David Lynch

03/02/2014

The Traumatic Residue

Characters cry a lot in David Lynch films: Naomi Watts’ Betty in Mulholland Drive, Laura Dern’s characters in Blue VelvetWild at Heart and Inland Empire, Hannah Gordon, John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man, Richard Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton in The Straight Story. This can range from the solitary tear of Hopkins in TheElephant Man when he first sees the titular character, to the sobbing of Gordon in the same film when John Merrick talks about his mother, and up to the hysterics of Dern in Wild at Heart when she hears of deaths on the radio. What is consistent whatever the lachrymose content is the sense of being overcome. Lynch’s greatness as a filmmaker surely resides in this ability to propose feelings that cannot be contained but must overflow. In a Paris Review interview, George Steiner claimed that when he wrote poetry at school he wasn’t expected to allow for a spontaneous overflow of feeling: “if you flowed over you wiped it up.” Few filmmakers more than Lynch refuse to wipe up the emotional excess, and yet at the same time we would hardly call Lynch a director of weepies or melodramas. Perhaps because such films, for all their outpouring of emotion, often also seem next to Lynch’s work surprisingly contained. The bodies may have strong reactions, but they don’t pour out of the body indiscriminately.

In Lynch’s work, tears are just one of many bodily fluids, one of the things the body releases. As he says when discussing The Elephant Man, and the link he saw between Merrick’s body and the industrial revolution: “Human beings are like little factories. They turn out so many little products. The idea of something growing inside, and all these fluids, and timings and changes, and all these chemicals somehow capturing life, and coming out and splitting off and turning into another thing…it’s unbelievable.” (Lynch onLynch) Human beings are part of their own ongoing industrial revolution, and whether it happens to be Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet screaming for mummy, or John Merrick feeling such a disappointment to his late and beautiful mother who has produced a ‘monster’, Lynch can see the monstrousness in many of its manifestations without feeling obliged to judge that monstrosity as a moral issue (in Blue Velvet), or as simple physical revulsion, in The Elephant Man. The human factory makes many different things, and Lynch’s purpose as a filmmaker is to be attuned to these possibilities.

Of course this is evident in his very first feature film, Eraserhead, where the newborn creature is like a faulty product coming off the production line. The ‘baby’ is a Merrick in the making, a freak of nature that nevertheless needs love, affection and attention. In one scene the little creature is covered in spots and gurgling in pain, with dad Jack Nance vigilant in a chair nearby trying to nurse his offspring back to health. There is a superficial mismatch here between the loving gesture and the odd shape and texture of this tiny being. It seems more like a baby dinosaur, and its torso, not much bigger than the head, is swathed in bandages. It looks like it belongs to several different animal worlds but not at all to the human one, and Lynch plays off the sympathy required with the repulsion invoked. This is a beast that demands our love but cannot easily gain our affection. It is a failed product, the ultimate abnormal child of the human factory that is expected to produce the goods, and on this occasion produces a child that seems as much excretion as birth. When Henry (Nance) opens the bandage with a pair of scissors, the body is a little like a chicken cut open, and when he stabs the creature with them, various fluids and semi-solids pour out. It is a product of malfunction and the antithesis of Fordist output: it is the ultimate nightmare for production line perfection.

But the creature is only one of several deformed beings available in Eraserhead. There is also the Lady in the Radiator and the Man in the Planet. Lady in the Radiator has growths coming out of her face that makes her look like a distant cousin of Merrick, and Man in the Planet a relative to the pair of them, his face and torso looking as if severely burnt. It is as though Lynch’s interest in his early features (EraserheadElephant Man and Dune) showed a fascination with what could go wrong with a body, how its manifestations as physical form couldn’t easily be controlled. In Dune, Kenneth McMillan’s Baron Harkonnen is a pustular mess, a body no longer in control of itself, and the caustic personality matched by the toxic waste that oozes out of him. In this early period Lynch was in a hard industrial phase, saying of the Baron: “To me, he’s like a steel mill. He’s got power, great and simple power…Not like a modern factory, but like big steel rivets in a steel tower.” (Tip Filmjarbuch) When asked what so fascinated him about factories and industry, Lynch replied: “It makes me feel good to see giant machinery, you know, working, dealing with molten metal. And I like fire and smoke. And the sounds are so powerful.” (Lynch on Lynch) Comparing the industrial to the technological, he says “Now its computers and robots building everything. It’s cleaner, smaller, more efficient.”  (Lynchon Lynch)

By this reckoning can we see Lynch’s films themselves as divided between the industrial and the technological, with the early works more interested in waste, smoke, machinery; where in the later films (like Blue VelvetLost Highway and Mulholland Dr.) perversion, psychosis, jealousy and identity are more important? Is it this shift that kept his work fresh and made him an important filmmaker at the turn of the millennium? Even TheStraight Story is perverse in central character Alvin’s fundamental choice: to visit his brother over 300 miles away by lawnmower. Slavoj Zizek may see its perversity as antithetical to that in other Lynch films, but can it not be consistent with other works? “Does this slow-paced story of persistence imply the renunciation of transgression”, Zizek says, “a turn towards the naïve immediacy of a direct ethical stance of fidelity?”  (TheFright of Real Tears) Straight’s action may be ethically old-fashioned but it is no less singular and perverse for all that. His determination to travel by lawnmower almost kills him when he hurtles downhill as the weight of his trailer makes it difficult for him to break. On other occasions it looks as if a lorry could blow him off the road. Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is perverse rather than perverted, but the singularity is still there, and if he shares very few character traits with Frank (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) in Lost Highway or Bobby Du Prez (Willem Dafoe) in Wild atHeart, he is another Lynchian figure who eschews the norm, and perhaps wouldn’t have been such a wonderful guy to be around when he was younger. As Lynch says, “Alvin had been lost in darkness and confusion. He has a past – parts of which he could feel happy about and parts that he feels bad about”. (Lynch on Lynch) This is evident in the scene where he talks about the war and its aftermath to someone in a bar, explaining why he doesn’t drink. “I picked up a mournful taste for liquor in France. When I came back I couldn’t drink enough of it. I wasn’t worth a stick of stove wood…I was mean.” Here in TheStraight Story he is merely stubborn, and maybe the main difference between the perverse and the perverted is the administration of one’s will as opposed to its absence.

With characters like Frank Booth, Bobby Du Prez, as well as Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia) in Lost Highway, there is an aspect of their personality that is both in and of their control, so that even a wilful action contains within it a still higher degree of perversion. When Du Prez chooses to let Dern’s character Lula go in Wild at Heart there is no moral higher purpose at work, just a giggly will to power. By letting her go he chooses to reject her rather than succumbing to his desires. While he insistently asks her to say “Fuck me!”, as she is trapped in a motel room with him, so she eventually offers the phrase and Bobby turns away saying “No thanks”; maybe another time. Zizek (in ‘Fantasy as a Political Category’) reads in this scene Lula’s acquiescence at the moment she says “fuck me!” and it is there that Du Prez’s victory is complete. He has reduced her to the point of utter weakness not only in terms of humiliation but also in terms of desire: Zizek reckons Bobby has stirred up her fantasy. He has removed her moral will power from the event, and she is is now inferior to Bobby who can walk away and claim the high moral ground as perversity of motive. He can have her any time now, he thinks; just not today. He isn’t wilful in the controlled manner of Straight but wilfully perverted. He seems half in control and half out of control, as if the greatest kick at that given moment with Lula is when he gets to exit, perversely chaste.

This strange moral high ground is also evident in Mr Eddy, the gangster who on a drive round the Hollywood hills gets tailgated. After the car overtakes and the man gives Mr Eddy and co the finger, he catches up, careers into the cocky car driver, and dragging him out of his car, Mr Eddy pistol whips him half to death. During the flurry of violence he tells the victim that he hates tailgetting and insists the man reads his Highway Code. It is a ticking off as a kicking in, an act of mindless violence contained by the morally mindful insistence that the driver follows road rules, no matter Mr Eddy’s road rage. In both cases, in Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, Lynch is interested in singular behaviour, and though there might be few superficial similarities between Alvin Straight, Du Prez and Mr Eddy, what links them is a certain perversity, however manifest towards the ‘good’ will power practised by Straight, or its negative and only semi-contained manifestation in Mr Eddy and Du Prez. If Alvin seems such an oddball in the Lynch canon, it partly resides in the fact he isn’t a loose one. He is one of the few Lynchian characters who seems properly self-contained, someone who doesn’t appear to require any mopping up.

Most of Lynch’s figures are much more porous, and of course Lynch extends this inability to remain in one piece to the outer reaches of personality and subsequently narrative. LostHighwayMulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, especially, wonder what it means to lose one’s bearings, to come apart. If Jeffrey and Frank in Blue Velvet represent two sides of the Manichean coin, they remain heads or tails, but in Lynch’s ‘psychogenic fugue’ trilogy (of which more, later), the self is hydra-headed. The self is no longer a self at all, but a flow of being, capable of morphing into other personae. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison is on death row for killing his wife, and whilst there turns into Pete Dayton, another person altogether who is then released. But is Pete so different? Something strange happened in the recent past, but it remains a mystery though it hardly seems insignificant. When mechanic Pete hears frenetic jazz playing on the radio he changes the channel, as we might recall this is the music Fred played in a club whilst suspecting his wife was having an affair. How come it troubles Pete, unless he is at the same time Fred? Another character, The Mystery Man manages to be in two places at once: at a party he asks Fred to phone him on his mobile, and he answers, though not by picking up the phone at the party, but over at Fred’s house. Chris Rodley in Lynch on Lynch notes that Patricia Arquette, playing Fred’s wife and Pete’s love interest, was confused, unsure whether she was playing one role or two. Lynch announced that Renee/Alice were the same woman.

The notion of a psychogenic fugue wasn’t an idea Lynch possessed before Lost Highway, but, when someone in publicity came to him with this theory that she had come across in a medical journal, he saw the similarities, saw that the notion of someone in amnesiac flight resembled his own approach to narrative form. Yet we can see how Lynch takes it further. Where a psychogenic fugue shows someone unable to deal with an incident and taking flight in denial, Lynch’s approach is to take that flight both literally and figuratively: it is both a journey of psychic retreat, but allied to the properties of a lam film. Opening and closing on images of the road, Lynch’s character is on the run, but the film’s play with identity leaves us unsure who exactly is leaving. Where the lam film predicates itself on the security of an identity that needs to escape a given situation, Lynch’s approach creates the physically impossible through a play on cause and consequence. Fred and Pete are not the same person, and yet there are moments where we must assume they are as the cause of one has an impact on the other, and yet as the film loops back on itself with Fred delivering the message that his very self receives at the beginning of the story, wearing the leather jacket we saw Pete wearing earlier before morphing back into Fred, it indicates that there they may be more than one Fred as well. We can fret over the meaning of Lynch’s film, but if we see it as part of a psychogenic fugue trilogy (that includes Mullholland Dr. and Inland Empire), we can put aside the intricacies of decoding the work. We can concentrate instead on what Lynch brings to questions of narrative and identity in film, and their consistency with Lynch’s interest in the self as factory production and monstrous overflow.

If the normative self possesses certain normative characteristics physically and psychologically, what might these be; or more to the point what represents their deviation? When Mr Eddy acts as he does when giving the cocky driver a pistol whipping, he is the gangster in deed but the Highway Code user in principle. It is the mismatch between the everyday citizen who might offer a curt remark when someone deviates from the letter of the law, and the gangster who isn’t inclined to work within it at all. When Frank abuses Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) in Blue Velvet, she is the subjugated woman at the same time she represents the parental figure of authority as Frank shouts “mummy”. In Wild at Heart a beating Sailor (Nicolas Cage) administers on a dance floor to a young punk is contained by a strange moment where Sailor looks like he would prefer to psych him out with offbeat behaviour than beat him up. These are all hard men, but they don’t conform to the behavioural norm within their image.

This is also true of certain characters physically. Whether it is the central character in Eraserhead’s hairdo, The Elephant Man’s cotton hood (let alone his deformities), or Harkonnen’s boils, Lynch gives us character who are not so much a sight for sore eyes but for fresh ones. He gives us images of people that seem to demand a second take, amusingly noted when Lynch comments on Nance’s haircut in Eraserhead. “Whenever we went out, we’d put Jack in the back seat of the car. He’d sit there, made up in the suit, and we’d take him out to locations, but we’d always have to keep him in the middle of the back seat, out of sight!” (Lynch on Lynch) People would obviously have stopped and stared, and this is something Lynch wants to make us do in the context of the cinematic experience, even if it may reflect an actual one. The difference is that cinema legitimizes the gaze as durational possibility: it is one thing to glance at someone in the street; quite another to stare for more than a few seconds. In cinema we can stare for as long as the filmmaker holds the shot. It is usually the filmmaker who eventually looks away; not us.

Lynch, though, has often been interested in a transfixed quality, yet this is a trait belonging more to the characters within the films than a dimension of the film itself. Lynch isn’t a long-take filmmaker, but one who gives to his characters and not his camera the fixity of the gaze. It is there in Hopkins’ initial sight of Merrick in The Elephant Man, in Sandy’s at Rossellini’s Dorothy as the latter comes naked from behind the house in BlueVelvet, in the fascinated look on Betty and Rita’s faces as they listen to Silencio in the club in Mullholland Dr, and on the woman’s face as she watches television in Inland Empire. Though there are obviously characters within Lynch’s work who judge harshly, the tonal emphasis doesn’t lie there. The jocks in Blue Velvet may laugh as Dorothy wanders through the garden naked, and there is the scene in The Elephant Man where Londoners mock Merrick for his deformities after the night porter charges entry at the hospital, but while Lynch always gives space to the judgemental, his fascination doesn’t lie in temporarily focalising our interest there, all the better to show it bested later on. Lynch doesn’t have scenes of character humiliation initially so that we can watch the worm turn later, as we often find in films where characters get revenge after earlier humiliations. In Lynch’s work it is a dimension of the mise-en-scene more than vital to the mechanics of narrative. We don’t expect the night porter to get a comeuppance for his actions, nor the laughing jocks; they’re relevant to a world possessed of great insensitivity, but not for the purpose of mechanical plot revenge. The visually odd and inexplicable are sensitized, not mechanized. Lynch may talk about the body as a factory, but that doesn’t mean he has to turn his narratives into production line goods with obvious plot through lines.

Isn’t it the combination of conventional plot eschewal and an aesthetics of fascination that partly leads to a world we can call Lynchian? Where Blue Velvet resolves the crux of the plot in a conversation between Jeffrey (Kyle Maclachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern) in the car after Jeffrey’s been amateurishly investigating a case on finding an ear, Lost Highwaymoves in the other direction and becomes so narratively convoluted that critics have invoked the mathematical to try and explain it, using the image of a Moebius strip. If BlueVelvet rejects the importance of the story by summing it up all too easily halfway through the film, Lost Highway, as well as Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, offer it so inexplicably that models beyond ready plot logic are required to try and make sense of the tale. The Straight Story doesn’t really have a plot at all. The central character travels three hundred miles to meet his brother.The simplicity lies in the very title. Lynch is not a director in thrall of the story but, to be tautological about it, seems to be in thrall of the thrall. Talking about the importance of sound in his films he says, “through experimentation you can very rapidly find a lot of things that don’t work. So that points you in this direction, and you go there for a while, and find that’s not working. So you go in another direction and see if that works. And by this experimentation you suddenly zero in on something that’s now really talking to you.” (Soundscape) More broadly he says, “once you start down a road to make a film you enter a certain world. And certain things can happen in that world, and certain things can’t. Depending on the world, many, many things can happen, but still certain things can’t.” (Soundscape) It is as if he is trying to find a place always beyond the story, with the story no more than a surface texture that has to be called into question through over-simplicity (Blue VelvetStraight Story) or convolution (Lost HighwayMulholland DrInland Empire), or for that matter half-ignored. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the investigative characters from the first section of the film – Chris Isaac and Kiefer Sutherland – disappear in the second part. When Lynch says “the surface is misleading”, in Filmjahrbuch, is this the problem with most stories: that they mislead? That they demand we follow the singularity of the story and this makes other elements secondary to them, where Lynch wants these elements to be primary, so that the film isn’t constructed around the principles of firm narrative, but instead vaguer ones.

When Lynch talks of certain things being possible and others not, it is a comprehension of all the different elements that go into the film, not the elements that can be added for the purposes of telling a story. In a scene from Inland Empire, Dern’s character receives a phone call from her agent and Lynch films what should be an innocuous moment, where she is told she has got a role, with an unnameable dread. As we see her sitting in long shot with a couple of friends, the film reverses the angle and shows the butler coming towards her with the phone, as it cuts back and forth between him coming in her direction and the girls on the couch. As she takes the phone the music indicates terrible news, while the wide-angle lens exacerbates this feeling, but her agent tells her she’s got the part. Of course there are a couple of things that justify this feeling, both before the event and after it. Moments before a neighbour has come round and told her of events concerning the next day. The neighbour tells her that she will get the job; and sure enough she has.The scene also hints at future trouble, the realization that this is a remake of a film that was finished due to a personal tragedy.

Yet it would be unfair to Lynch’s aesthetic to say that he wishes merely to offer the scene as an exemplification of the neighbour’s premonition on the one hand, and a foreshadowing of events to come on the other. It seems more that Lynch wants to generate certain states that he will place narrative loosely upon. If Robert Altman once proposed that for him the story was like a clothes line in which one could hang various observations, for Lynch it is a factory line that generates states. A good example of this comes from Twin Peaks Fire: Walk with Me, where, in Lynch’s words, “David Bowie comes in a room and he starts talking about Judy and, things get a little bit crazy and it gets a bunch of static and jumps into a place where this character played by Mike Anderson, ‘Little Mike’ starts talking about the Formica table. And right about in that Formica table area I – I always get euphoric.” (Soundscapes) Other examples we could give is the ending of Inland Empirewith numerous dancers in Dern’s home moving to Nina Simone, the scene where Fred is preparing to go and perform a gig and his wife says she is going to stay in, the moment where Dean Stockwell sings a Roy Orbison song in Blue Velvet, and the sequence in the cafe in Mulholland Dr. before one of the characters checks out what is round the corner.

Of course all of these scenes are linked to the story, but their power comes from a foreboding, a frisson or a feeling that overflows any narrative dimension, and maybe we can comprehend this aspect by invoking comments by the poet Paul Valery. Valery once differentiated prose from poetry, by drawing the analogy between walking and dancing. “Walking, like prose, aims at a precise object. It is an act directed toward something which we want to reach…and give it an end.” “Dance is something else altogether. It is doubtless a system of acts, but they have their end in themselves. It goes nowhere…” In this sense most films walk rather than dance, they have a precise end in sight and each scene is a means towards this denouement. Lynch however seems less interested in telling a story than finding the means by which to produce (hence the factory metaphor) states. He doesn’t ignore story but he subverts it for the opportunity it can give him to create modes of feeling. If he is correct that humans are little factories, then what he wants to do is find a new factory model based not on Fordist production linking narratives events to emotional reactions, but feeling events that come through more than narrative necessity. It is more dancing than walking.

In this sense Lynch is clearly a filmmaker interested in dream states, where it isn’t the event that generates feeling, but the feeling that generates the event. When we dream there is no event that creates the feeling except on the flimsiest of premises: the tap is running and we dream of a waterfall; we hear footsteps outside and dream of a march. It is much more that the dream state generates narrative event, rather than narrative event which produces feelings. If in this context life is like narration, not in the way it makes sense especially, but at least in the way that it usually generates a situation that we then react to, dream reverses this hierarchy. What we feel creates a situation, and this is no doubt partly why we accept all sorts of leaps in logic when we dream: the feeling may demand situations but it doesn’t need to be true to the logic of them. Now we don’t want to underestimate Lynch’s fascinating play with narrative structure in films like Lost Highwayand Mulholland Dr. That critics have invoked anything from mathematical theory (the aforementioned Mobius strip proposed for example by Eric Bryant Rhodes in FilmQuarterly, and invoked by Lynch himself) to voodoo reasoning (Marina Warner in Sightand Sound), to modes of subjectivity (Max Le Cain in Senses of Cinema) indicate a filmmaker creating new approaches to fiction form. Yet this interest in narrative play seems to contain within it a pressing question that narratological analysis wouldn’t quite capture. Where in films like Pulp FictionThe Usual Suspects and Shutter Island the complexities in narration seem ends in themselves, the convolutions in Lost HighwayMulholland Dr. and Inland Empire appear less puzzles to be worked out than a collection of states to be puzzled over, even traumatized by. The scenes aren’t bits to be put together into a logical whole, but images generated to suggest a psychic hole: the psychogenic fugue Lynch talks about. To work out the story to a degree of narrative satisfaction is one thing, but rather like dreams that possess the potential to be deciphered, we are still left with traumatised states that need to be understood.

To comprehend something of this traumatic residue, let us think of scenes from EraserheadBlue Velvet and Lost Highway  that exceed narrative demand and result in generating what we’ll call an extra-diegetic trauma, using diegetic in its narrow, narrational sense. Eraserhead offers a classic meet the parents scenario when Henry goes round to his partner’s parents’ place, and Lynch creates manifold unease that goes far beyond generating the discomfort required to indicate this is an awkward moment. The soundtrack plays up the noise of the puppies feeding off their mother, Henry and his partner sit at opposite ends of a small couch as the mother interrogates Henry about his job, and then the partner starts having spasms to which her mother brusquely attends. After this the father enters the conversation but from the other side of the room, with Lynch emphasizing the gap between where Henry sits and where the father stands. As Lynch offers shot/counter shots as the exchange goes back and forth, it is a bit like the scene in Inland Empire when the butler comes in. Though in the later film the space is huge, so that the strangeness is slightly contained by the immensity of the space, here the gap between the characters in the shot/counter shot seems vast despite the room being quite small. Where many a filmmaker might want to generate a slightly off-centre mise-en-scene to register an awkward meeting between a character and his potential in-laws, Lynch pushes it far beyond a mise-en-scene serving narrative point, and into nightmare. The sequence loses its ready narrative coordinates; becoming one that seems to have been dreamt more than dramatized.

In Blue Velvet a shoot-out leaves Frank Booth and his cohorts dead, but Lynch offers the sequence not as a victory of the cops over the villains, but as a trauma created rather than resolved. Usually when the bad have been removed it is a return to normality, but Lynch lingers over the deaths in unreal compositions. In one extended shot, Booth’s henchman is killed with a bullet in the head, but he is still standing, and the walkie talkie in his pocket is still receiving instructions. Any assurance one might feel that the baddie has been banished is weak next to the disconcerting visual arrangement of the scene. Even when Booth is shot dead Lynch is more interested in the visual image of his death, than the outcome.

Now of course numerous filmmakers have given to their work a sensational dimension greater than its immediate narrative function, but it still remains within a narrative parameter. In other words, the sensational dimension augments the story, but it doesn’t disintegrate it. The difference between a very fine filmmaker like Roman Polanski, and David Lynch is that for all the nightmarish dimensions to Polanski’s images, they are still reined in by the containment of point of view. When Carol cracks up in Repulsion, when JJ Gittes tries to crack the case in Chinatown, whether the point of view reflects a mind crumbling, as in the former instance, or a mind limited in their knowledge in the latter, Polanski doesn’t exceed these parameters. Lynch frequently does, so that we cannot credit the images we are seeing to a point of view, as we can in Polanski, however sensationally offered. As Eric Bryant Rhodes says, in Lost Highway “Lynch provides few signals that equal degrees of reality should not be attributed to all actions of the film.” (Film Quarterly) Polanski would offer those signals.

In Lost Highway, Lynch will give a menacing moment a sense of terror far beyond its apparent purpose, and we can think of the phone in Fred and Renee’s house. Fred phones her one night in between playing a gig, and the phone rings off, with Renee clearly not home, or at least not answering. As the camera moves in on the phone as it rings, this functions differently from an ostensibly similar camera movement in Alan J. Pakula’s superb early seventies thriller Klute. For all the distinctiveness of Gordon Willis’s camerawork in Pakula’s film, it still remains, next to Lynch’s cinema, a movie that can be contained by the genre that it adopts. The scene with the phone functions well as several things but chiefly as a terror device, with Jane Fonda the lonely woman hearing the phone in the night and fretting over who it might be, as the camera zooms back. But Lynch’s zig-zaggy forward zooms into the phones in Lost Highway don’t just give a chilling existential edge to a moment of loneliness, it is as though the shots are acts of insanity, the feverish workings of a mind, much more than simply a subjective shot of one man’s jealousy. Scenes in Lynch constantly overflow any ready content, and so cannot easily be contained by any given genre, nor offer any clear meaning.

Yet we opened with the observations that people cry a lot in Lynch films, and Lynch has said that “sometimes I just sit in the editing room and weep.” (Lynch on Lynch) Now there are numerous filmmakers who create not so much the excessive but the tangential. Antonioni, Godard, Bunuel, Jancso, Kiarostami, Bela Tarr and Bruno Dumont, for example, are all fine directors of the expanded image, of the image that goes beyond the confines of telling a story to showing us the nature of the image itself. When Godard leaves his characters for a moment as the camera retreats behind a bush in Le Mepris, or Kiarostami holds to a long shot on a Range Rover going round a mountain despite the close up conversation in the vehicle in A Taste of Cherry, the image takes on a dimension stronger than the story being told within it. In most instances the filmmakers are resisting emotion rather than generating it. Not because they want the arid; more because they are suspicious of the ready sentiment. Lynch might say in Lynch on Lynch that “emotion is a thing that cinema can really communicate, but it’s tricky. The balancing of elements is critical. A little too much of something and you kill the emotion; too little of something else and it just doesn’t happen”. Yet in Lynch’s films the emotion is rarely balanced, with Lynch’s use of close-ups, music, garish colours and the tears of his characters all creating a potentially overbearing emotional experience. Lynch does not like Godard, Antonioni etc. retreat from expression, he moves towards it, a moth to the flame. The use of Samuel Barber in The Elephant Man, and Angelo Badalementi’s score for The Straight Story give to the films an emotional underpinning, while the shots of Laura Palmer crying in Twin Peak: Fire Walk Me when she turns up at her friend’s door, or the young woman crying as she looks at the images on the television in Inland Empire, unequivocally embrace feeling. They aren’t suspicious of its strength and power. Partly what makes Lynch so fascinating a filmmaker is that he doesn’t retreat from emotion, he simply finds unusual ways of embracing it. He allows the feeling to spill over, into the music, into the mise-en-scene, into his characters’ strong reactions to situations.

Many great directors have understandably often retained a sceptical relationship with emotion rather as Franz Kafka and numerous writers since have become suspicious of language, where, in Kafka’s words, in a letter to Max Brod, “my whole body puts me on guard against each word; each word, before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands, I see what they are like inside and then I have to stop quickly.” However Lynch seems almost naïve in his relationship with images, in his capacity to draw upon them what he needs for his own immediate and emotional ends. It is partly what makes him such an important filmmaker of the millennium.  Unlike many of his no less important contemporaries, who makes film rather as Steiner suggests he was expected to write poetry (to wipe up any overflowing of feeling), Lynch’s work is a wonderful example of the opposite, a filmmaker whose “cup”, in the words of Psalm 23:5  “runneth over”.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

David Lynch

The Traumatic Residue

Characters cry a lot in David Lynch films: Naomi Watts' Betty in Mulholland Drive, Laura Dern's characters in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and Inland Empire, Hannah Gordon, John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man, Richard Farnsworth and Harry Dean Stanton in The Straight Story. This can range from the solitary tear of Hopkins in TheElephant Man when he first sees the titular character, to the sobbing of Gordon in the same film when John Merrick talks about his mother, and up to the hysterics of Dern in Wild at Heart when she hears of deaths on the radio. What is consistent whatever the lachrymose content is the sense of being overcome. Lynch's greatness as a filmmaker surely resides in this ability to propose feelings that cannot be contained but must overflow. In a Paris Review interview, George Steiner claimed that when he wrote poetry at school he wasn't expected to allow for a spontaneous overflow of feeling: "if you flowed over you wiped it up." Few filmmakers more than Lynch refuse to wipe up the emotional excess, and yet at the same time we would hardly call Lynch a director of weepies or melodramas. Perhaps because such films, for all their outpouring of emotion, often also seem next to Lynch's work surprisingly contained. The bodies may have strong reactions, but they don't pour out of the body indiscriminately.

In Lynch's work, tears are just one of many bodily fluids, one of the things the body releases. As he says when discussing The Elephant Man, and the link he saw between Merrick's body and the industrial revolution: "Human beings are like little factories. They turn out so many little products. The idea of something growing inside, and all these fluids, and timings and changes, and all these chemicals somehow capturing life, and coming out and splitting off and turning into another thing...it's unbelievable." (Lynch onLynch) Human beings are part of their own ongoing industrial revolution, and whether it happens to be Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet screaming for mummy, or John Merrick feeling such a disappointment to his late and beautiful mother who has produced a 'monster', Lynch can see the monstrousness in many of its manifestations without feeling obliged to judge that monstrosity as a moral issue (in Blue Velvet), or as simple physical revulsion, in The Elephant Man. The human factory makes many different things, and Lynch's purpose as a filmmaker is to be attuned to these possibilities.

Of course this is evident in his very first feature film, Eraserhead, where the newborn creature is like a faulty product coming off the production line. The 'baby' is a Merrick in the making, a freak of nature that nevertheless needs love, affection and attention. In one scene the little creature is covered in spots and gurgling in pain, with dad Jack Nance vigilant in a chair nearby trying to nurse his offspring back to health. There is a superficial mismatch here between the loving gesture and the odd shape and texture of this tiny being. It seems more like a baby dinosaur, and its torso, not much bigger than the head, is swathed in bandages. It looks like it belongs to several different animal worlds but not at all to the human one, and Lynch plays off the sympathy required with the repulsion invoked. This is a beast that demands our love but cannot easily gain our affection. It is a failed product, the ultimate abnormal child of the human factory that is expected to produce the goods, and on this occasion produces a child that seems as much excretion as birth. When Henry (Nance) opens the bandage with a pair of scissors, the body is a little like a chicken cut open, and when he stabs the creature with them, various fluids and semi-solids pour out. It is a product of malfunction and the antithesis of Fordist output: it is the ultimate nightmare for production line perfection.

But the creature is only one of several deformed beings available in Eraserhead. There is also the Lady in the Radiator and the Man in the Planet. Lady in the Radiator has growths coming out of her face that makes her look like a distant cousin of Merrick, and Man in the Planet a relative to the pair of them, his face and torso looking as if severely burnt. It is as though Lynch's interest in his early features (Eraserhead, Elephant Man and Dune) showed a fascination with what could go wrong with a body, how its manifestations as physical form couldn't easily be controlled. In Dune, Kenneth McMillan's Baron Harkonnen is a pustular mess, a body no longer in control of itself, and the caustic personality matched by the toxic waste that oozes out of him. In this early period Lynch was in a hard industrial phase, saying of the Baron: "To me, he's like a steel mill. He's got power, great and simple power...Not like a modern factory, but like big steel rivets in a steel tower." (Tip Filmjarbuch) When asked what so fascinated him about factories and industry, Lynch replied: "It makes me feel good to see giant machinery, you know, working, dealing with molten metal. And I like fire and smoke. And the sounds are so powerful." (Lynch on Lynch) Comparing the industrial to the technological, he says "Now its computers and robots building everything. It's cleaner, smaller, more efficient." (Lynchon Lynch)

By this reckoning can we see Lynch's films themselves as divided between the industrial and the technological, with the early works more interested in waste, smoke, machinery; where in the later films (like Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.) perversion, psychosis, jealousy and identity are more important? Is it this shift that kept his work fresh and made him an important filmmaker at the turn of the millennium? Even TheStraight Story is perverse in central character Alvin's fundamental choice: to visit his brother over 300 miles away by lawnmower. Slavoj Zizek may see its perversity as antithetical to that in other Lynch films, but can it not be consistent with other works? "Does this slow-paced story of persistence imply the renunciation of transgression", Zizek says, "a turn towards the nave immediacy of a direct ethical stance of fidelity?" (TheFright of Real Tears) Straight's action may be ethically old-fashioned but it is no less singular and perverse for all that. His determination to travel by lawnmower almost kills him when he hurtles downhill as the weight of his trailer makes it difficult for him to break. On other occasions it looks as if a lorry could blow him off the road. Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) is perverse rather than perverted, but the singularity is still there, and if he shares very few character traits with Frank (Dennis Hopper) in Blue Velvet, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) in Lost Highway or Bobby Du Prez (Willem Dafoe) in Wild atHeart, he is another Lynchian figure who eschews the norm, and perhaps wouldn't have been such a wonderful guy to be around when he was younger. As Lynch says, "Alvin had been lost in darkness and confusion. He has a past - parts of which he could feel happy about and parts that he feels bad about". (Lynch on Lynch) This is evident in the scene where he talks about the war and its aftermath to someone in a bar, explaining why he doesn't drink. "I picked up a mournful taste for liquor in France. When I came back I couldn't drink enough of it. I wasn't worth a stick of stove wood...I was mean." Here in TheStraight Story he is merely stubborn, and maybe the main difference between the perverse and the perverted is the administration of one's will as opposed to its absence.

With characters like Frank Booth, Bobby Du Prez, as well as Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia) in Lost Highway, there is an aspect of their personality that is both in and of their control, so that even a wilful action contains within it a still higher degree of perversion. When Du Prez chooses to let Dern's character Lula go in Wild at Heart there is no moral higher purpose at work, just a giggly will to power. By letting her go he chooses to reject her rather than succumbing to his desires. While he insistently asks her to say "Fuck me!", as she is trapped in a motel room with him, so she eventually offers the phrase and Bobby turns away saying "No thanks"; maybe another time. Zizek (in 'Fantasy as a Political Category') reads in this scene Lula's acquiescence at the moment she says "fuck me!" and it is there that Du Prez's victory is complete. He has reduced her to the point of utter weakness not only in terms of humiliation but also in terms of desire: Zizek reckons Bobby has stirred up her fantasy. He has removed her moral will power from the event, and she is is now inferior to Bobby who can walk away and claim the high moral ground as perversity of motive. He can have her any time now, he thinks; just not today. He isn't wilful in the controlled manner of Straight but wilfully perverted. He seems half in control and half out of control, as if the greatest kick at that given moment with Lula is when he gets to exit, perversely chaste.

This strange moral high ground is also evident in Mr Eddy, the gangster who on a drive round the Hollywood hills gets tailgated. After the car overtakes and the man gives Mr Eddy and co the finger, he catches up, careers into the cocky car driver, and dragging him out of his car, Mr Eddy pistol whips him half to death. During the flurry of violence he tells the victim that he hates tailgetting and insists the man reads his Highway Code. It is a ticking off as a kicking in, an act of mindless violence contained by the morally mindful insistence that the driver follows road rules, no matter Mr Eddy's road rage. In both cases, in Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, Lynch is interested in singular behaviour, and though there might be few superficial similarities between Alvin Straight, Du Prez and Mr Eddy, what links them is a certain perversity, however manifest towards the 'good' will power practised by Straight, or its negative and only semi-contained manifestation in Mr Eddy and Du Prez. If Alvin seems such an oddball in the Lynch canon, it partly resides in the fact he isn't a loose one. He is one of the few Lynchian characters who seems properly self-contained, someone who doesn't appear to require any mopping up.

Most of Lynch's figures are much more porous, and of course Lynch extends this inability to remain in one piece to the outer reaches of personality and subsequently narrative. LostHighway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, especially, wonder what it means to lose one's bearings, to come apart. If Jeffrey and Frank in Blue Velvet represent two sides of the Manichean coin, they remain heads or tails, but in Lynch's 'psychogenic fugue' trilogy (of which more, later), the self is hydra-headed. The self is no longer a self at all, but a flow of being, capable of morphing into other personae. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison is on death row for killing his wife, and whilst there turns into Pete Dayton, another person altogether who is then released. But is Pete so different? Something strange happened in the recent past, but it remains a mystery though it hardly seems insignificant. When mechanic Pete hears frenetic jazz playing on the radio he changes the channel, as we might recall this is the music Fred played in a club whilst suspecting his wife was having an affair. How come it troubles Pete, unless he is at the same time Fred? Another character, The Mystery Man manages to be in two places at once: at a party he asks Fred to phone him on his mobile, and he answers, though not by picking up the phone at the party, but over at Fred's house. Chris Rodley in Lynch on Lynch notes that Patricia Arquette, playing Fred's wife and Pete's love interest, was confused, unsure whether she was playing one role or two. Lynch announced that Renee/Alice were the same woman.

The notion of a psychogenic fugue wasn't an idea Lynch possessed before Lost Highway, but, when someone in publicity came to him with this theory that she had come across in a medical journal, he saw the similarities, saw that the notion of someone in amnesiac flight resembled his own approach to narrative form. Yet we can see how Lynch takes it further. Where a psychogenic fugue shows someone unable to deal with an incident and taking flight in denial, Lynch's approach is to take that flight both literally and figuratively: it is both a journey of psychic retreat, but allied to the properties of a lam film. Opening and closing on images of the road, Lynch's character is on the run, but the film's play with identity leaves us unsure who exactly is leaving. Where the lam film predicates itself on the security of an identity that needs to escape a given situation, Lynch's approach creates the physically impossible through a play on cause and consequence. Fred and Pete are not the same person, and yet there are moments where we must assume they are as the cause of one has an impact on the other, and yet as the film loops back on itself with Fred delivering the message that his very self receives at the beginning of the story, wearing the leather jacket we saw Pete wearing earlier before morphing back into Fred, it indicates that there they may be more than one Fred as well. We can fret over the meaning of Lynch's film, but if we see it as part of a psychogenic fugue trilogy (that includes Mullholland Dr. and Inland Empire), we can put aside the intricacies of decoding the work. We can concentrate instead on what Lynch brings to questions of narrative and identity in film, and their consistency with Lynch's interest in the self as factory production and monstrous overflow.

If the normative self possesses certain normative characteristics physically and psychologically, what might these be; or more to the point what represents their deviation? When Mr Eddy acts as he does when giving the cocky driver a pistol whipping, he is the gangster in deed but the Highway Code user in principle. It is the mismatch between the everyday citizen who might offer a curt remark when someone deviates from the letter of the law, and the gangster who isn't inclined to work within it at all. When Frank abuses Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) in Blue Velvet, she is the subjugated woman at the same time she represents the parental figure of authority as Frank shouts "mummy". In Wild at Heart a beating Sailor (Nicolas Cage) administers on a dance floor to a young punk is contained by a strange moment where Sailor looks like he would prefer to psych him out with offbeat behaviour than beat him up. These are all hard men, but they don't conform to the behavioural norm within their image.

This is also true of certain characters physically. Whether it is the central character in Eraserhead's hairdo, The Elephant Man's cotton hood (let alone his deformities), or Harkonnen's boils, Lynch gives us character who are not so much a sight for sore eyes but for fresh ones. He gives us images of people that seem to demand a second take, amusingly noted when Lynch comments on Nance's haircut in Eraserhead. "Whenever we went out, we'd put Jack in the back seat of the car. He'd sit there, made up in the suit, and we'd take him out to locations, but we'd always have to keep him in the middle of the back seat, out of sight!" (Lynch on Lynch) People would obviously have stopped and stared, and this is something Lynch wants to make us do in the context of the cinematic experience, even if it may reflect an actual one. The difference is that cinema legitimizes the gaze as durational possibility: it is one thing to glance at someone in the street; quite another to stare for more than a few seconds. In cinema we can stare for as long as the filmmaker holds the shot. It is usually the filmmaker who eventually looks away; not us.

Lynch, though, has often been interested in a transfixed quality, yet this is a trait belonging more to the characters within the films than a dimension of the film itself. Lynch isn't a long-take filmmaker, but one who gives to his characters and not his camera the fixity of the gaze. It is there in Hopkins' initial sight of Merrick in The Elephant Man, in Sandy's at Rossellini's Dorothy as the latter comes naked from behind the house in BlueVelvet, in the fascinated look on Betty and Rita's faces as they listen to Silencio in the club in Mullholland Dr, and on the woman's face as she watches television in Inland Empire. Though there are obviously characters within Lynch's work who judge harshly, the tonal emphasis doesn't lie there. The jocks in Blue Velvet may laugh as Dorothy wanders through the garden naked, and there is the scene in The Elephant Man where Londoners mock Merrick for his deformities after the night porter charges entry at the hospital, but while Lynch always gives space to the judgemental, his fascination doesn't lie in temporarily focalising our interest there, all the better to show it bested later on. Lynch doesn't have scenes of character humiliation initially so that we can watch the worm turn later, as we often find in films where characters get revenge after earlier humiliations. In Lynch's work it is a dimension of the mise-en-scene more than vital to the mechanics of narrative. We don't expect the night porter to get a comeuppance for his actions, nor the laughing jocks; they're relevant to a world possessed of great insensitivity, but not for the purpose of mechanical plot revenge. The visually odd and inexplicable are sensitized, not mechanized. Lynch may talk about the body as a factory, but that doesn't mean he has to turn his narratives into production line goods with obvious plot through lines.

Isn't it the combination of conventional plot eschewal and an aesthetics of fascination that partly leads to a world we can call Lynchian? Where Blue Velvet resolves the crux of the plot in a conversation between Jeffrey (Kyle Maclachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern) in the car after Jeffrey's been amateurishly investigating a case on finding an ear, Lost Highwaymoves in the other direction and becomes so narratively convoluted that critics have invoked the mathematical to try and explain it, using the image of a Moebius strip. If BlueVelvet rejects the importance of the story by summing it up all too easily halfway through the film, Lost Highway, as well as Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, offer it so inexplicably that models beyond ready plot logic are required to try and make sense of the tale. The Straight Story doesn't really have a plot at all. The central character travels three hundred miles to meet his brother.The simplicity lies in the very title. Lynch is not a director in thrall of the story but, to be tautological about it, seems to be in thrall of the thrall. Talking about the importance of sound in his films he says, "through experimentation you can very rapidly find a lot of things that don't work. So that points you in this direction, and you go there for a while, and find that's not working. So you go in another direction and see if that works. And by this experimentation you suddenly zero in on something that's now really talking to you." (Soundscape) More broadly he says, "once you start down a road to make a film you enter a certain world. And certain things can happen in that world, and certain things can't. Depending on the world, many, many things can happen, but still certain things can't." (Soundscape) It is as if he is trying to find a place always beyond the story, with the story no more than a surface texture that has to be called into question through over-simplicity (Blue Velvet, Straight Story) or convolution (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. Inland Empire), or for that matter half-ignored. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the investigative characters from the first section of the film - Chris Isaac and Kiefer Sutherland - disappear in the second part. When Lynch says "the surface is misleading", in Filmjahrbuch, is this the problem with most stories: that they mislead? That they demand we follow the singularity of the story and this makes other elements secondary to them, where Lynch wants these elements to be primary, so that the film isn't constructed around the principles of firm narrative, but instead vaguer ones.

When Lynch talks of certain things being possible and others not, it is a comprehension of all the different elements that go into the film, not the elements that can be added for the purposes of telling a story. In a scene from Inland Empire, Dern's character receives a phone call from her agent and Lynch films what should be an innocuous moment, where she is told she has got a role, with an unnameable dread. As we see her sitting in long shot with a couple of friends, the film reverses the angle and shows the butler coming towards her with the phone, as it cuts back and forth between him coming in her direction and the girls on the couch. As she takes the phone the music indicates terrible news, while the wide-angle lens exacerbates this feeling, but her agent tells her she's got the part. Of course there are a couple of things that justify this feeling, both before the event and after it. Moments before a neighbour has come round and told her of events concerning the next day. The neighbour tells her that she will get the job; and sure enough she has.The scene also hints at future trouble, the realization that this is a remake of a film that was finished due to a personal tragedy.

Yet it would be unfair to Lynch's aesthetic to say that he wishes merely to offer the scene as an exemplification of the neighbour's premonition on the one hand, and a foreshadowing of events to come on the other. It seems more that Lynch wants to generate certain states that he will place narrative loosely upon. If Robert Altman once proposed that for him the story was like a clothes line in which one could hang various observations, for Lynch it is a factory line that generates states. A good example of this comes from Twin Peaks Fire: Walk with Me, where, in Lynch's words, "David Bowie comes in a room and he starts talking about Judy and, things get a little bit crazy and it gets a bunch of static and jumps into a place where this character played by Mike Anderson, 'Little Mike' starts talking about the Formica table. And right about in that Formica table area I - I always get euphoric." (Soundscapes) Other examples we could give is the ending of Inland Empirewith numerous dancers in Dern's home moving to Nina Simone, the scene where Fred is preparing to go and perform a gig and his wife says she is going to stay in, the moment where Dean Stockwell sings a Roy Orbison song in Blue Velvet, and the sequence in the cafe in Mulholland Dr. before one of the characters checks out what is round the corner.

Of course all of these scenes are linked to the story, but their power comes from a foreboding, a frisson or a feeling that overflows any narrative dimension, and maybe we can comprehend this aspect by invoking comments by the poet Paul Valery. Valery once differentiated prose from poetry, by drawing the analogy between walking and dancing. "Walking, like prose, aims at a precise object. It is an act directed toward something which we want to reach...and give it an end." "Dance is something else altogether. It is doubtless a system of acts, but they have their end in themselves. It goes nowhere..." In this sense most films walk rather than dance, they have a precise end in sight and each scene is a means towards this denouement. Lynch however seems less interested in telling a story than finding the means by which to produce (hence the factory metaphor) states. He doesn't ignore story but he subverts it for the opportunity it can give him to create modes of feeling. If he is correct that humans are little factories, then what he wants to do is find a new factory model based not on Fordist production linking narratives events to emotional reactions, but feeling events that come through more than narrative necessity. It is more dancing than walking.

In this sense Lynch is clearly a filmmaker interested in dream states, where it isn't the event that generates feeling, but the feeling that generates the event. When we dream there is no event that creates the feeling except on the flimsiest of premises: the tap is running and we dream of a waterfall; we hear footsteps outside and dream of a march. It is much more that the dream state generates narrative event, rather than narrative event which produces feelings. If in this context life is like narration, not in the way it makes sense especially, but at least in the way that it usually generates a situation that we then react to, dream reverses this hierarchy. What we feel creates a situation, and this is no doubt partly why we accept all sorts of leaps in logic when we dream: the feeling may demand situations but it doesn't need to be true to the logic of them. Now we don't want to underestimate Lynch's fascinating play with narrative structure in films like Lost Highwayand Mulholland Dr. That critics have invoked anything from mathematical theory (the aforementioned Mobius strip proposed for example by Eric Bryant Rhodes in FilmQuarterly, and invoked by Lynch himself) to voodoo reasoning (Marina Warner in Sightand Sound), to modes of subjectivity (Max Le Cain in Senses of Cinema) indicate a filmmaker creating new approaches to fiction form. Yet this interest in narrative play seems to contain within it a pressing question that narratological analysis wouldn't quite capture. Where in films like Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects and Shutter Island the complexities in narration seem ends in themselves, the convolutions in Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire appear less puzzles to be worked out than a collection of states to be puzzled over, even traumatized by. The scenes aren't bits to be put together into a logical whole, but images generated to suggest a psychic hole: the psychogenic fugue Lynch talks about. To work out the story to a degree of narrative satisfaction is one thing, but rather like dreams that possess the potential to be deciphered, we are still left with traumatised states that need to be understood.

To comprehend something of this traumatic residue, let us think of scenes from Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway that exceed narrative demand and result in generating what we'll call an extra-diegetic trauma, using diegetic in its narrow, narrational sense. Eraserhead offers a classic meet the parents scenario when Henry goes round to his partner's parents' place, and Lynch creates manifold unease that goes far beyond generating the discomfort required to indicate this is an awkward moment. The soundtrack plays up the noise of the puppies feeding off their mother, Henry and his partner sit at opposite ends of a small couch as the mother interrogates Henry about his job, and then the partner starts having spasms to which her mother brusquely attends. After this the father enters the conversation but from the other side of the room, with Lynch emphasizing the gap between where Henry sits and where the father stands. As Lynch offers shot/counter shots as the exchange goes back and forth, it is a bit like the scene in Inland Empire when the butler comes in. Though in the later film the space is huge, so that the strangeness is slightly contained by the immensity of the space, here the gap between the characters in the shot/counter shot seems vast despite the room being quite small. Where many a filmmaker might want to generate a slightly off-centre mise-en-scene to register an awkward meeting between a character and his potential in-laws, Lynch pushes it far beyond a mise-en-scene serving narrative point, and into nightmare. The sequence loses its ready narrative coordinates; becoming one that seems to have been dreamt more than dramatized.

In Blue Velvet a shoot-out leaves Frank Booth and his cohorts dead, but Lynch offers the sequence not as a victory of the cops over the villains, but as a trauma created rather than resolved. Usually when the bad have been removed it is a return to normality, but Lynch lingers over the deaths in unreal compositions. In one extended shot, Booth's henchman is killed with a bullet in the head, but he is still standing, and the walkie talkie in his pocket is still receiving instructions. Any assurance one might feel that the baddie has been banished is weak next to the disconcerting visual arrangement of the scene. Even when Booth is shot dead Lynch is more interested in the visual image of his death, than the outcome.

Now of course numerous filmmakers have given to their work a sensational dimension greater than its immediate narrative function, but it still remains within a narrative parameter. In other words, the sensational dimension augments the story, but it doesn't disintegrate it. The difference between a very fine filmmaker like Roman Polanski, and David Lynch is that for all the nightmarish dimensions to Polanski's images, they are still reined in by the containment of point of view. When Carol cracks up in Repulsion, when JJ Gittes tries to crack the case in Chinatown, whether the point of view reflects a mind crumbling, as in the former instance, or a mind limited in their knowledge in the latter, Polanski doesn't exceed these parameters. Lynch frequently does, so that we cannot credit the images we are seeing to a point of view, as we can in Polanski, however sensationally offered. As Eric Bryant Rhodes says, in Lost Highway "Lynch provides few signals that equal degrees of reality should not be attributed to all actions of the film." (Film Quarterly) Polanski would offer those signals.

In Lost Highway, Lynch will give a menacing moment a sense of terror far beyond its apparent purpose, and we can think of the phone in Fred and Renee's house. Fred phones her one night in between playing a gig, and the phone rings off, with Renee clearly not home, or at least not answering. As the camera moves in on the phone as it rings, this functions differently from an ostensibly similar camera movement in Alan J. Pakula's superb early seventies thriller Klute. For all the distinctiveness of Gordon Willis's camerawork in Pakula's film, it still remains, next to Lynch's cinema, a movie that can be contained by the genre that it adopts. The scene with the phone functions well as several things but chiefly as a terror device, with Jane Fonda the lonely woman hearing the phone in the night and fretting over who it might be, as the camera zooms back. But Lynch's zig-zaggy forward zooms into the phones in Lost Highway don't just give a chilling existential edge to a moment of loneliness, it is as though the shots are acts of insanity, the feverish workings of a mind, much more than simply a subjective shot of one man's jealousy. Scenes in Lynch constantly overflow any ready content, and so cannot easily be contained by any given genre, nor offer any clear meaning.

Yet we opened with the observations that people cry a lot in Lynch films, and Lynch has said that "sometimes I just sit in the editing room and weep." (Lynch on Lynch) Now there are numerous filmmakers who create not so much the excessive but the tangential. Antonioni, Godard, Bunuel, Jancso, Kiarostami, Bela Tarr and Bruno Dumont, for example, are all fine directors of the expanded image, of the image that goes beyond the confines of telling a story to showing us the nature of the image itself. When Godard leaves his characters for a moment as the camera retreats behind a bush in Le Mepris, or Kiarostami holds to a long shot on a Range Rover going round a mountain despite the close up conversation in the vehicle in A Taste of Cherry, the image takes on a dimension stronger than the story being told within it. In most instances the filmmakers are resisting emotion rather than generating it. Not because they want the arid; more because they are suspicious of the ready sentiment. Lynch might say in Lynch on Lynch that "emotion is a thing that cinema can really communicate, but it's tricky. The balancing of elements is critical. A little too much of something and you kill the emotion; too little of something else and it just doesn't happen". Yet in Lynch's films the emotion is rarely balanced, with Lynch's use of close-ups, music, garish colours and the tears of his characters all creating a potentially overbearing emotional experience. Lynch does not like Godard, Antonioni etc. retreat from expression, he moves towards it, a moth to the flame. The use of Samuel Barber in The Elephant Man, and Angelo Badalementi's score for The Straight Story give to the films an emotional underpinning, while the shots of Laura Palmer crying in Twin Peak: Fire Walk Me when she turns up at her friend's door, or the young woman crying as she looks at the images on the television in Inland Empire, unequivocally embrace feeling. They aren't suspicious of its strength and power. Partly what makes Lynch so fascinating a filmmaker is that he doesn't retreat from emotion, he simply finds unusual ways of embracing it. He allows the feeling to spill over, into the music, into the mise-en-scene, into his characters' strong reactions to situations.

Many great directors have understandably often retained a sceptical relationship with emotion rather as Franz Kafka and numerous writers since have become suspicious of language, where, in Kafka's words, in a letter to Max Brod, "my whole body puts me on guard against each word; each word, before letting itself be put down, has to look round on every side; the phrases positively fall apart in my hands, I see what they are like inside and then I have to stop quickly." However Lynch seems almost nave in his relationship with images, in his capacity to draw upon them what he needs for his own immediate and emotional ends. It is partly what makes him such an important filmmaker of the millennium. Unlike many of his no less important contemporaries, who makes film rather as Steiner suggests he was expected to write poetry (to wipe up any overflowing of feeling), Lynch's work is a wonderful example of the opposite, a filmmaker whose "cup", in the words of Psalm 23:5 "runneth over".


© Tony McKibbin