By Jack Wareham
“It’s important that a film is loud and I hope many people agree. You should be inside of a film
when you go into a theater. It shouldn’t be way up the front of you. It should surround you,
envelope you, so you can live inside a dream.”
David Lynch is a director often associated with striking, iconic images. The ear in Blue Velvet,
and, of course, the film’s titular fabric (which has become an S&M emblem), the baby in
Eraserhead, as well as Jack Nance’s shock of vertical hair, and in Twin Peaks, the “Red Room,”
plus a cup of black coffee and slice of cherry pie. Lynch is equally well-known for his music,
like that nostalgic “Twin Peaks Theme” by Angelo Badalamenti, and Bobby Vinton’s kitschy
“Blue Velvet,” which remains stuck in my head for days every time I re-watch the film.
These images and songs gain their power, as well as their “Lynchian” quality, from their mixture of the commonplace and the strange. But part of what makes Lynch one of the most
transgressive and innovative American directors is his non-music sound: the auditory ambience that pervades his work and is crucial to what we think of as the Lynchian aesthetic.
Take a scene from Blue Velvet. Our starry-eyed protagonist (Kyle MacLachlan) takes a walk
through a suburban field and finds a severed ear lying in the grass, encrusted with dirt and pale
green mold, and crawling with ants. Lynch’s camera, which comes to represent our most
uncomfortable, carnal desires, slowly zooms into the ear canal. At first, McLachlan’s walk was
decorated with a quaintly suburban soundscape: the crunching of grass, cicadas buzzing, and
birds chirping (one bird’s call suspiciously resembles a child yelling “Mom!”).
But as he begins to discover the ear, we hear a low-tone industrial hum, and a close-up of the
decaying ear is paired with a quiet, high-pitched feedback noise. These techniques should be
familiar to the observant horror-film watcher, but the way Lynch’s sounds instantly recede once
the scene ends, without crescendo, is nothing short of unsettling. And, crucially, the suburban
soundscape does not fade out when the feedback noise enters; the two coexist.
That zoom-in shot of the ear has predecessors (the shower drain in Psycho) and successors
(Tarantino’s adolescent blood-fest in Reservoir Dogs), but it remains quintessentially Lynchian
in its uncanny mixture of banality and violence, especially with regards to sound.
It’s difficult to describe sounds, and I’ve never learned a formal vocabulary for studying ambient noise. Perhaps part of the pleasure of the soundscape in film is its imperceptibility – the way it creeps up all around you and “envelopes” you. But still, stopping to analyzing ambient noise in film upon repeat watches gives us a multitude of clues into the aesthetic strategies of directors. No analysis of an auteur’s style would be complete without understanding sound, which, after all, accounts for 50% of the cinematic experience.