Spooky Action at a Distance: David Lynch, Split Edit Realism, and Other Mysteries

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There is a moment in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) that cuts from Lula’s (Laura Dern’s) feet stomping in excitement on a bed to those same feet stomping in dance mode in a bar to the sound of the song “Slaughterhouse” by Powermad. The moment is actually a split edit; the sound and image from the first shot (the bed) does not carry over simultaneously to the sound and image from the second shot (the bar dancing). Instead, the sound leads the image: we hear the emerging roar of the song just before the visual edit takes place, while Lula is still on the bed. The edit is propelled by Sailor’s (Nicolas Cage’s) deadpan question to Lula, “Those toenails about dry yet, sweetheart?”

Another split edit comes in Blue Velvet, just as Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) finds himself getting into deep river trouble. The crew, led by Frank (Dennis Hopper) is about to leave Ben’s (Dean Stockwell’s) place. (As a side note, before getting to the split edit, there’s a sly visual joke, as Frank utters his infamous line “Now it’s dark” right after Ben turns off his light, giving Frank’s ominous words an almost comic meaning that competes with the escalating menace of the scene.) Then, squaring off against the camera as if to suggest he would be the last man standing after a nuclear holocaust, he screams, “Let’s fuck! I’ll fuck anything that moves!” And then he laughs, and disappears suddenly and magically from the screen. We switch to a shot of the road speeding by at night, the yellow caution lines disappearing into the bottom of the frame, illuminated by car headlights. But just before we see that–while the shot still holds us in Ben’s apartment–we hear the sound of squealing tires, announcing sonically the blacktop-at-night scene just a second or two before we see it.

It’s hard for me to write about David Lynch and Thomas Y. and A. because that was a very dangerous time, a time when I felt that hot cauldron beneath my feet. We—all of us enduring the mental excesses of grad school at a university falling apart under the weight of bad ideas—had been reading Jonathan Edwards’s 1741 sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God for a seminar on the religious experience in America, where Edwards’s words became super-charged colliding like spooked atomic particles against our postmodern skepticism. Secretly, Edwards’s sermon frightened me. There were so many traps in his writing, and the easiest solution was laughter, but that was temporary.

“It is no security to wicked men for one moment, that there are no visible means of death at hand,” he said. “The unseen, unthought-of ways and means of persons going suddenly out of the world are innumerable and inconceivable. Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering, and there are innumerable places in this covering so weak that they will not bear their weight, and these places are not seen. The arrows of death fly unseen at noon-day.”

“Now it’s dark,” Frank says, murmuring to himself, a moment of what psychologists call insight: he knows that something wrong with him, and that he’s going into the dark place, which make his actions even more terrifying. In “Julia Kristeva’s Face” I wrote that, in another era, I would have suspected that A. might be an informer. What I didn’t reveal in that essay (what I was afraid to reveal, even to the editors of The Rumpus in the private note that accompanied the piece) was that, as it turns out, A. was an informer, for a shadowy group whose goals remain obscure to me, even to this day. As I said, it turns out that A. was uninterested in the short films of David Lynch that night at Penn State because she had already seen them, but what I didn’t say (and am only revealing now out of a perverse sense of obligation to some historical memory that is inconsequential because no “official” history of this group exists yet) is that after I discovered the Kristeva book with the reversed cover image for sale on that piece of plywood laying on the sweaty grass on the green lawn of A.’s apartment, A. invited me inside. I leaned my bike against a tree and, book in hand, followed her.

Already at this point I could feel the undertow of Lynch’s movies tugging at me. Back then I knew nothing of split edits and so had no framework for understanding what was about to happen in A.’s apartment. She threw a blanket over the books on the lawn, and we went inside. Blankets—not unlike the one she had just tossed over the books outside—hung over the windows in place of drapes. It was dark. The furniture—a few ladder-back chairs, a white wicker loveseat with no cushions, a round table piled with newspapers and magazines, a floor lamp—was pushed back against the walls. The room, for lack of a better word, was enigmatic. The pall of danger hung over it, and the ceiling itself was so obscured in darkness that it seemed as if there was nothing above us except black, empty space. A. didn’t (thankfully) invite me to sit down. She didn’t invite me to do anything. In fact, for several minutes she was so still, so silent that she seemed to have disappeared completely, and there I was standing alone in this strange, dark apartment that felt like some sort of pressure chamber, as if the blankets on the walls were not covering windows but tightly sealed portals into the outside world, which I yearned for suddenly now, the world of grass and wind and bees and the warm summer sun.

But of course A. hadn’t disappeared. She was standing, instead, near the round table, in a thicket of shadows that seemed permanently fixed in the room. I remembered distinctly sitting behind her watching those Lynch shorts a few weeks earlier, and the way the side of her face seemed to flicker in and out of existence to the dim blue light of the movie projector. You should know where it is, A., said suddenly and for a terrible and tender moment I thought she might do something else, but instead she reached into the pile of junk on the table and pulled out a simple red shoe box. These people, she said, waving the box in the air, they are blacker than a hole inside. And that’s when, by complete surprise, she told me about the revolutionaries who had “disappeared” her mother in 1971, when A. was only seven-years old. How she expected me to keep up with the reckless flow of her words (which frankly struck me more like a hasty confession) I don’t know. It was all very dramatic: the graphic nature of her story, her standing there in the shadows with her long arms, holding the shoe box in the air between us like some sort of totem, and the really sickening feeling I had that I never should have followed her into this room.

It was only years later, re-watching Blue Velvet and then Wild at Heart on DVD, that it came back to me, what happened next with A. The room was very still, very quiet, until there was the sound of something swooshing, like the soft noise a canvas tent might make if it collapsed. I looked to the source of the sound—the largest window in the apartment—and saw as the enormous blanket that had been covering it slid to the floor in silence, flooding the room with sunlight. At the time I don’t think it even registered with me that I had heard the blanket fall before I saw it fall. A split edit. The scene changing suddenly from dark to light, but the sound and the image not matching up. Here, it’s yours now, A. said, and shoved the red shoe box (the shade of red reminded be of the Indiana Ave. card in Monopoly) into my hands and fled the room like a vampire, though of course she was not afraid of the sun at all, having just minutes before been standing in it on the front grass of her apartment building as I rode my bike. Just before fleeing, an expression passed across her face that was so beautiful and sad that it furrowed her brow, as if for that moment the entire beauty of the known world accumulated there, and how I wished I could reach out and gently draw my thumb across the caterpillar fur of her eyebrow. The room, bathed in orange-yellow light, looked as if creatures with yellow blood and guts had exploded. A hyper-realistic oil painting on the wall that had gone unnoticed before—a woman in a long red cape whose deep folds practically undulated like slow rolling waves across a deep and immense ocean—seemed to foretell the dawning of some new dark era.

I followed A. out of the apartment, chasing her down the stairs and out into the Martian Chronicles sunlight (it hadn’t been this bright for weeks) as she cut across the street and headed towards the sloping greens of West Park, where just the previous week a boy had been knifed to death. As she trailed away in the distance I had a feeling that the shoebox contained something dangerous—perhaps a bomb that was set to go off at any moment—and that that’s why A. had fled. It’s true that the events of the past few hours (Kristeva’s reversed book cover image; the darkened apartment draped with blankets to keep evil from seeping out; the Lynchian split edit, followed by A.’s escape) had really disoriented me, and I finally gave up on A., and sat down, out of breath, on a park bench beneath the doomy shade of an enormous Oak tree. Beside me was a thin homeless man staring into what seemed to be a worn and crinkled  empty brown paper bag, the sort of which that mothers and fathers pack their children’s school lunches in.

“Oh Sailor, honey, I hope seeing that girl die didn’t jinx us,” Lulu says in Wild at Heart, unraveling a complete universe of truth with the pull of a thread. The movie is a weird sort of triumph (of the sort you don’t want to claim) because it balances so precariously on the unpoliced border-fence between sincerity and irony that periodically rises up and something important happens. What a terrible (“I hope seeing that girl die . . .”) and honest thing to say. By this time, I was desperate, and the park bench sagged and the old drunk beside me seemed to have completely lost himself in that paper bag, as if the whole history of the universe was in there, reduced to the size of a pea. The shoebox seemed to vibrate there on my lap, like a dying wasp, and I imagined opening it right there and unleashing a terrible fury and blaze that was meant for some apocalyptic future, like some carefully erased sentence slowly re-appearing across the page. My hands trembled at the thought of opening the box, not so much for what I would find inside but for the irrevocable action of it all, and now comes the moment when I must tell you what A. said to me back in the apartment, standing in the impossible shadows near the table, just before she grabbed the shoebox off the table and shoved it into my hands. Don’t let on you’re being watched, she said.

Of the several things A. told me in her apartment the two that sent a chill up my spine and that continue to haunt me were: Don’t let on you’re being watched, and Here, it’s yours now. It had grown dark very suddenly, and I left the park bench with the box and walked alone back toward A.’s apartment where I had left my bike. I cut through the old part of town, with its crooked alleys and hidden art galleries and stopped at Zeno’s—where once the bartender had taken pity at just the right moment in my life, a moment when nothing but the pity of a kind stranger would have saved me—and ordered a cold beer. There was a baseball game on the television (the Mets losing to the Braves as usual, whose Tom Glavine that year worked like a terrorist on the mound) and the light in the thin bar was the darkest of oranges, as if an enormous door to hell were cracked open only a hair. I found myself thinking about Julia Kristeva again, just like that, and how that black and white photo of her on the cover of Powers of Horror seemed like a dire warning to anyone who cared to notice. The bartender (Bill was his name, I think) read my mind (although that was part of his job and the duty of every decent bartender around the world) and set another glass of beer down before me on a fresh white napkin, embossed with some symbol that seemed familiar but that I couldn’t place, just as I had finished my first one. He had the old eyes of a man who, it seemed, had suffered the deepest and most painful sort of betrayal, and for that he was our comrade, the comrade to all of us who came to his bar.

Don’t let on you’re being watched, A. had warned. Watched by whom, and why? There was a moment—and I’m just remembering this now—when Laura Dern in Wild At Heart glances at the camera, not in a self-conscious, ironic way, but in a desperate and serious way, as if she understood—too late—that the film she was starring in was nothing less than a long, unfurling, celluloid secret message. At some point during the night the professor who had vowed never to teach Faulkner to northerners came in to Zeno’s, stinking of gin, wearing a ridiculous, immaculately fitted, dusty three-piece suit, damp with sweat beneath the armpits, and tried to strike up an argument with me, calling me “boy” in his exaggerated southern accent and whispering sexual insults about the bartender. He left after I refused to open the shoebox for him, which by that time—it must have been two or three in the morning, because the insects in the trees outside were screaming at a resurrection pitch—I realized that the baseball game was not yet over, and that it was into the 17th inning, and that it would not be over until I left. Except that I was afraid to leave the bar. Literally afraid. I understood now the meaning of A.’s warning about being watched: now that I had the shoebox, I was no longer alone. In those moments—just before I left the bar—I remembered one more detail from A.’s blackened apartment, which was this: the dampness of A.’s eyes that suggested she had been crying, crying because she understood that opening that shoebox would be like breaking the seal to the blanket-covered window in her apartment, letting some terrible blank darkness seep in.

David Lynch has said that “I did not feel that Blue Velvet was so strange—in fact, I always said that it was my most normal film. It’s an American picture.” In one of the deleted sequences, “Dinner at the Williams’s,” (the images are included on the special edition DVD) Sandy (Laura Dern) and her boyfriend Mike watch television with Jeffrey in the basement. In one frame, Mrs. Williams (Sandy’s mom) brings some dessert in on a tray. In another frame, after Mike pretends to leave the room, Sandy and Jeffrey lean across their couches, the blackness of an open doorway behind them, and talk about the Dorothy Vallens case: “I’ve found out some things,” Jeffrey says, “nothing really for certain. There are some strange people involved,” and in those lines there’s a recognition that “nothing really for certain” constitutes an entire method of knowing. Or not-knowing. The detective’s job is to move forward towards the unachievable, collecting and arranging clues and evidence and testimony in the service of some truth—any truth—that will make sense of the monstrous actions of others. When A. handed me that red shoebox, which to this day remains unopened on my bookshelf, she committed a monstrous action, and that’s why she ran, ran away from her dark apartment with curtains not to keep the beasts out, but to keep them in. That’s a mystery, right there, akin to when, in 1947, Albert Einstein, in a letter to Max Born, expressed skepticism about quantum entanglement, referring to it as “spooky action at a distance.”[i]

“Spooky action at a distance.” David Lynch’s split edits, where the sound arrives before the image that creates the sound, is some distant cousin to this spooky action. And A.’s action that day—handing me the box while saying Here, it’s yours now—was in itself a weird sort of time-space game of tag, making me “It.” But was is “It”? I walked out of Zeno’s bar, finally, and the night greeted me not with the terrorizing blackness that I feared but with soft air and the smell of honeysuckle. Before gong home, I made my way back up to A.’s apartment. In the distance, in the moonlight, I saw my bike. I could tell that it had moved by someone, for it was leaning against a different tree, but even this didn’t spook me, because I understood now that my life, for some uncertain time, would be marked with small, strange occurrences like this. Carrying the shoebox beneath my arm, I approached A.’s apartment in the dark, positioning myself so that I could see the window from which the blanket had fallen. I leaned against a tree, set the shoebox at my feet, and lit up a cigarette (the first one I had smoked in years) given to me by the bartender as one of his small gestures of camaraderie. And then I waited. For what? For something to happen at the window, of course, like in any good detective story. I learned as a child never to stare for too long into an animal’s eyes, as it might awaken or provoke some dormant violence, and I thought about that as I watched the window. Was I provoking something? Was the window alive in some inscrutable way, in the same way that Julia Kristeva’s face was alive on the cover of Powers of Horror? “The unseen, unthought-of ways and means of persons going suddenly out of the world are innumerable,” Jonathan Edwards preached, in his own, unintentional way predicting modern film editing.

At some point during the night, I began to sense that I was the watched, not the watcher. The apartment building was completely dark, except for the faint blood-orange glow of A.’s window which, for all I know, may have been a reflection of the distant sunrise. In any case, it seemed to take on the semblance of an eye, fixed in some pestilential way upon me. It was only then, my body penetrated (as absurd as this sounds) by the gaze of the window, that I realized that the shoebox A. had given me was not an object of danger, but of salvation. I scooped the box up from the ground beside me and dashed across the dark apartment lawn to my bicycle, terrified in such a way that made me laugh openly that I would be dragged back by some unseen force, and rode like a ten-year old through the empty night, one hand on the handle bars, the other clutching the shoe box to my chest, against my very own beating heart.

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[i] Here is the larger context of Einstein’s “spooky action” phrase in his letter to Born, dated 3 March 1947: “I cannot make a case for my attitude in physics which you would consider at all reasonable. I admit, of course, that there is a considerable amount of validity in the statistical approach which you were the first to recognize clearly as necessary given the framework of the existing formalism. I cannot seriously believe in it because the theory cannot be reconciled with the idea that physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky action at a distance. I am, however, not yet firmly convinced that it can really be achieved with a continuous field theory, although I have discovered a possible way of doing this which so far seems quite reasonable. The calculation difficulties are so great that I will be biting the dust long before I myself can be fully convinced of it.” (From The Born-Einstein Letters, 1916-1955: Friendship, Politics and Physics in Uncertain Times. New York: Macmillan, 1971 [2005], p. 155.)


Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →