ClubSilencioEssay


THERE IS NO BAND: AURA AND AURALITY IN LYNCH'S MULHOLLAND DR

CLOSE READING OF CLUB SILENCIO SCENE by Griff_MR

The cinema of David Lynch has always been saturated, in my opinion, with two key concerns: one more strictly thematic and a second, still thematic, but highly rooted in the technical apparatus of the talking cinema. The first is identity: that ever pervasive literary obsession that inhabits, invests and ingests, the work of all artists and auteurs. The second is the aural, which is to say sound, speech, music and all of the various metonyms of these notions, from severed ears to sound-proof saxophone studios. I would like to suggest that these two conceits are not separate, but in fact inextricably linked. Film and, by association, film theory have always been constructed, both by the filmmakers and the vast majority of theorists as predominantly a visual medium. While Lynch is deeply rooted in this tradition, indeed, his are some of the most visual rich and astonishing works of their oeuvre, his concern with sound is already partially transcendental of this position and, in particular, film theory's rhetoric of the Lacanian 'gaze' which emerges, notably, from Christian Metz's work on suture theory .
I will begin, then, with Walter Benjamin's notion of aura (in particular, as it is presented in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). Benjaminian aura seems the most pertinent model of identity since it both reflects identity both because it is bound up with contemporary representation, cinema, photography and the generation of copies and because it phonetically resonates with the word aural. We might, for the purposes of this discussion and because of the interaction of these two terms posit the need for a new trope: that of aurality, which might constitute a synthesis of 'aura' and 'the aural'; of spirit and sound, so to speak. For Benjamin, the 'aura' of an object, a person or a work of art, is grounded in immediacy. He states that aura is: the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be, and that the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity. Here we see two threads of the meaning of this concept. The second thread is fairly straightforward: the presence of an original is necessary to the essentialist position that posits that I am me, you are you and Professor Valentis is who she is, in other words, that we as individuals have an essence at all; or, in terms of works of art (with which Benjamin is concerned), an original statue or painting contains in its essence an essential quality that cannot be duplicated.
Benjamin goes on to make the, highly postmodern, claim that aura in 'the age of mechanical reproduction shrivels away, or as he puts it, goes into decline:

The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art-work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus--namely, its authenticity--is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. The eliminated element in the term "aura,' that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

The first thread, which sees aura as the unique phenomenon of a distance, is more difficult to grasp. Indeed, it is arguably mystical, and incomprehensible; its attempt to define a particular intimacy in the relation between percepiens and perceptum (perceiver and perceived) which, Benjamin maintains, somehow declines (in what might be termed postmodern or late-capitalist society), may be a miscalculation on his part. Samuel Weber asserts that Benjamin's notion of aura in its existence as a distance prior to its decline is a dual movement (if you like), at once away from and towards the subject and for that reason fundamentally ambivalent to begin with. He therefore relates it to Heidegger's notion of Nennkraft, with, I think, the greatest success so far in any commentator on Benjamin.
This being said, I would favour a different model and a different set of resonances of this idea of aurality (in the sense I already mentioned) at least insofar as it exists as a trope in the Lynchian multiverse. As Slavoj Zizek bemoans in a recent essay on Lynch: The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway Lynch's cinema allows, to a certain degree, the possibility of reading in it a particular, 'New Age' discourse, which, as Zizek puts it: focused on the flow of Life Energy that allegedly connects all events and runs through all scenes and persons, turning Lynch into the poet of a Jungian universal subconscious spiritualized libido. However, what must be admitted is that what is present in Lynch, as it is implicit in Benjamin is some idea of a 'soul'. This concession must be made to the 'New Age' commentators (for instance, Martha P. Nochimson), but, as I intend to argue, Lynch's cinema critiques traditional conceptions of soul through the synthesis of sound and aura, which I have termed aurality. Benjamin mainly discusses objects, such as works of art in his essay but one may extrapolate a loosely essentialist position implicit in 'aura' as it relates to human subjectivity and selfhood. To be most pertinent to Lynch, or, at least, to Mulholland Dr, the approach to aura must begin from a certain generality of the Western philosophical concept of 'soul'. Traditional conceptions of the soul in the West, are essentially judaeotheistic, or, to put it more simply, Christian. However, this becomes complicated when we arrive at the modern philosophical tradition which is usually (and for good reason), conceived to begin with Rene Descartes.
First, let me make clear the presence of the soul in Mulholland Dr. Ultimately, what is being grasped after, in the film, as I have eluded to, is identity. Betty's dream may be an idealized wish-fulfillment concerned with desire and the moulding of the loved object, but it is also auto-erotic and concerned with the self. (egs- the masturbation; expound more) However, I would stress two aspects of the incidence of identity, that is, of the soul in Mulholland Dr: first, it is acorporeal, which is to say, it resists physical embodiment and secondly, it is transmitted largely as sound.

(evidence for 1: Betty as plastic and insubstantial until the auditon [ie- presence of a {pre}program])
(evidence for 2: is to come)

Identifying religious principles is difficult because of the politics of sectional differences in any religious, certainly not least the judaeotheistic (that is Judaism, Christianity and, to a degree Islam) tradition. However, as a generality, the soul in this tradition is both tied to the body and independent of it at particular times. The soul of a human (and, it should be added that this is a thoroughly humanistic notion of soul; sorry to animal lovers but Christian dogs do not go to heaven) is tied to his or her body throughout life, even if it obtains a life of its own at the moment of death. It is for this reason that Christ was subject to a waiting period, so to speak, of three days before being permitted to pass to Heaven. This is proved by Descartes who, in his six Meditations on First Philosophy painstakingly sets out to disbelieve all, seemingly self-evident truths in order to return to those which can be shown by a process of reasoning. It is Descartes who, most profoundly sets up the tension that exists to this day and was always implicitly present in judaeotheistic, between the corporeality of the soul and the link between mind and body. This is, of course, known as Cartesian Dualism and will recur and concern philosophers all through the last four centuries; from Spinoza, for whom, mind (for these thinkers - mind=soul) is the idea of body to Leibniz, for whom mind and body are wholly separate and affect one another only in appearance, in other words, the radical determinism which was always implicit in Spinoza. Descartes ambivalence lies in the extent to which he separates the notions of mind and body, for instance when he states that the former is completely indivisible while the latter is said to be, from its nature, always divisible, and yet, by his Sixth Meditation, notes, indeed, believes he has shown conclusively that: 'I am not residing in my body, as a pilot in a ship, but that my mind is intimately connected with it.' In other words, what Descartes inaugurates in Western thought is a profound double logic. On the one hand, the soul and the body are wholly different and separate, yet they are bound together (as we noted they were in theistic discourse) till the moment of death when they assume a more eternal form.
So how does this relate to Lynch? Sure, it's a roundabout path to take, but fundamentally necessary because Mulholland Dr critiques this model for the relationship of soul and body. In traditional discourse, as we have noted, the soul is conceived as attached to the body until death. Whereas, in Mulholland Dr the soul is thoroughly absent for most of the characters. They are empty shells, like the amnesiac Rita or Betty, the eternally chipper plastic doll.
Lynch retains a traditional sense of the non-spectral materiality of the body, its distance from the soul. Take The Elephant Man, in which the title character's body is a grotesque cage, for a sensitive and intelligent soul which the film's characters, much less the viewer, can hardly associate that exterior. However, just as distance as Benjamin conceived it, was the essence of 'aura' so, aura, the soul etcetera in Mulholland Dr is fluid, always in transition. When the unnamed character who has nightmares about Winkie's family restaurant first visits that place with his shrink, he tells the shrink: "Of all people, you're standing, right over there, by that counter," yet as identities shift and shape and the mysterious and incomprehensible blue box enacts a metonymic sliding of all identities, it is this man who now stands by the counter, in the gaze of his past self perhaps.

When identity is transmitted to the body, in the film, it always remains separated from it by a subtle, imperceptible, yet insistently present distance since it is always transmitted from an external and preprogrammed source. In her audition, when Betty 'gets real', in other words, obtains, momentarily, an aura, she is already performing a preprogrammed set of commands, the script. Prior to this, her identity is merely a fleeting set of gestures associated with a formularized social role, the (aspiring) movie star. Similarly, Rita acquires her, equally fragile and soulless identity through a bizarre reverse Lacanian mirror phase. She sees the reflection of a poster for the film noir Gilda, starring Rita Hayworth and chooses her (also temporary) identity in this way.
However the most profoundly prerecorded roles which are encountered in Mulholland Dr are aural. The scene in Club Silencio is perhaps the key to the text in light of this aurality of the soul.

[SHOW club silencio]
What we encounter in this sequence as we have elsewhere (in Play Misty for Me, where Eastwood is haunted by his own voice on the radio, which detaches similarly from his body in a kind of castration via sound; or, of course, in Psycho with Mother's voice) is a number of what Michel Chion calls Acousmatic voices. I would propose, however, that Mulholland Dr breaks with the acousmatic presence in those other films I have mentioned insofar as the sounds presented are thoroughly prerecorded. The compare, Rebekah del Rio, and, as Banesh has pointed out in his paper, the audience - Rita and Betty themselves are structured by sound a priori. In technical terms this is effected in two ways. First, Mother's acousmatic voice in Psycho was not prestructured or preprogrammed since it was spontaneously enacted whether by Norman or not. Mother was a case of performative identity realized through the aural. Secondly, Mother's body (and for the most part, Norman's) were not allowed to be an embodiment, a vessel, for the acousmatic voice, it floats freely through the film. In Mulholland Dr however, the acousmetre tauntingly hangs over the body, as a song (which is first of all prestructured, like Betty's audition script and like the audition songs sung by the dream's displaced and condensed version of Camilla). Secondly and more relevant to the idea of aura is this sense of Nennkraft, Heidegger's simultaneous movement towards and away from, or, as Benjamin puts it, the unique phenomenon of a distance, inherent in this particular use of the aural acousmatic presence of 'soul'. Whereas in Psycho, embodiment was not actualized (indeed, Chion says it is 'impossible '), in Mulholland Dr, voice hangs at a distance from the body but still as a simulacra of the possibility of embodiment. This is seen in the way that bodies are always surrounded by sound and perhaps near the point of embodiment, yet their aural aura, their soul of sound always eludes them.
The distance of aura is displayed in the conflation of subjectivity between Betty and Rita or Diane and Camilla. What the dream enacts is a peculiarly Sartrean fantasy of desire. For the existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, desire and romantic encounter is based on constant conflict, an unending oscillating between the modes of being he calls sadism and masochism. Those of you who are familiarly with the Lacanian notion of the gaze, of the idea of mirroring and its centrality to the foundation of identity, may or may not be aware that much of Lacan's theory is drawn from Sartre's earlier notion of 'the look,' which he expounds in Being and Nothingness. Sartre can easily be seen as the last significant advocate and refiner of the Cartesian tradition. His notions of perception are founded on a refined version of the cogito. For Sartre, the look is an absolute exercise of power over the body of the other. In his theory of look and counter look, subjects of desire interact between a desire to possess the other through 'looking' so to speak, at them; this he notes is a desire to possess the other's freedom-as-freedom, a logical impossibility.

While Sartre's metaphor, like Lacan's which follows it, is grounded in rhetoric of sight, if one looks at his original text, one will notice that this metaphor does not preclude sound as a possible weapon of these power gestures, these interpolations of subjectivization (which I mean both in the sense of making the other a subject and making it a 'self'). Sartre says:
"This woman, whom I see coming toward me, this man who is passing by in the street, this beggar whom I hear calling before my window, all are for me objects of that there is no doubt. The modalities of the Other's presence to me is objectness. Now it is not only conjectural but probable that this voice which I hear is that of a man and not a song on a phonograph; it is infinitely probable that the passer-by whom I see is a man and not a perfected robot."
Sartre goes on to posit, a consciousness which would be behind its perceptible manifestations, in other words, an aura, a soul, the very Cartesian cogito, 'I think (therefore I am)'.
However Lynch's film challenges this transcendental ideal. In Mulholland Dr, Sarte's take on psychoanalysis has been pushed to its extreme. Intersubjective relations remain with all their sadomasochistic twists and turns, culminating in Diane's flagellating masturbation, her simultaneous self-punishment and auto-eroticization; her attack of both her self and the 'other,' which we might view as a condensation of any number of figures, from Rita/Camilla to Adam Kesher. Ultimately, as we have seen, Diane's masochistic mode as Betty, the pandering push-over and her sadistic turn towards the end of the film, perform a Sartrean desire-narrative which ultimately ends in the need to kill the other. This fantasized ideal of the other's destruction proves implosive at its actualization and therefore, Diane weeps and sexually beats herself as the key, metonymic of Camilla's death, and therein of the death of a part of Diane's own 'self.' This self-destruction is finally actualized in her Diane's suicide at the end of the film (which remains eroticized in its placing on the bed).
To linger on that particular moment, I would like to ask - why do the old couple, Irene and her partner, return to drive Diane to this act?

[invite comment]
Irene's name encodes several dimensions of meaning. We might render its orthographic spelling: 'eye-rene,' which implies, 'eye-re né.' In other words, some renaissance, or rebirth of the eye. This idea of gaining a new eye or a new form of vision is not new. From Baudelaire to Hitchcock to Spielberg's Minority Report, this notion has been posited. What I would say about it in regard to Mulholland Dr is the way the new eye may, in fact be, a condensation of eye and ear - just as Blue Velvet's Jefferey looks with his ear, as Chion points out in David Lynch:
"The scene [that is, of Jefferey's watching and listening to Frank Booth and Dorothy Valens from the closet] seems to arise from some archaic acoustic impression which endows it with this kind of troubling vagueness that can inspire bizarre theories. A child who overhears the sexual intercourse of adults on the other side of a wall might imagine, for instance that the man's voice is muffled, not because he is speaking against the woman's mouth or body but because he has a piece of cloth in his mouth."

[show clips]
In that film Jefferey gains access to Dorothy's apartment by pretending to come in and spary for bugs. Bugs, or insects in the film are introduced, early on, as a trope for the rotting, disturbing core of all existence, like the bugs who crawl in the green, seemingly pristine grass of the family lawn. However, bugs have to further resonances that temper this symbolism. First, bugs are audio-surveillance devices, one can, 'bug' a telephone like the FBI. Second, the idea of an insect recalls Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist Gregor Samsa, transforms into a giant insect and is, hence gradually alienated from his family. Lynch has read Kafka and wants to adapt metamorphosis, so this is clearly a noticeable and important resonance. Bugs are a trope, then, of a kind of negative human potential, like Jefferey's discovery that he enjoys sadistically hitting Dorothy during sex. This trope is tempered with resonances to do with listening, a kind of aural voyeurism, and transformation. For this reason, Jefferey finds himself becoming like Frank, the polymorphously perverse villain of the film, as a result of his eavesdropping on him. One becomes what one looks at, or indeed, what one listens to.
Whereas Blue Velvet is, in some way, about becoming the other, transforming into them and is therefore a phantasm of masochism, in Sartre's terms; Mulholland Dr is a film more concerned with the ultimately sadistic fantasy of destroying the other.
Lynch's films are inscribed with resonances relating to sound and soul, aura and aurality and through this, critique the Western traditional relationship between body and soul.