Friday, May 9, 2008

Cinematic Nightmares: Up Late at Night with Hitch and Lynch

Whether you consider it a subjectively personal declaration of truth or a piece of conventional wisdom, it is a belief to which I definitely ascribe: There have been two nearly unrivaled masters when it comes to detailing the frighteningly innermost nightmares and neuroses that both haunt and inspire them through their cinema--Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch.

One reason I, among others, (rightly) link Hitchcock and Lynch together is because not only do they seem specially animated and aroused by their own nightmares and possibly phobias, but their concerns appear eerily familiar to one another.* When Lynch says that his favorite and most treasured piece of cinema is a sequence in Rear Window (1954), we believe him.

Lynch's cinema is, like Hitchcock's, about voyeurs of one kind or another. For each filmmaker, they found this archetype most preciously delivered in one of their great triumphs. For Hitchcock, Rear Window and for Lynch, Blue Velvet (1986). The numerous parallels are striking. James Stewart's injured L.B. Jeffries believes he's been privy to a murder across the street; Kyle MacLachlan's Jeffrey Beaumont finds a human ear. Jeffries finds himself blocking too much intimacy with Grace Kelly's Lisa Carol Fremont while simultaneously using her to help uncover the truth; Beaumont's most persistent and loyal deputy in discovering the truth of his town is Laura Dern's Sandy Williams. The voyeuristic exploration in each film both heightens and undermines the quest for justice and truth in each film. Hitchcock loved to implicate the audience in their morbidity and general willingness to cast characters as villainous without knowing the full story (Jeffries carries this out in the film). Lynch likewise implicates the audience, less with expository and more with visualization. The way Beaumont gazes at Frank Booth and Dorothy in the closet sparks a collaborative union between artist and audience; like the window frames of Hitchcock's Rear Window, which take on the life of small movie screens into which Jeffries can casually peer, the darkness of the closet in Blue Velvet visually articulates the dynamic experience of sitting in the dark, basking in anonymity, and hopefully allowing for both a cerebral and sensuous journey, not an excuse for embracing faineance.

For a director considered as dark as Lynch, one of the more amusing characteristics of his oeuvre is that his films conclude in some life-affirming and redemptive manner. Whether it's the welcoming at the end of The Straight Story or the happy, musically drenched ending of Wild at Heart, or the ensemble party at the end of Inland Empire Lynch likes to, not so much break the spell, but rather slip into it fully in the final movement of his art.

After seeing The Exorcist at a ridiculously early age, I began having nightmares about it for a considerable amount of time. Images of Linda Blair's head spinning, growling in Latin and being a really bad girl played over and over in my head. Has anyone else ever subconsciously discovered oneself having a nightmare, and, in this discovery, attempted to alter the nightmare into a happy, go lucky dream? I can still remember doing precisely that. Rather than sweatily envisioning Linda Blair underneath my bed, I attempted to dream up a San Francisco 49ers touchdown, or something, anything, to block that horrible possessed girl from appearing in my head whenever she wished to. Usually this approach failed--how can you suppress your own active imagination and methodically scrub it of what is tormenting it?--but sometimes this worked. I often see the endings of Lynch's films in a similar way. They're still dreaming at the end, and the nightmarish exterior has only been temporarily covered by a new dream, one that sees good in perversion, love and reconciliation in sex and violence and harmony in anarchic, evil chaos. It's one way of looking at the coda of Blue Velvet, and it's just one way of looking at Lynch.

*I know for a fact that the great Craig Kennedy sees this very parallel, too, and so I'm certainly looking forward to his comment. (Nudge, nudge.) Ah... Just what an insomniac needs, analyzing nightmares... Goodnight...


Daniel G. said...

Great musings. I'm haunted by the dumpster guy in Mulholland Drive no matter how many times I see it. Regarding the attempt to switch frames in your head - yes, I've tried, and no, it doesn't work. I think the adrenaline pumping through you prevents you from achieving a different, placid vision.

I need to see more of Hitchcock's work. I've really only seen the classics, such as RW, Psycho, Vertigo, etc.

I'll throw another director's name in here, only because one of his films remains as one that I literally can't bring myself to watch: Kubrick. Horror is one of my least favorite genres, but I don't really consider The Shining a classic horror film, even though it may be as close as Kubrick gets. Still, a number of his sequences stayed with me from, to name a few, Clockwork, Eyes Wide, and Full Metal.

Alexander Coleman said...

Kubrick is a very good choice. His films, beginning with Killer's Kiss, continuing with The Killing, Paths of Glory, heck, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut all possesss nightmarish qualities. Killer's Kiss feels like a Hitchcockian nightmare related to loneliness (like a tiny-budgeted noir twist on Rebecca in some ways).

Hiroshi Teshigahara's films play like nightmares as well, or at least like dreams. Woman in the Dunes is highly dreamlike and I Have a Stranger's Face/The Face of Another certainly makes me think of potential nightmare territory.

The first Paul Schrader/Martin Scorsese collaboration, Taxi Driver, has been described as a nightmare by a number of critics including Roger Ebert.

I think John Boorman is underrated, and several of his films--whether they be the highly successful Point Blank (which is one of several films I'm considering for my next review), Deliverance or The Emerald Forest all have dreamlike/nightmarish qualities stemming from their hallucinatory, existentialist readings of distinctly human experiences set against merciless backdrops and life-altering, epiphenomenal and surrealist obstacles.

The dumpster guy in Mulholland Drive... Yes, that is one that is incredibly difficult to completely shake.

Chuck said...

Mulholland Dr. is still, possibly, my favorite movie of this decade.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks for stopping by, Chuck. I'm glad you were able to comment.

Just wanted to add that even Boorman's unsuccessful efforts like Zardoz and Exorcist II employed intriguing, nightmarish visuals, though clearly not with the grace, wit and spiritual truth that his more notable films achieved.

And I think Werner Herzog has to be mentioned as well, though most of his films behave as primordial meditations on man's place in nature. But his films can be downright horrifying, like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and his remake of Nosferatu. Nosferatu certainly links him to F.W. Murnau, and an entire thread about the German Expressionists and their silent excursions into the world of sinister nightmares. Robert Wiene and Fritz Lang instantly come to mind.

And then there's Roman Polanski. Even Knife in the Water feels like a long, subtly disturbing dream, and Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant, just for starters, are nothing if not some of the more fiendish bad dreams I've ever seen. (In this way, both Repulsion and The Tenant are the most sincerely nightmarish, being so unaffected and terribly insular.)

Daniel G. said...

I meant to come back to this but forgot. Just wanted to say that Deliverance is an incredible, surreal film - a living nightmare. It haunted me for some time after I saw it just a few years ago.

Alexander Coleman said...

You're right, Daniel, Deliverance is a terrific, "surreal" film as you say. Boorman is getting some love around these parts right now.