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You Will Never Understand / David Lynch’s Obstruction of Sense

By Daniel Coffeen

You will not understand. You will lose all grounding. You will be disoriented. You might be scared. You will never grasp what’s happening. And you will like it.

There will not be any framing shots that let you know for sure where you are. You may know it’s LA, but you will not be oriented within space. The house in Lost Highway does not obey any laws of space you know. When a character leaves the frame in Mulholland Dr., she disappears. This is not the world you think you know.

You will not know who anyone is, not for sure. Characters will drift, changes faces, change names, change personalities — one person becomes another person, people are doubled, identities slide.

The plot will drift and will be motivated by things to which you will never be privy. There have been films that are not built on plot, films that are pure drift. But these are not such films. What makes them so beguiling is that there is a plot, there seems to be some sort of cause and effect, some linear progression. But you will not know what propels action. Ever. This is a lost highway.

Even the name of the film will elude you. Try saying it now: “Mulholland…what? Druh? Der?”

No, you will never understand the film. “Who is that guy?,” you’ll ask yourself. ” And: “Where are they right now?” And: “Who is that cowboy?” And: “Who is that midget?” And: “Why was he kidnapped?” And: “Is that the same girl?” And: “Where are they”? And and and….

The questions will not stop.

These will be questions that nobody will ever answer, not even the director, perhaps not even the characters. And yet these questions will not be asked in vain. On the contrary, they will be the questions of the film itself, giving it its power, its momentum. They will not be questions that ask for answers. They will remain as questions ad infinitum. For Lynch, the image is a question, not an answer.

Take this scene. Who is the cowboy? He sure seems significant. But what does he signify? He seems to know what he’s talking about; his conspicuous confidence, his aplomb, exist in equal proportion to our lack of confidence, our lack of certainty. And this gap gives the films their power and will confound you the most.

Meaning will lurk. It will loom. It will taunt and tease. But it will never present itself. Not because it’s coy but because explanation itself is impossible. And it’s not because there is no explanation — there are films that drift without explanation, films without clear sense that never demand questions from you.

You will never be able to peer behind the camera to figure it all out. Why not? Because the background has been folded into the foreground; the camera has joined the fray.

Look here. What are you seeing? Two men in a diner. But that’s not all. You are also seeing the seeing of the two men. Watch how the camera moves. These are not reverse shots, not establishing shots. The thing that is seeing them seems motivated. The camera, then, does not capture the real world in order to present it to you. The camera — that which sees — is folded into the film itself. There is no behind the scenes.

So why will you watch? Because in disorientation you will enjoy freedom from the familiar, from the constraints of habit. You will enjoy the vertigo, the freefall, the exhilaration that comes when unmoored from the anchor of understanding.