By Robert C. Cumbow
[Publication Note: This article is being cross-published with Parallax View.]
[Editor's Note: The House Next Door is proud to reissue a series of articles developed at 24LiesASecond, a now-defunct platform for provocative criticism with an underdog bite. The essay below was first published on 11/16/2006, under the editorial guidance of James M. Moran (editor-in-chief) and Peet Gelderblom (founding editor).]
"The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness. The spice is vital to space travel. The Spacing Guild and its Navigators, whom the spice has mutated over four thousand years, use the orange spice gas, which gives them the ability to fold space; that is, to travel to any part of the known universe without moving."
—Princess Irulan, in David Lynch's Dune
That's what David Lynch's Dune does: It gets us from place to place and from beginning to end without ever seeming to move—at least in the way that a more conventional science-fiction action thriller is expected to move. The unkindest viewers and critics have called it boring.
Even the film's action sequences sit in the memory more as tableaux than as moving images. "My movies are film-paintings," Lynch said, in a 1984 interview during post-production on Dune. What strikes us even as we watch the film, and comes back most in our recalling of it, is the composition more than the dynamic—posture more than gesture:
- Paul with his hand in the box, his imagination conspiring with the mental powers of the Bene Gesserit to objectify a pain that exists only in the suggestible mind
- Paul's mentors, Gurney Halleck, Thufir Hawat, and Wellington Yueh, introduced to us as a human triptych
- Feyd Rautha in his futuristic g-string, posing as if for a beefcake photo
- Alia, in a transport of ecstasy, holding aloft her crysknife as the Fremen overrun the imperial forces, a nightmarish composition by Lynch out of Bosch, all darkness, and a fully-formed witch who should be no more than a little girl, lit by fires and explosions, wrapped in Bene Gesserit robe and headpiece, with an expression on her face of triumph in slaughter that no little girl ever wore
This emphasis on the static over the kinetic is not so remarkable in an artist who, after all, began his career in—and remains committed to—the compositional rigors of painting, collage, and sculpture. But to see how it relates to folding space, we must further illuminate this concept of traveling without moving.
The beginning is a very delicate time
"Time does not change us. It just unfolds us."
Consider first the much-imagined time machine, a device that doesn't move, but "transports" its operator to a different time. Time changes constantly, while we exist in it. To "travel" in time would not involve the physical motion of the subject, but rather the acceleration, deceleration, or reversal of the motion of time around the subject. The time-machine fantasy is that a human being can invent a device that could cause this effect. But once disbelief is willingly suspended, and the notion that a human could control the flow of time is accepted, everything else follows easily. And that fantasy is all too eagerly accepted, because the ability to move in time is something we all desire at one time or another; it is one of the basic fantasies, like the desire to be invisible, or to see through matter, or to fly, or to exercise any of a number of other non-human powers that have been vicariously granted us through the superhero, the monster, and other metaphors of science fiction.
The time machine and its operator remain static—in the same place because no movement in space is involved. Time changes around them, and the only risk is that the spatial location of the machine and its operator will, at some point in the flow of time, coincide with another solid object. Accelerated space travel runs the same risk. To travel between planets—let alone solar systems—would take years, decades, lifetimes, without some form of highly accelerated locomotion. But the faster the spacecraft moves, the less reaction time is permitted to the operator to avoid colliding with other objects.
Time folding / space folding
In the worlds of most space-travel fiction, this problem is overcome by the use of computers that can reduce the interval between perception and reaction to nanoseconds. But in the world of Frank Herbert's Dune, computers have been abolished by the Butlerian Jihad, and the only heightened mental facility remaining is in the form of two mutations: the Spacing Guild Navigators and the Mentat—both creatures with superhuman powers. The Mentat ("human computers" as the Dune screenplay has it) are bred for higher knowledge, perception, reasoning, application of logic, prediction of outcomes. The Guild Navigators are bred for space travel, and their gift is an expanded consciousness, a oneness with space that makes them prescient, sensitive to the locations of objects in space-time, and thus able to navigate unerringly between them.
It's important to note, however, that in Herbert's Dune, the Navigators do not "fold space"—there is no such concept in the novel. Folding space—a notion adapted from Einstein's General Theory of Relativity and the curved time-space continuum—consists in bringing two spatial points together by collapsing the space between them, thus eliminating the need to move from one to the other. By analogy, imagine that you have a piece of paper on which are two points, A and B. The objective is to get from A to B in the most direct way. One solution is to connect the two points with a straight line—the shortest distance between two points. Another solution is to fold the piece of paper so that point A meets point B.
Just as the time-travel fantasy posits that a man-made device can affect the flow of time around us, so the folding-space fantasy posits that an enhanced human mind can bend the malleable space around it so as to cause any two points in that space to meet and coincide. So early in Lynch's career, in only his third feature film, we have a pseudo-scientific articulation of the artist's unique way of seeing the world, and of remaking it. For folding space is a near-perfect metaphor for the way David Lynch makes movies.
The one who can be many places at once
In the throne room scene at the end of Dune, there is a point at which Paul freezes on the very verge of saying something. His lips have even begun to move, before Lynch cuts sharply away to the environmentally impossible rain that brings rebirth to Arrakis, and soars to a climax unanticipated by his audience (or by Frank Herbert). That interrupted moment is actually the beginning of a "deleted scene" (included as an extra in the "Extended Edition" DVD) in which Paul announces that he is sending the Emperor into exile, but is going to wed Princess Irulan, so that the Atreides and the Padisha lines will be intertwined (preventing future strife now that the Harkonnens have been wiped out). He privately tells the Fremen woman Chani that the princess will share his name but not his bed, and that his love will be forever Chani's. Paul's mother, herself a consort, tells Chani:
"The princess will have the name, yet she'll live less than a concubine—never to know a moment of tenderness from the man to whom she's bound. While we, Chani, we who carry the name of concubine—history will call us wives."
These are the last words of the novel, and for that reason alone it would have been nice to leave them in the film. Besides, the scene would so nicely wrap up both the political and the romantic themes of the film.
But Lynch was young then, an acknowledged Wunderkind, and it was terribly important to him to make it explicit that Paul Muad'dib is the Kwisatz-Haderach, the prophesied messiah of Arrakis—vastly more important than redeeming Chani, Lady Jessica, or Princess Irulan, or restoring order to the troubled politics of the Known Universe. World politics, let alone universe politics, never did become very important for David Lynch—though by Mulholland Drive he was mature enough to see the tribulations of a Wunderkind director in comic perspective. What has really mattered most to him, from Eraserhead and The Elephant Man straight through to the present, are human relationships, human dignity, not world-saving messianism. But Dune is different. The final rainstorm on Arrakis and Alia's climactic pronouncement are Lynch's own invention, relating to nothing in the novel's actual finale. When Lynch intercuts a familiar shot of the oceans of Caladan with the rain falling on the Fremen of Arrakis, both Paul and Lynch fold space by bringing the moisture of Paul's native planet Caladan to the desolation of his adopted planet Arrakis.
An entry in Wikipedia for "Kwisatz Haderach" tells us:
"In Hebrew folklore, Kwisatz Haderach is the ability to jump instantaneously from one place to another. The term originally came from Hebrew (...) and means verbatim "jump of the path," a Hebrew archaic equivalent of the English expression "short cut."
"In East European Jewish folktales, especially those associated with the Hassidic movement, the term was used to describe the ability to jump instantaneously from one place to another, attributed to various revered holy men. (...)
"The Kwisatz Haderach is a fictional name of a prophesied messiah figure in the Dune universe ... The name means "Shortening of the Way," and is the label applied by the Bene Gesserit to the unknown for which they sought a genetic solution—a unique male Bene Gesserit whose organic mental powers would bridge space and time. The Kwisatz Haderach is also known as 'the one who can be many places at once.'"
A sense of place
There is a sense in which all of David Lynch's films are a kind of science fiction. But Dune is the only one of his films that is expressly in that genre, and he uses it as a kind of manifesto of his own approach to film making, as well as to set the stage for the space-folding that follows.
To put it another way, Dune's "explanation" of travel without movement, of the folding of space, is a sly announcement of not only the vision but the technique that David Lynch brings to the screenwriter's and film director's art.
One cannot fold the space between two points, causing them to coincide, unless one begins by properly assuring and establishing those two points. It's no coincidence that Lynch's films are defined by their sense of place: Eraserhead's post-industrial wasteland (inspired by Lynch's memories of Philadelphia, and pointing toward his recurrent use of images of factories), the Industrial Revolution London of The Elephant Man (whose Victoriana folds nicely into the costumes and design of Dune), the Southeastern and Northwestern lumber towns of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, the corrosive, decaying Hollywood of Mulholland Dr. The Dream Dwarf who anomalously counterpoints the otherwise well-defined spatial environment of Twin Peaks is identified in the cast credits as "the man from another place"—not from another time or from a dream, as one would more likely have expected.
The abundant traveling images in Lynch's films operate as metaphors for and constant reminders of the director's fascination with space-shifting. The hallmark of many a Lynch film is a subjective shot of a street or highway, usually at night, its centerline being lapped up by the forward vector of the camera (and whatever point of view it represents). Roads, road signs, and traffic signals abound. Wild at Heart and The Straight Story are variations on the great American Road Movie. But beyond this more conventional kind of travel, Lynch's protagonists have a thirst for spatial adventuring—whether in another place or another body or another life. Dr. Treves intertwines his life with that of the Elephant Man John Merrick by walking around and discovering a London very different from the one he has known, and finding there both horrors and wonders. Special Agent Cooper enters Twin Peaks as an outsider, but takes to the place's illusory serenity with a naïve enthusiasm unheard of in the protagonists of detective fiction. Duke Leto's family moves from Caladan, planet of thundering seas, to the bleak and mysterious Arrakis. Alvin Straight undertakes a daunting interstate journey on a lawn tractor, appreciating the newness of everything he encounters en route. Diane's alter-ego Betty moves from Canada to a strange and wondrous Hollywood that she drinks in with Cooperian innocence.
The peculiar powers of Agent Cooper... and of David Lynch
It's always struck me as odd that when a film depicts someone with superior physical powers—a gunslinger with an impossibly fast draw and accurate aim, or a martial artist with the ability to turn a leap into sustained flight—no one ever asks why and how he can have such ability; but when a character has superior mental acuity, there is always a need to explain it. Sherlock Homes always had to explain how he deduced (actually induced) factual conclusions based on observed phenomena. The whole purpose of Dr. Watson is to be exasperated by Holmes's easy-seeming investigations and discoveries, to demand explanations from Holmes, and to be ultimately satisfied by them. Special Agent Dale Cooper has the same sort of powers of observation. Early in Twin Peaks he asks Sheriff Harry Truman about his love affair with Josie Packard. Harry, Watson-like, asks him how he knew. Cooper shrugs it off: "Body language." This is Lynch's joke on the Holmes-Watson tradition, as well as on the then-current vogue for interpreting character from posture; it's really no explanation at all—certainly not the kind of explanation Holmes would have given and Watson would have accepted. As Cooper continues to display his uncanny mental agility, Truman compares himself to Watson, then settles comfortably into the role of taking on faith something he admits he cannot understand. When Harry decides to let Cooper in on the "Bookhouse Boys," he organizes a meeting at the Double R Café. Norma Jennings serves the coffee, and Cooper immediately asks Ed Hurley, "So, Big Ed, how long have you been in love with Norma?" Big Ed is astonished, but looks to Harry, not Cooper, for an explanation—and all he gets is Harry's accepting shrug. The message is that Cooper's powers don't have an explanation—they just are.
This is a key to the world and vision of David Lynch, in which dreams, visions, imagination, accidents, and coincidences have the same value as observation, interpretation, and reasoning, and are treated with the same degree of reliability. Many writers and artists since the Romantic era have urged the acknowledgment of the irrational as entitled to equal time with the rational; but David Lynch is one of the few artists—certainly one of the very few film makers—whose style and technique exemplify that conviction.
And this was announced at the very beginning of his career: Eraserhead remains without question one of the few truly dreamlike films ever made. Most movie "dream sequences" are too self-consciously surrealistic or too narratively linear, or too Freud-metaphorical to effectively mimic the jarring discontinuity of real dreams. Already in Eraserhead, Lynch recognized dreams as successions of images, prefiguring Dune's emphasis on the static image rather than the narrative flow. Narrative is not to be trusted; in images, you can believe.
Applying science-fiction techniques to conventional topics (as opposed to most film makers, who apply surprisingly conventional techniques even when working in the science-fiction genre), David Lynch regards storylines and characters as parallel universes. Just as space may be folded to cause two distant points to coincide, so two (or more) narratives may merge, collide, change places. Not only an actor but even a character may find himself in a different body, and in a different story. In such films as Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, narrative lines are treated as if they were characters—they have the freedom to come, go, change, grow, switch places, rewrite themselves as they go along, backtrack to the last fork in the road and take a different direction. In the psychogenic fuguing of Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway, Lynch folds space so that a character, not a point, coincides with (or replaces) another. Fred Madison becomes Pete Dayton, and it's no accident that both surnames are the names of Midwestern cities as well.
The Mystery Man in Lost Highway compares to Bad Bob in Twin Peaks, and each personifies the evil compulsion in the mind of a character. These familiars appear to others as visions, but actually exist only in the mind of the character whose darker half they represent. In Twin Peaks, both Laura and Mrs. Palmer "see" Bad Bob in hallucinations; only Leland Palmer recognizes Bad Bob's identity with himself. The Mystery Man of Lost Highway is more complex. Just as the film's principal male and female characters each inhabit two different people, so does the Mystery Man appear alternately demonic and angelic, assuming the roles of both the brooding nemesis and the saving angel that have become customary in most of Lynch's films. Indeed, it could be said that this combining of devil with angel has characterized the endings of Lynch's films all along: The woman in the radiator in Eraserhead is disturbingly strange and opaquely motivated, but seems to hold the secret to Henry's salvation as well as his doom. Dune's Alia announces the triumph of Paul and the salvation of his world, but she's also one spooky little girl. The robins of Blue Velvet bring peace and beauty to the world, but they feast on the morass of worms and bugs just beneath its surface. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Laura Palmer herself is transformed into the saving angel of the finale, but only after enduring—and frequently personifying—an inferno of corruption.
A cousin to Bad Bob and Mystery Man is the man behind the Winky's diner in Mulholland Dr. Though Winky's is punningly close to Wendy's, it's also the name of the odd race of people who populate the West in L. Frank Baum's Oz novels—which makes a chilling and funny kind of sense in light of the way, in Wild at Heart, Lynch folds his customary redeeming angel figure into the Good Witch of the North from The Wizard of Oz.
Folding and phoning
Other writers have used the term "fold" to describe Lynch's methods. Alanna Thain describes a temporal loop of the transformation of memory and paramnesia involving the stretching of time that is repeated even as it is experienced in David Lynch's Lost Highway. Thain emphasizes the use of a variety of technologies within Lynch's diegesis—such as answering machines and surveillance video—that create a temporality within the film continually looping "back on itself in a cycle of composition and decomposition." For Thain, this folding of time transforms both the viewer of the film and the character in the film into spectator and participant, and vice versa.
In each of his films, Lynch establishes recurrent images that act as the fold-lines to the film's narrative loops. In Wild at Heart, for example, Sailor and Lula follow their love-making with smoking, and Lynch always depicts the striking of the match in slow close-up, the flaring match merging with the nightmare memory of the fire that killed Lula's father. The flames that leap from those matches are the fold-lines of the film, causing the fire of love, both its passion and its contentment, to merge with the fire of violence.
An earlier such image, one of the most vivid in all of Lynch's work, folds both space and time: the phone call in the Twin Peaks pilot. Sarah Palmer has telephoned her husband Leland for news of their daughter Laura, who has not been seen since the previous evening, and while they are talking the sheriff brings Leland the news that Laura has been found dead. Sarah, on the other end of the line, doesn't hear what the sheriff says; but she hears Leland's reaction, and she knows. Two points in space become one, without motion, but with agonizing emotion: two parents, helpless in shock and grief, connected by a cord, along which Lynch's camera tracks with a slowness that suspends time in the same way that a moment of great shock does.
The cord is important. Twin Peaks was made before people had cellular phones. Agent Cooper is constantly "on the line" to the unseen Diane, not by phone but by means of a Dictaphone that, for Cooper, folds both space and time. I wonder what David Lynch makes of the cell phone. Even in today's world of text messaging, headsets, and constant connectedness, he remains enamored of the classic "land line" telephone. It's not just that a telephone is a device that makes two different points of space coincide at a specific moment in time. Cell phones do that, too. But the phone calls (both answered and unanswered) that link the characters and events of Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, and Lost Highway are nearly all made from land-line phones, some from now-quaint telephone booths and rotary-dial phones. The telephone is not only a folder of space but an icon of history. Using older phones in, for example, Mulholland Drive, is similar to using Victorian uniforms in the distant future of Dune. The anachronism only serves to give more emphasis to the fold.
Bringing it on home to me
In Dennis Lim's October 1, 2006 New York Times interview, David Lynch said that before Canal Plus bought into his new film, Inland Empire, he cautioned them: "I don't know what I'm doing." His account of the making of the film: "I would get an idea for a scene and shoot it, get another idea and shoot that. I didn't know how they would relate."
Based on other interviews with Mr. Lynch and those who have worked with him, both in print publications and on DVD extras, that appears to be the way he has always made his films, dating back even to the early shorts. While it's hardly a general rule that anyone's unrelated meanderings can add up to a film, David Lynch is that rare treasure: a truly instinctive artist who doesn't know what he's doing but powerfully feels what he's doing, trusts his own judgment, and by doing so comes up time and again with haunting visions that make chilling sense even (perhaps especially) when their parts don't "relate" in a conventional sense. And in the Lim interview, the author tells us:
"He brought up wormholes, invoked the theories of the quantum physicist (and fellow meditator) John Hagelin and recounted a moment of déjà vu that overcame him while making The Elephant Man. 'There was a feeling of a past thing and it's holding, and the next instant I slipped forward'—he made a sound somewhere between a slurp and a whoosh—'and I see this future.'"
Laura Dern described the approach to multi-character acting that Lynch evoked from her for Inland Empire as "unbelievably freeing. You're not sure where you're going or where you've come from. You can only be in the moment."
In Lynch on Lynch, edited by Chris Rodley, Lynch described his creative process:
"I don't want to give the impression that I sit around thinking up horrible things. I get all kinds of different ideas and feelings. If I'm lucky, they start organizing themselves into a story—then maybe some ideas come along that are too eerie, too violent, or too funny, and they don't fit that story. So you write them down and save them for two or three projects down the road. There's nowhere you can't go in a film—if you think of it, you can go there."
In a lecture at Maharishi University of Management—excerpts from which may currently be viewed on YouTube—Lynch said that the only way we know the abstract is through intuition, and that is "a thing that can only really be said in cinema." It was natural for Stanley Kubrick, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, to portray an evolution in which advancements in life forms are made suddenly, in jumps, not ever so gradually over millions of years, because it reflects the way films are made: not the gradual flow we associate with motion in the "real world," but an illusion of motion created by abruptly replacing one frame with another. And like all of the best film makers, Kubrick made films that evince an acute awareness of the film medium itself. David Lynch is also such a film maker, and it was equally natural for him to embrace the notion of folding space not only as a narrative tool but as a metaphor for the film maker's art. Think of the "line" between two pieces of film not as a splice but as a fold. The assembly of film is a constant matter of manipulating space and time so that objects, moments, incidents, images, and people coincide, touch, merge.
And who is it who travels from one part of the universe to any other without moving? Who but you and I, the movie viewers? If folding space is an apt metaphor for the art of film, it may be argued that every film maker folds space, and perhaps that's true. But David Lynch, our quirky but reliable old navigator, is conscious of it; and that consciousness is what his films are ultimately about.
Robert C. Cumbow has been writing about film for nearly 40 years. His work has appeared in Film Comment, Film Quarterly, the Seattle Film Society journals Movietone News and The Informer, and in numerous newspapers. He is the author of Once upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone and Order in the Universe: The Films of John Carpenter, both available from Scarecrow Press. He is especially proud of his liner notes for the Rhino Records/Turner Classic Movies edition of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bob is a trademark/copyright lawyer, heads the intellectual property practice at Graham & Dunn, Seattle, and teaches Trademark Law and Advertising Law at Seattle University School of Law.