Wednesday, November 28, 2007

David Lynch & Postmodernism

I was reading Midnight Movies co-authored by Jim Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum. I will probably have more to say about it sometime later. For now something that got me into thinking. This is from the afterword which they wrote on occasion of the 20th anniversary of its publication.

JR: I have to admit that I'm a Twin Peaks addict myself. But there's more commercial than artistic logic in the way Lynch's career has developed. He's gone from making introverted movies to making extroverted ones--a downhill path culminating in Wild at Heart. Blue Velvet was the turning point, the transformation of unconscious camp into conscious camp. I tend to think that some of film's kitschier ideas--the robins as harbingers of love, for example--were sincere. But when these notions were seen as funny, Lynch began using them more systematically, with a certain calculation. By the time you get to Wild at Heart, the whole notion of sincerity seems to exist between quotation marks. The citation of Elvis and The Wizard of Oz are substitutes for feeling and imagination.

JH: Another way of positioning himself in the American mainstream.

JR: It's also postmodernism--the placing of everything between quotation marks. Postmodernism is not only our dominant culture now, but in some ways, it's our only culture. You might say that as auteurism turned junk into art, postmodernism turns art into junk. Even when an original artist like Lynch appears, it's not long before he starts quoting himself, using his work in a postmodernist way. Agent Cooper's dream in Twin Peaks is like recycled, simplified Eraserhead. Lynch's development parallels the go-for-broke ecological and economic philosophy of Reagan years. You burn up the ground under your feet and you basically use up whatever you've got.


Another article which discusses postmodernism in the context of Blue Velvet here.

As I was reading the essay on Eraserhead and the subsequent dialogue I found myself disagreeing with what Rosenbaum says. The postmodernism in Lynch is not just empty play of signs and signifiers but as he himself concedes, talking about the scene with the robins in Blue Velvet, there is an element of sincerity in those hyper-real and apparently kitschy images as well. The way he achieves this delicate balance is exactly what makes his films so different and unique and it is present in every one of his films Blue Velvet onwards. He is particularly harsh on Wild at Heart but even there while it is obvious that the characters of Sailor and Lula are not really characters but archetypes, totally artificial mixture of bricolage from American popular culture-scape, their feelings for each other do come across as genuine and sincere. Rosenbaum's criticism will be more valid for directors like Tarantino who are truly postmodernist, in the sense that their films are nothing but intertextuality and pastiche, and in the end resulting in arid wastelands of meaningless images, signs which point only to other signs, refusing to tie them back to anything outside the film itself and I can understand if someone sees it as a cultural crisis.

Some other recent films which strike this balance successfully are Todd Haynes's Far From Heaven and Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves. I love them both.


Lady In The Radiator said...

It's really pleased me that you've pointed out so well what I feel is a typical mistake that Rosenbaum is making on the subject of Lynch's movies.

He's definately taken an opinion on 'Wild at Heart' that I could never have arrived at. I personally felt it was genius to use Elvis and The Wizard of Oz as mutual obsessions for Lula and Sailor, as not only are they both ludicrous and arguably universally embraced American institutions which places them perfectly with the Americana and drama of the movie, but they are also open to child-like fixation and dream-like hero worship, which invites the viewer to think on Lula and Sailor as adoring and curious children on a wild exploration whilst clinging to beauty and hope, thus endearing them to us so completely. To cite Elvis and TWOZ as replacements for imagination is harsh indeed. They are incredible examples of imagination and creativity that sprang from American culture itself, making them truly relevant, as 'Wild at Heart' is of that same motif.

I don't believe Lynch began using the 'kitsch' element with calculation upon realising that it was found to be humorous and enjoyable. I genuinely believe he is sincere with all the strange and surreal imagery on display in his movies. As he said himself, 'just beneath the surface there's another world, and still more worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid'. Dismissing the imagery on offer from Lynch as 'camp' is cynical.

haha, I don't even have a blog here! I just wanted to let you know that I read this and it gave me a smile.

Alok said...

Radiator Lady: I can't express in words my surprise and pleasure to see you here. I agree with everything you say, and share your disapproval of Rosenbaum's criticism.

Thannks again for visiting and for the comments.