Nightlies: David Lynch’s Composition

Though David Lynch’s directorial “style” is synonymous with the eccentric and the bizarre, in Twin Peaks there aren’t many unusual cinematographic experiments with colour or texture—no monochrome, bleached out frames, or color-saturation (which really became popular from the late-1990s onward). But what we do see throughout the series are interesting tracking shots, angles, and—most notably—“composition” or use of the screen space itself, where key objects and actions are arranged in such a way as to develop the story line (perhaps in a subtle way).

This sort of technique was made famous by D. W. Griffiths. For example, there’s an early scene in Birth of a Nation (1915) where, after the dialogue frames (common in silent films) describe the North-South conflict of post-Civil War America, the camera pans down from two humans in conversation to a shot of two dogs play-fighting. Here, the composition makes use of other objects in the camera frame to reinforce internecine war (though the subtlety is spoiled a little when “Hostilities” appears in the dialogue box).

Red is a key colour pattern in Twin Peaks (something I’ll cover in more detail in a future post), and you can use classic literature as a guide to contemplate what red might signify. (Red lips, red dresses and shoes, red curtains, red lights, red-red-red. It’s everywhere. Then there’s black…) But, while stage-set colour is key for Lynch, so is the arrangement of basic objects. There are some neat shots that I tracked recently—using screenshots—that offer some examples of Lynch’s expert use of composition.

Here’s one:

Screenshot 2015-10-04 at 8.39.33 PM

In this sequence, the four men are searching for a cabin in the woods, and the music evokes the atmosphere of a spaghetti western; each man enters the screen space and stops, angling in such a way to evoke male heroism (though obviously, in a parodic way).

In another instance, a character (Audrey, as it happens) is snooping through her boss’s office, when the camera picks up a detail on the wall: a “CIVIC AWARD” framed in glass. Right after this, we discover that the boss is actually a recruiter for a brothel, so the composition works in an ironic way.

There are countless other examples.

So while Lynch is known for his experimentation in terms of storywriting and plot, his directing and his cinematographers are simply employing classic camera techniques (first made famous by Griffiths and others about 100 years ago), and doing a damn good job of it.

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4 comments

  1. It’s a wonderful article Adam 🙂

    I am David Lynch fan. I completely agree with your analysis, though I have not seen Griffith’s work. I could not manage to watch Twin Peaks fully as I easily get bored 🙂

    Have you seen Inland Empire?

    I have shared this beautiful article on social media.

    Love and light ❤

    Anand 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I have seen Inland Empire; probably the weirdest of Lynch’s films (and that’s saying something), though a good one. I’m quite fond of Eraserhead (where we see for the first–and not the last–time a strangely comported blonde woman, singing an odd but somehow compelling song, shuffling along a stage… does it have red curtains?! I can’t recall…)

      Yes, Lynch is one of my faves.

      Thanks for the kind words!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t think anything is colored in Eraserhead. I liked that. Epitome of a disturbing film without much blood and gore. But yes that is a pattern in Lynch films. Women, beautiful, singing and abused 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re right – and I realized that I had (unintentionally) generalized about Lynch’s cinematography, went back and added in “Twin Peaks.” (And I suppose there is some colour-saturation in the show when we’re in the Red Lodge.) The one bit of “gore” I recall from Eraserhead are the bleeding chickens… ugh.

        Like

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