Monday, June 16, 2014

Take This Baby and Deliver It to Death: a video tribute to David Lynch


This is my third entry in David Lynch Month. It is a video essay covering his early work.

This week's "Question in a World of Blue" is: Does Laura Palmer have special significance in David Lynch's body of work? You can respond in the comments below or on your own blog (please tag this entry in your response).

With a title inspired by a passage from The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (by Jennifer Lynch), Take This Baby and Deliver It to Death focuses on David Lynch's first six features - through Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) - as well as the TV show Twin Peaks (1991-92) and a few audio samples from later works. Allowing the interweaving of assembled footage to speak for itself, this non-narrated video essay emphasizes the complex, evolving portrayal of violence and abusive characters in Lynch's early work. Needless to say it contains both spoilers and graphic content, so proceed with caution. At 23 minutes, this is my longest video, but that's down from a 45-minute rough cut (not to mention a 4 1/2-hour assembly!) so the results are pretty tight. You can watch Take This Baby and Deliver It to Death as one continuous video on Vimeo below, or as three separate chapters on YouTube:






While this is my first video essay in a year and a half, the next won't take so long: from now on, I will be posting one video essay every month.

The final image of this post contains a spoiler for Twin Peaks.


If you are up for more Lynch video tributes, my favorite recent discoveries are "35 Years of David Lynch" by Michael Warren (also featuring a lot of great music from Lynch films) and "Closer to BOB" by Matt Humphrey (syncing footage from Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to a disturbingly appropriate Nine Inch Nails track). (Somehow, when initially publishing this, I forgot to mention the rather spectactular - and BEAUTIFULLY edited - tribute "David Lynch in Four Movements" by Richard Vezina, which is just about the most elegant and evocative expression of Lynch motifs possible.)

Here is my video in three parts on YouTube:

Part 1 - Denial


Part 2 - Discovery


Part 3 - Coda


This video tribute contains footage from the following David Lynch films and television series: Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks (1990-91), Wild at Heart (1990), and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), as well as the "closed" ending for the Twin Peaks pilot (aka the "European version"). It includes audio from Lost Highway (1997), Inland Empire (2006), and the "Twin Peaks" DVD special feature Secrets From Another Place: Creating Twin Peaks (2007).

12 comments:

Joel Bocko said...

The following comment is cross-posted from IMDb, where I kicked off the conversation around the question "What is Laura Palmer's significance in David Lynch's work?"

From what I gather, Laura Palmer was initially intended to be simply a MacGuffin on the show. Her murder would be solved eventually, but both Lynch & Frost conceived her as a mysterious hook into this strange world. And that's how she was presented at first, both on the show and especially the media, which had a field day fetishizing her "wrapped in plastic" corpse. It was all very Hitchcockian and playful, though of course the series treated her death with seriousness at times too (most notably her parents' grieved reaction, although this is often interpreted as camp, and in small moments like when Cooper gently places her hand back on the morgue table after a played-for-laughs fight which ends with Agent Rosenfield mounting her).

I'm not sure exactly when the change began to take place - perhaps it was Jennifer Lynch writing the diary as a raw tale of sexual abuse (though she doubts her father actually read the book), perhaps it was the network forcing Frost & Lynch to resolve the storyline and thus focus more heavily on Laura, perhaps it was something offscreen we'll never know, but clearly at some point Lynch became more and more fascinated with Laura as a character, an individual, not just a story device.

Beginning with the first episode of season 2, which flashes back to her grisly murder, we begin to get a better sense of Laura not as a "bad girl" but an abuse victim and Lynch's tone and focus begins to shift subtly. I'm not just talking about the series here, but his whole body of work. Up until season 2 of Twin Peaks, every Lynch film featured a heroic male figure/redeemer, usually perceived as pure (even Henry in Eraserhead has childlike aspects), who intervenes to rescue victims of abuse (the only exception is Eraserhead, in which Henry himself could be seen as the abuser, though the film doesn't really present it that way and indeed encourages you to sympathize with him).

(continued)

Joel Bocko said...

(continued)


Meanwhile, the villains in these movies, at least from The Elephant Man on, were usually lower-class, caricatured and somewhat exaggerated in their evil - a point that Lynch addresses in the Rolling Stone interview published before season 2. He's asked, "What I'm wondering is whether, outside the films, you see the world as having these very strong dichotomies between Good and Evil as opposed to a kind of complex, integrated -" And he responds, "No, I know it's complex. Everybody's got many threads of both running through them. But I think in a film, white gets a little whiter, and black gets a little bit blacker, for the sake of the story. That's part of the beauty of it, that contrast, that power of it. Maybe it would be very beautiful to have a character that had an equal mixture of both. Where the forces were fighting equally. But maybe they would just stand still."

Well, within a few weeks of this interview being published (perhaps before, depending on when the second season was shot) we are actually seeing these forces fighting inside someone. As evil is re-located in the home and the family, stripping our identification with authority figures and conventional heroes, Lynch's sympathy and identification drifts toward the victim instead. We see this process completed, of course, with Fire Walk With Me, a film that was reviled upon its release precisely for focusing on and identifying with Laura Palmer and her story.

Lynch said, wearing his heart on his sleeve more than usual, "At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn't get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move, and talk. I was in love with that world and I hadn't finished with it." Ironically, his motives were construed as cynical; people couldn't seem to accept that Lynch was sincerely attached to this character. Just as she's won over the various townspeople of Twin Peaks, and left them stranded after she died, so Lynch himself had become captivated by his own creation.

(continued)

Joel Bocko said...

(continued)


It's worth noting to that Sheryl Lee played a part in Lynch's capitulation to Laura. When he discovered her in Seattle, she was chosen simply to play a corpse but, impressed with her acting in the brief video sequence he invented the part of Maddy for her. In interviews, Lee almost appears like a character in Lynch films, a sweet, good-natured person who is able to go to deep, dark places in dedication to her mission (in this case, the art of performance). Lynch was deeply impressed by her ability and commitment (especially at a time when other actors were beginning to flake out on him - to be fair, many would accuse him of flaking out on them first by getting distracted from the show when it was in trouble).

Yet even as late as the production of Fire Walk With Me, Lynch still didn't quite seem to know what he had in his hands. The screenplay (as the "Missing Pieces" will soon remind us) made time for various other characters and subplots, and even in the finished film we wait 45 minutes or so to meet Laura. As written, Laura also didn't play a very active role in her own climax, something the use of the ring was intended to rectify (some have even speculated that the ring footage was added in post-production and that the scene was shot more or less as written, with Laura more passive). Clearly the process of making the movie - watching Lee completely invest in this part, spending time each day exploring Laura's world and character - only committed Lynch further to the idea that Laura Palmer was at the heart of Twin Peaks and everything he wanted to say in this movie.

The film came out and was, of course, a flop and critical disaster. But diving deeply into Laura's perspective changed Lynch as a filmmaker and storyteller. All of his subsequent films have mixed light & dark within the same character (although often these characters themselves fragment into different personalities). He has also preferred female to male protagonists, focused on emotionally vulnerable and psychologically fragile characters, and located evil inside home & family instead of outside.

There's much more to be said, but I'll wait to see what others have to offer before pitching in.

Anonymous said...

(from the IMDb thread which I began above)

floyd20204 says: "In my opinion Laura Palmer is the greatest character that I have ever encountered in TV/Movies/Books anything. Completely fascinating psychologically. She is haunted and hunted by crazy supernatural forces but her reaction to abuse is so real. She is the perfect Lynch creation as she captures his ideology in a single character. Lynch is all about duality and Laura is exactly that; beloved by the town for her good deeds and seemingly girl next door qualities but in reality she is broken, tortured, and completely wild. She feels corrupted by abuse so she tries to corrupt other people by preying on their weaknesses. At the same time she feels an enormous amount of guilt so she tries hard to do good. She is incredibly complex."

Joel Bocko said...

I agree - Laura is one of my favorite cinematic characters. What surprises me is that many don't seem to feel the same way. Re: FWWM in particular, you hear a lot of grumbling about why Lynch is focusing on this dead character instead of Cooper or the rest of the town. But to me, she was always the heart and soul of Twin Peaks.

And yes, her complexity/duality really makes her the perfect Lynchian character and a great segue from his pure-at-heart early characters and the very divided/corrupted late ones. She has her dark side yet, in essence, she is still a victim rather than a victimizer.

Anonymous said...

(another comment from IMDb:)

gavriloprinciple says: "My view of Lynch is that he actually told the same story since Eraserhead, on some level. Laura Palmer didn't start it because it is Dorothy Valens in Blue Velvet that is actually the same character. They are about the abuse because the abuse is the evil here. It is the abuse that turns these souls to abusers. Dorothy and Laura both were abusers too. It is this thing that Lynch has done in EVERY film of his, since Eraserhead. Sometimes the abuse itself is only implied but those feelings are there.

What was clever for Lynch was to change the protagonist to female. Dorothy Valens was the prototype but this was epitomized in Laura. But if you think about it also male protagonists have these traits. They are all seduced to dark side, simply put. For Lynch, sex is evil, period. And to enjoy it, you have to turn evil. This is the same view abused people have. It is the tainted love. Henry Spencer in Eraserhead is wallowing in these dirty evil urges. Only death in a form of a Lady in the Radiator can squish them so to speak.

Occasionally Lynch takes it to the higher level, going all existential like in Eraserhead where it is implied that the humans are tainted simply by being born. So these urges might be natural but they destroy us. After all it is man in the planet who controls the wheels and he brings forth those worms.

Also it is important to see that guys like Frank Booth and Leland Palmer were also abused originally. Well, with Frank it is debatable but that's the feeling I get from him. And remember that he shares a flat with Henry Spencer. You know, apartment 26.

Of course there are other constant themes in Lynch films too, the biggest one being male insecurity. But still it all revolves around the sexual act, usually. Henry Spencer, Frank Booth and Fred Madison being the main examples. The second part of Lost Highway embodies this with all the male fantasy aspects bringing it down to Mr. Eddie's big gun and also that revealing porn snuff film they watch in the end. The look on wifey's face when the other guys trousers go down... That's what sums up Fred's view of himself, inadequate. And Frank Booth is just the same.

Hope these ramblings are at least somewhat coherent :)"

Joel Bocko said...

There's a lot of truth to this, gavrilo. I think what's changed is not so much the story but - as you suggest - Lynch's perspective on it. Not just in terms of male/female but identifying with the victim rather than either the abuser or the hero. And eventually, integrating those 3 roles to varying degrees in his later films. He does this in Lost Highway, where the integration is still pretty confused and unsuccessful, in Mulholland Drive, where it is temporarily successful but collapses and the end, and finally in Inland Empire, where it basically succeeds - Laura Dern's character(s) are able to move through both death and self-destruction to emerge on the other side in the film's transcendental final imagery.

It's funny - in the above video, I noticed some parallels with my earlier video on De Palma's work - the confluence of sex and violence, the way insecurity and denial manifest themselves in aggression, but I think another parallel - which your comment brings forth - is that in the works of both De Palma and Lynch, the experience of violence and abuse by men and women manifests itself in different ways. Tony Montana, like Frank Booth, feels just as insecure and vulnerable as - say - Carrie White or Dorothy Valens. But rather than manifest their self-hatred by curling up into a ball, they displace it onto other people, lashing out in a kind of misdirected vengeance. (Carrie eventually does this as well, though it takes a while for her to get to that point.) Kind of getting off-topic here but there's so many fascinating threads to follow.

As far as sex=evil, this seems true in the early films but is more ambivalent later, beginning with Wild at Heart - or even, if we want to pinpoint it more precisely, the comical and shamelessly sensual cowgirls in Cowboy and the Frenchmen. I think in Lynch's later works - at least post-Fire Walk With Me where the focus on sexual abuse makes this perspective pretty impossible - the healing, communal qualities of sex and love are recognized alongside its expression of power games, frustration, and domination/violence.

Great thoughts, gp. Hope you get a chance to respond to some of the other "Questions in a World of Blue" I'm putting up for this month.

Anonymous said...

(another comment from IMDb:)

xxpo says: "What's interesting about BLUE VELVET is the way EVIL is also located inside of the HOME of the detective ...

who has his conversations about FRANK OVER HEARD by his daughter ...

who can hear what he says thorough THE VENT in her bedroom.

Then as a result of this, and of her feelings of attraction for JEFFREY, she and JEFF also get mixed up in a situation that's WAY OVER their heads ... or their ability to deal with it ... by his PRETENDING to be a BUG MAN ... and she agrees to PRETEND to be a JEHOVAH'S WITNESS ... so she can distract DORTHY while Jeff steals the key to DORTHY'S place.

So even though SANDY is perceived to be some kind of an innocent character, because of these conversations about FRANK that she's heard through the VENT in her bedroom, she's also NOT that innocent whenever it comes to knowing about the ways of the world????

And then she also uses the FORBIDDEN knowledge that she has of this other WORLD as a way to MANIPULATE and SEDUCE JEFF ...

by showing him where DORTHY LIVES ...

then making plans in the DINER for how to TRICK DORTHY so they can get a KEY to her place.

And Sandy also has another boyfriend as well at the time when she STALKS Jeff outside her house, FLIRTS with and SEDUCES him.

So even this seemingly INNOCENT character that DERN plays in BLUE VELVET is also much more COMPLEX and COMPLICATED, once one DIGS DOWN DEEPER under the SURFACE APPEARANCE that one first gets of her???

And telling Jeff what she knows also almost results in his DEATH at the end of the story before JEFF SHOOTS and KILLS FRANK who is also about to KILL JEFF when he opens up the closet door (the same CLOSET DOOR where DORTHY first finds JEFF SPYING on her as she's taking off her clothes)???

So even before TWIN PEAKS some of the so called INNOCENT characters LYNCH creates were also GUILTY of doing things that were not SO INNOCENT???

Pretending to be a BUG MAN (as a way to gain access to someone's home), BREAKING and ENTERING, and SPYING on someone or BEING a PEEPING TOM once you BREAK IN are also CRIMINAL behaviors???

Are they not???

And what about pretending to be a JEHOVAH WITNESS when one is not???

Whatever the case may be, like the case is with LAURA Palmer having 2 SIDES to her personality, if one looks CLOSE enough then one can also see the same kind of a situation in BLUE VELVET where nothing is ever BLACK vs WHITE or GOOD GUYS vs BAD GUYS.

Because wasn't the MAN in the YELLOW SUIT also a CORRUPT DETECTIVE who works for FRANK.

And didn't AGENT COOPER also end up being a CORRUPTED DETECTIVE when he gets POSESSED by BOB at the end of TP: FWWM???

So GOOD GUYS can also end up being BAD GUYS in his stories the same way as GOOD GIRLS can also end up being BAD GIRLS in them???

And introducing us to characters like Laura Palmer and Sandy also makes us much more AWARE of the way an INNOCENT character can be a much more COMPLICATED and SOPHISTICATED one than we first assumed???"

Joel Bocko said...

I agree that in Lynch's earlier films, particularly Blue Velvet, there are many hints and threats of evil co-mixing with good, but it is only Twin Peaks that the threat really seems to be carried through.

That said, one of the elements of Blue Velvet that is to me the most ambiguous and suggestive is Sandy's father, the good detective. He always seems slightly "off", with his tentative smile and shifty eyes - there's something suspicious about him to me. After all, it's his partner who is corrupt and whenever Jeffrey brings him information or asks him questions, he looks like he's figuring out how much he can say and how he should say it. His primary concern is that his daughter doesn't get corrupted (like him?). I like to think that at the end of the movie, when Det. Williams aims his gun at Jeffrey, he's ready to shoot him to conceal his own involvement in police corruption before realizing a) Sandy is right behind him, and thus he'd expose himself to her too and b) he doesn't need to kill Jeffrey because Jeffrey knows nothing, and now that Frank and the Yellow Man are dead there's no one left to implicate him. This adds an extra layer of relief - and irony - to his statement, "It's all over, Jeffrey."

I really have no idea if Lynch had this subtext in mind at all, and I kind of doubt he did, but I like humoring it personally.

Anonymous said...

(another comment from IMDb)

xxpo responds, "Re: 'in Lynch's earlier films, particularly Blue Velvet, there are many hints and threats of evil co-mixing with good, but it is only Twin Peaks that the threat really seems to be carried through.'

You are AWARE of how SANDY would also be DEAD NOW IF FRANK had killed Jeff aren't you???

Because Sandy was also standing there by the front door and would be the next one FRANK put a bullet into IF he'd killed JEFF.

So it was only by Jeff taking the RADIO and GUN away from the MAN in the YELLOW SUIT that he's able to FOOL Frank long enough to stay alive and HIDE from him before he kills him.

And things could also have ended up much differently with both JEFF and SANDY dead.

And the little boy who was kidnapped will probably also not grow up to be normal as a result of what he's been through.

Jeff will probably also not be the same after what he's been through either with his being a WITNESS to the S&M sex session before his own participation in S&M sex with Dorthy himself.

So the results of FRANK's influence on others has also already been more than just a threat.

Because he's definitely also PUT HIS DISEASE into more than just DORTHY.

Good observations about Sandy's father.

After dealing with SLIME BALLS like FRANK most of his life their DISEASE has probably also rubbed off on him???

You know like BOB also GOT INSIDE of AGENT COOP at the end of FWWM???

Nick Cage also puts it this way in another film that he made:

YOU DANCE with the DEVIL, THE DEVIL don't change, the DEVIL CHANGES YOU.

~8MM


Anyhow, SANDY isn't BEHIND HIM.

She's IN FRONT of him ...

because she also GETS there before her father does.

And thanks for the INSIGHT into the way the OTHER guy was his partner (which I also didn't know) which may also mean he was ready to KILL JEFF.

Would that mean SANDY'S DAD also knew where DORTHY'S SON was being held hostage the entire time???

Your theory about her DAD makes the MOVIE that much MORE CREEPY!!!"

Mike said...

Wow, what an interesting and compelling tribute. Just got done watching for a second time and I see no reason to not come back to it in the future, especially after re-watching some of the films featured here (+ Twin Peaks). It's fascinating to watch unfold and see the different themes at work in Lynch's cinema, and some of the cross cutting (especially in the beginning, from Eraserhead to Fire Walk With Me) is just brilliant. Plus it's compelling simply as a catalogue of some of the best/ most memorable moments in Lynch's earlier films.

This adds to my fascination of the video essay as a form of criticism. While I think narrated video essays can be more helpful in appreciating a film from a more scholarly point of view, tributes like this just add to the visceral impact of the scenes depicted. It's almost like a playlist of songs from the same artist, but different albums. It allows the audience/ listener to bridge gaps or mentally connect the different works.

Is there any reason (other than the fact that the films featured were plenty enough) that you stuck with his earlier films? I'm glad you did though, since it gives Dune, a genuine outlier in Lynch's filmography, a wider context. Not that my opinion on the film changed at all, but it didn't look so bad in short doses, rubbing elbows with his other classics.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks & glad you enjoyed it. Initially I was planning to include more films. I think one of the reasons I decided to focus on the first 6 was that I was running out of room on my hard drive! The assembly of all the initial clips was 4 hours long. Of course, if I'd needed more films I would've found a way to squeeze them on there, but I was already headed in the direction of limiting myself to 1977-1990 anyway. It just made thematic sense.

Starting from the point of noticing the fascinating parallels between the climaxes of Fire Walk With Me and Eraserhead (and the endings of Fire Walk With Me and The Elephant Man), the video essay really coalesced around Lynch's treatment of abuse, violence, and good/evil. There is a clear arc - or several arcs - to his first 6 films that is basically resolved in Fire Walk With Me and then becomes something new in his last 4 films: from the abuse/murder of offspring by a parent, observed from the parent's point of view in Eraserhead, to the same in FWWM but viewed from the child's perspective & from the clear delineation between the ugly external evil and the redemptive hero to the complete collapse of that distinction when Leland and Bob reside in one another (in retrospect, I'm really surprised the last image of Twin Peaks didn't make into here too - it would have fit really well in the "Blue Velvet" montage, especially with the images of the mirror). The later films really wouldn't have fit into that narrative - their concern goes even further, collapsing the distinction between victim and victimizer until they reside in one another.

Another thing I like about this more impressionistic, non-narrative form is that it can work on several levels: as a (perhaps obscure) analysis, as a collection of moments, and also as a kind of movie of its own - with both this & the De Palma one I tend to see the characters from different films as reacting to one another, as if they are inhabiting one metamovie.

Incidentally, here's a really interesting recent post on video essays. I left a number of comments underneath: http://girishshambu.blogspot.com/2014/07/on-video-essays-cinephilia-and-affect.html

Since then, I've been corresponding with the video essayist Kevin B. Lee and plan on interviewing him about his Transformers video essay (if you haven't seen it, it's really worth checking out: https://vimeo.com/94101046) in the fall. He floated the idea of doing a discussion series on video essays, both specific ones but also more general concepts about the form. I hope it comes to fruition - like you, I think there's just so much to discuss with this relatively new approach.