David Lynch and the American Dream / by Olly Smith

Please note: this article contains major spoilers for the films Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive.

As audiences we consume Americana in the mass media every single day. It is found in adverts, radio, television, and – most importantly – cinema. The image of the Statue of Liberty or the Hollywood Sign is ingrained in my mind as much as Big Ben or the London Eye, and are part of the characterisation of the country itself: The American Dream. The belief that social mobility is an equal opportunity for all citizens. Of course, we now know through modern studies that this is not the case, and that the reality of America uses your background, race and gender among other things will affect that mobility, but this does not stop Americana from seeping into our everyday lives as a way of selling the American Dream to audiences. 

Associations with the culture can be found in brands such as Coca-Cola or Chevrolet. In music genres like Jazz or Country. In popular icons like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It was traditionally used in films for the same reason, as can be seen in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but as time went on filmmakers began to react more critically to this mantra. One need only look at the social commentary present within John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) – featuring an alien race impersonating the rich and powerful, that use subliminal advertising to encourage the general public to conform and obey – to see how the attitudes were changing. Similarly, it was around then that auteur director David Lynch – then fresh off the boat from his adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune – began deploying a similar posture in his films.

The opening sequence of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) features a white picket fence lined with bright red roses. The frame then switches to a tranquil suburban street as a 1950s-style fire engine travels by. In the background, we hear Bobby Vinton’s recording of ‘Blue Velvet’, which had hit No. 1 in 1963. Already in the first thirty seconds of the picture, we are exposed to a similar amount of Americana that we would be in an advert or a song. Suddenly, an old man watering his garden suffers a heart attack, struggling in pain as an infant looks on. The camera then zooms towards the ground, revealing a dark underbelly to this energetic world as it gets deeper into the grass. Those vibrant colours from before are gone, only to be left with the grotesque image of insects consuming each other. 

The highly contrasted red, white and blue colour scheme is also strikingly present in this scene, and becomes the primary palette for the rest of the film as other props, characters and sets are dressed in similar shades. Despite taking place in the 1980s – as evidenced by the cars and music – the film has an older aesthetic inspired by works such as Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) in order to enhance this sense of classic Americana.

© 1986 – MGM

© 1986 – MGM

Blue Velvet’s plot begins with protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returning to his quaint hometown of Lumberton, North Carolina to visit his ailing father in the hospital. Whilst there, he finds a severed ear in a field which immediately sparks an investigation from himself and Sandy (Laura Dern), the daughter of a police detective. Following this, Jeffrey becomes embroiled in a dark underworld as he begins a fervent, sexual affair with singer Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) at the same time as romantically pursuing Sandy. Meanwhile, he is targeted by local mobster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) who is also sexually involved with Dorothy, albeit in a more twisted, oedipal passion.

The world as presented in Blue Velvet operates on a basis of dream logic. This does not mean the events of the film take place in a dream, but rather the small oddities and contradictions go unnoticed by the characters. We see this when Sandy says she knows Jeffrey found the ear because “she just knows”, or how the police investigation into the ear does not ever really have a resolution. It feels like a callback to ‘80s teen slasher horror films that rely on its cast of youngsters to drive the plot, whilst all the adults seem to have a degree of distance from the narrative.

With Lumberton standing in as this dream-like location, it feels like Lynch is lulling us into a place of serenity and comfort. As Jeffrey becomes involved with Frank’s criminal underworld, with the violence, sexual economy and anarchy that ensues, this ease is diminished as we soon realise this is the reality of Lumberton. That initial opening sequence of the quiet suburban street and parasitic bugs acts as a microcosm for how Lynch believes America functions. On the surface, the country is wholesome, happy and tranquil. Underneath, it is violent and chaotic.

© 1986 – MGM

© 1986 – MGM

David Lynch would later expand on this idea of sunny America having a darker side in many of his following works, such as Twin Peaks (1990-91) and Wild at Heart (1990). In Mulholland Drive (2001), he would again explore the American Dream and the divide between success and failure.

Mulholland Drive tells the story of an aspiring actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) arriving in Los Angeles and staying at her Aunt’s house, where she befriends an amnesiac woman calling herself Rita (Laura Harring) who has recently been involved in a car accident. The film also features other vignettes and narrative threads, most notably one involving film director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) as he is stripped of creative control over his current project. Betty finds success in Hollywood as her auditions impress the producers, but she and Rita also fall in love. 

In the final thirty minutes of the film, a twist reveals the events preceding were all part of a dream concocted by Betty, who is really a failed actress named Diane. While in the dream she finds success in her acting career and can be with the woman she loves, in reality she has none of those things. She is driven into a deep depression as a result of an ended affair with a more successful actress named Camilla Rhodes (also played by Laura Harring). Many other aspects from the fantasy are contrasted or mirrored in the real world, and the twist itself is foreshadowed many times throughout the film, most notably when Betty exclaims “it’s like I’m living in a dream world” when talking about her life in Los Angeles.

Mulholland Drive uses the concept of dreams to remark on the state of the American Dream in the film industry. Aspiring actors are frequently moving to California in the hopes of finding success in a film career, but the reality is that most will not make it big. While the unemployment rate for the United States currently sits at around 4%, the Actor’s Equity Association has a number hitting 90%. In a 2005 article for The New York Times, executive director of the University Theater Association Scott L. Steele stated: "We're producing too many people. Many of them poorly trained or moved into the field without the connections or relationships necessary to make their transition to a career possible.” With this in mind, getting a successful job in acting seems – quite literally speaking in the case of Mulholland Drive – to be the American Dream.

© 2001 - Universal Pictures

© 2001 - Universal Pictures

Even the road Mulholland Drive itself is located along the Santa Monica mountain range, which separates the glamorous areas of Hollywood and Beverly Hills from the poorer San Fernando Valley. It acts as a metaphorical divider between success and failure, which is encapsulated within both lead characters themselves. Therefore, Lynch dresses up a very horrific reality for Diane with a surreal fantasyland in which she can have what her heart desires, a sentiment that many others who have failed under the American Dream can possibly relate to. 

This is why Mulholland Drive repurposes the Americana that Blue Velvet brought to the table. Lumberton in Blue Velvet is a happy, wholesome American town on the surface with a seedy criminal environment clawing its way out. On the other hand, Mulholland Drive flips the switch by using dreams to imply that dark underbelly is the surface of America, and aspirations for success are better invented in a fantasy world. Both films explore the two sides of the coin and how American imagery is often used as a substitute for achievement and happiness. I think this is an important theme to explore in a society that uses these images in a large capacity across all types of media. 

This piece was written by Olly Smith - you can find out more about Olly via their Twitter and website.