Authorship and the Films of David Lynch
Aesthetic Receptions in Contemporary Hollywood
London: I.B. Tauris, 2012
Paperback. vii +181 pages. ISBN 978-1-84885-580-9. £16.99
Reviewed by Allister Mactaggart
In the rapidly growing critical literature on the films of David Lynch, Antony Todd’s book sets out to reconceptualise the figure of the author, using Lynch as a canonical example within post-classical Hollywood cinema. His aim, however, is not solely to defend or to revise the theory of authorship, instead he is “intent, rather, on presenting a history that takes into account the pleasure—produced through the coming together of various humanist and generic signs—that the authored text brings in the public consumption of post-classical art films” [8-9]. In so doing Todd sets out to reconcile a variety of critical approaches—auteur theory, reception theory, and poststructuralism—as a means of assessing the contemporary significance of the auteur in Hollywood.
The book picks out certain works for detailed attention, with chapters centred on Dune, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks (both the television series and the “prequel” film) and Mulholland Drive, in which Lynch’s other films are referred to but in less detail. Dune is singled out for special attention because it only came to be regarded as “A Film by David Lynch” retrospectively, after the release of Blue Velvet  and thus offers an interesting case study in respect of how Lynch came to be a “name”. Due to the complex history of the production and reception of the film, translated onto the screen from Frank Herbert’s iconic novel, Todd takes it as an opportunity to bring “some questions of post-structuralism and the burdening concerns around authorship and textual pleasure that Barthes raised” . This is both an interesting and a risky strategy. When Todd refers to auteur theory and its recent developments, together with reception theory, the writing appears both confident and more convincing than when he refers to poststructuralism and psychoanalysis. His conclusion in this section that “auteurism and writerly bliss do not deserve to be seen as wholly adversarial”  is less assured than some of his other arguments, and in promoting this idea he seems less surefooted than with his other theoretical and methodological approaches.
In contrast to this, the chapter on “Brand Lynch” offers an interesting analysis of how Lynch’s name became a dependable brand both within the film industry and amongst the public. Lynch has produced a number of advertisements which generally tend to be glossed over in biographical accounts of his work. It is therefore useful that the author has devoted a chapter assessing how Lynch’s name has been used as a wider signifier within broader capitalist enterprises. It is also telling that a figure such as Lynch can be incorporated so easily within the commercial system, whereby his status as an auteur can be used by American Express, for example, to transfer signifiers of artistic creativity onto a credit card.
The chapter on Blue Velvet rightly acknowledges the canonical status of this film in the making of Lynch’s auteur status, together with the debates that arose around the film in relation to postmodernism and feminism. Todd points out how it was Blue Velvet that established Lynch as an auteur, and how the tension between individual creativity and generic conventions are interwoven in the American film industry. This argument is followed throughout the book so that in the chapter on Mulholland Drive he suggests that the film is not “essentially auteurist any more than it is essentially generic” . He also traces how Lynch’s name fell from grace after Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and Wild at Heart, only to rise again with Lost Highway and the seemingly paradoxical The Straight Story. It is therefore somewhat surprising that INLAND EMPIRE is mentioned so briefly in the book. Lynch’s most recent film, albeit six years old now, offers a really useful platform to consider many of the points put forward by Todd. The film’s history of production, distribution and exhibition would seem to call out for much greater analysis than presented here. However, perhaps the comment that “INLAND EMPIRE delivers us to the point at which generic and auteurist relations become intractable”  highlights the complexities involved in seeking to bring together the divergent critical approaches used in the book when confronted with such a sui generis text.
What the book demonstrates well is the ways in which Hollywood, specifically, and Western capitalism, generally, have been able to take a theory which originated in academic circles and turn it into an industry category used to sell “product” in many forms. Todd briefly invokes the work of Walter Benjamin in his penultimate chapter, but perhaps Adorno might also have made an entrance here. For Todd, however, the current situation offers more hope than Adorno’s pessimism about the culture industry, and he sees the possibility of art and commerce coming together via “a critical enjoyment that will emerge in the writerly textual pleasures that the real and the imagined author proffers”  as a means of steering clear “of the divisive self-aggrandising critical hierarchies that have severed the auteurist text from the recording of materialist film histories of the past” .
Todd’s aim of maintaining an author and combining auteur theory with reception theory and poststructuralism appears to be predicated upon an assumption that the work of Barthes needs to be “reworked” as it does not fully reflect the current situation in Hollywood. In one sense this is no doubt correct, in that Hollywood’s stranglehold on the figure of an author appears to have reified into an unassailable industry category. However, what it might also suggest is that the full, radical implications of Barthes’s work have tended to be glossed over and, further, that Foucault’s notion of the “author function” demonstrates just how strong a hold this figure remains in contemporary capitalist culture.
In terms of the reception of Lynch’s work, the book concentrates upon critical and academic responses. However, Twin Peaks, for example, as Henry Jenkins pointed out at the time (using Michel de Certeau’s notion of “reading as poaching”), provided new opportunities for the series’ interpretive community to analyse and discuss each episode using the then current technology of the VCR and internet discussion groups. Audiences’ interactions with Lynch’s work via the internet would also be a useful source to analyse in conjunction with more academic approaches, and seems pertinent in the current situation whereby Lynch’s own pay-to-use website shows experimental work, and now appears to be devoted to his music rather than film, together with the various fan sites dedicated to Lynch’s work.
Authorship and the Films of David Lynch provides a useful opportunity to reflect upon the contemporary relationship between art cinema and commerce and the seemingly still necessary figure of the author. Todd seeks to provide a new way of thinking about the auteur in contemporary Hollywood, as a means of resolving some of the critical impasses that have arisen since Barthes and Foucault first confronted the figure of the author. What the book might prompt the interested reader to do is to go back to the founding texts and read them again closely, in conjunction with Lynch’s work, to ascertain for themselves how the issues brought forth several decades ago stand up to scrutiny in the contemporary situation. Lynch’s films (and other work) are certainly up to the challenge.
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