Thursday, December 27, 2012

What Lies Beneath: Hitchcock vs. Lynch Noir

Dir. David Lynch

When we approach a piece of art, are we to take it at face value? Perhaps, on one level, we are. Perhaps a piece of art should never be so obscure as to leave behind narrative convention completely and disappear into the realms of subtext, realms which can seem to have no end, or are as numerous as the critical readings that have been made of the artist’s work.

An example of this is the later work of David Lynch. Here we see a director who has given in completely to subtext, to the surreal imagery and playful allusions that remain below the surface in most films. However Lynch’s earlier films, such as Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, present us with clear distinct narrative trajectory. The films can be read at face value.

That is not to say that there is no subtext, no inferences towards something else, no weird machinations happening somewhere just below the surface. What makes these films great, in my opinion, is that there is both a mystery and, at the same time, there is no mystery whatsoever.

Fan poster for "Blue Velvet"

Let's take Blue Velvet. What’s with Frank’s “rape” of Dorothy that involves him crudely and violently reenacting the sex act without actually going through with it, as Jeffrey looks on from inside a nearby closet? In this scene, it could be that Frank is just be a weirdo. It could be that simple. Or Jeffrey’s innocence here could be the key, and the whole thing could be symbolic for a child misunderstanding sex between a man and a woman. In this case, Jeffrey becomes  the child who accidentally sees his parents having sex and naturally misinterprets it into some form of violent, ridiculous act.

But the fact remains: you don’t have to read too much into it.

There are many other interpretations of this same scene, such as Zizek’s reading, by way of Lacan, where he posits that we are actually seeing Dorothy’s fantasy! But it can still simply be read that Frank is a crazy fucker with weird sexual issues. And why not? That is the beauty of good art.

This type of storytelling, in terms of movies, could be called the Hitchcock Mode of Storytelling. Hitchcock’s films are frequently dissected by academics. For Zizek, the birds in the The Birds become a representation of the female anger and pent up frustration; the three levels of the Bate’s Motel in Psycho become the three levels of the human psyche, as Freud understood it; Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine in Vertigo, even after he finds out that she never fully existed as she presented herself in the first place, becomes a metaphor for the nature of desire itself and its utter dependency on fantasy.

Fan poster for "Vertigo"

But, at the same time, Hitchcock’s films were extremely popular, reaching a mass audience which viewed them simply as suspenseful spectacle. Hitchcock truly was a master at work.

In Mulholland Drive, David Lynch delves further into subtext, so far that he completely leaves behind any idea of narrative surface. We are dealing here in what purports to be the purely symbolic. Dreams and personalities become interwoven with reality. Here we are working in reverse, wading in the soup of the symbolic towards the surface “truth” of what actually happened.

Here, the truth that we search for becomes the potential “just is” quality of Hitchcock’s films or some of Lynch’s earlier films. But because there is no simple “just is” level to Mulholland Drive, we are forced to play the detective and attempt to find it. Either that, or we give up and allow it to be a confusing dream. Hitchcock’s films are easy, on their surface, but with depths and complexity, alluded to skillfully by the master.

In contrast, Molhulland Drive is a film exploring fantasy and subtext, but which dares us towards an easy surface just out of view, where cause and effect, facts and happenings collude to present themselves as reality.

Alluding to a key scene in "Mulholland Drive"

Perhaps this second mode of storytelling could be called The Noir Mode of Storytelling, evoking film noir for two reasons. Firstly, in film noir, we are usually dealing with someone who doubts their own recollection of events thus having no firm reality in which to ground itself. Secondly, film noir almost always involves a detective trying to get to the bottom of something or other. In Mulholland Drive, we are forced  to act as the protagonist of a film noir, forced into both these positions.

You could say that The Hitchcock Mode of Storytelling is more traditional than the other. It may be more traditional, but in some ways it is much more open to interpretation as it alludes rather than makes explicit its subtext.

The Film Noir Mode of storytelling seems to be the film beneath the surface, the one which Hitchcock is be alluding to. But it cannot be that thing, for, in making the dreams, fantasies and allusions explicit, things of the surface, we find that we are forced into a position where it is plain, factual reality and causal explanations, or even depths of mundaneness, for which we search. In one mode we search for the symbolic, or we search ourselves for something approaching universal. In the other mode, we are searching for order and coherency, for reality itself.

In a general sense, we can say that this second mode of storytelling is more modern, somehow in fitting with the modern world. That then brings us to a question: why now, what does this new mode tell us about ourselves and how we ask questions? For, if we are always on some level looking for the “truth” in a piece of art, then the way these pieces invite us towards interpretation must tell us something of ourselves and the framework with which we approach the world, or how we ask questions.

The question we are invited to ask under the second Mode is an existential question, a Cartesian question which assumes we must travel out beyond ourselves to search for the true nature of reality, assuming a radical distinction between the world and our inner lives. It is very scientific, putting the real on a pedestal, implying either an infinite gap between the individual and reality or, conversely, a definite, set reality that goes like clockwork, with the crazy, deranged lunatic that is the individual trying to make sense of it all.

It is the first Mode, in its openness, it’s adherence to basic narrative, alluding to depths beneath the surface, which for me points towards creativity and infinity, the question of what could be, what we could make, what we could see. Essentially, it posits that perhaps it is possible to think up something new, to create in a pure way.

The Noir Mode asks the question “what is”, while the Hitchcock Mode asks the question “what might be”. I know which one I prefer!

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