You'll have to forgive me. This isn't a movie review or analysis—not really. But this is my 100th Tuesday Zone article, and as such, I am going to take some time to talk about a part of a movie that I am passionate about.
Mulholland Drive (2001) has become one of David Lynch‘s best-known films, in part because it has his trademark weirdness, and in part because it’s incredibly well-made. It got the 28th spot on a “Top 50 Greatest Films” list by Sight & Sound, who produces once every ten years what might be the highest regarded “best of” list in film. But I’m not here to talk about the whole movie. I’m just here to talk about The Winkie’s Diner Scene.
This is, in my opinion, one of the best directed pieces of cinema, and it’s only five minutes long. I recommend watching it (linked above) before reading any further if you are unfamiliar; don’t worry, it makes sense as a stand-alone, and it won’t “spoil the movie” or anything like that. After all, everything in this scene is pretty straight-forward; it’s mostly dialogue, fortunately with a script and actors to carry it. Not a ton happens, all things considered. A man who goes unnamed in this scene tells his friend about a dream/nightmare. That’s your fifteen word pitch.
But what makes this scene memorable—I recall it being the only time I have actually gasped with shock and fear while watching a movie—is how, at every single level, it works toward a unified effect, a sequence that is perfect on its own and adds to the overall themes of the movie. I won’t talk a ton about how it functions in the greater narrative, as that would add a lot to this discussion, but I will attempt to pick apart exactly how this scene succeeds.
First, I will say that it helps to consider the shots that bookend the clip above. We see a woman lie down and go to sleep, and since this cuts to an entirely different scene with new characters, we can’t help but consider this all to be a tinge dreamlike. Everything that follows plays with that idea. We immediately meet two men seated at a diner, and the first man—we’ll call him Man 1 (Patrick Fischler) —adds an air of mystery by remarking that he really wanted to eat at this specific Winkie’s. Notice that the immediate mood is odd but conversational; in the first forty seconds, there are four cuts away from Man 1, who is clearly the focus of the story, to Man 2 (Michael Cooke) and back. That’s eight total cuts in forty seconds, or an average shot length of five seconds. The fluid cutting makes for a fluid conversation. It’s relaxed, relatively, and makes everything feel open.
But as soon as Man 1 starts to tell his story, the cuts stop. There is a period of seventy seconds where we get no cuts at all—meaning this shot length is fourteen times longer than the average of the previous ones—and the result is tension. We are focused on Man 1’s dream, and we cannot look away, which builds up this sense of uneasy engagement. Thus, we are enraptured by the story. There is also an interesting set of emotions delivered by the movement of the camera here; it shakes, which has an unnerving effect, and it’s also moving around to give us various angles of his face. We see so much of him, which usually lends itself to an attachment and comfort with the character, but his face is so nervous that the information we are receiving conflicts with what we hear. Who is this guy? No matter what way we look at him, we don’t know. It’s eerie. The only consistency is that we’re always looking downward at him just slightly, which makes him seem small and even more frightened. Everything is working toward a sense of eeriness, but there is also conflict in the script, characters, editing, and camera movements that manage to capture the dreamlike sensibility.
Now to the actual content of his words. Remember how this scene is led into with a woman going to sleep? Well, think about how his story relates to that. He’s talking about a dream, possibly in what is itself a dream, and the line between those two realms begins to blur. Thus, we actually start to get unnerved by his story; sure, it’s a dream, but is it just a dream? What does that even mean in this context? All the details contribute to that: “[The dreams] start out that I’m in here,” he describes, “but it’s not day or night. It…it’s kind of half-night, you know? But, it looks just like this—except for the light.” Everything in the dialogue, editing, and camerawork during this section breed discomfort and tension because now, instead of just a creepy story, we start to wonder: is this harmless diner that they are sitting in—in the middle of the day—as safe as we assume?
When we finally look somewhere else, it is over Man 1’s shoulder as he describes that Man 2 is in these dreams, standing by the counter, frightened. Because this is our first chance to “look away” from the situation and breathe, that shot stays in our minds. We remember that area at the counter. When we look back at the table, though, nothing has lightened up. Man 2, who was previously amused at the whole situation, is grave. The camera cuts back and forth between the two—with slightly longer shots, having an average shot length of almost seven seconds until Man 2 gets up to pay the bill. Based on what I said before about cutting back and forth, we would expect for the cuts to give us a similar sense of relief, but they don’t. Instead, we see that Man 2 is unnerved, which makes us feel even more unsettled because, previously, he was our avatar. We thought with him, “Oh, sure, a dream. Alright then.” But now he’s less blasé, and so are we. The cuts are creating an entirely different emotion now, which adds to the dream-like sensibility of the scene. Nothing is stable.
Through the dialogue, and in no small part through the cinematography and editing, we have now learned the real reason why the two guys are there: Man 1 wants to make sure that the man he can see behind the restaurant in his nightmares—whose face he hopes that he will never see “outside of a dream” (note that language that deals in the previously blurred line between dream and reality)—is not actually behind the diner. The focus on the man’s face is all the more disconcerting; first off, we have a detached idea of this “thing” with no mention of a body, a man who is terrifying because of his face, which is usually the most benign part of a person. We want to see people’s faces because it helps us see their emotions and humanize them, which is why the various angles of Man 1’s face would in most contexts make us feel more comfortable with him. That’s why a lot of horror movies have bad guys with masks or blurred faces. Here, the horror is the face itself.
Next is, in my opinion, the best and creepiest part of this scene: Man 2 goes up to pay for the bill, and Man 1 looks back at him. It is nearly a duplicate of that shot from before—that shot that is burned into our brain somewhat because it eased the tension from that long take—but now Man 2 stands there, and he looks less confident and comfortable than before. This introduces a cyclical component to the scene, where what was said in a story becomes reality, and any sense we had that there is a separation between dream and reality is now completely abolished. We think to ourselves, “Of course nothing will be back there,” but the film has worked very carefully to make us doubt that idea. Notice that the creepiness here is in the dialogue and ideas, and that even the broad daylight and other people in the diner cannot dissipate it. The horror aspects are built in so deeply that you are entirely caught up in the story, rather than viewing passively.
The next minute—where Man 1 walks toward where he saw the face from his dreams, and Man 2 follows—is not quite as dense, but carries out the atmosphere that Lynch works so hard to create up to this point. The volume slowly drowns out, and the camera cuts from Man 1 approaching the area to shots of the alley. We are now sharing his POV, and the lack of sound makes us realize just how tense this walk is. Whether there is something back there or not, the terror at this exact moment is everything. The long buildup, the whole minute dedicated to this short journey, is basic tension building, and it is as effective as it is simple.
At this point, we really cannot tell what is going to happen. There could be nothing there, but at some level, we know that there has to be something. When the face comes out from behind the wall, it’s terrifying—not because of a cheap jump, but because our sense of reality shatters and all that tension reaches a climax. Lynch has built up to this moment, and it might make you jump with that extra oomph of a loud noise, but the actual fright is in the implication, the fact that this face that seems like it could only exist in a nightmare is there, right where we expected it. Notably, we only see the face, which was the true terror to Man 1. We see the most human part of this entity, and it still terrifies us because of the context—and the fact that it’s a frightening face in its own right.
When I first saw this scene, I was amazed that something so simple—no less filmed in a public area, in broad daylight—could be so powerful. I’d seen probably a hundred horror movies, but nothing like this. Lynch is undoubtedly a talented director, but when you look at his scenes carefully like I hope I have done here, you get an idea of how much depth a talented director can add to something so simple. All of this might seem obvious, or maybe even overreaching, but I think that great scenes like this help us consider why cinema is such a unique and powerful art form. Thankfully, we have hundreds of directors with as keen an eye for detail as Mr. Lynch, and thousands of other great scenes to enjoy—and, sometimes, to fear.