Monday, December 8, 2008

The Missing Passage

The recent Region 1 boxed set of David Lynch's work--"The Lime Green Set," as it's called--includes, amongst deluxe versions of his short films, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, a DVD that's referred to as the "Mystery Disc" on the packaging. Its contents are fascinating: the Rabbits online show, a large collection of shorts and, most interestingly, deleted scenes from the Wild at Heart work print.

It seems like the most accurate term for describing any moments ("scenes") from Lynch's films is to call them passages, a term that's also handy with Godard. So these aren't so much deleted scenes as omitted passages, sentences cut from the ends of paragraphs, the Gypsies that were trimmed out and painted over on the canvas of Manet's Boy with a Pitcher.

Importantly, these missing passages aren't included on the Wild at Heart disc--by being placed o the Mystery Disc, they serve as an afterword, a collection of numbered moments that we can insert into the Wild at Heart of our imagination.

The sequence labeled Scene 78 is the most fascinating, as potent and doomed as the famous Winkie's scenario in Mulholland Dr. or the phone call in Lost Highway. Like those sequences, it's in some ways completely self-contained. Viewed outside of the context of the movie, it could be a short film. On the other hand, if imagined as part of the whole of Wild at Heart--or, more importantly, once viewed, remembered as being part of Wild at Heart (and with Lynch the memory of a film is as important as the act of watching it)--it becomes significantly more ambiguous. It's both completely fathomable and a total mystery.

The Tradition of Consistency

Theophrastus gives us 30 characters. His intention isn't dramaturgy or social observation. He wants to be a guide (like a guidebook), to create a text that would help describe (you could say characterize) people in the same way a map describes a city (incompletely, that is, creating a set of names and coordinates to navigate through a whole with infinite social possibilities). So we have The Boor in the same way we have Logan Square and The Coward in the same way we have Lakeshore Drive. R.C.Jebb's 1870 translation has the old Greek writing:

"I will describe to you, class by class, the several kinds of conduct which characterise [people] and the mode in which they administer their affairs; for I conceive, Polycles, that our sons will be the better if such memorials are bequeathed to them, using which as examples they shall choose to live and consort with men of the fairest lives, in order that they may not fall short of them."

We've invented many more systems--as many systems as there are people, probably even more. Advertising is a system for dividing a population into consumer groups. Politicians create a system that clearly delineates people into us and them. A system is always a knife. It's for carving up a whole into pieces so that it can be more easily digested. People are not characters; character, characteristics are a system we use to more easily analyze something. When we think of any person as a character (and, in our memories and our experiences, we frequently do) we cut off part of them, and we can keep cutting. Perhaps this is the great Utopian aspect of cinema: that it does not include a system for dividing up its audience.

So why is it that film analysis -- whether it's published criticism or two people talking in a lobby -- wants to tether itself to a notion of character -- a very clearly delineated, orthodox concept of character, whether in respect to the subjects or the filmmakers (in auteurism, themselves characters)? There is nothing wrong with the character system -- many films have been made with it in mind. But it is never a good idea to use the same system for everything. Every film calls for a new approach. Though literature is our favorite scapegoat when it comes to attacking lazy criticism, adherence to the character system, the character tradition, is more likely the fault of the guide we frequently use to describe what we think constitutes "good" acting: consistency. A person has to be like an equation ("X would never do that!" when we should instead accept what X has done and try to understand it, and that involves more systems--morality, ethics, etc--illustrating that the mind is a sort of infinitely regressing trap).

The art of creating an "original character" is like the art of cooking: a new combination of old ingredients. Any original idea can be subdivided into older ideas. This does not discredit originality--but we should see things for what they are. Behind every new idea is a transposition of an old idea, a previous assumption. There will be new ideas as long as there are old ones. The older the better.

People who dislike David Lynch's work, or at least certain aspects of it, will occasionally mention the "poor characterizations"--especially in Wild at Heart. But with Lynch a person is never a character--instead, a character is ascribed to them. They are given names, but those names aren't theirs to keep. Sometimes a single set of characteristics can travel between actors (Mulholland Dr., Lost Highway) or the same actor can be given multiple distinct sets of characteristics and names (Inland Empire). Or, as in Twin Peaks, a notion (whether it's a character, a feeling of guilt) can spread out like an umbrella and cover multiple persons at different times.

There are no "characters" in Ozu's late films. Instead, familiar faces are given names and roles, but they're never characters in the orthodox sense. There are no "characters" in late Hitchcock (certainly not in Topaz): instead, images of people serve as magnets for the metal filings of our emotions. And the people of Cassavetes and Pialat are like quotes with ellipses on either side: there is a acknowledgment that we are seeing something out of context, removed from its reality, but it is important that this removed passage be quoted.

Lynch, along with Abel Ferrara, presents the most intelligent portrayal of identity of any contemporary American filmmaker: in every one of us, there is a million, and sometimes a million of us are one. It depends on the system.


Laura Dern in Inland Empire is as many characters as the viewers wish to divide her into (the more adventurous can say that she is really only one). Inland Empire and Mulholland Dr. are films without scenes--a scene, after all, is a system by which a whole can be clearly delineated. Instead, by presenting the work as an interconnected whole, Lynch gives us the opportunity to create our own systems, to cut them up as many ways as we want. Mulholland Dr., especially early on, frequently coalesces into something akin to scenes. But Inland Empire is a long cinematic superimposition, posing the same question a double exposure poses: are we looking at a single image, two distinct images, something else? As behind every new idea there are old ideas, behind every recognizable image is complete abstraction.

In 1984, a young Austrian named Peter Tscherkassky, a former student of journalism (the system of shaping experience into "news") and philosophy (the system of systems!), laid three minutes worth of celluloid down in a darkroom in the shape of a film frame and exposed a single still image from the Lumiere's first "actuality" (really the second take) on it, each blown-up microscopic section of the frame creating a new image. Concreteness—"realism"—is something that only exists on the surface, and the moment you begin to divide you find abstraction.

As a painter, Lynch knows this well. The painter coalesces, combining something completely separate from the painting (the paint) to create an image. Even in a "realistic" image, if we look far enough, we will see that there are "abstract" elements: colors.

This is what makes the Bible one of the greatest works of art. With its numerous versions, translations and rewordings, it is a text that can be subdivided infinitely. It provides us--like the concept of characterization when applied to people--with a rudimentary system (chapters and verses) as a guide (like a map), but it can be broken up and re-contextualized any number of ways: by word, by sentence, by any number of pages, verses, words, sentences, chapters, and, of course, passages. The Bible is a machine capable of generating an infinite number of meanings, working as long as someone somewhere is even thinking of it. And so is the cinema.

The Intruder

The first image of Scene 78 is one of its two close-ups. Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) is playing with a novelty pen. A wide shot: two men--who will be named later as Reggie and Dropshadow (or, rather, they will have those names ascribed to them) arrive and introduce themselves. They're embodied (and supporting players in Lynch films are always embodying something), respectively, by Calvin Lockhart and David Patrick Kelly.

The preservation of the original splices in the work print gives every cut a jittering quality, like a snare hit. Even the most casual viewer becomes aware that the image consists of pieces attached to each other to form a chain. The soundtrack is finished, crisp, clear almost as if to contrast with the unfinished nature of the images. It is a pair of ominous arms trying to hold something together, trying to keep it from falling apart.

Stanton, with his beige suit and dapperly held cigarette, is doing his best Cary Grant, his best American cool to Lockhart's affable Honduran. Lockhart is playing friendly, talkative, but what comes through is a subliminal menace. His blue shirt seems tuned to the low hum on the soundtrack, its electrical blue seeming more and more intrusive as the dialogue progresses. Lockhart says he runs an appliance repair shop and then tells Stanton he works for the Honduran government. He has a license to kill. He tells Stanton that he and Kelly are going fishing and them offers to show him his combat pistol, holding up a metal briefcase. You could edit out half of his lines and make him into a friendly tourist. Or you could edit out the other half and make him into a dangerous rogue. As Stanton stands up to leave, there is a close-up of a tattoo, somewhat illegible, across Kelly's knuckles.

Lynch is a filmmaker who is sometimes criticized for his simplistic worldview. That observation is accurate, though the idea that it's a detriment is misplaced. His work consists of many conflicting simplistic wordviews operating side by side, several systems going at once. In Lockhart's character alone, there are two possible pieces we can cut out and make something easy to understand (he is a friendly foreigner with a thick accent on a trip to New Orleans / he is a killer working for a foreign government), both originating from archetypes. Simple ideas an ordinary American like Stanton might have about people from other countries. Lynch does not reject the notion of "consistent character"--he embraces it more than any of his contemporaries. The more "consistent characters" a person can be, the merrier.

But say we put those two halves together, like Scene 78 does. What we are left with is not two characters, but a sort of infinite whole. Something that by contradicting itself (as the placidity of the wide shots is contradicted by the menacing second close-up) in every direction creates an ambiguous image from which ideas can be carved by anyone willing to hold a knife. Lynch can be cut up forever.

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