May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 29, 2005
(Ed. Note: This was originally published at The Matthew’s House Project.)
Or, David Lynch 101
Mulholland Drive is the latest addition to a bizarre canon. This canon is a body of work slowly spreading out through film history on a trail pioneered by films designed to defy conventional methods of understanding. Next to Tarkovsky’s stark clarity or Cronenberg’s intensity, David Lynch probably is one of non-linear narrative’s most sensitive prophets. He is sensitive to the visual geometry of the odd and off-center.
His directing lays bare the powers of both juxtaposition and deconstructed hierarchy. Sometimes he lays the American dream to waste (Mulholland Drive) and corrupts our memories of small town USA, the last stronghold of cultural integrity (Blue Velvet,Twin Peaks). But then other times he steps back to freeze in poetry the flipside of those terrible images, the beauty and largesse of the American Spirit. (A Straight Story, Wild at Heart).
Now, in many of his films, both of these worlds almost coexist: the idyllic giving the insane credibility, and the insane lending the idyllic purpose. This is what makes Blue Velvet such an awful process. It is not just that such good could be brought into the service of such evil, but that such evil can actually make sense.Mulholland Drive, however, seems to take a step farther than Lost Highway took us in this regard, which itself was an expressionist step beyond Blue Velvet.
Here, we become the independent viewer of a world in which these distinctions are completely broken down. We coast along de-paddled in the unpredictable current of a psycho-historical soap opera. At least in Wild at Heart and Blue Velvet there is a sense of narrative upon which we can hang moral directions. We can orient ourselves by forcing hero and anti-hero to their respective poles on the viewing compass. But what happens when villain turns into hero and heroine turns into ego-junkie? We lose our sense of direction.
Losing our sense of direction in a film truly makes us uneasy, and this is what makes Lynch such a powerful “storyteller”. Once we are off balance we begin a frantic mental search for any handhold to bring us back into the film, to bring us back into the balance we are used to. Lynch seems to know this, and only offers to us as handholds things we are afraid to touch. Things like the Red Room, Frank Booth, and ear on the ground, a bum behind Bob’s Big Boy.
Lost Highway sends the viewer on a desperate search for sense and coherence. In watching the film, we mimic the action of the central character coming to grips with his recent past, trying to tie together loose ends that are just out of reach with one another. Just like him, for the rest of the film then we are either forced to grasp at these in abandon and enter the narrative on his terms and in his vocabulary or wait it out and suffer the nagging fear of misunderstanding. But the main point is, when we lose control of the viewing process like this, startling forms of meaning are able to occur.
Now I do not pretend to speak for Lynch, though I don’t think that authorial intention plays the role in his work that our still vaguely present post-Enlightenment sentiment is sensitive to. But I do think there are several points that make his work accessible, and I would like to point them out before we talk briefly aboutMulholland Drive. Here they are:
1. There is no inside track.
Lynch does not create allegory, and neither does he enshroud things in myth. He simply writes bizarre “stories”. There usually are not “keys” to unlock a puzzle, because there isn’t any puzzle. Even Twin Peaks simply evolved as a script. The storyline narrows itself like a tetherball in flight, but only comes to rest as an afterthought, urged by the constraints of the TV schedule.
There is a bit of gnosticism present in much contemporary filmmaking and watching. The carnal becomes solely a vessel for the meaningful, the “spiritual,” and a film is only valuable if a moral or spiritual lesson lies somewhere beyond the actors and script.
Lynch mocks this sensibility, and toys with well established viewer expectation in this regard. We keep searching in every nook and cranny of these strange houses he builds for crumbs of wisdom, and we find none. Often it seems that he multiplies nooks and embellishes crannies only to make our disappointment sharper, and our hunger more tangible.
2. Stories do communicate things well, but so do their destruction.
Narrative teaches us things in ways strict dialogue cannot. Is this not what makes film such an important part of our lives, and fueled movements like the French New Wave, Chinese Fifth Generation, and the powerful American films of the ’70s? But at the same time, this has become an established convention and part of our viewing expectation. We assume the cohesion of a storyline, and are comfortable watching it unfold.
But perhaps “narrative” is post-modern man’s Tower of Babel, and Lynch lays his axe to the root?
By abandoning the traditional concept of “story”, he is able to build something much different in form and intent. Perhaps he is so inaccessible to so many because we are not able to function in a world where narrative doesn’t occur even though powerful forms of meaning are taking up residence there.
3. People are the locus of meaning, not their situations.
Part of a narrative is its Characters. So if narrative disappears, where do its Characters go? Who knows? But Lynch has a substitute for the typical character. In their place he substitutes People. I suppose a character would be defined by structuralists as “one who functions to progress the narrative either positively or negatively.” And when this sense of direction collapses, then so does the purpose of a “character”.
This is why in Lynch’s most non-linear works, such as Mulholland Drive, the actors end up turned in on themselves. They become psychological compositions, not narrative elements, for they are ultimately isolated from one another. We are forced to see who and why they are, rather than where they are in this world the narrative has created. They are pictures in the gallery of a psychological museum, and we are forced to link ourselves to these characters in a much different, much more thoughtlessly direct way.
These three things become clear as you try to keep up withMulholland Drive. You watch Betty come to Hollywood and meet “Rita”. Then you watch them run about the “city of dreams” trying to unravel Rita’s mystery, which dominates the first half of the film. Then as the film reached a central point you find yourself sliding down a mobius, meeting a new Betty and a new Rita on your way down that side. I am not afraid of giving anything away here, there is nothing to give away. There is climax, there is tension, but they are only tensions created by the experience of the rhythm of certain mysterious elements, and the emotional direction of Badalamenti’s soundtrack. And there are shifts, tectonic shifts in the “narrative” that don’t expose us to a deeper understanding of the story, but a deeper understanding of the characters.
We are thrust now not into many narratives, as many reviewers of the film have surmised, but into many characters. The first half of the film details the slow progression of Betty’s love for Rita. But the second half of the film causes us to question who Betty really is. It is possible, as most have pointed out, that the first half of the film chronicles the fantasy world of the Betty we meet in the second half of the film. Her love for Rita is something romantic, special, and spontaneous. Rita’s mystery is dramatic, but distant. Her acting career is but a step away, and given the chance to perform she is instant genius, built for stardom. These are all cornerstone daydream images.
All of these illusions crumble quite quickly when we learn that they are possibly the fantasies of a woman who has had the opposite experience. In the real world death, work, and loneliness wait for us like nightmares behind Bob’s Big Boy. But even in all of these senses of narrative, Lynch throws in enough red herrings to guarantee our inability to tie it all together. We don’t walk out of the theater with a clear picture of what happened, but we do leave with a sense of how it felt to be there. How it felt to have your dreams burst and what taste disillusionment leaves in your mouth. We also are forced, eyelids pinned back, to gape at the hollow innards of Hollywood. And as the film closes, all of these terrible thought patterns literally ring in our ears in an unforgettable din.
There is a logic to this visual madness. Lynch could have, in the style of A Straight Story (which proved his genius for narrative film), simply told us the story of Betty in Hollywood. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t show us Betty in the “City of Dreams.” He shows us the city of dreams in Betty.