David Lynch + Assimilation of Avant-Garde Aesthetics in Subversive, Mainstream Soundtracks (Part 1)

Introduction – The Boundaries Of Criteria.

He was the most original director in 1980s cinema, its only surrealist” – Mark Cousins on David Lynch (2004, p.394).

The Avant-Garde is like a spark or a flash of quick-fire creative ideals.  The idea of Avant-Garde cinema is not so much to present an experience or escapism, but is there instead to quickly question the ideals of the audience before burning out into nothing, almost as if the directors have deliberately built their house on a sandy beach.  This makes its various effects rather finite in a sense; time erodes its outsider tendencies with mass market film slowly but surely using the same tricks, techniques and ideas that were initially shocking to the mainstream audience of the past.  This is a relatively obvious aspect to point out, especially in the age after the music video, online video and video installation art but one aspect that still feels unsure as to whether it is welcome in the mass market of film is the Avant-Garde use of music.

David Lynch, our director of focus, almost uniquely, crosses the boundaries of both supposed areas of culture about to be discussed in this essay.  The very crux of the arguments presented are born from this fact; that as a director he has made films that can be considered Avant-Garde in their use of visuals and music as well as films that can be considered mainstream. “Lynch had successfully fused the two approaches – those of abstract surrealism with generic entertainment…” is Jake Horsley’s assessment of him in his overly aggressive work, Dogville vs Hollywood (2005, p.236).  Lynch has even made films that rather sneakily occupy both areas; the “popular surrealist” as Pauline Kael referred to him (1990, p.202).  A comparison between his debut feature film, Eraserhead (1978), and his second film, The Elephant Man (1980), highlights this.  Both are visually quite similar with ideas shared between them.  Musically, however, the former embraces the most Avant-Garde of soundscapes while the latter largely uses a Romantic, classical score, only occasionally diverting to Lynch’s more experimental sounds.

The issue with calling something mainstream is that, in some circles of discussion, assigning something’s aesthetic quality with the description can almost be considered derogatory; anything that sacrifices its total creative ideals for popular success is a common description and an oft cited criticism.  However, for the majority of this essay, the term mainstream is not to be connected with this so loyally.  Instead, the term mainstream is going to signify the more positive aspects that are adjoined to popular filmmaking; funding, distribution and audience.  Whether or not a film has experimental ideals (in any of its creative choices from visuals to music), if a large audience watches it, this factor already signifies an evolutionary change from more typical Avant-Garde films.

In 2001, Lynch made Mulholland Drive; a film that crosses the boundaries of both mainstream Film Noir and Avant-Garde ideals.  It has everything needed to show an assimilation of Avant-Garde ideals into a mainstream setting.  Not only will this be shown in its narrative and visual qualities, it will also be shown as a typical Lynchian example of Avant-Garde tendencies entering the sound world in a popular and, eventually, well distributed film; proof that the Avant-Garde aesthetics of the past are now becoming the norms of the present.

Visuals and Narrative – The Subverted Film Noir.

“From Hollywood, California: Where stars make dreams and dreams make stars.” – Announcer (Inland Empire, 2006)

Mainstream is just as problematic a term to describe a film as Avant-Garde.  There are simply too many criteria to make a solid definition.  The films that, from the outside, appear to be a more typical Hollywood picture but, in reality are using their image (in this case a Film Noir) as a cover for something more subversive are the most interesting examples to look at.  Mulholland Drive (2001) is one of those films.

First though, the discussion must move away from its uses of music and into analysis of narrative as its music is reflected in its structure.  Mulholland Drive’s trick is that, camouflaged under its neo-noir image, Hollywood advertising and glossy visuals, there hides a film just as complex, subjective and open-ended as any of the defined films of the Avant-Garde variety.  Highlighting more experimental notions of music in a film that pretends to be a popular, mainstream film, perhaps even in satire, allows a basis of comparisons with the original form of the film’s ideas i.e. other Film Noir and crime films.

The best way to approach Mulholland Drive is to imagine it thus; in front of the viewer is a set of Russian dolls.  Unlike normal Russian dolls that appear in different sizes with the aim of fitting inside one another, they all appear to be the same height, therefore not allowing the viewer to correctly place them.  This is the first two thirds of Mulholland Drive; the dolls are the characters and the relationships between them are the size ratios between the dolls.  Events and happenings occur in L.A, at first between seemingly unconnected people and sometimes even surreal creatures in the typical Lynchian fashion.

Some way into the film, a box that has ominously appeared in a character’s handbag opens and the viewer is forced down into it to, at first to what appear, to be past events.  In the soundtrack, an eerie, engulfing noise further adds to the unnerving feel though the execution of this surreal moment is technically rather normal; “Music smoothes discontinuities of editing within scenes and sequences” (Gorbman, 1987, p.89).  However, in terms of the dolls, what Lynch has done is move our perspective to a bird’s eye view of them.  This reveals that the dolls are in fact different sizes and capable of being put together; the illusion of similarity created by a false perspective.  This is the first subversion of Noir ideas; Noir is the backbone of the mainstream according Carol Flinn so any take on it will come from a knowing viewpoint of mainstream aesthetics and values (“as genre productions they provide the very backbone of the classical cinema’s output” (Flinn, 1992, p.195)).

A young actress, Betty, has moved to L.A. in search of fame.  Most of the characters have some connection with the world of film production, creating the satire, but Betty’s links to it are only defined as the film progresses.  On moving into her Auntie’s apartment, she meets another woman who has lost her memory after being involved in a car crash.  The majority of the film revolves around this central mystery, which is resolved or not, depending on the viewer’s own subjective reading.

However, despite its advertising as a typical Hollywood neo-noir, the structure of the film seems like a surprise to the unsuspecting viewer that may have been taken in by the Hollywood visual gloss and A-list cast.  Its creation as a TV pilot no doubt accounts for some of its structural abnormalities (though not for its musical choices); the film opens with a music video-like sequence showing the jitterbug competition that is referred to later on as the seed sowing of Betty’s ambition.  Taking on the reading that the first half of the film is in fact the dying fantasy of Diane (which also ties in the fact that Betty and Diane are the same person; albeit the former is the latter’s dream of perfection she’s experiencing before she dies) means that the structure is not only completely out of typical narrative order (cause makes effect) it also means that the story is lopsided.  Ironically this sort of complexity can be found even within classic, more obviously mainstream Film Noir such as The Big Sleep (1946) which has a variety of plot holes resulting in a similar effect.

The cyclic nature of the story, with its repeated scenes from different perspectives, hints at visual influence of Avant-Garde filmmaker Maya Deren.  Taking visual cues from Deren as well as adopting her take on the progression of time, Lynch smuggles in ideas born from the American Wave of Avant-Garde film into, what was to be, a prime-time Television series for ABC. “Indeed, with his penchant for all five of Borde and Chaumeton’s surreal affective qualities linked to Noir (oneric, bizarre, erotic, ambivalent, cruel) he produces films that are not so much neo-noir as hyper-noir, a distillation of darkness in all its forms” is the description Greg Tuck gives to Lynch’s filmmaking (2009, p.161): Not exactly a safe, commercial bet. Referencing Avant-Garde and Art House films is something clearly financially risky.

Does any of this daring visual and narrative subversion overlap into its music and soundtrack choices, contrasting with the film’s Noir image?  Our main interest is whether Avant-Garde musical choices have been taken into popular/mainstream cinema, thus reducing it to something taken for normality.  Mulholland Drive treads the fine line between the typical and the experimental though both of these criteria are entirely dependent on context.  It is therefore vital to explore the music in these different contexts to attain its Avant-Garde assimilation.

Part 2.

Adam Scovell.

4 thoughts on “David Lynch + Assimilation of Avant-Garde Aesthetics in Subversive, Mainstream Soundtracks (Part 1)

  1. Very comprehensive explanation of this movie. I see what you mean as subversive . . . It is subversive of film noir but isn’t scant gardism mainstream? It is almost expected because of the appetite for new art. I guess movies are different than other visual media. . . I guess people do still mostly expect plots that are linear. I think David Lynch is very consummate as a director yet whenever someone acts so uppity about his stupid movies that are nothing more than entertainment (I think he’d concur) I doubt his genius. I can at least write something as twisted as muholland drive its just I’m not a consummate movie maker.

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