“…at a certain level, to perceive the subject as the psychological unity of a person is wrong.” (p.23, The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, On David Lynch’s Lost Highway, Slavoj Zizek)
Representing the time of the postmodern subject in David Lynch`s Lost Highway and The Straight Story ; The psychoanalytic approach
The cinema of David Lynch has been hailed by Slavoj Zizek as the art of the ridiculus sublime where the uncanny narrative structures of his films present the passive spectator with problems of comprehension and the active spectator with unheard of “side” effects. In this universe of the ridiculous sublime the most ridiculous and pathetic scenes are to be taken seriously alongside the ridiculosly excessive, violent “evil” figures. In “The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, On David Lynch’s Lost Highway” Zizek “attempt(s) to unravel the enigma of this coincidence of opposites, which is, in a way, the enigma of postmodernity itsef”(p.3)
The psychoanalytic approach of Zizek clarifyes the presence and the power of symbolic institutions we take for granted. Zizek focuses on how we hug our chains not how we resist them, and so it is in this vein that his interpretation points to the redemptive value of naive cliches. As the properly impersonal bureucratic voice of the symbolic institutions disintegrate on the appereance (to the point of demanding a tone of emotional sincerity from the speakers of institutions which is much more cynical in the eyes of Zizek), their separation from human beings also wayne in many ways. This schitzophrenic disintegration of the boundries has consequences over how the power structures are concieved by different individuals as well as how those power structures manifest themselves in the world. Hence I would like to look at how Zizek through the psychoanalytic method locates the elements of the psychological unity of a character which are external to the subject in Lost Highway, and continue with the analysis in The Straight Story to look at the main characters relation to the external parts (extentions) of himself.
Since the representations of time enter a reciprocal relationship with the full scale reality of the main characters in Lost Highway and The Straight Story, the self reflexive logic of the narrative is tied to the very essence of the characters dillemas which gives them (and the films) a unique life and time of their own, or rather a life and time the characters have struggled and worked to make their own. Fred is a musician who starts having delusions after killing his wife and Alvin is a WWII veteran desperately trying to reach his dying brother 600 miles away.
The psychoanalytic approach and Lost Highway
As oppose to the post-theory, which rejects Lacanian cinema studies, Zizek establishes the transgression of meaning in the surface and deep keys (clues) of narration in film as inherent (transgression). This is to say that instead of conflicting clues appealing to different interpretations of different spectators, the clues actually appeal to the two types of interpretation within the same spectator. This idea of the split spectator links to the psychoanalytic terms of the opposition between the symbolic Law (Ego-ideal) and obscene superego (Ideal-ego). The symbolic Law is only interested in keeping/saving appearances in the public domain, leaving the superego to go on with its dirty imagination. Alas, psychoanalysis is not interested in some repressed content but the essential character of appearance, which in this case means that “…these unintended, perverse by-products, far from effectively threatening the system of symbolic domination, are its inherent transgression, i.e., its unacknowledged, obscene support.”(p.7)
Zizek reads Lynch, through the Lacan of the Real/ the Real of Lacan. The Real forms the traumatic underbelly of our fantasized reality. The violence of the Real appears to exist as a prerequisite for the invention of collective fantasy. This is an on going process of protection from stimuli through delay and diffusion in the everyday and also in the historical existence. In Lacan`s definition of the mind The Real is the first of the triad of concepts. The real, the imaginary and the symbolic form the subject by firstly binding/bounding the surges of energy from the Real (could be literally read as the entire sense data bombardment of the brain by the nervous system) in an imaginary identification process, which either through mimicry or reflection binds the body from parts to a whole in an image, separating the area of control, the image of the body from the image of things. And secondly by montaging this bounded surge within the algorithm of an external symbolic order (separating the I that has formed, from others in an externally imposed mode of differentiation). The manifestations of externality are firstly the imaginary identification with an image fundamentally alien, unknowable to the self, secondly at the symbolic level where the existence of others surface (images which are like me although I can never be sure) and the place of the “I” amongst them “other(s)”. Again this position of the I is a given, although for the fantasy of communication to work the participants should accept the givens of communication unquestioningly otherwise they will be labelled uncommunicable or insane. This is to say that in the experience of reality, fantasy appears as both the ultimate support of our sense of reality and as defence against the Real.
The impersonality and externality of the sociosymbolic law forms the basis of fantasmatic projections which are trying to represent the Real which is beyond representation. Hence this inconsistency is embedded in the order of fantasmatic projections which formulate bridges to the Real (full experience of life) through impossible sublime objects of desire, (i.e. the ultimate man or the ultimate woman which Zizek portrays through the haunting image of an ape copulating with a cyborg). Sublime objects, though not sublime in themselves, occupy the structural place of the humanly preferred full experience of life; jouissance.
The two components of the unity of our experience sustained by fantasy, of de-sublimated drab everyday reality and the fantasmatic support in all its obscene cruelty, disintegrates in Lynch`s Lost Highway, endorsing a metacommentary function on the opposition between the classic and the modern noir femme fatale, occupying the two structural ends of an impossible sublime object of desire. Since the structure of the inherent transgression can be broken by means of the ACT, the feminine act in this film allows for the externiation of inherent impossibilities through the progressing narration. Fred and Renee whose marriage is doomed for internal reasons (impotence) transforms to the relation of Pete and Alice who are doomed by external reasons; the wrath of the Mr. Eddy occupying the structural place of the name of the father; the enforcer and gatekeeper to the external sociosymbolic law. Children are admitted to the world of adults through castration. Their sense of dominating importance for the world of the mother is destroyed through the realisation that the mother adheres to an external system and not only to the demands of the child. The film therefore traverses fantasy of the sublime object totally and not just as a male fantasy.
Marek Wieczorek highlights in his introduction Zizek`s articulation of Lynch`s ontology as the discordance between reality observed from a safe distance and the absolute proximity of the Real. Lynch`s universe is one where the Real eerily invades daily existence presented through his technique of juxtaposing the two incompatible realms of symbolic representations and the Real side by side where they are allowed to invade one another. Lynch thus allows for the mutual existence of reality and fantasy on the same horizontal plain rather than one vertically supporting the other. “…a crucial ingredient of Lynch`s universe is a phrase, a signifying chain, which resonates as a Real that insists and always returns – a kind of basic formula that suspends and cuts across time: in Dune, it is “the sleeper must awake”; in “twin peaks” the owls are not what they seem”; in Blue Velvet, “Daddy wants to fuck”; and, of course, in Lost Highway, the phrase which is the first and last spoken word in the film, “Dick Laurant is dead,” announcing the death of the obscene paternal figure (Mr. Eddy).”(p17) In Straight Story the returning signifying chain is the talk of (and actual act of) looking at the sky, also a musical tune we first hear when Rose watches outside a window at a boy playing ball, plays again and again during the film at sentimental moments.
Through the circular narrative in psychoanalytic practice appearances of an external threat (the symptom) are traversed, whereby the limits and inconsistencies which appear at first as paranoid and external to the subject, come to be understood within the individual reality of the subject from a different perspective. Alvin Straight has as one of his early memories looking at the sky with his brother whom he has not seen
Trauma and scope of subjectivity
In this universe of the ridiculous sublime the most ridiculous and pathetic scenes are to be taken seriously alongside the ridiculously excessive, violent “evil” figures, since the cliques of action and conversation (banal/common basis of intelligible communication) is in a sense only able to exist through the acts of symbolic institutions. Mr. Eddy represents the law of the father, trying “to enforce some elementary “fucking rules” in this otherwise crazy universe.”(p.18)By mediating and reflexivising evil, Lynch, generates an immediacy and naiveté, laying bare the substantial force which resists our grasp, in all its life energy and violence (and banal stupidity).
The New age reading of the film misperceives the level in which to take the film seriously precisely by taking the subject as the sole limit of the psychological unity of a person, encouraging us to indulge in the audio-visual texture and the full ambiguity of the film. The dimension of the symbolic institutions which gets excluded in such an interpretation, form the core of Zizek`s political agenda/reading, particularly with regards to the increasing psychologization of social life blurring the line of separation between private and public discourse, concealing the ideological dimensions of proposed political policies, i.e. through “sincere” and psychologically believable appearances of politicians feeling sorry for declaring war. Although the dimension of the symbolic institutions only exists when subjects believe or act as if they believe in it, symbolic institutions can hate and kill in the name of the unquestioning subject, like canned laughter which laugh for the spectator in sitcoms. In a sense to focus on the way in which we hug our chains rather than how we resist them is also how we can forget about our chains as external and treat them as a part of our own being and identity.
Synopsis of Straight Story
The film opens with the shots of harvest in the fields, an idyllic small town, Laurens, and a house. As the next door neighbour who is sunbathing outside goes into her house for snacks we hear someone falling. Alvin is discovered only later when a friend expecting him at the bar decides to go looking for him. His daughter Rose gets him to go to the doctor. He is nervous and does not accept the doctor’s proposals for a hip operation, to give up smoking, tests, x-rays or a walker. Although he agrees to use another walking stick. Back at home when Rose asks how it went he replies by saying that the doctor told him he would live to be a hundred. After which he goes out to mown the lawn and when the engine doesn’t start he hits his lawnmower with his walking stick. Alvin fixes the machine and they get back inside as a storm is coming. As they are watching the rain the phone rings and Rosie passes the message that Alvin’s brother had a stroke. Next day he and Rosie start getting supplies and building a trailer to hook at the back of his machine, to hit the 600 mile road to his brother whom he had not seen in 10 years in Mount Zion in Wisconsin. As Alvin is at the gas station in town getting peculiar supplies, his friends, possibly recognizing he is about to embark on a risky journey, ask him what they are for, to which he replies dismissively. First time Alvin tries to leave he goes through town with his construct and the gas station manager not able to follow him at his pace says “he will never make it past Grotto” (the next town), funnily enough Alvin makes it past him and other worrying elderly friends. Nevertheless as Alvin is approaching a signpost that reads Grotto five miles, a truck passes dangerously close by, hooting its horn and his hat flies off. After he stops, fetches his hat and gets back, the engine does not start. Getting a lift from a bus to Grotto he gets back home with him on his lawnmower on top of another truck. Once home he gets his double barrel rifle and shoots the lawnmower which is a Rehds as we learn later on when Alvin goes to a John Deere dealer to buy a better machine. He buys a small machine made in 1966 with a Kohler engine for 325 dollars. All set, Alvin leaves for the second time. By the end of town limits Alvin ducks when he notices a truck overtaking him, but unlike the first time the truck passes by with consideration. Alone for the first night on the road, Alvin gathers wood for fire using his grabber, all at his own pace. The second night by the fire, a hitchhiker approaches who couldn’t get a ride and didn’t hail to Alvin shunning his machine. She later call it a hunk of junk. She is a runaway, five months pregnant without the knowledge of the father or her family and friends. Alvin starts to talk about his family, ending with a story about how the family resembles sticks which are harder to break when tied together. We learn that his wife Frances who died in `81 had 14 babies, 7 of which lived and that Rose had 4 kids but there was a fire when someone else was watching them and the second boy got burned. The state stopped her seeing them as she was considered slow and possibly unable to cope with her son’s fate. Alvin wakes up to find the girl gone and a bundle of sticks tied together on the ground. The next time on the road the sound of a tractor passing by is succeeded by the sound of a large group of cyclists riding in the wind, whom Alvin later meets at their campsite in the evening. The third encounter is with a woman who overtakes him only to hit and kill a deer. She asks “Where do they (the deer) come from?” and says “He is dead and I love deer!” and drives off. Apparently Alvin is more interested in the deer than her as instead of leaving the carcass on the road, he cooks and eats it by his campfire. Next Alvin has trouble stopping the machine down a hill and he is saved by his brakes just before a serious accident. Danny Riordan, the man who saves him allows Alvin to stay until his broken machine is fixed by the mechanics. We learn that he has been on the road 5 weeks. He phones Rose to post him his social security check, rejects an offer by Danny to drive him to Mount Zion. Then he goes to have a drink with an elderly man who was there when Alvin almost crashed. They talk about WW2, which they both participated in, and exchange stories. At the Twins, the mechanics, Alvin is overcharged and he haggles the price down to a reasonable sum. He leaves Danny’s house in the morning. Next, at night he camps by the side of a church graveyard. The priest brings him dinner and they talk about Alvin’s brother Lyle, whom the priest had seen in the hospital but does not know about his present condition. We learn that his brother never mentioned Alvin to the priest. Next Alvin stops at a bar in Mount Zion, and has a beer, finds out how to get to Lyle’s. Once there they talk little and when Alvin confirms that he had ridden a lawnmower across state lines, they both go silent and look up at the sky. The End.
The degeneration of institutional archetypes and schizophrenia in Straight Story
The present-day margins of the symbolic institution’s historically accumulated dimensions of duty and law also have negative and positive representations in the film. For the representations of the negative aspects; Alvin fighting in the trenches at WW2, Rose being forbidden to see her children and the driver who hit the deer are unhappy about their forced experiences. The driver is hysterical telling Alvin that this is the thirteenth deer in 7 weeks and after recounting all the precautions she had taken and failed, she says she has to drive 40 miles back and forth to work every day to make a living. On the side of the representations of positive aspects, the social code appears tolerant towards Alvin’s quest and his mobility, despite his errors. He doesn’t have the doctors approval as he is ill, or the approval of the two John Deere dealers he meets for the use of the machine (the first actually calls Alvin not smart referring to mad), or the approval of his daughter and friends. As Alvin is at the gas station in town getting peculiar supplies, his friends, possibly recognizing he is about to embark on a risky journey, ask him what they are for, to which he replies dismissively or rather he can reply dismissively as this is the USA the absolute unit of the individual, the consumer, has absolute privacy.
How we can forget about our chains as external and treat them as a part of our own being and identity can distort our relationship to objects. The manifestations of the symbolic institutions in the Real is not limited to office buildings of the government or the schools and hospitals. The everyday machines and objects we use are generally the product of a bigger whole and carry the hallmark of symbolic institutions. Our receivership of these items like their production is a specific set of political relations such as capitalist consumption. So when Alvin goes out to mown the lawn, the engine doesn’t start and he hits his lawnmower with his walking stick, the inanimate object becomes more than a punch bag for relieving stress (also for that purpose one can hit a real punch bag), it becomes communicatable for Alvin (for violence can be considered as a form of communication).
This I will assume as the negative edge of the loss of power of the institution; schizophrenia in negative appearance. Another scene that can clear doubts, is after his first failed attempt to leave, once home, Alvin gets his double barrel rifle and shoots the lawnmower. This is self destructive for Alvin as he could have traded the Rehds for his John Deere machine, and is thus pointless, mad. Attachments to objects can reflect the imaginary shifts in the postmodern psyche. The shop owner does not want to sell his own grabber to Alvin says it is his and a darn good grabber, hard to come by, and would take time to get another order in. He flags up the price to 10 $ and is genuinely sorry (he strokes it putting it on the counter) when Alvin accepts his offer. Also another clue is how the objects are referred to in speech. When Alvin is invited to stay by Danny he replies by saying “awfully generous of you, and I am sure my machine here is agreeable with that too.” His machine there is broken and apparently needs a rest.
Schizophrenia in positive appearance could be considered as the unresisted complete integration. From the big truck to the small truck, what is the difference? Where do I stop and where does it begin? In the entire landscape of Iowa cornfields at harvest time Alvin appears on his lawnmower with the trailer like the needle head of an LP, playing the tune of the land. He rides and lives on the road for more than 2 months, so much so that he is identical to the road. He even feeds off of road kill, hanging the horns of the deer at the front of the trailer. The night before his first attempt to leave, at their backyard, Alvin says- Listen to that grain elevator and Rosie replies “its harvest time”. They can hear a particular but essential (grain) production of the system in action at their back yard. When Alvin almost has an accident, 5 weeks away from home, the first thing Danny Riordan says, even before his name is that he had worked for John Deere for 30 years and that he needs brakes for his trailer. The land that Alvin is playing like a record is in tune with his machine so to speak.
“In a first approach (to Lost Highway), one should absolutely insist that we are dealing with a real story(of the impotent husband, etc.) that, at some point (that of the slaughter of Renee), shifts into psychotic hallucination in which the hero constructs the parameters of the Oedipal triangle that again make him potent – significantly, Pete turns back into Fred, i.e., we return to reality, precisely when, within the space of psychotic hallucination, the impossibility of the relationship reasserts itself, when the blond Patricia Arquette (Alice) tells her young lover, “You’ll never have me!””(p.15) “The logic here is precisely that of Lacan`s reading of Freud’s dream, “Father, cant you see I’m burning?” in which the dreamer is awakened when the Real of the horror encountered in the dream (the dead son’s reproach) is more horrible than the awakened reality itself, so that the dreamer escapes into reality in order to escape the Real encountered in the dream.”(p. 17) So is it the reassertation of the impossibility of the relationship or the impasse of the Oedipal triangle itself which scares Pete back to Fred (to reality)? If so what would be the representation of this impasse in the film?
It is actually the Mystery Man who points the gun at Mr.Eddy, though once the shot is fired it is Fred who is holding the gun. So unlike Mr. Eddy the Mysterious man lives on with Fred. As such one is also inclined to think of the Mystery Man as the finitude (of Fred). Zizek writes “…, the fantasmatic figure of a pure and wholly neutral medium-observer, a blank screen which “objectively” registers Fred`s unacknowledged fantasmatic urges. His timelessness and spacelessness (he can be at two places at the same time, as he proves to Fred in the nightmarish phone conversation scene) signals the timelessness and spacelessness of the synchronous universal symbolic network of registration.”(p.20). But is not the role of the Mystery Man a unique perspective (to Frank) within the universal symbolic network of registration? And as this network is synchronous, does this not mean that he has already had “objectively” registered Frank? Since “…the images of utter catastrophe, far from giving access to the Real, can function as a protective shield AGAINST the Real.”P34 I would like to suggest that the Mystery Man is a necessary projection for the parameters of the Oedipus complex.
“The split between Eddy and the Mystery Man is thus rather the split inherent to superego itself: the split between the exuberant jouissance of life-substance and the asexual symbolic machine of Knowledge” (no26, p. 46) Fear from a thing that could know my subjective kernel asks the question why would I be afraid from the knowledge of my own reality unless my own death that I am facing is alien/external rather than just unknowable. Of course there is the very element of his presence, why should the asexual machine of knowledge be represented at all, why than is he not portrayed as a machine? (Like the two dimensional puppet at twin peaks p.22) This in turn begs the question whether the mystery man is just anonymous evil or does he have the hallmark of the finitude of the symbolic order at his very being.
The finitude of the symbolic order would be the disintegration of the boundaries between me and the thing (between me and others, between supermarkets and libraries, prisons and factories…!) It is in this light that Alvin Straight resembles the Mystery Man. The biggest difference is that Alvin is not a unique perspective within the universal symbolic network of registration, rather Alvin is playing the universal symbolic network of registration (finitude), locally, with all its contradictions, while simultaneously witnessing it mile by mile. Alvin’s individual mission is in a sense caused by the taxing demands of the symbolic institutions (a drunk trying to forget the horrors of the trenches quarrels with his brother), and at the same time facilitated by the symbolic institutions (as an individual consumer minding his own business, no one can stop him). His individual memory encompasses both poles of the American dream; a strong nation protected from the world mostly as a military superpower and a liberal structure where you can have a relative say on the shape of your individual finitude (where you can drive, or as in Leaving Las Vegas drink, yourself to death). This is also to say the two poles of forced movement at the tie of the draft and absolute freedom of mobility in peacetime. Like the needle head of the long player, Alvin is cyristal clear to the history of the land he is playing, as his individual memory is in line with the foundational horrors and contradictions of History.
The psychoanalytic approach, provides a possibility of a standpoint, unlike the deconstructionist ironist’s pessimism of its own practice of constant interpretation for alternatives (political or otherwise), by stating that “the fantasmatic support of reality is itself necessarily multiple and inconsistent” (p.41) rather than an assertation that people have relative/multiple realities. This stand point is almost ethical in its Levinisian assertation of fundamentals of human communication and political in the alternatives it presents; to mark repeatedly the memory of a lost cause in all its appearances (in film and particularly in cyberspace) to signal the impossibility of all totalising ethics and morals, leaving the individual free to act out his presuppositions of his individual memory and history. If the coincidence of opposites form the enigma of postmodernity, then through marking repeatedly the memory of a lost cause in all its appearances, the portraying of naive clichés, unravels the enigma through this redemptive quality. The redeeming quality of Lost Highway lies in its achievement to encompass both poles of reality and fantasy to explicate desire Alvin unlike Fred is successful in carrying through the signifying chain and settling his individual history within the symbolic history without recoursing to psychosis. In Straight Story therefore, there is redemption in mobility itself, in the face of ever encompassing archetypes.
Course “Representations of Time”, Lecturer Dr. Bernadette C.M. Kester, essay by Alphan Vardarlı
The films Lost Highway and The Straight Story directed by David Lynch
THE ART OF THE RIDICULOUS SUBLIME, On David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Slavoj Zizek. Walter Chapin Simpson Centre for the Humanities, Seattle: University of Washington Press
Review of “THE ART OF THE RIDICULOUS SUBLIME, On David Lynch’s Lost Highway” by Slavoj Zizek. (Walter Chapin Simpson Centre for the Humanities, Seattle: University of Washington Press xiii+41pp., references,current information on the writer) For the “Anthropology of the Wild in the West” Course, Lecturer Prof. J.Verrips, by Alphan Vardarli