There is no more time. We have not spoken for days and days. I think we have lost the power of speech?
May 31, 2010 § 2 Comments
Last night I made a phonecall at eight o’clock and had a brief conversation. For the rest of the evening I had music on in the background: Sunn O))), Grouper, the Dead Texan, Khanate. I was learning about English grammar and editing a story. I alternated these activities so that I did not get insane with one or the other. None of these things truly constituted conversation, none required imagination. The music was a kind of voice but contained no vocals. Today I read four William Trevor stories from the time I woke up to the time I left the house to go swimming. I inserted my card in the slot at the gym and went into the water without saying a word. I came home and read five more William Trevor stories. I did this in complete silence, without music, for example, or distraction of any kind. I went to look at the last of missing or inappropriate commas in the grey heat, on a pavement cafe. I asked for coffee. I’m, not sure if it was a real conversation but there were words. Today was like a Turner painting. Where we see a boat, he saw a tone.
March 11, 2010 § Leave a comment
This is a truncated version of a question and answer session I heard take place today between an international fashion agent and a fashion class. It might be worth bearing in mind that when he started his business the name was taken from a Roxy Music album.
Q: What about ethics?
A: Burma is a particularly touchy subject for people. The workers get paid 28 US dollars a month for a 12 hour day. The Burmese typical cost is 26 US dollars a month. They have no business and they do not feed their family or they do and they do. 80 years ago kids were still working down pits in the UK. An adult is 16 in Burma it is 9 in Pakistan. It is a bit like drinking here – there are probably younger people working.
Q: What is the biggest change you have seen in the industry?
A: Cutting out the middle jobs, removing people like me.
Q: Who had the most stringent ethical codes?
Q: Key role of the fashion buyer?
A: Sorry I don’t understand the question? Making money of course.
Q: Where will you be sourcing in five years?
Q: What is your preferred method of communication and is it different between countries?
A: In China you cannot shout in India you cannot send a courteous email or nothing will get done.
Q: What are the worst conditions you have seen in a factory?
A: In Bangladesh – people being violent to workers when they made mistakes If you run your own business you can only deal with factories that you like. When you are employed by someone else you have to buy from Bangladesh. However some fathers in Bangladesh treat their sons in the same way.
Q: Have you seen an increase in standards or ethics?
A: Yes if there is a BBC documentary there is a kneejerk reaction. The retailers do not like to explain where the factory is.
Q: One piece of advice for the class?
A: Read The Telegraph every day
March 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
This Prelude tells of pain, not reverie…
Chopin was rich in feeling Eva, but not gushy. They’re not the same. There’s a great difference between emotions and sentiment. The prelude you just played tells of anguish that’s suppressed. It’s not about grievance. Take the opening for instance: it hurts but he never shows it. And then a short release but it’s very fleeting and it hardly lasts, and the pain is the same, neither heightened nor diminished. Chopin was proud, sarcastic, passionate, tormented and very male. In other words, he wasn’t a sentimental old woman. This second prelude must be made to sound almost ugly. Never allow it to become ingratiating, it should sound wrong. You battle through the piece and finally manage to end up triumphant.
“Have You Done This Before?”: Sameness, Doubling and Repetition as the Locus of Lesbian Desire in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive
March 3, 2010 § Leave a comment
Both the schoolgirl and the femme fatale are stock lesbian characters, but they are not supposed to end up in bed together. (Heather K. Love)
The whole of man’s realization in the sexual relation comes down to fantasy (Jacques Lacan)
‘Sameness’ is considered by Sarah Ahmed in her book Queer Phenomenology to be the basis of much homophobia. By characterizing lesbian and gay relationships as ‘same-sex’ there is an erasure of difference. I take sameness in this film to relate to the way in which the two women are presented as either ciphers or stock characters. They are given very little personality in the first half of the film and act out according to type in the second half. The sense of illusion and unreality which clings to the characters makes the lines between them blurred.
Doubling is also used in Mulholland Drive to effect lesbian desire. The two women often resemble each other or other characters. The sense of the real being occluded by the fantasied is apparent in the repetition of the lesbian relationship in two different ways. Identification is deeply eroticized, and the location of an identity, any identity, seems to become sexually charged for the two main characters.
In psychoanalysis that which is subject to repetition is subject to sadism. Repetition functions in various ways in the film to create lesbian desire. Events are repeated to create the two different versions.
The two main characters in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Betty/Diane and Rita/Camilla, perform their relationship in two opposing ways during the course of the film. During the first part, Betty, an aspiring movie star, comes to stay in her Aunt Ruth’s apartment in Hollywood where she encounters Rita. Rita is amnesiac, hiding desperately in the apartment in order to escape some terrible, possibly fatal, trouble following a car crash on Mulholland Drive. Betty is a naïve, sparky blonde fresh from the little town of Deep River, Ontario. Rita is a voluptuous femme fatale in both physical and psychic danger. Her bewildered beauty and languorous stage presence give a false impression of depth. Rita allows herself to be guided by Betty in her project to work out her ‘true’ identity and they eventually become erotically involved.
When Betty breathily asks Rita “Have you done this before?” as they begin kissing, she helps the viewer to understand how lesbian identity is constructed in the film. Though the question could just as easily refer to any type of sexual activity, it is implied that it concerns lesbianism specifically. Rita’s answer “I don’t know.” is at once sincere and stylized. The character draws attention to the fact that she is a cipher, her identity being put together as she goes along. It just so happens that in the first part of the film she is figured as exclusively lesbian, but she has no idea if this is typical behaviour for her.
This scene has been described as ‘poignant and tender’ with Betty “understanding for the first time, with self-surprise, that all her helpfulness and curiosity about the other woman had a point: desire … It is a beautiful moment, made all the more miraculous by its earned tenderness, and its distances from anything lurid.”It has also been described as being “far more intense and ‘real’ than anything Rita has done heretofore. It seems as though she has ‘found herself’ in the arms of Betty, regardless of her forgotten history.”
We never see how this romance plays out because halfway through the film Naomi Watts and Laura Elena Harring vanish, only to reappear in a sadomasochistic love triangle. The beautiful and successful Harring (now Camilla) leaves Watts (now Diane) for the movie director Adam Kesher, humiliating her deeply in the process. The penultimate scene shows Diane putting a gun in her mouth, unable to live with the longing she has for the murdered Camilla, and the guilt she feels for hiring her killer.
This is troubling in that the second half of the story surely is ‘lurid’ and cheap. It relies on the viewer’s preconceptions of the abject lesbian, which I will discuss in more detail below, in order to function. We see Diane as bereft, incapable of dealing with Camilla’s defection to a man. This kind of ‘straightening’ behaviour fulfils the viewer’s expectations that the woman who is solely lesbian is someone to be pitied and ignored, whilst the bisexual woman is to be congratulated for returning to heterosexuality. Where we see the violent suicide of Diane and her rotting corpse, in the last image we have of Camilla she is laughing, radiant and apparently sexually fulfilled. Though we are told that she has been killed offstage somewhere, we do not see her death. She does not provoke our disgust or scorn as Diane might.
Sonali Pattanik, in her essay ‘Lesbian Voices: Canada and the World: Theory, Literature, Cinema’ talks about the figure of the ‘abject lesbian’, a type who “seems to trouble the foundations of hetero-patriarchy’s myth of total subjectivity, and threatens some of the most invisible and firm roots of male dominated societies. One such abject lesbian appears in Mulholland Drive in the form of Diane Selwyn who, precisely because of her despair and loneliness, becomes a threat. If we see the film studios as a form of patriarchy, and Hollywood as a myth-making machine, then Diane certainly troubles those foundations. She shows us what happens to those who do not compromise or conform.
Diane, we are led to believe, is tragically banal in her desperate, thwarted love. As Heather K. Love says of the abject lesbian:
Her suffering, apparently so far from modernity’s mainstage, is significant precisely as modernity’s remainder. As banal and pitiable as the tragic lesbian’s experience is, it makes sense to name it as tragic: this is what modern tragedy looks like.
Diane does not seem to choose her path of murder and suicide because of defiance and bravery, but rather because of a fixed nature that cannot be ‘cured’ through humiliation or fear. This fatal sameness, or inability to move fluidly between identities, is seen as her central flaw. Love goes on to say that it is because “the homosexual already occupies the position of the scapegoat that his sacrifice looks so natural.” Diane is not allowed happiness because of her inability to ‘straighten’ her orientation and “love fails because it must, because Sapphic promise inevitably founders on the rocks of homosexual impossibility.
If we compare this ‘sameness’ of Diane’s in the second half of the film as the ugly truth and the first half as her masturbatory fantasy or dream, as many critics have, then this raises another interesting point. The obvious corollary to Diane’s suffering in the second half is the suffering of Adam Kesher in the first. The film director is manipulated by a hidden cabal of gangsters into choosing another woman, also called ‘Camilla’ echoing Rita’s later name, as the lead in his film. When he tries to refuse, he quickly learns that the choice is between conformity and death. Kesher opts for conformity and chooses ‘Camilla’, retains nominal control and the status quo is upheld. On the other hand Diane appears unable to change and cannot gain control over the course of events necessitating her descent into violence. Later in the film Kesher ‘gets the girl’ orienting Camilla towards heterosexuality in the process. The closed logic of Diane’s world is not read as noble in the light of this, but rather as a byproduct of her inability to change. Her ‘sameness’ is escapable only through violent death.
Another way in which sameness functions as the locus of lesbian desire is in the use of stock characters and clichés. In the first half, Betty represents the stereotype of the naïve schoolgirl, experimenting coyly as though at a sleepover. Rita is the femme fatale, her voluptuous body, forties make-up and name taken from a Rita Hayworth poster become almost over-determined in their representation of a sultry, noirish beauty. There is something unsettling and uncanny in their sexual relationship. As Love says:
Both the schoolgirl and the femme fatale are stock lesbian characters, but they are not supposed to end up in bed together. Betty’s opening invitation to have Rita join her in the bed recalls a tradition of boarding school romances that walk a fine line between innocence and experience, between cuddling and depravity
The uncanniness operates because the characters look like real people but they have no psychological depth. At one and the same time they are individuals, they are actors and they are symbols. Even as they perform the lesbian relationship, it does not make sense as it feels as though the stereotypes should not be in the same story in this way. It is only if we reject psychological truth and allow the dream-like illusory quality of the film to become foregrounded that these reductive, flimsy portraits work.
Film critics have responded to the relationship between the two women as though it represented true love. Ekeberg characterizes the film as a story about “Canadian actress Betty Elms, who befriends and soon falls in love with Rita, a woman suffering from amnesia after a car accident on Mulholland Drive. And Taylor goes even further, claiming that:
Betty and Rita are often framed against darkness so soft and velvety it’s like a hovering nimbus, ready to swallow them if they awake from the film’s dream. And when they are swallowed, when smoke fills the frame as if the sulfur of hell itself were obscuring our vision, we feel as if not just a romance has been broken, but the beauty of the world has been cursed.
This schmaltzy sentimentality obscures the fact that the Betty and Rita function in almost the exact opposite way to archetypes. Rather than distilling the essence of a character type, they muddy any distinctions between themselves and become the same. Two blanks, one of whom is at her ‘realest’ when acting out bad dialogue in an audition and the other of whom has no memory and no name.
Sameness, in the sense which Sara Ahmed uses it, refers to a kind of homophobic preconception in which “the very idea of women desiring women because of “sameness” relies on a fantasy that women are “the same”. This betrays a kind of social and sexual arrogance, as though women who choose each other are not capable of the kind of challenging diversity to be experienced in a heterosexual relationship. It also assumes that there are more differences between men and women than there are between two women or two men.
As an adjunct to this position is the sense that lesbian sex is not the same kind of experience as heterosexual penetrative sex. This is a conservative and retrograde position according to Hanne Blanke who says in her book Virgin that “among gay men and lesbians, but also increasingly hetero- and bisexuals, oral sex, anal sex and mutual masturbation are now identified as being the things that turn virgins into no-longer virgins.” It is surprising then to see that Mulholland Drive appears to privilege heterosexual orientation, using the more positive representation of lesbianism as a kind of prelude to the presentation of Diane as abject lesbian and Camilla as reformed bisexual. Their differences then become clear and run along binary lines. Camilla is successful, wealthy, desired, she performs her voluptuous femininity overtly, she flaunts her sexuality. Diane is desperate, undesired, scrawnily androgynous and secretly harbours her bitter sexual longing.
Diane is largely ignored by the other guests at Camilla’s engagement party and she seems to undergo a kind of breakdown. As Ahmed says “This association between homosexuality and sameness is crucial to the pathologizing of homosexuality as a perversion that leads the body astray.” Diane is subject to this pathologizing and her already weakened personality becomes reduced further. She becomes a conduit for vengeful desire, a sick lust which drives her to literally unspeakable acts. The murder is neither witnessed nor discussed other than obliquely. And in this way, Diane also becomes a witch-like figure, a spiteful yet numinous creature who resides outside of ordinary society:
The figure of the lesbian remains an object of collective longing and loathing. A spur to acts of phallic virtuosity both on-screen and off, the lesbian sits at the crossroads, charged with unspeakable secrets of desire.
The strange doubling of characters, of worlds and of images in Mulholland Drive gives rise to an uneasy displacement for the viewer. We long to put a clear reading on the story: that Diane’s misery is ‘real’ and the first half her masturbatory fantasy or dream, that one omniscient dreamer is responsible for both versions, that Diane is what becomes of Betty after being too long in Hollywood, or even that the scenes fit together cyclically as though through a distorted zoetrope. The film resists any single interpretation. Just as there is no ‘true’ reading of the story, so there is no single location for lesbian desire. The process of doubling the events of the film, showing them twice from different angles, allows different types of lesbian desire to co-exist. However, in Lacanian terms, this kind of doubling can be frightening:
Lacan concluded that the ‘correct distance’ is the opposite of the feminine’. This implies that only the male subject can approximate the correct distance. Without the intervention of a third term, the male other, the two women are frightening Doppelgänger, copies of one single self.
Rather than positively presenting a multiplicity of lesbianisms, seen through the eyes of Lacan there is only fear to be felt during the first part of the film where the two women are unmediated by a male. Later, when Adam Kesher becomes the appropriate male subject, the doubling of the characters remains, they are still inescapably intertwined, the actions of one fatally affects the other. It is as though the lesbian desire continues to dwell in the site where the two women double, even as it dissipates on the surface, subject to the withering male gaze. If Diane is a sadist, then so is her double Camilla who humiliates her lover past all endurance and forces her to take drastic action. “According to [Lacan], the paranoid structure means that the female criminal sees her mirror image reflected in her victim. ” By the end of the film Diane has wrested power from Camilla and Adam, destroyed their union in the most extreme way she can. In so doing she fulfils what Panja describes as:
The lesbian’s vicarious gaze upon the shadowy absence of the phallus in the narrative is a triumphant moment of seizure of phallic power from men, creating a disruption between the natural link assumed between male identity and the possession of the phallic power.
Diane becomes a vicarious murderer. She receives a key to show that the murder has been committed: an all-too-obvious Freudian phallic symbol cannot surely be an accident. It is this murder which drives Diane to her remorseful suicide and it was Freud who wrote that “’If what subjects long for most intensely in their phantasies is presented to them in reality, they none the less flee from it’”. Zizek believes that his “point is not merely that this occurs because of censorship, but, rather, because the core of our fantasy is unbearable to us.” When she looks at the key and sees that her wishes have been fulfilled she can no longer bear it and goes to her death screaming.
Whilst much of the viewer’s pleasure arises from recognising the familiar, the stereotype, yet there are problems fixing the characters’ identities. There are two Camillas. The first is the one who dominates Diane’s world in the second half of the film and whom I have discussed in some detail. The other is the girl who auditions for Adam Kesher in the first half and bears a striking physical resemblance to Betty. She is the symbol of the gangsters’ power and the stranglehold they have over Hollywood. The line ‘This is the girl’ is spoken by the gangsters when they want to show Kesher who to pick as his leading lady. It is implied that he has no choice but to repeat this line and do their bidding. Later, in a kind of futile attempt to regain control he shows his disgust at the threats made to him by repeating the line back in a churlish monotone. Later still, the same line is used of Laura Elena Harring’s Camilla, when Diane points out her picture to the hitman. This recontextualization of the phrase shows the viewer that whilst the girls cannot be one and the same, they are linked in some material way. They are each the star of Adam Kesher’s Sylvia North Story and each serves as the locus for intense desire.
The doubling of identity can be seen even more clearly in David Lynch’s decision to cast four parts to two actors. As Love says “By casting Naomi Watts as both Betty and Diane, Lynch shows schoolgirl capers and abject lesbian longing to be two aspects of a single fantasy.” Likewise Laura Elena Harring plays both Rita and Camilla. In each of their pairings they show two sides of lesbian desire. The furtive, frightening intensity of Diane with a bored Camilla is the flipside to the plucky, earnest Betty taking the lead with a gratefully affectionate Rita. In both situations it is Rita/Camilla who offers her body with a kind of arrogant generosity and Betty/Diane whose heart is captivated. It is as though Camilla/Rita sees her beauty and sexuality reflected in her lovers but remains complete by herself. But Betty/Diane is not complete, she requires more than a casual affair and this intensity leads to fatal consequences.
These characters are conflated further when Rita starts to wear her hair like Betty’s. Wilson says that “immediately after she takes on Betty’s appearance, the two women express their affection for one another by making passionate love.” There is a sense that the manufacture of this double identity is a direct cause for erotic expression. Ekeberg says that:
As imploded selves, the two characters constitute wandering black holes operating on impulse, voraciously absorbing influences and experiences that come their way. That their relationship becomes deeply sexual is therefore hardly surprising. Both characters weld in a desperate search for their own identity, exploring new sensibilities – or are they new? “Have you done this before?” an aroused Betty asks Rita while making out naked in her aunt’s bed. “I don’t remember,” Rita replies. It is the unknown and the image having intercourse
It is interesting to think of the lesbian desire as almost a by-product of this search for identity and the ‘voraciousness’ of the two characters. The girls are clear opposites – dark, smouldering, enigmatic Rita is a perfect fit with blonde, clear-eyed, optimistic Betty. By giving them a sexual relationship, it is almost as though they have been placed on top of each other, the negative tinted with colour, to create the whole picture.
Smelik says of New Queer Cinema representations of lesbian sex that:
This kind of voyeuristic pleasure is denied in the films. We do see naked bodies, and we watch female bodies making love to one another, but the cinematic style privileges the depth of feeling and the excess of passion rather than the cheap thrills of sleazy sex.
This reading is one that has been applied to the cinematic representation of the love between Rita and Betty. However I would disagree with this kind of reading. I saw the scene as cold and a little cheap. It maintained lesbian stereotypes and was intentionally titillating in the process. Laura Elena Harring says of Lynch’s direction of the love scene that “it was kind of cute,” and “one time he went, ‘Don’t be afraid to touch each other’s breasts now.’ “In technical terms it seems hard to distinguish this artistic direction from a pornographic scene. It is precisely the lack of ‘excess of passion’ which Smelik talks about which allows the doubling to function in this scene. We watch two parts of a puzzle come together and the pleasure is intellectual, not sensual or empathetic.
Zizek talks about Lacan’s. idea that ‘fucking’ is a means to escape the overwhelming nature of ‘the real encountered in the dream’. This certainly seems to be one explanation for Diane’s impetus to masturbate when she is in deep despair over her failed love affair with Camilla. Zizek continues “we do not dream about fucking when we are not able to do it; we rather fuck in order to escape and stifle the excessive nature of the dream that would otherwise overwhelm us.” However, the ‘real’ continues to intrude even in Diane’s sexual fantasy – all the elements of her horrifying reality are present but rearranged in a softer, gentler sequence. Diane subjects herself to a sadomasochistic compulsion to repeat all that has happened to her in a way that is reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder. With Diane, sex is bound intrinsically to death and in her character there is the alignment of eroticism with death-drive. Kryzwinska’s says that:
Eroticism provides a foretaste of death in that it is experienced as ego-loss and thereby desecrates the holy ground of unified identity: ‘[in] essence, the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence, of violation’ and ‘the whole business of eroticism is to destroy the self-contained character of the participators as they are in their normal lives’.
It is suggestive that Kryzwinska links eroticism with ego-loss and lack of identity. Diane at this stage seems to want to change her identity, to sublimate her guilt into a fantasy which threatens to break down several times. Zizek says of fantasy that “the ontological paradox, scandal even, of fantasy resides in the fact that it subverts the standard opposition of “subjective” and “objective”.” Diane repeats the events until they become more palatable and creates a situation where the lesbian desire is recast as mutual, even initiated by Rita/Camilla.
A more unsettling repetition in the film is that of Diane’s death. First we see her rotting body curled foetally on a bed in a locked apartment. Rita and Betty break in and travel through the darkness and the stench to uncover her horrific corpse. Like the ‘unbearable core of our phantasies’ described by Freud, this invasion of ‘the real’ into the languid dreamscape of the first part of the film is terrifying to look upon. Love sees it as a natural side effect of homophobia. She says that:
As long as lesbianism is socially denigrated, her corpse will continue to turn up in the midst of even the dreamiest lesbian fantasy. Diane Selwyn is a structural effect of homophobia, one of the tragic others that modernity produces with such alarming regularity.
We later see Diane run into the same bedroom and shoot herself in the mouth to end her terrible suffering. This could be seen as an extreme kind of escape from the overwhelming nature of the dream she is forced to inhabit now that she is cursed with the relentless compulsion to repeat. Diane’s death is witnessed twice but Camilla’s death is obscure, offstage. However, the impact of Camilla’s death is felt over and over again. But, even in Diane’s fantasy her body is not discovered for weeks, no one cares about her. Once we know what has happened later then Betty’s sudden disappearance in the first half of the film, leaving Rita alone in a strange world, begins to look like a version of her death. Later, during the discussion with the hitman, the blue key which signifies the death has taken place and Diane’s neighbour telling her ‘those two detectives came by looking for you again’, are all ways of repeating the impact of Camilla’s death.
Diane is not allowed to express her frustration at her treatment by Camilla, she is not able to gain control over that painful part of her life so she fights her battle on a scale which Camilla cannot ignore. Judith Halberstam describes this kind of violence as a means to mark “different conflictual relations in different sites; and homicide, on some level, always depicts the microrealities of other battles displaced from the abstract to the tragically material.” Once Diane has made material her sorrow and killed Camilla, her desire is not lessened. In the repetition of the phantasied version of their love affair she makes herself more miserable still. Her only means to end the cycle is to repeat the act, but this time to kill herself.
With all of these deaths there also come hauntings. The intrusion of rotting corpses and filthy, deformed characters punctures the dreamy beauty of Mulholland Drive. In fact, Diane’s decomposing body is all the more shocking for being discovered by two figures who belong in a far less gritty story. Ekeberg says that “guised as an unsolvable riddle, Mulholland Drive contains no comforting answers about reality.” David Lynch himself has refused to make clear his intentions or sympathies and instead says: “‘a film is its own language, an entity. It should not be translated back into words.’” There is an unsettling, haunting quality to the film with characters vanishing only to reappear in another form. Betty’s Aunt Ruth is described as ‘acting in Canada’ which is an industry euphemism for death. Betty discovers Diane’s corpse, yet in many interpretations her death could not have happened yet, not if the first half of the film is a fantasy invented by the living Diane. These kinds of repetitions haunt us because they do not fit but rather they indicate a fissure in the fabric of the narrative which cannot be closed.
Elisabeth Bronfen in her book Over Her Dead Body says that:
If any discussion of death involves masking the inevitability of human decomposition, it does so by having recourse to beauty. We invest in images of wholeness, purity and the immaculate owing to our fear of dissolution and decay. The function of beauty, Lacan suggests, is to point to the relation man has with his own death, but to indicate this only as a dazzling sight.
The relationship between Betty and Rita makes a kind of sense in this context. The ‘whole, pure and immaculate’ version of their relationship acts as a counterbalance to the later ‘dissolution’. This would explain why there is something faintly soulless and cold to their union, it is an extreme response to the later decomposition of their love, their lives and their bodies.
There is something uncanny too in the way that Rita lies as still as death on the bed of Betty’s absent (dead?) aunt. She lies like a wound-down doll, waxen and unreal in almost the same position that Diane’s corpse is discovered in. This presentation owes its charge to the horror the viewer feels in recognising something which looks human but may not be:
The unpleasant impression is well known that readily arises in many people when they visit collections of wax figures, panopticons and panoramas. In the semi-darkness it is often especially difficult to distinguish a life-size wax or similar figure from a human person… whether it is animate or not.
Rita invokes this kind of horror not only because she is so still, but because she repeats the idea of Aunt Ruth’s disappearance and possible death and also because she foreshadows Diane’s corpse. There is the additional strangeness of her memory loss. She could easily be mistaken for something not quite human as she is without identity. When she wakes up in the bed, she speaks Spanish as though channelling the words of someone else. In fact these words are later repeated in the club she and Betty visit by the compėre.
Though the ugly realities of death are never fully repressed in this film, they are never quite realised or explained either. Yet there is something about this repetition of deaths and disappearances which seems to intensify the desire between the two women. In the first half Rita loses her memory, her identity and eventually her appearance becomes like Betty’s. She becomes gradually eroded, less distinct. This leads her to an emotional and sexual dependence on Betty. Diane loses everything – her career, her lover, her freedom and her sanity. Yet she still desires the dead Camilla, author of her pain. Until both women are dead, there is no freedom from this desire. It is subject to endless repetition.
The analogy of the doll which I used to describe Rita’s deathlike pose is a good way to draw the strands of sameness, doubling and repetition together. If we place ourselves as viewers, as the desiring eye, as Betty, we can see how her gaze upon Rita’s body could become erotically charged, and also sadistically thrilling. There is the added issue of Betty as a voyeur – she is seen staring at Rita when she is vulnerable – in the shower, asleep, naked. We too watch Rita in these states and can, if we so wish, watch her over and over again, we can subject her to erotic, sadistic repetition:
Bellour suggests ‘a kind of wound’ opened up by the automaton leads to the film’s mechanism, to the ‘inside’, which, like the inside of the beautiful doll, needs to be disguised to maintain its credibility. Film subjected to repetition and return, when viewed on new technologies, suffers from the violence caused by extracting a fragment from the whole that, as in a body, ‘wounds’ its integrity.
Rita is clearly the site of doubling, she stands in for aunt Rita and the dead Diane. She is also a site of repetition as discussed above. In terms of sameness she lies there looking like a tragic Hollywood starlet, the very role which Betty has come to LA to fulfil.
In this essay I set out to look at the ways in which lesbian desire was located within sameness, doubling and repetition. At first glance these may seem like very similar concepts, but on a closer viewing there are more than fine distinctions. Sameness led to a kind of closed analysis and an exploration of the films hidden homophobic moments. Doubling was more fruitful and led to a more fluid interpretation of events, an interpretation which could include freedom from the fixity and ‘straightening’ behaviour which is presented if the film is read as privileging heterosexual over homosexual relationships. Finally, repetition seems to be the most powerful site for lesbian desire. By using the more clichéd and naive earlier version of the relationship to counterbalance the horror of the second version there is a sense that neither meaning is privileged and neither contains the whole story.
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Ferber, Lawrence, ‘Sapphic Strangeness: Laura Elena Harring takes a spin down Lesbian Lane as one of the stars of David Lynch’s bizarre Mulholland Drive’ in Watermark (November 2001) p. 31
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Kuhn, Anette, Dreaming of Fred and Ginger: Cinema and Cultural Memory. I. B. Tauris and Company: New York (2002)
Lopate, Philip, “Welcome to L.A.” in Film Comment, (37) (September 2001) p. 44–45
Love, Heather K., ‘Spectacular Failure: The Figure of the Lesbian in Mulholland Drive’ in New Literary History: a Journal of Theory and Interpretation (University of Virginia, Charlottesville) (35:1) [Winter 2004] p.117-132
Mulvey, Laura, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. Reaktion Press: London (2006)
Pattanik, Sonali, Review of Chandra, Subhash ‘Lesbian Voices: Canada and the World: Theory, Literature, Cinema’(2008) p.311 at http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue15/pattnaik_review.htm
Panja, Shormistha ‘Terry Castle’s The Apparitional Lesbian and gender discourse,’ in Pattanik, Sonali, Review of Chandra, Subhash ‘Lesbian Voices: Canada and the World: Theory, Literature, Cinema’ at http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue15/pattnaik_review.htm
Smelik, Anneke, “Art Cinema and Murderous Lesbians” pp. 68 – 79 in Aaron, Michelle (ed.), New Queer Cinema: A Critical Reader. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh (2004)
Stacey, Jackie, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. Routledge: New York (1994)
Taylor, Charles, ‘The Naughts: The Romantic Pair of the ’00s’ in Independent Film Channel website at http://www.ifc.com/news/2009/12/naughts-romantic-pair.php
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Wilson, Eric G., The Strange World of David Lynch: Transcendental Irony from ‘Eraserhead’ to ‘Mulholland Drive’. Continuum: New York (2007)
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March 1, 2010 § Leave a comment
Rajinder Dudrah: It has always been my dream to meet Laura Mulvey.
Laura Mulvey: I’ll try not to disappear.
These are some notes from a research seminar last year taken by Laura Mulvey as part of the ‘Materials/ Materiality’ series at Manchester University. She discussed her book Death 24 x a Second and also aspects of materiality in cinema and the method of rear projection. With fellow panelists Jackie Stacey and Rajinder Dudrah. Later that afternoon she also gave a talk on the Hollywood technique of rear projection and the art of Mark Lewis.
It is interesting to consider what drives a person to write. Laura Mulvey told us that when she wrote her influential essay VP and NC in 1975, she was not yet an academic. For her the compulsion to write came from a kind of ‘generational shock’, a feeling that she was caught up in a time of decay and death. The end of the ‘progressive movements’ of the sixties were reflected in the death of traditional cinema which had been transformed by new technologies and methods of dissemination. Celluloid had proved to be an essentially short-lived material, with chemical decay an inherent part of its make-up. (Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a Second). It was really a series of deathswhich drove Mulvey to write.
2007’s Death 24x a Second, allowed Mulvey to use death as a way of thinking through cinema. In response to the disappearance of film, she began to reinvent ways to imagine time.
Mulvey talked about the emergence of avant-garde cinema and how it allowed for a new kind of viewing, a viewing which drew attention to the construction, and constructedness, of film and rejected cinematic realism. This linked to her interest in new media, specifically DVDs, and the way in which being able to pause a frame brings to the surface the ‘hidden but haunting stillness’ of film as a way to regain lost moments.
As a result a new ontology may emerge, in which ambivalence, impurity and uncertainty displace the traditional oppositions. (Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a Second)
The power which the viewer has over the film leads to a kind of fetishism and sadism. By allowing the viewer to have power over the technology there is a sadistic and voyeuristic thrill. This is intensified as this process is a secret, hidden one. Jackie Stacey commented that something ‘disturbing about cinema is revealed’ as we take part in the ‘fantasy of control’.
Mulvey went on to discuss the uncanny and said that cinema combines, perhaps more perfectly than any other medium, two human fascinations: one with the boundary between life and death and the other with the mechanical animation of the inanimate, particularly the human, figure. She discussed the uncanny within cinema with particular reference to a moment in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life where Lana Turner appears to exist between two spatial registers, between the worldly and the otherworldly.
Now, as Lana Turner runs down the steps on the Coney Island set, conjuring up the meanings inscribed into Sirk’s film and her performance, she also shifts between the ghostly and the living. Her presence brings with it the cinema’s unique ability to return to and repeat the past, which becomes both more real and more mysterious as the film’s fragment is itself subject to repetition and return. (Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a Second)
Later that afternoon, Mulvey gave a lecture on the technique of rear projection. She brought up Walter Benjamin’s theory of the outmoded to talk about the materiality of cinema. Not only does celluloid disintegrate, but the technology used to create films becomes archaic and falls into disuse. She talked specifically of the method of rear projection, which had been practiced in Hollywood for years by the Hansard family. In a documentary clip which she showed, the older Mr. Hansard described how he had thrown his equipment into the ocean in the hope that the fish could make a home from it. He also said: I have to call myself to check that the phone is working. This literal death of the object translates something of practical use into a cultural symbol. Or, as Benjamin puts it, ‘The outmoded destabilizes teleology, chronology and linearity’.
Several people in the audience picked up on this idea of the outmoded as a way to reimagine what happened to cinema as cutting edge technologies become obsolete. A really good example of this came from an audience member who made a link with the reinvigoration of Chinese Cinema due to Hollywood selling off their equipment to China when they replaced it in the 1980s.
Mark Lewis has picked up this old Hollywood technique to create new installations. In the work entitled Rear Projection: Molly Parker which Mulvey showed, he flattens the view of the actor against the changing backdrop of an abandoned building shifting through summer to winter. She looks directly into the camera and the fiction of her fusion with the background is exposed.
Mulvey then showed a clip of Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe against a hoakey backdrop of Niagara Falls. Far from attempting to make a naturalistic scene, Mulvey posits that they are deliberately contrasted with the backdrop to highlight their status as stars. We are not only supposed to watch the characters but also remember who the star actors are.
Halting the flow of film extracts star images easily from their narrative surroundings for the kind of extended contemplation that had only been previously possible with stills. From a theoretical point of view, this new stillness exaggerates the star’s iconic status. (Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a Second)
To have the illusion verging on ‘visibility’ or ‘risibility’ is to create an iconic moment. Laura Mulvey asserted that star presence plus rear projection ‘folds one level of time into another’ and creates an image of the ‘cinematic sublime’.