Research Paper ‘Director’s Cut’

Click the link and it will send you to a pdf of my research paper Mental space on screen: through the examples of Last year in Marienbad, Stalker and Lost Highway as submitted for the MA.

Research Paper: Mental space on screen (Melanie Menard)


This paper explores how the different elements of a film work together to depict the mental space of the characters, that is, give the impression that the events shown on screen reflect their subjective experience, and the space shown on screen is a projection of their mental state. Through the examples of Alain Resnais’ Last year in Marienbad (1960), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996), I show how similar techniques recur in films made in completely different cultural contexts, but that have in common to picture the subjective world of the characters. These techniques are: narrating events as the characters think about them, remember them or imagine them rather than how they actually happen; a labyrinthine set design where the inside and the outside contaminate each other; lighting and colours that reflect the mental state of the characters; rhythm that traps the viewer inside the characters’ subjectivity and, finally, sound that creates a mood of its own rather than illustrating or simply enhancing the images, with sparse dialogues becoming an integral part of the sound design.

Keywords: space, subjectivity, cinema, cinematography, sound

A few sections of the research paper were removed to keep word count down. Mostly I rephrased and condensed, which accounts for the somewhat dry style, and the lack of sometimes explicit transitions between ideas. The dry style is fine by me, it’s a research paper not a literary work, but I think more explicit transitions between ideas would have made the paper more reader friendly. However, I had a word count problem and decided to sacrifice a bit of fluidity in order not to cut out relevant ideas. I think the 2 last sections ‘sound’ and ‘rhythm’ are written more fluidly, with more explicit transitions between ideas. That’s because I wrote my paper backward so I was not so worried about concision when I wrote them (the last sections, more technical, were written first, and the first sections, more general, were written after).

However I cut out 3 complete paragraphs because they were interesting but not so directly relevant. I put them here.

1)This was cut out because it was a discussion where neither me, nor the person whose idea I was discussing, were really convinced of what we said. We were both formulating hypothesis to open up discussion, without being personally convinced of these hypothesis. So it was interesting but non essential.

Vida & Petrie (1994, p190) discuss Tarkovsky’s habit to shoot dream scenes in black and white in most of his films, and compare it to Stalker:

‘The choice of black and white for dreams may reflect the conventional idea that most people dream in black and white, but more probably implies, in line with Tarkovsky’s belief in the essential “reality” of black and white, that the inner truth of our experience is to be found within our dreams. In Stalker the basic pattern is reversed, with black and white creating the sordid reality of the everyday world of the future and color representing the potential escape from this offered by the Zone.’

This leads to an interesting issue. The only sequence in the Zone that contains monochrome shots (sepia rather than black and white) is indeed the dream sequence. If characters are dreaming, they may approach their inner truth. It is possible, then, that the Zone as a whole offers fake hope and illusion rather a gateway to inner reality, an interpretation that could be corroborated by the characters’ final decision not to enter the room. Maybe the Zone is, like in Lost Highway, the world of illusion and fantasy, rather than the world of hope and spirituality.

2)this was a transition between the ‘rhythm’ and ‘sound’ sections. It contained an interesting reference for further research, but was non essential to the subject.

Quoting Vlada Petric, Vida & Petrie (1994, p240-241) list ‘cinematic technique’ which can be used to simulate the experience of dream in films. Tarkovsky uses several of them, not only to depict literal dreams, but to ‘throw a dreamlike aura over virtually the whole film.’  ”Camera movement through space [contributing to] a kinesthetic sensation”, ”illogical and paradoxical combinations of objects, characters and settings”, ”dissolution of spatial and temporal continuity”, ”ontological authenticity of motion picture photography [which] compels the viewer to accept even the most illogical events … as real” together correspond to the combined action of discontinuity editing and slow rhythm described in this section. “Color juxtaposition [which] emphasizes the unusual appearance of dream imagery” has been discussed in the previous section. ”Sight and sound counterpoint” will be discussed in the next section.

3)In the conclusion, I discussed the philosophy of art of the 3 directors, and the way a film interacts with its audience. This was interesting but not directly linked to the subject, so was cut out.

When all these elements are combined, we get what Deleuze (1985, p35) calls a ‘conscience-camera’, that is a camera that ‘subordinates the description of a space to the functions of thought’ and ‘enters’ inside ‘mental relationships’. ‘Objective and subjective’, ‘real and imaginary’ then become ‘indiscernible’. The camera is no longer descriptive: instead it ‘questions, responds, objects, provokes, theorises, hypothesises and experiments’. This new nature of film allows new possibilities (Deleuze, 1985, p210): it ‘elaborates a circuit between the author, the film and the spectator’. This circuit has two ways of communication that work together: first a ‘sensory shock’ that ‘elevates the images to conscious thought’, then thought that brings the viewer back to the images and gives them an ’emotional shock’. This ‘coexistence’ between ‘the highest degree of conscience’ and ‘the deepest level of the unconscious’ is what makes, for Deleuze, the power of ‘Time-image’ cinema.

This vision of the dual nature of film, intellectual but also unconscious, sensual, emotional or irrational, the later allowing a direct connection between the artist and the audience, is shared by Tarkovsky, Lynch, and Robbe-Grillet. Tarkovsky (2008, p176) states that ‘cinema is the one art form where the author can see himself as the creator of an unconditional reality, quite literally of his own world’ and ‘a film is an emotional reality’ perceived by ‘the audience’ ‘as a second reality’, which ‘allows for an utterly direct, emotional, sensuous perception of the work’. For Lynch (interviewed by Rodley, 2005, p140), films are ‘a subconscious thing’. In an interview together with Resnais, Robbe-Grillet (Resnais & Robbe-Grillet, 1967, 170) says that art is ‘a reminiscence’ or ‘an illumination’ of ‘the world’ and that it ‘interests us because we find in it ready-made the things to which we feel impelled by the emotions reality has generated in us’, and Resnais agrees with him on that. Robbe-Grillet also says that ‘when an image strikes [him] in the cinema, it is always because [he] recognise[s] [his] own experience’ in it, and this shared experience is what makes ‘communication’ possible between the artist and the audience, through the medium of the work.

Film Noir / Sartre on the Fantastic / Lost Highway & Mulholland Drive

In her book about film noir “Power and paranoia: history, narrative and the American cinema, 1940-1950”, Dana Polan quotes Jean-Paul Sartre on the Fantastic:

“The fantastic is no longer for modern man anything but a way of seeing his own reality reflected back at him.” And Sartre goes on to find the traces of this fantastic precisely in the resistance of everyday human objects to everyday human projects in an ordered world in which “each [tool] represents a piece of worked matter, their ensemble is controlled by a manifest order, and the signification of this order is an end, an end that is myself or, more precisely, the human in me, the consumer in me”.”

“Objects don’t have the mission of serving ends but rather of relentlessly manifesting a fleeting and unsettling finality: thus, this labyrinth of hallways, doors, and stairways that lead nowhere, innumerable signposts that dot routes and signify nothing.”

I like the way this quotation refers to the warped spaces in David Lynch’s movies or Resnais’ “ Last year in Marienbad”.

“As Sartre notes in his analysis of the fantastic, much of the horrific uncanniness of a new fantastic art of everyday life derives from its disturbance of systems of communicated meaning; uncannily anticipating Lacan’s argument. Sartre suggests that horror comes from a letter that reaches its destination, but reaches it wrongly.”

Jean-Paul Sartre, “Aminidab, ou du fantastique considere comme une langue”, Situations (Paris: Gallimard, 1947)

In “More than night: film noir in its contexts”, James Naremore talks about david Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive”:

“In regard to Lost Highway, Zizek argues that “one should absolutely insist that we are dealing with a real story (of the impotent husband, etc.) that, at some point (that of the slaughter of Renee), shifts into psychotic hallucination in which the hero reconstructs the parameters of the Oedipal triangle that again make him potent. … [We] return to reality, precisely when … the impossibility of the hallucination reasserts itself””

About the witchy hobo living near the dumpster at Winkie’s Diner in “Mulholland Drive”:
” “He’s the one who’s doing it”, a character says at one point, and at the end of the film we see the derelict in possession of the blue metallic cube that provided a hinge between “dream” and “reality”. Whatever his or her symbolic function might be (abject reality? the Lacanian “Real”? the Freudian id or “it”? the dirt and poverty we’re afrais to recognize?), he os she exists both within and beyond the time-space inhabited by Betty and Diane, and he or she might well be dreaming everything.”

“Diane dreams (or in my view the film dreams) that she is Betty, a fantasmatic ego ideal who achieves blissful sexual love with Rita; afterward, Rita takes Betty to the beautifully tawdry, patently artificial Club Silencio, a melancholic netherworld where fantasy begins to break down and where, in McGowan’s words, “we experience the loss of a relationship we have never had”. Unlike the male character in Lost Highway, Diane elaborates her fantasy to the point where Betty attains a moment of fulfillment, but this entirely imaginary experience is followed by a scene of painful mourning, then by the black hole of the unrepresentable, and then by an awakening into desire – a repetitive, excruciating longing for an object always out of reach, which can be ended only in death.”

“like all Lynch’s films, Mulholland Dr. is affectively complex, oscillating between humor noir and pathos, between horror and sweetness, between irony and sincerity. No director aside from Hitchcock has been able to invest subjective travelling shots with such uncanny and suspenseful effects, as when Betty first moves through her apartment at Havenhurst or when she and Rita walk along a decaying courtyard toward Diane Selwyn’s bungalow.”