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A David Lynch a-ha Moment

One of the most iconic music videos from the 1980s and MTV’s rocket ascendancy to cultural influence is “Take on Me” by a-ha, directed by Steve Barron, released in 1985. For a certain generation, it only takes the first two or three notes to fire up an affective time machine. Yet, the song and its music video in particular offer much more than mere nostalgia. There is a fascinating resonance “Take on Me” creates when it’s put into conversation with the cinematic works of David Lynch. Thinking these media objects together illuminates and elevates what was always already there in a-ha’s video.

At the same time, this comparative experiment can spark discussions of Lynch’s work in conjunction with similar visual and storytelling gestures that the a-ha video shows were circulating more generally in the social imaginary of the mid-1980s. While there’s lots of analysis of Lynch’s works on their own terms, lots of analysis of Lynch’s explicit allusions to other cinema (Hitchcock, Wilder, etc), and lots of social media posts that only juxtapose screenshots from films and paintings that rhyme with screen shots in Lynch’s works, this article presents a series of Lynch-rhyming moments across the narrative arc of “Take on Me” to illustrate how Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire resonate with widespread cultural trends that were permeating more mainstream cultural productions in the 1980s.

Specifically, the shot-by-shot exploration of “Take on Me” that follows points to things like a temporal melange of the text’s present and 1950s styles, problematic representations of masculinities and femininities, slippery borders between mediations/recordings of life, desires, and fantasies, portals between adjacent dimensions, and postmodern meta-media approaches to the text’s own imbrication in a commercial industry. All of these issues are already there in a-ha’s “Take on Me” video, and they are all critical points of focus that scholars and fans alike have brought to Lynch’s films.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that all of David Lynch’s work from Blue Velvet on takes place inside the “Take on Me” universe. I’m not even suggesting Lynch has ever seen a-ha’s video. Whether he has or has not seen it isn’t relevant to the point of this article. The point of this thought experiment is to consider more deeply how Lynch’s films join broader cultural conversations, both in the 1980s and in the wake of that decade. Lynch’s self-circulated image tends to isolate his life and work from the social imaginary, and a good deal of fan engagement gets invested into uncovering what he has and hasn’t watched or liked, yet it’s extremely useful not to accept the sui generis portrait of the director uncritically.

If you’re not shying away from this idea, let’s take on the video and all the things we’ve got to remember from it in the context of Lynch’s cinema.

First Stop: Classic American Diner, For Coffee

The protagonist (Bunty Bailey)—who looks something like Laura Palmer with a dash of Theresa Banks—sits alone at a booth, already drifting into fantasy reveries when she’s served a cup of joe by a woman cast and costumed along the same continuum as Irene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. That the protagonist appears forlorn as she turns to fantasy, conjures images of Betty/Diane in Mulholland Drive and the psychic energy of Winkie’s in that Lynch film.

In terms of the 1980s, the scene is an intriguing time capsule. Cheap bottomless cups of coffee were an affordable, and cool from a certain point of view, vehicle for spending some time in a special kind of space. Having a long coffee in a diner blurs the borders between private and public. The video’s protagonist is in a shared social space, and this diner is quite full as revealed by other shots. Yet she is simultaneously inside her private personal fantasy, which literally leads her inside the magazine medium that channels her fantasy.

From Sandy and Jeffrey discussing the case in a diner in Blue Velvet to the absolutely central role the RR Diner plays in Twin Peaks, David Lynch has consistently created memorable, powerful scenes that tap into the public-private dynamic of this setting. Audrey Horne’s dancing reverie in the RR presents a woman turning her full mind-body to a fantasy as she works through emotional challenges. Bobby and Shelly acknowledge the public social element of the diner by performing a play to be seen by Norma and any diners before they can enter their private personal fantasy as he drives her home.

A woman reads newspaper comics at a diner while a waitress serves her a cup of coffee.

Second Stop: Dimensions Connecting

Still in the diner, but now adjacent dimensions connect with each other. Whether the protagonist is daydreaming or not, the illustrated hand that emerges from her magazine and beckons her to enter embodies her fantasy. The hand is a metonymy for a pleasure she has lost and/or longs to experience. We don’t have access to her backstory, so the drive to fantasy is unidentified as it bursts through the border between magazine and diner spaces. Her reaction is double: to gaze at the hand in amazement first and then to gaze around the diner to see if the other customers are privy to her fantasy bursting into this place, this dimension. Recall the conversation in Winkie’s in Mulholland Drive. Though the emotional registers in Lynch’s film and this music video are extremely distinct, the cross-dimensional breach in this public/private space rhymes. A double anxiety about seeing and being seen infuse both scenes, and even as the emotional registers differ they both convey a sense of chagrin at having one’s dreams and fantasies exposed to others. The diner takes on a sort of therapy space role.

Plus, there’s a little bit of a Laura Palmer meanwhile-hands vibe going on there. Again, the idea is not to assert a direct influence across filmmakers. Rather, noting the power of the hand reaching through dimensions here helps bring into view a broad context of hands crossing dimensions that several moments in Lynch’s films joins as well as a point of contrast to help us think what specifically does Lynch do differently when he directs hands across dimensions.

an illustrated hand reaches into reality from a newspaper ad towards the woman at the diner table.

Third Stop: Embracing The Fantasy

She embraces her fantasy and passes through the dark portal into the comics dimension. Once inside, she and the world are two-dimensional, black-and-white. But this alien form does not last long. As the object of her fantasy (Morten Harket) moves through this dimension with her a window appears. On one side, the two-dimensional, black-and-white; on the other side, three-dimensional, color. The camera alternates its position from one side of the window to the other with an affect that’s a similar, if simpler, version of the dancing couples that open Mulholland Drive. Both Lynch’s film and the music video go meta in the moment to draw spectators’ attention to the hyper-mediated state of the texts. Music remediated through cinema, life remediated through music and music-as-cinema. Note that the opening of Mulholland Drive is a sort of music video, and of course the most potent sequence of mediation and dimensions unfolds in Club Silencio, where Rebekah del Rio’s performance is a music video that embraces and exploits its hypermediating nature.

The protagonists’s fantasy man, with his luscious slicked hair, white t-shirt, and dark denim ensemble strikingly resembles a number of men in Lynch films. This is a 1980s meets 1950s fusion, a nostalgic fantasy that longs for a different decade yet with the musical stylings and other accoutrements of the 1980s. It’s a sophisticated version of a similar desire to have the 1950s in the 1980s expressed by Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future, which travels from 1985 to 1955. The visual style generates a weird temporality in “Take on Me” and several Lynch films. The fact that weird temporalities that are much more than simple nostalgia are in the water beyond Blue Velvet and other Lynch films should provoke Lynch lovers to read his wardrobe choices in conversation with other texts like “Take on Me” in order to analyze the complex mechanics of timelines, nostalgias, and styles in Blue Velvet and beyond. In particular, the fantasy object here invokes a brooding masculinity along the lines of James Dean. Across Lynch’s works, men who ping the 1950s with wardrobe and hairdos have fluctuated in masculinities. Noting the gesture in this music video crystallizes the fact that Lynch repeats the image but as an ongoing experiment with how men perform being men.

The singer stands inside an illustrated comic book panel.

Fourth Stop: A Woman In Trouble

The fantasy man races cars. Associated visually with cars and car maintenance, he brings Pete Dayton of Lost Highway to mind. Like Pete and Mr. Eddy, there’s another man in “Take on Me” malevolently pursuing not only the fantasy man but the protagonist. The muscle who backs up the villain dons a racing helmet with the number 13, an inverse of Lynch’s affinity for good luck numbers. This narrative turn is steeped in gender trouble as it suggests women’s fantasies involve and perhaps embrace physical violence. “Take on Me” does not appear to provide critical distance on its woman in trouble element. The woman in trouble plot points of Lynch’s works solicited important debates over gender representations across his oeuvre. Noting the woman in trouble rhyme in this music video provides a mainstream use of the trope against which to evaluate Lynch’s uses of the same trope in the 1980s and in the subsequent decades as gender representation has been increasingly noted and critiqued.

A detailed face of a man holding an illustrated wrench on what is otherwise loose pencil marks.

Fifth Stop: Interdimensional Tear

From the portals in Twin Peaks and the blue box in Mulholland Drive to the cigarette-burned hole in Inland Empire, Lynch’s works prominently feature interdimensional tears. Places where people become aware of, and at times attempt to use, the fact that multiple dimensions coexist.

In “Take on Me,” the fantasy man opens a dark hole in the white wall when the threatening thugs have the couple cornered. He conjures a way for her to escape while sacrificing himself for her return to safety. So, the protagonist’s fantasy comes to its end with a gesture of chivalry and ultimate separation.

The gesture torques the devastating fantasy-dissolution of “You’ll never have me” in Lost Highway. Most significantly, the gesture aligns with Agent Cooper’s decision to pass through the interdimensional tear in the final parts of Twin Peaks: The Return, a move that separates him from people he knows and loves in order to help a woman in trouble. Once more, by comparing the mainstream example of “Take on Me” with Lynch’s chivalric white knight moves, we increase our capacity to assess the latter’s bending, buckling, and at times breaking of gender conventions on screen. In many ways, this comparative work elevates Lynch’s films as it highlights the depth he brings to women in trouble and men believing they are the ones to save them. The fact that this music video activates a number of the same ideas, images, and formal techniques as Lynch makes it an all the more poignant thought experiment.

pencil drawing of two people touching arms while on a scribbled background..

Sixth Stop: Ceiling Fan

The video returns us to the diner dimension with a jump cut to a closeup shot of a whirring ceiling fan. The fan is an icon to remind the spectator of fandom. The protagonist is such an a-ha fan. I’m watching this video because I’m such an a-ha fan. Twin Peaks fans project into the series. The fan is an icon of circularity, yet a going in circles that isn’t pointlessly tautological. In its cycling, the fan produces a wind, a wind that moves.

A close-up on a spinning ceiling fan.

Seventh Stop: Smudged Skin

Like the carbon-coated woodsmen and the remarkably unremarked-upon by Agents Stanley and Desmond black-smudged skin of Theresa Banks’s corpse in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the protagonist of “Take on Me” returns to the diner marked. Her face and clothing bear the traces of the scuffle, and these same traces point to the graphite of the illustrated dimension she has just left.

The smudged skin is a reminder that the alternate dimensions of the story are also alternate media–the story is a series of recordings within recordings. Recordings that affect real bodies, fantasies that affect real people. The woodsmen are objects out of terrible fantasies, but they impact real bodies, real lives. Theresa Banks was Leland Palmer/BOB’s fantasy object, and she was scorched in dying. The marks on Lynch’s characters and on the protagonist of “Take on Me” attest to violence, in particular but not exclusively gendered violence, that connects directly with mediated fantasies–with representations in film, art, music videos, and more.

Fro above, woman cowers in a corner near a trash can filled with crumpled paper. She looks warily to some dissipating fog.

Eighth Stop: Young Adult’s Bedroom

The mise-en-scene of the protagonist’s bedroom includes floral print wallpaper that looks a lot like the walls in the framed doorway picture Laura Palmer receives in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. It’s a decor choice that embodies a plastic attempt to recreate outside inside, and the result is closer to a domestic claustrophobia than a dream garden or forest. The mask on the wall calls to mind the mask in Twin Peaks as well as the sculpture Jeffrey has mounted on his bedroom wall in Blue Velvet. The neon illumination reaches back through Lynch to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Judy’s hotel apartment in San Francisco–one of the most iconic fantasy spaces in all of cinema.

As allusion, the neon registers a postmodern pastiche aesthetic that was running fully mainstream in 1985. “Take on Me” references Vertigo just as multiple Lynch films do. What becomes clear is a reminder that Lynch’s set of go-to allusions is far from idiosyncratic or even weird. Rather, what he does in sampling predecessor films is where he breaks away from others.

The woman sites by her table near a window at night, reading a crumpled newspaper.

Ninth Stop: A Woman in Anguish

This performance of anguish inhabits cinema well beyond Lynch’s works, but it holds a special place in his works. I’m thinking of Grace Zabriskie in particular. The hands on head, pushing bushy 1980s hair upward as her face contorts with pain when she realizes the implications of Sheriff Truman arriving at the Great Northern Hotel to talk to Leland Palmer. The gesture in itself seems so ultimately human that it transcends historical specificity, yet the era of 1980s women’s hairstyles stamps the scene as of a moment. This is a performance of gender and affect in a certain time and place.

The woman with short hair is crying and gripping her hair with her hands.

Tenth Stop: The Corridor

Like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, many Lynch works deploy corridors as weird architectures of circulation and horror. Corridors run between, and they can offer many doorways, literally to rooms and figuratively to worlds pictured in framed art.

In “Take on Me” the corridor is a tunnel between the protagonist’s fantasy world and her lived world, and the anguish in her hair results from the fantasy man glitching as he is trapped and thrown about in the corridor as he attempts to reach her. The glitching gives way and his two-dimensional, black-and-white embodiment disappears, leaving a very sweaty three-dimensional full-color man at the threshold of her bedroom.

In the final parts of Twin Peaks: The Return, where does Agent Cooper go but through a door into a corridor? In fact, a corridor that leads to other corridors. The uncanny vibe of the empty corridor in the Twin Peaks High School early in Twin Peaks comes full circle, but with a difference, as Cooper crosses dimensions through this dark corridor. The cinematic spookiness that Lynch and Kubrick manifest via corridors in their films is echoed in this corridor threshold, but without significantly uncanny gravity. The blandness makes for a nice nudge to pay attention to corridors when re-watching Lynch to appreciate the magic he conjures in these transit spaces.

An illustrated man in a pink shirt and massive hair, looking down and to the left.

Eleventh Stop: Zine

The music video closes on a rather pat note. Or does it?

At a glance, the end can feel pat. The film cuts from the couple to an A-ha magazine dropping onto what appears to be a formica table. It’s clearly the table in the protagonist’s bedroom, where she’s been looking again at her now-crumpled comics. This final shot feels like closure, I mean, it’s literally a text being closed. It aligns with the “it was all a dream” twist to the Who Shot J.R.? mystery in the tv series Dallas from 1980. It aligns with the revelations of layers in much of Lynch. And as with Lynch, the end is actually more of a completion than a closure; it’s an end that’s an opening. If anything, a picture like Inland Empire is challenging because of its radical openness.

In the case of “Take on Me,” the magazine is emblematic of fandom and what it means to feel deeply stirred by pop music. What it means to be one of many, maybe millions, who feel personally, yet in a mass, seen and addressed by the music video and the lyrics and the band. As such, the final image strikes to a quiver the spectator’s relationship with pop music, just as Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, for example, strike to a quiver fans’ relationships with Hollywood film.

A magazine on an angle. It’s title is A-ha, and the three band members’ faces are on the cover.

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Written by Andy Hageman

2 Comments

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  1. A-ha is fantastic!
    It continues to fill arenas around the world.
    And his work goes far beyond Take on Me.
    Listen to “Summer moved on”, “Lifelines”, “Cast in Steel.
    All of the 2000s and influenced Coldplay, Keane, and others.
    The best pop band in the world?
    After the Beatles … A-HA !!!

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