One of the most genius characters David Lynch has ever cooked up is The Cowboy from Mulholland Drive. What I like about him so much wasn’t apparent to me until I rewatched the film for what had to be the fourth or fifth time recently, because I noticed that his costuming is actually a very early 21st century peacoat dyed and distressed to slightly resemble leather. At some point I’ll sit my butt down and write something cohesive about how Mullholand Drive embodies postmodern pastiche like nothing else I’ve seen, but taking the cowboy here: he is a reference without a referent, an empty indicator of something which is assumed to be identifiable or locatable but which, in reality, evades all attempts to position him in a place or time. By this I mean that The Cowboy is like all other cinematic cowboys, in that rather than embodying something real about the conceptual fiction we call “the Old West”, the cowboy is always a cowboy of his cinema’s specific moment and values–whether that’s midcentury Americana, cold-war anxiety, 70s cyncisim, etc. This operation has been noted again and again throughout the history of the Western as a genre, but has done little to displace the tempting fiction that there is ever a cowboy that existed outside of his mediation through the film genre. Our understanding of what a cowboy is is inseperable from the myth, but over time, this myth is depleted–the cowboy as trope is made and re-made, the reference references all other filmic cowboys as well as the “original” (also inherently absent) cowboy. Lynch’s cowboy arrives as a mysterious figure entrenched in what appears to be a Hollywood conspiracy, alongside the businessmen, directors, and other symols of male egotism that pepper these scenes of the film. While these tropic figures seem to be played relatively straight, however, The Cowboy is both absurd and impossible to decipher. I don’t think it’s an accident that it took me four viewings (none of these were on a laptop, all were either in a theatre or at least a theatre-like setting) to notice the anachronistic nature of The Cowboy’s clothing. What can we make of this choice? It’s my belief that a man dressed in an accurate (i.e., accurate to earlier Hollywood depictions) cowboy costume would have been legible as “in diguise” (i.e., a member of the conspiracy dressed as a cowboy), this cowboy is a cowboy, and nothing but a cowboy. It’s with this character that I think Lynch really blows open the difference between costume and disguise; one is artifice emodied, the other implies that there is a “true” meaning or self that can be uncovered, but which is hidden. The filmic cowboy of the early 2000s is all costume–literally, the costume “of his time,”— because Lynch’s film is concerned not with American idealism or other tensions that were expressed (allegorically or metaphorically) in earlier Westerns, but with reflexively revealing the formation of myths central to American cinema, myths which form core of what Hollywood film is and does and how we understand it. So when I say that The Cowboy is a reference without a referent, I mean that the thing being referred to is the absence of a “real” cowboy–a folding reference into the tissue of Hollywood that has no center. It’s pretty cool, mostly because while The Cowboy seems like a massive red herring, it’s also impossible for me to imagine Mulholland Drive being complete without him.