On the phone is Diane, also seen as the aspiring actor, Betty. Something ugly always follows her.

Camilla/Rita in Muholland Drive is an exaggeration of the starlet prototype, beautiful and helpless, a blank slate waiting to be scripted into any fantasy.

Diane/Betty and Camilla/Rita in Mulholland Drive share adventures and identities. ...

...and they also share kisses.

Leonard Shelby in Memento relies on polaroid photographs and notes to himself to compensate for short term memory loss.

Shelby appears manipulated by all of the other characters in the film, including Natalie.

By the end of Memento we seem to learn that Leonard has been the primary manipulator.

He regularly has himself tattooed with crucial reminders to himself. Thus Leonard Shelby is a perfectly visualized postmodern hero.

We understand Shelby’s fragile identity only through his photos and his experiences, recounted backward.

In The Sixth Sense, Malcolm genuinely wants to help Cole overcome fear. By the end, the psychiatrist has his own terror to face.

The Sixth Sense: Malcolm and his wife confront a danger that attacks when he is most comfortable. He is at home, professional award in hand.

Mulholland Drive uses death at its climax for a different effect. Like Jack, Diane Selwyn puts a gun into her mouth and blows her head off at the end of the film, not to defeat an unwanted part of her own personality but to relieve the unrelenting pressure that her own delusional madness has created. At this moment, she is attempting to escape an elderly couple’s frantic attention. They possibly represent surrogate parents, although they look more like grandparents, and they predicted her stardom when she first arrived in Hollywood.

Diane plays dual roles (throughout most of the movie we have known her as the would-be starlet, Betty), and she is never given parents in the film. She has come to L.A. to live with an absent aunt and supposedly knows no one in town, but as Betty, she has no trouble making friends and winning support from the people she meets. People are genuinely nice to her at virtually every turn, but something ugly always follows her—an image literally visualized in an early scene behind the diner. In the end, we learn the “truth” about Diane/Betty: she is one of countless anonymous actresses who deals daily with the humiliation of not being the star she was supposed to be.

In Diane’s fantasy of a life as Betty, responsibility for this failure is attributed to nameless old white men of power; they manipulate careers for their own profit and amusement, and they destroy beauty and art and personal freedom in the process. We never know if Betty’s impressions are correct—Diane only offers the information that directors “didn’t care for me.”

But this vision of a woman’s mental breakdown and its social causes certainly has been dealt with in feminist film theory. As an exemplar of that idea, Mulholland Drive goes farther than any movie since Marleen Gorris’ A Question of Silence in suggesting that madness is the only logical option for a normal woman in such a destructively patriarchal society.
In Diane and Tyler we get both sides of the gender problem. Tyler— like Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia—appears to be sticking up overtly for men castrated by modern culture. (Many reviews of Fight Club alluded to Susan Faludi’s book Stiffed) Diane appears to be speaking up somewhat less overtly for women who have their media-inspired dreams of glamor and happiness routinely squashed. Unlike the heroines in Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), who find a measure of liberation in their trips into dramatic and romantic fantasy, Diane finds only madness.

The common component that ties together Diane and Tyler (when he is in his more realistic “Jack” persona) is that both are powerless characters who resort to extraordinary self-delusion to bestow power upon themselves. They both live in the world of the anonymous extra, each serving as fodder for enormous corporate monoliths—the insurance industry in Tyler’s case, and the Hollywood film industry in Diane’s. Their solutions again recall Judith Butler, who in Gender Trouble, essential text of Queer Theory, analyzes gender identities as performance. Since society’s overriding structures are so powerful, the best individuals like Tyler and Diane can hope for is to parody their traditional roles —Diane as the spunky starlet and Tyler as the man’s man— and thereby achieve a small measure of freedom.

In Memento, the protagonist Leonard Shelby is by no means powerless but is defiant of that which has damaged him. Whereas the hatred displayed by Tyler and Diane appear to be directed at their social and economic superiors, Leonard’s hatred, such as it is, appears to derive from a much more personal injustice. He wants to find the man who raped and murdered his wife. On one level, Leonard appears more innocent than even Jack or Betty. He has suffered short-term memory loss, and consequently he suffers pathetic humiliation at the hands of virtually everyone he meets.

We are inclined to root for Leonard’s vengeance, not just on the common criminals who murdered his wife, but also on the common people who abuse him for amusement and convenience. We are also apt to admire the way he has chosen to cope—by removing emotion and intuition and relying on fact and logic. As the story progresses and develops its mindfuck theme, we come to understand that Leonard is not as innocent as we have been led to believe since he willfully ignores fact when it suits him. He can erase his own past in an act of outrageous audacity and will.

As viewers, we may conclude that Leonard is not simply an evil person and has committed murder various times motivated by something more than the desire to do harm; if so then we will most likely find that motivation in Leonard’s guilt. But the script leaves it unclear whether Leonard feels personal guilt relating to his murder of his wife, or some larger socio-economic guilt over the ruthless service he provides to his employer. The script finally merges two stories, that of Sammy Jankis (Leonard’s institutional guilt) and Leonard’s wife (his personal guilt); at the end the two storylines are inseparable. Leonard has made a career out of rejecting the claims of people who entrusted his company with their health insurance. He functioned largely with impunity, just one small piece of a large beast.

But the residue of his insurance investigations have left their mark on his personality. His demons seem as powerful as compelling Tyler Durden’s to subject himself to brutal physical and psychic beatings. Each protagonist has earned their living working behind the scenes to rob people of basic human rights. And each, like Diane Selwyn, has resorted to self-delusion in order to cope. What separates Leonard, and what makes him ultimately scarier that the others, is that he is better at fooling himself. Unlike Tyler and Diane, Leonard allows the delusional side to win.

Leonard, Tyler, and Diane are, on some level, destructive characters. However, and this is vitally important, all are presented in sympathetic terms. Their specific actions and motivations allow us to identify with them, indeed, often to root for them. The side of Tyler who is Jack protests the destruction that Tyler preaches. Jack attempts to rescue Marla. Even the destructive persona Tyler is very clear about not wanting to hurt any people. The fifth rule of Fight Club is that when one fighter gives up, the fight is over.

The part of Diane that is Betty also acts nobly. Though anonymous extra Diane, we come to find, actually dreams of hurting the star Camilla, the Betty part of Diane actually walks away from a potentially career-making meeting in order to help save Rita, the helpless amnesiac who serves as Camilla’s alternative personality.

Leonard’s victims, except for his wife, are all of shady morality, if not outright criminals. Maybe the petty criminals and con men Leonard comes across did not deserve to be murdered, but none are completely innocent. You could certainly draw the conclusion that Leonard has done far worse deeds in the past as a claims adjuster when his victims were innocent.

The psychiatrist protagonist, Malcolm Crowe, in The Sixth Sense is a different sort of hero. He faces no internal battle for control over his heart and soul. Although depressed by his line of work and haunted by his failures, he remains well-intentioned, even desperate in his quest to help innocent people. And if Tyler Durden, Diane Selwyn, and Leonard Shelby can be identified with the broader social or economic structures of masculinity, feminism, and corporate consciousness, Malcolm Crowe’s identity remains entirely personal. He is there to help kids, specifically one troubled kid named Cole Sear. In spite of this, Malcolm does share one overriding trait with Tyler, Diane, and Leonard: delusion about the nature of his identity.

The Sixth Sense concerns itself with personal relationships, not broad social truth. Prior to the twist in which Malcolm discovers he is in fact dead, the most terrifying moments come in the scenes depicting people’s utter inhumanity, especially the scene in which Cole is locked in the closet by his abusive classmates, and the scene in which a mother uses her nurturing authority to poison her own daughter. The evil presented in the movie does not derive from the child Cole’s supernatural ability to see dead people, though that certainly scares him. The cruelty which the film presents, it is suggested, would exist regardless of any special talent on the part of the child. In fact, it is Cole’s talent which becomes his salvation, as well as the salvation of the girl he saves.

At the end of the film, Malcolm’s delusions have an enormously beneficial impact, owing in part to screenwriter M Night Shyamalan’s twist on an established device. As previously noted, La Riviere du Hibou and Jacob’s Ladder also place a hero in danger at the beginning, then go on to construct a plotline resulting from his survival. At the end of Jacob’s Ladder, as in The Sixth Sense, we discover the hero did not in fact survive. It was an imagined life. (A “life not lived” to quote the final sentence of Anita Shreve’s novel The Last Time They Met, a book which demonstrates that narrative plotlines based on mindfucks are not confined to celluloid.) Shyamalan’s invention of Cole Sear allows Malcolm to continue to do good works, even after the psychiatrist’s death. The horror with which Malcolm reacts to learning the truth does not diminish the value in his work.

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