April 14, 2007

Jeff Wall, David Lynch, and Preconceptions

This blog is triggered by my dissatisfaction with the critical response to-date to David Lynch’s Inland Empire.

Preconceptions are often indispensable. E.g., if we had to actually figure out everything we encounter, from moment to moment, from scratch, we’d be as overwhelmed and helpless as infants. Preconceptions enable us to get past first base; once we've constructed certain models and modes for coping, we can build on what we already "know."

That said, preconceptions can of course get in the way – they can be destructive or even deadly.

I mean destructive psychically as well as in physical ways. The way I want to discuss now has to do with how we understand good art and literature.

The critics generally seem to have agreed to call Inland Empire magnificent meaninglessness – don't even try to understand it, they say; you'll drive yourself mad.

To declare any human expression meaningless is a large and foolhardy claim. It's a lot different than just proposing some particular not-necessarily-exclusive interpretation. You are essentially claiming to have made an exhaustive study of all possible signs and modes of meaning and to have determined the entire production to be completely and exclusively meaning-free.

It's great to be willing to admire a work you don't purport to understand; but, pardon my critical cajones or whatever, it's even better to actually penetrate it.

And it's not so great if, even while praising the work, you call it meaningless rather than admit that maybe you just didn't get it. That does damage. Not only to your own credibility (not to mention your intellect and soul); it also harms others, who are discouraged from even trying to understand the work. (I sometimes wonder if some critics actually fear meaning. But I realize many of them work under ridiculous deadlines and other difficult conditions.)

This is important, because we NEED challenging art, because at its best it’s trying to HELP us, to lure us BEYOND preconceptions that may have become dangerous.

I read a review of MoMA’s Jeff Wall show recently. Now, I happen to think the critic who wrote it has good instincts. But s/he mentioned a photograph of Wall’s that I'd also seen in the flesh, The Storyteller, and I think the critic overlooked something important. The piece shows a clearing between a highway overpass and some woods, with some people scattered around, all seated on the ground. It pretty clearly refers to Edouard Manet's Picnic on the Grass.

What took a few minutes to sink in for me was that most of the people are sitting on mud. I mean, they’re in this sort-of natural setting, notwithstanding the concrete overpass, so regardless of the Manet reference – but esp. if that bell was rung for you – you expect them to be on the grass. But in fact, the surface area is divided evenly and very distinctly into thirds – like the French flag, no less. One third is light gray slate; one third is yellow-green grass; and one third is dark mud, chopped with footprints, and that's where almost everyone's sitting. Once you notice it, it’s really quite weird.

The critic specifically mentioned "gazing" at the concrete, slate, and grass, but made no mention of the incongruous part, the mud.  Now, if Wall had wanted to shoot people seated on grass, he could have. Instead, he seems to have gone to some trouble to find or create an area with this evenly divided surface and to put most of the people on the mud.

While the flag motif must refer to Manet’s nationality, perhaps to French art history in general, why the choice of that particular painting to riff on?  Could the reference also be to the historic rivalry between the Paris and New York art worlds, or to events in or relating to France around the time Wall’s piece was made?  Between 2003 and 2006, there were massive demonstrations in France against the Iraq war, high unemployment, and conservative-backed school and labor reforms (see hereherehere, here, and here).  France's opposition to the Iraq invasion had inspired U.S. legislation re-naming French fries, “freedom fries,” in the Congressional cafeteria.  And then, there are certain parallels between French and U.S. histories, e.g., of revolution against exploitive monarchies, or imperialist decimation of indigenous populations . . . .

I haven’t figured out what all Wall might have meant, but I'd bet he meant something. (And could some thoughtful person among us supposedly visual folk please discuss the implications of the [to-my-knowledge-never-mentioned-though-I-admit-I-haven't-researched-it] power lines or whatever they are that bisect the visual plane like a whap-whap in the face?)

The more I look at this piece and Manet's, the more intrigued I am – Manet's piece quite weird in its way, perspectivally and, among other ways, in gibing, we're having a little free love here, along with deeper discussion, and you're doing what with your life, again? While the people in Wall's piece, crowded by modern forces onto shreds of surfaces ill-suited to human needs – as well as, apparently, the people viewing the piece – seem reduced to mere nostalgia for an “authenticity” mediated by an old masterpiece.  And the maybe-homeless guy sitting by himself on the slate under the bridge – I have to wonder if he's partly a stand-in for the artist [or his secret fears] . . . . )

The critic apparently did not see the mud; instead, s/he saw what s/he expected. The critic lost an important opportunity to find out much more about what the work might be doing – and in the process, closed that door for some other people as well.

Absent an intense emotional association, we usually find it easiest to remember new data that we can relate to something we already "know." It takes an effort even to register, let alone understand, data that does not fit with our preconceptions.

As indispensable as preconceptions are to our functioning in the world at all, it is often at least as important that we make a sincere effort first and above all to simply observe what is actually there.

This is the main point of this post. You cannot “get” good art or literature, unless you first take the time to notice its actual features – even at the the risk of foregoing coming up with a quick, quotable summation.

You must, above all, observe; you must perhaps especially look for and think about that which does not seem quite right.

The fact is, most artists leave plenty of clues to their intentions in plain sight.

Inland Empire: I agree this one’s a challenge, and I don't yet get it, at least not all of it. I’ve only seen it once (last nite), and I was tired, and I’ve only seen 2 other movies by Lynch, Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive. But I do not believe Inland is meaningless.

First, Lynch seems to be using at least some strategies similar to those he used in Mulholland. I worked out the “real” bits of Mulholland, based on (1) the fact that some scenes seemed completely convincing, while in others the acting and dialogue seemed shallower and more predictable, even clichéd; and (2) the odd scene in the center of the movie with the largely-ignored “director” – I forget exactly what transpired, but it tipped me off that he was in some way a stand-in for Lynch (or his secret fears).

The acting and lines in many of Inland's scenes are also totally over the top – e.g., the v. impt. scene in which the older Polish neighbor woman warns the Laura Dern “Nikki” about things being or seeming out of chronological order (a warning I think we should take seriously in attempting to understand this movie).

I also noticed red, phallic objects. Again, Lynch used a similar tactic in Mulholland – there was a “real,” blue key that was transformed in the young blonde's fantasies. In Inland, there's an overly long shot of an unduly red and phallic lamp. I started looking for more such objects, possibly a bit late in the game, but this morning remembered how the Polish husband shoots himself in the gut with the ketchup bottle. (I’m sure there are other instances; e.g., the black woman with the cigarette lighter – was the lighter red? was the screwdriver handle red?) [For this and other reasons, I suspect the more “real” levels in this film take place among the Polish characters. If I had to guess, I'd say one of the two main, Polish young women – either the one watching television or the one who greets her returning husband near the end – is Lynch's Ariel: the "real" person imagined by Lynch, who is central in that it's she who's imagining or experiencing everything else.]

Light is obviously important. Dramatic lighting throughout: weird, interesting lamps, the cigarette lighter, etc.; not to mention the discussion in the center of the movie between the Jeremy Irons “Director” (pretty clearly less real, although I’m sad to think that the Polish girl who I think is imagining these scenes has more insight into how Hollywood directors work than I do – I thought she did a darn good job – but I found Irons’ carefully-directed, "directorial" stubble and outfit, and his last scene with Dern, just implausible – although I suspect they may also be a semi-realistic depiction of the normal surreality of Hollywood) and the lighting guy who, if I heard correctly, completely inverted the “Director”’s direction and had to stop to take a crap (my boyfriend thought he sounded like Lynch — which makes me wonder if the movie may be constructed like a torus or donut, with this exchange between Irons and the lighting guy existing near the center as a connection between the movie's most and least "real" levels.)

(Also, why did Lynch take the trouble to blur out the faces of the woman and her companion in the opening scenes? This is one of the things that makes me think there might be something special about that particular woman – that she might be the author of everything else we see – but I'm really not sure; the important thing first is just to notice it.)

So, next, we also have rubbed in our faces: marketplace = Hollywood & Vine = hangout for whores looking for johns.

In the alley behind, we see scrawled, “Axxon N.” The only thing I’ve thought of so far for this is, an anagram for Anno XX (i.e., "year 20")? But apparently Axxon N. is a series to be released on Lynch's website, which is what he says he’s REALLY excited about these days (interview here). [But if anyone can think of something significant re- "year 20", I'd love to hear about it.] Another series to be released on his website is Rabbits, which I understand looks just like the rabbit-costumed segments in Inland.

Also, I can say from my experience analyzing other texts, titles are usually very important. Now, me, having created a small, virtual space empire of my own (i.e., c-cyte) comprising video, photography, digital art, essays, a miniature Shakespeare Festival, etc. – I’m not at all surprised to learn that Lynch is now doing more or less the same, only he'll make money on his.

Could the movie, Inland Empire, be, in part, a trailer for the conquest of virtual space that will be davidlynch.com?

And didn't I hear a reference in the movie to Dario Fo? Described by the online Britannica as "best known for his solo tour de force Mistero Buffo (1973; “Comic Mystery”), based on medieval mystery plays but so topical that the shows changed with each audience" (emphasis supplied).

To get any further, I’d need to see the movie again.

Of course, even if we figure out what's "really" happening in the movie, there's still the question of whether it all conveys any info that might actually be useful or helpful in any way – is there any "deeper meaning," and if so, what is it. E.g., Shakespeare's plays were clearly aimed partly at his royal audience and contain a wealth of valuable info about how to do a good job ruling, among other things. What does Lynch teach us?

I can't tell you that yet, but I'm convinced that there's not only a method but also a meaning to Lynch’s madness.

A few aspects I like but can't totally justify based strictly on observation of the movie are that, as I understand, Lynch has described the movie as being about a young woman in trouble, and I think there have been a lot of Eastern European young women in trouble lately; and politically, Poland has been an extremely interesting place for a while now: the setting for a velvet revolution against Soviet domination; but an "important" member of Bush's coalition in Iraq and a likely destination for CIA black ops renditions (see CIA Jails in Europe 'Confirmed').

(Jeff Wall is represented in the U.S. by Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.)

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