Friday, October 7, 2011

Mulholland Drive analysis - part 3: Lynch's first clue: the opening scene


Shortly before the opening credits for the movie, we're shown images of people doing a dance known as the jitterbug.

As listed in part 2 of this analysis, David Lynch's first of ten clues to unlocking the meaning of the movie is: Pay particular attention in the beginning of the film: At least two clues are revealed before the credits. As noted in the caption to the screencap above, the opening images of the movie show several people jitterbugging. The jitterbug was an exuberant ballroom dance popular in the 1930s and ’40s, which originated in the United States and was spread internationally by the U.S. armed forces during World War II.[a] It is related to swing dancing. As described below, the fact that the dancers in the opening sequence are doing the jitterbug, is one of the two clues Lynch mentions

According to Tamara and Erin Stevens, the authors of the book Swing Dancing, "The origin of the word 'Jitterbug', used as a Swing dance term, may actually be impossible to trace. The old English etymology of 'jitter' comes from 'chitter', meaning a tremulous sound, or quaver, of the voice. 'Chyttering' referred to quivering, as in shaking or shivering in the cold (Hensleigh Wedgwood, 1878, 147). In American English, 'jitter' also refers to shaking and quivering, but it is often suggested that the word stems from a compound form of the two words: 'gin' and 'bitters', and that it refers to the condition of 'the whiskey jitters' - the tremors and twitching of an alcoholic's craving for alcohol...Bandleader Cab Calloway gives himself credit for coining the word, 'jitterbug', during the mid-1930's, before it was a Swing dance term...[His] 'Jitterbug' song of 1934 refers to a man who drinks heavily at night and wakes up with the jitters every morning. And while there's no mention of dancing in that song, Calloway's 1935 short film, Jitterbug Party, does create a sense of association between the word 'jitterbug', and social Swing dancing."[b]

Medically speaking, alcoholics who suffer from the 'jitters' are actually suffering from a condition called delirium tremens. Delirium tremens (Latin for "shaking frenzy", also referred to as The DTs, "the horrors," "jazz hands," "giving the invisible man a handshake", "spirit fingers" or "the shakes.") is an acute episode of delirium (see below) that is usually caused by withdrawal from alcohol, first described in 1813. Benzodiazepines are the treatment of choice for delirium tremens (DT).[c]

Delirium or acute confusional state is a common and severe neuropsychiatric syndrome with core features of acute onset and fluctuating course, attentional deficits and generalized severe disorganization of behavior. It typically involves other cognitive deficits, changes in arousal (hyperactive, hypoactive, or mixed), perceptual deficits, altered sleep-wake cycle, and psychotic features such as hallucinations and delusions.[d] Diane suffers from an altered sleep-wake cycle, and she also experiences hallucinations (e.g., she 'sees' the older couple in her apartment at the end of the movie).

Above left: Diane's altered sleep-wake cycle is bound up with her excessive caffeine intake. Above right: Diane is hallucinating when she sees the older couple - the man and woman who raised her - emerge in miniature from the blue box.

Rita (aka Camilla; wearing black dress and blond wig) tries to comfort Betty (aka Diane), who begins shaking while in Club Silencio. Diane is experiencing delirium tremens due to alcohol withdrawal.

Continuing with delirium tremens from above, the main symptoms of DT are confusion, diarrhea, insomnia, disorientation and agitation and other signs of severe autonomic instability. These symptoms may appear suddenly but can develop 2–3 days after cessation of drinking heavily with its highest peak/ intensity on the fourth or fifth day.[e] Also, these symptoms are typically worse at night. Recall that it's 2 o'clock in the morning when Rita and Betty awake, then go to Club Silencio, where Betty starts shaking uncontrollably (see screencap at above).

Other common symptoms include intense perceptual disturbance such as visions of insects, snakes, or rats. These may be hallucinations, or illusions related to the environment, e.g., patterns on the wallpaper or in the peripheral vision that the patient falsely perceives as resembling the morphology of an insect.[f] Lynch is depicting Diane as not having all of the symptoms of DT: We're not shown anything to do with insects. However, as mentioned above, Diane is being portrayed as seeing people who aren't there.

Delirium tremens usually includes extremely intense feelings of "impending doom." Severe anxiety and feelings of imminent death are symptomatic of DT.[g] Recall that Betty (aka Diane) effectively 'sees herself' dead at one point in the movie.

This dead body that Rita and Betty see, in apartment number 17 at Sierra Bonita, is ostensibly that of Diane.

Withdrawal from sedative-hypnotics other than alcohol, such as benzodiazepines or barbiturates, can also result in seizures, delirium tremens, and death if not properly managed. Withdrawal from other drugs which are not sedative-hypnotics such as caffeine, cocaine, etc. does not have major medical complications, and is not life-threatening. Withdrawal reactions as a result of physical dependence on alcohol is the most dangerous and can be fatal. It often creates a full blown effect which is physically evident through shivering, palpitations, sweating and in some cases, convulsions and death if not treated.

When caused by alcohol, DT occurs only in patients with a history of alcoholism. Occurrence of a similar syndrome due to benzodiazepines does not require as long a period of consistent intake of such drugs.[h]

Speaking generally, Diane suffers from alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

The actual scenario being depicted in the movie is one in which a young woman named Diane Selwyn has hopes of becoming a Hollywood actress, but these hopes are dashed when she doesn't get a movie role she had sought. Her illusory and dream-based experience of life as 'Betty' is, to a great extent, caused by the effects of alcohol withdrawal. Her symptoms include hallucinations, confusion, agitation, shaking, altered sleep-wake cycle, nausea (at the Mulholland Drive party), and sense of imminent death. Note that it's implicit here that Diane abruptly stopped using alcohol just a short time prior to the movie's beginning.

a. 'jitterbug'. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 12 Dec. 2016. URL =
b. Stevens, Tamara and Erin Stevens. Swing Dancing (The American Dance Floor). Greenwood, 2011. Google Books, p. 112. URL =
c. Wikipedia, 'Delirium tremens'. Web, n.d. URL =
d. Wikipedia, 'Delirium'. Web, n.d. URL =
e. Wikipedia, 'Delirium tremens'. Web, n.d. URL =
f. Ibid.
g. Ibid.
h. Ibid.


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