formal Uncanny of Mulholland Drive


In my 18 years in academia, I’ve never been to the MLA convention – until now. For those who don’t know, the Modern Language Association is the largest humanities organization, and their annual convention is an iconic event, known as a massive academic job meat market and an object of mockery in the press for dense theoretical jargon. For me, it’s never been a place I’ve felt a desire to attend, as the study of television is far from a concern for most literary and language scholars, but I’ve been drawn here this year because of the rise of Digital Humanities within the MLA and my recent connection with a number of DH-minded folks from Twitter (plus it’s in Boston, so an easy drive down).

So I’m presenting a paper here (on the conference’s only panel dealing with television) that I’m sharing for feedback – I hope to expand and publish the essay, so please offer thoughts on where I might extend the ideas. [Update: the revised essay has been published in Cinephile, available for your perusal.] The title explains the topic – the argument unfolds beneath the fold.

“Haunted by Seriality: The Formal Uncanny of Mulholland Drive.”

The most acclaimed American film of this century was a television program.

I am not referring to The Wire or The Sopranos, or any of the other landmark television series that many critics hail as equal to, or surpassing, most of recent cinema. Rather, I literally mean that the American film of the 21st century that is ranked highest on the standard-bearing Sight & Sound critics’ poll (at #28 in the 2012 poll) actually was a television show, at least before it became a film. Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s 2001 mind-bending film noir, literally was a television program, as it was conceived and produced as a pilot for ABC in 1998, before they rejected it the next year for being too violent and strange. The French company Studio Canal Plus asked Lynch to see the pilot a year later, and ended up purchasing its rights and providing funding to shoot more footage to create a feature film version.

This unusual, and perhaps even unique, production history is typically treated as a footnote for critical and scholarly analyses, often just as an aside marveling that such a remarkable film could emerge out of such initial commercial failure.[1] Some critics outright reject the significance of the film’s origin story; as one writes in reference to its television beginnings, “People often talk about this fact like it was some kind of obstacle, but to [me] it is the least important thing in the world. Especially given [my] interpretation it shows just how in control Lynch is regarding every bit of what we see.”[2]. However, I contend that a key part of what makes Mulholland Drive truly remarkable is precisely its televisual origination—not because it transcended the limits of televisual failure through a twist of cross-media fate, but because its initial design for television is essential to its cinematic achievements, and provides a crucial key to understanding the film’s power and emotional resonance. But to get there, we first need to look at how the film has been typically talked about by viewers and critics.

Not surprisingly for a film that is so oblique and unconventional, the primary question that critics and viewers alike have focused on is “What does Mulholland Drive mean?” Although this question seems fairly straightforward—or at least simpler than its potential answers—there are two distinct ways to think about a film’s meaning.[3] The first is a question of comprehension, trying to understand the literal coherence of the film’s narrative events, especially involving the shift that occurs at the 110 minute mark, where the narrative reality transforms and nearly all of the characters take on new identities and relationships. The most common explanation for the film’s narrative is that the first 80% of Mulholland Drive is Diane Selwyn’s dream, and that the final act portrays the reality she is trying to escape, but many other explications argue for various versions of dreams, reality, deaths, and parallels, all catalogued online on websites like Lost on Mulholland Drive.[4] Such detailed analyses of narrative worlds, plots, and characters are part of a trend that I have called “forensic fandom,” flourishing around contemporary complex television series but also common to films, literature, and other media.[5] Lynch himself has seemingly contributed to such forensic criticism, as the film’s DVD features no extra content except for an insert listing “David Lynch’s 10 Clues to Unlocking This Thriller,” highlighting stylistic and narrative features that seem to link the two parallel storyworlds—although fans have also postulated that Lynch might be using ironic misdirection in these clues to further confound viewers.

The other way to answer the question about Mulholland Drive’s meaning is to engage in interpretation, looking for the meanings beneath the surface, at the level of symbolism, thematics, or subtextual significance. Not surprisingly, this has been the main purview of academic analyses, where we can find readings of the film as illustrating Lacan’s theories of fantasy, desire, and reality;[6] evoking contemporary technologies of virtual reality;[7] dissolving the boundaries between semiotic oppositions;[8] offering a lesbian tragedy as an indictment of homophobia;[9] and critiquing the dream-crushing logic of Hollywood cinema,[10] among many others. It is telling that in all of these interpretive essays, there is nary a mention of the film’s televisual origins and unusual split production history, as these scholars treat the completed film as a coherent, self-contained text to be exhumed, rather than the product of a unique creative process that might actually help us understand the film’s meanings and aesthetic power.

Thus I want to ask a related but quite different question: how does Mulholland Drive work? By “work,” I am acknowledging that the film is an aesthetic object with its own unique design, and to understand its narrative and emotional impact, we need to unpack and analyze that design in the context of its production history. This approach stems from a subfield of film studies that David Bordwell has termed “historical poetics,” analyzing the formal techniques employed by any text within the contexts of its production and circulation.[11] To understand how Mulholland Drive works as a cinematic text, I cannot think of any bit of information more important than the knowledge that most of it was written, produced, and edited for a different medium altogether—and most vitally for my purposes, that it was designed as the first installment of an ongoing, serialized story.[12]

Taking its production history into account seems like it shouldn’t be controversial, especially given that Mulholland Drive’s story is in large part about producing a film, and thus the film calls attention to the mixture of inputs and goals that go into the production process. Both comprehension and interpretation-based analyses mine the film for obscure details to support their theories, so the film’s core setting and plot as a Hollywood behind-the-scenes drama seems like a clear invitation for greater contextual reflection. I think part of the resistance to considering its production history stems from how critics have a contradictory relationship to the concept of a film’s intention. On the one hand, critics regard the film text as surpassing the limits of intentionality, suggesting that the final product speaks for itself beyond the creative process that went into making it. On the other, critics place so much faith in the overriding vision of Lynch as auteur that they imagine the film as the unobstructed realization of his creative goals, ignoring the very real obstructions that sidelined the project for over a year and then transformed its medium and form. Instead of focusing on intent, I want to highlight design as the contextualized process by which Lynch and his collaborative team’s goals are realized—no matter what Lynch may or may not have intended, we know for certain that the story was initially designed as a serialized television program, and then redesigned as a self-contained film. This dramatic shift between media and narrative formats helps explain much of the text’s striking emotional power.

Fan sites have documented this design process, including detailed comparisons between the television pilot and completed film versions.[13] The television version begins with the car accident that triggers Rita’s amnesia, and ends with Betty outfitting Rita in a blond wig, with few minor variations in editing, dialogue, pacing, and a couple of sequences that appear differently in each version, but by and large they are highly similar 90-minute sequences of storytelling. The bulk of the changes for the film version are found in a different opening sequence of a jitterbug contest, and the final 45 minutes consisting of all-new footage.[14] Although ABC rejected the pilot, there is no doubt that the story was designed to continue onward from the wig scene, and all evidence suggests that the ongoing story would proceed in a direction quite differently from the film’s final act—the mysteries of Rita’s identity and her involvement in Diane’s death would slowly be revealed, Betty would become more directly involved with Adam and his film, and the threads of mobsters, detectives, and a fright-inducing dumpster-dwelling bum would all become interwoven into the enigmatic ongoing narrative. These original sequences function exactly as most dramatic television pilots do: setting up scenarios, character relationships, and dramatic conflicts that will continue to develop into sustained serial storytelling, and building up the overall expectation that the ongoing story will eventually come together and make sense.

Of course, the Mulholland Drive pilot is an example of failed seriality, as the story never did get a chance to continue, at least as it was originally designed. But that design still remains mostly intact at the core of the self-contained film, and I believe the spirit of seriality haunts the completed film. Many critics note that the first part of the film is fairly conventional in tone and style, at least for Lynch’s typical brand of Hollywood experimentation. As Todd McGowan writes, “Almost everyone who sees Mulholland Drive notes that the first part of the film makes a good deal of sense—at least for a David Lynch movie…. While the first part of Mulholland Drive is not without strange characters and events…, the mise-en-scène conforms on the whole to the conventions of the typical Hollywood film: scenes are well lit, conversations between characters flow without awkwardness, and even the plainest décor seems to sparkle. The editing also tends to follow classical Hollywood style, sustaining the spectator’s sense of spatial and temporal orientation.”[15] McGowan uses such stylistic analysis to highlight that the film works to construct fantasy as more realistic than the unconventional “reality” found in the second part, a reading that certainly seems justified. However, he never mentions that this contrast is traceable directly to the film’s design, as its more conventionally narrated and styled section originated for television, a much less experimental form (especially in 1998) that demanded more narrative coherence than allowable on film; thus the “conventional” portion of the film seems to make sense precisely because it was designed to, but not to signify “fantasy” as much as “television.”

Mulholland Drive’s power and pleasures as a film derive less from a compelling narrative structure or even its symbolic meaning, but from its piercing moments of emotional affect and ability to create a deeply unsettling feeling in its viewers. Some of these moments would standout in either medium—the first Winkies Diner scene (which was shot for television, but edited out in the version submitted to ABC), Betty’s remarkable audition, the Club Silencio sequence—but others acquire a strange uncanny impact in the repurposed context of the film. I contend that the contrasting style and tone between the film’s two parts works much more on an emotional level than a symbolic or narrative one, and that this affective dimension is created in large part from the lingering sense of thwarted seriality in the made-for-television section. Much of the film’s affective power is achieved by keeping viewers off-balance via thwarted expectations, as in Betty’s surprisingly sultry audition, and thus the film as a whole uses our expectations that a serial narrative will continue and come together coherently, creating a productive dissonance between what the first part was designed to do and what the second part actually delivers.

One strategy of failed seriality is the inclusion of loose story threads in the film’s first part. Characters and plotlines are introduced in the first hour of the film that were clearly designed to continue onward if the television series had been produced, but then are transformed and redefined in the film’s conclusion (or ignored altogether) in ways clearly counter to how the pilot had been scripted and shot. For instance, one memorable scene shows Joe murdering Ed to retrieve his black book, presumably in search of Rita to kill her for the crime syndicate that is involved in producing Adam’s film. The scene functions as a dark comedic sequence of an escalating botched murder in the vein of the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino, but also sets Joe up as an ongoing character with a story arc to be continued in subsequent episodes. One popular press article mulls the significance of this sequence in establishing ineffectual Joe in the dream sequence as a latent desire for the hit man Diane hires to kill Camilla in the reality sequence to have failed, but also as “part of the confusing background noise Lynch likes to put into his movies. It is a deeply felt contention of his that not everything makes sense. Less charitably, you can say it’s a loose end from the TV series that never got made.”[16] But to dismiss the possibility of the “loose end” as a “less charitable” reading misses the power of the film’s failed seriality—the reason Joe’s scene works within the film is because it was not meant to be “confusing background noise,” but precisely because it was designed to actually make sense. Lynch certainly does include moments of random oddity in most of his films, but Mulholland Drive’s unique feature is that many of its least explicable moments were conceived as part of an ongoing sense-making narrative design. A scene like Joe’s botched murder is conventional enough to encourage us to expect a narrative payoff in connecting it into the main plotlines or establish Joe as a three-dimensional character, so the film’s refusal to weave together such threads in conventional ways helps create its sense of unsettling disorientation.

The film’s casting choices also play against convention and expectation in productive ways. Dan Hedaya is the fifth listed actor in the opening credits, suggesting a significant supporting role in keeping with his recognizable face as a character actor—by 2001, Hedaya had been in over 70 films and television programs, including a well-known recurring part on Cheers and major roles in films like Blood Simple, Clueless, and Dick (playing the titular character of Richard Nixon). Yet his character of mobster Vincenzo Castigliane appears in only one scene in the film, with just three brief lines. Similarly, Robert Forster plays Detective Harry McKnight (although unnamed within the film), a minor character appearing in one scene with three lines totaling less than twenty words. Yet he is one of only eight actors listed in the opening credits, with his name placed in the final spot as “And Robert Forster,” a signal of a major supporting character typically played by a well-known veteran actor. Forster fits that bill, with dozens of film and television roles since the late-1960s, and a 1997 Supporting Actor Oscar Nomination for Jackie Brown. While there is a tradition of named actors appearing in brief cameos, the contractual dictates behind actor credits suggests that both Hedaya and Forster were cast to become regulars in the television series despite their brief presence in the pilot. For viewers, the paratextual indicators of recognizable actors and prominent credit placement help establish the expectation that they will recur later in the film with some dramatic significance, as Murray Smith has discussed the importance of such character recognition in guiding cinematic comprehension.[17] But contrary to these established expectations, both actors’ single appearances remain as unresolved dissonances throughout the rest of the film, with the original design casting an unsettled shadow on the final version, and the specter of failed seriality confounding our normal strategies of narrative expectation and comprehension.

Although watching the final film of Mulholland Drive is not a serial experience, I would argue that seriality is crucial to our understanding in two major ways. First is the pilot’s original serialized design that remains present yet unfulfilled throughout the film, as I have discussed; second is the serial nature of the production process itself. As both Sean O’Sullivan and I, among others, have argued, the essential element of seriality is the temporal gap between installments, both for viewers and creators.[18] Even though viewers never experienced Mulholland Drive as a serial, I would argue that David Lynch himself did. After finishing the pilot in 1999, Lynch had a gap of over a year before he returned to transform it into a film; he recounts the process after Studio Canal Plus optioned the project:

It came time for me to really commit to making it into a feature. I had zero idea how I was going to do that, so it was a time of high anxiety. One night, I sat down, the ideas came in, and it was a most beautiful experience. Everything was seen from a different angle. Everything was then restructured, and we did additional shooting. Now, looking back, I see that [the film] always wanted to be this way. It just took this strange beginning to cause it to be what it is.[19]

Serial authorship is defined by an ongoing creative engagement with an unfolding text, typically in dialogue with its cultural reception; from Dickens to contemporary television producers, serial creators release works that are unfinished by design, and allow feedback and the passage of time to help shape future installments. Although the pilot of Mulholland Drive was not broadly seen and consumed beyond television and film executives, Lynch’s own gap between producing the pilot and redesigning the film enabled his ability to see it from a different angle, thus facilitating this remarkable narrative shift that clearly was not part of the pilot’s initial design. It is not hard to imagine that after a year away from the text, Lynch viewed the pilot footage as a distant dream, redesigning the film around that revised perspective. Even though Lynch restructured the story and reimagined its framework, it is telling that he left the bulk of the pilot’s structure and footage untouched, following the norm of serial authorship that future installments add to, rather than remake, previous episodes. Thus we are left with the first installment intact and embedded within its revised conclusion, suggesting an implicit seriality in the narrative construction. The scene where Rita opens the blue box with the blue key may symbolize the shift from Diane’s dream to reality, but also represents the shift from serial television to stand-alone cinema; however at both levels, the shift does not leave behind where it came from, with the new form only explicable in reference to its earlier framework.

Most critics have focused their attention on the finished film as a stand-alone textual object that reveals its own cultural meanings and aesthetic techniques. But just as its story is in large part about the making of a film, I contend that the film is also “about” the extra-textual level of its unique production contexts, and that the key to unlock the blue box of Mulholland Drive is to attend to how the film became what it is through the key of serial television. The television pilot opened itself up to serial expansion and continuation, and thus much of the film’s celebrated uncanniness stems from its lack of continuity and dangling narrative threads—plotlines and characters who were clearly designed to grow more significant in future episodes are left frustratingly unresolved and oddly insignificant in the film version. So much of the film’s haunting, dreamlike narrative sensibility stems from its failure to follow conventional closed cinematic storytelling norms in lieu of the markers of serial television, which it then undermines through an ending that both offers and subverts closure. Just as these haunted remnants of seriality that persist help explain the power of its final closed narrative form, Mulholland Drive’s cross-media history provides an unusual window into the affective powers and pleasures central to all serial storytelling.

[1] The only other examples of TV pilots repurposed into feature films I could find were the 1965 period horror B-movie Dark Intruder, which NBC deemed too scary for television, and Cruel Intentions 2, which originated as an unaired Fox television series Manchester Prep based on the original Cruel Intentions film, and then refashioned into a direct-to-video prequel.

[2] Film Crit Hulk, “Film Crit Hulk Smash: HULK VS. THE GENIUS OF MULHOLLAND DRIVE,” Badass Digest, March 4, 2012, http://badassdigest.com/2012/03/04/film-crit-hulk-smash-hulk-vs-the-genius-of-mulholland-drive/. This essay is by the pseudonymous Film Crit Hulk, who writes in all-caps and refers to himself in the third-person; I have converted the quotation to standard English for readability.

[3] This distinction between comprehension and interpretation is drawn from David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[5] Jason Mittell, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, prepublication version (MediaCommons Press, 2012).

[6] Todd McGowan, “Lost on Mulholland Drive: Navigating David Lynch’s Panegyric to Hollywood,” Cinema Journal 43, no. 2 (2004): 67–89.

[7] N. Katherine Hayles and Nicholas Gessler, “The Slipstream of Mixed Reality: Unstable Ontologies and Semiotic Markers in The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and Mulholland Drive,” PMLA 119, no. 3 (May 1, 2004): 482–499.

[8] Jennifer A. Hudson, “‘No Hay Banda, and yet We Hear a Band’: David Lynch’s Reversal of Coherence in Mulholland Drive,” Journal of Film and Video 56, no. 1 (April 1, 2004): 17–24.

[9] Heather Love, “Spectacular Failure: The Figure of the Lesbian in Mulholland Drive,” New Literary History 35, no. 1 (2004): 117–132.

[10] David Andrews, “An Oneiric Fugue: The Various Logics of Mulholland Drive,” Journal of Film and Video 56, no. 1 (April 1, 2004): 25–40.

[11] See David Bordwell, “Historical Poetics of Cinema,” in The Cinematic Text: Methods and Approaches (New York: AMS Press, 1989), 369–398; David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2007).

[12] The only other formally centered analysis of the film I have found is in Eva Laass, Broken Taboos, Subjective Truths: Forms and Functions of Unreliable Narration in Contemporary American Cinema (Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2008), focusing on the film’s technique of unreliable narration. However, Laass dismisses the impact of its television origins, suggesting that the cinematic reshoot and edit could have easily excised irrelevant bits from the pilot, and thus we shouldn’t look to its origins for answers.

[14] There are more subtle changes, including an enigmatic shot of the bum that ends the pilot and was seemingly repurposed for the final scenes of the film, and a few shots of cars driving that were shot for television and included in the film’s final act. But despite these few exceptions, it is fair to say the the television pilot is sandwiched between new footage in the film version.

[15] McGowan, 67-8.

[16] Bill Wyman, Max Garrone, and Andy Klein, “Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About Mulholland Drive,” Salon, October 24, 2001.

[17] Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1995).

[18] Sean O’Sullivan, “Old, New, Borrowed, Blue: Deadwood and Serial Fiction,” in Reading Deadwood: A Western to Swear By, ed. D. Lavery (London: I.B. Tauris, 2006); Mittell, Complex TV.

[19] Quoted in Scott Macaulay, “The Dream Factory – Mulholland Drive,” FilmMaker, Fall 2001.

4 Responses to “Haunted by Seriality: The Formal Uncanny of Mulholland Drive”

  1. 1 Netflix, le serie originali e gli ascolti – Il grande cavo
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  3. 3 Mulholland Drive: The Personal and the Post-9/11 World | dylanwooters
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