Saturday, May 9, 2009
Industrial Symphony No. 1
Most of David Lynch's feature films are of course well-known, even though Lynch himself has over the years passed in and out of the public eye as either a quasi-mainstream eccentric or a maker of outright art films. Lesser known is the director's rather large secondary oeuvre, one largely crafted outside of any widespread attention and consisting of a hodgepodge of short films, music videos, oddball art installation pieces and, in recent years, digital shorts and serials made especially for his member's only website and dribbled out in samples on various DVDs. There's a surprising amount of Lynch film and video work beyond his features, and these ephemera and peripheral works add to the overall impression of Lynch as a somewhat mad genius, a creative intelligence overflowing with ideas and images that pour out of him at an alarming rate. Many of these incidental pieces maintain connections to Lynch's other work, tendrils stretching both backward and forward in his filmography: key personnel reappear, themes and images repeat themselves, and ideas sketched out in a shorter work might be blown up into something grander in time. In recent years, Lynch has even begun directly recycling these "side projects" into his features; Mulholland Dr. was salvaged from a rejected TV pilot, while the sprawling INLAND EMPIRE integrated various bits and pieces of Lynch's website shorts.
The point is that while Lynch's secondary work is often rather minor and sometimes seems hastily thrown together in comparison to the carefully controlled surrealism of Lynch's features, these lesser works can also be resonant within the context of his career as a whole. Industrial Symphony No. 1 is an hour-long oddity, a showcase for a handful of songs that Lynch and his frequent composer Angelo Badalamenti wrote for the singer Julee Cruise. It's a strange film, opening with a brief and disconnected phone conversation in which Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage essentially reprise their roles from Wild At Heart. Cage's character drawls out a breakup spiel while Dern grows distraught and pleads with him not to leave her, and then the remainder of the film is supposedly the dream of this heartbroken woman following her lover's departure. Conceptually, it's therefore a very rough rehearsal for Mulholland Dr., though the film more directly looks forward to Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks. Cruise would of course appear on that show sporadically as a bar singer, and this unsettling dreamscape is also populated by Michael J. Anderson, who would play the mysterious dwarf in the Red Room on Twin Peaks.
So the film is a grab-bag of Lynch ideas, characters and visuals, but more than anything it's an extended music video, an opportunity to spotlight the suite of songs that Lynch and Badalamenti had written for Cruise. They're marvelous songs, too, aching and hypnotic, using Cruise's high, flute-like voice to create eerie melodies that seem to float like ghosts above the syncopated pop-jazz of the music. The music is reason enough to justify the film's existence, though the songs are just as lovely without the context of the film, as heard on Cruise's first two solo albums, Floating Into the Night and The Voice of Love. Indeed, other than the music, the film itself is only intermittently successful, alternating between genuinely powerful sequences and long stretches that consist of little but meaningless visual tics.
The entire film is set on a soundstage littered with junk: assemblies of steel girders, wrecked cars, hospital gurneys, catwalks up above. The set gives the impression of an abandoned factory, lit with an array of floodlights that sweep around continuously, giving the film a strobing quality as light and shadow interact. The evidence of the film production is everywhere. Lynch makes no attempt to hide the microphones used to gather on-set sound, and often incorporates them directly into the scene, and likewise the wires used to hold the actors aloft for long flying sequences are frequently visible and even accentuated by the lights. At one point, a video crew walks onto the set to film Cruise, projecting her face onto TV sets that sit at the front of a stage area. The artifice is minimal, the fourth wall easily shattered, and at times the production resembles an exceptionally bizarre theater piece rather than a film.
Much of the film is dedicated to non sequiturs and nonsense, and not even the compelling, idiosyncratic nonsense that breathes life into Lynch's best work. A topless woman (Lisa Giobbi) writhes amid the junk while a male dancer (Félix Blaska) spins through the air overhead. Michael J. Anderson saws wood and then repeats a deadpan transcript of the opening conversation between Dern and Cage, mocking Dern's inflections with a high-pitched, whiny voice. A giant stilt-legged red monstrosity is lifted off a gurney and allowed to stagger around for a few minutes before abruptly disappearing. Too much of the film is marred by vaguely silly, cheesy bits like this, and only Cruise's songs — stitched together via some brilliant sound design and bridged by sequences of industrial musique concrete — hold the film together.
Lynch's genius finally flourishes in the final stretches of the film, particularly for the last two songs Cruise sings. "Rockin' Back Inside My Heart" is one of the best songs Lynch and Badalamenti have written for Cruise, a dreamy faux doo-wop number with a propulsive lullaby rhythm and some of Cruise's most sweetly romantic vocals. Lynch pulls out all the stops for this number, projecting Cruise's pale white face onto TV monitors and surrounding her with a line of chorus girls and ballerinas swaying in time with the music, enacting a set of choreographed gestures to express the heartbroken sentiment of the lyrics. It's a beautiful sequence, edited together with an elegant series of fades and overlays, creating gauzy collages in which Cruise's over-exposed face floats in the darkness, surrounded by indistinct dancing forms. As the song fades out, the mood subtly shifts, and the dancers begin to panic as an industrial sound piece drowns out the sweet melancholy of Cruise's singing. But she then returns for the finale, a rendition of "The World Spins," the song she'd later sing on Twin Peaks, here given a simple visual treatment with Cruise floating through the air in a billowing white dress. This is by no means an essential Lynch film, but it's an interesting glimpse into his always fertile workshop, a fragmentary look at the development of various threads that would later be spun into some of his greatest works.