Tuesday 14 February 2023

Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted (1990)

Director: David Lynch
Writer: David Lynch
Stars: Julee Cruise, Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage

Index: The First Thirty.

Just in case Vampire’s Kiss, Never on Tuesday and Born to Kill weren’t enough of a deviation from the norm, here’s a real oddity in Nicolas Cage’s career, because it’s a concert film not a narrative feature, and a rather strange one.

The three primary players are David Lynch, Angelo Badalamenti and Julee Cruise, a trio of regular collaborators at this point, who made a host of works together in a variety of media.

The title is sourced from a set of geometric mosaics that Lynch created when a student at PAFA, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He called them Industrial Symphonies, just as he called this an Industrial Symphony, but no other connection is obvious. I assume he liked it enough to turn it into something else, now that he was a big name and could do so.

He wrote it as a play and it was performed at least three times in New York and Montreal. Footage from the New York shows combined for this straight to video release, which runs fifty minutes.

The music is by Badalamenti, known mostly for his collaborations with Lynch, as composer for Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, with lyrics by Lynch. Many of the vocal pieces are taken from Cruise’s debut album, Floating into the Night, which they wrote for her.

Her most famous song, taken from the same album, is Falling, which was released in single form and, stripped of vocals, became the Twin Peaks theme tune, a show in which she played a recurring role as a roadhouse singer.

To introduce the film, Lynch shot a segment featuring Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, which isn’t much longer than his surreal short cameo in Never on Tuesday. They aren’t together here, because aren’t they’re in the same place in a metaphorical sense. He’s breaking up with her over the phone, leading to his credit being as the Heartbreaker and hers as the Heartbroken Woman. “I’m taking off, baby”, he explains to her. “Ain't nothing wrong with you. It's just us I can't handle.”

And that’s it for them because then we shift to Cruise as the Dreamself of the Heartbroken Woman. So this is what’s going through Dern’s head after she’s dumped by Cage, though it is far from a clear linear narrative. I’m sure that everything has meaning, but it wasn’t clear to me except for odd moments featuring telling imagery, like Cruise being locked into the boot of a car or a plethora of plastic babies floating down towards Cruise on stage, then back up to vanish out of sight.

It’s certainly striking, Cruise dwarfed by the stage set. which is industrial in outlook, maybe post-apocalyptic, with fallen pillars and a car that’s clearly wrecked. The lighting is focused mostly through Klieg lights, so we can’t always tell what’s going on except where they shine.

That it’s weird and relatively inexplicable didn’t surprise me. This is David Lynch, at the point he was shining brightly with Twin Peaks. He’s a surrealist, “the first populist surrealist” according to Pauline Kael, likely a reason why Cage felt drawn to his work. What we think of this as a multimedia work of art is going to depend entirely on our interpretation of it.

And much of that may depend on what we think of the music. It’s an interesting mix and that’s what surprised me first because Cruise’s style is quintessential dreampop, soft and nice and smooth. After she’s performed one vocal number, it shifts into jazzy instrumental with experimental industrial sounds behind it. The balance shifts back and forth, dreampop when Cruise is singing, more jazzy and experimental when she isn’t.

I quite liked this odd mixture of styles as the sweetness of the dreampop contrasts with the harshness of some of the jazzy industrial. I’m sure that’s part of the point, but the meaning of it all still eludes me. Maybe it’s supposed to.

Why, during the first number, Julee Cruise is accompanied by a topless female dancer who gyrates her way around a stack of girders and through the missing back window of the wreck of a car, I have no idea. Why there’s also a male dancer, not topless, rolling around as if he’s in zero gravity, I have no idea. Is this sex?

I should emphasise that that’s just the first number. Lynch has a lot more weirdness than that to throw our way, which ought not to be a surprise to any of you.

Cruise floats down from the ceiling for her second number, appropriately given that her hauntingly soft voice feels like it’s floating in the air even without her body following suit.

Before long, we move sideways to Michael J. Anderson, the 3’ 7” Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks. He’s sawing wood and I don’t mean playing violin, in Papa John Creach’s famous term; I mean literally sawing wood. Why he’s sawing wood and why there’s a log there for him to saw, I have no idea. He gets to deliver a spoken word piece later in the film, with the accompaniment of Badalamenti’s son AndrĂ© on clarinet.

Later, we meet John Bell, as the Tall Skinned Deer, which is exactly what you think, a giant deer that a host of mechanics stand up on his long legs that are surely stilts. He’s without a skin, so he’s a Hellraiser-esque vision of horror in a film with an otherwise very different tone and, as you’ve probably guessed, I don’t have any idea why.

Even though none of this made any sense to me, I rather enjoyed it. I wonder how much of it will stay with me though. That’s often the key with Lynch’s work. Sure, some of his films work immediately for me, leaving my jaw dropped in admiration, while others are hard to get through even on a first viewing. What matters the most, though, is how they play to posterity when I think about them later.

I haven’t seen Eraserhead in a long time, but imagery from it has stayed with me all along. It’s even longer since I’ve seen Dune and The Elephant Man, but I can see parts of both in my head at the drop of a hat. Wild at Heart and Mulholland Drive, on the other hand, which I enjoyed whenever it was that I last watched them, I don’t remember at all. I wonder which category this will end up in. I’m leaning towards the latter but I’m open to what time brings.

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