May 17, 2012

Under your spell / under the influence

Three landmark experimental films are routinely cited as influential on David Lynch: Un Chien Andalou, Scorpio Rising and Meshes of the Afternoon. The last is perhaps the least well-known of the three. But its dream-like approach, its doubling of identities, its Los Angeles setting, have been important. From a recent piece on Meshes of the Afternoon director Maya Deren:
Down the years, this approach has continued to interest the likes of David Lynch – especially in Lost Highway, which made a meal out of characters in different forms, presented in time-hopping twists, identity swaps and reversals. To a lesser extent, Mulholland Drive toyed with the same devices ... The dots between Deren and Lynch have been connected in this 2002 essay:
Her influence extends to contemporary filmmakers like David Lynch, whose film Lost Highway (1997) pays homage to Meshes of the Afternoon in his experimentation with narration. Lynch adopts a similar spiraling narrative pattern, sets his film within an analogous location and establishes a mood of dread and paranoia, the result of constant surveillance. Both films focus on the nightmare as it is expressed in the elusive doubling of characters and in the incorporation of the “psychogenic fugue”, the evacuation and replacement of identities, something that was also central to the voodoo ritual.
Gordon Campbell, "Webs of Maya", Werewolf 29.

Marina Warner also nailed this voodoo aspect of Lost Highway in a 1997 Sight and Sound essay:

Lynch and [Barry] Gifford play here with a model of personality that far more closely resembles the beliefs of spirit religions as practised in Haiti, or elsewhere, among the Buissi people of the Southern Congo (as recorded this decade by the anthropologist Anita Jacobson Widding). In such schema of identity, the dream self can wander and perform independent acts or become possessed by the spirit and identity of a local stranger over whom the self has no authority. In Voodoo, as is well known, an animal spirit takes possession of the priestess or medium, and invites participants to "ride" her, to Tell My Horse, as Zora Neale Hurston entitled her pioneering work of ethnography from the 30s; the spirit can also evacuate personhood from a person, creating the walking shadow or "zombie" so loved by the horror movie tradition. The Buissi, on the other hand, express a more tranquil acceptance of the plurality of the self. "In the personal discourse," writes Mary Douglas, "metaphors for the person refer to body liquids and shadows. They evoke elusiveness, uncertainty, fluidity, ephemerality, ambiguity." The Salem witch trials reveal how profoundly at risk Christians can feel when they think those shadows are closing in and that they are losing their grip on their sense of self.
Possession was used much more obviously, or traditionally, in Twin Peaks (the ugly spirit). But maybe the Maya Deren influence is in other places too. Watching Blue Velvet again recently I was surprised to see how strongly the temporal lag between the 50s and the 80s – a crucial aspect of Twin Peaks – was here too, in that it was the present day outside Dorothy’s apartment and perhaps the 1940s or 50s inside her apartment (the furniture, the d├ęcor). Is her apartment really Maya Deren’s house in Meshes of the Afternoon? And then you wonder about Isabella Rossellini’s wig, and the knife. The keys in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Recorded music as possession or impersonation in both films.