Sunday, April 10, 2016

THE THEME OF DUALITY IN THE MOVIES OF DAVID LYNCH

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Exploration of duality, of light and darkness, is the most important theme in the movies of the celebrated American director David Lynch. The motif of duality of people, places and things, has been recurring in Lynch’s movies ever since his debut feature Eraserhead filmed back in 1980, all through his latest mystery Mulholland Drive. Throughout his career, Lynch has been analyzed, explored and often misunderstood; while at the same time, winning the coveted Palme d’Or and Best Director prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and three Academy Awards nominations, creating one of the most famous soap operas in the history of American television, and receiving an abundance of equally positive and negative reviews from critics and audiences alike. The imagination, creativity and visual power of his movies has made him one of the most important directors in the history of American independent cinema. Through his inquiries of the theme of duality in his movies, Lynch has proved that everything in life has two sides to it, that nothing is simply black or white, good or evil; but rather that every being is both at the same time.

In his classic movie Blue Velvet (1986) Lynch probes into darker sides of a peaceful suburban American town. The director exposes the things hidden beneath the surface of the town of Lumberton, such as corruption, murders, prostitution, rape, and things like sado-masochism, misogyny, perversity and voyeurism hidden within people. Lynch himself said: “This is the way America is to me. There’s very innocent, naïve quality to life, and there’s horror and sickness as well. It’s everything. Blue Velvet is a very American movie. The look of it was inspired by my childhood in Spokane, Washington” (Rodley 139). The movie is a portrait of a nightmarish foundation to conventional respectable society, a disturbing look at the ugly underside of American life, a portrait of an American landscape that offers a dysfunctional view of familiar locations and suggests a kind of disquieting demeanor beneath the polished surface. In the film’s resolution, the characters watch a robin, symbolizing the return of love and light to the world, on the kitchen windowsill; however, “the bug in bird’s beak is a clear signifier that there will always be a darkness to balance the light” (Hughes 92). This image emphasizes and reiterates the main ideas of the film, those of duality, darkness and light existing naturally as one. When asked about this ambiguous sense of happiness in the end of the movie, Lynch stated: “That’s the subject of Blue Velvet. You apprehend things, and when you try to see what it’s all about, you have to live with it. So, there’s light and varying degrees of darkness” (Rodley 139). That is to say, the characters of the movie uncover and comprehend the dark sides of their town, as well as their own selves, but have to continue living their lives with the realizations and discoveries they have made. As darkness has surfaced, life goes on, even though not the same.

Twin Peaks; Fire Walk With Me (1992) explores duality of a rural middle-class American family life in the town of Twin Peaks, in which nothing is as it seems. With Fire Walk With Me, Lynch continues to explore the theme of duality that had been prevalent both in Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks series, but also travels deeper into the subconscious of the movie’s main characters. The movie deals with the decline and fall of a teenage girl named Laura Palmer who turns to drugs and prostitution as an escape from the habitual abuse she is suffering at home by the very hands of her own father. Lynch interprets this film as Laura’s view of incest and domestic abuse: “That’s what it was all about – the loneliness, shame, guilt, confusion and devastation of the victim of incest. It also dealt with the torment of the father – the war in him” (Rodley 185). On the one hand, Laura Palmer is the young and beautiful, beloved and adored homecoming queen of Twin Peaks; on the other hand, she is a prostitute, a drug and alcohol addict. However, the latter actions are nothing more than a reaction of a lonely, scared and lost child who cannot comprehend what is happening to her or who she can ask for help. As she cannot accept the reality surrounding her, her mind subconsciously creates a new one – one in which she cannot even see her father as her abuser, but instead of him creates a monstrous creature called Bob. Her father, a respectable well-known lawyer and family man, is also a man who is mentally and physically abusing his own daughter from the time she was only 12 years of age and ends up brutally murdering her. “She [Laura] is cut off from culture as well as from reality by being the cultural image of desire. Trapped within the stereotype, she lives an alienated life, peering frantically at the world through her desirable shell… Here, the homecoming queen, the unequivocal social ideal of love and beauty is used to create a narrative focus for what happens when human energy is labeled” (Nochimson 174-175). In other words, even though Laura is superficially a standard of ordinary life (blonde, blue-eyed, beautiful, “the classic American girl”), it is the synchronicity with the very portrait of the perfect girl and daddy’s princess that afflicts her. In the world of Twin Peaks, there is an expression of all-present antagonism and dichotomy. Every thing/person/place has two different faces and nothing can be understood as explicitly good or evil: good and evil cannot exist without one another - poles can be explained and defined only as each other’s opposites.

In his movie, Mulholland Drive (2001) David Lynch dwelled upon the theme of duality of identity, set in the world of Hollywood. After the failure of both her movie career and her love affair, the main character Diane imagines a fantasy of her as another character named Betty, by recreating her ruined career and failed relationship with the woman she loves. To further expand on his main themes of identity, fantasy and reality, duality of things and Hollywood, Lynch uses contrasted filming techniques for each of the parts of the movie, creating a visual dichotomy between Diane’s fantasy (where everything is embellished in a way, highly illuminated, colorful and visually striking) and reality (which is almost completely dark and uses very little lighting, making it seem quite surreal), thus blurring the edges between the two. In her fantasy Diane loses her identity, as her dream presents another aspect of herself. One might argue that this fantasy is actually Diane’s attempt at self-identification, but it is also an another representation of her own personality. In the end, Diane must understand that she is comprised of, and capable of, both light and dark, good and evil, naïveté and deep mystery. Therefore, she cannot escape or ignore the darker parts of herself – her failure, her hatred, her jealousy. Lynch has explained duality in his films in this way: “You have to have the contrasts. Films should have power. The power of good and the power of darkness, so you can get some thrills and shake things up a bit. If you back off from that stuff, you’re shooting right down into lukewarm junk.…You have to believe things so much that you make them honest” (Rodley 150). In other words, he argues that in order for films to be strong and powerful, they need to present both sides of a coin, an unrestricted view of life with all of its light and all of its darkness. However, according to him, there is no need to fear the darker side because it is a part of all of us: “Fear is based on not seeing the whole thing and, if you could get there and see the whole thing, fear is out the window” (Rodley 244). Hence he argues that once we come to terms with these darker things and accept them as a natural contrast in all of us, rather than try to hide and escape them, we will be able to face and understand them.

Duality is an intrinsic part of life; just as light cannot exist without darkness, good cannot exist without evil, life cannot exist without death. True value of the movies of David Lynch has proved to be his profound exploration of dualities of life, that most of other Hollywood directors are afraid to probe into. Through Lynch’s movies, the audience travels on a path to realization of darker sides of themselves. Hence, his films make us fully comprehend how each one of us can at the same time possess so much good and evil, light and dark, beauty and ugliness. In the end, it is this duality that keeps the world going: how would a world without its other side look like?


© Written by IVAN BUKTA, 2003; NEW YORK, NY



Works Cited


1. Rodley, Chris. Lynch on Lynch. London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1997.

2. Nochimson, Martha P. The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997.

3. Hughes, David. The Complete Lynch. London: Virgin Books Ltd, 2001.

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