Sunday, 21 March 2010

Essay: Film form and narrative in David Lynch's 'Lost Highway'

Once known as the ‘dream factory’, Hollywood has been in the business of creating and selling dreams for almost a century. Throughout this time, Hollywood has been influential in the way films are made and the conventions that have come to dominate filmmaking throughout the rest of the world. In particular, formal elements such as the use of camera, editing, lighting, sound, mise-en-scène and narrative technique, have become determining factors in the way meaning is produced in films. This essay will present a discussion on film form and narrative, which will be supported by a formal analysis of selected scenes from the film Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997).

Classic Hollywood cinema is a tradition of filmmaking that dominated Hollywood production from 1917 through to around 1960, and remains a pervasive style in western mainstream cinema to the present day (Bordwell et al 1985:9; Hayward 2000:64). The most important criterion in the classical system is narrative causality, which works within subordinate systems of time and space (Bordwell et al 1985:12). Narrative describes the way in which story events are structured,  of which the classical system is dependent on a pattern of order/disorder/order-restored. In unifying causality, motivation is necessary to explain justification for certain elements within the film’s diegesis; that is, inside the story world; and by the same token, nondiegetic refers to the space outside the story world (Bordwell and Thompson 2008:66; Lehman & Luhr 2003:27; Hayward 2006:101).

It is useful here to introduce the concept of mise-en-scène, which essentially means, ‘putting into the scene’ (Bordwell & Thompson 2008:112). The term is used to signify the control that a director has in staging a scene for the framing of shots, and includes such elements as setting, costume, lighting, and overall movement within the frame (Hayward 2000:231). Mise-en-scène is important for the consideration of space, in that it serves to explain compositional motivation through the choices that the director makes, and functions to establish a cause of impending actions so that the story can proceed (Hayward 2000:242). To avoid the film drawing attention to itself, the Hollywood filmmaker relies on continuity editing, ‘a system of editing which uses cuts and other transitions to establish verisimilitude and to tell stories efficiently’ - with each shot having a  causal relationship to the next shot - and the strategies of mise-en-scène, to ensure narrative continuity (Corrigan & White 2004:125-126).

Whilst the discussion so far has mostly concerned the visual aspects of film form, it is important to also consider the use of sound, which from a film studies perspective has been marginalised by the hegemony of the image (Chion 1994: xxvi). Sounds can be situated at different narrative levels: the diegetic, for example, synched dialogue; and the nondiegetic, for example, background music, sound effects, etc (Chion 1994:67). The main function of sound is to unify and connect the flow of images, which it achieves with sound overlaps, the creation of realism with diegetic sounds, and invoking atmosphere through the use of nondiegetic music (Chion 1994:47). In these ways, sound participates to add-value to an image; that is, it ‘enriches a given image so as to create [a] definite impression’ (Chion 1994:5).

Having looked at the formal conventions of Hollywood cinema, and the way it works to present a unified image and narrative, attention can now be turned to looking at specific examples from Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997). According to the press kit, the film unfolds with the ‘logic of a dream, which can be interpreted but never explained', and it is this preoccupation with cinema as dream which best explains Lynch’s aesthetic (Herzogenrath 1999:4; Szebin & Biodrowski 1997:37). This notion of a dream logic is best exemplified by a number of events that take place which defy normality. For example, Fred (Bill Pullman) turns into Pete (Balthazar Getty); dark-haired Renee (Patricia Arquette) who was murdered by Pete, reappears as Alice, the blonde femme-fatale (also played by Arquette); and then there is the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a character who can be in more than one place at once.

Structurally, the narrative is constructed around the shape of a mobius strip, a surface with one side and one boundary. This is demonstrated in the way in which the film ends, virtually where it began, subverting the circular narrative structure of conventional filmmaking (Press Kit). Also, the two stories of Fred and Pete are the inverse of each other and according to Lynch ‘[t]hey’re living the same relationship…but living it in two different ways. They’re victims in different ways, in both worlds.’ However, it’s not until the scene in the desert that the two worlds are connected; Pete disappears, and Fred resurfaces again, bringing us full circle, or perhaps, repositioning us along the mobius strip (Herzogenrath 1999:3).

The idea of two worlds is best exemplified by looking at how mise-en-scène is used in the film to delineate the separate alternative realities (Vass 2005:20; McGowan 2000:52). The first part of the film takes place in Pete’s world, which is infused with mystery and a sense of emptiness, or unfulfilled desire. According to McGowan (2000:54) this can be seen in the use of minimalist décor and subdued lighting in Fred and Renee’s house, which is emphasised by the depth of field in the shots, further working to demonstrate a sense of depthlessness in their world. The colour scheme is also drab with blacks, greys and dark orange. The mise-en-scène in Pete’s world, however, appeals to more realistic conventions with bright lighting, more realistic furniture and décor, and a deeper depth of field (McGowan 2000:54).

The aural space in the early scenes between Pete and Renee is also interesting in that essentially it is empty, with the soundtrack having long periods of silence with no background noise. This use of silence exemplifies Bordwell & Thompson’s (1985:184) point that in film ‘silence takes on a new expressive function.’ And in the example noted here, silence works deliberately to communicate the distance in the relationship. This can also be seen in the sparse dialogue and resonance of delivery, which further emphasises the tentativeness of their relationship (Herzogenrath 1999:22).

In shifting the story back to the beginning, Lynch signifies this move through repeating the song with which the film began, and indeed set the tone for what was to follow – David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” – which is underscored by the same shot of the highway at night which began the film, and continues on into the credits (Mazullo 2005:500). Another example of Lynch using a song to signal a shift in narrative is the use of Lou Reed’s version of The Drifter’s “Magic Moment”, which is played at the first time (the magic moment?) in which it is realised that both characters from ‘the first half of the film, Fred and Renee, are present, in different bodies, in the second half’s alternate reality, as Pete and Alice’ (Mazullo 2005:502-3).

As can be seen, the use of soundtrack for Lynch involves a sophistication of choice, which is affirmed by his comment that ‘[h]alf of [a] film is picture…the other half is sound. They’ve got to work together’ (Press Kit). Herzogenrath (1999:9) suggests that, for Lynch’s work, the soundtrack is ‘a most important factor to enhance the mood of a scene’, or as mentioned above – ‘add-value’. The use of background sounds, and in particular Lynch’s use of ‘drones’ clearly demonstrates this point. For example, when Renee first finds the videotape a low bass sound rumbles, which can be seen to signify the threat of the outside (through the videotape) entering the inside. In the cinema this would have produced an unsettling affect with the low frequency being felt physically by the audience (Herzogrenath 1999:10).

The above discussion has provided an outline of the formal conventions of filmmaking which have been developed over the last century and still continue to influence the way films are created today. Examples were provided from Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997), which not only demonstrated the filmic context of the concepts under discussion, but also illustrated how film form can be subverted to produce a text that is outside the dominant style, and outside the normative assumption that films must finally, in their denouement, bring the experience to a satisfying and explanatory resolution.

Bordwell, D. and Thompson, J. (1985) “Fundamental Aesthetics of Sound in the Cinema” in Weis, E. and Belton, J (eds) Film Sound: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press.

Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. and Thompson, K. (1985) The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. London and New York: Routledge.

Bordwell, D. and Thompson, J. (2008) Film Art: An Introduction (8th edition). New York: McGraw Hill.

Chion, M. (1994) Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York: Columbia University Press.

Corrigan, T. and White, P. (2004) The Film Experience: An Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St Martin’s.

Hayward, S. (2000) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (2nd edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Hayward, S. (2006) Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts (3rd edition). London and New York: Routledge.

Herzogrenath, B. (1999) “On the Lost Highway: Lynch and Lacan, Cinema and Cultural Pathology”. Other Voices, 1 (3): 1-22. (accessed 20 March 2010).

Lehman, P. and Luhr, W. (2003) “Narrative Structure” in Thinking About Movies: Watching, Questioning, Enjoying (2nd edition). Oxford: Blackwell.

Mazullo, M. (2005) “Remembering Pop: David Lynch and the Sound of the ‘60s”. American Music, 23 (4): 493-513.

McGowan, T. (2000) “Finding Ourselves on a Lost Highway: David Lynch’s Lesson in Fantasy”. Cinema Journal, 39 (2): 51-73.

Official Press Kit for Lost Highway. (accessed 20 March 2010)

Szebin, F. and Biodrowski, S. (1997) “David Lynch on Lost Highway”. Cinefantastique, 28 (10): 32-41.

Vass, M. (2005) “Cinematic meaning in the work of David Lynch: Revisiting Twin Peaks, Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive”. Cineaction, 67 (Summer): 12-23.

Lost Highway, dir. David Lynch, 1997.

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