David Lynch and the Actualization of the Virtual
Written by Elias Stang
The cinematic oeuvre of David Lynch has been subject to multiple different interpretations and conceptual analyses throughout his career. Films including his feature debut Eraserhead (1977) and 1980’s The Elephant Man have been formally linked to concepts such as the Abject and Freud’s work with the Uncanny. Other prominent theoretical approaches consist of his connection to the puzzle film genre with regards to Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006). As well, the handling of sex, identity, and race throughout his career has given rise to polarizing arguments and evaluations by scholars of how to consider Lynch as an individual and as a filmmaker. Though the myriad of theoretical approaches Lynch’s work collects is intelligent and thoughtful with attempting to understand his films, they also bring with them strong oppositions as they may limit or contradict one’s understanding and interpretation of Lynch’s work. One particularly interesting idea one can attribute to these films, specifically Mulholland Drive is that of Gilles Deleuze’s work on the time-image and the Virtual. This paper intends to identify in what specific ways Mulholland Drive expresses Deleuze’s philosophy of a direct time-image and how it invokes the idea of the Virtual as an approach which favors Lynch’s more unconventional style. This will be done through the analysis of certain scenes including the scene involving the man in the Winkie’s diner and the nature of the blue key in the film’s final sequence. Additional examples will be provided from the finale of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) to further illustrate how these concepts may be applied to Lynch’s work.
Before an analysis can be done, one must first be aware of what specifically Deleuze means by the “time-image” and the “virtual”. The concept of the time-image can seem dense and convoluted at first glance much like the work of David Lynch, as it comprises of various working parts. Suffice to say, “Deleuze's discussion of the time-image, in particular, is directed towards the cinema's capacity to produce certain kinds of indeterminacies between what the spectator may regard as physical and mental, past and present, objective and subjective, and above all, actual and virtual” (Croombs 7). The spectator acts as a “seer” rather than an “agent” when encountering the film image (Deleuze 3). For Deleuze the film image is directly linked to time. The role and power specific to the film image is to “make perceptible, to make visible, relationships of time which cannot be seen in the represented object and do not allow themselves to be reduced to the present” (Deleuze xii). It brings the perceptually invisible qualities of the image to the forefront; the various “sensory (visual and sound), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (oral and written)” material which comprise the image (Deleuze 29).
To that effect, the time-image is in a sense a new form of this image. Time represented in the film image does not occupy one temporal environment whether in relation to itself or the spectator but rather “a grouping of temporal relations”, “a system of relationships between its elements” (Rodowick 8). These relationships are in constant movement and transformation. Nothing is exempt from importance as every element holds a specific purpose, working in contention with one another but producing a “fluid ordering of representational elements. This ordering in turn produces different types of signs, a logic based on division and regrouping” (Rodowick 6).
The time-image is a distinct capturing of time and more importantly duration with which film is capable of presenting through its series of edited shots. Deleuze briefly speaks of still life as an example of the time-image. He uses a specific example from Late Spring (1949) involving a medium shot of a vase intercut between a woman lying in bed holding a half smile, beginning to cry. Deleuze expresses that with this “there is becoming, change, passage. But the form of what changes does not itself change, does not pass on. This is time, time itself, 'a little time in its pure state': a direct time-image, which gives what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced” (17).
The blue key seen in the final sequence of Mulholland Drive acts similarly to that of the vase. The viewer is presented a shot of the blue key sitting on the edge of Diane’s coffee table as the camera slowly pans left to right across the table, settling in on a close-up of Diane sitting still on her couch across from the key. Diane stares at the key slightly shaking, appearing distinctly anxious. A close-up shot of the key is intercut between Diane’s close-ups as the viewer notices her apprehensive expression grow, her breathing becoming heavier, and her body more noticeably twitching before interjected with a striking knock to her door. In Deleuze’s words, “The still life is time, for everything that changes is in time, but time does not itself change, it could itself change only in another time, indefinitely. At the point where the cinematographic image most directly confronts the photo, it also becomes most radically distinct from it” (17). Still life is time in the sense that it is a constant. Everything around the still life experiences change and evolution but itself is left unaltered. The only way for time to change is for it to change in another time, a paradoxical conclusion. The still life endures as all else undergoes continuous evolution. The intercutting of still to real life expresses the idea that everything is connected to time, everything changes within time and is subject to time. With this, time itself is confronted as each sequence brings forward its perceptually invisible qualities and in doing so time becomes wholly apparent. The viewer is presented with a direct image of time.
Moving forward, a counterpart to the time-image is the movement-image. The movement-image can be interpreted as the traditional cause and effect relationship between time and image in film. It’s what is present in films which involve a linear narrative, “conventional narration” (Croombs 32). The time-image and movement-image are at odds with one another as the latter is used as a traditional mode of narrative relationship between movement and time, a mode which extinguishes critical thinking through cliché. “[A] cliché is a sensory-image of a
thing whose function is to discourage thought” (Croombs 33). The former advocates “the irrational linkage of images, and the concomitant emancipation of time from movement” (Croombs 32). With this power struggle, the movement-image fights through a series of crises attempting to maintain its position of power over the film image (Croombs 32). One such crisis is that of the action-image. As the movement-image represents the common mode of narrative thinking in film, the crisis of the action-image is made apparent by “a series of films that seek to confound the binary oppositions that define organic narration, specifically, that of the real and the imaginary” (Croombs 32). These films are those which implement the time-image mode of narrative thinking and with which the virtual comes into play.
The traditional characterization of the virtual is as the unreal, fantasy, apart from reality. Deleuze believes that each moment of an individual’s life is simultaneously actual and virtual, and both forms “operate in a reciprocal determination to constitute reality” (Croombs 46). By this, both sections of a given event, the actual and virtual, help to establish a sense of reality rather than a substitution, through a mutual dependency. With this we are given three simultaneous states of time: “present of the past, a present of the present, and a present of the future” (Croombs 47). Each state of the present marks a different state of recollection of the event as the “present of the present” is objective and tangible, while the “present of the past” is based on subjective interpretation or a virtual representation of the event. The “present of the past” leaves its virtual state to some extent when it is brought into the present, meaning when the event is recalled in the mind of the individual. Before actualization, the “present of the past” is “passively synthesized into the ‘pure past’ or ‘pure memory’ - the virtual condition that makes a psychological experience of the past possible” (Croombs 47). This recollection is skewed though by the fact that the “pure past” is only pure when left in the realm of the past. Once brought into the present the memory becomes fragmented by the unreliable recall of the event. We do not remember the memory in its entirety but by the features, the objects which catch our attention, this is what is known as attentive recognition. “Attentive recognition is thus not a re-cognition proper, but a description that constantly erases and recreates its object” (Croombs 49). In film it is no different. Rodowick states that “because of its constitutive factors of movement and time, the cinematic image can never be reduced to a simple unity, nor can the relation between image and thought be reduced to a simple, punctual present” (8).
David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive is an excellent example of the virtual in this sense. The scene of the man in the Winkie’s diner can be used to illustrate the virtual in some sense. The scene in question involves a man recounting a recurring dream he has been having to his friend involving the diner in which they sit. Everything aside from the lighting fits what the man had saw in his dream. This fact weighs heavy on the man. One prominent feature of his dream is a homeless man who lives behind the diner. This character is the cause of the man’s distress, this nightmarish feeling and the purpose of visiting the diner is to assure himself that this man does not inhabit his reality. Soon though, through his eyes his dream seems to be coming to life. His dream is not only actualized in his mind but actualized in his present. His pain grows as he notices different elements from his dream be represented in reality, the present of the past and the present of the present seemingly meeting. The man is conflicted with the ambiguous nature of what he sees, all leading up to his contact with the homeless man. The fear of living out his dream, the fear of not knowing for certain the nature of his reality causes the man to feel such a visceral shock as he confronts the manifested image that he collapses outside of the diner. The uncanny nature of this scene “undoubtedly belongs to all that is terrible—to all that arouses dread and creeping horror” capable of doing so by presenting something so familiar and unsettling that dread manifests out of its ambiguity (Freud 1). As well it presents the virtual and actual manifesting a reality of uncertainty for its subject.
Similarly, the final two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) illustrates the impossibility of actualizing the “pure past” as it will always be perceptually altered, granted in a more literal sense. In the previous episode we witness Agent Cooper wandering through the woods, happening upon a young James Hurley and Laura Palmer, presented in black and white. This encounter is taken, albeit adapted to Cooper’s perspective, from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Directly after Laura screams into James’ ear about her love for him, tearful and ashamed, she stumbles into direct contact with Cooper. Cooper stands motionless as Laura asks if they’ve met before, a sudden flicker of recognition hits her as she realizes that she had seen him in a dream. Cooper silently extends his hand, Laura cautiously takes it as the shot colourizes. The shot cuts to Laura’s plastic wrapped body washed ashore from the original series and miraculously vanishes. We return to Laura and Cooper, she asks where they are going to which Cooper replies “we’re going home” as they begin to traverse the woods. The finale continues their trek through the woods. Cooper leisurely guides Laura through the trees, their arms creating a bridge between them. The spectator follows them both until the camera slowly zooms in solely on Cooper. At this moment Cooper stops in his tracks, turning back to see that Laura is no longer behind him. He stares back at the empty woods where Laura once stood as her frightening and deafening shriek is heard throughout.
These scenes illustrate the impossibility of actualizing the “pure past” with a more literal expression. Cooper, being transported into the past world of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is thrusted into the realm of the “present of the past”. The figures of James and Laura represent the prominent aspects of memory which has clinched Cooper’s attention, they are the objects of his perceived recollection. By grabbing hold of Laura Palmer, Cooper is attempting to actualize the “pure past”, bringing her into the “present of the present” as they switch from monochrome to full colour. Cooper is attempting to save Laura from her death as we see from the disappearance of her body from the shore but is physically unable to since she as the “pure past” can never be brought out of her time. Cooper’s pursuit is halted, destroyed due to the nature of Laura Palmer. Her scream is the resistance of the “pure past”, the physical embodiment of the impossible act.
Gilles Deleuze’s work on the time-image and the Virtual presents a thorough and interesting look at time and reality within film as a medium. Though the myriad of theoretical approaches Lynch’s work collects is intelligent and thoughtful with attempting to understand his films, Deleuze’s ideas and arguments can be applied to the work of David Lynch to a greater extent than some of the other approaches. That is not to say that other theoretical methods are less informative and applicable but rather Deleuze’s approach can be seen as more appreciative towards Lynch’s more abnormal style.
Croombs, Matthew. “Encountering the Virtual: On Deleuze and the Disappearing Realities of Recent Hollywood Cinema.” Carleton University, 2006, pp. 31–92.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Beyond the Movement-Image.” Cinema 2: The Time-Image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp. 1–24.
Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny, pp. 1-21.
Lynch, David, director. Mulholland Dr. Universal Pictures, 2001
Lynch, David, director. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. New Line Cinema, 1992
Ozu, Yasujiro, director. Late Spring. Shochiku, 1949
“Part 17.” Twin Peaks: The Return, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, directed by David Lynch, Showtime Networks, 2017.
“Part 18.” Twin Peaks: The Return, written by Mark Frost and David Lynch, directed by David Lynch, Showtime Networks, 2017.
Rodowick, David. “A Short History of Cinema.” Gilles Deleuze's Time Machine, Duke University Press, 1997, pp. 3–17.