Few American filmmakers can claim to have earned the prestige and curiosity that David Lynch has, and for good reason. Coming to film from a background in painting, Lynch has developed a devoted following surrounding his highly idiosyncratic surrealist films. He arrived onto the scene as a shocking sensation, his works pushing the boundaries of acceptability and reason at the time, only to grow in prominence as the years have gone on. For any director with such art-house sensibilities to succeed on a mass level requires some transcending element that people relate to. Lynch, for all his eccentricities, is a quintessentially American artist, and what resonates within his work is what we feel reflects the American experience, even when it fails to depict its actual reality.
Any approach to the work of David Lynch requires a sense of separation. Lynch’s body of work (pervading across mediums, taking shape as painting, film, photography and music) prefers to function entirely on its own terms, no matter how layered with reference, context, or intention any one instant might suggest upon the viewer. Take for example the breathy, otherworldly scenes in Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge. By the next song cue or stilted gesture, those lines of thought you carried just before may already have been lost to contradiction or confusion. But such is the nature of dreams. A dream provides us with no definitive answer, nothing that comes from outside the self. That infinity horizon we feel within dreams is the horizon of our learned knowledge and experience, the culmination of our vision of life and the universe of possibility. Our subconscious mind picks and chooses from our vast catalog of sense-memory, filtered through the raw language of feeling and of what we have half-learned, misremembered, or all but entirely forgotten, and generates a story. And in this way, so too (deliberately) does Lynch.
That generated dream-story abides by different traditions than those our waking, conscious mind would ask of it. A story we tell for the sake of others (rather than for pure self-expression) becomes a parable, a package of sequence, character, and theme. The very facts of the matter, what they mean, and how to feel about them. It is conversational in its assumption in the value of the Idea, that secret flame of knowledge the story transmits across. This is well and good for the exploration of cultural or political issues, for the fertile narrative grounds of reality. But the dream-story, the lunar counterpart to the Capital-I Idea, withholds on concrete understanding. It plays like moonlight on a lake, hazily rippling. Events occur, and a deep, internal sense of feeling is evoked. Then new things happen, related or not, satisfying or otherwise, and we, helplessly paralyzed in sleeping, continue onwards. We are awarded no time for comprehension, no dialectic guidance (this sensibility acutely reached in Eraserhead, pushed to its very limits in films like Inland Empire). Instead, we merely receive fragmented, disjointed experience, to be experienced as experience, and nothing else. In common conversation, we call this “Lynchian”.
“Lynchian”, adj. an idiosyncratic expression of a long-running trend in American Art towards representation of the repressive and grotesque, contrasted by a metered release of sentimentality and a fetishized nostalgia that plays dangerously between sincerity and irony, leaving many (open-hearted and educated) viewers unsure if the art they are experiencing is produced with dark-hearted intent. Lynch’s aesthetic imagery obsesses on the uncanny and perverse, the violent and sublime. No wonder, then, that there exist those who have no stomach for the juxtaposition.
Life itself bombards so many of us with very real and concrete memories of violence that Lynch’s bemused play with the concept can seem disrespectful, foolish, or cruel. Roger Ebert took significant criticism for his distaste of Blue Velvet’s rendering of violence towards Isabella Rossellini’s character. Even a meeting with Lynch (whom he found to be a warm and sincere person) could not shake him of this feeling, and he later defended his critique with an essay on the subject. It bears noting that Rossellini took active artistic control in her character’s depiction, telling the New York Times in ‘86 that “I saw a woman who was totally victimized, who has lost all her rationality, who is only emotions. My only doubt was, is what I imagine about Dorothy the same as what David Lynch intends to have me play? I knew that the only way I could play Dorothy was just the way I perceived her, because obviously I felt it was very risky.” The performance was dear to Isabella, and rarely do we cherish the art coerced from us unwillingly.
The dream-like narrative of Blue Velvet surrounding this performance is structured on an underlying duality of Kyle MacLachlan’s character, that he is both “pervert and detective,” an ambiguous summation of goodness and evil thrust into the absurdist subterranea of the noir. Any viewer who carries a faint biography of Lynch within their minds might draw comparisons between himself and Jeffrey Beaumont. Inevitably, then, one feels compelled to question why Lynch chose these details that so reflect himself, and why Lynch might use a mirror-self to explore the story and themes that trickle down from reel to reel, and in any attempted closer reading, Lynch obscures. He obfuscates.
Blue Velvet refuses to offer that “Idea” behind his process, withholding on a sense of directorial commentary, that subtle communion between the viewer and director that offers something akin to a moral universe. Breaking Bad, as a modern example, is built upon a universe wherein fate asserts reward and punishment upon the individual agents contained within it. Events transpire fittingly. There is a sense of ‘lesson learned’ in the audience, if not within the psyche of the characters themselves. Lynch seemingly rejects wholesale a sense of authorial predilection of fate. Events happen and narrative flows by Lynch’s instinctual compulsion, but there is little sense of a meaningful examination taking place in the periphery. To Lynch, bad things happen sometimes, and so often where we watch them unfold. His place is merely in the presentation, or so he sells us.
Lynch’s work, the summation of a master stylist who produced work of interest in a variety of genres and motifs, is bountiful fodder for the psyche. He draws from a vast palette of life experience, cultural consumption, fine arts education, and innate sense of Americana in the creation of his films. The urban decay and industrial ennui of Philadelphia permeates Eraserhead, giving it a viral, apocalyptic edge. Blue Velvet’s iconic opening sequence perfectly captures the airy peculiarity of the small Montana town where he was raised. Mulholland Drive seems to be pure, exorcised anxiety from the stress of commercial filmmaking in L.A. Lynch’s work so often lives in that natural sense of America as highways etched upon a boundless distance, the driver as much a stoic cowboy as an astronaut. His stellar soundtracks trace the path of rock and roll, blues, classic lounge and hazy 80’s pop, chasing that invisible taste of a song that transcends its subject matter and its time and hits us in some sacred center. Any and all stock American mythology is subject to reference or inversion in Lynch’s vision, because America is, to Lynch, the dream he wakes up to every morning.
In an interview, Lynch referred to himself as a “Democratic Reaganite,” which initially rings as a safe and witty avoidance of a concrete political motivation, but it contains interesting layers. Lynch has referred positively to the character of his father, a selfless Montana man, stoic, Western, cut of the mythic cloth that Reagan dipped himself in during his election campaign. A sense of appreciation of Reagan makes sense, then, even when today’s politicized society would expect Lynch, as much as any artist releasing work on the front lines of culture, to consider beyond the media depiction of Reagan and rather at the legacy of action his administration left behind. He is the sort of man who supports Democrats who he intuitively likes as much as he instinctively liked Reagan, and that is where he lies upon the matter. It is the gut, the sacred intuition, that comes first.
It is this intuition that has given Lynch the life that he has lived. It is the source of his great sense of seeing-feeling. It is not constructed in a rationality. It is a process of purely present-minded thinking. Like the painter he is, he works in color and in texture. The validation of mass display (the museum, the theatre) affirms Lynch in his process. It allows him to continue to be the self that he has learned to be. That dedication to the truth of the self is the root of all that is beautiful and mystifying in his films. But it so also limits him. Lynch is brilliant, yes, and the tone of his work has pervaded American art like a color we could not see until we named it. But the art of Lynch serves one purpose: to fulfill Lynch, to express Lynch. As often as we choose to remember his filmography as one of an auteur’s, the bankable commercial reality of Lynch must too be acknowledged. Elephant Man, Dune, Twin Peaks, his commercials for Gucci and Playstation, these are opportunities to explore his passion and make a solid profit off the matter. They say what they must to survive, and what Lynch stumbles on through his creative process that he feels elevates the mundanity. This isn’t meant to read as devaluing of Lynch’s artistic success, but to be honest about it. We should not pretend Lynch is anything deeper or greater than who he tells us and shows us that he is.
Lynch’s entire process is an exploration of the self. To chase the imagery of dreams, one must always be looking inwards. But just as often, it is the life outside ourselves that truly transforms us. It is the unexpected lesson, the differences and bonds. It can serve to study how and why we relate to one another. But the story of dreams can never trust the ‘other.’ The paranoia and violence of Lynch is less the expression of a fetishist than the projected grappling of anxieties and fleeting interests. It is what must happen if we want to feel the way we’ve come to expect when watching a David Lynch film. We want to be rewarded for our sense of feeling separate and different. That we are, truly, at our core, individuals trapped in the vortex of society, an almost supernatural apparatus enforced by coercion and violence onto the natural, true and beautiful internal self.
In that regard, Lynch’s art is pure American expression. American culture is (despite its social appearances), a private and individual experience. We live in a society that enjoys the dissolution of the family structure, the commercialization of public spaces and activities, the waning popularity in religion, tradition and culture. It is the forging of the individual and the projection outwards, across media, politics, communities, and art. We have largely forgotten the “American Dream”, but the iconography remains within us. We are all lesser versions of our perfect selves, restrained by circumstance and opportunity. It is what we love to hate and hate to love within ourselves, why we are so repulsed by everyone who is not us.
It is good to feel. But it is important, too, to learn. To grow in understanding of the world and our relation to it and each other. We must develop our sense of American identity beyond individualism. We do not live in a nightmare, no matter how much it can often seem it. It is our choice to digest and understand the world through our own internal lens. We cannot all be David Lynch-es, avatars of feeling for feeling’s sake, but the world is a curiouser place for having him and we have all been transmuted by his vision.
Featured Image: ABC