David Lynch: Detective or Pervert?

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As a film director, David Lynch has gained a reputation for his distinct surrealist style, virtuoso sound design and portrayal of convoluted psychoanalytical thematics. However, do these recurring elements of style and content earn him the title as an Auteur, as defined by film critic, François Truffaut and later, Andrew Sarris? Based upon Truffaut’s essay, Une Certaine Tendance du Cinéma Français (1954), Sarris compiled his Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962 (1962). Here, he states that in order to be considered an auteur, “(Over a group of films) a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature” (Sarris, 1962: 562). Sarris proposed the following criteria for identifying an auteur: “The three premises of the auteur theory may be visualised as three concentric circles: the outer circle as technique; the middle circle, personal style; and the inner circle, interior meaning,” (Sarris, 1962: 563) See Fig. 1.

In order to assess Lynch’s distinction as an auteur, as outlinedby Sarris, I will be examining a short extract from Lynch’s film, Blue Velvet (1986) and deconstructing various components which comprise it, in line with Sarris’ model. The extract I will be examining and analysing spans from the moment where Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) suspects someone is hiding in her closet, until Frank (Dennis Hopper) enters the room (Blue Velvet, 1986: 38-43mins). I have chosen this, predominantly, in order to demonstrate Lynch’s obsession with jouissance and voyeuristic desire, which I deem to be a widespread feature across many of his works. By deciphering the constituents that lead to this supposition, I aim to delineate what they represent, emblematically and how these recurring elements may succeed in comprising David Lynch’s unique directorial signature. This will be assumed by manner of subjective evaluation, formulated through interpreting and correlating selective, pertinent theories and applying them to the proposed scene; as well as forming a basis for comparison through observing his other works, specifically Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)and Mulholland Drive (2001). As Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) hides in Dorothy’s closet, he peers out through the slats and observes her. Lynch uses anintermittent first-person-perspective of the camera, in order to connote this, thus generating a highly effective voyeuristic nuance. Despite the propinquity that Lynch places between the spectator and the action, thus encouraging the audience to partake in their own role as a voyeur, the distance between the film and viewer is of crucial importance (Doan, 1982: 180). Doan cites Metz’s analysis of voyeuristic desire in that “The voyeur, according to Metz, must maintain a distance between himself and the image – the cinéphile needs the gap which represents for him the very distance between desire and its object. In this sense, voyeurism is theorised as a type of meta-desire,” (Doan, 1982: 180-81). It is this distance that allows the audience to feel deeply engaged, yet simultaneously detached from what is occurring within the film, thus maintaining the film’s realism whilst preserving its fantasy. This type of intimate shot is a universal feature of Lynch’s films, as are extreme close-ups of the facial features; which despite not occurring in the prescribed extract, are depicted frequently, throughout Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1992)and Mulholland Drive (2001).

The prurient ambiance is heightened, as Dorothy discovers Jeffrey and forces him out of the closet to undress, at knifepoint. This could be interpreted, not only literally, but also as if Jeffrey is metaphorically coming ‘out of the closet’ and awakening to a new form of sexual desire or experience. Once again, the theme of sexual awakening can be identified in Mulholland Drive (2001) and Twin Peaks (1992). Once shrouded, alongside Jeffrey, the audience now assumes the position of external spectator, yet still at close proximity to the action; creating a juxtaposition which is conveyed through Lynch’s use of camera angles. He places the audience behind Jeffrey, as Dorothy threatens him and her facial expression is clearly depicted, through the gap in Jeffrey’s submissive stance. Here, the audience is made aware of the position of power between the two characters, presenting the vantage point of the female as the dominant and male as the passive. This contradicts the theory, posed by feminist film theorist, Laura Mulvey that, “In a world of sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female,” (Mulvey, 1999: 837). Despite this gender role reversal, Dorothy is just as much an objectof a voyeuristic and fetishistic gaze, as Jeffrey; highlighting yet another recurrent characteristic of Lynch’s films, whereby the female form is projected as an object of fantasy and sexual power, identifying strongly with the function of the femme fatale. Dorothy continues to exert her authority through militant verbal directions and demands, leading to the eventual performance of, ostensibly imposed, felatio on Jeffrey. Although the audience does not physically see the full extent of this sexual act, it is strongly implied, through Lynch’s choice of compositions. This technique of implied dramatic action is extremely evocative, as it allows the audience to form assumptions from what is presented on-screen and fill in the gaps with their imagination. This subsequently forces the spectator to internalise the audio-visual language of the film thus provoking them to contemplate their own fears and desires. As Belgian director Chantal Akerman once said, “To say the most, you show the least,” (Film Quarterly, 1977: 2). The combination of intimate and POV shots used by Lynch, in this scene, places the audience in an essentially active role within the film, which adds to the sense that they, themselves, are involved in this crude, infringement of privacy. This therefore has the ability to make the spectator feel perturbed, whilst also conjuring up a sensation of pleasure or jouissance, from watching. Psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan terms this, Scopophilia.

Stylistically, Lynch demonstrates a distinct awareness of mise-en-scene; and employs various aesthetic methods, in order to construe meaning and composite intricate layers of subtext. For example, Lynch’s use of colour, specifically the colours blue and red are, I deem, of critical significance, both within the prescribed extract, the film as a whole and in determining Lynch’s status as an auteur. The room, in which the scene is set, is decorated with predominantly red hues, which not only creates a stark visual contrast against the blue velvet of Dorothy’s dress, but also works as a metaphorical device to represent a number of thematics, related to both the characters and the narrative. Although subjective, in popular culture the colour red retains connotations of fury, danger, passion and love, all of which are exhibited within this scene. The colour blue is more commonly associated with coldness, melancholia, relaxation and even death. However, in Sergei Eisenstein’s essay, Color and Meaning (1938), he unambiguously refuted that a particular colour possessed a single, uniform denotation, but that a colour only acquires meaning upon its presence, “in a relational system involving other colours and other codes,” (Andrew, 1976: 45). Assuming that Eisenstein’s theory of relativity is correct, the implications of the colour red, in Blue Velvet (1986) can therefore be interpreted in relation to the colour blue, which Lynch also uses as an aesthetic and allegorical device, within the extract. The redness of the room can be seen to represent the dangerous territory, which Jeffrey has embarked upon, which is reinforced by the behaviour of Dorothy and later, the arrival of Frank. It also appears to signify the passion between Dorothy and her male lovers, as well as alluding to the portending bloodshed that is to occur, later in the film. The blue of Dorothy’s dress symbolises her repression, abuse and melancholia as well as possibly, her fear of death.

In Mulholland Drive (2001), the use of red and especially blue is also apparent, with the blue box and key representing Diane’s portal into the dream world, or another state of consciousness. In Twin Peaks (1992), the contrast between red and blue is extremely vivid, with almost every shot comprising predominantly of those colours, resulting in an extremely distinct aesthetic style that has become an integral part of Lynch’s directorial signature. Considering Lynch’s stylistic usage of these colours, across his other films, it would be reasonable to speculate that they have a cohesive relationship. In terms of semiology, the colour is the signifier and its connotations are the signified. Therefore, Lynch uses the combination of these, as signs, to allude to particular recurring thematics and subtexts within his films. The symbolism of this scene is vast and as well as illustrating Jeffrey’s sexual awakening; it also provides the revelation of the abusive relationship between Dorothy and Frank –Jeffrey’s spiritual awakening- into the perception of a sinister underworld, or alternative reality. Adding to the prominence of this is, the fact that Lynch commonly features oneiric narratives within his films, challenging the surrealist concepts of dreams, death and reality; whilst frequently combining them with themes of sexual exploration and/or abuse. In Mulholland Drive (2001), for example, an intensely jealous and passionate lesbian relationship is portrayed, where the boundaries between dream and reality are considerably blurred.

During the scene in Blue Velvet (1986), where Sandy (Laura Dern) and Jeffrey are preparing for Jeffrey’s break in to Dorothy’s apartment, Sandy remarks, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” Despite this line of dialogue originating from within the script –notably written by Lynch himself– I deduce this to be a subliminal allusion to his perceived public persona, as a director. Consequently, I theorise that Lynch encompassed this reference, whether consciously or subconsciously, in order to probe the audience into questioning their attitudes towards his prominently provocative, stylistic and thematic choices; not just in Blue Velvet (1986), but also in many of his films, where the universal thematics of mystery, murder and voyeurism are present. It could also be argued that this comment contributes in emotionally preparing the audience for the subsequent, sexually explicit scene. The subtext presented by this line of dialogue poses as a strong signifier of interior meaning, which allows the spectator to gain an insight into the psychology of Lynch, the director. This further supports Sarris’ case for the auteur, in which he stipulates that, “The strong director imposes his own personality on a film; the weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant,” (Sarris, 1968: 31). The actions that occur between the characters within the extract, as well as the film in its entirety, are as much sado-masochistic as they are voyeuristic, which summons the question as to what Lynch was truly endeavouring to demarcate and what his motives for creating such controversial thematics were? On one hand it could be accepted that Lynch harbours a deep fascination for unveiling the psychology of the human mind, in an attempt to give his characters sophisticated dimensions. However, it could also be contended, that Lynch is merely using his films as a channel, for gratifying his own, sometimes perverse, sexual fantasies, on screen. The graphic illustration of Diane (Naomi Watts) masturbating in Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as the lesbian love scene in the same film, would undoubtedly support this proposition.

It is additionally interesting to consider the archetypal protagonists that feature in many of Lynch’s films, in order to question if they may be intended to embody a facet of his own persona. These characters tend to display traits of naïvety, anxiety and apprehension, yet simultaneously possessing audacity and initiative; as well as being physically attractive to the female form. Jeffrey, in Blue Velvet (1986) and Sam (Kiefer Sutherland) in Twin Peaks (1992) are prime examples of this archetype. Diane’s persona of Betty in Mulholland Drive (2001), despite being female, could also exemplify this notion. If this theory is correct, it may be either through fear of becoming that person (again) or equally, the subconscious desire to; which leads me to question, once again, whether David Lynch is indeed a detective or a pervert? Sarris states that, “The cinema is both a window and a mirror. The window looks out on the real world… The mirror reflects what the director feels about the spectacle,” (Sarris, 1968: 30). Frankly, I am confident that Lynch is a combination of the two. Either way, Lynch’s exploitation of prevailing psychoanalytical philosophies, in order to coerce his audience into confronting disturbing internal issues or facing their inner demons; has become an idiosyncratic asset of his recognition as a director and thus, contributes to his profound status as an auteur. It appears that Lynch also enjoys making his audience uncomfortable and unsettled, in order to provoke a reaction, whilst invoking the power of surrealism in order to leave his work open to vast and personal interpretation by the spectator.

Through examination of the extract, and by comparing it to his other works, it is obvious that the presence of Lynch’s recurring thematics and aesthetics comply with Sarris’ second and third principles of auteur theory, implying that Lynch would undoubtedly fulfil the requirements of these categories. By conscious employment of various cinematographic practices, Lynch demonstrates his astute ability in creating a coherent and provocative piece of moving image, which exemplifies both his understanding of filmic form and his overall technical competence, correlating with Sarris’ first principle of auteur theory. Furthermore, his audaciousness at breaking certain conventional boundaries and rules, merely supplements in reiterating his proficiency in executing his role as director and subsequently, endorses his prominence as an auteur; resulting in some critics dubbing his work as Lynchian.

Lynch, David. Blue Velvet (1986)
Lynch, David. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Lynch, David. Mulholland Drive (2001)

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