“Now its dark,” Frank Booth sinisterly intones more than once in Blue Velvet as his evil deeds transfix both Jeffrey Beaumount and the audience watching. It’s a line of dialogue that – The Straight Story and possibly Dune aside – could act as generic tagline to most of David Lynch’s feature work. But for Lynch this takes on multiple meanings when talking about how and where to see his work.
There’s a school of thought (which I share) that a film’s true home is in the cinema. That the big screen is the optimal arena for the art form, and that it’s smaller and smaller versions diminish the impact and effect of the work in question. I fundamentally cannot understand how someone can watch a film on a telephone, for instance, or more simply, why they’d want to. A decent sized television still feels like something of a necessary compromise half of the time.
Not all cinema is inherently ‘cinematic’, however, and there are a wide range of films that don’t lose much in the translation from one viewing canvas to another. But the mark of an auteur, I’ve always felt, is when his or her work feels at one with a genuine cinema space. In that cavernous dark, the film becomes more vivid than ever. It surrounds you, envelops you, consumes you like a monster.
Lynch’s films feel different in a cinema, and they feel different viewed with an audience as well. I remember the revelation of the first time I saw Blue Velvet on the big screen. I was amazed at how funny it suddenly was. This came from the mood in the audience; a communal celebration (or just plain nervousness) of the bizarre work in front of us. Frank Booth is one of the movies’ most indelible bad guys, but it became hard not to laugh at his zealous love of Pabst Blue Ribbon, for example. The film’s darkness was as bewitching as ever, but the environment lent it a dimension I’d previously never even contemplated.
To his immense credit, the key factor with Lynch often comes down to the meticulous sound designs which he plays an active part in creating. It was the sound of Eraserhead (also significantly the brainchild of Alan Splet) that transformed that particular movie in the cinema. What had previously been a bizarre curio first discovered on a cheap DVD became a claustrophobic death trap, evoking the sensation of having been up all night within less than 90 minutes. INLAND EMPIRE, meanwhile, seems to lose the most when viewed at home. The director’s challenging, overstuffed 3-hour opus may be the one most damaged by the lack of scale to accompany it’s hungry, sprawling reach. The cinema’s giant canvas forgives INLAND EMPIRE it’s rather ugly digital murk. It becomes just another tool in the dark.
I had the great fortune yesterday of seeing Mulholland Drive in the cinema for the first time. Not that it was my first time with the movie. As I’ve extolled on here many times previously, it is my favourite film, and I’d conservatively tally the number of times I’ve watched it at around twenty. But never before in a cinema.
It was a movie transformed. Peter Deming’s rich lighting and gorgeous photography – filled with Lynch’s own knotty little experiments in pulling focus etc – towered in front of me as it’s dream logic descended over the audience en masse. I wondered how many of the strangers sat around me had seen the film before. How many were prepared for its sinuous turn from Hollywood daydream to vengeful nightmare? Again, I found that Lynch’s work took on new dimensions of resonance when projected onto a larger canvas. There, in the dark, the unabashed romanticism of Mulholland Drive bloomed, swelled on Angelo Badalamenti’s generous, at times devastatingly sad score.
I felt for Betty (Noami Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring) as much, if not more than I ever have before. I believed their house-of-cards love story. Was moved by their inevitable union. And, when it came to it, felt the incomprehensible yet wholly understandable sadness they both show at Club Silencio when Rebekah Del Rio’s rendition of “Crying” dominates the picture. I can count the number of times a cinema has brought me to tears on one hand. Mulholland Drive very very nearly joined that list last night.
Because Lynch’s cinema is different when it’s up there and all around you (though the cinema’s sound system struggled to cope with the aforementioned audio design; prickling, popping and crackling whenever Lynch’s atmospherics hit clustered bass notes). Laura Elena Harring has never seemed so much like a lost movie star as she did last night (quite why Mulholland Drive didn’t kick-start her career as it did Watts’ is a bit of a mystery to me). The car crash that opens the film has never felt so violent. There’s an amplification that the cinema allows for Lynch that a lot of other filmmakers can’t quite seem to harness.
The irony here is that Mulholland Drive was originally intended for the small screen. It is, in effect, a failed TV pilot elaborated on by its creator. Yet Lynch always dreams big, it seems. To call this masterpiece a salvage job would be to undersell the achievement made; it feels like a complete and complex work. As though the final version was the version we were supposed to receive all along. I don’t believe in fate but if cinema ever suggested it’s existence…
The feeling, in short, was magical. And transportive. Though I sat with popcorn (a rarity for me) and a beer (less rare, but fairly infrequent), these accoutrements did nothing to lessen the spell the film had over me. It’s 140 minutes vanished. The world outside vanished. There was, for a time that seemed without shape, just me and the film. And those are the transcendental cinema experiences you crave.
With streaming services and piracy luring people to stay at home for their experience of both new releases and old ones, cinemas face threats to their continued viability as profitable locations. But they’re vitally important. I write this to remind you that, at it’s best, the cinema can utterly beguile you. Not just the film. But the film and the space in combination. When working in sync, they take you not just out of your life but, in a genuine sense, out of your body. I climbed those hills with Diane and Camilla last night. I was on that secret shortcut through the grass and through the trees. I was on Mulholland Drive.
I wouldn’t and couldn’t have felt that through a phone.