Lynch’s Inferno

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Lynch’s Inferno

I was so full of sleep just at that point / when I first left the way of truth behind.

– Dante, Inferno

“The Hardy Boys go to hell.” That, reportedly, is how David Lynch summed up Blue Velvet, the esteemed 1986 film that lifted him to a new sphere of critical and cultural success. Blue Velvet’s Hardy Boy-esque hero (Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont) does not end his journey in hell, though; rather, Dante-like, he comes out the other side a penitent recipient of heavenly grace.

Not all of Lynch’s films end so happily, alas.

The descent into hell is one of the central motifs of Lynch’s work. Though Lynch is not a Christian (he is a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation), Christians often argue in his favor by pointing to his unapologetically spiritual mindset – a rarity in our secular, materialist epoch. (In one 1999 interview, ready-made for meme culture, Lynch replies to the incredulous question “You don’t literally believe in angels?” with a nonchalant “Oh, yeah” before smiling and puffing on a cigarette.) Given their distressing nature and the ambiguity of their spiritual underpinnings, I would think twice before recommending Lynch’s works as subjects of prolonged meditation, but there is certainly truth to be gleaned from them. I am not sure any other filmmaker has more of an uncanny knack for depicting spiritual evil, and if they are out there somewhere, I am sure I never want to watch their movies. Does Lynch literally believe in angels? Oh, yeah – and not just unfallen ones.

Lynch’s body of work is thickly laden with the sense that the visible, physical, “normal” world is mysteriously pervaded by unseen, spiritual realities – and it has this in common with the fiction of Charles Williams (such as the novel Descent Into Hell), the most idiosyncratic member of the Inklings. Williams’ flair for mystical esoterica, a far cry from the more conventional fantasies of his peers Lewis and Tolkien, is not his only point of contact with Lynch. Though one is working in an overtly Christian context and the other is not, both artists share a central preoccupation with the way romance – as filtered through the courtly love tradition with which Dante wrestled – can be a path to heaven or hell, salvation or damnation.

Few theologians have taken romance more seriously than Charles Williams, and accordingly, few have been so closely attentive to its dangers. For Williams, the refrain of true romanticism is found in Beatrice’s words to Dante: “See me as I am.” Williams insists that the romantic vision –whether it is Dante seeing Beatrice in Florence or Jeffrey Beaumont seeing Sandy Williams (Laura Dern) in Lumberton, North Carolina – is a glimpse, however brief or obscure, of a spiritual reality. When the lover looks on the beloved with love, he sees her, so to speak, glorified “as she is in heaven.” He (per Williams’ Outlines of Romantic Theology) “sees and contemplates the beloved as the perfection of living things… in the eyes of the lover, were it but for a moment, she recovers her glory, which is the glory that Love had with the Father before the world was.” If Williams’ lofty treatment of romance is apt to strike us as impossibly idealistic, he is careful to clarify that true romanticism must never preclude an accurate and dutiful attention to the real particularities of the beloved, including her flaws. If it does, it degrades into pseudo-romanticism – a soul-corroding preference for the image of the beloved over the reality of the beloved. Nonetheless, Williams insists: “the false does not abolish the true or the value of the true, any more than the cheap use of the word Romantic spoils the intellectual honour which properly accompanies it.”

In Blue Velvet, romance is, crucially, the means of Jeffrey’s corruption; his illicit liaison with married Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosselini) leads to his subsequent entanglement with the monstrous Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). And yet, in Blue Velvet, more clearly and strikingly than in any other Lynch film, romance is also a means of redemption and a glimpse of heaven. It is Sandy who, Beatrice-like, calls Jeffrey out of hell. It is Sandy who gives Jeffrey a stinging rebuke for his sin with one hand and, with the other, extends the promise of genuine forgiveness. It is Sandy who mediates the Lynchian beatific vision to Jeffrey, in a speech of eschatological hope backed by the ambient sound of a heavenly choir:

I had a dream. In fact, it was the night I met you. In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins, and the robins represented love. And for the longest time, there was just this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free, and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed like love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So I guess it means there is trouble till the robins come.

Little about Lynch’s folksy, homespun persona suggests he is a scholar of Dante or Williams, and up to this point, I have drawn my parallels lightly. However, whether intentional or not, I am increasingly convinced that Williams’ interpretation of Dante can help us interpret Lynch, and that one of the Comedy’s most crucial images – as explicated by Williams in his commentary, The Figure of Beatrice – is a key that can unlock two of Lynch’s darkest, most perplexing films.

About midway through the Comedy, halfway up Mount Purgatory, Dante falls asleep in the ring of Sloth and dreams of the Siren. The Siren makes her first appearance in Dante’s dream as a maimed, stammering woman, but when Dante fixes his gaze on her, a kind of optical illusion occurs: she becomes beautiful in both voice and appearance, such that Dante “hardly could have turned [his] mind from her”. Dante must be rescued from the Siren’s song by a “blessed lady” –possibly Beatrice – and his guide and teacher, Virgil. Prompted by the lady’s righteous indignation, Virgil tears away the “curtains” of the Siren’s finery, exposing the hideous, putrid reality hiding behind the illusion – a shock so nasty that it awakens Dante from his slumber.

Though the image of the Siren bears a number of interpretations – Anthony Esolen sees her as, generally, “an allegory of attachment to worldly goods” – Charles Williams offers a particularly compelling and penetrating reading. Williams’ commentary on the Comedy centers on the development of the image of Beatrice as Dante ascends to heaven, and thus, he reads the Siren as a particular hellish perversion of that romantic vision which ought to be salvific:

But if Sloth overtakes Love, Beatrice is lost in the Siren, the romantic Image in the pseudo-romantic mirage… [The Siren] has been called the image of Sensual Pleasure, but this (it would seem) need not be the whole significance. She is as much – let us say –Ideal Gratification; all the sighs that lament the imperfection of a man’s actual mistress, the verses that sweetly moan over her failure to live up to his dreams (or the other way round)… all these are the Siren’s song.

For Williams, the Siren is an image of what happens when “Sloth overtakes Love” – when the lover abandons the difficult work of love, which demands attention to the reality of the beloved, and turns away to an insubstantial, unreal dream of love. In an insightful essay on the Dream of the Siren, Tomás Antonio Valle explains further: “Dante’s gaze has given to an unfit object of love the appearance of a fit object of love and done so according to Dante’s own desires. This can be called ‘projected love,’ since by it Dante loves only himself and his own desires, which he has projected onto the woman, rather than the woman herself.”

This turning from reality to dream, from “the romantic Image” to “the pseudo-romantic mirage,” is a central theme in the Lynchian canon. Blue Velvet redemptively reverses the movement, as Jeffrey turns away from his pseudo-romance with Dorothy toward a relationship of genuine love with Sandy. Lynch’s entire Twin Peaks project could be seen as an extended meditation on the falsity of the idealized image projected onto Laura Palmer and the traumatized reality of the girl hidden behind such an image. However, Lynch investigates this Dantean theme – the rejection of reality in favor of a romantic dream, leading to damnation – most thoroughly, directly, and literally in two of his post-Twin Peaks films, 1997’s Lost Highway and 2001’s Mulholland Drive.

Although it is not immediately evident, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive share the same fundamental narrative structure. In both films, two seemingly unrelated stories are overlaid on each other. One of the stories is a dream: it is a narrative that obliquely reveals the desires of the dreamer who is constructing it. The other story is the reality: by revealing the dreamer’s desires, it acts as a key to unlock the meaning of the dream.

For all they have in common, there is one crucial structural difference between the two films. We enter Lost Highway through the real world: we see the troubled marriage of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), we see his murder of his unfaithful wife Renee (Patricia Arquette), and then we follow his descent into a dream, through which he tries to absolve himself of guilt and gratify his unfulfilled desire for his wife. In direct contrast, we enter Mulholland Drive through the dream: for two hours, we are drawn in to sympathize with Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) and her unfolding romance with Rita (Laura Harring), only to be rudely awakened by the reality that Rita is actually the dead Camilla Rhodes and Betty is actually Diane Selwyn, the jilted lover who hired a hitman to murder her. This sequential reversal dramatically changes the way the two films are presented and received. Lost Highway is a bleak, stark film, condemning its hero from the start. We may recognize his jealousy, shame, and terror from our own interior lives, but we nonetheless judge him from a distance. Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, draws us into its heroine’s inner world so persuasively that it achieves a different kind of tragic poignancy. We cannot possibly excuse Diane’s actions, but we still feel the sting of the romantic dream’s dissolution.

Although they evoke such different catharses, the two films ultimately present different stages along the same way: the way into the city of woe, the way into eternal pain, the way to go among the lost, the way to hell via “projected love”. In both films, the dreamer is a lover who has killed his or her beloved in the wake of a frustrated romance, and in both films, there is a twofold transformation of identity. In the dream, the beloved is stripped of agency and personhood; she is hollowed out, flattened, reduced to an illusory image that exists only to gratify the desire of the dreamer. So far, so familiar: this is the same danger of projected love identified by Dante’s Dream of the Siren and dramatized in Twin Peaks. However, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive go further, showing that perverted romance deforms not only the identity of the beloved but that of the lover as well. In the dream narratives of both films, the guilty lovers – who have been rejected by, and then reacted violently against, their beloveds – are gripped by such overwhelming self-hatred that they imagine themselves as someone else, creating an illusory self-image that allows them to escape the baggage of their actual pasts. They imagine themselves as new and different persons – persons whose desire for the beloved might be requited in the dream precisely the way it was not in reality.

Following Dante, we should begin with Mulholland Drive because it goes less deeply into hell than Lost Highway. The circle of Lust is the highest circle in the Inferno – implying, strikingly, that Lust, while unequivocally damnable, is the “least bad” of the deadly sins. This is to say that, out of all the sins in Dante’s hell, it is Lust that bears the closest (though still fatally marred) resemblance to the Love that turns the sun and the other stars. Per Williams, the circle of Lust depicts “the first tender, passionate, and half-excusable consent of the soul to sin… could the soft delaying indulgence of the soul so delay perpetually, the imagination and the will might be almost content to lose heaven for that.” Mulholland Drive is more poignant than Lost Highway because its perverse romance more closely resembles true romance; its false image of love could more easily be mistaken for true love.

According to Williams’ romantic theology, the sight of the beloved is a glimpse of heaven and thus an invitation to the arduous effort of practicing holiness. Through the beloved, the lover is called to assent to the difficult, transforming work of love. Romance may lead to sainthood, but then again, it may not: the invitation may be rejected, and thus the appearance of the beloved is a moment of crisis, a moment of “choice between action and no action, intellect and no intellect, energy and no energy, romanticism and pseudo-romanticism.” Williams warns, “the temptation to turn aside is immediate, swift, subtle, and very sweet. It is only to linger in the moment, to desire to be lost passionately and permanently in the moment, to live only for the recurrence of the moment.”

This is precisely the temptation to which Diane Selwyn has succumbed in Mulholland Drive. Diane’s beloved Camilla has, disappointingly, turned out to be unfaithful, venal, and even cruel; she has failed to measure up to Diane’s romantic vision of her. And Camilla has rejected Diane – who, for her part, has always been a profoundly selfish lover with a craving, devouring passion for Camilla. At its core, Diane’s entire dream is an attempt to recreate, relive, and linger permanently in the moment of first love while erasing her subsequent disappointment.

The dream begins with a car crash that erases Camilla’s memory, essentially “resetting” her and turning her into a blank slate onto which Diane can project her desires. The amnesiac Camilla, inspired by a poster of Rita Hayworth – a quintessential image of feminine Hollywood glamor – takes on the alias “Rita.” The entire romance between Betty, Diane’s dream self, and Rita, Camilla’s dreamed substitute, is facilitated by the deceptive image-making of the Hollywood “dream factory.” The two women are both actresses, after all; as Betty excitedly tells Rita, “It’ll be just like in the movies. We’ll pretend to be someone else.” Williams writes that Paolo and Francesca, the damned lovers in the Inferno’s circle of Lust, “each… had delight in the image of the other, and both of them had a mutual delight in their love.” Valle goes further:

[T]he episode of Francesca and Paolo exemplifies how Courtly Love can influence one to construct a false image that leads to indolence and lust. Reading about Lancelot’s Courtly Love relationship with Guinevere, they conceive the desire to have such a relationship themselves… at the critical moment when Paolo kisses Francesca in imitation of Lancelot, they take for themselves the roles of the characters, projecting their desire for a Courtly Lover onto the other person – Francesca imagining Paolo to be another Lancelot and Paolo imagining Francesca to be another Guinevere… This false image they have created leads them to dally in acedia, slothful languor, and indolent lust.

The fact that Diane/Betty’s romance with Rita is homosexual poetically heightens the creeping self-love at its core. It is crucial that Betty takes Rita to bed only after Rita has changed the color of her hair to mimic Betty’s and the two women have admired themselves in the mirror. The beautiful, successful Rita/Camilla is everything Betty/Diane wants to be, and at the same time, Betty/Diane yearns to remake Rita/Camilla in her own image. There is a dim, skewed reflection here of the true aim of eros: for two human beings to become, paradoxically, “one flesh.” Crucially, though, as they make love, Betty repeatedly tells Rita not “I love you” but “I’m in love with you.” What Betty/Diane loves, ultimately, is not Rita/Camilla herself – she has, in reality, violently done away with Camilla – but the state of being passionately in love.

To demand a repetition of the initial experience of “falling in love,” as Diane does, is to arrest the proper development of love, to neglect and finally reject the difficult progression that real love always entails. The sin at the center of Mulholland Drive, then, is as much Sloth as it is Lust. Diane’s dream follows the same narrative arc as Dante’s Dream of the Siren in the terrace of Sloth: the dreamer projects a lovely appearance onto an unlovely reality, but is startled awake when the romantic fantasy gives way to the hideous actuality.

The film’s most iconically terrifying figure could almost be a direct evocation of Dante’s Siren. In a scene which has no obvious relation to the rest of the plot but functions as a thematic key, an anonymous man (Patrick Fischler) sees a demonic hobo, hideously scabbed and blackened with dirt, hiding behind “Winkie’s,” a diner named to suggest sleep (as in, “catching some winks”). “He’s the one who’s doing it,” the man says ambiguously before the demon emerges from its hiding place behind a dumpster. What is it that the demon is “doing”? Mulholland Drive imagines “the magic of the movies” as Dante’s Siren’s song writ large – glamorous illusions hiding a putrid, filthy, rotting reality. The mocking emptiness of the romantic promise cannot console Diane’s frustrated love; it can only drive her to despair and, finally, to suicide. After a last flickering glimpse of the dream image, the Siren’s echoing song finally gives way to “silencio.”

“The surprise of hell – say, in this present life, the surprise of sin – lies in two things only: first, that it does not change, that it can go on being so monotonously the same; second, that other and worse sins so certainly appear…” So writes Williams in his commentary on the Inferno, and the same logic holds true in Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. Diane’s almost-innocent desire, in Mulholland Drive, to relive the moment of “falling in love” leads to a slothful shirking of genuine love, and then, subtly but inexorably, to actual betrayal of the beloved – to murder and suicide – to the same fate as Fred Madison in Lost Highway. Both films show how Lust, the highest circle of Dante’s Inferno, spirals downward to Treachery – the lowest circle, the farthest possible place from the heavenly spheres of Love.

The reciprocal delight of Lust inevitably gives way to the selfish delights of the worse sins. Per Williams, “the mutual indulgence is bound too soon to become two separate single indulgences.” The lovers began lost in each other, but as they move deeper into hell, they become lost in their own selves.

The central demonic figures in both Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway are both associated with image-making in the context of film. However, while Mulholland Drive’s dumpster demon seems to facilitate the production of alluring, seductive images that paper over hideous realities, Lost Highway’s chillingly creepy Mystery Man (Robert Blake) is always filming the brutal, ugly truth, camcorder in hand. Of course, the two feed off of each other: the knowledge of their guilt is what drives both Diane and Fred to flee into comforting delusions. The Mystery Man’s main function is to videotape Fred’s sins and then play the footage back to him, reinforcing the sense of shame and self-hatred that leads him to more and more violent forms of self-rejection. The device recalls a description by Martin Laird of a woman suffering from intense awareness of her shortcomings: “She described her inner state as a series of internal videos that constantly played and that she constantly watched. Her attention was routinely stolen by them.” When the Mystery Man’s face is superimposed over the face of Fred’s wife Renee in a jarring, surreal moment, it is because she has become a source of shame for him. Her infidelity is an unwelcome reminder of his (real or perceived) impotence as a man – and his intense shame over this inadequacy drives him first to murder her and then to dissociate himself from the act.

Diane imagined herself with a different name, but she was still played by Naomi Watts and the circumstances of her life, despite some obvious omissions, were similar. Fred’s self-rejection is even more complete. When Fred’s dream begins, he gets a completely new life and a completely new face: Bill Pullman is replaced by a new actor, Balthazar Getty, playing a new character, the much younger Pete Dayton. In both cases, the dreams manifest the dreamer’s desire to go back to a different point in one’s life, before a particular traumatic event, and stay there.

When police detectives ask if the Madisons own a video camera, Renee explains that they do not because “Fred hates them.” He elaborates: “I like to remember things my own way… How I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened.” The entire dream narrative of Lost Highway represents Fred’s attempt to remember things his own way – to absolve himself of his shame by rewriting the story of his life, reimagining himself as a wronged victim. In his dream, Fred – like Diane substituting Camilla for Rita – invents a double of Renee, an identical twin sister named Alice Wakefield. In the form of Pete, his dream alias, Fred can romantically pursue Alice without the emotional baggage of his failed marriage to Renee.

As it did in Mulholland Drive, though, reality asserts itself once the dream has run its course. As Pete and Alice have sex in the desert at night, lit only by car headlights, she whispers in his ear, “You’ll never have me,” before leaving Pete in the dust and disappearing into a wooden shack. When Pete stands up, he is no longer Pete; he is Fred again. Fred follows Alice into the shack and finds her gone; only the Mystery Man is waiting for him. He cannot escape himself or his shame. His attempt to rewrite his story ends the only way it can – in dust and dissolution.

The film begins with Fred being haunted and tormented by the unseen Mystery Man, who sends anonymous VHS tapes that begin outside his house and gradually move inward. The great turn in the film, though, is that the Mystery Man was never really outside the house; he was inside. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Fred was not a mere innocent victim of external forces; he was the perpetrator. In the final passages of the film, Fred and the Mystery Man align without comment. The Mystery Man hands Fred a knife with which to murder his wife’s lover, and they stand side by side like allies, watching the man bleed out. They are revealed to be in sync, the Mystery Man aiding, abetting, and enabling Fred’s own impulses to evil. That Fred’s journey ultimately leads him to the desert is apt, recalling Christ’s description of unclean spirits as going through dry places, seeking rest and finding none (Matthew 12). The film begins and ends with the headlights of Fred’s car barreling down a dark desert highway at night, and so the shape of the film is revealed to be, like Dante’s hell, circular, an unending loop. We may recall C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce: “[B]oth good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective… And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”

In both Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, the dreamers cobble their self-deluding dreams together out of the stuff of movies. Their dreams are pastiches of the plots, aesthetics, and romantic philosophies of Hollywood. What are we to make of this? What comment is Lynch making on his chosen art form? What makes Lynch’s films different from the deceptive dreams they depict?

In his essay on Dante’s Dream of the Siren, Valle addresses a similar dilemma in Dante’s poetry. On the one hand, the Dream of the Siren is a dire warning about the spiritual danger of projected love. And yet, the poetic image of Beatrice, the romanticized vision of the beloved guiding Dante to God, is absolutely central to the Comedy. Valle writes:

How can Dante know that he is seeking Beatrice and not simply delaying his search for God, trapped in the arms of a Siren he himself has made? … If he does not want his method of salvation to crumble around him, he must somehow show that Beatrice is a true image leading him to God or at least that he sees the danger of using Beatrice this way and knows how to avoid it… Unlike Francesca’s image, which compels her to indolence… Dante’s image of Beatrice sends him down to Hell. Moreover, this journey to Hell represents an introspective understanding of Dante’s own desires… This is the distinction between false and true images, between the Siren and Beatrice: the one provokes acedia, the other an epic quest to understand the nature of desire.

In Valle’s interpretation, then, Dante ultimately proposes the following distinction between the “false image” of the Siren and the “true image” of Beatrice: the false image blinds Dante to himself and his desires, while the other spurs him to investigate those desires. Such an investigation, as Diane Selwyn and Fred Madison know all too well, is bound to be distressing and even nightmarish: the chance to avoid it is part of the appeal of the Siren’s song. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Beatrice, the true beloved, sends her lover to Hell – because that is the only path by which he might reach Heaven.

Lynch’s films are “true images” in the sense that they are almost unparalleled investigations of the nature of desire. Lynch does not aim to lull us into a blind stupor; rather, he aims, like Virgil, to pull back the Siren’s curtains and expose the filth behind them. Like Virgil, he shows us the lost people (Purgatory 30.138) so that, seeing them, we may avoid their fates.

Perhaps Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive take us down into hell because that is precisely the place we need to go through to be saved.

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