Part 1.

Musical score – In the Context of David Lynch and Film Noir.

The score for Mulholland Drive is a melting pot of ideas, genres and textures all of which add to the ineffable nature of the film.  Instead of putting the music in contrast with outside environments and films like most normal critiques would, the analysis is firstly in the context of Lynch’s worlds; his dark L.A that has something creeping, horrific and powerful underneath its gleam of shiny glamour and hokum capitalism.  Will Avant-Garde musical techniques have been absorbed into this type of cinematic culture?

In terms of Lynch, the score for Mulholland Drive is extremely typical.  It uses a balance of especially created music and previously existing popular music; the very balance that Lynch has been attaining to since Eraserhead and even before that in his short films.  This makes it very easy to split the music into two relatively even groups; the composed (often but not always electronic) soundscapes and motifs and the popular music that varies from film to film.  The original score here is by his long term musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, who has come to define Lynch’s approach to music; a droning, occasionally euphoric, electronic hum that adds discomfort and tension to his already worrying environments.  The aesthetics alone distance the music from the neo-noir films around it which tend to favour more straightforward classical infused scores, making Badalamenti’s seem Avant-Garde in comparison.  They occupy the same area of score which Kassabian assigns to The Cell’s soundtrack: “This is neither music nor not music, but rather a textural use of sound that disregards most, if not all, of the “laws” of classic Hollywood film-scoring technique” (2008, p.93).

Badalamenti’s music for Mulholland Drive is as typical a Lynchian trait as the Deren references or the mysterious characters that populate his films.  The electronica mentioned previously may not be the first example to come to mind when recalling the music in any of Lynch’s films but it is the most obviously present of the composed music.  Compare the music from Betty’s initial arrival in Los Angeles to the final dénouement of Blue Velvet (another modern Film Noir).  Though their journeys are at very different points (In reality Diane in Mulholland Drive is at the end of her life when we are witnessing Betty’s initial excitement near the beginning of the film) the music is similar in tone and feel.  These two scenes are rather atypical of Lynch in a sense that they are the small shining light in a very dark maze; it is a rare thing for Lynch to show comfort and contentment in his films.  These two scenes are presented this way by the use of soft focus and euphoric, positive electronic music though, again with hindsight of the future events of Mulholland Drive, this scene seems horrifically ironic.  This sense of irony is never present in typical Film Noir scores, which often seem honestly euphoric when the “Guy gets the Gal” or when the mystery is solved (The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon (1941) etc.).

Within the other group of music, we have the previously produced popular scoring.  In Mulholland Drive, it has some interesting but not particularly original uses.  The use is predominantly ironic again; a sometime comedic but often uncomfortable sense of fun to accompany scenes that are unpleasant for the characters.  When Adam, the director of the film in Mulholland Drive, comes home to find his wife cheating on him with the pool cleaner, the music is weirdly sitcom like.  Milt Buckner’s The Beast is the musical piece in question that plays over this scenario.  It seems a straightforward blues/jazz instrumental with some instrumentation hinting at 1950s/1960s nostalgia.  The film uses this nostalgia to gently touch upon time travel, harkening back to the supposed golden days of Hollywood and setting elements of Diane’s fantasy (Betty’s life) in the midst of the not-so-golden-age.

Popular music also adds to the satire, especially the cheery Linda Scott number which is used as the audition piece for Adam’s film (though it is unclear what exactly the film is about).  In many ways, Mulholland Drive is about demystifying the golden age of Hollywood, not so much in the sense of the quality of the films produced but the sense that the town was a perfect place where no problem existed; a similar trait to Film Noir itself with more emphasis on the inescapable darker side of humanity displayed in World War Two.  In subverting the mainstream, Lynch is harkening back to the Hollywood that is rarely presented to those outside its glittery bubble.  This is the place that drove actress Peg Entwistle to suicide by jumping off the H from the Hollywood sign and driven many others to drink, drugs, excess and death.  Many mainstream films now use popular music, signifying a change in musical preferences but Lynch uses it to far more subversive effects; showing the smile as the morality of the town falls to pieces.

In comparison, Film Noir, both old and new, plays it musically safe.  The Big Sleep has a Max Steiner score which perhaps will seem an unfair comparison with it being made before the invention of either popular music or electronic music.  Gorbman, however, highlights the rigidity of the classical scoring system believing “Steiner’s transition music has no particularly musical form of its own, since it must obey the rhythm of the editing and the rapid change of locations it is illustrating and connoting”  (Gorbman, 1987, p.90).  A more modern but classically leaning comparison shows a very a similar score to The Big Sleep in the form of L.A Confidential (1997); a film that is very classical in its scoring techniques.  Jerry Goldsmith’s score highlights a desire to avoid obvious anachronisms which again gives it a safe feel in comparison to Mulholland Drive’s Avant-Garde ideals.  Even the pre-sourced music for L.A Confidential is anachronistically correct, though at the time of writing Gangster Squad (2013), a pulpy, period film of the same nature, is currently being advertised with Hip-Hop music, perhaps indicating a very recent shift against this trend.

However, in Lynch’s universe, popular music is often used ironically rather than as a scene setter. “…music does more than intensify the impression of the visual image by providing a parallel illustration of the same idea; it opens up the possibility of new transfigured impressions of the same material: something different in kind” is Andrei Tarkovsky’s ideal behind the use of music; one that Lynch seems to use to his advantage (1986, p.158). Most of Lynch’s films take a popular song and use their lyrics, their sense of entertainment and their built-upon past relations to bring new elements to the film.  Mulholland Drive is a relatively weak example of this for Lynch.  The music is too varied in its use rather than simply disturbing as in films like Blue Velvet or certain scenarios in Wild at Heart (1990).  Their music is used to confuse the viewer as to how they should feel when a scene is visually alarming or upsetting.  Mulholland Drive only hints at this though its score can still be seen as an extension of Avant-Garde aesthetics because of it.

Club Silencio – The Subversion Of Hollywood Character Relationships Through Music.

In his book on David Lynch, Michel Chion asks that we listen to his films with our eyes, but perhaps we should see more with our ears” K.J Donnelly (2005, p.25).

One section that is left out of most dream world explanations of Mulholland Drive is the relationship between the two female leads and Club Silencio; a strange, mysterious zone where musicians at first appear to be performing but end up admitting that they are miming.  Betty and “Rita” take a taxi to the club after first having sex and watch as they are introduced to musicians who perform and then mock the audience by showing that they are in fact only pretending to play.

Here, Lynch is using music as a metaphorical attack on Hollywood.  This is the main Avant-Garde aspect to the film that otherwise smuggles its leanings of Avant-Garde cinema subtly within a coat of Hollywood Noir remaining “in the spirit, if not the precise form, of the original cycle” (Tuck, 2009, p.165).  The main thing to note about this section is the reaction of Betty and Rita to the music.  When a solo singer is performing, they appear to forget what the club is actually about and they both begin to openly weep at the performance.  At least this is what appears to be the reaction at first.  In hindsight this scene is about reaffirming the questionable nature of the reality of the first half of the film.  Lynch is using music and, more specifically, a character’s reaction to a diegetic musical performance, to hint that the character’s take on reality is really a mime and she’s upset at becoming aware of it.

The club is also where “Rita” finds the box for the first time that leads to the truest reality in the film: the reality where Betty is actually Diane, the jealous ex of “Rita” who hires a hit man to kill her but kills herself through guilt and through the torment of her past.  The torment of the final scene is also referencing music, or at least the dead aspirations of Diane which were born out of a relationship with music.  The jitterbug dance competition, which opens the film and is referred to on a number of occasions, changes into a disturbing musical soundscape for the final moments of madness, showing perhaps the honest naivety of the character as well as her mental instability.  “Film music obviously does not exist in a vacuum.  It shares with the image track (and other elements of the soundtrack) the ability to shape perception” sums up Katheryn Kalinak’s take on non-diegetic music (1992, p.15) but Lynch clearly uses this relationship to break down his character’s dream world.

Silencio is the final resting place for the film and after Diane’s final breakdown, we return to the singer who simply states “Silencio” before the film ends.  This implies that the characters were simply going through the motions, a reality of mime created by Diane (even creating Betty as a perfect alternative persona) to delude herself from the fact that her career had failed and that her relationship was in tatters.   No classical Film Noir would dare to imply that its narrative never really happened, especially through the ambiguous reaction to a diegetic piece of music (one notable example is Fritz Lang’s The Woman In The Window).

Diegetic music acting as a metaphorical pivot for both a character’s sanity and reality seems experimental even today.  There’s no doubt that Mulholland Drive’s illusion of mainstream cinema is broken down throughout but it seems that, almost from the very beginning, the soundtrack is the dead giveaway in that this isn’t showcasing typical Hollywood aesthetic patterns.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell

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2 thoughts on “David Lynch’s Assimilation Of The Avant Garde – Part 2 (Musical Score and Club Silencio).

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