Throughout the history of humanity, several cities have stood out by the activities that took place within their limits. For instance, in retrospect, we can say that Florence was the capital of the Renaissance. Following that logic, during the last century, some cities in the United States received similar labels; that is, their main activity defined the entire city, for example. Detroit was the automotive industry capital; New York is still the capital of the world, while Las Vegas is the entertainment capital.
Under this light, “capital” is a loaded term whose significance goes beyond its conventional meaning and use. Before going further, it is necessary to understand that “capital” is a term derived from the Latin words caput and capitis, both of which mean head. Its immediate meaning became closely interrelated to politics and served to describe the physical seat of constitutional governments. However, under non-traditional uses previously mentioned, the same word acquires a peculiar connotation. While describing power, it also reflects a reality that transcends social and spatial limits to reconstitute a metaphysical hegemony.
However, one of the dangers of labeling cities so lightly results in an inevitable oversimplification of a far more complex reality. One of the most dramatic examples of this fact must be Los Angeles, a city often described as the film’s industry capital; this description constitutes a dichotomy between reality and signifier. While this activity is traditionally concentrated in the Hollywood neighborhood and currently scattered across areas like Burbank or Culver City, it is not the main activity for the vast majority of residents of the greater Los Angeles. In this case, the idyllic image of Hollywood draws from the alleged glamor of the industry and seizes reality to replace it with a simulation.
This notion seems to be reflected in the movie Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001) more precisely in the eight-minute scene at the Silencio Club (between time stamps 1:45:00 to 1:52:59). Previous to the events at the club, Betty and Rita take a cab and arrive at the club at roughly two a.m. in the morning. The camera places the viewer as a stalker while entering the club. The scene begins with a vertical panning of the theatre from top to bottom, resembling the insides of a cave. Already some of the traditional conceptions begin to subvert. According to Plato’s Allegory of the cave, humanity must abandon it to pursue knowledge through enlightenment, yet in this case, Betty and Rita go into the depth of this urban cave in search of answers whose questions seem to be also unknown.
Before they sit, the magician at the stage screams, “No hay banda; there is no band; il n’y a pas d’orchestre. This is all a tape recording. […] no hay banda, and yet we hear it.” This chain of events set up a series of actions whose only purpose is to reveal perhaps the film’s central motif. This single line delivers the key to understanding if not the complete film, at least a significant portion of it. It presents the viewer with the possibility of being in front of a plot that is not what it seems until this very frame.
Let us go back for a moment to Los Angeles and rephrase that line. Let us imagine a host who welcomes visitors at the Mulholland drive exit from freeway 101, screaming, “No hay Ciudad; There is no City; il n’y a pas de ville. This is all a montage. […] there is no city, and yet you see it” In doing so, this imaginary host would be giving us a valuable piece of advice. “This neighborhood is not what you saw in the movies. This city is not what you make of it by looking at pictures.”, and yet everything looks real, as seen on tv, as beautifully photoshopped for the brochures at the travel agency.
If the screen version of Los Angeles is identical to that which we see from the actual Mulholland Drive, then those two have merged into a single entity, broken down, blended, and reconstituted to manifest as Hyper-Los Angeles. The weight of the label imposed on Los Angeles captured its identity and catalyzed reality, over and over; because there exist as many versions of hyper-Los Angeles as visitors enter its zone. This exhausting exercise of breaking apart to later reconstitute in fractions of milliseconds happens millions of times in a single minute for every new visitor, every single day. No wonder why Los Angeles is a fragmented city, only possible trough Hyper-Los Angeles, a commonwealth of aspirations, images, and expectations of something that is not there, and yet we see through the augmented reality of signifiers.
Back to the film, the magician has deployed every single trick he could pull off his hat. He promised the sound of a clarinet without a player and the same for a trombone with sordine. Logically, the new set of rules refrain the fact that it is all recorded. When a muted trumpet enters the stage, along with it, a glimpse of reality enters the atmosphere, only to become part of the illusion a few seconds later. According to Jean Baudrillard (who attributes his quote to the book of Ecclesiastes), “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth.” In other words, this means that, despite the delusional spectacle at club Silencio, precisely that is not what should be capturing the audience’s attention, for the answers lie past this array of attractions.
The magician performs his final trick by raising his hands as the synchronicity of lights and sound mimic lightning and thunder; at the climax of this stunt, Betty shivers uncontrollably. Rita embraces Betty to help her come back to normal. Betty might be beginning to grasp the idea that this illusion is beyond her control, at least for now.
In a way, this segment mirrors what it might feel to overcome the clash of signifiers, between real Los Angeles (if there exist any) and hyper-Los Angeles. A city incapable of delivering its depiction and thus becoming a poor imitation of what once used to be through careful framing and exhaustive set production, designed to recreate what never was intended to be real in the first place, but became hyper-real through silver screens across the globe. Los Angeles is also incapable of dealing with its shadow that took over and inverted roles. The visitors and citizens witness two entities contemplating each other in despair. An inhabitant could fall perplexed by the overwhelming hyper-Los Angeles, while underneath that layer of spectacle lies a city, existing as a second-hand copy of itself, harboring the very machine that betrayed its long gone trueness. None of them exists in reality, for each one cancels the other every second, or as Jean Baudrillard describes it better, “[…] it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”
Back at club Silencio, the magician is gone, not without an atmospheric exit. Betty regains control of her body, and the shivers are gone. A man introduces the next act, “la Llorona de Los Angeles, Rebecca Del Rio.” A lady enters the stage to perform the Spanish language, a capella rendition to Roy Orbison’s Crying. It is worth to notice that Rebecca’s wardrobe is a blend of Betty’s and Rita’s wardrobe. Rebecca wears a red dress with black shoulders and arms. The color red is related to Betty, and the black shoulders is an inversion of the shoulderless shirt worn by Rita. This wardrobe blending might be a clue pointing to the possibility that Rebecca is going to speak for both characters for the following minutes.
The camera alternates between headshots from Rebecca, Rita, and Betty and, in doing so, establishes a visual crescendo that reaches climax as Rebeca sings the line: “Tell me what can I do, you do not love me anymore.” Rita and Betty cry inconsolably, as the song presents an account of their relationship and the inevitable end they might be facing. Rebecca continues for a couple of seconds more, only to reveal herself as another illusion. This twist of events foreshadows Betty’s and Rita’s relationship as something real for a while or maybe nothing at all.
It is possible to refrain the dialectic between Los Angeles and Hyper-Los Angeles as a relation mediated by desire. Following the template of the failing relationship between Rita and Betty, the mediator is Rebecca. Logically Rebecca fleshes out the tension between them and reveals it as an unfulfilled desire. Is it possible to play with the idea that Los Angeles, as an entity, desires to be Hyper-Los Angeles? Is that the reason why San Gabriel Valley looks like the most excellent example of America’s suburbia on the outside, only to reveal a perverted inside containing Asia’s most exquisite adaptation to suburbia by way of congestion?
Furthermore, if we examine this relationship the other way around, as Hyper-Los Angeles putting a struggle to become Los Angeles, would that explain the feeling of disenchantment that visitors experience as soon as they face the reality of a not so glamorous sunset strip? Or worst, a not so glamorous city twenty blocks past sunset strip? Unfortunately, the only certainty is that all of this remains an illusion, again and back to Jean Baudrillard, “[…] The simulacrum is true.”
As the Emcee and an assistant carry Rebecca away from the stage, Betty reaches for her purse and finds a blue box with a triangular key whole, like the shape of the key Rita hid in a hatbox back at Betty’s place. Rita and Betty realize that their visit to Club Silencio had the purpose of finding that object. They exit the club and rush back home.
This scene serves the purpose of deploying a collection of useful elements to understand the whole film. Proof of this claim is the finding of that blue box after a cathartic and yet emotional moment between Betty and Rita. Perhaps more relevant to this analysis, this scene highlights the artificiality-aura that surrounds Los Angeles. This artificiality could trace its origins to the first open-air set built in this city. Constructed as the outside appearance of a building or a street, and paying attention and detail to those elements that would end up inside the boundaries of the camera frame, the first simulations came to existence. This single event might have permeated the urban fabric of Los Angeles to the point of blurring the borders between that studio in Hollywood and the surrounding neighborhoods. The scenography juxtaposed over a portion of the city of Los Angeles, and after it no longer served its purpose became abandoned.
Nevertheless, something unexpected happened, The growing city of Los Angeles embraced that foreign pattern and made it part of its urban syntax. This might have happened a few times in different parts around Hollywood, to the point of diluting the original pattern of those surrounding neighborhoods. Los Angeles lost itself within itself and emerges every day, projecting itself thorough a montage of hyper-reality, projecting a better version of itself and yet failing over and over in the attempt of going back to what the simulation once imitated. Like a digital picture missing pixels, Hyper-Los Angeles has lost its essence but fills the missing pieces with broken binary code made of generic urban texture. As a living entity, the city heals itself by copying and pasting patches of generic urban texture here and there until the time comes to face itself, a moment whose arrival delays to the point of considering the arrival of oblivion as something more plausible.
The burden of being the film’s industry capital has taken a toll on Los Angeles. The clash between the ideal city and the actual city creates conflicts for those who experience this city daily. This endless dialectic permeates every single expression coming out of Los Angeles. A clear example is the scene presented in this paper as it serves the purpose of mediating the understanding of this urban issue through the unconscious reflection projected David Lynch on Mulholland Drive. The text of Jean Baudrillard serves as a common ground where the urban reality of Los Angeles finds commonalities with the fictional events of Mulholland drive; hence that blue box from the film represents those sets of urban issues still unaddressed.
The city of Los Angeles as a self simulation reveals yet another urban pattern of growth that relies on signifiers provided by the film industry, prooving that culture affects urban development, but also providing evidence of the downsides of succumbing to an unsustainable legacy, designed as a facade or as a scenography but never as durable material to develop urban fabric.
Mulholland Drive. Directed by David Lynch Canal+, 2001.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulations. Ann Arbor. Michigan Press. 1994