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David Lynch’s Surrealist Oeuvre

David Lynch’s work is often described for its radical display of emotion and the darkness that lurks within his narrative structure. At the core of most Lynch films are deeply embedded themes of trauma, fear, and inhuman nature. However, more apparent than the qualities of his narrative motifs is his dream-inspired and surreal visual aesthetic. Throughout his career he has exhibited a highly surrealist methodology and a knack for breaking film conventions in the interest of penetrating the surface of his films and locating deeper truths and meanings that have limitations in visual representation. Beneath the formal components of his work one may find themselves at odds with the aura that the combination of such components creates. In watching any one of his films a viewer may recognize growing dichotomies between setting and story, character and ideal, conflict and reaction, and so on. Lynch has long been able to infuse even the darkest imagery and bleakest plot premises with subtle humor and unexpected emotions. Such a distinct style is difficult to describe in terms of film conventions alone, rather there is more to be said of his oeuvre with respect to Surrealism.

Having arisen out of the Dada activities which had taken place around the time of WWI, Surrealism developed to constitute more than simply the visual arts, but found its way into a great many disciplines from music to philosophy. It was a more unified and concerted break from the conventions of the highly influential artistic and social paradigms that had, until that point, remained dominant in European culture since the Enlightenment period. The motivation of the artists within the movement (i.e. Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, André Breton, Joan Miró, etc.) was to unlock the voice of the unconscious rather than focus on what the real world had to offer. Prior to the growth of this movement most all art had taken its inspiration from objective views of reality. And though these paintings, compositions, writings, and so on were steeped in subjectivity, they had all been forged from the objective realities beset upon their makers.

A compulsion of most surrealist artists was to resolve the previously dueling conditions of dream and reality. Most of the greatest works of this period operate on terms of simple objective impossibility or formal departures from realism. The most notable features of surrealism are formal elements such as juxtaposition, surprise, and non sequitor, all of which provide a disconnect from logic and reasoning and give importance to the previously underappreciated artistic aspects of chance and coincidence. These fascinations were also forged from post-WWI views that man had an inherently tragic and dangerous nature. A divorce from both logic and reason in art was made in efforts to reflect the volatility of human nature.

The formal aesthetics of an artist such as René Magritte even makes use of objective realism in his painting techniques, yet maintains a challenging aspect of how a viewer perceives reality. Many of his paintings have completely objective truths that are accented with simple impossibilities. One of his later paintings, Empire of Light (1950), depicts an Amsterdam street scene that is darkened by night and lit only by street lamp, meanwhile in the sky there is a bright blue sky and fluffy white clouds. The entirety of the image looks so real and tangible, if only it weren’t for its obvious juxtaposition.

Excluding visual art, however, Surrealism’s take on the literary movements of the time was quite pronounced. André Breton, an influential French poet and writer, is considered by many to be the founder and subsequent leader of the Surrealist movement in art. He took to the unorthodox writing techniques of automatic writing and non sequitor very early on in the century. These techniques were established in the interest of developing a more pure and unfiltered expression, one that came directly from the unconscious. In practices such as these a writer was less of a voice for expression and more of a channel through which their dormant unconscious desire and belief had an exit into the tangible and recorded. In Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto (1924) he actually defined surrealism as being “pure psychic automatism.”

At points Lynch’s films are compelling mostly because of similar juxtapositions and their use of seemingly unplanned, even meaningless tremors in moments of consequence. While it does sometimes seem utterly inane and bereft of significance, his predilection towards the use of non sequitors or witless remarks is a very effective tool for his filmmaking style. In essence, most Lynchian works cross paths with dueling notions and create dichotomies that Lynch feels are always present in life. In interviews he has stated that many situations in his films have such an array of dimensions that it seems silly for him to choose only one without somehow allowing the others to be expressed. Works like Twin Peaks (1990-1991), Blue Velvet (1986), and Eraserhead (1977) demand a degree of receptivity from audiences who may not be used to such strange dichotomies or sudden shifts of mood.

While Eraserhead has been termed as a surrealist body horror film, its plot contains more elements of absurdity and unfiltered behavior than it does actual horror motifs. Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance), having been faced with the sudden dilemma of becoming a father seems to exude more difficulty with parenthood than he does fear of anything. During his dinner with the X’s, upon where the existence of a child between he and Mary is revealed, there is an unerring desperation that is articulated from both Mr. and Mrs. X. Whereas Mr. X implores Henry to carve the chicken that he “made” and seems to still be alive and writhing in pain, Mrs. X, though she means to chastise Henry, attempts to kiss him. When faced with this absolutely astonishing turn of events it seems as if Lynch has already asked his viewer to step into this surreal world. This entire dinner scene unfolds without any direct contemplation as to what is happening or why. It happens so matter-of-factly that it allows the rest of the film to operate on its own terms; terms of its own world.

After the cult success of Eraserhead, Lynch found himself nestling into the Hollywood studio system, albeit reluctantly after the magnificent flop that was his next feature Dune (1984). Yet, he still found himself with enough acclaim to pursue the personal projects that he was so enraptured with from their humble beginnings, one such being the spellbinding Blue Velvet. The idea for this project was borne out of a fleeting notion Lynch had about a song from his childhood, “Blue Velvet” by The Clovers. Lynch’s screenplay for the film was incredibly disturbing and exuded a high degree of danger that was beset upon the protagonist, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan). When the startling aspects of the film are set against the recurring score that is a cover of The Clovers’ 1954 hit record there is a blatant irony and juxtaposition that becomes apparent. Though the tone of the song speaks very well for the heartbreak and desperation felt by Dorothy Vallens it does not even begin to break the surface of Frank’s hostility and hatred. The movie is set amongst the backdrop of an archetypal American small town with idyllic tree-lined streets and lush green lawns enclosed by white picket fences. Yet, it is within this serene setting that Jeffrey Beaumont discovers a severed human ear, where he witnesses Frank rape Dorothy in her own apartment, and in the same apartment he walks in on the corpses of the Yellow Man, still standing up, and Don Vallens, who is bound and seated. Such a scene is utterly chilling and being so devoid of movement seems more picturesque than even a scene from a film. Throughout the scene’s duration the Yellow Man’s police radio intermittently sounds off with the correspondence of officers elsewhere. It is a moment in the movie when the grotesque implications of Frank’s criminality is clearly exposed: two bodies lifeless, yet as if they are frozen in time, frozen in movement.

Having been a very early work in his oeuvre, Eraserhead equally shocked and awed its audiences, although it was a little bit more of one than the other in most cases. It did however follow in the footsteps of his short films The Alphabet (1968) and The Grandmother (1970), both of which employed imagery and dialogue (or lack thereof) to eerie results. These three notable works combine to showcase Lynch’s early cinematic voice, one that speaks mostly of a subjective innocence and how it encounters the sometimes troublesome realities of life and growth. Blue Velvet achieves quite a similar mood, yet does so by using the more familiar setting of the American small town. At a certain juncture, one can look at Lynch’s oeuvre for its apt use of juxtaposition and the unexpected qualities that he sees in everything around him.

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