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.


Carson Lund said...

Very cool. To support your first paragraph, I indeed have not heard of this film. I am a huge Lynch fan though and have seen a myriad of his short art pieces, but this one has never struck my consciousness. I am well versed in the works that you say this film builds off of or into, so I'd love to see it. How did you get a hold of it?

Matt Carlson said...

Really good write-up. One note: I'm pretty sure Lynch had already done the first season or so of Twin Peaks at the time he made this.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, guys. Carson, it's a weird film, one that Lynch fans will certainly find interesting even though it isn't really successful in its own right. It was recently released on DVD for the first time, but is only contained within the Lime Green Set that Lynch put together, with most of his first few features plus a grab bag of shorts and oddball rarities.

Matt, you're probably right about the timing. It probably doesn't so much look forward to Twin Peaks as recycle and recontextualize elements from the show.

Joel Bocko said...

Very interesting look at a project I'd heard of, but didn't know much about. I had no idea it was centered around Cruise's (& Badalemnti's & Lynch's) music, which is one of the very best things about a very good show.

It is interesting to see Lynch overreach and fumble on occasion - his craft and feel for his material is usually so impeccable that it's startling to see the work not quite gel (even in works I'm ambivalent about, there tends to be a formal integrity). Your description of the film's sloppiness reminds me of the European version of the Peaks pilot for which Lynch originally shot the Red Room sequence. Taken alone, of course, the sequence is brilliant but it really, really doesn't work as a coda to the juts out at an odd angle to the rest of the material and feels like a complete non sequitur. Later, of course, Lynch found the right place for it in Episode 2 of the season proper and suddenly it fit perfectly, almost as if it was originally meant for that spot - another example of how his experimentation and improvisation can bear fruit even when it initially seems a misfire.

I'm also intrigued by your description of Lynch's intentionally sloppy technique - allowing the seams of filmmaking to show. I've often felt that Lynch, despite composing metanarratives and playing with the viewer's consciousness, is too perfectionist to be truly reflexive - say the way a Rivette or a Godard is, where the unity of the filmic (diagetic, to cautiously dabble in academic jargon) world is deliberately cracked open and exposed, creating a sometimes thrilling frission. It seemed that Lynch, even at his most self-aware, was too self-enclosed and controlled an artist to let any rawness seep into his hermetic "zone." So I'd like to see this piece in that context.

Anyway, I find Lynch's short work fascinating in the context of the filmmaker's overall career and how his style and vision has changed while remaining consistent. I wrote up a collection of his peripheral work with this in mind a while back; you can check it out here:

Ed Howard said...

MovieMan, I agree that it's interesting to see the occasional rough edges in Lynch's usually polished work. The Twin Peaks European pilot is a good example, though there I don't think Lynch was really trying to make a satisfying piece of art. He was required by contract to give the pilot a standalone resolution for the European market, so he complied, knowing full well that it wouldn't really work. Of course, he quickly recycled that material in very interesting ways, and the Red Room wound up becoming one of the crucial elements in the show's mythology.

That said, Industrial Symphony is definitely one of the few places in Lynch's oeuvre where he's so casual and rough with the artifice of the film. Even in INLAND EMPIRE, when the camera pulls back and reveals another camera filming Laura Dern, it's very self-conscious and stylized, and you don't get the sense (as you often do with Godard and Rivette) that Lynch is letting the audience in on *his own* filmmaking process. His metafictional maneuvers refer more often to the filmmaking process in general.

Joel Bocko said...

"you don't get the sense (as you often do with Godard and Rivette) that Lynch is letting the audience in on *his own* filmmaking process."

exactly. Even Bergman, whose "reveals" were equally formalized (that's an impeccably composed tear in the film halfway through Persona) gave a bit more of the sense that we were looking into his particular process, this particular film being made. That's one thing that irritated me a little bit about Inland Empire, at least on first viewing.

Ed Howard said...

Well, I wouldn't say it irritates me, and I think INLAND EMPIRE is utterly intoxicating, a succession of rabbit holes luring the viewer further and further inward. Lynch is a personal filmmaker, just in an a rather unusual way. He's not making films about himself in any real sense, even when he's making films about filmmaking, but at the same time there's no denying that every frame of a David Lynch film is inscribed with *exactly* what David Lynch wants to see (and wants us to see). I don't look to these films to get a sense of what Lynch is like, but to experience his unique cinematic vision.

Joel Bocko said...

Ed, you raise another interesting point here which is that Lynch is at once the most personal and the least personal of auteurs. The most because his vision is obviously so unique, his style so immediately identifiable - the least because, like a Deist God, he seems to set the wheels turning and then leave the room - his world seems to be spinning of its own accord.

What irritated me about Inland Empire was not so much that it wasn't sufficiently reflexive in and of itself (God knows, most of my favorite films aren't reflexive at all!) but that it sometimes seemed to want to have its cake and eat it too - playing at reflexivity while maintaining complete control, setting up a mystery without really knowing what it was setting up, even to acertain point...playing at being free and anarchic while enjoying the fruits of industry protection (that last point came to mind while watching the closing credits, as everyone seems to be partying like it was DIY experiment, all while celebrities pop up here and there and industry imprimateurs roll by in the credits...and my awareness of this point was only heightened watching the documentary One in which Lynch harrasses assistants mercilessly).

All in all, Lynch is a fascinating figure, even outside of his movies (which is, and should be, our primary concern). I get the sense that he's at once entirely outside Hollywood, yet also entirely inside. His vision remains uncompromised, and he has to find ways to work around at least in part outside of the industry game, yet he has real power within it and does not cultivate the persona of an iconoclast at all. (On another note, I've also heard he's a Reagan conservative, which seems too good to be true.)

Unknown said...

I always felt that INDUSTRIAL SYMPHONY works as a mood piece. It excels at one of the things that Lynch does best - create a rich and textured atmosphere. I also find it interesting that everything found on the stage during this performance piece pretty much sums up Lynch's thematic preoccupations/motifs: 1950s fashion, wood, industrial tools/imagery, '50s music, grotesque/nightmarish imagery, and, of course, love falling apart amidst chaos. Oh yeah, and dreams too. It always struck me as a compendium of Lynch's themes.

Ed Howard said...

I hadn't really considered INLAND EMPIRE as trying to establish any "DIY" cred. The closing credits are a party, but what makes them specifically a DIY party? It's a film that engages very consciously with the mechanisms of Hollywood and fame and celebrity. Lynch is I think uniquely positioned to make these movies because he is, as you point out, both inside and outside the system. So he has an insider's perspective on Hollywood that informs his films, and yet he's never really fully inside because his films are too difficult, too perverse, to really be marketed as Hollywood product anymore. I think the lingering mainstream credentials he earned from Elephant Man and Twin Peaks have allowed him to make films quasi-inside the system that would otherwise never have a chance of getting anywhere near Hollywood. Still, it doesn't always help him get his films seen; the distribution of INLAND EMPIRE was done almost entirely outside the Hollywood system.

J.D., you're right that this film is a real compendium of Lynch's obsessions, and there are segments where I really enjoyed the way it sets an eerie, unsettling mood. It doesn't really work as a whole but there are still individual moments that are very compelling.

Joel Bocko said...

Ed, I guess I felt the DIY feel to the end came from a combination of being Lynch's first video feature and the "loose" feel of all the cast members getting down as if Lynch & them were letting down a facade. It just didn't work for me, but then perhaps I misunderstood what he was going for.

You're exactly right about Lynch being situated perfectly for an inside/outside perspective on the industry, but I think this perspective is best embodied by Mulholland Drive, which is stylistically glamorous and polished yet with a narrative that makes hash of Hollywood's stock in trade. And its exposure of a very Lynchian surface naivitee (Betty's idealistic movie-dreaming) in juxtaposition to a very Lychian paranoia (the shadowy conspiracy) is strengthened, to my mind, by a real-world context which is fully aware of the power grabs and psychological games played by the industry elite. Of course the last half-hour is all about this, but it's also perfectly represented in that audition scene - the dialogue between the casting director and her snarky, yes-girl assistant is a brilliant way for Lynch to tip his hand just a bit, and let us know that there's more to his vision in this film - and in general - than the mystic naif absorbed in modern-day fairy tales (as we'll see abundantly by film's end).

God, what a great, great movie. I know people don't like it, and bristle at the thought that they're not "getting" something, but goddamnit, they just aren't! (Though admittedly, perhaps one could say the same of me vis a vis Inland Empire...which I admire in parts but havne't warmed up to as a whole yet, albeit on the basis of only my initial viewing...)

Ed Howard said...

You'll certainly get no arguments from me about Mulholland Dr. I think it's Lynch's best and most successful movie, and is easily one of my favorite films. It's simultaneously a celebration and a critique of Hollywood: a complex and multi-layered examination of Hollywood's treatment of women, cloaked in a collage of genre tropes.

I think the problem people have with Mulholland Dr. is that even if they don't get it, they think they're getting it too well -- once they figure out (or read about) the plot and the dream structure, they think that's it. They don't get beyond that to all the other layers Lynch is working with.

INLAND EMPIRE, on the other hand, resists interpretation and full understanding to an even greater extent. In many ways it is the "purest" Lynch film, just an outpouring of his obsessions and ideas, densely layered with this interlocking structure that never resolves into a linear narrative of any kind. It's more like Lost Highway than Mulholland Dr. in that respect, in that it resists explanation; some of the pieces of the puzzle seem to be intentionally missing. I enjoy it as a visceral experience, a compendium of the Lynchian universe. You should watch it again, but don't go into it expecting to clarify your understanding; I was just as frazzled and confounded the second time as the first.

Joel Bocko said...

I've gone through different stages in my appreciation of Mulholland Drive - after my initial reaction, which was pretty evenly balanced between the visceral wonder engendered by the movie and appreciation of its ingenious structure, I leaned more towards loving its irrational aspects even to the point of resenting the "explanations" Lynch provides for his dreamlike material. Now I've moved more in the other direction, as I'm most fascinated by Mulholland Drive's thematic richness, the allegorical quality of its narrative and structure. None of this is to say that one aspect is more important than another, just that at a given moment what we most appreciate and enjoy in it may shift. It's a sign of the films greatness that it can withstand so many shifts in perspective.