15 September 2008

Visions of Lynch

I just finished my David Lynch mini-retrospective which included Elephant Man, Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Twin Peaks, and some short films. I decided to go through with this because I've always been interested in David Lynch but had only seen Blue Velvet. After watching the pilot for Twin Peaks I knew I needed to see more. I'll share my thoughts in the chronology of Lynch's output and not the sequence in which I saw the films.

Eraserhead (1977)

Lynch's first full-length feature and many people's favorite of his. It's now a midnight movie cult classic. I had no idea what to expect going into this film, only being familiar with the wild-eyed Jack Nance (who appears in all the other films except Elephant Man) and his crazy hairdo. Watching the film is like entering the dark areas of a person's mind, the unknown subconscious, in its dreaming state. The surreal mixes nightmarish imagery and awkward comic absurdity. These are key elements to the world of David Lynch. Key thematic elements are present that Lynch will manipulate and build upon throughout the other films: dreams/nigthmares, sexual desires, the grotesque, secrets, freaks, music/songs, and velvet curtained rooms. The last of these isn't a theme really, but certainly an element of production design that manages to be in every Lynch film. In this film it is the background of the stage in which the Lady in the Radiator sings. More about the curtains later. Anyway, I liked the film very much because it made me feel so strange and confused and uncomfortable in a way that truly evoked a surreal nightmare. I feel other Lynch films attempt to give the same feelings but don't work as effectively. Certain images in this movie will never leave me.

Elephant Man

When I first watched Elephant Man I was struck by how emotionally compelling it was. At times I felt very sad and even misty-eyed. Pulling myself away from the movie, however, I felt as if maybe I was insincerely manipulated. The way in which John Merrick utters his polite remarks and the severity of the cruelty he got from the people outside the hospital seemed almost exaggerated. Was Merrick really so polite, so instantly genteel and literate when shown kindness? Were people really so blindly cruel? It seemed almost like exaggerated melodramatic cliches. I started to suspect that this was a satire. After looking up John Merrick and actual photos of the historical person, I was a little reassured as the accuracy of his actual deformity. Even so, I feel that this is still very Lynch, even when restricted by the demands of a big studio production. Certain elements of the Lynch world find themselves in the film such as the extreme cruelty and dementia of people that we pass everyday - their own secret worlds - such as those of the freakshow proprietor and the people who come to see Merrick at night. The grotesque also seems to fascinate Lynch - grotesque ways in which one can get mutilated or killed or even just plain appearance. The Elephant Man himself is exceptionally grotesque and it's understandable that Lynch would be intrigued by such a project. In the end, this was the most "conventional" film of Lynch's that I watched.

Blue Velvet (1986)

My favorite David Lynch film, hands down, and arguably his best. I didn't rewatch this movie as part of the retrospective (though I probably should have), but its imprint still feels fresh in my mind despite the time that has passed since I last watched it. The film is an obvious satire, but the way in which Lynch uncovers the darkness of Lumberton layer by layer until it becomes so twisted and so bizarre is both seductive and frightening and we are pulled along into it along with Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan). The prototypical image in this film is that of the voyeur, specifically of Jeffrey behind the blinds of the closet, looking in on Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his sexual perversions being taken out on Dorothy (Isabella Rosellini). This image is preceded and set up by Sandy's claim that she can't tell if Jeffrey is a detective or a pervert, a perfect summation of the themes and motifs of the film as well as Jeffrey's character. Sometimes in Lynch's later work (which I'll touch upon) I ask myself the same thing about Lynch - is he being artful or is he just perverted? Is my reaction to the images more telling of myself than of Lynch? Anyway, that's for later.

One thing I notice about the Lynch world is the way in which all the small things are exaggerated and made more bizarre. A small example comes from within the first few moments of the film in which Jeffrey's father gets falls over in the lawn. The way in which he falls and holds his neck, twisting the hose and making noises, is almost farcical, approaching something somewhat frightening and yet humorous. The same thing happens when we see the father in the hospital and the extremity of his condition when seen at first is so absurd it almost warrants a laugh, but we see it is supposed to be taken as serious (which is what makes it funny, really). The point is that in a more traditional Hollywood film the way in which the father falls and his physical state in the hospital would not be so exaggerated. These are just small examples which only reflect what Lynch does with other aspects of the film in an even more absurd way.

Wild at Heart (1990)

This film plays with the road movie genre, which made me very eager to see how Lynch would handle it. Starring Nicolas Cage as Elvis in a snakeskin blazer under the name of Sailor and incredibly sexual Laura Dern as Lulu on the run from the law and from Lulu's mother, the film brought to mind the Bonnie and Clyde storyline of lovers on the run. What happens as they take off, however, is a grotesque display of odd violence, sexuality, and daydreams. This sound like typical adjectives for a Lynch film, but it manages to go a step too far, losing any kind of humor or meaning along the way. There are a couple of good characters, such as Willem Dafoe's Bobby Peru, but they are not enough to really save the car wreck of a film this becomes. It feels like all style that is so labored over in its framing and production that it ultimately feels empty. The way in which Bobby Peru's head explodes from his own shotgun, for example, goes a step too far unnecessarily. It's odd and disorienting, which we expect from Lynch, but it doesn't connect for me and it left me feeling a bit annoyed. The sexuality also started to become questionable to me, leaving me unsure if it really served the story in anyway other than to scorch the screen with Laura Dern's body. Nevertheless, there were some good use of Elvis songs in the film. And, on top of everything else, Nicolas Cage kept reminding me of Raising Arizona and his H.I. character more than Elvis.

Lost Highway (1997)

The first half hour or so of this film was incredibly intriguing and genuinely pulled me in. The set up is like a horror film - Bill Pullman and his wife are left videotapes of someone filming the exterior of their house and eventually their interior. The fear and paranoia it causes distorts the house into the belly of some hellish beast where the shadowed hallways seem to swallow the characters and where nightmares can breed. Once that part of the film ends and Bill Pullman disappears, however, the film rolls steadily downhill. The Pullman character is displaced by another body who is supposed to be the same person in a story that seems to go backwards and forward at the same time. After a great set up I feel a little betrayed by the film, almost as if I had been abandoned or that Lynch had given up. The story that develops for the rest of the film involves a young guy and his interaction with an incredibly sexed up Patricia Arquette. This film made me feel very uncomfortable at some points with the consistent sex scenes and more than the other films I feel manipulated into feeling like a pervert and a voyeur. This film seems to be popular with younger kids my age or younger and I think a lot of it has to do with placing themselves in this young protagonist's shoes, living through him in a sexual fantasy in which he gets to have his way with more than one beautiful woman and to be buddied up with the mafia. I did not understand this film and I'm not sure if there is way to understand it beyond what the screen shows us, which left me feeling empty and swindled. The creepy man with the white face that moves in and out of dreams was a genuinely creepy character, though; Lynch has a talent for envisioning freakish beings.

Mulholland Drive (2001)

In many ways I feel like Mulholland Drive takes the ideas and themes Wild at Heart and Lost Highway had and realizes their full potential in a way that is incredibly effective. works as a satire of Hollywood as hinted right away by the title as well as by Naomi Watts character, Betty, whose bright-eyed giddiness and naievete deserve a chuckle. Lynch makes this a satire of Hollywood not just through a plot or through characters, but with more subtle techniques and through messing with the film itself and our expectations as viewers. One of my favorite examples comes through Betty's rehearsal for a bit part in a film. When she rehearses her lines with Rita she gives them in a forceful way, with a clenched jaw and practiced rage. We are introduced to these lines before we are aware that it is even a rehearsal, taken aback at her sudden anger towards Rita. But oh! it's not anger, it's a rehearsal! We are smart enough now not to get fooled by her acting, though Watts delivers in a way that is powerful enough for us to forget for a moment. Later, when we see the actual audition Watts auditions the scene in a completely different way, saying the same lines with intense sexuality and femme fatale sultriness. Lynch does not explain why this happens (of course!) but its effect is powerful in a couple of ways: 1) we realize how we have been manipulated by Betty's acting in both of her deliveries of the script. 2) we realize how we have been manipulated by Naomi Watts as an actress playing Betty playing an actress. 3) we become self-conscious of us viewing a film again, a construction of lighting, camera, acting, set, direction and Lynch's overseeing hand. This is the kind of clever manipulation and addressing of the stuff of cinema that fills the film. When Lynch switches characters with actors the effect returns in an even more confusing and frustrating way. Either way, unlike Lost Highway, you stay engaged. This mostly has to do with the totality of Lynch's vision and how well made the film is - it doesn't let you go even though you don't understand it. This kind of effect can be analyzed in its contraptions but ultimately in looking back it's almost an X-factor. I certainly need to go back and watch this film again.

Well, that's it for the individual films. I suppose I could make an entry for the "Twin Peaks" pilot as a self-contained film or for the series as a whole, but I think it would be too much. It is probably my favorite thing Lynch has given me other than Blue Velvet, but writing about it would be too much. What I want to conclude with are some elements of Lynch's films that I've noticed repeating and being reused.

Red velvet curtains - There is usually an isolated room with dim lighting, maybe with a single piece of furtniture in it, whose walls are made of red velvet drapes or curtains. This usually sets the scene for some kind of strange dream-like encounter, character, or performance. In Mullholland Drive we have the studio executive who sits in his recliner as well as a stirring rendition of Roy Orbison's "Crying." In "Twin Peaks" it is the place in Cooper's dreams in which he is visited by characters such as the giant who give him clues. In Blue Velvet the curtains are blue instead of red (obviously), but they are still there. There are other examples in the other films and in the ones I mentioned, but I won't go through them all. I think this is an effective setting that Lynch makes use of in creating a surreal mood/environment. What it means other than that is really beyond me.

Music - I have heard that Lynch is a musician as well as a filmmaker (among other things?) and I would already have guessed that from his movies if no one had told me. If not a musician, then at least a heavy music appreciator. Mostly all of the films I've seen have great uses of music and little codas of musical performances within the films. Part of this is the choice of Angelo Badalamenti to score his film (his "Twin Peaks" soundtrack is remarkable!) but I'm more talking about his choice of pop music. He seems to have a big thing for Orbison, who he uses unforgettably in Blue Velvet, but also in Mullholland Drive. Then of course there is the song "Blue Velvet" itself, a '50s tune that I will never hear the same way again. Wild at Heart has some great Elvis song scenes. Lost Highway, on top of all the other things I don't like about it, has the least memorable soundtrack, featuring Rammstein and Marilyn Manson. Also, there always seems to be a musician cast in his movies, even for a brief cameo appearance. There's been John Lurie, Henry Rollins, Billy Ray Cyrus, Marilyn Manson, and composer Angelo Badalamenti (this must have been my favorite one). Also, though I haven't seen the film yet, David Bowie and Chris Isaak are in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

Dreams - This may seem like an obvious one, especially since I've talked about it in several of the films, but dreams play a major role in Lynch's films. They allow a surrealistic quality to exist in the films and often allows the film (or TV show) to escape the entrapments of a linear storyline or even logic. Often times we are not even sure if what Lynch is presenting is a dream or reality or a mixture of the two.

The Grotesque - Lynch likes to stretch what can happen with the human body in the way it can be destroyed or mutilated. It is not enough that Bobby Peru gets shot in the head, but his head must fly off in a gory explosion. It is not enough that someone trip and hit their head on the corner of the coffee table, but their head slice into the head between the eyes deep enough to keep the stuck onto the table like grape on a razor blade. I think Lynch is very interested in how horrifying the human body can be and our fragile mortality. He also like to cast some very strange looking human beings - midgets, giants, incredibly ugly people, etc. - or make up humans to look like some horrifying human-like thing. Examples are abundant. When it is not the human body, he likes to imagine grotesque flesh-like creations that nearly invoke gag reflexes. A couple of examples are the infected baby thing in Eraserhead or the fleshy plant that gives birth to a grandmother in his short film Grandmother.

Reflexivity - There is a great deal of reflexive elements in Lynch's films which have the film bring attention to itself or to how its made or what its referencing. He does this by playing with genres, referencing some conventions and then twisting them, or by having us pay attention to the elements of filmmaking. Sometimes it is unclear whether Lynch's intention is to do so. For example, some of the acting on "Twin Peaks" is so stinted and self-conscious, bordering on soap cliche, that it's hard to take as earnest. The main reflexive element for me is the way Lynch likes to manipulate us as his viewers and then make us realize that we have been manipulated. I noted on this with Mulholland Drive.

Sexuality - This is something that I think is present in some way, shape, or form in all of the films I listed. Sometimes the sexuality is straightforward, such as in Wild at Heart (though I would argue that in this case it is exaggerated and emphasized), and other times it is hinted such as in the freak show curator's obsession with the elephant man. In Blue Velvet the intense cruelty and strangeness of the sexuality is the center of attention. In this case it is the type of sexuality that hides behind closed doors, which also appears in "Twin Peaks" in the case of the Laura Palmer sadomasochism, her rape, and the goings-on at One-Eyed Jacks. The sexuality of Mulholland Drive between Betty and Rita is made confusing, strange, and twisted when the characters start changing names. The sexuality of Lost Highway is so overt it makes us self-conscious as viewers.

Anyway, there is a ton more to say and discover - lots of other repeated elements I haven't even touched on, lots of other themes, analyses to be made - but I think my responsibility as a blogger is satisfied with this much, ha. Books, after all, are written about Lynch and he remains a director to be studies, scrutinized, and admired. My experience in his world was both frustrating and elating and in the end I am glad I entered and took a look around.


James said...

Very good summary. I've seen all these films ... and I agree with all your good/bad views on each. BLUE VELVET has to be one I like the most and MULHOLLAND DRIVE really pulled me into its weird plot. I was so engrossed ... however, did you know this was a pilot for a proposed ABC TV drama and the network executivs saw it and passed. Lynch took the 90 minute show and added the rest ... you can almost see the shift. So, in a way, I think of it as another creation of his that he just unleashed and had no real destination to reach. But, it still works. I do think he is a bit of a fraud. I don't think most of his films know why they exist or where they are going and what they are about ... except as an odd projection of this man's weirdness. I see you did not view THE STRAIGHT STORY which garnered Richard Farnsworth (the star) an Oscar nomination. It is supposedly his most "normal" film and it was released by Disney (!!). DUNE is another film of his that is full of body mutations and skin eruptions and more. His interpretation of the novel angered a lot of the sci-fi fanboys and it was heavily cut for tv and by the studio. He took his name from the film in anger. Another bizarre one is INLAND EMPIRE which I have not seen, but my good friend, who is studying for his PHD in art theory and criticism and sees something in every "weird" piece of art, saw it and told me it almost killed his brain. Oh, and TWIN PEAKS has to be one of the greatest creations of television ... I loved it and it enraptured me, but it eventually went no where and ended with a whimper and a question mark. Typical Lynchian Method of Operation.

Good writing, Kazu. I am enjoying your posts. It's making me happier.

Yofred Moik said...

wow. these are very well thought out reviews.