Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Making A Scene: David Lynch

A perfect scene goes beyond just helping advance the story . It comes from a complete understanding of the medium. The lighting, the sound, the composition of a scene. So much is lost in most of the scenes we watch today because they are viewed as nothing more than a segue to the explosion or the kill or the big reveal. I recently commented on the trailer of There Will Be Blood as a return to a true understanding of the power of a scene. That's a lot to take from a trailer I know, but from what I've seen I'm willing to make that statement.

While there are a lot of examples of the perfect scene, I want to focus specifically on one director's ability to time and time again produce scenes that function on a completely different level. David Lynch has the uncanny ability to create what I would call a visceral reaction to what he puts up on the screen. Much like when a house alarm goes off, the deafening buzz fills your ears and for a few moments you can't control yourself or even think straight. It is in effect an assault on the viewer. This is what David Lynch can do with a scene through sound and movement and composition.

In Blue Velvet when Jeffery walks into Dorothy's apartment for the last time, we are struck with a scene that is at one moment engaging and repulsive the next. You know you shouldn't watch, but you can't help yourself. The scene is revealed first to Jefferey. The audience doesn't know what Jefferey is reacting to when he first comes around the corner. This is a technique that Lynch uses often: revealing a scene to a character before the audience, or using the characters point of view to allow the scene to unfold.

What we see is half-dead Detective Tom Gordon barely standing and looking at an already dead Ben bound in a chair. The scene is brief but in those moments, the colors, the composition of the scene and the sheer horror of what we are seeing burns quickly in our brains. At first Lynch reveals it all and then he breaks it up into individual scenes as Jeffery examines it closer. There is the smashed TV set. The head wound on Detective Tom. The blood staining Tom's bright yellow jacket and soaking into the red carpet.

In the chair is Ben with his head turned to the side to reveal his missing ear. The strip of blue velvet coming out of his mouth as if he were throwing it up.

What's interesting about this scene is how Lynch presents it. It's horrifying, yet he reveals it as very matter of fact to Jeffery and to the audience. Jeffery does not shy away from what he sees, he instead breaks it down allowing the audience to do the same.

In the opening scene of Wild At Heart the mood quickly shifts from what at first seems to be an epic period piece to a straight out street fight. The luxurious surroundings provide an ironic backdrop to the full-out assault of the assassin at the hands of Sailor. Once again, before the scene is revealed to us, Lynch provides us a warning as Lula screams at the top of her lungs. The music quickly shifts from that of "In The Mood" to speed metal.

With the music switch comes the realization that Sailor plans to do more than just defend himself. The violence comes fast and extreme and you're just realizing that the opening credits just ended and you have just opened your Milk Duds. You aren't prepared for this onslaught. And what's further, Lynch has set the tone for the entire movie in the first few minutes. The rest of the story could be that of a sweet and innocent love story between Lula and Sailor, but the entire audience will remain squirming because of that opening scene.

In Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me, Laura Palmer discovers Bob in her room, behind her dresser. Here we are revealed the scene through Laura's point of view. The slow sound of the ceiling fan pulses in the background as Laura slowly opens the door.

Something is revealed in the room, a dark presence of some kind. The shot is so quick, you can't really discern what it is, yet you know it's something menacing because there is a sudden sound that comes on loud and brash. Not music, but an electronic sound of some kind. Almost a sick clang of a gong. And Laura begins to scream at the top of her lungs. We still have not seen completely what she is screaming about but the fear is there. The combination of the clang and the screaming is disorienting.

And just as the mind has processed the sound, we see Bob behind the dresser. He is menacing with his smile. The screaming and the sound continues as we see a quick set of cuts of Bob, each time the camera gets closer and closer to him. To add to the chaos, Bob then begins to yell. But not just an ordinary yell, there is a deeper, more evil growl in his voice. Keep in mind that all of this is happening within seconds. Layer upon layer of sights and sounds. The climax of this is the inside of Bob's mouth. Not a common visual unless of course you're a dentist. So while your mind is trying to wrap around the assault of sounds, you are now confronted with a dark red tongue and uvula. This is Lynch pulling out all the stops. We are hearing layers of sound while being exposed to a series of startling images. Trying to process everything is like trying to solve a complex mathematical problem in a matter of seconds.

In Mulholland Dr., Dan watches his nightmare unfold before him as he and Herb walk behind the local Winkies to see if there is any truth to Dan's dream he has just confessed. Again, Lynch allows the scene to unfold through the character's eyes. We cut back and forth between Dan's point of view and the camera revealing Dan's horrified look as he approaches the wall.

The sound is minimal. We hear only the cars on the street and Dan and Herb's footsteps. While other directors might try to create mood with music, Lynch allows the camera and the acting to create the tension naturally.'The Man' is revealed through peaking around a wall. At the moment we see him, Lynch brings in sound. The sound is as if an entire symphony is building to a climax but is quickly muffled by someone putting their hand over a microphone. Then everything goes dead. Instead of assaulting us with loud piercing noise to further enhance the scene, Lynch instead goes to nothing.

No street sound, no footsteps, no dialogue. Nothing. As we watch Dan fall into Herb's arms and suffer from what looks to be a heart attack from severe shock, we do not hear his screams, we hear nothing. Slowly sound is re-introduced but as if under water. Herb's words are deep and muffled and hard to make out.

This scene makes you jump, but not because 'The Man' jumps out at you. It is because Lynch understands all the elements of a scene. When to use music or sound and how to use it. When does it make sense to let the camera tell the story instead of the characters. And when there is the reveal, using every aspect of the scene to pay it off. Visual, sound and composition. Few filmmakers understand this and even fewer can build a scene like David Lynch.


* (asterisk) said...

Ah, what a great post. Lynch is the master. My absolute favourite director of all time. And these scenes are just some of the reasons. I was floored by that sequence in Blue Velvet when first I saw it. Floored and terrified.

(Is that Ben dead in the room, or Don? I always thought Don.)

* Having just looked at a copy of the screenplay online, in there it simply says "a dead man with no ears". Hmmm.)

Garrett Sorrels said...

This post is a great Piper!
I really like how you laid out each scene. Even looking at the stills the way you set them up is creepy.

You're right; the way Lynch captures certain moments is so different than what any other filmmaker does. He lets the footage do the talking (if that makes sense) without hiding behind a jumpy screen or an intense music build-up.

Charlie said...


First, let me respond to your last post on the way movies have gone. I would have replied there, but someone decided to leave a manefesto! You were spot on. I agree. In fact, I think I said something similar to that a few months back. I said Hollywood and the movie theaters are now just a business.

Second, on this post, you are also spot on. The only "blip" in Lynch's carreer is DUNE. What a POS. The fact that it had Sting in it should have been the first clue. Luckily, he followed it up with something a bit better. Still wierd though, that he did Elephant Man. Just think where he would be if he had stuck to this type of genre.


Anonymous said...

Piper, you really love that monkey scene!!!!

PIPER said...


I always thought is was Ben? Maybe it was Don. Hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

HEY!!!! I liked Dune!!!!

PIPER said...

I actually liked Dune too.

Charlie said...


Sheamus the... said...

i a totally loved and agree with your analysis of DRIVE. That scene blew me out of the water the first time I saw it...and the second time.

* (asterisk) said...

I didn't like Dune, gotta say.