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Source Hunting in a Dreamscape   

Susan Felleman


The art historical past plays manifold roles in the films of David Lynch, as does the history of film. Lynch is special, as a film artist whose oeuvre grew, almost as a mutation, out of a studio art practice. The primal scene of his cinema, as per Lynch himself, was a moment – standing before a painting in progress – in which he was seized by the almost hallucinatory desire to see it move and to hear the wind in it. Lynch’s primal scene – an oft repeated narrative; part of his autobiographical legend – seems a variant on Wassily Kandinsky’s explanation of the origin of abstraction in his work: a magical misapprehension of a painting seen upside down in the dark one night. But Lynch’s is also the primal scene of cinema itself. Among the spectators of the Lumière brothers’ first films were those entranced by the kinetic impression of ‘the ripple of leaves stirred by the wind’, in the background of a scene. They were taken by cinema’s presentation of ‘nature caught in the act’. (1) The sound of the wind stirring the leaves of trees is a salient feature of key scenes of voyeuristic fascination and existential uncertainty in Blow-Up, Antonioni’s 1966 international art house sensation, seen on U.S. screens in the months before David Lynch turned to film. The cinema’s capacity to go beyond nature, to create a phantasmal dynamization of the image, was one of the qualities that enthralled Lynch’s forebears, the Surrealists. Long before Blow-Up, the wind that stirred the Lumière leaves emerges uncannily from Buñuel’s mirror in L’Age d’or (1930).







1. A journalist, Henri de Parville, quoted by Siegfried Kracauer in his Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 31.

L’Age d’or (Luis Buñuel, 1930)    

The unnamed woman played by Lya Lys, violently separated from and dreaming of her lover (Gaston Modot), sits before the mirror at her vanity. Instead of her own visage – in an image Dudley Andrew aptly connects to René Magritte – she faces a sky and clouds. (2) The sound of a cowbell, associated with her desire (the animal she has just found inexplicably occupying her bed) and the bark of a dog (in the crosscut action, associated with her lover’s violent, animal lust), mix with the sound of wind and then, uncannily, that wind penetrates the plane of the mirror and blows into the room, stirring the hair of the daydreamer. The plane of the mirror stands, too, of course, for the screen, the membrane that separates viewer from spectacle. This exemplary Surrealist scene, with its lyrical and weird fusion of sound and image, dream and reality, sexual longing and violence, rejoins the separated lovers in a spatiotemporal realm unique to the cinema, a realm in which desire transcends the mirror and the lens. This is the realm in which the best of David Lynch’s films unfold.


2. Dudley Andrew, ‘L’Age d’or and the Eroticism of the Spirit’, in Ted Perry (ed.), Masterpieces of Modernist Cinema, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), p. 118.



As a visual artist and filmmaker Lynch inherits or borrows effect and affect from a range of practices, but most especially those connected to Surrealism and its aftermath. Lynch’s repeated insistence that revolting images are beautiful, when viewed without prejudice, might often be taken as disingenuousness or perversity. But such was the creed of the Surrealists – including André Breton, who insisted on an aesthetic of ‘convulsive beauty’, and Salvador Dalí, who cherished putrefaction – and ‘dissident’ Surrealists, including Georges Bataille. The latter demarcated a rather abject anti-aesthetic with conceptual terms such as informe (formless) and acéphale (headless), singularly appropriate to Lynch’s work and to that of Francis Bacon, admittedly among Lynch’s greatest influences. Lynch’s earliest films are action paintings in time and space, Six Men Getting Sick (1966) being so quite literally: the parallel between splatter and vomit is obvious; less so is the refiguration of the index of the artist’s bodily presence from gesture upon the surface to the protuberance below. Six Men Getting Sick was projected upon a screen that was a sort of relief sculpture made from casts of Lynch’s own head and arms. Animated elements of The Alphabet (1968) and The Grandmother (1970) evoke the Surrealism of Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy and others. Among Lynch’s paintings are many that attest to these influences.




Oww God, Mom, the Dog he Bited Me! (1988), to give just one especially striking example, evokes the mysterious, quasi-abstract psychodramas of Surrealist painting of the 1920s; its iconography and its title suggest a hybrid of Miró’s Dog Barking at the Moon (1926) and Tanguy’s Mama, Papa is Wounded! (1927). Eraserhead’s (1977) black-and-white horrors, uncanny from beginning to end, and aspects of The Elephant Man (1980) – particularly its first shots – evoke Surrealist photographs such as Dora Maar’s Pere Ubu (1936), Hans Bellmer’s grotesque ‘dolls’, and images seen in Bataille’s journal Documents in the 1930s.


Dora Maar, Pere Ubu; Eraserhead    

Lynch may have been familiar with Maar, Bellmer, Bataille and Documents, or not. No matter; influence is only one road to affinity. Lynch’s affinity to Bacon – much discussed, acknowledged by the artist, and evident across media – can, however, be attributed in part to influence, and Bacon did read Documents and utilise its illustrations.



  The Elephant Man; Francis Bacon, Self Portrait, 1969 (private collection); Carte de visite portrait of Joseph Merrick, ca. 1889 (Royal London Hospital Archives)

As I have discussed elsewhere, Lynch’s practice, like Bacon’s, depends on a sensational formal affect and thematic focus on bodily and psychological extremity and abjection:


  While it is impossible to imagine either Bacon’s or Lynch’s work without access to the basic concepts and vocabulary of psychoanalysis – the unconscious, dream-work, sexuality and its discontents – to the extent that psychoanalytic interpretation offers an explanatory narrative, it is resisted and inadequate. As with the Surrealists, Bacon and Lynch revel in the darkness of the conceptual spaces probed by psychoanalytic thought, not in the light of its expository, explanatory, or therapeutic power. (3)   3. Susan Felleman, ‘Two-Way Mirror: Francis Bacon and the Deformation of Film’, in Angela Dalle Vacche (ed.), Film, Art, New Media: Museum Without Walls? (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 231.

Moreover, their interest in the irrational extends to narrative itself, which Bacon rejects wholly, while Lynch undermines and destabilizes its conventions. Bacon’s deformations, his palette and his theatrical ‘staging’ of many of his works appear and reappear in an array of circumstances in the films of Lynch. The face of John Merrick (John Hurt) in The Elephant Man is, in fact, very like a three-dimensional rendering of a Bacon portrait. This may seem like a problematic comparison, since the protagonist’s deformations were closely based on physical and photographic impressions of the historical Joseph Merrick (called John in the film). Bacon, however, was an avid gleaner of photographic images from a huge array of sources, and revelled in medical and scientific photographs (among others), including those from the nineteenth century, so may himself have known and employed the image of Merrick.


There is little point in trying to enumerate the many scenes in Lynch’s colour films that seem indebted to Bacon, as the influence is a very long-standing and internalized one. Composition, colours, textures, lighting and staging often reflect Bacon’s sensibility, even where citation or homage may not have been intended. The door in the back of a Lynch interior, a dark or schematic denotation of a mystery beyond the scene, is a frequent iconographic nod. Bacon employed blur and a kind of liquid or shifting contour, and occasionally streaks, to bring something temporal and almost cinematic into the unnerving, glazed figural field of his paintings; reciprocally, Lynch’s films often have moments in which time feels suspended or slowed in order to body forth a kind of painterly tableau or abstraction. Even Lynch’s signature soundscapes somehow manage to evoke Bacon, the disturbing, non-diegetic layers of noise functioning almost as the equivalent of certain disturbances in the field of a painting.


Another art historical facet of film is the art object as an element of mise en scène. Because the world of live action cinema consists of an excess of concrete things – more or less considered and controlled by production design (depending on location and other factors) – art objects of various kinds are frequently to be found in films. The relation of such objects to the actors and action is various and thorny to research and to theorize; sometimes they are foregrounded, often not. The relation between director, production designer, art director, set decorator and other crew involved in the construction of the profilmic scene is various, too. Moreover – with the exception of objects in films about art and artists, as well as some other films where the object takes on a narrative role – there may be no element of mise en scène more variously visible. (4) Certain categories of viewer – artists, art historians and interior designers, for instance – may be more likely to notice an object, while it may appear incidental, or remain wholly invisible to others. But conscious attention and recognition are not the beginning and end of the impact of an art work in film. As with soundscape, which often exerts a subliminal force upon narrative, physical details can, along with visual style, inflect and inform a scene.


David Lynch’s feature films and television serials typically do not abound with art objects; they are themselves such objects, in a sense. When one does encounter art objects, they are often reproductions. Certainly – whether one can identify them or not – it is hard to miss the reproductions of iconic classical statues of Venus – the Venus de Milo and the Medici or Capitoline Venus (similar examples of the Aphrodite Pudica type)prominent in the sparsely furnished, red op dream spaces of Twin Peaks’ (1990-1991) Black Lodge. However, based on a quick survey of internet comments, the two are oddly likely to be mistaken for one: the latter (Pudica), who coves her breasts and pubis with her arms, is often taken for the former (Milo), who has no arms. But who would notice the small framed female nude – probably a reproduction of a nineteenth-century academic painting – seen just momentarily on a wall in a scene in Marietta Fortune’s nouveau-riche interior, near the beginning of Wild at Heart (1990)? Who would recognize the painting of a dolorous young woman seen for mere seconds a few times in Aunt Ruth’s place in Mulholland Drive (2001) as a once-famous portrait of a once-infamous girl named Beatrice Cenci? (5)


Each of these intertextual appearances is different in terms of its interface between narration and viewer. In Wild at Heart, the little picture seen in passing is a minor detail of set dressing. Hanging on a wall near a thermostat, a light switch, and a clock with chimes, we see it when Marietta (Diane Ladd) has just hung up the receiver after receiving Sailor’s (Nicholas Cage) call from prison for Lula (Laura Dern).






4. Theorization and analysis of different aspects of art in narrative cinema are the subjects of my books, Real Objects in Unreal Situations: Modern Art in Fiction Films (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2014) and Art in the Cinematic Imagination (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).








5. The painting long regarded as being by Guido Reni and of Beatrice Cenci is almost certainly neither. See Barbara Groseclose, ‘A Portrait Not by Guido Reni of a Girl Who is Not Beatrice Cenci’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 11 (1982): pp. 107-132.


An immediate cut to a medium close-up of Lula at the top of the stairs, conjures her in a posture that echoes that of the nude in the picture, her arm raised over and bent behind her head, her eyes closed. Although she is standing, the pose denotes languor. In fact, in historical artworks suggesting sleep or bondage – including ancient ones, such as the semi-recumbent Hellenistic sculpture of a sleeping satyr known as The Barberini Faun, as well as Michelangelo’s so-called Dying Slave – the posture also signals a kind of sexual availability or surrender.


Michelangelo. Dying Slave, 1513-15 (Louvre)    

By essentially rotating an odalisque or sleeping figure from a recumbent position to the vertical, the pose adds conspicuous display to sexual availability. Variants on it are common in academic nudes, especially rather prurient female nudes of the late 19th century, in which little thematic excuse was needed to justify the unnatural pose. Ultimately, the prevalence of the motif – adopted typically by mythological (e.g. Venus Anadyomene) and Orientalist fantasies – naturalizes what is actually a rather odd posture (Picasso adapted it, restoring some of its strangeness, for two of the figures in his Les demoiselles d’Avignon). In transferring the pose to Lula, and repeating it throughout Wild at Heart, Lynch denaturalizes it and, with somewhat Buñuelian effect, uses it to signify l’amour fou (mad love): the passionate attachment between Lula and Sailor across space and time, in defiance of their enforced separation. The picture on the wall need not appear for more than a few moments to ground this postural attribute of Lula’s in the realm of material culture and convention. Somewhere between art and kitsch, the picture is a kind of 19th century pictorial correlative of Wild at Heart itself, a film suspended histrionically between art and exploitation. Wild at Heart draws upon the three ‘body genres’ Linda Williams distinguished according to the psychosexual fantasies that structure them and their implicit audience and effect – horror (shiver), pornography (sexual arousal) and melodrama (tears) – braiding them together into an over-the-top, road-tripping paean to American pop culture: an exploitation picture for every body! (6)


Twin Peaks’ Venuses are part of a dreamscape and so, it turns out, is the Beatrice Cenci picture, although – critically – the (first time) viewer probably does not know that until late in the film. Thus, these are images that can float free of material culture; if they can be said to ground their respective scenes at all, finally they ground them in fantasy. Venus (Aphrodite), the goddess of love, presides over the oneiric atmosphere of the Black Lodge. Appearing in two forms, she is resonant with cultural and intertextual meaning but also symbolic in Lynchian terms.









6. Linda Williams, ‘Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Summer, 1991), pp. 2-13.


The Venus de Milo in particular is not only one of Western civilization’s most iconic images and said to epitomize female beauty (as with the Medici and Capitoline examples), she is also an image of an armless woman. Although consciously one may not associate a fragmented and treasured antiquity with human deformation, in the unconscious, the meaning of an object is overdetermined. The statue can embody sexual love, sexual objectification and dismemberment at the same time. Indeed, such layered meanings only add to the mystery, allusion and unease of Lynch’s scenario.


This is (not) the girl

So it is with the supposed Beatrice Cenci portrait, long attributed to the Italian Baroque master, Guido Reni (1575 – 1642), a reproduction of which hangs in that apartment near Sunset Boulevard in Mulholland Drive. Beatrice Cenci (1577 – 1599) was a young Roman noblewoman, beheaded in 1599 for having conspired in the murder of her despotic and abusive father. The story of the patricide, ensuing trial and execution is full of lurid sensationalism and pathos. It is almost a David Lynch picture unto itself: tyranny, abuse, incest, conspiracy, murder, tears, decapitation. An object of near veneration for over a hundred years, the picture, as much as the story to which it was attached, was a source of fascination and inspiration for some of the many artists – among them Shelley, Stendhal, Hawthorne, Artaud and Moravia – who spun the sordid flax of the Cenci story into literary gold. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s play The Cenci (1819) was inspired by his encounter the year before with the picture in the Palazzo Colonna, where in the last quarter of the 18th century it had come to be regarded as a portrait of Beatrice Cenci, and associated with Guido Reni. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s reaction was typical of the Romantic investment in the picture and the woeful tale it conjured: ‘the very saddest picture ever painted or conceived’. (7) So, just as in Twin Peaks the Venus de Milo can function at one and the same time as an image of consummate beauty and a dismembered body, the Beatrice Cenci picture is both an image of a tragic beauty and a decapitated head.


Neither the picture nor the place in which it hangs in Mulholland Drive, however, is exactly what it seems. Although there are clues that Betty’s (Naomi Watts) arrival in Los Angeles and entry into her Aunt Ruth’s apartment are dream events (‘I just came here from Deep River, Ontario and now I’m in this dream place!’ she exclaims), for the most part the direction and style defy the impression of a dream, an impression so often and so effectively constructed through techniques of lighting, mise en scène, sound and cinematography in Lynch’s films. Indeed, by restricting obviously oneiric style to a couple of key sequences in the first part of Mulholland Drive – Dan’s (Patrick Fischler) vertiginous dream of Winkie’s and the enigmatic Club Silencio sequence – the film defers the revelation of its basic secret, that the first two hours of its narrative are entirely a dream, one largely composed of an array of wishes built upon day traces of the events seen in the last twenty-plus minutes (essentially reversing the structure and sequence of The Wizard of Oz [Victor Fleming, 1939]). Since many interpreters of Mulholland Drive – scholarly and amateur – have exhaustively analysed the textual, intertextual, and Freudian structures by which this clever scenario proceeds, I shall refrain from doing so and focus on the presence of the ‘portrait not by Guido Reni of a girl who is not Beatrice Cenci’.


The picture is at first glance just one of very many details of mise en scène in Aunt Ruth’s apartment, probably the film’s most minutely and realistically dressed set. This richness of detail is one of the aspects that belie a dream aura, which Lynch typically effects by isolating a few salient and incongruous elements in an unnatural, theatrical space. At Aunt Ruth’s, décor that suggests a well-heeled, single woman of a certain age tastefully fills the Mission style rooms. Behind the leather couch, with its throw pillows, where several key scenes are played, is a console with an array of silver-framed black-and-white photographs. On the walls are framed prints and paintings, in the passage that leads to the bedroom hangs the Cenci picture – as a reproduction of an old master painting, probably the least realist element in the set – surrounded by built-in bookshelves, a lamp, a vase, a small, vivid green figurative sculpture and other decorative objects.



7. See Groseclose.






In the bedroom, bath and dressing area are more framed pictures, including the poster for Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946) that, seen in the mirror, lends the amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) her name, as well as an appropriately and finely cluttered vanity, a carpet, a luxuriously made bed, bedside tables and lamps, and a stunning, artisanal, modern polychrome wardrobe, with rather expressionist figures in relief.


There is no location in the waking events of the film’s last section that corresponds to this space and no personage is the waking manifestation of Aunt Ruth, who is established as an actual relation of Diane’s but a deceased one, an inheritance from whom enabled the aspiring actress to come to Los Angeles. The space and its contents, then, take on a more symbolic aspect; rather than representing jumbled traces of recent waking experience (as do most of the characters and other locations, with obvious exceptions, such Mr. Roque and his H.Q.), they are presumably cut wholly from (Diane’s) unconscious cloth. As the site where Diane (also Naomi Watts) is innocent and talented (as Betty), Camilla (also Laura Harring) needy and vulnerable (as Rita), and their erotic discovery of and love for one another passionate and pure, the space has the contours of a wish fulfilment.


The painting long regarded as a portrait of Beatrice Cenci and formerly attributed to Guido Reni, ca. 1662 (Rome: Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica)    

And much as Aunt Ruth’s apartment is not hers and finally not even in narrative terms real, the doleful, turbaned young woman, looking over her shoulder back into the room at the viewer, is not, in fact, in spite of the many dreams of her it inspired, Beatrice Cenci. Charles Nicholl ventures that ‘her name was appended to the picture to lend it a spurious glamour’ and suggests, based on the turban and drapery, that the painting probably represents one of the Sybils, oracular women associated with sacred sites of Ancient Greece. (8) Neither is the painting likely by Guido Reni. Unless an imaginative portrait, it certainly cannot be both of Beatrice and by Reni, who did not move to Rome until some years after her death. Moreover, the conceit that she had been painted on the eve of her execution appears in no historical account for nearly two hundred years, until the second half of the 18th century, the period in which the legend of the Cenci became immensely popular. (9) The name Guido Reni may ring few bells in the 21st century but, according to Barbara Groseclose,




8. Charles Nicholl, ‘Screaming in the Castle: The Case of Beatrice Cenci’, London Review of Books, Vol. 20, No. 13 (2 July 1998): pp. 23-27. (Accessed January 1, 2014.)

9. See Groseclose and Belinda Jack, Beatrice’s Spell: The Enduring Legend of Beatrice Cenci (New York: Other Press, 2005).

  Even if the biographical and stylistic arguments for including the portrait in Reni’s oeuvre are ultimately flimsy, the acceptance of the canvas as his handiwork is nonetheless explicable. The ascription first gained currency because of the late eighteenth-century veneration of Reni and the inclination to find his touch in countless pictures … Indeed Reni occupies in the early travel guides a place nearly equal to that of Raphael in the hierarchy of Old Masters. (10)  



10. Groseclose, p. 117.

A burgeoning wave of Romantic sensibility elevated the gothic horrors and sentimental pathos of the Cenci story from morbid historical curiosity to absorbing morality tale just as it elevated Reni’s somewhat anodyne style, due to its emphasis on dramatic emotional affect. The misattribution of the painting is an effect of these converging epistemic impulses, itself something of a Romantic wish fulfilment.


In the unconscious, of course, as Freud insisted, there is no time and there is no negation. Dream images, as displacements, projections and condensations, are overdetermined. So the presence of the ‘portrait not by Guido Reni of a girl who is not Beatrice Cenci’ in Diane’s dream of Ruth’s apartment can and should incorporate any and all aspects of the picture’s history, metahistory, composition and style. In a dream, the girl in the picture can be Beatrice Cenci, a tragic victim of sexual abuse who shall die for committing a justified murder – an identity that merges with Diane’s own – and a Sybil, the ancient woman with prophetic powers, an identity manifest in the character of Louise Bonner (Lee Grant), a prophetic neighbour who seems modelled on a Sybil. The girl in the picture, too, whose eyes ‘are swollen with weeping and lustreless, but beautifully tender and serene’, as Shelley wrote, expresses the lachrymose mood of regret that overcomes Diane’s dream, reaching its apogee in the Club Silencio sequence, in which the two women weep copious tears as Rebekah Del Rio lip-syncs to her own recording of ‘Llorando’ (a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’).


And, of course, the portrait is something of a correlative of the headshot, the Hollywood portrait photo that plays a key role in Mulholland Drive. So, it also represents Camilla, another murdered girl, whose headshot, accompanied by the words, ‘this is the girl’, is passed across the table to the hit man by Diane. This is the day trace for the head shot of ‘dream Camilla’ (Melissa George) being passed across the conference table to Adam (Justin Theroux) by the thuggish Castiglianes (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti), accompanied by the same line. The verbal repetition of the line ‘this is the girl’ is echoed in the visual field by the focal repetition of a backward, over-the-shoulder gaze. This is, of course, the singular attribute of the pose of the ‘portrait not by Guido Reni of a girl who is not Beatrice Cenci’. As Lula’s characteristic pose in Wild at Heart seemed to emerge from the languorous nude in the picture on Marietta’s wall, so too do several resonant moments in Mulholland Drive reproduce the distinct posture of the girl in the picture, whose gaze by virtue of its looking back over the shoulder suggests retrospection, regret and possibly even longing or ominous foreboding.



All of these emotions are part of the affect of the characters who adopt this posture in Mulholland Drive, most notably in Diane’s dream: Adam, toward whom the camera tracks as he twice looks longingly back at Betty – whom he has never before seen and who is standing behind him near the soundstage door – just as he is ruefully compelled to say of Camilla, ‘this is the girl’; and Diane’s neighbour, the woman in #12 (Johanna Stein), who – just before the film’s (dream’s) central crisis – hesitates at the door of Diane’s Sierra Bonita bungalow while Betty and Rita are inside, then walks away, casting a long worried, ominous glance back behind her. In the film’s final scenes, we see both Camilla and Diane turn and look back over the shoulder, too: Camilla at Diane as she leads her up the (secret) garden path to Adam’s house on Mulholland Drive, and Diane in her kitchen as she turns to see the apparition of Camilla whom she knows is dead.


So, the ‘portrait not by Guido Reni of a girl who is not Beatrice Cenci’ is a multivalent image. It is an image whose own dubious identity corresponds to the multiple and shifting identities in the film, whose complex history and misattribution interpolate the viewer into a Romantic fascination with a grievous tale, and whose iconography suggests an altogether different story of supernatural vision. The portrait is also a formal model for an evocative leitmotif and affect found in various registers of the film’s narrative: dream, memory, hallucination. Overdetermined, it may initially appear a mere prop; it may even have entered the film as one, but it is in a sense an image into which one can fall and never come out … like the blue box that gives visual form to the unconscious in Mulholland Drive. As with each of the citations and allusions that telescope the film’s profound intertextual engagement with reflexive masterpieces of a cautionary cinephilia – Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958), Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) and Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) – the picture on the wall at Aunt Ruth’s is like a window that opens onto another story, another world, perhaps into a dreamscape beyond. As a static image of a woe-begotten girl frozen forever in a backward glance, this window onto another world paradoxically reverses the impulse of the painter before his canvas, seized by the desire to see it move, to hear it breathe. On the wall at the back of the scene – at the other side of cinema – a painting suspends action, drawing the motion picture toward stillness and silence (silencio), and what lies beyond.


© Susan Felleman 2016.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.