[Note: This essay contains spoilers. It assumes a basic familiarity with interpretive approaches to Mulholland Drive, particularly the "Classical" reading. See the Lost on Mulholland Drive clearinghouse and the vital Salon piece, "Everything You Were Afraid to Ask About Mulholland Drive".]
Although Inland Empire comprises the most direct examination of movie-making (and -watching) in David Lynch’s filmography, Mulholland Drive has always struck me as offering a slier, more cutting indictment of Hollywood and the mythology that clings to it. One of the most intriguing demonstrations of this impulse is MD’s depiction–via an actress’ guilty fever dreams–of the studio film-making apparatus as a rotten entity riddled with conspiratorial forces. Within Diane Selwyn’s schizophrenic fantasy, strange men move to quash the ambitions of promising actors and rebellious directors, their motives hazy but always sinister. Wracked with despair over her own professional and personal failings, Diane gives a dread life to our collective paranoia about the film industry. The shadow Hollywood she summons is by all appearances occupied not with high art or even vulgar entertainment, but with control over messages, money, and especially lives.
There are numerous conspiratorial currents flowing through Diane’s fantasy, some explicitly connected to her shadow Hollywood, some connected only through implication and suggestion. The paranoia that suffuses the fantasy rests on the premise that dangerous conspirators seek to harm or hinder Diane’s avatar “Betty,” her lover Camilla’s avatar “Rita,” and an incarnation of director Adam Kesher. Oddly, it is Adam that falls victim to the brunt of the conspiracy’s wrath rather than Diane’s own avatar. In reality, Adam is the man who initiated a relationship with Camilla, “stealing” her from Diane. And yet Diane casts him as a sympathetic victim in her fantasy, albeit one who finally crumbles and acquiesces to the conspiracy’s wishes. In this way, Diane revels in the violence done to Adam’s career, marriage, and body, while painting him as ultimately weak and beholden to powerful forces. Within her dream, she has her revenge, without placing Adam into the role of the villain. The real villains of her fantasy are the men of shadow Hollywood.
There are numerous acts of violence, enigmatic messages, and strange meetings in MD, but only a handful of these conspiratorial sequences alight directly on film-making. One such event is the meeting between Adam and Luigi and Vincenzo Castigliane, a meeting whose purpose Adam initially does not comprehend. It’s an odd scene in a film filled with odd scenes, but its black humor evinces rich layers of meaning. The Brothers’ names and Luigi’s preference for the finest espresso implies that they are Italian, and the other participants at the meeting seem nervous around them, evoking the specter of organized crime and an attendant threat of violence. (Never mind that not all Italians are gangsters. This is Diane’s fantasy, seen through the a haze of her Hollywood daydreams, and in such a world gangsters are always Italian.) More generally, it is not without significance that the Brothers are foreign or at least of foreign extraction. They are an alien influence reaching into Hollywood, that most American of institutions. In envisioning the men of shadow Hollywood, Diane swaps the more traditional slur of conniving Jewish money-men for that of Italian gentlemen-thugs, one of MD’s numerous nods to hardboiled or noir traditions. Although, as we will see with the Cowboy, other conspirators are uncannily All-American.
The bifurcation of the Sicilian bogeyman into two separate characters points to two visions of the foreign meddler in Hollywood: Vincenzo, the all-business, agitated little bully; and Luigi, the aloof, contemptuous aesthete who can never be satisfied. Both of these aspects evoke familiar criticisms of the dream factory and the men who run it. Vincenzo is the ruthless shit who cares nothing for art (unlike Luigi, he wants “nuthin’” to drink) or the tastes of the public. Standing in opposition to him, Adam is a proxy not only for the compromised creator, but also for moviegoers. It doesn’t matter what the artist or the audience wants; shadow Hollywood has its own schemes. Notice that Vincenzo takes no passion or glee or in imposing his casting demands on Adam; he seems to be a genuinely dour, miserable man. He and Adam are not engaged in an argument over art. Vincenzo is giving an order, an edict that fits into some broader (unseen) plot of the Castiglianes. Why must Camilla Rhodes be cast? Does it really matter? To repay a debt, to place a pawn, to satisfy the whim of some relation or billionaire admirer. Screw art; we’re making movies here.
Luigi, meanwhile, is the sensitive neurotic, barely whispering his pained request for a napkin and repeating a blunt mantra (or Hail Mary): “This is the girl.” As a European, he naturally regards American-made espresso as disgusting, just as all haughty, refined (read: effete) Europeans regard everything that issues from America as disgusting. Luigi’s sin is that of every snob with a high opinion of his own taste, in that he presumes to know better than the masses. It is therefore all the more humiliating that he and his allies have significant power within Hollywood, or at least sufficient power to dictate the casting of Adam’s film and to upend his life when he fails to comply. Those shifty Europeans revile us, and yet they secretly control our most beloved of institutions.
Vincenzo’s final words to Adam–”It’s no longer your film”–are addressed to the audience. In the context of its own paranoid mythology, MD was not made for us. Like all Hollywood films, it was made to satisfy elitist, foreign artistic tastes (Luigi) and to fulfill obscure, Byzantine plots that hinge on fortunes and favors (Vincenzo). Vincenzo could also be speaking to Diane, who is both the writer, director, and audience for the fantasy. The strange paroxysm that seems to overwhelm Vincenzo moments before this line foreshadows the eventual disintegration of Diane’s dream. It also echoes Dan’s collapse behind the Winky’s, and “Betty’s” seizure in Club Silencio. As a dream-creature, Vincenzo, like all the characters in MD’s early sequences, is arguably a fragment of Diane. Given that Vincenzo is the unfeeling, tyrannical aspect of the Foreign Conspirator, his presence signals that Diane recognizes that she herself is an amoral manipulator, even while immersed in her delusions. Indeed, we eventually learn that she conspired to murder her former lover with the aid of a tow-headed Californian thug far removed from the Italian gangsters of her fantasy. Vincenzo is signaling to Diane in her role as fantasy architect–and to “Betty” waiting off-screen for her next scene–that she is losing control of the dream, that the bloody facts of reality are intruding. It is no coincidence that Diane herself is an interloping foreigner (Canadian) in Hollywood, one who has lost all interest in her art and initiated a sinister conspiracy.
After Adam refuses to bend to the Castiglianes’ will, he suffers a dire retribution put into motion by the enigmatic Mr. Roque. The apparent control that the Castiglianes exert over the meeting with Adam masks the presence of another, possibly more powerful conspirator. Roque has the ability to “shut down” Adam’s film in the middle of the shoot, indicating that his power extends beyond nudging casting decisions. Indeed, he is an almost ludicrously omnipotent figure within shadow Hollywood, able to turn a film production on and off like flicking a switch, although whether this is done by simple edict or through the control of the production’s purse strings is not established.
Roque is a grotesque, confined to an archaic wheelchair, influential yet physically impotent. His tiny head in comparison to his body suggests the antithesis of a fetus: as intelligent and malign as a unborn child is stupid and innocent. He dwells behind a glass wall with a speaker box, which permits him to communicate when and how he chooses, highlighting his nature as a Hollywood power-monger and therefore a controller of messages. He is also, of course, one aspect of Dan’s man behind the see-through wall, the “one that’s doing it.” Roque’s room is dim (”half-night” as Dan says) and curtained, a visual echo of Lynch’s other works in which similarly outfitted chambers often house non-rational forces, usually of a malevolent nature. (Has Diane seen other Lynch films? Do they exist within the MD universe? The mind boggles.) Within Diane’s fantasy, Roque is an entity more alien than even the Castiglianes, and perhaps their master. Although a similar vessel for Heartland anxieties about Hollywood, he is no mere ethnic stereotype, but a monstrous monarch at the center of a vast hive, who only has to glare and mutter to enact his will.
It is also implied that Roque is involved in the attempted murder of “Rita”. “The girl is still missing,” states Roque. Which girl? Well, the amnesiac “Rita,” we assume. Yet the daisy-chain of telephone calls initiated by Roque reaches eventually into Diane’s (real life) apartment, where the phone rings and ring and rings, another unheeded signal to the dreamer that she cannot maintain this fantasy forever. From beyond his glass cage, Roque’s influence reaches out to touch “Betty” in more than one way. If the plot to murder “Rita” is his, then he is the impetus behind the noir-tinged mystery that snakes through the fantasy. Without the car crash on the eponymous road, “Betty” never would have crossed paths with femme fatale “Rita”: a knockout brunette with no name, no memory, a purse full of money, and a Key That Opens No Lock. Roque is also the agent that mandates Camilla Rhodes’ casting, and punishes Adam when he does not comply. Roque not only has “everyone” associated with the production fired, but he also demolishes Adam’s personal finances. A monstrous Hollywood gnome with sweeping control over money? Perhaps anti-Semitic caricatures run through Diane’s fantasy after all.
The Cowboy, meanwhile, is a wholly different sort of caricature. His flawless, almost kitschy Roy Rogers regalia represents both the Western myth and Hollywood’s conception of that myth. This strange creature–who calls to mind countless other sinister Lynchian entities–dwells in Beachwood Canyon, near the Hollywood Sign. He is a hermit meditating in the wilderness of SoCal suburbia under the shadow of its premier religious monument. Although Adam is at first reluctant to meet with the Cowboy, he relents because “it is that kind of day.” His production in shambles, his marriage over, his finances wiped out, he seeks wisdom from an symbol of an older Hollywood, one untainted by cynicism or irony.
However, the Cowboy is no a sage within Diane’s fantasy, despite his tendency for holding forth on philosophy and ethics in a folksy manner. His ghostly blond eyebrows (the absence of clear emotional signifiers) and obliquely threatening manner suggest that he is a force as cold and malign as the Castiglianes and Roque. Indeed, he too is a part of shadow Hollywood, perhaps even the herald or mouthpiece for Roque. Certainly, the men seem to be complements. Possessing a weirdly deformed and crippled physical form, Roque is confined to a glass room, hidden from the victims of his schemes. The Cowboy has a familiar appearance, although the incongruity of his presence in modern Los Angeles is unsettling. He resides in an open corral in a dark, suburban neighborhood, where he can easily be approached by invited outsiders. As one of America’s most recognizable cultural archetypes, he is the religious icon that shadow Hollywood uses to convey its ultimatums, the whispering idol that warns of doom if the sinner does not repent his wayward behavior. Like Oz speaking through a spectacle of light and sound, Roque is the man behind the (transparent) curtain, employing a cinematic stock character (and thus a creature of light and sound) to impressively convey his demands.
The offer that the Cowboy poses to Adam suggests the deal that the Devil offered to Jesus in the wilderness. Just bow before me and the world is yours. Or: Just cast this actress, and the film is yours to make as you see fit. He offers nearly limitless artistic freedom in exchange for small concessions, his manner rendering the deal eminently reasonable. The Cowboy poses Adam’s troubles as being rooted in “attitude,” implying that the director’s resistance to shadow Hollywood’s edicts are not born of artistic credibility or ego, but an inability to go with the flow. Legitimate concerns about the independence of art are re-cast as trifling personal failings on the part of the objector, failings easily overcome by minor corrections in attitude. Critics who object to the influence of the outsider (the Castiglianes / Roque) on the artistic process are in need of personal adjustment. The question of the complaint’s legitimacy is neatly diverted. This dynamic implies a critique of Hollywood’s New Age public relations ethics, which reduces all conflicts to empty platitudes and matters of “negative energy.” This in turn calls to mind the buzzwords of Scientology, and its success in constructing a genuine Hollywood conspiracy, or at least a sophisticated system for channeling influence and money.
When Adam and “Betty” (almost) cross paths on the set of The Sylvia North Story, there is a moment when Diane’s fantasy brushes past a alternate, less tragic resolution. “Betty” has been escorted from her outstanding audition to the set of a more worthy film, perhaps to be introduced to the director. From across the set, Adam sees something in “Betty” that attracts him, at least artistically, and she senses his intrigue. The moment is an echo of the anecdote that Diane relates at Adam and Camilla’s engagement party, wherein she was considered for a role in the real The Sylvia North Story. However, this is also the precise moment in the fantasy when Adam must make a decision about whether to assent to the Castiglianes’ / Roque’s / the Cowboy’s wishes and cast Camilla Rhodes in his film. He bows to the demands of shadow Hollywood, and repeats Luigi’s incantation: “This is the girl.” The choice distracts him from “Betty,” and shortly thereafter she must quickly leave the set to meet “Rita.” The pair are meeting, of course, to investigate the apartment of Diane Selwyn, wherein a terrible secret lurks.
Within Diane’s fantasy, nearly every misfortune that has befallen her traces back to the agents of the shadow Hollywood. Their machinations to ensure that Adam casts the “right” actress prevents the fated meeting that might have landed “Betty” the part. Shadow Hollywood is responsible for Diane’s stymied career and therefore for every subsequent hard-luck pitfall. (It certainly can’t be her lack of acting talent, for as we see in the audition, “Betty” is spectacular!) That the undeserving “Camilla Rhodes”–a blond ingenue representing the commodified aspect of real Camilla–landed the part is further humiliation. In reality, Camilla’s talent drew her closer to Adam and a life of glamor, leading to resentment in Diane that soured into rage. According to Diane’s twisted logic, framed by a life of glittering cinematic clichÃ©s and the disillusion of recent failures, all calamities originate from the shadow Hollywood conspirators. Diane’s obsession with the outsized influence of Hollywood on her life evokes Middle America’s buck-passing preoccupation with the industry’s allegedly corrupting effect on the public. They, not Adam, split the lovers up. They scuttled Diane’s career. They made Diane kill Camilla. It’s never us, always Them: those conniving, soulless others that secretly run the dream-factory.