David Lynch and the Problem of Closure

Posted: February 11, 2010 in Film, Philosophy

On the need to explain and how some people delight in ambiguity.

Earlier this week I watched David Lynch’s famously confusing film, Mulholland Drive. Without giving anything away, I will simply say that the ending is very challenging because it offers no explanation for what preceded it. It is the antithesis of a standard film because it fails to offer ‘closure’. All it offers are questions.

Like Franz Kafka, Lynch is capable of creating dream-like worlds which are apparently void of meaning. In such a world, all that exists for certain are raw human emotions: love, hate, fear etc. The rest – the facts and the details – are unbearably ambiguous.

Why is it that we find it unbearable to watch, read or experience something which is seemingly entirely without meaning or explanation? Rather than accept the ambiguity of something, we go to great lengths to create complicated theories of explanation.

Immediately after watching Mulholland Drive, I was desperate for an explanation. At the time, it was a matter of feeling comfortable or feeling uneasy. I chose to feel comfortable, but even hearing of possible explanations is not enough to satisfy the questions which the film raises long after it ends.

The need to explain is one of the oldest impulses humans have. It led to the birth of philosophy, religion and the arts. Today, it is the driving force behind scientific enquiry.

In the 1990s the need for explanation was given the trendy term, ‘need for closure’. The term ‘closure’ was often used to refer to reaching a resolution following a traumatic event. However, it was also used to refer to the desire for solid explanations as opposed to ambiguity.

The problem with closure is that what appears to be a solid explanation becomes very fluid, when certain questions are asked of it. What seem to be facts become uncertainties, when subjected to a thorough enquiry.

A film director like David Lynch eschews closure, creating instead an uncertainty which baffles viewers, but which is arguably closer to life than films which have straight-forward narratives and neat, tidy endings.

Life is full of uncertainties, and if we were to search for solutions to all of them we would probably go mad in the process. Yet any person with an inquiring mind – even if they profess a religious faith – will always discover questions which challenge their notions of what is certain.

I doubt that it is possible for someone to be comfortable with eternal ambiguity but it is possible for them to create from uncertainty, and to find happiness in that process.

In the absence of certainty there is creativity. Artists who understand this – and David Lynch is one of them – create visions of such perplexing beauty that a single explanation could never do them justice.

Photo credit: P/\UL


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