Issue 115 – Listening to Lynch

Listening to Lynch
Listening to Lynch

From the ‘fast’ Mulholand Dr. and Wild at Heart to the ‘slow’ Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, Tony McKibbin examines the work of David Lynch, with a particular emphasis on sound.

Here are a couple of moments from David Lynch’s work. The first comes from Lost Highway: the credits come towards us on the screen, we’re in a car hurtling along a road at night, while an intense rock song plays on the soundtrack. The second is the opening scene from Blue Velvet, where Bobby Vinton’s dulcet tones accompany Lynch’s slow motion take on small town American life. Vinton sings ‘Blue Velvet’, and Lynch captures a slumberous Lumberton. Using a Lynchian vocabulary, we can suggest the first scene utilises ‘fast sound’; the latter ‘slow sound’. In fast sound our nerves are often stretched and in slow sound ostensibly assuaged, or at least temporarily relieved from dramatic exigencies and nerve pounding. But, just as Lynch says, ‘The borderline between sound effects and music is the most beautiful area’; we can add that another beautiful area in Lynch’s work resides in the complex way he works with fast and slow sound.

Many filmmakers, of course, work with fast and slow sonic effects, but they often do so far more regimentally than Lynch. Horror is a great genre of fast and slow sounds played against each other for the purposes of audience impact. In the original Cat People, for example, we hear the quiet street sounds of the central character’s heels on the pavement only to have the slow soundscape suddenly interrupted by the loud, fast screech of a bus pulling up. Then there is, of course, Jaws, where the calm of the sea is set against the sharp, strident chords of John Williams’s shark-track. In a less conventional fashion there is a film like Funny Games, which utilises a thrash metal soundtrack during the opening credits, contrasted with snatches of classical and opera, before settling down to domestic slow sounds, made ominous partly because of the fast sound the film briefly utilises.

Lost Highway shares with Funny Games this use of metal, but it uses it more ambiguously. Haneke seems to fall into the high/low art dichotomy as he contrasts metal with opera, but for Lynch it is just another element in the complexity of sound. This isn’t sound that needs sociological contrasting with the civilized sound of opera and classical music. It is instead an especially intriguing example of fast sound that succeeds in capturing an internal rawness over an external chaos. Lynch seems interested in an experimental, tentative exploration of sound’s inner workings over socio-categories of a collapsing society, symbolized by the insensitive sounds of modern living: of which metal might seem to be the nadir.

Thus metal doesn’t serve to symbolize social decay in Lynch, but to energize certain cinematic images, and certain mental states. For example, it can help the body of a film and the mind of its protagonists fly. As Lynch himself says, ‘A film is like a pyramid. In the beginning you can go slowly and, as you go along and it may seem the same amount of slowness, but in actuality it’s much faster, just because you seem to be going for some time… Film is flying.’

The full article is printed in Film Ireland 115.

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