exploring art and writing

In Dreams: The Films of David Lynch – Part One

In Film and Documentary on March 9, 2010 at 1:30 pm

There is one easy solution to the absurdity and ambiguity of David Lynch’s films: it was all a dream. One big, sinister, dark and primal dream. If this excuse doesn’t sit well with you then good luck working out whatever it is that needs configuring. I was convinced after Mulholland Drive that I had grasped a thread offering clarity and, therefore, insight into what was occurring in the plot; on watching it a second time I realized that this was beginners naivety. Every time I watch it I become less sure about my perception of the events it contains. Even with Blue Velvet, a Lynch film that appears to consist of events far more intelligible than those in other works such as Mulholland Drive and Eraserhead – even with Blue Velvet there are hints that what we are watching is all a dream; a wonderful tactic that allows a director to do whatever the hell they want in a film. This is why I love the films of David Lynch.

I may as well mention that I am still working my way through his collection. So far I’ve watched (not in any chronological order) Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway and, today, Inland Empire and approximately fifteen minutes of Dune before the disc broke. I’ll catch up on that one another day; for now I’m all Lynched out.

I’ll get to Inland Empire and Lost Highway another time. I might need a couple more watches to attain any sort of coherence regarding what they’re all about. ‘It was all just one big dream’ – or several – seems to fit quite neatly for the moment.

Back when Lynch was recommended to me I, perhaps foolishly, began with Eraserhead. If you’re not in a dark place before you watch it then you’ll certainly be in one when it’s finished. Despite the sometimes unbelievably oppressive nature of the film with its murky chiaroscuro, its ominous rumbles and its preserved calf foetuses (apparently), Lynch managed to form something you’ll never forget whether you want to or not. The seemingly constant, dreadful rumbling sounds are consistent throughout the majority of his films that I’ve seen so far, but no other really lives up to Eraserhead for its pure dreadfulness; the film itself, don’t get me wrong, is executed with brilliance – just don’t ask me to like it. I’m not quite sure what Lynch was trying to say when he made it but perhaps it’s slightly too primal for me to want to face up to. Despite my unease towards it, however, I have repeatedly referenced it in my videos, in particular Manipulation.

The dreamlike/nightmarish characteristics associated with Lynch’s films are encouraged by the director himself; “I never interpret my art. I let the audience do that” (in Sheen & Davidson 2004:1) is a claim that not only slots neatly in with ideas discussed in my blog ‘The Art Monster‘, it also reinforces a film/artworks potential to possess no meaning and yet thousands of meanings at the same time. As dreams slip endlessly by throughout our sleeping lives we usually think no more of them than we would of our other day-to-day occurrences. But each one does contain meaning within it, whether interpreted or not; dreams stem from something occurring within our subconscious. In this way Lynch films seem to be provoking what is already inside of us. We could get Freudian here, particularly with Eraserhead, but my knowledge of the psychoanalyst and his theories extends only to the uncanny and that’s about it. In his essay The Essential Evil in/of Eraserhead, Steven Jay Schneider refers to the uncanny in the film not so from much the Freudian interpretation  (the onset of repressed thoughts, the double etc.) but rather to film philosopher Noel Carroll’s idea that uncanniness consists of “transgressions or violations of existing cultural…categories” (in Sheen & Davidson 2004:10). An example of this would be the polarities of living/dead expressed in Eraserhead through the stationary, almost rigor mortis-like stance of Bill X and other members of his family.

Mulholland Drive exudes polarities of dream vs. reality, although whether this is actually the case or not is ambiguous. It almost seems too easy to say ‘this half’s a dream, this one is reality’. As Robert Ebert wrote in his chapter on the subject, “a film that defies rational analysis only encourages people to discover that it matches theories of their own” (2003:696); a fantastic characteristic of Lynch films, and yet also their downfall. This isn’t due to Lynch as such but rather people’s insistence on their own interpretation being the all-conclusive definite article. I doubt whether Lynch ever intends for his films to be completely decipherable; the joy is in the mass of interpretations, all wrong, all right. This links closely to my discussion with Matthew Last about people’s very individual relationships with music and how your interpretation of a song is what makes it worthwhile – and it doesn’t matter if other people disagree. I have found endless scriptures on the baffling nature of Mulholland Drive and, to be honest, I’m trying my best to avoid absorbing too much. I’d rather just watch it again and see what my mind deems appropriate at the time (and the same goes for Lost Highway and Inland Empire). Dream interpretation, after all, is always open to scrutiny.

Below is the famous Silencio scene from Mulholland Drive. It features Rebekah del Rio performing a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s song Crying. The response of Betty and ‘Rita’, the two main protagonists in the film, is a wonderful expression not only of music’s power to move and reveal what was previously ‘locked’ in the subconscious, but also of Lynch’s ability to pinpoint exactly the right song, the right performer, and at exactly the right time. And with Lynch you know that amongst all the amassing ‘dreams’ and ‘realities’ and the surreal confusions, the music really means something; as he says of the music he chooses, “it’s gotta have some ingredients that are really digging in to be part of the story” (in Rodley 2005:130). Perhaps it is the closest offer to a clue we are going to get from him, if we are inclined to look for one.

The ‘dream idea’, as I’m going to call it, and the use of particular songs to express specifics within the narrative come miraculously (and, of course, uncannily) together in the use of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams in Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

A candy-coloured clown they call the sandman
Tiptoes to my room every night
Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper:
“Go to sleep, everything is alright”

I close my eyes
Then I drift away
Into the magic night
I softly sway
Oh smile and pray
Like dreamers do
Then I fall asleep
To dream my dreams of you

In dreams…I walk with you
In dreams…I talk to you
In dreams…Your mine

All of the time
We’re together
In dreams…In dreams

But just before the dawn
I awake and find you gone
I can’t help it…I can’t help it
If I cry
I remember
That you said goodbye
To end all these things
And I’ll be happy in my dreams
Only in dreams
In beautiful dreams

The lyrics of such a song would probably not be considered uncanny without the context of a film such as Blue Velvet pervading it. However, I’m not going to dissect the lyrics or the scene in which the song is used. This is mainly because the reasoning behind my recent obsession with In Dreams is mostly unknown even to myself. Saying this, however, the thinking behind my statement “I think filming, in a way, is my attempt at making my experiences with…people more permanent” begins to bubble to the surface every time I listen to this song. Perhaps it’s to do with the idea of something existing in your world and the inevitable realization that this ‘something’ is in fact transitory and will pass away soon enough. This may also be why the song also makes me think of Peter Pan (soon to be re-read because of it). But if I’m not careful we’ll shortly be popping into the realms of Heideggarian theory.

I have a lot more to watch, read and generally consider about the films of David Lynch. Consider this an introduction in my approach to them. All I know right now is I agree with Isabella Rossellini (Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet) when she claimed that “David’s films are more of a sensation than a story…things are very transcendental” (in Rodley 2005:126). They pertain to the depths of what is ingrained in our minds and defy definitive interpretation. No wonder I find myself so drawn to them; they correspond exactly to whatever it is I want, or more importantly, what I need them to mean.


Ebert, Roger: Movie Yearbook 2003, 2002 Andrews McMeel, Missouri

Rodley, Chris (ed): Lynch on Lynch, 2005 Faber and Faber, London

Sheen, E & Davidson, A (ed’s): The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions, 2004 Wallflower Press, London

  1. […] far what I’ve posted above echoes strongly my previous blog about the films of David Lynch. Apart from Lynch’s work the other driving force behind this […]

  2. […] films and their influence over my attitude towards my work see my previous blogs ‘In Dreams‘ and ‘The Dream: An Alternative […]

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