Thursday, May 03, 2007

Collapsing Space in Club Silencio, in Mulholland Dr.

by Ryland Walker Knight


David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr is a collage, an assemblage of rhymes and multiples, of dreams, from beginning to end, using every cinematic layering technique available, chief among them the manipulation of its ever-insistent soundtrack. Sound is often employed in film to cue a viewer’s eyes or emotions, a kind of pathetic trigger, directing our emotional investment. Lynch, however, uses sound to disrupt its own illusion, discomfitting the viewer by foregrounding that inherent artifice it seeks to dismantle. Each move the film makes tells us this is all an illusion, reality and artifice alike, by breaking down the sound, by exposing its primary illusion. Thus, Lynch forces the audience to confront itself and how it approaches not just film (artifice) but life (reality) and our movements with and within both realms. Lynch employs sound design in that classical sense that he wants to trigger an emotional response in his audience but his use of sound never cements the space of the film. Rather, this refusal of spatial-temporal-cinematic unification disperses the film and its artifice invades (and colors the read of) every scene, every glance, every encounter: nothing is certain. The resultant anxiety that typifies Lynch’s films, and Mulholland Dr. in particular, comes from that self-reflexive rupture and layering of the illusion.

Mary Ann Doane’s essay “The Voice in the Cinema” argues, if not for a primacy of sound, for an equalizing of sound and image, which dovetails with Lynch’s filmic instincts and practices. Both approach the use of sound as an equal compliment to the image. There is hardly an image in a Lynch film that isn’t colored by sound — even silence has a color, a body, in Lynch’s oeuvre — which is exemplified by the use of an ambient score of synthesizers and synthesized sound effects that layer and unfix the images, the films. As in Mulholland Dr., when Lynch links scenes with that anxious and uneasy score, an ugly grumble of sine and square waves, conflating the skyline of Los Angeles with an apartment’s interior, the sound doesn’t define or localize the space, as Doane defines the job of the soundtrack, but works as a dissolve, even within a hard cut transition. In the act of conflation, it rather multiplies spaces within the networked composite of the film and its world. Space is at once dispersed and collapsed.

In Mulholland Dr.’s Club Silencio sequence, Lynch makes this illusory and confounding dichotomy explicit through a disembodied voice calling attention to itself. As her title says, Doane’s essay is focused on the sound of the voice, and how it holds a film together in space. For my purposes, it is crucial we understand, “In the cinematic situation, [which] three types of space are put into play:

1) The space of the diegesis. This space has no physical limits, it is not contained or measurable. It is a virtual space constructed by the film and is delineated as having both audible and visible traits (as well as implications that its objects can be touched, smelled, and tasted).
2) The visible space of the screen as receptor of the image. It is measurable and ‘contains’ the visible signifiers of the film. Strictly speaking, the screen is not audible although the placement of the speaker behind the screen constructs that illusion.
3) The acoustical space of the theatre or auditorium. It might be argued that this space is also visible, but the film cannot visually activate signifiers in this space unless a second projector is used. Again, despite the fact that the speaker is behind the screen and therefore sound appears to be emanating from a focused point, sound is not ‘framed’ in the same way as the image. In a sense, it envelops the spectator.” (166)

Club Silencio would appear designed to composite these spaces. First, visually, through a series of frames: (1) the frame of the film itself tells us this is a fake, unreliable; (2) the curtained frame of Club Silencio’s stage echoes that first frame, the frame of the film we are watching, which doubles the artifice; (3) the raked auditorium opposite the stage, where the twin protagonists sit, directs our attention back onto us, where we sit, as a doubled audience in a double auditorium, placing us inside a frame, inside the artifice; (4) the frame of the balcony above the stage acts as another frame within a frame: all these frames collapse the space so the audience is one with the film. Second, aurally, through playing with sound and sound design within this composite space, which is just as dizzying as those multiplied Russian-doll framing devices, and yet more complicated.

As the sequence begins, the diegesis of the film is unified in speech through the spectral master of ceremonies’ voice since his lips are the perfect dummy, reciting his lines. However, his dialogue is about how his dialogue is fake, how all sound on the stage of Club Silencio (and by proxy in the formal frame of film) is artificial. With a scowl he declares, “No ay banda! There is no band. Il n’y a pas de orchestra. This is all a tape recording. No ay banda. And yet, we hear a band.” After tossing aside his cane, which makes no tumbling clatter once it exits the film frame, he calls upon a trumpet and a trombone at will, summoning their sound as proof that, “It is all an illusion.” From this, the first space of Doane’s is imminently complicated: the aural diegesis is disassociated from the visual diegesis, implying their relationship is both symbiotic and disassociated all at once. Doane’s model proposes a definite link, despite the obvious dichotomy: “This space has no physical limits, it is not contained or measurable. It is a virtual space constructed by the film and is delineated as having both audible and visible traits.” Club Silencio and Mulholland Dr. tell us, yes, the space is constructed by both aural and visual components, yet work as they may in tandem, there is a definite line between the two, one which, in the collapsed space of Club Silencio, may privilege the aural as it informs sight. Doane’s third space is then present in the first diegetic space in Club Silencio as the “sound is not ‘framed’ in the same way as the image. In a sense, it envelops the spectator.” Therefore, only the film, only Lynch and his proxy MC, can turn off sound, not the spectator. And it would also appear, for Lynch, to be at the mercy of sound, as we are in life, is a frightening experience.

The sequence continues, and shifts course, when the MC demands, “Listen!” This interpellation calls to attention not just Club Silencio but the film’s physical, live audience as well: we can do nothing but listen. But his speech is over. He raises his hands and, as he summoned the horns before, he summons a storm of thunder and lightning inside the club. His face turns demonic and one of the protagonists in the audience begins to shake involuntarily, her torso convulsing along with the flashes of light while she grips her seat, held down doubly by her twin companion. A smoke seeps into the frame around the MC and he shifts position, momentarily stopping the storm. His expression is now nothing but evil and the light show continues as the smoke surrounds his face, enveloping him. The smoke subsumes him and he disappears. In his and the lightning’s place, an aqueous blue light washes over the Club, the film, and us in the audience, while the thunder cedes to a typical low-register synthesized groan. We’re shown the empty space of the Club, the solitary microphone glinting in the inconsistent light: sight is mediated by light, and fixable, while sound only keeps going, extending the moment — and the space.

Space is again collaged and layered in the collapse of those different realms of space Doane lays out. What’s curious is this collapse also works as a multiplication, of objects and spaces and objects within spaces. A collage is, by definition (and practice), an assemblage of disparate images and texts (and sometimes sounds): it is premised on a multiplicity. Film is, by definition (and practice), an assemblage of images and sounds (and sometimes texts), disparate and not, alike and not: it is premised on a culling of multiple elements. Therefore, film is collage is film. As Club Silencio mimics the film-going experience, and comments on such an experience, it’s performance is that of a film’s as well as being within a film. As a film, then, Club Silencio is a collage of film effects, chiefly the sound. And if Club Silencio is a collage, its host film is a collage, and, of course, a film, too.

The beginning images of Mulholland Dr. are a cut-out collage of swing dancers, many of the couples are twin or triple couples of the same man and woman doing different moves at different spots in the frame, multiplied across a diffuse purple background in time to a jazzy snare-kit beat and a spare trumpet riff. This marriage of sound and image is, retrospectively, a metaphorical prediction of the Club Silencio sequence's explicit explanation. From this first moment we are given a world where sound is tied inextricably to how images move. The viewer’s eyes are confused where to look, and for what? The film is simply colliding images, collapsing worlds, as would a collage. This opening sequence is complicated further when a washed out, all-smiles blonde is super-imposed over the syncopated pageant, layering the images and sounds, as, along with the spectral blonde, a low-frequency white-noise groan and mild applause seep into the film. The images work in tandem with the sounds, layered as they are upon one another, much like the jitterbug partners work together, playing off the other’s movements. The jitterbug composite quickly evaporates, though, after the blonde’s own jittery first appearance (that super-imposition is ragged and blurry, dancing its way onto the screen in its own right), and, briefly, all that’s left is the applause and that bleach blonde before the lumbering synthesizers melt into the soundtrack again, and the images fade into an out-of-focus close-up on rumpled red bed sheets. The space is collapsed between the two nowhere-regions. The camera, handheld and myopic, crawls across the bed into a pillow, further blurring the image — and our perception of it, and of the film itself. This descent into sleep dictates all that follows. Everything we see is dreamt. Everything is distorted and artificial, forged from the warped perceptions of a dreamer. Everything is a sign and not: as soon as we think we understand a sign, its resonance and relevance disappear, lost in the film’s enveloping dream dis-logic, like Club Silencio's MC. Everything — the film, the characters, the sensory imbalance — is a dream. As in a dream, the space of Mulholland Dr. is diffuse and anxious. The camera floats and bobs, the soundtrack grumbles and bleats. The film is collaged as a dream, too, in that it collapses and conflates seemingly disparate images into a loaded composite space which follows the through-line of sound, not image.

Calling the film Mulholland Dr., Lynch says everything in the film is that street, is that restless winding mood, is that space above Los Angeles, looking down; yet that street is a part of Los Angeles as well: the film is at once inside and outside itself, simultaneously looking out from within and looking back in from without. Everything is collapsed and conflated, including sound and image, de-centering and displacing the audience and all the while implicating them as well. The space is collapsed. We are present not only watching the film, we are in the film. Everything — Mulholland Dr., the film, its tri-partial space, the audience — is a composite, a collage. And we the audience are at once constituent in its terror and simultaneously at its mercy.


[Written for a Film course on sound in cinema, this is a belated Lynch Mob entry, I suppose, in some sense, but it stands alone, as well. I think I did the film and the assignment justice. At the least I enjoyed spending yet more time with one of my favorite films and its puzzles. Also, an editorial note: I chose not to put in screenshots or stills because I wanted to let the language do it for you, if that's possible, if I'm that good. I'm banking that's the case. Tell me if it's not, if there should be pix. I may go ahead and put some in later but for now I kind of like it all text. It's kind of the opposite of the Grindhouse review, which is all pix. Or maybe I'm just plain lazy right now.]

1 comment:

  1. No, keep the pictures out. Your instincts in these experiments always lead to something good.