Dissecting Directors: Lynch
As part of a new series called Dissecting Directors, Ernest Worthing will be take apart some of the world’s greatest and most controversial auteurs, film by film. He starts, this week, with David Lynch.
The arguments and discussions that take place over David Lynch are too numerous to count, even though anything numerous is countable.
There is so much to Lynch that it is only a testament to his depth when any comment about him raises arguments. The reason being, he leaves a lot up to the audience to decipher and form their own opinions. As individuals, we have different opinions and they clash when we try and figure out a singular meaning to anything in one of his movies. I respect that and love that about his movies. Yet there is a basic idea behind a lot of his movies which he builds upon. What he builds can and should be debated but a lot gets lost in those debates. The goal of this article is to try and not delve in the upper strata of his movies but to try and understand Lynch’s basic message in most of his movies.
Lynch is understandable and he has tried with every movie to explain himself. He has given ample information and opportunity to do so yet he remains one of the most controversial directors of our time.
The arguments and flame wars, concerning any given movie of his, inevitably burst out of control on any site, forum or comment section pertaining to his creations.
The psychosis of David Lynch can be best understood by Lynch himself but let us try and get as close to it as we can. Though he practices restraint, he divulges his message thoroughly in each movie he directs. Enigmatic he may be, but his works want to speak to us. However, he does not speak too clearly, wanting us to bridge the gap while we remain on the other side, extending a hand in offer but demanding we try equally as hard to reach it.
To understand the complexity of Lynch, we must take the simplest approach.
A few shorts and then an individual piece: Eraserhead, proving he can be a challenging force not only in the genre of surrealism but as a persevering film maker.
Next: The Elephant Man, proving he can direct a classic story.
And then: Dune, an adaptation virtually disowned by the director himself.
Then came Blue Velvet, a movie that demanded the transition between director and auteur. The first truly Lynchian of his movies, though many would argue Eraserhead deserves that title. But Blue Velvet forms the basis for many of the movies he would make later on, visually and story wise. A story he would tell again and again, issuing the same message which must be dear to him if he repeats it. Consider Blue Velvet to be the root and bark of a tree and many of his following movies to be branches with the same essence.
The secret is revealed almost immediately in the opening scene of Blue Velvet. The opening presents us with a small town called Lumberton in the United States. A small town represents the vast majority of America because the vast of majority of the States is not made up by the large and popular metropolitan cities like New York and Los Angeles but by the infinite number of small towns in the limited space of the United States. But why stop there, because by small towns, Lynch means “regular folk” which comprise 99% of the world. He speaks in terms of small town America but his comment is on “regular” humanity itself.
Bearing that in mind, Blue Velvet beginss and all is well, as we can tell through the bright colours, the seemingly happy tune, and our firefighter guardians waving in a friendly manner at us. Soon, something goes wrong and the camera slowly drops beneath the white picket fences, the colourful flowers, the flowing water… to dark brown and black insects crawling haphazardly beneath the surface.
Those insects represent the underbelly of America and any society in the world. Serene on the surface but not without the dark shapings of humanity. No matter how perfect it looks, there is always the other side of the proverbial coin. A side some of us see, some choose to ignore, some don’t know about and those some that are the other side itself. It is always there, hiding just below us, between us and behind us.
Blue Velvet reveals this in the very opening in a symbolic fashion which the rest of the movie confirms. As movie’s main character Jeffrey, played by Kyle MacLachlan, returns to his hometown called Lumberton, he starts following his inescapable curiosity concerning some of the events occurring in town. And as he does so, we are led into a world of violence, corruption, abuse and just plain insanity happening right in that peaceful little town we saw at the beginning which seemed so close to utopia.
Lumberton. Lumber. Chopped Wood. Carried by logging trucks. Chopped Wood. Lumber. Twin Peaks.
The town of Twin Peaks wasn’t so different from Lumberton. Dale Cooper, played by Kyle MacLachlan again, arrives in town and from the beginning, he is in awe and wonder of such a beautiful, simple and quaint place, so unlike the crime ridden, noisy and trashy big cities. As we all know, a simple murder, if murder can ever be simple, leads agent Cooper to the unimaginable horrors that exist in the seemingly divine and peaceful town. While he is on the path of Laura Palmer’s murder, the audience is privy to the lives of the local residents, some of whom are held in the highest regard. Many are cheating on their significant others, others dealing in drugs and violence, one owning a brothel and almost unknowingly having sex with his daughter, not to mention numerous cases of plotting and lying to one another. One more example from Lynch of another regular town.
But what about Lost Highway? It was quite different. Yes, there were characters there from the underworld, the world of crime and sadism, yet the same parallel wasn’t quite shown. Where was the nice and happy world? Recalling the idea that Lynch is not just talking about geography but using small towns to represent “regular folk” and “regular humanity,” not only does Lost Highway fit in as his comment on the dark side of human nature but Mullholland Dr. falls in beautifully right alongside it.
The two movies highlight some of the worst emotions and qualities of humans which, if succumbed to, can lead to devastating scenarios. However, due to Lynch’s unusual method of narrative which sometimes bends and twists timelines, much of the audience gets involved in trying to figure out the “real” timeline and in doing so they miss the whole point entirely, not thinking enough about the general theme and message. In getting bogged down in the details, they do not realize one of the reasons Lynch does not follow a predictable linear story line is to keep you thinking and alert instead of being in a dull popcorn eating state.
Setting aside the timeline discrepancies, Lost Highway and Mullholland Dr. take us so deep into some of the human drives that one can only think of Freud and the ID.
On one hand we have a sexually disabled Fred Madison who cannot deal with being unable to satisfy his wife and on the other a woman, Betty/Diane, who represents the effects of jealousy. In the grand scheme, it does not matter what Madison really did or dreamt, who was Betty or who was Diane, or what really happened and what did not. Those are techniques used to evoke a certain kind of feeling and alertness in the audience (more on that later). As for Lynch’s message, it is given to us without the need to try and decipher the contradictory timelines. He is showing us the worst qualities within ourselves.
Whatever Madison does or does not do, his motivation is his and his alone. In the beginning, everything seems quite alright between the couple but the scenes are long, silent and awkward. Many attribute this to shoddy directing when Lynch is actually hinting at something being wrong between them since before the movie even starts. Soon we find out Madison cannot perform sexually. And a comment, later on from his wife, starts him down a road of fear, doubt and anger due to his insecurity. Once again, it does not matter whether she was unfaithful or not or was it only his head. The actions that follow, real or imagined, show how a person who succumbs to his insecurity can end up destroying not only himself but others in the process as well.
Poor Betty/Diane. She suffers even more than Madison. The polite term to use for her motivation, in the movie, is desire. A harsher term: jealousy. I read again and again about people debating the timeline, wondering which parts were hallucinations, investigating the significance of the key and the old couple. All these debates are great and the symbolism of seemingly random characters and objects are deep and meaningful in the Lynch universe. They are there for the very reason of debate so that we may attach our own meaning to them. The thing missing in these debates is the overall meaning and message of the film. The most common and incorrect statement I hear is that the movie is about the Hollywood system and how it disillusions us. Lynch himself stated in an interview that Mulholland Dr. is only a little bit about the Hollywood system. The rest is about other things. It is about a human called Diane who has failed her dreams and cannot accept her circumstances as they are. Her desire, her inability to tolerate her environment, the jealousy and envy which overtakes her and leads her to commit the heinous act. Whether she is looked at as the sympathetic victim who was led to do these things because of the world she lives in or a psychopathic mind which wants everything to be her way and no other, the actions she takes are hers and hers alone.
And that is what Lynch is ultimately commenting on in his movies. Our humanity and how dark and twisted we can be. What lies beneath our seemingly friendly, peaceful, helpful and agreeable demeanor: hate, murder, sexual frustration, jealousy. What deep traits motivate us and cause our actions and dreams. How even the best of us, like Dale Cooper who is taken almost out of Norman Rockwell painting, the ultimate boy scout, can fail. A deal made with utmost darkest forces whether the reason is good or bad, all the while insects crawl beneath us in the form of Bob and the Mystery Man. We may know it or we may not, but there are such deep underlying reasons for our actions, hopes and dreams.
Dreams are infinitely important to Lynch. They are the things that are subconsciously our truest. You do not have to understand them fully and most of the time we don’t, but we are left with a general feeling, whatever it may be, and sometimes with its message and purpose. Just like that you don’t have to fully understand his movies but go with the feeling and message it leaves you with. And Lynch makes sure we do not fully understand his movies. Why? So there is always left to dream, which is what is most important to him. He does not want to give you an ending where you are satisfied and your mind, having the definite conclusion, stops thinking. Lynch wants to always continue thinking, imagining and dreaming for yourself, and so leaves you in that state at the end of his movies.
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