“To me, a story can be both concrete and abstract, or a concrete story can hold abstractions. And abstractions are things that really can’t be said so well with words.” – David Lynch
There is no more fully realized modernist American filmmaker than David Lynch. Although he’s most often accused of post-modernism, Lynch’s use of modernist techniques- counterpointing artificiality with dream states, powerful symbolism through color and shapes, and a penchant for grotesque supernatural monsters- are constructed no less carefully than Faulkner, Cather or Morrison. And as Lynch’s legacy sets itself in place, watching his cinematic children rise up to imitate his works is inspiring, even if their visions are frustratingly clouded by virtue of the fact that their employment of modernist techniques have not settled.
There is a bright shining blue line of connectivity between Lynch’s work and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives. Just as Lynch used the myth of post-war Americana to open up veins of hidden meaning, Refn uses noir as his stalking horse for the same purpose. Refn’s paper-thin narrative- ex-pat drug smuggler and boxing trainer Julian (Ryan Gosling in his second pairing with Refn) goes about lackadaisically avenging the death of his brother at the hands of a Thai policeman (Vithaya Pansringarm)- serves only as the arena for a internal battle about Julian’s true nature. Julian, struggling to come to terms with the fact that he killed his father at the request of his incestuous mother, lives in personal exile, his only relationship being with a prostitute he watches in karaoke clubs. After his brother’s murder, Julian falls into a silent dialogue with Pansringarm, who is portrayed as a larger-than-life, mythical police godfather, dispensing a unique form of justice via machete.
Forgives’ parallels to Lynch are most strongly seen in Lynch’s 90’s movie and television series Twin Peaks. In that world, protagonist Agent Cooper and his nemesis, the demon Bob, exist as spiritual beings able to migrate back and forth to the physical plane via a spiritual waiting rooms known as Lodges- Cooper belonged to the White Lodge, Bob to the Black Lodge. And although they could interact with humans, they were never as complete as when they were fighting each other in these Lodges. Refn employs the same spiritual connection between Gosling and Pansringarm, who from the beginning intrude on each other’s dreams and fantasies, each of them knowing secrets about the other that would be impossible in a realist story structure. Gosling’s dojo, the only setting where he interacts with Pansringarm, is highly reminiscent of the Lodge- a place of dimly-lit corridors, saturated in strange light, and occupied by silent, strange women. And as the telepathic connection between the two fighters grows deeper through the film, we see that the entire narrative may be nothing more than a figment of Gosling’s imagination. The Lodge was nothing more than Lynch’s way of expressing other planes of reality- here, Julian blood-soaked dojo (which is dominated by a monstrous, giant dragon face) represents a retreat into his own mind, retrieving a villain capable of defeating Julian’s fear of his mother.
Refn’s derivation of Lynch’s cues don’t end there. In Peaks, Lynch used musical set pieces from Little Jimmy Scott and Julee Cruse to represent passages back and forth between the realist and modernist narratives; Refn does the same thing using karaoke acts. Refn apes Lynch intentionally long breaks between lines of dialogue and flat delivery by the actors, a move designed to deny the viewer an easy definition of the work and force comprehension of the whole– the same technique used by Joyce and Hemingway in fragmenting their story lines across chapters and perspectives. Both directors use neon to declare areas of risk and secrecy (Lynch’s ‘One-Eyed Jack’s’ and ‘Bookhouse’, and Refn’s strip clubs and whorehouses); color saturation to demonstrate confusion or madness (for instance, Gosling’s character spends the first half of the movie constantly covered in red and yellow exposure shots); and desolately empty sets that approximate the impression, but never the truth, of real life.
Lynch’s monsters tend to be those originating out of the protagonist’s mind: the possessing demon of Bob, Blue Velvet’s nitrous-sucking Frank Booth, Robert Blake’s Mystery Man of Lost Highway. The menace of these creatures was no less diminished because of their origin, but it gave context to their opposition to the hero. Renf’s strongest accomplishment in Forgives is the creation of an antagonist sprung whole from Gosling’s mind that he perceives as evil, but which is driving him back towards the light. Pansringarm’s avenging angel of a policeman is a relentless, silent murderer, seemingly incapable of being killed or even struck- he survives both an assassination attempt and a fistfight with Gosling with nary a scratch. This seeming invincibility, and the fact that he can read Julian’s mind, begins to suggest that Gosling is not just fighting a rogue police officer, but instead is fighting the spirit of his dead father. Pansringarm’s final piece of justice is dispensed in a scene that overlaps he and Gosling in the same place, performing the same violent act, and after that Pansringarm is seen ending the movie singing the Thai hit Tur Kue Kwam Fun (‘You Are My Dream’), whose lyrics suggest that Chang- or Julian- has dreamed the entire movie, or that Julian, haunted by his father, acted out the entire movie in his head as a way to justify revenge against himself and his mother.
Refn’s apt imitation of Lynch’s style is impressive, but depressing because such shadowboxing goes unappreciated. As PopMatter’s Bob Gibron wrote, Only God Forgives would have ensured Lynch a Cannes d’Or award- had he written it instead of Refn. Such faint praise for Refn aside, it’s self-defeating for such a talented filmmaker to create works with the same patterns and tempos originated by Lynch’s lifetime of work. Classical modernism in literature was a wave of contemporaries all feeding and reinforcing each other’s strategies, but still maintaining individual streams of originality that spawned successors- Faulkner was responsible for Cormac McCarthy; Hemingway helped to create Kerouac. Cinema moves slower than literature, so perhaps it’s unfair to say whether or not Refn is a simple imitator, or someone using Lynch as a springboard into his own fully realized style. Only God Forgives is a great forgery, but only a baby step towards originality.