[Spoiler Alert! This post reveals critical plot points about the movie Mulholland Drive, so if you don’t want your movie experience ruined, skip this article]. I saw an interesting Medscape article earlier this month suggesting that just seconds before death in some instances, the brain’s electrical activity zooms into high gear. Contrary to some critical accounts, this is not simply the random firing of neurons as they proceed to disintegrate. According to F. Perry Wilson, MD of the Yale Medical School commenting on a study reported in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS):
”. . . connectivity mapping tells a different story. The signals seem to have structure. Those high-frequency power surges increased connectivity in the posterior cortical “hot zone,” an area of the brain many researchers feel is necessary for conscious perception. . . [there is ] coherence between brain regions in the consciousness hot zone. [Brain scans] indicate cross-talk — not the disordered scream of dying neurons, but a last set of messages passing back and forth from the parietal and posterior temporal lobes.”
This cortical pattern may represent at a neurological level, the visions, hallucinations, and/or other phenomena reported by those who have had near-death experiences, such as those reported by Dr. Raymond Moody in his best-selling book Life After Life. But more pointedly for film buffs, this scientific finding may help unravel some of the mysteries and complexities in the movie Mulholland Drive, directed by David Lynch. Over the past 10 years, this movie has climbed up Sight & Sound magazine’s list of the greatest films of all time, and now is comfortably situated at #8 (in the 2012 poll it ranked #28). I have every confidence that it will rise even higher when the poll of critics, directors, and others in the film industry, reassemble ten years from now to report on a new ranking of the greatest movies in the history of the medium.
At least part of Mulholland Drive’s reputation derives from its complexity, mystery, and surrealism. To put it plainly, it’s often difficult to tell exactly what is going on. Most obviously, the film has to do with the movie industry and to specific characters within it, both famous and obscure, who inhabit the Hollywood scene. But one of the things that makes the movie so confusing is that in the last half hour or so, two of the key characters assume different names, personality traits, and even life histories. Betty becomes Diane. ”Rita” becomes Camilla. At the start of the movie, Betty (played by Naomi Watts) is a star-eyed newbie in the world of Hollywood while ”Rita” (Laura Harring) is a amnesic traffic accident victim who takes her name from a Rita Hayworth poster. At the end of the film, Betty (who is now Diane) commits suicide, while Rita (who is now Camilla and an upcoming actress about to marry her director) is very probably dead, killed by a hit ordered by a jealous and vengeful Betty (Diane) after Rita (Camilla) broke up their lesbian relationship. Simple, isn’t it?
Okay, so I’m not going to make things crystal clear for you, but what I’m going to tell you may provide a key to help you interpret the film and shed some clarity on the situation (and a blue key is actually a critical prop in the movie’s development).
It may help to think of the last 35 minutes of the 2 hrs. and 26 minute film chronologically as the first and the most reality-based portion, of the film, while the first 111 minutes represents a fantasy that Betty (Diane) conjures up out of the highly charged electrical activity in the brain (that I just told you about) right after she shoots herself in the mouth with a gun but before she is completely dead. This may represent just a few seconds, but as I’ve pointed out in my book The Human Odyssey: Navigating the Twelve Stages of Life, a few seconds of ”objective” time to an outside observer could represent days, weeks, or even years, from the standpoint of the person going through it. Two short stories that illustrate this phenomena include: ”An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Ambrose Bierce (made into a Twilight Zone TV episode directed by Robert Enrico), and ”The Secret Miracle” by Argentinian writer extraordinaire Jorge Luis Borges.
I hope you’re with me up to this point (although if you’re not, don’t worry, just go to see or re-see the movie). Okay, so in the last 35 minutes, Betty (who is now Diane) kills herself, and as she is dying in bed you actually see these radiating clouds above her bed that seem to pulse and mimic the activity in her dying brain. This then seems to initiate fantasy that is portrayed in the first 111 minutes of the movie. Instead of being a failed movie actress Reality Diane (now Fantasy Betty) is an up-and-coming star. Instead of being an up-and-coming actress, Reality Camilla (now Fantasy Rita) is an amnesiac miraculously surviving a horrific car crash.
In the last part of the movie we learn that Reality Diane (Fantasy Betty in the first part of the film) has ordered a hit on Camilla/Rita. But we see in one of the last scenes of the film that she appears to regret her decision to have put out a hit on her love object as she glances at the blue key on her table which is the hit-man’s sign that he has completed his assignment. So as far as Reality Diane knows, her former lesbian lover Reality Camilla, who has jilted her for her director (ably played by Justin Theroux) and also possibly for another lesbian lover (seen giving a slow kiss sensual to Camilla at her engagement party), is now dead.
So as Reality Diane is dying, feeling remorse about what she had done, she fantasizes in her dying brain that the hit on Reality Camilla was actually derailed through a freak car accident. Instead of Reality Diane being subservient to her (at the party she says Reality Camilla was able to get her bit parts in various films), Fantasy Rita becomes dependent on Fantasy Betty because of her amnesia. Also, as revenge against Camilla’s lover/director, Fantasy Betty has the director meet with all sorts of misadventures, including not getting to pick his own leading lady, having his wife cheat on him, getting beat up by the cheating boyfriend (played amusingly by Billy Ray Cyrus), having all his credit cards pulled and so forth (I won’t even tell you about his come-to-Jesus meeting with ”The Cowboy” which would require another post or two). Furthermore, to redeem herself for hiring the hit-man, Fantasy Betty has the hit-man getting into all kinds of trouble while trying to rub out a colleague in an office building (he accidentally kills two others in the process in a scene which has to stand as one of the most morbidly funny murder scenes in film history).
I should mention at this point that the director David Lynch is no stranger to issues related to consciousness. He has been active in the Transcendental Meditation movement, and even subsidized a program through the David Lynch Foundation that trains school children, veterans, and others to use this method.
Okay, so these are a few things to get you started. Once you have this ”key” (which in the movie, fits into a blue box that is eventually in the possession of a dark scary bum-monster type guy (or girl) who may represent death), then you can go through all sorts of other details and differentiate and/or compare the real experience (the last 35 minutes) with the final firings of suicidal Reality Diane’s brain cells (the first 111 minutes).
It’s interesting that after Reality Diane kills herself at the end of the picture, you see images of Fantasy Betty (the star-eyed newbie) smiling broadly and rising above the scene in a ghostly radiation (along with images of her and Camilla during the fantasized and happier portion of their lives together). This may be the start of her fantasizing as played out in the first 111 minutes of the movie (the very first scene of the movie shows people dancing, which is most probably Reality Diane’s successful win at a jitterbug contest back home in Ontario that she relates at the engagement party–her one real success in life and the impetus for her to go to Hollywood in the first place).
So, like the actors in the play Hamlet, both Reality Diane (who suicides) and Reality Camilla (who is killed by a hit-man) are dead by the end of the movie. This death seems to be symbolized by the blue key and the blue box. The blue key on Reality Diane’s coffee table toward the very end of the film indicates that the hit-man has rubbed out Reality Camilla. At the end of the fantasy sequence Fantasy Rita uses a blue key (shaped differently from the hit-man’s Yale key) to open a blue box just after Fantasy Betty has disappeared (I’m guessing that this is the last gasp of Fantasy Betty’s dying brain) and we descend into blackness which transitions us into the last 26 minutes of the film showing the way things really are.
There’s a strange homeless man who appears in the fantasy portion of the movie, and at the end of the movie we see him with the blue box as he sits by a dumpster near a Denny’s-style restaurant. I’m guessing he also represents death (in the first part of the film we’re shown a man at the restaurant who was literally terrified to death by looking at this man). As Fantasy Rita peers into the blackness of the blue box, she almost anticipates her own dissolution as Reality Camilla. The very end of the film shows a theater with a woman in a formal gown sitting in an orchestra box speaking the Spanish word ”silencio.” The movie is over. But our thoughts continue to wonder: what is Mulholland Drive really about?
For more information about the activity of the brain during the death process, see my chapter on death and dying in my book The Human Odyssey: Navigating the 12 Stages of Life.
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