It’s 3:30 am and I’m unable to sleep, as usual, which means I will finally fall asleep around 5 am and wake up at noon; and feel as if I’ve lost the entire day. Given how destructive this can be for one’s work, I decided a while back that the only thing to do when sleep is elusive, is to turn on the bedside lamp and read- or write- or work.
And so I’ve been sitting up in bed reading Thierry Jousse’s wonderful book on David Lynch, published by Cahiers du Cinema as part of their Masters of Cinema series, and generously illustrated with sparkling photographs: high-quality frames from the various Lynch films, some in two-page spreads; his paintings, his photographic work.
So far, the book has been an absolute delight to read (and I’ve only finished reading up to his discussion of Wild at Heart) – an effortless combination of analysis and appraisal, and I would emphasize effortless. Jousse’s writing style reminds me of Michel Chion’s writing. There too, the richest insights on the films appear almost casually, and before you realize it, you’ve moved on. Then within seconds the insight sinks in and you do a double-take: wait…what?! Then you go back and read the passage and realize why you’d almost missed it: because facts, analysis, appraisal, interpretation mingle freely, merge and flow into one another.
It may be that I’m comparing Jousse’s writing to the granularity of writing for peer-reviewed scholarly publications.
But listen to this passage from Jousse’s discussion of Wild at Heart (with occasional emphases added by me and a link to a poor quality clip of the scene on YouTube):
“In the film’s favor, it is also worth pointing out that Wild at Heart isn’t really just one whole. Right in the middle of their insane journey on the run, the couple encounter the presence of death in the form of a car accident.
This sequence, which borders on hallucination, begins as strewn clothes come into view in the middle of the road. Sailor and Lula stop their mad chase across the landscape and find a bleeding woman wandering in a neighborhood field. The woman dies in front of their eyes, and a tragic strangeness seems to come over the couple, as if, in the space of a few moments, all the stylistic flash of the film has gone and its tone has suddenly become more dramatic and absurd over time. The accident, appearing as a dark omen in the story, is undoubtedly the strongest part of Wild at Heart and presages the more interesting last section of the work, when the couple, worn out, stop at a remote bungalow in the desert. Their euphoric journey now inexorably moves towards a kind of stalemate, embodied in the shifty Bobby Peru…The last section is overwhelmed by an unbearable heat and creates a sense of malaise, revulsion and even nausea (notably materialized by the pile of sick congealing in the couple’s room). This final episode provides an array of powerful and toxic sensations for the viewer, which cuts through the general sense of unreality that seems to pervade the rest of the film most of the time.“
Elsewhere in one of the many insets in the book, Jousse notes that “the scene creates a sense of fear that borders on the metaphysical and subtly changes the film’s moral direction…[The shift in tone] seems to loom up in an almost grotesque way but also appears to have come right out of humankind’s collective and unconscious awareness of death.”
Jousse is exactly right of course: “The tragic strangeness” of the scene, the “sense of fear” it creates, is precisely it; precisely that aspect that makes this scene terrifying. The girl picks at her own brains in her bloodied and shattered head, completely unaware of her impending death, while in a state of panic over a confrontation with her mother over a lost bobby pin. It isn’t just that Lynch overlays a banal back story about an intemperate mother and her nervous teenaged daughter, over a grisly and bloody accident scene. This combination of the normal and the horrific has always been part of his style and is powerful enough. In addition though, Lynch reverses the equation between death and life, a deeper plunge into nihilism that recalls Blue Velvet, which too has a horrific moment when Dorothy walks towards Jeff and Sandy, naked and bruised. But there, Dorothy is ultimately reunited with her son. Here, the girl is the walking dead, a zombie, even before she has died.
Jousse’s writing buys into, and inhabits this strange Lynchian world with complete sincerity, participates in it, so that plot devices such as foreshadowing (“a dark omen”), narrative structure (“stalemate”), cinematography and mise-en-scène (“unbearable heat”), and “motivation” (the scene “borders on hallucination”, Jousse tells us) can be indicated as a kind of experience, rather than as objective categories one might impose on the movie in the process of analysis and interpretation. Perhaps this is a fundamental condition of all good film criticism, and it would be essential for any that is sensitive to the phenomenology of the film experience.
On a more practical level, I find passages such as these enormously useful in teaching students to read. I am never certain that they know how to read, even when their writing seems just fine. I’ve had exercises where I reproduce a piece of criticism and ask students to tease out the analytical vocabulary that is concealed, vocabulary they would be required to draw on and foreground more explicity in their term papers. Jousse’s writing lends itself well to that task.
Setting aside the demands of [writing and evaluating] a film analysis term paper, this is criticism that turns images into words as if the two were always interchangeable.
One final note: one of the many treasures of this book is an extract from Serge Daney’s brilliant 1981 piece on The Elephant Man for Cahiers du Cinema. It would take me too long to reproduce that piece here. It’s now 4:48 am.