Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Otherworldly Curtains in the Films of David Lynch

David Lynch has a lot of weird patterns in his films. There are images that tend to pop up a lot, but this is one I find especially curious. If you have seen Lynch's movies, one pattern that quickly becomes clear is his love to create a surreal dream-like experience, and there are particular moments that tend to stand out where Lynch makes a particularly strange choice. In many of his dream-like sequences, Lynch has a tendency to use curtains (particularly red) to create a more otherworldly or dream-like atmosphere. This occurs throughout most of his films along with some of his television work.

The earliest case I have found of Lynch using curtains to this effect would be in Eraserhead. More specifically, the dream sequence in which Henry Spencer encounters the Lady in the Radiator (who I will not include a picture of as her image may traumatize some viewers) in a strange theatrical setting. She then disappears, and he finds himself standing at a podium as though he is being put on trial. He is abruptly decapitated, the baby's head appearing on his body while his head is left in a pool of blood before sinking into it.

If you notice here, the background consists entirely of curtains, although we can't actually tell what color they are. This may have been a practical move as Lynch had almost no budget for Eraserhead, but it seems to work to the effect of creating a dream-like atmosphere nonetheless. This could be the film's way of calling attention to itself as a constructed medium (after all, if any of Lynch's movies can be called Art Films, it's either this or Inland Empire).

The curtains appear again, though greatly downplayed, in The Elephant Man. They don't create a dream-like atmosphere in the same way as Eraserhead, but they do serve to add a sense of mystery to the character of John Merrick. In Merrick's first scene, he is kept behind a curtain in a dark cellar. His cruel manager, Mr. Bytes delivers a speech and pulls the curtain open, allowing our first glimpse of the famed "Elephant Man". In this case, the small space Merrick inhabits looks more like a cave, and we can barely see him.

Later on, Merrick is seen standing behind a curtain yet again when Treves first presents him to the "society". Merrick is only seen in silhouette, while Treves provides a more scientific explanation for his condition (as opposed to the dramatic version Bytes could have just made up). Still, as with the previous encounter, we fail to get a good look at Merrick, keeping the mystery of his character secret. In this case, the curtain could be seen as representing the prejudices of the Victorian society, serving as a literal wall which keeps us seeing the kind and intelligent man underneath those deformities.

The more familiar red curtains first make their appearance in Blue Velvet. Now I've often noted that Blue Velvet is one of Lynch's more down-to-Earth movies, having an easily comprehensible (if at times strange) narrative. Still, the curtain is a very distinct background while Dorothy Vallens is performing at the night club. We see her on stage donning this fairly elegant dress and seeing a "classy" song, but once again it's really all a charade. Jeffrey Beaumont glimpses first hand what she is going really going through, being forced into submitting to the desires of the sex-crazed psycho Frank Booth.

This brings us arguably Lynch's most iconic use of curtains for this purpose: Twin Peaks along with the movie Fire Walk With Me. The best example of how they are used here of course would be the Black Lodge, which consists of a series of very similar rooms divided only by red curtains.  The curtains here, as with the world of Eraserhead, provide a very otherworldly vibe that makes it clear they are in a place separate from the rest of Twin Peaks. This, along with the strange way in which people talk and the apparent warping of reality all help to make the appearance of the Black Lodge seem incredibly surreal.

The curtains also continue to show up in Mulholland Dr. at several points in the film. It's harder to see because of the lighting, but there's a scene where a mobster-like studio executive is seen talking to a "Mr. Roque" (played, fittingly enough, by Michael J. Anderson, the "Man From Another Place" who was frequently seen at the Black Lodge). At this point, it is clear that there are other forces controlling the production of Adam Kesher's film, and if you look closely, you can see the background is a curtain, possibly red. This does provide the small hint that Mr. Roque may not be of this world or that there may be something else to his character that we can't see.

Later on, the idea of the curtain and the "deception" comes out more obviously at Club Silencio. Like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, the curtain backdrop is used specifically on a stage, but still has that strange otherworldly vibe. At the club we meet this strange man, who talks about illusions, demonstrating how he can use recordings of music to create the illusion of conducting a non-existent orchestra. We see a man coming out apparently playing a trumpet only for the music to keep playing as he moves it away from his mouth, followed by a woman, Rebecca Del Rio who seems to sing a song which also keeps playing after she passes out. This illustrates the fact that what the characters have experienced is a very idealized version of Hollywood, and forces them to confront the much darker reality.

The curtain is very clearly a prominent part of Lynch's film-making style. There may have even been other instances which I failed to notice. What interests me is how simply hanging a curtain can be used to create such a strange and otherworldly dream-like tone in Lynch's films. Just what is it about the curtains that makes them work so well?

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