Transdiegesis and the Other

Sound in the Films of David Lynch

by Tim Nagel


1. A narrative world.

2. (film theory) The spatio-temporal world depicted in the film. Anything within that world (such as dialogue or a shot of a roadsign used to establish a location) is termed diegetic whereas anything outside it (such as a voiceover or a superimposed caption) is extradiegetic. This distinction is especially associated with diegetic sound: for example, when a record- player is shown to be the source of onscreen music. A diegetic audience is an audience within the depicted world.

[Sounds in David Lynch’s movies can not] be reduced to some primary function. They are life itself, vital power, absurd and ever-present. – Michel Chion

In Eraserhead, Lynch’s first feature-length production, the reality of the characters is enveloped in a soundscape of humming, hissing and crackling. In a scene at the beginning of the film you see protagonist Henry (Jack Nance) walking through a seemingly deserted industrial area. Embedded in deep noise, fragments of classical music and the rumbling of a factory can be heard. In the following shot, Henry enters an apartment; the sound collage is still sounding, without an origin being traceable. Here we encounter „emancipated sound“¹: sound and (film) space are no longer causally connected.

The emancipation of sound, although more differentiated in later films, is the essential characteristic of sound design in Lynch’s films (which was carried out in all his works by himself, partly in collaboration with Alan Splet amongst others). When the sound of a cigarette being lit in Lost Highway goes far beyond the volume of the dialogue, or the white noise of a television screen in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me seems to develop a life of its own, an auditory space is created that allows the Other to emerge alongside the narrative, visual level. The auditory space is independent of the reality of the characters, even if it remains part of the film’s world: in Lost Highway, the lurking presence that is ever-present in Lynch’s works is manifested in the Mystery Man (Robert Blake). It seems to influence the sound itself as the Mystery Man threatens the film’s lead, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). The scene depicting the encounter shows us a party in full swing – free of any (diegetic) sound. The only thing to be heard is humming and hissing: these sounds have no referential (i.e. a pop song referring to circumstances or situations) or illustrative (i.e. loud banging sounds in a fight scene) qualities, they have become an autonomous force; with the on-screen events being under its influence. This autonomous force, able to be evoked at any time in order to become a perceptible presence, is „constitutive of space itself“ ² – where the score of Angelo Badalamenti, Lynch’s go-to composer, is a mere indication of presence and the extra-diegetic pop songs signify a musical reference model, the sound design is to be understood as a metaphysical limb of the presence itself.

Due to the large intersection of three elements, it is difficult to assign a separate level of meaning to each of them. Van Elferen speaks of a sonic sfumato³: the analogy to Leonardo da Vinci, who depicted the backgrounds of his paintings in a foggy or blurred way in order to create an impression of depth, is valid: we find this technique, for example, in Badalamenti’s music, which moves between drones and clearly formulated motifs, or in the pop songs, which give clues as „wrong signals“, patting us on the back and making us believe everything is in order. If we apply the analogy to the entirety of the music and sound in David Lynch’s oeuvre, we can see that the sfumato is always created when the individual parts interact with each other. The musical means range from the banal to the absurd; the juxtaposition of these extremes gives rise to the acoustic sfumato. For example, Badalamenti’s music could be misunderstood as overtly sentimental if it wasn’t supported by the sound design, that lets us go down the rabbit hole which the score suggests and dramatizes. Lynch creates a dialogue of atmospheres with the individual parts of the acoustic level, which are in constant flux.

The concept of transdiegetic sound is constituted by the combination of the three elements of sound and their dissoluting of the connection between sound and it’s cause, as well as it’s signification. If, as in the scene from Lost Highway described above, sound becomes a presence, it has neither a cause nor an illustrative character. Sound is made part of the narrative. It no longer has a clearly recognizable origin, but instead becomes a prime mover:

In Lynch’s films, music interferes with people’s insides; as a result, music can change the outside world. Lynch’s characters cry or collapse after music or sound collages are heard, they are transported in or out of dream worlds or hallucinatory states; according to Claudia Gorman, the sound even seems to represent the „subjective experience of the film characters“.⁴

Music and sound become formless and boundless entities that can travel from the outside to the inside. When the neither clearly diegetic nor extradiegetic sound reaches the interior of the characters and their world, it forces a reaction that in turn influences the film world. It should here be noted that the low stability of all usually fixed components (time, space and the correlating sounds), that most of Lynch’s films show, enables a „cognitive dissonance“, the acoustic part of which is the transdiegetic sound. This way of disassembling (film-)musical methods makes them mutable: it unites diegetic and extradiegetic sound by covering both fields and transforming them into an acoustic color palette that transcends the realities of the characters and thus creates a seemingly limitless film world in its capabilities:

Music can provide a passageway beyond mediation, signification, reality, time, and space, and this is exactly what [David Lynch’s] trans-diegetic use of film music effects. Roaming all the layers of diegesis and extra-diegesis, Lynchian soundtracks take film characters and viewers alike into the twilight zone […]. ⁵

Apparently meaningless sounds such as a lighter being lit claim the spotlight, while dialogues are barely perceptible. Is the dialogue important precisely for the reason that it could not be heard? Does sound replace dialogue and take on its meaning? The answers to these questions are not important, since the unknown and the suspicion that there could be an answer are the experience itself, which is partly expressed through this approach to sound in film. Since the world of Lynch’s movies is characterized by non-linear narratives, dream-like logic and an unhinged visual language, the transdiegetic sound can never find its beginning nor end – it is a constant alternation between signification and non-signification, commentary and reference, expression and presence itself.

It is an easy observation that music and sound are equal to images in Lynch’s films. Angelo Badalamenti’s compositions, the pop song and the sound design, in conjunction with the image, form a whole that is constantly linked to the uncanny; to that which is hidden to the moment it becomes visible. This visibility does not occur in the form of a resolution, but through the process of the Other penetrating the surface. Badalamenti evokes it with his compositions, the pop song hints at it and the sound design is part of the Other itself. The room to dream, the elusive, the unknown whose outline flickers in and out of the darkness – the Other is first and foremost a feeling that sources its power from the very fact that it defies a tight grip in the form of an explanation. The impulsive emotional reaction inspires a vague idea of what form the Other could take, only to find a cul-de-sac that leads back to the uncertainty that is so essential for the experience. In Lynch’s universe the Other holds power over the film’s characters and eventually over ourselves, the audience. Just as the Mystery Man states that it is not his custom to go where is not wanted, we welcome the unknown with open arms. It radiates a magnetism, we inevitably invite the Other. The confrontation is frightening, but we know that we, in a crucial moment, might decide to plunge into it regardless. In deciding to take part in a transgression, we become sovereign, even if just for the blink of an eye. But Lynch’s horror is articulated in the reversal of that – it is implied that the decision is an illusion; the transgression, the step beyond the threshold happens to us (and the film’s actors) without the possibility of deciding to do so. This seems to be mirrored in his frequent use of electricity as a signifier for change and transformation – light bulbs break, strobes flicker and buzzing and humming is heard when the Other is palpable. Electricity is the underlying current of the presence that poses the threat, and it seems to be as much out of our hands as the horror itself. A mechanism, a series of events belonging to an understanding that our access to is limited. This sentiment ties in with the internal movement of many of Lynch’s works bringing us not to a central threshold where the unknown begins, but suggesting everything being vulnerable for an infiltration of it. All angles, all perspectives bear a distorted version of themselves in it that, once revealed, seem no less natural and part of their core that what we’ve been seeing (and hearing). Even if there is no central point or linear course of what I’ve been referring to as the Other, its coming to being is often articulated in similar fashion: portraying its negative image (the domestic, the mundane) is subject to its evocation, where the threat announces itself. In succession, the Other turns the visual, narrative and acoustic planes inside out. A revelatory moment in the sense of things becoming unshrouded for a brief moment, but not in the fashion of a resolution. The phenomenon of sound is an appropriate means to convey the Other, since it is unfathomable and elusive by its very nature – fixed through the medium of the artwork, it is not to be contained nor is it one-directional. Its transmission adds or takes regarding circumstances, and the fusion with image and narrative multiplies these possibilities. Sound embodies suggestion and revelation: we never hear everything, but what we hear always implies the rest, the presence, the Other.

¹ Schmidt, Oliver: Leben in gestörten Welten. Der filmische Raum in David Lynchs Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway und Inland Empire, ibidem-Verlag, Stuttgart, 2008

² Seeßlen, Georg: David Lynch und seine Filme, Schüren Verlag, Marburg, 2006

³ van Elferen, Isabella: «Dream Timbre. Notes on Lynchian Sound Design», in: Wierzbicki, James (Hrsg.): Music, Sound and Filmmakers: Sonic Style in Cinema. New York, 2012. Sfumato describes the blending of tones or colours so subtly that they melt into one another without perceptible transitions—in Leonardo da Vinci’s words, „without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke“; It., ‘faded away’, cf. Oxford Dictionary

⁴ cf. van Elferen

⁵ cf. van Elferen


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