The Subconscious Cinematic Landscape:
Mulholland Drive feat. Hot Fuzz

Treat films as illustrations of theoretical concepts or ideological perspectives that can be properly deciphered only once submitted to conceptual analysis or subsumed within a philosophical metalanguage. (Sinnerbrink 2005)

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Within the realms of cinema a city, building or landscape (the place) exists in a temporal space that is not always coded within linear time. The existence of the place (in film) can show the past, present and future simultaneously, its conscious and unconscious memory co-exists with the realities and the fantasies of characters becoming blurred in the cinematic gaze of the audience. Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) explores the subjective Hollywood subconsciousness of the public and private life of its resident Betty Elms/Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts). Her unconscious projection of herself and fantasy of success in an illustrious acting career are realised in the dreamscape of Betty while the memories of her conscious reality portrays the grim portrait of Diane, what is real and what is not becomes blurred within the place since these memories co-exist alongside one another as the subconsciousness of Hollywood and form a narrative that is not coded with linear time (non-linear).

Exploring the subconsciousness of place and a characters unconscious desires is a theme in Edgar Wrights 2007 action comedy film Hot Fuzz when big time city cop Nicholas Angel’s (Simon Pegg) projection of his unconscious dreams come true in the unlikeliest of places: the small idealistic town of Sandford. It is here his repression acts out and creates a hyperreality within the place that enables him to surpass his conscious state and enter a surreal landscape mimicking his fantasies.

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The relationship between the unconscious dreamscape and the place play a major part in shaping both Betty/Diane and Nicholas’ lives. It is the ontological subconsciousness of the place (Hollywood and Sanford) that this research essay will explore.

Cinema has long lent itself to the realm of the subconscious, through filmmakers such as Federico Fellini whose work embodies the subconscious dreamscape and borrows from the theories of Sigmund Freud to David Lynch whose films often resemble a nightmare or an unconscious state (as I will later discuss with Mulholland Dr.). It becomes important when discussing the subconscious in cinema to understand the difference in an objective and subjective gaze and whose point of view the events are from. Understanding this will greatly influence an audiences position when disseminating a film.

If a film is to adopt an objective point of view it allows for an overall look of the narrative from a ‘God like’ perspective allowing the audiences to be both removed and fully informed, they are provided with a fuller picture. Most Hollywood films function in this way and an objective point of view is apparent in films where the audience may be viewing a particular sequence when it is intercut with another sequence or event taking place in another location. The audience is able to gain more insight into the narrative than the characters, getting a broader perspective of the narrative events as they unfold, they enjoy a privilege not often found in everyday life.

A subjective point of view is forcing the audience to accept the cinematic gaze through somebody else’s perspective which offers a limited view of the narrative events but gives a more insightful and empathetic view of the character allowing the audience to attain a deeper understanding of the perspective and motivating forces driving the character through the narrative and is often the approach of films said to be ‘character driven’ rather than situational and certainly independent features tend to favour this position.

The other important aspect is the ability to determine what events in the films narrative occur in the characters reality or occur in the subconscious or characters fantasy. Reality is considered to be linear, the events happen in a sequential order and often refer to events that have happened in the past, characters react in a such a way that seems plausible to the filmic world they are in. Genres like biopics, drama, romantic comedies are often set in the ‘real world’ and features a narrative that flows in linear fashion. Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme 1991), Cloverfield (Matt Reeves 2008) and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941) seem unrealistic but in the filmic world they are based is a reality that does not deter from its construction.

Events that could trigger a subconscious view is the projection of a characters unconscious desires and needs which pass through the characters point of view and are presented on screen usually as a flashback, dream sequence or montage. These subconscious desires and events may be based in a constructed reality or in a place that is altogether made up. It is often difficult and the aim of the filmmaker to make it impossible to determine reality form the subconscious desires as the characters unconscious desires may be true to the characters normal, every day actions without them being aware of it. Genres like science fiction, action and horror open the door to the subconscious and non-linear narrative forms are commonly found in these styles. Repulsion (Roman Polanski 1965), Fight Club (David Fincher 1999) and The Matrix (Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski 1999) are good examples of surrealist unconscious states.

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The formation of the self and character is subjectively formed on conscious and unconscious desires, the subconscious can open an unconscious space in cinema, intruding on the narrative space. Films often feature a mix of objective and subjective reality and subconscious states. When a film begins to explore the subconscious, the mode of storytelling challenges the classical narrative filmmaking structure and the Hollywood aesthetic. Playing with surrealism, Freud’s psychoanalytic theory and non-linear narrative elevates the unconscious fantasy life to a state that is equal to the real and indistinguishable to audiences. As quoted in Dunnigan, ‘an uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now thought imaginary.’ (2008).

Just as a place has a conscious reality, within film a place also has a subconscious fantasy (through a subjective gaze). History defines a places past from different witness accounts and points of view but is limited only to the point of view from those who witnessed such events. If a city’s subconscious state was able to surface it would present events that bore no witnesses (except for the city itself) and give greater insight into the events which occurred but would be subjective in nature, the place could only account from its point of view. For example, if a city is attacked by foreign forces the city would only witness the results of the incoming attack and could not account for the events that lead to the attack from outside the city.

Within the filmic realms of this subconscious place the reality of characters would be presented alongside their unconscious selves, the two would co-exist as part of the same organism, occupying part of the same space since space is temporal in cinematic terms. The space becomes a constructed world opening non-linear spaces within linear narrative, and if the film extracts the character the filmmaker can begin to explore the subjective unconsciousness of the place itself.

A film which explores this theory of the subconsciousness of place is the short film Kitchen Sink (1989) by Alison Maclean which is based in the surreal and presents a women’s subconscious who consciously discovers a foetus in her sink. The film is set exclusively in her house, the space presents her conscious reality, her everyday living in the kitchen, the lounge and before long intrudes her subconscious thoughts into the space. A foetus is found in the sink, grows into a man after placing it in the bathtub, is shaved from head to toe and the hair manifests into another being. Through the subjective point of view of the place the audience gains insight into the women’s unconscious gaze. The place presents both her reality and her unconsciousness simultaneously resulting in a bizarre journey that leaves audiences to speculate what is driving the women’s motivation.

This can also be found in major films that have been produced in Hollywood and I will use Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. as an example as a film presenting a subjective Hollywood subconsciousness. Hollywood’s subconscious state is one of the fame and the glamor of the movies, it offers success, money and stardom but Hollywood’s conscious reality is a harsh and expensive city that struggles with poverty, unemployment and rising debt.

Lynch looks through a subjective Hollywood at the Diane/Betty character and tells the story of her grim reality as well as her subconscious fantasy while she lived in Hollywood, this is reiterated to a degree by Wright in Hot Fuzz who explores Nicholas desires which have been repressed by his conscious state after he is relocated to a small town and through his point of view the more extravagant desires are realised in the form of bizarre murders from a secret society.

Lynch’s cinematic ideas are presentations of the imagination that exceed conceptual determination and linguistic expression. They are inexhaustible imaginative representations open to infinite interpretation. (qtd. in Sinnerbrink 2005)

The character of Betty is Hollywood’s manifestation of the failed and dead actress Diane, she does not exist in reality and is a representation of Diane’s subconscious. Such is the non-linear narrative structure of Mulholland Dr. that the audience does not realise Diane lays dead in her apartment until the third act, Lynch chooses to open the film with Betty’s arrival to Hollywood in a very stylised way, one that is reminiscent of films produced throughout the Golden Age (1930s) where young divas step off a bus starry eyed and hopeful to find success for their mere presence.

Betty’s journey mimics the subconscious fantasy of Hollywood, she is a success at an audition straight off the bat, picked up by influential casting agents and seemingly guaranteed the life of a star by having simply made the decision to visit the place. The reality is Hollywood is harsh, cruel and foreboding which Diane discovers and struggles with, suicide was the only way to relieve the pressures Hollywood exhibits. Betty can be seen as ‘the traumatic unconscious fantasy framework that renders consistent the subject’s image of self-identity and coherent experience of social-symbolic reality.’ (qtd. in Sinnerbrink 2005).

Betty’s discovery of her actual self and reality is through her own (as Diane) love interest Rita, who helps Betty to discover her real self as Diane who lays dead on her bed. There is no hierarchy between the realist space of Diane and the fantasy of Betty, the place represents both streams of narrative simultaneously.

Diane’s subjectivity does not exist in any other sense of the real, there is no greater truth in the real than in the fantasy and the audience needs to establish the temporality of the fantasy, the fantasy which is not a dream but a symbiotic part of the same whole.

Mulholland Dr. becomes extremely difficult to interpret when comparing it to the traditional narrative of Hollywood cinema, indeed it is one of the most scathing indictments of the classical and non-conformist film structures and read as a critique of the Hollywood machine which is often referred to as ‘The Dream Factory’. Mulholland Dr. takes audiences on an ontological journey through Hollywoods state of being, it is presented as a dreamscape where reality and subconscious desires surface and are seen subjectively through the gaze of Hollywood. Hollywoods subconscious shows the tragic accounts of Diane’s life as well as her unrealized dreams.

The most interesting aspect of...films is the idea that they represent internal struggles in the psyche. (Horrocks 2001:156)

Nicholas Angel is an ex-London cop who has been posted to the town of Sandford, an idealistic place where murder and crime is a rarity. Such a rarity that Nicholas, who is used to danger on every corner, begins to repress his ‘action hero’ qualities and lives a dull and mundane existence catching geese and teenage shop lifters.

Because of his forced repression Nicholas’ subconscious begins to act out and he notices small discrepancies (where others would have ignored them) in accidents that occur in the place. Driven by his subconscious desires to be the ‘action cop’ from the city he begins to speculate an elaborate murder mystery, his ideal place is a heightened reality of crime, murder and mystery not tranquility, quietness and the country lifestyle so he purposely goes looking for clues in the hopes of uncovering something ‘real’.

As Nicholas begins to formulate his murder mystery and uncovers more evidence, Sandford soon transforms into a place that is more dangerous than London. He discovers the townsfolk are part of a secret society engaged in mass murder of horrific standards and Nicholas must battle against them in a public shoot out equipped with machine guns and L.A. Cop style tactics.

The place allows Nicholas’ subconscious to manifest into a surreal landscape, his unconscious desires come forth into the reality of Sandford and mess with it. Just as Lynch explores the hidden desires of Betty in Mulholland Dr. Wright is exploring the subconsciousness of the place and allowing Nicholas’ desires to create a hyperreality.

As Horrocks suggest, ‘part of the power of...films is that they resonate deeply with our inner conflicts and suggest wished-for if unrealistic solutions’ (2001:157) and so aiding the subconsciousness of the place and Nicholas’ fantasy is his partner PC Danny Butterman (Nick Frost) who forces Nicholas to watch Bad Boys II (Michael Bay 2003) and Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow 1991) to live out their unconscious desires through the films plot. They imprint the perception of an action hero portrayed by Will Smith and Keanu Reeves upon themselves and during the mass shootout in the towns square many of the situations and scenarios featured in Bad Boys II and Point Break are repeated by Nicholas and Danny. For example, in the final scenes of Point Break Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) rolls onto his back and fires into the air as he can not bring himself to shooting his new found friend Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) this is repeated in Hot Fuzz as Danny, unable to bring himself to shooting his father Inspector Frank Butterman (Jim Broadbent) rolls into his back and fires repeatedly in the air. Danny subconsciously mimics the film Point Break and the hyperreality bought about by the place enables him to do this.

An uncanny effect often arises when the boundary between fantasy and reality is blurred, when we are faced with the reality of something that we have until now thought imaginary. (qtd. in Dunnigan 2008)

In the traditional sense of the subjective gaze cinema allows the audience to explore and live out their subconscious desires, experiencing cinema as a constructed reality or simulation of the real. I hypothesis that phantasmagorical films which draw similarities to Mulholland Dr., Hot Fuzz and Kitchen Sink’s construction do the opposite and allow an audience to explore characters from the point of view of the place which gives access to both the conscious and unconscious desires of the characters and presents them simultaneously.

Cinema has the unique ability to allow a place ie. Hollywood and Sandford, to exist in temporal space and give the audience access to the places memory of people and events which represents both the conscious and unconscious gaze as with Betty and Diane’s collided resonance of being a failed lover and famous actress or Nicholas’ repression extorting itself into a hyperreality around him in which the place becomes an organic organism with its own subjective point of view existing in the past, present and future with the realities and fantasies of its inhabitants co-existing simultaneously. What is real and what is false becomes blurred in the surrealist cinematic dreamscape.

Film can do this: depict the fantastic as natural and reveal for an audience the Mystery that is the everyday. (Dunnigan 2008)

Works Cited

Dijck, José Van. "Future Memories: The Construction of Cinematic Hindsight." Theory, Culture & Society 25 (2008): 71-87. Sage Publications. Web. 16 Oct. 2010.

Dunnigan, Brian. "The Return Of The Repressed." P.o.v. March 25 (2008). P.o.v. Mar. 2008. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. .

Horrocks, Roger. "Dreams, Jokes and Films." Freud Revisited. Ed. Jo Campling. Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001. 141-159. Print.

Horrocks, Roger. "The Unconscious." Freud Revisited. Ed. Jo Campling. Hampshire: Palgrave, 2001. 39-49. Print.

Nochimson, Martha P. "Introduction." Wild At Heart In Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas, 1997. 1-15. Print.

Sinnerbrink, Robert. "Cinematic Ideas: David Lynch's Mulholland Drive." International Salon-Journal June 9.34 (2005). Film-Philosophy. Web. 08 Sept. 2010.


Mulholland Dr. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Naomi Watts, Laura Harring, Ann Miller and Dan Hedaya. Universal Pictures, 2001. DVD.

Hot Fuzz. Dir. Edgar Wright. Perf. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Jim Broadbent. Paramount Pictures, 2007. DVD.

Kitchen Sink. Dir. Alison Maclean. Perf. Theresa Healey and Peter Tait. Hibiscus Films, 1989. YouTube. 16 Otc. 2010.

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