Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch

(Dreaming: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams 2003,
vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 49-60)

Abstract: This essay explores the influence of dreams and dreaming on the filmmaking of David Lynch. Focusing particular attention on Mulholland Drive (2001), Lost Highway (1997), Blue Velvet (1986), and the television series Twin Peaks (1990-91), the essay will discuss the multiple dream elements in Lynch’s work and how they have contributed to the broad cultural influence of his films. Lynch’s filmmaking offers an excellent case study of the powerful connection between dreaming and movies in contemporary American society.

More than perhaps any other contemporary director, Lynch draws upon dream experience as a primal wellspring of his creative energy. Dreams and dreaming suffuse every moment of his approach to filmmaking. The disturbing impact of watching Mulholland Drive and his other works (especially Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, and the television series Twin Peaks) derives in large part from his uncanny skill in using cinema as a means of conveying the moods, mysteries, and carnivalesque wildness of our dreams. One of his biographers, Chris Rodley, puts it this way:

“The feelings that excite him most are those that approximate the sensations and emotional traces of dreams: the crucial element of the nightmare that is impossible to communicate simply by describing events. Conventional film narrative, with its demand for logic and legibility, is therefore of little interest to Lynch…. Insecurity, estrangement, and lack of orientation and balance are sometimes so acute in Lynchland that the question becomes one of whether it is ever possible to feel ‘at home’…. If Lynch could be called a Surrealist, it is because of his interest in the ‘defamiliarization’ process and the waking/dream state—not in his frequent use of the absurd or the incongruous.” (Rodley, 1997)

On a first viewing Lynch’s works seem baldly psychoanalytic in their emotional preoccupations, almost to the point where there does not seem to be anything for a latter-day Freudian or Jungian to interpret. All the great passions of the unconscious are right there, out in the open, without any disguise, repression, or arcane symbolism. Although I do believe psychoanalytic film criticism has its uses, that is not the path I want to follow in this essay. My interest here is both more focused and more expansive. First, I want to identify and describe several specific means by which dreaming is woven into Lynch’s approach to filmmaking. These include the use of dreaming as a narrative structuring device, the inclusion of scenes in which characters experience a dream, the inclusion of dialogue in which characters discuss dreams, and the use of Lynch’s own dream experience as an inspirational source for his creative work. After that, I want to reflect on the role these multiple dream elements have played in the broader cultural influence of his films. Lynch’s filmmaking offers an excellent case study of the powerful connection between dreams and movies in contemporary American society, and at the end of the essay I will suggest the common nickname for Hollywood—the “dream factory”—is not merely a figure of speech but is in fact an accurate description of the profoundly interactive influence of films on dreaming and dreaming on films. It is this mutual interplay of dreams and movies that ultimately interests me, and my hope is that this essay will open a new path toward a better understanding of that dynamic relationship.

Dreams and dreaming play several different roles in Lynch’s filmmaking. The following summary of the most prominent of these roles is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive. Indeed, a complete accounting of these roles would require a detailed review of Lynch’s whole body of work. But even the limited description I am offering should be sufficient to prove my basic point, which is that dreams and dreaming play an absolutely central role in his filmmaking process. Is there any director who does more than Lynch to integrate dreaming and filmmaking? Perhaps so; I would enjoy hearing someone try to make the case. For the present, I offer the following analysis not to prove Lynch’s superiority to other directors, but rather to illustrate the dream-inspired artistry of one particular director who has made, and is continuing to make, a substantial contribution to contemporary attitudes toward the dream-film connection.

Dreaming as Narrative Structure. For many viewers the most striking feature of Mulholland Drive (2001) is the abrupt rupture in the narrative about two-thirds of the way through the film. Although there are several other story threads woven in and out of Mulholland Drive, the main narrative follows the experiences of Betty (Naomi Watts), a pert young blond who has just arrived in Hollywood with hopes of becoming an actress but who instead finds herself caught up in a dangerous mystery involving a dark-haired woman with amnesia (Laura Harring) who adopts the name “Rita” from a movie poster (among other things, Mulholland Drive is a wicked satire of the ultimate emptiness of “Hollywood dreams”). Betty and Rita find a little blue box that matches the strange blue key they found in Rita’s purse, but just when they go to put the key in the box, Betty all of a sudden wakes up—and even though it’s still her, it soon becomes clear that it’s not her, at least not the same person whose life viewers have been following for the past hour and a half. This Betty (now her name is Diane Selwyn) is darker, angrier, and full of bitterness and despair. Likewise, many of the same people from the earlier scenes are still present, but they are different, too, with different names, personalities, and relationships to one another. Confronted with all these sudden changes, viewers are forced into a radical reconsideration of their understanding of all the preceding scenes in the movie. Each new scene that follows this profound shift in the narrative takes on an added layer of meaning in its retrospective revelation of what was happening in the earlier scenes, and this in turn creates a mounting sense of inexplicable foreboding as the story builds to a climax. (A similar narrative rupture occurs in Ron Howard’s film A Beautiful Mind, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director the same year as Lynch was nominated for Best Director for Mulholland Drive. The different use of this narrative device in the two films is a good measure of the difference between mainstream Hollywood movies and Lynch’s distinctive, “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” brand of filmmaking.)

When the film finally ends, with Betty’s/Diane’s horrific suicide, viewers are still left with several open questions about the precise relationship of the various scenes to each other. It is plausible to think of the “second” Betty as the “real” one, who was having a dream that involved the fantasized experiences of the “first” Betty (the image of a red pillow frames both ends of the “first” Betty’s scenes). But even that interpretation does not account for everything (e.g., how exactly does the willful director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) fit into the dreaming/waking interaction?), and in the end it seems contrary to the spirit of the movie to insist on any one explanatory framework.

The film Lost Highway (1997) also involves an unexpected rupture in the narrative. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is a musician plagued by the fear that his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) is being unfaithful to him. When she is found horribly murdered in their home, Fred is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death, even though he professes his innocence. While Fred is sitting despondently in his prison cell, something strange happens—and suddenly it’s not him any more, but a young man named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) sitting in the cell. The baffled authorities have no choice but to let Pete go, and he returns home to his parents and girlfriend. Viewers are naturally at a loss to explain what has happened, and whatever initial expectations they may have formed about where the story was going have been abruptly dashed. Funny things start happening to Pete, and soon he meets a beautiful, vivacious woman whom viewers immediately recognize as the same woman as Fred’s wife, even though she says her name is Alice Wakefield. Pete and Alice fall in love, but their torrid affair soon leads to violence, betrayal, and death. When Pete’s life has finally collapsed into ruins, when Alice has abandoned him and he realizes that his life has been completely destroyed, he suddenly disappears—and Fred is back. Dazed, Fred gets in his car and speeds away down a dark highway. The police are right behind him with flashing lights and red sirens, and the film ends with Fred becoming consumed by a violent physical frenzy.

So what was happening during the interlude with Pete? Was Fred having a dream? Did Fred really murder his wife (something hinted at by one of his dreams—more on that later), and in his abject despair did he fantasize being an entirely different person? And in the end was the fantasy not strong enough to escape the gravitational pull of the agonies of his “real life?” I am reminded of the famous painting called “The Prisoner’s Dream” in which a downtrodden young man is sleeping in a jail cell, while an ethereal version of himself lifts off from his body and soars through the metal bars at the window, out into the freedom of the air and the light. The painting testifies to the power of dreaming to relieve people’s suffering by imagining different and better lives for themselves. Freud’s notion of dreams as disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes is based on this power, and even though Lynch is reluctant to endorse any psychoanalytic interpretation of his films he does grant that what happens to Fred in Lost Highway could be considered a “psychogenic fugue,” i.e. a form of amnesia involving a flight from reality. He says he had never heard of that mental condition before making the film, but appreciated learning about it later—“it sounds like such a beautiful thing—‘psychogenic fugue.’ It has music and it has a certain force and dreamlike quality. I think it’s beautiful, even if it didn’t mean anything.” (Rodley, 1997)

Does it mean anything, then, that Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive end ambiguously, tantalizing viewers with unanswered questions about the basic narrative structure of the films? If nothing else, this had the perhaps predictable consequence of stimulating widespread criticism from viewers who accused the films of being too hard to understand. In the eyes of many viewers, Lynch had failed a filmmaker’s primary responsibility to tell a coherent story. According to critics, either he didn’t know how to present a comprehensible narrative, or he didn’t want to because he was more interested in self-indulgent artistry than in communicating with an audience.

The modest box office returns for both movies underscores this failure to attract or satisfy a broad public audience. In appraising Lynch’s films it must be noted that they have always earned more critical than commercial success, indicating that the appeal of his work may be very intense for a limited group of people (he has a remarkable number of passionately devoted fans) but does not extend very far into the general population. Although I would grant the criticism that some of his films are more emotionally effective and aesthetically powerful than others (for example, I would argue that Blue Velvet is a better film than Wild at Heart), I believe it misses the point to condemn Lynch’s films for their failure to provide clear, conventional narrative frameworks for their viewers. Movies like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway remind me of certain Hindu myths in which people become so entangled in each other’s dreams and dreams-within-dreams that readers cannot help but feel confused about the basic existential question of what is real. For example, the Yogavasistha, a philosophical treatise written sometime between the tenth and twelfth centuries C.E. in Kashmir, tells the story of a hunter meeting a sage in the woods. The sage telling the hunter a story about how the sage once entered the dream of someone else and lived in that person’s world until it was suddenly destroyed by a flood at doomsday; then the sage thinks he wakes up, but another sage comes and tells him they are both characters in someone else’s dream. This makes the first sage wake up again, and he now realizes he needs to get back to his real body. He isn’t sure how to do this, however, and the story ends with no clear-cut resolution to his dilemma. Commenting on this myth, historian of religions Wendy Doniger says

“As the tale progresses, we realize that our confusion is neither our own mistake nor the mistake of the author of the text; it is a device of the narrative, constructed to make us realize how impossible and, finally, how irrelevant it is to attempt to determine the precise level of consciousness at which we are existing. We cannot do it, and it does not matter.” (Doniger, 2001)

The Hindu myths, like Lynch’s films, draw upon the powerful realness of dreaming to frustrate people’s conventional narrative expectations and provoke new reflection and new self-awareness. Their dreamy visions are enticing invitations to explore experiential realms beyond the boundaries of ordinary rational consciousness and personal identity.

Dream Scenes. Many characters in Lynch’s films are shown having experiences that are explicitly identified as dreams. These scenes all include the basic elements of a character going to sleep, dreaming, then waking up and trying to figure out what the dream means. Here are three examples:

Fred in Lost Highway tells his wife Renee about a dream he had in which he comes into their house and hears her calling his name. He sees a fire blazing in the fireplace, and pink smoke coming from the hall. He walks into their bedroom and finds her—“There you were….lying in bed….but it wasn’t you….It looked like you….but it wasn’t.”(Hughes, 2001). Renee looks up at him and suddenly screams, as if being struck by something, and then Fred wakes up. Deeply shaken, he looks across the bed to the “real” Renee for reassurance. But instead of his wife he sees the leering face of “The Mystery Man” (Robert Blake), a demonic figure who haunts Fred throughout the film (In a case of life imitating art, Blake was recently arrested for the murder of his wife). Fred cries out in terror, turns on the light switch, and finds his wife right there, looking at him with concern. He lays back in bed, shaking.

What do Dreams of Snakes Mean?

What do Dreams of Snakes Mean? by Kelly Bulkeley

Below is a chapter about the history of snake dreams, using psychology and religious studies to explore their meanings.  It comes from my book Spiritual Dreaming: A Cross-Cultural and Historical Journey.

If you are interested in how to interpret a dream of a snake, you might take a look at this post.

If you’d like to know what Carl Jung said about snake symbolism in The Red Book, read this post.

To learn more about actual snakes, check out the East Bay Vivarium.

Chapter 2: Snakes

Animals of various kinds appear in spiritually meaningful dreams. Birds, dogs, bears, wolves, fish, and even insects have come in people’s dreams to deliver important messages from the divine. But the animal that makes perhaps the most powerful spiritual impact in dreams is the snake. People from cultures all over the world report dreams in which they have intensely vivid encounters with snakes. Content analysis studies performed by Robert Van de Castle indicate that even in the dreams of modern Americans, who presumably have little direct contact with snakes, these animals appear with surprising frequency. [i] Many reports of snake dreams emphasize their strange, uncanny quality; the dreamer feels both attracted to and yet repelled by the serpent. As the following examples suggest, many people through history have regarded snake dreams as deeply spiritual experiences–for these dreams reveal the ambivalent nature of the sacred, its capacity to be a force of joyful creativity and violent destructiveness in human life.

1) A fifty year-old woman named Rosie Plummer, of the Paviotso people living on the Walker river reservation in Nevada, told anthropologist Willard Park of her shaman father. Rattlesnakes frequently came to him in his dreams and told him how to cure snake bites and other illnesses. Eighteen years after his death, Rosie started to dream about her father. “She dreamed that he came to her and told her to be a shaman. Then a rattlesnake came to her in dreams and told her to get eagle feathers, white paint, wild tobacco. The snake gave her the songs that she sings when she is curing. The snake appeared three or four times before she be lieved that she would be a shaman. Now she dreams about the rattlesnake quite frequently and she learns new songs and is told how to cure sick people in this way. [ii]

2) Lilias Trotter, a Christian missionary who worked in Algeria in the early part of the twentieth century, had these two dreams reported to her by Muslims who were converting to Christianity. A) Trotter says that an Algerian she knew named Boualem had been involved in an angry conflict with a neighbor. She wanted to help Boualem, but didn’t know how; then she says, “now God has dealt with the matter. Boualem told us that a dream had come. ‘I dreamed that a great snake was coiling round my foot and leg, and you [Trot ter] were there, and in horror I called to you. You said to the snake: “In the name of Jesus, let go.” It uncoiled and fell like a rope, and I woke almost dead with joy.’ And the shining of his face told that his soul had got free.” B) Trotter says, “Blind Houriya came this morning with ‘I want to tell you something that has frightened me very much. I dreamt it Saturday night, but I was too frightened to tell you yesterday. To-day my husband told me, “You must tell them.” I dreamed that a great snake was twisting round my throat and strangling me. I called to you [Trotter] but you said: “I cannot save you, for you are not following our road.” I went on calling for help, and one came up to me and loosened the snake from off my neck. I said: “And who is it that is saving me, and what is this snake?” A voice said: “I am Jesus and this snake is Ramadan [the Muslim ritual fasting period].”‘” [iii]

3) Henry Shipes was the son of an English father and a mother from the Maidu Indians of the Sierra Nevada mountains of Califor nia. He grew up at the end of the nineteenth century, during the gold rush era, when the indigenous Maidu culture was coming into conflict with white culture. Henry told anthropologist Arden King of various dreams in which he fought against native shamans who were jealous of his power. In one of these dreams, Henry “had a dream contest with a shaman who was also the headman at Quincy [a Sierra Nevada town]. In this dream Henry and the shaman were contesting with each other to see who had the most power. This was a fight to the death. The shaman acted first. He loosed a snake which pursued Henry Shipes, but was unable to catch him. Henry then tried his white power. This was stated by him to be specifically white. By ruse he caused the shaman to attempt the lifting of a bucket. The bucket exploded and the dream ended.” [iv]

4) The Egyptian Pharaoh Tanutamon is reported to have had the following dream experience in the first year of his reign, as presented by philologist A. Leo Oppenheim in his work on dreams in the ancient Near East: “His majesty saw a dream in the night: two serpents, one on his right, the other on his left. His majesty awoke, but he did not find them. His majesty said: ‘Why has this happened to me?'” His interpreters told him that the dream means that both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt now belong to him. “Then his majesty said: “True indeed is the dream; it is beneficial to him who places his heart in it but evil for him who does not know it.” [v]

5) In Carthage in 203 A.D. Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of twenty-two years, and mother to an infant son, was imprisoned and sentenced to death for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. As she waited in prison for the day when she and other Christians would be cast into the arena and killed by wild beasts, her brother came and told her to ask God for a vision to reveal her fate. Perpetua agrees, and says she’ll tell him what she learns tomorrow. “And I asked for a vision, and this was shown to me: I saw a bronze ladder, marvellously long, reaching as far as heaven, and narrow too: people could climb it only one at a time. And on the sides of the ladder every kind of iron implement was fixed: there were swords, lances, hooks, cutlasses, javelins, so that if anyone went up carelessly or not looking upwards, he would be torn and his flesh caught on the sharp iron. And beneath the ladder lurked a serpent of wondrous size, who laid am bushes for those mounting, making them terrified of the ascent. But Saturs [a fellow martyr] climbed up first… And he reached the top of the ladder, and turned and said to me: ‘Perpetua, I’m waiting for you–but watch out that the serpent doesn’t bite you!’ And I said: ‘He won’t hurt me, in Christ’s name!’ And under that ladder, almost, it seemed, afraid of me, the serpent slowly thrust out its head–and, as if I were treading on the first rung, I trod on it, and I climbed. And I saw an immense space of garden, and in the middle of it a white-haired man sitting in shepherd’s garb, vast, milk ing sheep, with many thousands of people dressed in shining white standing all round. And he raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘You are welcome, child.’ And he called me, and gave me, it seemed, a mouthful of the cheese he was milking; and I accepted it in both my hands together, and ate it, and all those standing around said: ‘Amen.’ At the sound of that word I awoke, still chewing some thing indefinable and sweet.” Perpetua tells her dream to her brother, and they both understand that she is to die for her faith. [vi]