How telling it is that the seminal image driving David Lynch to create his formidable 1986 adventure into darkness, Blue Velvet, was that of a severed human ear! The ear is a hole into the brain, and the eyes two more through which the camera has turned us into willing voyeurs. But voyeurs don’t just peep. They listen, too, and Lynch’s work has constantly revealed how heedful he is of the brain’s auditory processing of what reaches our ears. The many ways in which he has made that process part of modern cinema can make us think other directors have been missing a trick, says Peter Wix.
Marrying sonic stimuli to visual images and sparking them together to create magic is no cheap trumpery with the tools of psychoacoustics. David Lynch is diligent and patient. His movies include a constant care plan under which he meticulously attends to all he can control – his casts, wardrobe, lighting, dialogue, props and, most importantly, our sense of perception as the collective retina and cochlea for his personal voyeurism. Any clumsiness in combining vision and sound would compromise artistic unity and risk taking the spectator out of the situation. And we must be there in the intimate spaces he wants us to occupy; close to the flame, near enough for innocent objects to become wondrous: in the velvety darkness of cars where only the faces of his characters are lit, but as brilliantly as in Rembrandt portraits; or disarticulated in a dystopic, industrial dreamscape that suffocates even memory and identity; or close enough to the freakish deformities of John Merrick, ‘Elephant Man’, to sense his inner beauty; and, the ultimate dare, near enough to feel the beat of the thunderous heart of deviant Frank Booth. This sometimes terrifying but always fun proximity is achieved by the assiduous use of a copious armoury of sonic resources. The amplified and perfectly recorded sound of a cigarette being lit and consumed by fire, used throughout Wild At Heart (1990) to comment on ardent states of emotion; the constant and disquieting variations of a tinnitus of foreground hum and haw and distant factory clanking in Eraserhead (1977); the tragically growing acuteness of the bronchial saga within Merrick’s chest that battles with his own often sweet voice and which eventually floods his lungs…
What brings us so close to the rapist and comprehensively degenerate villain Frank Booth, in Blue Velvet, is an unusually complex and chillingly effective synergy of sound, dialogue and the very special recalling of the portrayal irresistibly comic on set. This liminal point between menace and comedy is something special, but for it to have maximum impact we need the extra information provided by the sound of Frank, the noises that push him into your face. You wouldn’t laugh at him, would you? We hear his desperate muffled cry of “Mommy” through that inhaling mask as, on all fours, he crawls like a baby towards Dorothy’s vagina, desperately dragging his tortured soul back towards the womb; and we go deeper still into his darkness as Lynch calls on our sense of touch by showing us Frank frenetically caressing and sucking an off-cut of blue velvet material. Later, when Frank drives Jeffery to the wasteland beating scene, we are invited to imagine how that piece of blue velvet feels as it is pushed into Jeffrey’s mouth. Even closer now, between the mask and Frank’s mouth, where the sound of his inhaling has drawn us, where he has roughly lipsticked his mouth with carmine, and we must imagine – through Jeffrey – being kissed by him, tasting his breath, feeling his muscles as he begins what portends to be a fatal humiliation ritual. All this takes place as we hear Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ for the second time in the film. Frank has ordered it to be played on the car’s cassette player. A hooker on top of the car brazenly bumps and grinds to the music. Both this song, and the Bobby Vinton hit, ‘Blue Velvet’, which gave the film its title even before the screenplay was written, are syrupy representations of a post-war US culture based on façade. Beyond what their beautiful melodies and elegant execution might mean to pop cognoscenti, these songs were associated with the white picket fences and untainted, peaceful neighbourhoods of bourgeois America that Lynch so classily lampoons at the start of the film. Since they are also examples of the socially hygienic end of rock’n’roll, they would have had chutzpah value to play at cocktail evenings as credentials of hosts’ modernity and youthfulness. To have such useful social tools appropriated by an aberrant figure like Frank Booth challenges a traditional association and sets up an interesting juxtaposition that unsettles the mind: our bourgeois cultural trinkets in the hands of a killer and mindless torturer who has the power to change what the songs mean, to love them to death, to metaphorically fuck them (“I’ll fuck anything that moves”), and, of course, to make them dead to us. It is almost akin to the power of deviant sex to lure your daughter away from bourgeois normality, as Bob does to Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks.
Having ‘In Dreams’ sung first by the eccentric and sinisterly camp drug dealer Ben (Dean Stockwell), his face lit unusually by the utility flashlight he uses as a microphone, was another masterstroke of
decontextualisation. Ben, the ultimate façade and clearly quite absurd ‘host’, performs ‘In Dreams’ and releases the song from its traditional associations. Ben is a million miles closer to hell than most million-selling recording artists. The idea initially upset Orbison himself. This point in what has hitherto been a rather shocking film suddenly takes it into the magical territory of musicals. Ben is miming, and we are there in the intimacy of his bizarre audience of kinky thugs and obese sluts, privileged to be watching Frank react to the song (we saw him before, emotional but restricted by the more public setting of the nightclub where Dorothy sings ‘Blue Velvet’). ‘In Dreams’ really begins as a kind of lullaby in what one might imagine to be a child’s bedroom as “the Sandman tiptoes to my room every night”. Frank painfully engages with the lyrics, as we are given essential information about his messed-up mind and the childhood origins of that mess, a key pointer to the psychological motives behind the Dorothy Vallens crime he is committing. Further subverting any cultural fondness we nurture for ‘In Dreams’, Frank just calls the song “Candy Coloured Clown,” according to its opening line. Just as he calls Dorothy simply “Tits”, there is no formalising of identities for this guy. All the ways in which Lynch breaks the song away from its former cultural comfort zone exploit the essential mechanisms of surrealism. This unsettles our minds and unlocks the door to the unconscious, while it also provokes bourgeois normality and, through Frank’s fetishistic enthusiasm for the song, rescues Orbison’s work from the meaninglessness of the disposable pop market, placing it within the ceremonies of art – something Orbison was eventually able to appreciate.
So much trouble from the use of one song, eh? And it works on yet another subconscious level, too, one that is crucial in David Lynch’s work. ‘In Dreams’ is not limited by a cyclical structure; just when most songs would come round from a chorus to a second verse, this soars and keeps climbing emotionally; a limitlessness that works perfectly as a recurrent theme in (the film) Blue Velvet and as a leitmotiv for the untameable Frank Booth. We don’t know how far Frank will go, how soon that flame will ignite and signal the roar of the beast, but we are excited by being moved around, prepared to accept any fairground ride Lynch offers us. He takes us up with so much of the music he uses, such as the Angelo Badalamenti/ Julee Cruise collaborations which punctuate Twin Peaks, creating a
dreamy, floating sensation, something way above the ground, a place we can only get up to if we loosen the guy ropes on our understanding of ordinary reality; as Dorothy says when she is lifted into the ambulance at the end of her ordeal in Blue Velvet: “Help me, I’m falling.” Yes, he uses music to take us down, too, way down in the ground.
Lynch is one of many sensible directors who claim that sound is fifty percent or more of a film but, unlike some filmmakers, he applies no hard and fast rules to the application of sound and music. Robert Bresson, the ascetic French director of Diary of Country Priest (1951) insisted on using
only diegetic sound in film, i.e. no background music or noise that the film’s characters would not actually hear; nothing that is not part of the narrative space. Tarkovsky, the Russian director of atmospheric gems such as Ivan’s Childhood and Stalker, revelled in the use of sounds we can see,
like dripping water, but did not use non-diegetic sound to create a separate narrative, establish a mood, juxtapose sound and image, or try to disorder our senses by creating dreamy moods for abstract reasons, as Lynch does. Lynch excels and delights in applying sound diegetically and nondiegetically, even subverting dialogue through distortion and reversal to make it mysterious to us as he did so famously in the Twin Peaks Red Room scenes, yet another effective technique to unsettle our imaginations. But don’t imagine that he sits down to apply film technique based on theory, assessing and balancing his tasks in an academic fashion. He just has a feeling about what will marry to the visual imagery and successfully generate the mood he is looking for. He has worked with
Angelo Badalamenti on every movie since Blue Velvet, initially presenting this gifted musician with words to interpret until Badalamenti delivers the music that will exploit what the 20th century art dealer and historian Julien Levy called “the mechanism of inspiration”, a surrealist route to
“intensifying experience”. Lynch, who is a proficient enough composer to create music and sound without help – in fact he is now making his own records – has an instinctive understanding of the process of sound perception in the brain, which is known as psychoacoustics. It is complex. The eye (like the camera) sees in the direction of our attention, but we are often not sure where a sound is coming from. In normal circumstances we are capable of hearing many sounds but choose to focus on only one or two, such aswhen we are walking in the street. Go walking with a birder, however, and perception becomes very different. Ornithologists hear a soundtrack the rest of us pay no attention to, but which is full of meaning for them. Birds and their songs, which feature much in Lynch’s films, provide constant urban and rural sound data that most of us are blissfully unaware of. And if our emotions are set on edge by what we are seeing or what is happening to us, we might not hear certain sounds at all, the gunshots of a firing squad, for example, in the midst of other more immediate dangers. Sound is subject to an exclusively mental process of selection. In Lost Highway (1997), for example, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is at a party; we hear groovy lounge music as loud as he does until he is shaken by a very threatening meeting with Mystery Man (Robert Blake). The
party music disappears and we are in silence. This sudden absence is quite unnatural but it would also be logical for Fred to blank out the party music if he were alarmed, instead concentrating on the sinister message Mystery Man is delivering in a curiously strong and low tone of voice at odds with his diminutive stature and clownish, flour-covered face. Excessive synchronism between visuals and sound can often seem less real. Here, Lynch wants us to hear Mystery Man’s sinister assertion that he is in two places at the same time. There is meaning in this. We too, are absorbed in dealing with all these unsettling contradictions. The party music is suddenly restored as Fred is left contemplating this disconcerting encounter and has to deal with other characters which trouble his mazy mind.
Filmmakers have a special opportunity to control what we hear, as well as what we see, and through their use and editing of sound they effectively supplant our own selection process. There were no easy sound options available in the silent era before 1927 and the arrival of first ‘talkies’. When the change came, early sound film directors underused the added sensation of realism open to them by pompously and monotonously filming theatre plays. Spanish director Luis Buñuel, to whom David Lynch is often compared, responded with imagination when he was given the funding to deliver a surrealist sound film. This was the classic L’age D’or (1930) whose score combined improvised and random non-diegetic noises and sound effects with music by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Debussy. Buñuel even included, to dramatic and surrealistic effect, a recording of the intense Easter drums that played in the streets of Calanda, his birthplace. In his 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty, he would again use diverse sounds – bells, birdsong, clock ticks, thunder, police sirens, gun shots – to disturb our hold on reality and stir our subconscious. As experimental filmmaker and writer Breixo Viejo comments in his essay The Liberty of Imagination, “It is no coincidence that Buñuel’s personal library contained a copy of In Search of a Concrete Music by the composer Pierre Schaeffer, the creator of musique concrète, which involved manipulating, a posteriori, field recordings of ‘concrete’ noises through sound editing with the purpose of creating a complete musical piece.”
Schaeffer, indeed, was a pioneer in the use of tape looping and electronic instruments, the kind of useful dabbler with whom David Lynch worked on many of his projects. With Alan Splet interpreting his ideas, Lynch constructed a score that would certainly prove to be fifty percent of the effect of Eraserhead, the 1977 movie that established Lynch as a kingpin of weirdness. No end of hissing, screaking, wowing, reverberating, and throbbing noises make up the soundtrack of this film but, importantly, they seem to be arranged with a rhythm, almost like a musical score, and one that mesmerises the listener and galvanises the effect of the nightmarish visuals.
Associating ideas subconsciously, as in dreams, is a key to Lynch’s film experiences, and sound plays a huge role in this. Sometimes those effects work subtly upon us, as with the great wealth of romantic Badalamenti music in Twin Peaks, or the clever use of the police radios in the economic final scenes of Blue Velvet. However, when he needs to turn the heat up, Lynch can be unrelenting. Lost Highway features a constant sound barrage through room tone, subverted dialogue at key moments of passion or sexual fury, immense reverbs, searing sounds, savage free-jazz saxophone blended with ferocious wind noises, dogs barking, approaching avalanche rumble, speaker shake, all kinds of sonic resources to describe mental derangement, obsession, nausea, menace. The effort Lynch makes with sound is uncommon and very much part of the power his films have over us. Despite technology consistently enhancing the possibilities for sound in cinema, no commercially distributed director has made such constant and clever use of these options as he has. His careful attention to what we hear has given us so much more in terms of meaning and mood. We should keep in mind that severed ear at the start of Blue Velvet as a symbol of what is so often missing from our movie-watching experiences.