"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The critics, at least, are more than confused. “What gives?” wrote Philip Lopate in Film Comment.
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman called the film’s plot “a pretzel that never connects with itself.”
Roger Ebert declared “there is no explanation.”
And in the New York Times, Stephen Holden wrote that the film “surrendered any semblance of rationality to create a post-Freudian … fever dream” with “disconnected … images” in “nightmarish relationship.”
But while “Mullholland Drive” is odd and surreal, fractured and dreamlike, it’s not as complicated as these experts make it out to be. For another interpretation, I recently discussed the film with Dr. Frederick Lane, a Freudian dream analyst and clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia Medical School. Unlike the film experts, Lane saw “Mulholland Drive” as the product of someone intimately familiar with dream analysis. And when he shared his interpretation with me, stray plot lines clicked satisfyingly into place.
It’s true, as several critics have reasoned, that the film’s broad-brush examination of illusion, desire, control and identity should be neither obscured nor ignored in an examination of plot. (Which is a way of saying that you don’t have to understand the film or follow the plot in order to like it.) But the fact is that there is a nearly flawless — if anachronistic — structure that allows you to see the way Lynch examines the parts of lost love, jealousy, revenge, regret, guilt and suicide that get lost in the unconscious.
As with “Eraserhead,” “Mulholland Drive” begs for multiple viewings. But also like “Eraserhead” the effort is rewarded once you find and accept the film’s internal system of rules. As you might suspect of a modern-day master of illusion, it’s deceptively simple.
The film can be divided into two parts. Part A lasts for two hours; Part B for the remaining 20 minutes. Either part, or both, is arguably any of the following: one, an ordinary dream; two, a lucid dream in which the dreamer knows he or she is dreaming; three, a waking hallucination, or daydream; four, a sexual fantasy; or five, an out-of-body experience. What’s your professional opinion?
A hallucination is some sensory experience where there is no real stimulus except from inside your head. Dreaming is hallucinatory, you know. I think Part A is a dream, and the dream is about murder, money and success. For a dream, it’s not terribly surreal, but if you want to present something that’s dreamlike, you have to mimic dreams. The pace in Part A is very slow, and dreamlike in the abrupt switches from one continuity to another. Lynch includes some smoky, dark scenes — little flashes of images you can hardly make out, as in a dream. There are long periods of silence on the soundtrack, or there’s the low buzz underneath [of Badalamenti's original score], like the beginning of the film. Most dreams are completely devoid of sound, but in some you can hear human speech, or completely hallucinated sounds, or incorporate a real-life noise outside your window, like the siren of a fire truck which becomes the howling of a wolf in your dream — representing that you’re still getting sensory input from your body when you’re asleep.
The dream [in Part A] involves two themes: One is the love affair with this mysterious woman Rita, and the other is the machinations of Hollywood, producers and Hollywood politics, expressed in a kind of dreamlike, exaggerated way.
Part B begins when she opens this blue box and everything fades to black. Betty is now Diane: She looks different, she’s living in a different place — this crummy apartment, she’s has lost that golden glow, and presumably brings you back to reality.
I agree that Part A is a dream, and I think the beauty of this is the extended metaphor to the anything-goes aspect of film. Like films, dreams mean nothing in the real world except for their emotional impact in your memory. Did you recognize the dream immediately?
No, but then I caught on: The second part is less dreamlike, much faster paced, and there is a soundtrack, as opposed to an absence of a soundtrack in Part A.
Part A of film, the “dreamlike” part, lasts two hours. In dream time, how long is that?
No dream is dreamt for two hours at a time — they’re usually 20 minutes to half an hour. A dream that seems like it’s taking 15 minutes actually takes 15 minutes. That’s been determined in sleep labs. So, contrary to popular belief, you can’t dream a whole story running for two days in 30 seconds: A dream is a working of the mind; you can’t think two hours worth of thought in 30 seconds.
So, really, dream time and actual real time are very similar. During some dream research I was doing, a subject told me, “I dreamt I was at the museum and I saw a friend running up the stairs huffing and puffing, as if he was in a hurry.” I asked that person, “Did you actually see them running toward you?” He said, “No. First he was there, then he was right in front of me, and I just made up the huffing and puffing to tell the dream.” The point is, the narration of a dream is not identical to the dream itself. What people experience visually in dreams is a bunch of quick clicks. So the person down there is suddenly right next to the dreamer, but the dreamer can’t say that — that doesn’t make any sense, so instead he says the person ran toward him. Dream experiences are kaleidoscopic. When you wake up, you’re left with this peculiar experience you have to convey in a verbal narrative, and your mind puts it together in a much more cogent way than you dreamt it, so you can tell it.
The dream experience is a series of hallucinatory flashes, and is actually different from what Freud called the manifest dream. The manifest dream is the dream as told: scenes, thoughts, sounds. In order to tell it you put together a story.
Was the movie more like a manifest dream?
Yes, the movie was Lynch’s version of a manifest dream. It’s like a told dream, not like a dreamt dream.
Why are dreams so difficult to remember if you don’t write them down?
Freud thought dreams that are remembered in the morning and forgotten by the afternoon have threatening material in them, and therefore are repressed. But that’s probably not true. Dreams are dreamt in a certain mental state called the dream state, which is different from the waking mind. Dreams record in the memory banks much more poorly than the waking experience does. So even though you can remember a dream when you first open your eyes, by the time you’re sitting down for breakfast, it could be gone and you can’t remember what it was. The most you can recall is, “I had a dream.”
The memory of a dream also changes with time: A patient tells me a dream on Day 1; when he refers back to the dream on Day 3 it’s going to be different. It’s already been revised from Day 1 by the mind — sometimes expanded, sometimes simply altered. Sometimes absurd things that happened in the dream are rationalized and explained.
So your mind is too busy manufacturing the dream to record it?
Except if the dream contains powerful emotional or visual content, or vividness. If the dream was a repetition of an actual traumatic experience you’ll remember that because the original incident is so imbedded in your consciousness.
Along these lines, why do dreams often make internal sense, or follow a dream logic?
They don’t. They are “secondarily revised.” Secondary revision is what puts the dream in tellable order. Freud thought it occurs upon waking up — during the transition between dreaming sleep and waking. A lot of people think secondary revision occurs after you wake up as you’re recalling the dream. You’re not recalling “and then I saw this, then I saw that.”
So it’s impossible to recall the dream the way it actually happened, because your mind won’t let you?
No, you won’t. In fact, you may be left only with a little memory of one image, but there’s a whole story that seems to be connected with it, and your mind makes the leap. You don’t know if you actually dreamed it, or if you’re putting it together in your waking mind.
“Mulholland Drive” is an incredibly moving, lush, sensual dream — you not only see things, you can hear the gravel under car tires, feel the tropical breeze of the swaying palms and warmth of a streetlight. Is it realistic for a dream to give as much sensory stimulation as we get in our waking life, with as many tastes, touches and textures?
Dreams do use all five senses — including taste and smell. Having said that, the film’s more Lynch-like than dreamlike: Lynch likes that slow, spooky pace; slow dialogue and slow music. The only thing fast that happens in Part A is the singing audition.
Can you tell me about the symbolism in either Part A or B?
It’s about wish fulfillment. Diane has a lot of horror at taking out a contract on someone, and hopes to bring back the lover, although she saw the blue key left by the hit man (representing the completion of the job) before the dream. On the other hand, she wants to be successful as an actress. Lynch wanted to show you what went into the dream, and he shows it after the dream.
But that’s what we do in analysis — you tell me the dream, and I say, “Did anything happen to you yesterday that could have promoted this dream?” I would then take the narrative of the dream and look for emotional motives: anger, fear, guilt.
I’ll give you a little lecture on Freud’s dream theory. Freud felt that when you’re asleep, your mind’s working; it’s not entirely at rest. While the mind is working, wishes, impulses and drive states threaten to wake you up. There are two major drives — aggressive and sexual — that are responsible for all behavior. These drives don’t disappear when you go to sleep, but are pushing you toward awakening. If someone insults you during the day and the anger is reverberating within you, you might dream of some violence during the night. So sleep is threatened by these wishes. Let’s say they’re bodily wishes: You have a full bladder which threatens to wake you up, and instead you dream you’ve gone to the bathroom; if you’re lying on your arm and it falls asleep, you’ll probably incorporate that into your dream in some way. The dream helps you stay asleep.
Freud saw dreaming as a way the mind has of keeping the wishes which are threatening to wake you up down, and converting them into dream thoughts, which are largely experienced in a hallucinatory way. So that these wishes, or impulses, are pushing up toward consciousness which will wake you up, and they are altered by the unconscious mind into dream images, which tend to try to conceal the raw data of the wish. So what you experience then in dream is elements of the wish, as well as elements of the mind that are guarding you against the wish … and they all come out in usually hallucinatory images. You can also have cognitive thought in a dream, actual thoughts like the ones you have when you’re awake.
People have dreams that seem like nonsense and have no meaning to them, or really have a dream that’s repugnant to them, that’s some distressful wishful feeling sort of breaking through into the dream. And if you have a nightmare, which usually is accompanied by a lot of anxiety, the dream is not containing the wish or impulse. When you use dreams in therapy, you help a person find out a lot about himself.
So if you think of the dream [in "Mulholland Drive"], it’s full of wishes.
That makes a lot of sense. So dreams are formed strictly through wish resolution?
One part of what forms a dream are these wishes and impulses. The other part is what Freud called the day’s residue: people, images, whatever, occurring the day the dream takes place. So you’ll have people you’ve glanced at, an image you saw. If you saw something traumatic and full of horror and intensity — which is the case for many eyewitnesses of the WTC disaster whom I’ve counseled in trauma therapy — then you might have recurrent dreams about what you’ve seen. Your dream blends the day’s residue with deep-seated emotions: You have an argument with your spouse, then see a poster about the circus. Then you go to sleep and dream the image of a man going into a lion’s cage about to get torn to pieces. The dream isn’t formed by cognitive thought; your rational mind doesn’t consciously formulate the dream. But in the dream, you might ask yourself why that man is walking into the lion’s cage.
Is there such a thing as shared dreams, as telepathy within dreams? Could Diane and Camilla, for example, have been sharing a dream?
No, that’s not possible.
If it’s your dream, does the narrative ever leave your point of view and go to someone else’s? Someone of the opposite gender perhaps, such as Adam the director?
Sometimes the dreamer is represented at a distance, and sometimes the dreamer’s not in the dream at all. Diane could have certainly dreamed her dream from the hit man’s point of view, for example, and had a guilt dream involving the death of two innocent people.
The hit man in Part A represents a guilt dream?
Yes, it’s a guilt dream about the hit man committing not only one murder, but accidentally killing two other innocent people; Diane’s worried she’s sent this guy out to do terrible damage. I’d analyze a guilt dream as, “What have I done?” The wish element there involves guilt.
Would dreaming something from a different point of view be an out-of-body experience?
No, it’s still a dream, but it’s like watching a movie. Most often the dreamer’s in the middle of the experience, and the dream is from her point of view. A dream within a dream is an attempt to distance yourself from the impulse behind the dream. Let’s say you’re sitting in the living room, and you’ve just had a fight with your husband. Then you turn on the TV in the dream, and you watch a war movie, and people are killing each other. So the impulse is a wish — an aggressive wish — that’s stimulating this dream. However, being threatened by that aggressive wish and trying to disown it, the dreamer will distance the violence of the dream onto the TV set. So instead of dreaming you take a knife and plunge it into your spouse, you’re dreaming that you’re watching TV; you’re attempting to disown your aggressive impulse. You’re just watching a movie, but you’re really taking it out on your spouse.
Do you think Lynch studied dreams before he made the film?
I think he knows dreams; perhaps because he’s been through his own analysis. Yes, this is clearly someone who knows dreams are composed of impressions from the day, and also deep-seated emotions.
What about the reality of the transitions between sequences, and between Parts A and B? Transitions between film sequences are typically a slow fade to black, with the introduction of the next scene. In “Mulholland Drive,” transitions occur this way, but there is also a wavering between Parts A and B. Do dream transitions occur the same way?
It’s not at all the way it would happen in a dream. Dream scenes can shift in a moment. Instead, your mind jumps from one image to another — there’s no similar finesse.
Could Betty, the main character in Part A (Naomi Watts’ character), be aware she’s dreaming, and take control of her dream?
A lucid dream refers to the dreamer realizing in the middle of the dream that he or she is dreaming: That realization — “Oh, I know I’m dreaming” — is part of the dream. In no way can that person control what’s going to happen in the dream; it’s just a dream thought. I’ve heard about lucid dreams, but I’ve never seen a situation in which someone can control what happens in a dream. A teenager once told me about a dream in which he was in a museum looking for girls. He’s young, full of raging hormones — because it’s a dream you can do anything you want, find girls, tear off their clothes or whatever — but in his dream, he couldn’t find any girls. Supposedly this was a lucid dream in which he knows he’s dreaming, but he was not in control of what happens. When you dream, you’re asleep; you’re unconscious. People who claim to be able to enact lucid dreams can maybe enact very vivid waking fantasies, but they can’t do it in their sleep, because the will of the conscious mind is simply clicked off.
Dreaming’s only in the mind, though, none of it actually affects real life. That must be what the sequence in the “Silencio” nightclub was all about.
That’s true. We now know that everybody dreams every night, in REM sleep, which is not the deepest stage of sleep. Sleep labs hook people up to electrodes, and in the light stage of sleep, their eyeballs are moving because they’re looking at things in their sleep. If you had a dream a truck is coming at you from the right, the sleep lab person would see your eyeballs going to the right. You’re hallucinating, you’re dreaming, your heart is beating fast, your blood pressure is up, but your muscles are totally cut off — in other words, while you’re asleep if anyone lifts your arm, it’s like dead weight. In a deeper stage of sleep, your muscles are also cut off, but you can still move around, although it’s not in response to a dream. Unless they have a rare kind of sleep disorder, people, unlike animals, don’t move in REM sleep at all, not in response to a dream.
After Part A, which is beautiful, we’re plunged into Part B in all its drabness and dreariness. I wanted the beauty of the first part to continue, like that feeling you get when you have a really good dream, and you wake up, and you want to get back into your dream. Is that kind of longing common?
Yes, especially a pleasant dream you want to continue. I’ve seen dozens of examples just recently. After the terrible tragedy of the WTC, I started to do some crisis counseling, and one night I spent the whole night digging up bodies. However, the bodies were in beautiful glass cases; they were dead but beautifully dressed, flawlessly presented. I was repairing the bodies in the dream, and trying to undo a little bit of the horror in my own dreams.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)