David Lynch’s Avant-Garde Uses Of Music – Part 3 (Influence).

Part 1. Part 2.

Mulholland Drive In Context of Other Subversive Mainstream Films (Eyes Wide Shut).

For the duration of his career, and despite the size of his productions and the fact that they were all studio funded, Kubrick was very much an independent filmmaker.” – Horsley (2005, p.54)

Lynch isn’t the only director to take Hollywood visuals and use them for his own artistic ends.  A number of directors have taken this approach from the start and have created films that are financially successful as well as being challenging entertainment.  The juxtaposed nature of these two criterion hint that they are opposite and unable to co-exist, yet Lynch along with these other directors have played the system, allowing for Avant-Garde tendencies (musical or otherwise) to enter into the cinema of the mainstream.

Lynch is in some ways indebted to Stanley Kubrick. “On the one hand, then, Lynch seeks liberation akin to that sought by the surrealists in their emphasis on dreams and automatic writing, or by Cage and author William Burroughs in the exploration of a wide range of chance operations”  is Ira Jaffe’s description of Lynch but could equally be a description of Kubrick (2008, p.92)  His playing of the system which has allowed him to take everything useful from the mainstream (funding, distribution, audience) and align with his own, sometimes very Avant-Garde interests, is the very basis on which Lynch exists.  Mulholland Drive’s split of Avant-Garde compositions and ironic pop music is a parallel to Kubrick’s use of music, especially towards the latter end of his career.  Films like The Shining (1980)and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) all trick the viewer into thinking they have a linear slice of escapism when, in reality, they are powerful, subversive and open ended, just like Lynch’s work.

In comparison to Mulholland Drive, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut actually takes the Avant-Garde a step further by using genuine, pre-existing Avant-Garde music.  Both Lynch and Kubrick have found much to explore in the use of popular music, yet Lynch seems to have never been too interested in using the music of the likes of Bartók or Ligeti.  Even with this in mind, Eyes Wide Shut seems a natural partner to Mulholland Drive.  Both can be described as psycho-sexual fantasies, both have A-list casts, both question whether the scenarios the characters live through actually happened and both use that same balance of experimental composed music and pre-existing pop music.

It is interesting to note Eyes Wide Shut’s use of Chris Issak, which may only appear for one scene but was used for the film’s promotional campaign and trailer too.  This may hint that mainstream cinema is more used to treating popular music scores as the norm; the choice to use it over the more used Ligeti piece backs this up.  Perhaps it is mere coincidence that Lynch had previously used Issak’s most famous track, Wicked Game, five years before in Wild at Heart but it is yet another factor that links the two.

The composed score also shares similarities and for this type of film, long experimental pieces of music sometimes used in their entirety are popular.  Jocelyn Pook’s music for Eyes Wide Shut is tonally interesting, mixing eastern sounding melodies with chants and ambient strings.  The music is cold and distancing, as if trying to make the viewer feel as unwelcome as Tom Cruise’s character is when he sneaks into a private, underground religious/sexual society.  This links again to Mulholland Drive’s score in that it distances the viewer with its cold and isolated use of composed music; the opposite to the relationship built from an older Hollywood score; “The major unifying force in Hollywood scoring is the use of musical themes…” (Gorbman, 1987, p.91).  The fact that this is present and that these are both films distributed worldwide must surely prove that some Avant-Garde ideals have entered into the musical scoring of mainstream cinema?  A more conventional film would highlight danger or unease in a very specific way and not in such a subtle and unusual use of open ended ambience.  These films, however, are designed both to raise money and confound, allowing Avant-Garde music to enter into films seen by a large audience.

However, the contrast with Kubrick highlights an odd point.  Though the popular music used is highly recontextualised, in spite of the all the factors that lead to calling Kubrick mainstream, he shows that actually, he and Lynch may in fact have absorbed just as many mainstream musical tendencies into their more Avant-Garde films; the polar opposite of the point of question. Can something truly be labelled Avant-Garde if it is being sold and marketed as something for the mass market?  It may be subversive and experimental but, like Mulholland Drive, it is still something widely distributed and advertised like many other mainstream films.  The fact that its main motif for unease is Ligeti (while Lynch’s is electronic drones) matters as little as its very deep and complex narrative; the films are popular.

Lynch’s Influence On The More Traditional Mainstream.

If the argument that Lynch is mainstream simply didn’t convince, a different approach is to situate Lynch’s Noir to the Avant-Garde side and see whether his use of music and visuals has entered into more obviously popular avenues.  Comparing feature length films to music videos, as this section is about to attempt, is a tricky task. “Music videos do not embody complete narratives or convey finely wrought stories for numerous reasons...” argues Vernallis (2004, p.3).  The roles and meanings are so different that, in comparison to each other, the latter is always going to come out looking more experimental, more non-narrative and more Avant-Garde even if, by the standards of the form, the examples discussed are relatively straight forward.

One of the most mainstream and successful adaptations of Lynch#s style and themes is in the artist Lana Del Rey; an American pop singer.  Her music is interesting in that its pairing with visuals for videos often encapsulates that Lynchian aesthetic of weird L.A and by default Avant-Garde aesthetics.  This is the L.A discussed previously with a hint of knowing of its glamorous past and dark undertones.  Though the question is really about the Avant-Garde use of music, her videos visually capture that uneasy essence that push Lynch’s films out of the purely mainstream aesthetic and into popular subversion. Nick James says that “Much of David Lynch’s career has been dedicated to extending the more unnerving effects of the noir palette on the viewer’s psyches, but Mulholland Dr. is probably his most potent variation on the noir themes” (James, 2013, p.59).  It is this variation that is Del Rey’s touchstone.

Her video for Video Games is the perfect example of this.  In the context of narrative film, the fact that she’s miming to the fourth wall in certain shots, tying music to visual, would make for a P.T. Anderson style excursion into Avant-Garde film.  In the context of music videos, however, this is relatively normal so no further argument will be made other than stating that this is the nature of the form and not unique to this example.  Noting what imagery is chosen to tie in to the music does, though, connect her (and the video’s director) with a Lynchian view of America.

Video Games shows stock images of a Hollywood from the golden age.  Grainy images of Hollywood Hill and Sunset Boulevard are spliced with modern footage of drunken celebrities being harassed by the paparazzi.  The latter shots could easily be a scene from Mulholland Drive or even Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006).  Even more knowing is the context in which these images are put together.  Lynch’s whole philosophy is based around demystifying the rosy images of Hollywood’s golden age born no doubt from exposure to his favourite film; Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950).  Here, Video Games used images of photographers and paparazzi both then and now, all cleanly cut with Del Rey’s music.  The press are shown to be as equally as rabid and that Hollywood was no doubt as problematic then as it is today.

Del Rey went on further into Lynch’s territory, though it is extremely unclear as to how much say she actually has on her own image (an ironic Lynchian topic).  For a promotional video for clothing company, H&M, she not only recorded a cover of Blue Velvet (the topic and main theme of Lynch’s most famous film), she recorded a video for it full of Lynchian references and hints.  This is where some of Lynch’s musical experimentations have found their way into the most typical end of mainstream culture to be accepted as the norm.  At the beginning of the video, a record is put on which starts the music and the singing.  Del Rey is made up in an Isabella Rossellini style haircut, knowingly miming the song to a crowd of Lynch style characters while also jumping between scenarios still, all the while, singing.  This is explained by Vernallis’ reasoning on music videos saying “if there is a story, it exists only in the dynamic relation between the song and the image as they unfold in time” (2004, p.4).

A list of these visual hints could be interesting but is beside the point.  Instead we turn to the music where the song is cut off due to a midget (a reference to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)) unplugging the record player.  Perhaps this could be seen as turning the power off everywhere in the club but a better tie in would be to compare to Club Silencio’s happenings in Mulholland Drive.  The artists evoke a reaction by miming the music.  Del Rey and her director have reproduced this for the video not just for a potential reference to Lynch but in sending up the very idea of music videos as a form.  While it was discussed that the whole Club Silencio scene could be read as an attack on various aspects of Hollywood film, it could equally be levelled at music videos which were at the height of their popularity during the film’s release.  This is highlighted by Del Rey singing in other scenarios outside of the club without a microphone.  Images include singing in a telephone box and on a couch whilst being hypnotised.

It is often said that music videos have influenced the style of editing in modern films, especially in reference to the speed.  They are also having an effect on the audio but it is worth noting that the relationship between mainstream and Avant-Garde is one, not of a one way diffusion, but instead a constant osmosis.  Lynch has Avant-Garde influences (“Stylistically, Lynch had more in common with the films of Cocteau and Buñuel than those of his contemporaries…”  (Cousins, 2004, p.397)) and has influenced artists considered to sit within the mainstream.  The majority of the analysis of Mulholland Drive was focussing on mainstream as a factor rather than an aesthetic.  The music videos of Lana Del Rey go on to back this up as a favourable perspective, even if they have taken the most obvious elements away from Lynch’s work and used them for a commercial image rather than as a creative mantra.

Conclusion – Has Avant-Garde Entered Into Mainstream Sound Worlds?

Unextraordinary in aesthetic ambition, formulaic in nature, and easily mass produced, genre films are the mainstream texts in every sense of the word…” – Flinn on early Film Noir (1992, p.115).

Lynch’s links to Lana Del Rey may seem flimsy and based mainly on visuals and feel but they highlight one of the main issues with the original question.  Choosing David Lynch as an example of mainstream may at first have seemed like cheating the system in the sense that Mulholland Drive is only pretending to be a mainstream neo-noir, logically allowing for experimental aesthetics to naturally occur.  However, the key is in the context; the context of the era of music videos and other advances in technology.  A film first made to be a television series is bound to have loose ends that may be read as Avant-Garde.  Musically, it showcases elements that may be considered normal today but, in contrast to past films of the genre, shows a wealth of Avant-Garde tendencies.

Trying to prove that these experimental ideals have entered mainstream cinematic culture feels like discussing the event after it has happened.  In comparison to the time of the early Avant-Garde filmmakers, the popular music of the 1950s, 60s and onward must seem radical in contrast.  This may somewhat add to the point but it is an obtuse way of dealing with the question.  The soundscapes that would have been described as musique concrète are a better, more linear example of progress and assimilation as the analysis of both Mulholland Drive and Eyes Wide Shut have shown.  Their composed scores take note from all areas of Avant-Garde music, seeming to be an amalgamation of sonic ideas that are unnerving but not especially shocking.  Perhaps this hints that music has some way to go in mainstream cinema before it has the shock factor the original Avant-Garde had.  However, the seeds of the ideals are thoroughly sown and slowly sprouting.

By entering more mainstream, more distributed avenues, the techniques have, in some ways, lost their role as Avant-Garde.  “The avant-garde always begins as an aggressive, paradoxical , and scandalous elite whose first aim is always to annex its followers and sources as much as possible” is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s description of the original Avant-Garde (2012, p.23).  It seems fitting then that their future ideals are to be absorbed into a culture almost entirely polar.  The family line may be traceable to that group of early pioneers but the techniques seem no longer new or dangerous; simply effective with the right execution.  This is not to say that every film screened in the multiplex will show the same tendencies to incorporate these ideals into their use of music but even using the term “incorporate” misses the point.

These techniques, ideals and tendencies no longer need to be incorporated thanks to years of music videos, video installations and the internet (as well as filmmakers and composers adapting to the changing scenarios): these ideas are now normal.  “… the avant-garde implies a set of historical relations” argues O’Pray and here the techniques have managed to both be formalised and taken for normal in spite of its historical relations (2008, p.4).  It is up to directors like Lynch and Kubrick to find new methods and idiosyncrasies in music (especially pre-recorded popular songs) but the Avant-Garde textures and palettes, within film and music, have very clearly been taken to heart even if its normalising has made it difficult at first to clearly separate them from our era’s approach to audio-visual culture.


Cousins, M., 2004. The Story of Film. London: Pavilion Books.

Donnelly, K, J., 2005.  The Spectre Of Sound: Music In Film and Television. London: British Film Institute.

Flinn, C., 1992. Strains Of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia and Hollywood Film Music. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Gorbman, C., 1987. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Indiana University Press, London: BFI Publishing.

Horsley, J., 2005. Dogville Vs Hollywood: The War Between Independent Film and Mainstream Movies. London: Marion Boyars Publishers LTD.

Jaffe, I.,2008. Hollywood Hybrids, Mixing Genres In Contemporary Films. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishing.

James, N., 2013. Twenty-First Century Noir, in Sight&Sound Volume 23, Issue 2. London: British Film Institute.

Kael, P., 1990. Hooked: Film Writings – 1985-1988. London: Marion Boyars Publishers.

Kalinak, K., 1992. Settling The Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Kassabian, A., 2001. Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music. New York and London: Routledge.

Kassabian, A., 2003. The Sound of a New Film Form, in Popular Music and Film. London: Wallflower Press.

Mundy, J., 1999. Popular Music On Screen: From Hollywood Musical to Music Video. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

O’Pray, M., 2003. “The Avant-Garde Film: Definitions”, in Avant-Garde Film: Forms, Themes and Passions. London: Wallflower.

Pasolini, P, P., 2012 (English translation). Here’s My Totò. London: Masters Of Cinema (Eureka).

Tarkovsky, A., 1986. Sculpting in Time: The Great Russian Filmmaker Discusses His Art. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Tuck, G., 2009. Laughter in the Dark: Irony, Black Comedy and Noir in the Films of David Lynch, the Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarantino, in Neo-Noir. London: Wallflower Press.

Vernallis, C., 2004. Telling and Not Telling, in Experiencing Music Video: Aesthetics and Cultural Context. New York: Columbia University Press.

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