Sunday, 13 November 2011

Music To My Eyes

by Nick Pierce

‘A candy-colored clown they call the sandman. Tiptoes to my room every night. Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper: "Go to sleep, everything is alright”.’ Lyrically, these four lines encapsulate well the unique mood now typically referred to as Lynchian: On one level, they’re expressive of a simple fantasy, a beautiful and hypnotic dream. On another, there’s an air of menace about them, even if the nature of this menace isn’t quite definable. Soothingly speaking the words ‘everything is alright’ might indicate the urge to comfort and protect, but on the other hand it might be a way of lulling an unsuspecting victim into a state of false security…

  These lyrics, from the Roy Orbison classic ‘In Dreams’ appear prominently in the soundtrack to David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet. Jeffrey Beaumont (fresh-faced Kyle MacLachlan) has been dragged by the psychotic Frank Booth (a never better Dennis Hopper) to the residence of the mysterious Ben, “one suave fucker” in the words of Frank, who commences lip-synching along to a recording of said song. It could be argued that the whole sequence makes no sense, and of course in one way this would be correct. But it also makes perfect sense; in fact, you might say that it’s the crux of the entire film, the moment that goes some way towards elucidating what is happening elsewhere, and this owes in large part to Lynch’s use of music. The song effectively flags up the dream state in which Lynch’s films generally unfold: a realm where things make profound and disturbing sense in the moment of their occurrence, but fail to cohere when you leave the darkened movie auditorium and awake back into the quotidian. It elucidates because, despite being closer to the logic of dreams than the world in which Jeffrey begins the film, one of suburban normality and tedium, it points to a truth that this small-town Odysseus couldn’t recognise before: that he has been sleeping and now he is awake (or not), to the underbelly and the unspoken desires of his town; its subconscious, focalised most terrifyingly in Frank. It is salient of course that this truth should be signalled when the film is at its least adherent to conventional understanding of reality. After all, I doubt a gangster like Frank has ever attempted to intimidate somebody by getting a friend to perform 50s pop tunes in front of them. Lynch’s genius is that he never provides the detachment or the interpretative standpoint that we generally expect from narrative art. Instead, a mad dream like this sequence reflects the madness of other dreams, such as that of the illusory safety of the suburbs. There’s no hierarchy imposed between these states. To put it more explicitly and without the elegance of Lynch’s cinema, Blue Velvet tells us that life is nothing but a dream.

   Effectively, this has all been an extended preamble to stating that if there’s one aspect of David Lynch’s out-there oeuvre that remains undervalued it’s his attention to sonic detail. His uncanny employment of Roy Orbison is really only the tip of the aural iceberg regarding the astonishing sound design of his work, all of which he takes a primary role in constructing, assembling evocative noises and co-writing the scores with composer Angelo Badalamenti. The album Crazy Clown Time, released in early November of this year foregrounds his technical abilities when it comes to creating cinematic music. Arriving without any accompanying film, the pieces contained within remain close relations of his celebrated movie scores. Aside from being a pretty dire title, sounding like the sort of brainlessly kooky thing a David Lynch wannabe might name his own album, Crazy Clown Time suggests a degree of frivolity, of ‘clowning around’ in its execution, as if the music is to be received as a great artist passing the time between weightier projects. And in all honesty that’s exactly what it sounds like as well: After the midnight thrills of the guitar-driven opening track and the woozy electronica of ‘Good Day Today’ the album quickly fades into background music, reliably moody and macabre without any of the arresting power of his greatest pictures. The problem isn’t so much with the execution as with the conception: a David Lynch album just sounds like a cop-out, something half-realised, reminding you of what you could be getting if you put on Mulholland Drive or Eraserhead.

  Lynch has become one of cinema’s most brilliant alchemists, taking crude or simple materials – Americana, light and shadow, our primal fears – and making the ineffable and transcendent. Without being an ingredient in this crucible, Crazy Clown Time just comes across as a crude material. It might seem too obvious to bother remarking, but those who try to fathom Lynch are missing the point catastrophically. If you seek to extract them from the crucible of the cinematic medium all you’re in danger of being left with is the raw and unremarkable stuff that dreams are made of: a heap of Crazy Clown Times, so to speak.

  This is illustrated best of all by the director himself in another scene where music takes centre-stage in the drama. In the middle of Mulholland Drive, Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring) visit a club called Silencio where they watch a beautiful, unknown woman sing ‘Llorando’, a Spanish a capella version of another Roy Orbison hit, ‘Crying’. Again, as in Blue Velvet the narrative halts to allow a seemingly irrelevant musical performance, but Lynch connects the two scenes through his reuse of Orbison, teasingly intimating some sort of pattern and the existence of a key to his art, to what it really means. After mesmerising Betty and Rita with her performance, the woman collapses onstage, but her voice continues, and we realise it is a recording, just like with that ‘suave fucker’ Ben. Are we just being told that the wool has been pulled over our eyes, or is Lynch perhaps suggesting that reality is an overrated ideal and that the simple profundity of the woman’s performance is more important than whether it was substance or illusion? These two scenes, in my view, read like the closest one is likely to find to a commentary within his movies on their meaning. They playfully yet provocatively show how dream can overwhelm a reality that quite probably was never definable or distinguishable in the first place, becoming microcosms of the movies they’re in. Furthermore, it is significant that the only form these explications take is that of further works of art within art. In effect, this insinuates that trying to explain a trip into Lynch territory, rather than simply letting the trip function as its own explanation, makes about as much sense as building a mausoleum to illuminate a piece of modern dance. And so, having effectively rubbished my own article, I think it’s a good time to stop.