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Style as Substance – How David Lynch Toys with his Audience in ‘Rabbits’

What does the avant-garde director stand to gain by creating a show about nothing?

(No spoilers here. Proceed as you were.)

By Corey Runkel →

I write this post while watching David Lynch’s Rabbits (2002), a series of short horror films written and directed for the web. Lynch casts two regulars, Laura Harring and Naomi Watts, opposite one newbie, Scott Coffey, as man-sized rabbits in what appears to be the Blue Velvet apartment set. These short films are a minefield of Lynch’s signature aspects: a brisk, 54-minute stroll on YouTube turns over haunting vocal performances, the treatment of mundane life as a social experiment, and the unease of Angelo Badalamenti’s synthesizers. Rabbits insists that we question our own tastes and become comfortable with those answers (and those questions left inevitably unanswered).

It is a work of exceptional mystery and unexceptional tension. Though it offers no plot or characters that could create tension in a conventional story structure, Rabbits hints at larger, unobserved meanings. This by itself is standard Lynch fare. Lynch has an ear for the whispers of something grander, and an eye for clues that all is not as it appears. But these metaphysical MacGuffins are never as brash as the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, though they are every bit as suggestive. Characters do not look at one another—they peer, in flashy close-up, into the other’s uncertain eyes. Leading women are never conventionally pretty—they are fantastically upbeat and implausibly platinum, hysterical results of Hollywood’s insecure appeal to men’s wallets. Cars do not traverse from point to point—headlights sprint over dark strips of asphalt. These are cinematic clichés, stylistic tropes that can bolster substance when used eagerly and sincerely. But, in Lynch’s hands, what do these techniques sum to when they are not used eagerly or sincerely?

Set of *Rabbits*. The camera moves from this fixed position exactly once to zoom in on the telephone.

My working theory is that there is nothing substantive about Rabbits: Lynch’s mastery over cinematic cliché is taken to the brink, and over. It is common of Lynch films for characters to sprinkle in non sequiturs where particular reactions are expected; 1This is common to every Lynch film I have watched save The Elephant Man and Dune, his big-budget studio productions. See Eraserhead’s dinner scene for a classic example ( approx. 2:11 through 3:30). but in Rabbits, they utter nothing but non sequiturs. Their use of the English language makes no sense, stripping Rabbits of discernible plot. The Badalamenti score adds style to the sounds which English speakers will recognize as words but not as meaningful sentences. And, with some serious hilarity, Lynch adds a sitcom applause over the entrances of each character into this one-room apartment and laughtracks after sentences like “It is 7pm” and “I almost forgot.” These outbursts function as the television’s equivalent of the theatric choir, positioned authoritatively between action and audience to cue at-home viewers into the fact that Important or Funny happenings are taking place. The former device plays on a trope of sitcoms so successful that the mere entrance of their characters elicits rapturous applause.2If you’ve never seen this, it’s quite the spectacle. Kramer from Seinfeld does it best ( The latter mocks TV shows like the Big Bang Theory, which substitutes comic-book references for emotions and academic jargon for jokes. By the series’ end, the mention of a Star Trek actor or six-syllable word—no matter its relevance—became enough to split the audience’s sides and trigger widespread knee-slapping.

The discrepancy between Rabbits’ unintelligibility and its intelligible reception by the off-screen audience emphasizes the contingency of language and the ability of convention to invent meaning out of nothing.3I actually rewound a few scenes thinking I had missed something important when the audience’s laughter and applause soared in volume, only to find the same, utterly incomprehensible dialog. It is, for instance, indisputable that Badalamenti’s score is ominous, alerting viewers that Something Is Happening, or that audience laughter is comedic, alerting viewers that a Joke Is Occurring. But simply because a connotation is indisputable does not necessarily make it true. None would dispute the score’s ominousness or the audience’s laughter because the years of TV and film have taught that certain sounds connote certain kinds of moments. The work starts with children’s tales, where morality is stark and the audio cues are used to reinforce a grand, unified message. By grounding these otherwise unintelligible cues in extra-cinematic morality or realistic emotions, we learn to couple low, industrial sounds with alertness, and human laughter with comedy. Rabbits attempts to elicit those emotions by only employing the signifier of meaning, while ditching the plot points signified.

The *Persona*-like dream sequences. Nothing says for sure these rabbits sleep, but shifts in color and a demonic face that hovers in the upper left-hand corner match dream sequences in Lynch's other films.

Perhaps one can argue that the words which immediately precede and follow the Persona-like interpolated dream sequences are Important, but I am not convinced. I propose that, with Rabbits, David Lynch is toying with us. He wants to know if he can make pure entertainment, works without useful or familiar stories, but which nonetheless strap us into roller coasters of joy, despair, nostalgia, and humor. In his other works, this effect plays out seamlessly. I (the viewer) achingly try to pin down the plot, and then the meaning of the narrative he created. This process feels possible, but always out-of-reach by their dependence on unestablished metaphors and the sideways logic of dreams. But in Rabbits, the dissonance between signifier and signified makes the effect clear. In Rabbits, the laughter and music become parodic, pointing at the fact that in all language, cinematic or otherwise, our grunts are intelligible for no reasons other than Pavolvian repetition and the magic fizz of neurons.

Rabbits is an ironic rendering of American comedy, distancing itself from viewers with the rabbit heads and the unintelligible plot and the ultraweird dream sequences. But irony always maintains an admiration for the sincere; Rabbits, while distancing viewers, draws them close with the laughtrack and the all-too-familiar apartment. Lynch shows that you don’t need character development to feel something, an effect ambiguously interpretable as manipulation or evocation. By coupling these effects with unintelligible language, Lynch demonstrates that language is contingent, subject to chance, mutation, and adoption. He demonstrates that language is not subject to the kind of context-free criteria that analytic philosophers of language advocate, and even broader, that meaning is likewise only of people. This view refutes the idea that language, thought, or meaning is prior to people. A low-hanging interpretation of this view retreats into nihilism: why bother with something that isn’t True? But viewing the contingency of language, thought, or meaning as deficient compares that language, thought, or meaning to a standard that is totally unknowable (which in my book is tantamount to nonexistence). Watching Rabbits and understanding its critique of moral language, yet still reveling in its flashes of fun or ominous sensations, makes Lynch’s point clear. We can still find enjoyment and excite empathy without all the philosophical gobbledygook that serves as the basis of most criticism (what is the moral of the story — How can you like that character, they’re diabolical — The author simply fails to take aim at the important stuff in life). Language, thought, and meaning go where people go; acknowledging this feature would allow our imaginations to roam like David Lynch’s does.

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