Monday, June 23, 2014

The Eye of the Duck: A David Lynch retrospective, 1967 - 2013 (part one: the trees)


This is my fourth entry in David Lynch Month. It is a chronological overview of his career, including full reviews of every single feature and capsules on every available short.

This week's "Question in a World of Blue" is: Do you see particularly important turning points in David Lynch's career? You can respond in the comments below or on your own blog (please tag this entry in your response).

Over three days, I watched almost every single film Lynch has created since 1967, and as "film" I include not just features or shorts, but commercials, music videos, TV pilots, even the occasional promo tag. Next week I will examine the overall evolution of his career, in theme, storytelling, and visual style. Today I'm going to focus more on the nitty-gritty, the "trees" that make up the Lynchian "forest" (if you want to avoid spoilers, just read about the films you've seen - the only entry that contains a spoiler for a separate film is Inland Empire, which discusses the end of Eraserhead in its last paragraph). I will examine each of his works in turn, starting with Six Figures Getting Sick, a painting-in-motion installation he created as an art student in the late sixties, and concluding with Came Back Haunted, a Nine Inch Nails video so rapid-fire it contains a health disclaimer. Thus his filmmaking work begins and (for now) ends in the service of other arts - painting and music - but along the way he emerged as one of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century, his work appearing in cinemas, on television, and eventually streaming over the internet. He's bridged all motion-picture mediums and approaches, told stories and immersed himself in irrational imagery, accomplished himself as a humanist director of sensitive performance and a formalist photographer of abstract images.

Despite his surprising range, there is a distinctly "Lynchian" flavor to all of his films, which we'll discover as we move through them one by one. Each feature film is covered in five paragraphs (except for Blue Velvet, Fire Walk With Me, and Inland Empire, which get six, and Mulholland Drive, which gets ten), his seven TV episodes are covered in three, particularly distinctive short projects in two, and the rest of his work in single short paragraphs (often a couple commercials are discussed together). Here's what I couldn't see: a fictitious Anacin commercial (1967), the "Champions" episode of the Lynch-Frost American Chronicles (1990), a low budget video for his song "A Real Indication" (1993), HBO's Hotel Room sketch Blackout (1993), advertisements for Alka-Seltzer and American Cancer Society (both 1993), video documentary Lamp (2007), the Wild at Heart deleted-scenes "sidequel" (2008), playful greetings to the 2008 Hollyshorts awards and the 2010 Twin Peaks festival, a concert film for Duran Duran (2011), and probably dozens or even hundreds of short clips from DavidLynch.com, which aren't listed in online filmographies unless they also appeared on DVD (all I can verify missing are two episodes of his goofy Over Yonder web series, but there must be plenty more where that came from). (UPDATE: there were also many more Playstation commercials made in 2000, which have since been gathered here.) Even with those exclusions, I covered sixty-seven titles below. For a filmmaker with only ten features under his belt, Lynch has been shockingly prolific.

Feel free to browse for the projects that interest you (it may be best to bookmark the post and return for several visits) or follow the entire overview chronologically - this retrospective can be read either way. Indeed, one could say the same of many of his films...

...beginning with his first, Six Figures Getting Sick (1967). This art installation is a loop that never begins and never ends, demonstrating an ongoing interest in the "continuing story" (leading to TV series and film narratives that circle back on themselves). Deep-rooted motifs belie the simple set-up (the title is self-explanatory): a screen/curtain lifts to reveal the grotesque shapes, foreshadowing later reveals of the Lady in the Radiator and Dorothy Valens among many, many others. Lynch levels a deliberate, unblinking focus on gruesome detail which will characterize all of his early works.

Absurd Encounter With Fear (1967) could, of course, serve as a subtitle for most of Lynch's films; even this early on, his themes are clear. In this case, a figure in exaggerated pale make-up (Jack Fisk) strides toward a woman in a field (Peggy Lynch), unzips his pants next to her, and reveals a phallic flower. We are initially terrified by this man as he approaches us, and then complicit in his voyeurism once our view switches behind him. Absurdity, obscenity, and anxiety course through Lynch's first available dramatic fragment.

A collection of Lynch's early 16mm experimental footage (1967-68) is overflowing with hallucinatory and hypnagogic images (including a boyish Lynch's first on-camera appearance, playing shadow puppets with a painted camera). The most arresting passage features the camera zigging and zooming toward Lynch's wife Peggy in the garish white makeup she'd wear for The Alphabet. Grinning demonically, she celebrates her own mad tea party, simultaneously channeling Alice and the Hatter for Lynch's private wonderland.

Starring Peggy Lynch, The Alphabet (1968) builds on the jagged animation and vomiting motif of Six Figures as well as the spooky painted faces of Absurd Encounter (later to reappear in Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway). The Alphabet also echoes something explicit in Six Figures' exhibition: a fascination with structuralism - on acid (the alphabet is recited several times, via animation and by a seemingly possessed Peggy). We think of Lynch's vision as free-flowing, but he's always been equally fascinated by the relationships of his disparate parts even when they aren't conceived with a structure in mind.
Arguably Lynch's most famous, acclaimed short film, The Grandmother (1970) is fascinating both on its own terms and for its place in Lynch's canon. Except for a fleeting fifteen-second (!) Sci-Fi Channel spot in the late nineties, The Grandmother remains Lynch's only work to feature a child as its protagonist (although of course Eraserhead's Henry, John Merrick, and Jeffrey Beaumont all have childlike qualities, and Laura Palmer - whose emotional fragility echoes The Grandmother's protagonist - is only seventeen). This is rather astonishing when one reflects on how central a childlike wonder - and fear - are to the director's vision. As such, The Grandmother feels very revealing; it and The Elephant Man are Lynch's most sensitive films until Fire Walk With Me twenty-two years later.

The Grandmother begins - like Eraserhead - with an animated, mythologized conception (in this case human figures growing out of the dirt, copulating, and "planting" a son: here reproduction is agricultural, rather than industrial). The rest of the film is told from the abused child's perspective rather than the frustrated parents'. The boy (Richard White) produces orange stains on his bedspread and is beaten by his father (Robert Chadwick); meanwhile at the dinnertable (the first of many horrific dinner scenes stretching from Eraserhead to Fire Walk With Me), his mother (Virginia Maitland) tries to kiss him and he resists, revolted by her fondling. Upstairs he will "plant" a grandmother (Dorothy McGinnis) who can offer him love and kindness and as he spends more time with her, he eventually builds up courage to destroy his parents. An Oedipal nightmare vomited up from the subconscious, The Grandmother was funded by the AFI and brought Lynch out to California from his dreaded (if inspiring) Philadelphia, whose dirty, violent, lonely landscape would linger in many of the director's subsequent works.

The Amputee (1973) is ostensibly just a camera exercise - a film vs. video experiment in which the same scene is repeated twice - and yet it provides a rich viewing experience and a first indication of Lynch's potential as a dramatist. A one-legged lady (Catherine Coulson, of Log Lady fame) is bled by a doctor (Lynch himself) while she composes a letter; in voiceover we hear some vague story about a fight with her husband.

This is Lynch's first go at demonstrating the effectiveness of context-less conversation, the power that can lay behind seemingly meaningless words (see Rabbits, Darkened Room, the audition scene in Mulholland Drive and snatches of wacky dialogue in just about everything he's ever done). Furthermore, this is an aural as much as a visual experiment - testing the interaction of sound and image, pushing us to consider which is more important. On first viewing, we're bound to be distracted by the bleeding stump and pay little attention to what the woman is writing/narrating, but when we watch again and adjust to the gore her statements swim into focus. Even if we don't understand them, a kind of emotional resonance breaks through, amplified both by our visceral reaction to the shocking visuals and our eventual desensitization. The viewing experience is very multilayered and rewards (indeed, incorporates) repetition. Ultimately, The Amputee serves as a primer on how best to watch and appreciate any Lynch film.


Lynch's first feature is a quantum leap from his short work - in fact, it may be the most formally perfect movie he's ever made. Eraserhead (1977) is also among the most avant-garde; narrative, yes, but in a fever-dream alternative reality whose relationship to our own is ambiguous at best. This is a world in which dinner with the in-laws consists of cutting up dancing, bleeding mini-chickens while attempting to converse with a maniacally-grinning father (Allen Joseph) who spouts genial non sequiturs and a mother (Jeanne Bates) whose response to the menstruating poultry is to stick out her tongue and make animal noises while staring at the ceiling. If our hero Henry (Jack Nance) appears to be the normal one in these surroundings, it says more about the surroundings than it does him. A nervous, befuddled young man whose lumbering, quizzical passage through urban wastelands recalls Frankenstein's monster (while his shock of titular hair echoes the monster's Bride), Henry seems to live as much in the dreamscape of his mind - with its lever-pulling moon-man (Jack Fisk), milk bath with a next-door seductresses (Judith Roberts), and chipmunk-cheeked dancing lady behind the radiator (Laurel Near) - as in external reality.

Perhaps he visits these realms to escape the sickening cries of his infant child - although as his fiancee notes before bringing it home, "they're not even sure if it's a baby." And neither are we: the bleating creature on Henry's dresser has the head of a skinned rabbit, its flesh filled with boils and caked with spittle, its body cocooned in wrappings that render it even more helpless (and thus demanding) than most newborns. It's a brilliant homemade creation, crafted by Lynch and his collaborators from what they could scrounge on a limited AFI budget and personal resources, yet as convincing as any state-of-the-art animatronic puppet (and far more so than any digital concoction would be today). The pathetic monster is both repulsive and strangely sympathetic; its weakness fills us with anxiety and dread and when Henry approaches it at film's end with scissors in hand, we aren't sure if we're flinching in anticipation of gore or out of weird pity for the dreadful little deformity. We don't want to see it destroyed - we just want it to disappear. But as Lynch will constantly remind us over the next thirty years, you can't wish away pain or ugliness. You must face them head-on.

Lynch certainly faced his many challenges head-on; in what must be some sort of record (or close to it), Eraserhead was shot over the course of about five years. During some of that time, Lynch himself slept in Henry's room, a set built in one of the unused areas on the AFI estate; his habitation was illegal, but then the whole project has the air of transgression. That it was seen to completion seems a miracle, and a testament to the dedication Lynch aroused in his cast and crew. They worked long nights, stealing a shot or two in the hours they should have been resting from their day jobs (whose paychecks often went right into the film's budget). With an intense focus that will linger through Lynch's early works but disappear eventually into the mist of digital freedom, Lynch's vision is extremely disciplined - yet within these claustrophobic confines the possibilities seem endless. With its incredibly unique set design, iconically dark-side-of-the-moon performers, and achingly lustrous black-and-white cinematography, this vies with The Elephant Man as Lynch's best-looking film. In strict "movie-movie" terms - bold, original expression, visual storytelling, formal consistency - it may very well his best film, period. It definitely feels like his most purely cinematic.

Yet if Eraserhead is pure and perfect, that doesn't mean it's purely and perfectly "Lynchian." The film brilliantly expresses several aspects of his sensibility, but many others were yet to be illuminated: the romantic sincerity of Blue Velvet, the luminous glamor of Mulholland Drive, the fascination with small-town values of Twin Peaks, the fifties-greaser affectations of Wild at Heart. And while Lynch's previous two projects and subsequent feature would cast a sympathetic eye on warped and/or abused bodies (even if Lynch's stories prefer to identify with goodhearted strength until Fire Walk With Me), in Eraserhead, weak deformity is viewed entirely from without, as incomprehensible in speech as it is immobile in flesh. Lynch has called Eraserhead his most "personal" and "spiritual" film, and there's certainly a sense that all the characters and situations are extensions of Henry's (and apparently Lynch's) psychic landscape, with no true independent existence of their own. Interestingly, over the course of his career Lynch will progressively create characters who are themselves split and conflicted, instead of simply having the whole ensemble manifest aspects of a single consciousness (most of his late films will combine both approaches - dividing a single personality into separate characters, but actually showing the process instead of making the split a pretext of the narrative).

With its low cost and cult following, Eraserhead would ride the midnight circuit for years to become one of Lynch's most profitable releases. Although many of the contemporary reviews were less than favorable, the film has become a classic. Fellow filmmakers (usually ahead of critics or film scholars) immediately appreciated what Lynch was doing: Stanley Kubrick screened Eraserhead on the set of The Shining and Mel Brooks was so astonished by the young filmmaker's work that he hired him for The Elephant Man. Along with Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead forms a trilogy of (very different) movies that Lynch is still best-remembered for today. When critics knocked him in the eighties or nineties, they tended to hold his work to the standard of "Eraserhead's promise." Often they were disappointed by the absence of Eraserhead's uncluttered discipline, occasionally they regretted his flirtations with (relatively) mainstream filmmaking, and sometimes they distrusted the increasingly humanist, emotionally-invested nature of his work (which was usually rejected as insincere, as if the director of Eraserhead couldn't actually believe the things his characters felt and said). Eraserhead certainly cannot be accused of sentimentality. Like many of Lynch's early films (all of them, I would argue, until Fire Walk With Me), there is a certain coldness and distance to the proceedings. Eraserhead is like a gleaming diamond, fascinating and forbidding as it shines in the darkness.


If Eraserhead marked Lynch's arrival as a major film artist, The Elephant Man (1980) would establish him as a professional director, a man who could guide a project from the planning stages through the finishing touches, handling famous actors, large crews, and location shooting in order to realize a story through images, performance, and effective dramatic beats. In other words, it proved Lynch could work in the mainstream, and not just the margins. The Elephant Man is loosely based on the true story of the severely deformed Joseph Merrick (here changed to "John") and the surgeon Frederick Treves who treated him and introduced him into London Society. Already a famous play in the late seventies, the subject was adapted independently for the screen (as the filmmakers take great pains to note in the credits). Although I haven't read the play, I'm given to understand that it is more centered around Merrick, while the film focuses more on Treves (first-billed Anthony Hopkins) as a protagonist.

In the film, Merrick (John Hurt), whose body and head are covered by grotesque tumors, is a victim of abuse and ridicule, a helpless carnival freak whose owner Bytes (Freddie Jones) exploits, beats, and perhaps even prostitutes his "Elephant Man." (The strong sexual overtones in Bytes' conversation with Treves, and later the leering mockery of the Night Porter, played by Michael Elphick, teeter between implying literal molestation and merely analogizing Merrick's exhibition with rape.) Treves weeps when he first sees Merrick, but publicly presents himself as interested only for the sake of medical science; he then humiliatingly displays Merrick in a lecture hall. Only later, when Bytes has beaten Merrick senseless and Treves takes him to a private hospital room, does the doctor display sympathy for his subject as a human being. And so, increasingly, does the film itself. (A quick note on the true story: the real Merrick was entrepreneurial and empowered, sharing in the profits of his freak show, before meeting Treves and coming to reside at the hospital. The film's changes are both disappointing - the stock villains and confrontations of the second half seem rather rote - and understandable, as they allow an absorbing transformation to occur in both the characters and the audience's sympathy.)

The screenplay, on which Lynch collaborated with Frances (1982) writers Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, is ingeniously constructed, and Lynch's direction expertly convey its structural conceits visually. When Treves sees Merrick merely as a medical find, the audience is not allowed to truly meet him. We catch a brief glimpse of his body when Treves is introduced (enough to motivate the doctor's single tear, unforgettably - and accidentally - caught as the camera moves in for a close-up), after which Merrick is silently masked in a burlap sack for his arrival at the hospital, and silhouetted like a shadow puppet during the anatomical lecture. Only when a hospital nurse stumbles into his attic room are we allowed to linger on his shocking appearance. As we learn Merrick can pray and converse, that he harbors a lingering affection for his beautiful mother (kept by his side in a keepsake daguerreotype) and has a sensitive appreciation for art, our sympathy builds. But we are encouraged to identify primarily with Treves, who struggles with the question of whether he too is exploiting Merrick, albeit in more genteel fashion.

Meanwhile, something else is growing within the body of film (like a tumor, if you will), most evident in a haunting dream sequence halfway through in which Merrick gazes into a mirror and we witness the hellish churning of London's industrial bowels. When Merrick is harassed by the Night Porter and kidnapped by Bytes, Treves' supervisor Carr Gomm (John Gielgud) tells the doctor he did his best, "everything within his power" and we see Treves gazing helplessly through the window of Merrick's former prison ("I truly thought the ogre would never get out of his dungeon," Merrick says poignantly at the end of the film, after witnessing a fairy-tale pantomime performance). Now Merrick's fate is out of Treves' hand, and so it's the "Elephant Man" we follow to France, where fellow freaks will liberate him from his cage and send him back to England on his own, master of his fate for the first time. In the train station, Merrick is pursued by a hostile crowd until he confronts them with a cri de coeur: "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!" In the final scene of the film, we are alone with Merrick in his room as he quietly lies down on his bed, certain that the overwhelming weight of his bulbous head will suffocate him as he sleeps, but determined to sacrifice life for dignity. Here The Elephant Man finally passes through sympathy into empathy; it's the most moving sequence in Lynch's work so far. With remarkable subtlety, we've have slowly switched our identification over the course of the film.

The plot is worth recapping in full because it serves as a microcosm of Lynch's storytelling arc over the course of his career. From regarding freaks with a mixture of revulsion and fascination (Eraserhead and Dune) to identifying with the outcasts and locating the psychological freak inside physically beautiful bodies (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Mulholland Drive), there is a strong progression in Lynch's work. With its compassionate if cautious approach to Merrick, The Elephant Man serves as an outlier in Lynch's early oeuvre as well as a harbinger of things to come, but in other ways it is very much of a piece with Eraserhead, Dune, and Blue Velvet. For one thing, the villainous characters are all on the margins of society - dirty, working-class cretins - while the establishment (the hospital management, the Victorian bourgeoisie, the police, even the Queen herself) provides noble protection for the innocent. Meanwhile sex is regarded with suspicion and fear; Merrick's chaste and tender kiss with the beautiful actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) is contrasted with the lecherous assault of the drunken proletariat on Merrick's quiet home. Visually, the film could be Eraserhead's twin. Shooting his final black-and-white feature with veteran cinematographer (and horror director) Freddie Francis, Lynch sinks us into the rich blacks, gorgeous greys, and smokey whites of his gothic world. Watching this and his debut back-to-back, one could be forgiven for anticipating a stark, beautifully cold grace to characterize all of Lynch's future work. In fact he would slowly move in an entirely different direction.

Lynch's debut music video accompanied I Predict (1982) by the offbeat rock group Sparks. The filmmaker's first work in color since The Grandmother a dozen years earlier, the video indicates a more flamboyant direction as the eighties get underway. After kicking off with the Lynchian imagery of a sizzling neon sign and open door dissolving into a face (not to mention the director's ubiquitous performer-on-curtained-stage shtick) the main motif becomes Hitler/Chaplin-mustached keyboardist Ron Mael's grinning striptease. This is definitely Lynch's most lighthearted project to date.

Having stepped from his own private underground film into a professional studio production, the next logical move in Lynch's career was to helm a huge international blockbuster. He turned down an offer to direct Return of the Jedi, aware that he would always be under George Lucas' shadow on a Star Wars sequel. Instead, he accepted producer Dino De Laurentiis' Dune (1984), based on the legendary Frank Herbert sci-fi novel of the mid-sixties (whose similarities to Star Wars had been noted by many sci-fi fans). Probably more than Jedi, Dune offered Lynch a chance to explore many of his favorite images: there are floating fetuses, grotesque creatures, mutated bodies, massive mechanical contraptions, and an endless field of stars (a prominent image in his first three films which then disappeared until The Straight Story). The themes resonate as well, with psychic visions, mystic dreams, and a pure-at-heart youth who must come into his own and face down decadent, sneering villains.

And yet the final film probably feels less like Lynch that any of his other features. The director has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that he didn't have final cut, but even in shooting style and performance his touch seems absent. The mise en scene is very standard, without many of the long takes, wide lenses or creative staging that usually characterize Lynch's films. Though the actors are mostly fine (especially comparing Dune to some other blockbusters), there is little real life in their characters, none of the magic or sense of discovery that the director usually draws out in performance - although Kyle MacLachlan (in his first Lynch film) does have small moments, grinning or staring in wonder, that demonstrate why Lynch would choose him as onscreen doppelganger. Lynch, who receives sole credit for the screenplay (he fell out with his Elephant Man co-writers in pre-production), was superseded in post-production by the producers, who worked with him to add egregious voiceover "thought bubbles" to almost every scene. These don't actually make the plot much clearer but they do add to the sense of tedium; in Lynch, whose loathing of over-explanation is legendary, they seem particularly out of place.

As briefly as possible, Dune follows Paul (MacLachlan), young son of a baron sent to the desert planet of Arakkis where giant sand worms are dodged while spice - the fuel and narcotic of the universe - is harvested. The wicked Harkonnen invade the planet, killing Paul's noble father (Jurgen Prochnow), and sending Paul and his beautiful, psychic mother (Francesca Annis, who looks the same age as MacLachlan but was in fact pushing forty) fleeing deep into the desert. There they meet up with the Fremen, a canny, blue-eyed desert people who recognize Paul as their long-prophesied savior (I think). He teaches them how to destroy with their voice, they teach him how to ride giant worms, and together they defeat the Harkonnen and the evil Emperor (Jose Ferrar). The first book launched a saga, and so a series of films were planned, but the movie received disastrous reviews and bombed at the box office (actually, to this day it is has grossed more than any other Lynch film, but on a $40 million budget that doesn't count for much).

Of interest mostly to fans of the book or Lynch completists, Dune nonetheless has some fascinating elements. Probably the most interesting - and most disgusting - are the Harkonnen, the film's hideous villains. Their bulbous leader (Kenneth McMillan) floats through the air, puss oozing from boils all over his face and body, and lusts after his nephew Feyd (Sting), who grins deviously and wears a speedo that look likes a large metallic aviator badge. Robin Wood has called Dune "the most obscenely homophobic film I have ever seen"; about the best that can be said in contradiction is that Baron Harkonnen's leering, predatory sexuality - most explicitly displayed in his carnivorous attack on a servant boy, whose bloody heart plug he rips out - is not the cause of his general moral depravity, but just one result of it. Beyond the decrepit, rotting flesh of the Harkonnen, the Lynch touch is most evident in the stubby Guild emissary, a kind of brain-as-body who travels in a giant test tube, and the premature birth of Paul's sister when his mother drinks the Water of Life.

What that Lynch touch meant in 1984 would change dramatically within a few years. At the time, with his penchant for body horror and gloomy, warped visuals, the director fit more snugly with contemporaries like David Cronenberg or Ridley Scott. In its design elements, the metallic sheen of the overall film, and general lack of relaxed levity or romantic sensuousness (although the latter starts to creep in through Paul's visions), Dune does seem of a piece with Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. There's a furrowed-brow intensity and lack of spontaneity to the movie which takes elements of Lynch's earlier films to their extreme. After its failure, it may have seemed time for a change. The film obviously burned Lynch, and he never tried his hand at spectacle again, nor did he bring any more famous adaptations to the screen. Yet the director was back on his feet in two years, with a project that would redefine his vision, distinguish him from other techno-surrealists of the time, and fix Lynch as a permanent feature of America's cinematic landscape.


Four features, eleven film projects, and nearly twenty years into his career, David Lynch struck gold. Eraserhead had become a cult classic, The Elephant Man had shown he could helm a straightforward studio picture, and Dune had backfired as a mega-budget blockbuster attempt. But Blue Velvet (1986) would establish Lynch as one of the most acclaimed American filmmakers, cautiously begin pushing him into the public consciousness, and most importantly for his future opportunities, establish the term "Lynchian" as a distinct flavor of American surrealism. After three very different films in which he attempted to balance personal vision and professional duty, Lynch had now found a voice that could both tell a compelling story and indulge his distinctive brand of weird creativity. Thirty years later, many still consider Blue Velvet Lynch's masterpiece - until recently, this was the Lynch most likely to show up on all-time "best" lists.

It isn't hard to see why. More than any other Lynch movie (except possibly Mulholland Drive), Blue Velvet is saturated in film history and mystique. It combines the postwar genres of film noir and flamboyant suburban melodrama, is scored and shot in romantic old Hollywood fashion, and offers memorable roles to sixties icon Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini, daughter of Golden Age superstar Ingrid Bergman and iconic neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. Furthermore, Blue Velvet is both fascinatingly strange and relatively accessible - the bizarre moments take place within a comprehensible narrative framework (compare Lynch's later films) and recognizable universe (compare his early shorts and Eraserhead). Most importantly, Blue Velvet was celebrated for offering not just a personal vision but also a kind of cryptic social commentary - an alternately graphic and sarcastic subversion of Reagan's Morning in America. Frankly, the critics probably misunderstood Lynch's intentions on that front.

The story follows Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a college student sent home when his father suffers a stroke; the first in a long line of amateur Lynchian sleuths, Jeffrey discovers a moldy ear in a field and starts prying information from Sandy (Laura Dern), a police detective's wholesome daughter. Before long, he is hiding in the closet of Dorothy Valens (Rossellini), a nightclub singer whose family has been kidnapped by the foul-mouthed, drug-addicted rapist Frank Booth (Hopper). Voyeurism quickly leads to an affair, endangering both Jeffrey's innocence and his life. Along the way, we get brilliant, what-the-hell sequences (my favorite being the visit to This Is It, a bar on the outside, shabby home on the inside, where obese middle-aged women lounge on a couch and Dean Stockwell lip-syncs to Roy Orbison) and a mood of panicky uncertainty - anything can happen at any time; no one is safe. (Actually, this perception is misleading: Jeffrey goes looking for trouble, and even the victimized Dorothy is portrayed as masochistic.) Unusually, the filmmaker's personal vision is expressed more in the what than the how; despite memorable visual flourishes and thick atmosphere, the surrealism is embedded more in the screenplay (scene-by-scene, not structurally) than the relatively restrained direction.

Critics comparing Blue Velvet to knuckleheaded action flicks and safe Oscarbait primarily noticed its darkness, but what most distinguishes Lynch's film from his earlier work is its sense of humor and light touch. Eraserhead certainly had an arch, off-the-wall hilarity but Blue Velvet is, at times, genuinely cheerful and pleasant (the humor stands out so sharply against the violence and sexuality that many mistakenly though Lynch was parodying rather than indulging the "corny" scenes, ignoring the earnest warmth of the puppy love and goofy jokes). Even more startling is the warmth of Lynch's visuals - Frederick Elmes' often sunlit photography and bright, vibrant colors have no real precedent in the director's beautiful but cold and claustrophobic oeuvre. This is also Lynch's first collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti (who would come to define the "Lynchian" score in a whopping twelve future collaborations). His music ranges from ominous to swooning to goofy, offering a rich sonic experience to complement the varied visual tones. For the first time, the morbid, gothic side of Lynch's personality is evenly matched by his chipper, genial demeanor, mostly hidden offscreen till now.

The characters in Blue Velvet are probably Lynch's most morally clearcut although there are hints of ambiguity beneath the surface (many hints pertaining to Jeffrey wound up on the cutting room floor). Yes, Jeffrey hits Dorothy (at her request) and lies to Sandy - but in the scheme of Blue Velvet's transgressions these seem minor and his heart always appears to be in the right place. Sandy's homelife is almost comically Father Knows Best...and yet. As Detective Williams, George Dickerson's delivery and facial expressions are very odd. His searching eyes seem to contradict his placid speaking manner, and the way he takes aim at Jeffrey in the climax before slowly lowering his gun and saying, with noticeable relief, "It's all over, Jeffrey" always makes me suspicious. I wonder if he's a corrupt cop ("It's horrible too," he says of his job), and if in the final scene he realizes he can't kill the boy in front of his daughter, and more importantly that the clueless Jeffrey may have done him a favor by eliminating the unpredictable Frank. This dark if entirely hypothetical reading serves as a useful reminder that even in the apparently straightforward Blue Velvet, much remains beneath the surface. Lynch had only begun digging.

For the moment, however, the director seemed more preoccupied with the cheerful and romantic qualities of Blue Velvet than the dark and dirty aspects. In the late eighties and early nineties, Lynch basked in the acclaim of his iconic movie while romancing its glamorous star. The "Lynchian" auteurist signature also had potential as a brand name and critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss even predicted Lynch would become a mainstream figure (a bit later, Rosenbaum would compare him, with not a little cynicism, to Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner). The pleasure of success showed up in Lynch's work: swooning television commercials, the playful and absorbing first season of Twin Peaks, and the gleefully young-in-spirit Wild at Heart riff on the brighter, more appealing side of his sensibility.

Nothing exhibits this lighter-than-air quality better than The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988), a whimsical outdoor skit created for French television. A beret-wearing Frenchman (Frederic Golchan) arrives at a dude ranch, greeted by half-deaf cowpoke Harry Dean Stanton, making his first appearance for the director. Bemusement ensues. A stylistic forerunner of Twin Peaks with its stretched-out comic timing and quirky affection for eccentric characters, The Cowboy and the Frenchman is a Lynch project that actually warrants the much-bandied term "postmodern." Note too the parade of sexually available cowgirls, heralding an unashamed eroticism for the first time in Lynch's work.
If The Cowboy and the Frenchman expanded on the corny, all-American aspects of Blue Velvet, Lynch's ad campaign for Calvin Klein Obsession (1988) stepped up the international glamor of Isabella Rossellini in that film. Starring future Twin Peaks stars Lara Flynn Boyle, James Marshall and Heather Graham and steeped in sensual, aesthetic allure with passages from Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Flaubert, and Lawrence, Lynch's first TV commercials display a sexy mysteriousness increasingly central to Lynch's sensibility.

This sexy mysteriousness reappears in the opening of Lynch's TV pilot Twin Peaks (1990), focusing on sleek, otherworldly black dog figurines before panning up to an Asian woman (Joan Chen) applying makeup in her mirror. Who is she? Why is she in this small backwoods town? Where did the eerie dogs come from? Why do we feel so ill-at-ease already, mere seconds into this unfamiliar series? A middle-aged man (Jack Nance, of course) picks up his fishing pole and heads out to the pebbly beach along the lake where "the lonesome foghorn blows" and a massive sequoia log shelters a dead girl, wrapped in plastic. It is homecoming queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), seventeen, still beautiful in death. The mystery has begun.

The Twin Peaks pilot (written by Lynch and Mark Frost, the series co-creator) did two things exactly right, which together ensured success for the near-future. The first hour cast the perfect bait with the Laura Palmer mystery because it contained so many questions (only some of which are answered in the pilot itself): who is she, why does everyone love her so much, why do her friends feel she was in trouble, who killed her, why did they kill her, how many people know about it? These questions were enough to pique viewers' curiosity but what really made them relish the show, and come back for more, was the environment: the thick Pacific Northwest atmosphere and especially the quirky characters who inhabit it. Most importantly, FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) arrives in the second hour like a breath of fresh air, able to alternate between childlike enthusiasm ("What are these incredible trees you've got up here?") and professional authority. He's at once an audience surrogate, a law-and-order figure to admire, and a lovable eccentric we're pleased to be amused by.

When the pilot premiered in early April, expectations were mixed. After a theatrical screening the previous fall, Connoisseur magazine had declared that the series would revolutionize television. Others knowingly observed that audiences preferred visual comfort food and predicted the show would not last in network prime-time. As it turned out, both prophecies were correct. However they viewed its chances, virtually everyone who wrote about television really, really wanted the show to succeed. And as far as the pilot is concerned, it did. The two-hour premiere of Twin Peaks aired Sunday, April 8 at 9pm EST and finished first in its spot and seventh for the week (by comparison, the final episodes would generally finish ninetieth - that's 9-0). Critics were elated and a Peaks feeding frenzy began in the media which wouldn't let up until the fall. This would prove to be the high-water mark of Lynch's career. About 10 million viewers bought tickets for his most successful film (Dune, ironically), but here were 34.6 million people tuning into his work on a single night. Perhaps he had truly found his medium? For the moment at least, Lynch was riding high.

In case the pilot wasn't picked up, the director was tasked to shoot a Twin Peaks alternate ending (1990) which would be screened with the rest of the episode as a "movie" for international audiences. In this version, he closes the mystery abruptly by revealing Bob (Frank Silva), a ghoulish long-haired drifter, as the murderer. (Here, at least, the villain is a visibly creepy social outcast in keeping with Lynch's early work; also in keeping, there's no supernatural explanation despite the occult trappings of Bob's lair.) Oh, and then there's a bit with a red room, Laura lookalike, and dancing dwarf, but we'll get to that momentarily.

If the pilot hooked new viewers on Lynch, it was Twin Peaks (season 1, episode 2) (1990) that reeled them in. Taking what was sly suggestion in the feature-length debut and skewing it ever-so-slightly out of proportion in half the time, Lynch guides us expertly through the Peaks universe. We detour for each character and subplot on the way to the grand finale - probably Lynch's high-water mark in terms of popular recognition, a sequence that remains his most famous and has been honored and parodied more than anything else he's ever done. But before we even get there, the director is already in top form. Every scene finds a visual element to punch the atmosphere up a notch and cultivate an aesthetic experience.

Take, for example, the high-angle wide-shot of the Horne family's wacky dinner, the flashlight beam in the dark woods, a close-up of greasy hands on a doorknob, or a rising crane shot of a teenage girl dancing dreamily. Compare these touches to the previous installment (the first regular hour-long episode of the series, directed by Lynch's editor Duwayne Dunham), a very enjoyable if routine assembly of close-ups, as the actors deliver memorable one-liners and convey plot points. At its best - and sometimes even not at its best - Twin Peaks brought a sense of the cinematic moment, pregnant with feeling and suggestion, to the straightforward televisual drama/comedy. Some viewers checked out at this point - dismayed by the turn from atmospheric police procedural to wandering surrealism - but for those who stayed, this was what they wanted more of. This is also one of the most consistently funny episodes, but with an air of relaxed amusement rather than the strained silliness of the late second season: there are hints of darkness, tantalizing mystery clues, and affectionately intense adolescent romances, but every scene is fun. Lynch has created possibly the most consistently entertaining Peaks episode of them all.

If it weren't for the famous finale, the "Tibetan method" would probably remain what episode 2 is remembered for. Agent Cooper gathers the forces of law and order in a woodland clearing, lectures them on the plight of the Dalai Lama, and informs them that he's going to throw stones at glass bottles to determine the identity of the secret "J." in Laura's diary. The goofy sequence is a triple feat: it keeps viewers abreast of the various townspeople and their connection to Laura, it illustrates Cooper's offbeat techniques (and the town's bemused acceptance of him), and it demonstrates the show's quirky sense of humor. Furthermore, by mentioning that this method arrived in a dream, Cooper hints at where the episode is headed. In a dream sequence during the final minutes, we enter the "Red Room" for the first time (an outtake from the "closed" version of the pilot which Lynch just had to incorporate in the series proper). Those billowing red curtains, the dancing dwarf (Michael J. Anderson), the sultry ghost of Laura Palmer (or is it her cousin?)...TV would never be the same and Lynch's wry, mystical, what-the-hell-will-happen-next sensibility had finally captured the pop culture zeitgeist. How long could he hold on?


Situated in Lynch's filmography between the beloved Blue Velvet and reviled Fire Walk With Me, the significance of Wild at Heart (1990) could easily be overlooked. With its overheated, sunlit, Southern-fried flavor (and hip, postmodern sensibility) this is an unusual Lynch project, something of an outlier in his canon. It doesn't explore a mystery either - for once, a Lynch movie is not about finding out what has happened in the past, but rather enjoying the present and rushing into the future. Following the success of Twin Peaks, the film's Palme d'Or win at Cannes (a decision booed as well as cheered) solidified the director's media momentum and perceived relevance. Indeed, Wild at Heart appears as a forerunner of the nineties couple-on-the-run road movie genre, which was to become all the rage within a few years (Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers, True Romance). The film's sizzling sexuality and graphic violence, flirting with an X rating, also hinted at the restless energy of the decade's zeitgeist, as did a style far more impressionistic, random, and fast-paced than Lynch had employed before.

Lavishly treating Barry Gifford's novel of the same year, with one eye to Elvis and another to Wizard of Oz, the film traces the all-American journey of Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) across the South toward California. The story begins when Sailor savagely beats to death an attempted assailant; after serving time for manslaughter, he breaks parole with Lula, who flees her mother Marietta (Diane Lane), frequently depicted as the Wicked Witch. The two are hunted not just by Marietta but by an ill-defined, ominous criminal consortium embracing the degenerate overlord Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard), the sinister enforcer Santos (J.E. Freeman, announced by a mournful, foreboding Badalamenti music cue whenever he appears onscreen), the voodoo-inflected crippled killer Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie) and her similarly unibrowed daughter Perdita (Isabella Rossellini), and most memorably, the ferociously wicked and manipulative Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe).

With this colorful cast of characters engaged in a series of memorable but often vague encounters with one another, Wild at Heart struck many critics as a vapid cartoon. The violence seemed meaningless, the plot a pretext for surreal non sequiturs, the postmodern allusions and fantastical whimsy signifiers only of the film's self-indulgent weightlessness. But in the film's second (and for me, more interesting) half, there are strong currents under the surface. As the pace slows and mood darkens, Wild at Heart begins to depict the tensions in Sailor's and Lula's purely impulse-driven relationship - if the various villains don't seem truly dangerous in the unreal world of the film, our star couple's self-doubts and restlessness pose more of a true threat to their ultimate happiness. Though he changed the ending of Gifford's book, sending the duo off with a traffic-jam rendition of "Love Me Tender" and a visit from the Good Witch herself (Sheryl Lee), for the first time Lynch has allowed doubt and dissolution (but not yet evil) to emerge from within his innocent characters.

The fulcrum of the film, in which our heroes discover that youthful zest is not enough, arrives at the scene of a car accident. One young woman (Sherilyn Fenn) stumbles through the wreckage, bleeding from the head and pleading, heartbreakingly, that no one tell her mother what happened. Sailor and Lula can only watch helplessly as she falters, shudders, and collapses, in the only meaningful and moving death depicted onscreen. The scene demonstrates their ineffectiveness, but more importantly it demonstrates that the carefree couple are fundamentally good people; as they try to coax the woman into their car rather than just riding off the night, it's the first time we've seen them concerned with someone other than themselves. In Lynch's world, goodwill is as haunted as it is laudable, invariably leading to pain and suffering. This is confirmed in the following scene when Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), the movie's most sincere and decent character, is pointlessly executed (although mercifully, we cut away at the moment he's shot, with Lynch already having cut much of the preceding torture sequence when test audiences stormed out of the theater).

Despite these intimations of ambiguity and emotional weight, Wild at Heart is not intended to be a deep film. Unapologetically seeking surface pleasures over darker insights, the film captures a moment in Lynch's career never to be repeated. As such, it is a transitional work in just about every aspect - either the first appearance of trends that were to continue, or the last appearance of tendencies which were to transform. In post-production especially (fast cuts, elliptical asides, lyrical effects), the film introduces a whole new tempo to Lynch's stylistic arsenal, sharply deviating from the relative classicism of Blue Velvet and his other early features. The eroticism of the movie is uninflected by the sexual guilt which haunted Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, while Lula's flashbacks and "alone" moments allow us inside a female character's consciousness for the first time (hinting at the more overtly feminine films dominating the second half of Lynch's career). On the other hand, this is the last Lynch feature (with the exception of The Straight Story) to adhere to one single, relatively comprehensible narrative line; it's also his final feature to create such a sharp good/bad dichotomy of characters. At the time, Wild at Heart's cheerful palate and slapstick mayhem was criticized by some commentators as a sign that Lynch was on his way to becoming a shallow sellout. They couldn't have been further off the mark.

To accompany the release of Wild at Heart, Lynch directed a music video for Chris Isaak's Wicked Game (1990), the moody tune whose instrumental scores the film's dramatic turning point. Ironically, the song did not become an MTV classic until the following year when another director created a second, swimsuit-edition video. Lynch's version is more basic (and less memorable than his last music video), but perhaps notable for its use of superimpositions and cool, moody atmosphere, which reflects both the song and the new direction Lynch's work was headed in after a hot spring and summer.

Industrial Symphony No. 1 (1990), a stage extravaganza filmed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is difficult to place precisely in Lynch's chronology. Staged in November 1989, after the Twin Peaks pilot and famous "Red Room" sequence had already been shot but six months before they aired, it wasn't released on video until almost a year later, after the series had popularized Industrial Symphony No. 1's music and visual motifs. One thing's for sure: in spirit this avant-garde concert belongs to the transitional period between Twin Peaks'/Wild at Heart's bold flamboyance and the more intense weirdness of Twin Peaks's second season.

Opening with a clip of Wild at Heart's Sailor and Lula breaking up over the phone, the rest of the performance will be sung rather than spoken, by Julee Cruise as she hangs from wires and crawls around in a car. Twin Peaks classics like "Falling" and "The World Spins" accompany other music from Cruise's 1989 album Floating Into the Night as well as a song featured in Wild at Heart (all written by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti). Onstage we see topless women crawling through industrial detritus, the Peaks dwarf sawing a log, and (my personal favorite) a giant, menacing, all-too-alive skinned deer carcass on stilts. Time called this "Lynch's most brazenly avant-garde work" and Beautiful Dark, a Lynch biography by Greg Olson, informs us that the performance "was received with varying measures of enthusiasm, respectful appreciation, skepticism, and repudiation." Irritation with Lynch was growing, a backlash building simultaneously with the crescendo of his popular acclaim. Implicit in the growing resentment was a feeling that Lynch should make a few more concessions to the audience he'd captured, lest he lose them. Viewers were tired of being frustrated and delayed; they enjoyed his kooky tangents, but not at the expense of conventional narratives and well-timed plot reveals. Should the director accommodate their impatience?

In the opening of the two-hour Twin Peaks (season 2, episode 1) (1990) we can almost hear Lynch laughing at that very question. Let's talk time. The episode's credits unfold much slower than usual, including all the guest stars and the crew before the action begins instead of over it, as is the norm. It's a full three minutes before Lynch's directorial credit appears and we're inside the Great Northern. Coop is lying on the floor, gunned down at the end of the previous season's busybody cliffhanger (in tempo, the polar opposite of this season's premiere). And so he will continue to lie for another 18 minutes! Keep in mind this is prime-time on ABC, kicking off the most eagerly-anticipated series of the season.

Instead of letting us know who shot Agent Cooper (let alone who killed Laura Palmer), Lynch wallows in perverse humor as an elderly waiter (Hank Worden) takes a full five minutes to place hot milk on the table, fumblingly hang up the phone, and get the bleeding FBI agent to sign his bill (Cooper, realizing reason is futile, gamely asks if gratuity is included). On the way out the door, he offers two or three thumbs up (I lost count). Cooper is then visited by a supernatural giant (another turn-off for viewers still clinging to the idea of a standard soap or cop show), recites his dying wishes to Diane on the tape recorder, and is finally rescued by his friends from the sheriff's office. He offers them a thumbs up as well. The rest of the episode proceeds at an only marginally escalated pace. Lynch has directed all his actors to pause, ponder, and generally take their time delivering lines; far from the jaunty pace and comfortable cutting of his previous Twin Peaks episode, in this installment the director prefers lingering on character moments and sticking with single shots for as long as possible.

There's also something notable about the sensibility at play: a certain ironic distance that characterized the series - and indeed all of Lynch's work up to this point - is disappearing. There's plenty of humor, of course, and moments where characters act bizarrely and we're encouraged to laugh at the situation. But somehow we are with these characters in a new way, not observing them affectionately but rather descending directly into their world and living side by side with them. The winking Lynch that critics loved in Blue Velvet and early Twin Peaks (and had begun to lose patience with by Wild at Heart) is letting down his guard. And something else: the murder of Laura Palmer is becoming more real. What was an occasionally poignant MacGuffin and mass media parlor game in the first season is treated at this episode's conclusion in vivid, gruesome detail as Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), the other girl in the train car when Laura died, flashes back to the night of the murder. We hear Laura's blood-curdling scream, see her bloody face, and witness the roaring, demonic presence of Killer Bob (Frank Silva) huddled over her corpse. In both its comedic and horrific aspects, the episode challenges viewers from beginning to end. Unhelped by a new Saturday time slot, Twin Peaks' ratings would plummet the following week, and never recover.

Lynch quickly returned to direct Twin Peaks (season 2, episode 2) (1990), making him responsible for the first three hours of the new season. Frequently classified as his least distinctive episode, this is the only time Lynch helmed two episodes in a row, worked without a Mark Frost teleplay, or directed an episode without any great narrative importance to the series as a whole (his other episodes were the pilot, the introduction of the "Red Room" dream, the season two premiere, the revelation of Laura's killer, and the series finale). The end credits even roll over Laura's portrait (something avoided in Lynch's other installments) perhaps because this is the first time he's directed an episode without her in it.

Still, plenty of Lynch trademarks are on display. Visually, he's fond of uncluttered spaces captured with wide lenses and sticking with conversational two-shots a little longer than usual. Some unscripted touches were improvised after random inspiration, like the teleporting creamed corn (which eventually becomes "garmonbozia" in the feature film) and amusingly hard-to-operate hospital stools. Lynch's affection for dry, drawn-out comic setpieces is toned down from the previous episode but still present, including the aforementioned stools and some lengthy fly-swatting. Probably the most consistent Lynch touch is his inclusion of the supernatural, which most other writers and directors have been ignoring. Mrs. Palmer's psychic vision, Cooper's mystic dream, and the giant's ghostly visitation are now joined by Donna's Meals-on-Wheels visit to an old lady (Frances Bay, whose marble rye would be stolen by Jerry Seinfeld several years later) and her "magician" son (Austin Lynch, dressed and coiffed to look just like Dad).

Finally, and most importantly, every Lynch episode features an appearance by long-haired, menacing Bob (at least if you include then-set dresser Frank Silva's accidental reflection in a mirror in the pilot, which encouraged the director to cast him as Bob in the first place). Episode 2 features what to my mind remains the most terrifying Bob moment of all, as we see him casually stalk into the Palmer living room, crawl over the couch, and loom snarling inches from the lens, staring straight at us. It's a reminder that Twin Peaks is bringing its horror closer and closer to home; when Lynch shot Bob footage for the closed ending of the pilot (in case it wasn't picked up) he made Bob a creepy but completely human drifter hiding out in the hospital. As a marginal figure in the community, he fit in with previous Lynch villains like Frank Booth or the sneering proletarians of The Elephant Man. By making Bob a metaphysical rather than physical force, and placing him inside rather than outside the gates (no longer do Lynch heroes have to leave home to find trouble), Lynch is bringing the villain closer to viewers figuratively as well as literally. He will soon follow through on the implicit threat.

Unsurprisingly, when Lynch returned to direct Twin Peaks (season 2, episode 7) (1990) it was the most important episode of the entire series. More surprisingly, it would also become the most important turning point in his personal creative vision. Since the pilot that spring, the country had been abuzz with the catchphrase, "Who killed Laura Palmer?" By November, audience exhaustion with the delayed reveal, the increasingly supernatural plot developments, and the darker, moodier feel of the series - all Lynch's interventions - had contributed to a ratings freefall. The time had come to solve the mystery and hopefully rescue the show. Yet Lynch's artistic triumph would in fact spell doom for the series.

Watching Twin Peaks for the first time six years ago, I had managed to avoid most spoilers. I did discover several episodes in advance that Maddy (Sheryl Lee) would be murdered. Since she was staying with her uncle Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), it seemed quite possible that he would be the one to do her in - thus implying he'd killed his daughter Laura too. Already it made dramatic sense for Leland to be the killer; the excessive buildup to the reveal demanded a shocking twist, and making Laura's father a filicide certainly fit that bill. But I didn't want it to be him, mostly because this meant the fun show I'd been enjoying could no longer be appreciated on that level. Like many viewers (and in fact, Wise himself, who was sickened that the role he'd embraced was now an incestuous serial killer) I wanted to have my cake and eat it too: thrilling to the spooky atmosphere and hints of nightmare while still savoring the quirky, jaunty humor and winking playfulness. Lynch, however, is ultimately too honest an artist for that kind of easy satisfaction and so he descends into the abyss lurking just offscreen for so long.

What ends this haunting episode must still be the most brutal and disturbing five minutes in primetime history (strictly speaking, it should never have made it past the network censors; when aired on the BBC there was a public outcry). Alternating between oversaturated shots of a vicious, taunting Killer Bob (the spirit who possesses an innocent Leland, or personifies Leland's own evil, depending on your reading) and - in some ways even more disturbing - "normal" shots of Leland punching, strangling, and caressing his own niece, the scene is agonizingly stretched out. Some critics complained of the "loving" detail but they were allowing their own shock to obscure the view. For the first time in his work, Lynch places us directly inside the terrible suffering onscreen. There's no longer any ironic distance, voyeuristic viewpoint, or happy ending to save us. After reveling in the ugliness of the butchered Eraserhead baby, providing powerful guardians for the Elephant Man, and using Jeffrey as a buffer between the wholesomeness of Lumberton and the "outside" evil of Frank, Lynch finally casts aside all protective evasions. Evil is located in the home, in the family, and the bulwarks against its advance have been re-identified as its enablers. There is a horrible sadness and great maturity to Lynch's vision in this climactic episode, especially once we return to the solemn Road House, where a helpless Agent Cooper is consoled by a gentle old man. This is the point of no return for David Lynch: by taking this direction he lost his chance at a wide audience once and for all. But he also reached full maturity as an artist; going forward there will never again be a question of compromising his vision or avoiding its implications.

At some point in the new year, either shortly before or shortly after Twin Peaks wrapped, Lynch created a visual tag for his new company Assymetrical Productions (1991). This tiny gesture is significant only inasmuch as it points in a new visual direction, introducing floating, disembodied lips, a novel motif that will reappear frequently in Lynch's ads. Aesthetically, the tag returns to the abrasive, black-and-white look and sound of Eraserhead, but with a new speed and fondness for superimposition. Simply put, he's getting more hallucinatory.

When Lynch returned for the Twin Peaks finale (1990), he'd been gone for eight months - fifteen episodes and a long hiatus during which the show's fate hung in the balance (a third season still seemed possible, but the writing was on the wall). The quality had dipped significantly after Laura's killer was himself buried, and watching this finale after the second season can be quite shocking to the system: like taking a hit of the pure stuff, uncut. Lynch neatly disposes of the many comedic and melodramatic subplots with a dozen sharp little scenes, shot mostly in very wide shots and long takes, the actors delivering the dialogue in offbeat fashion with long pauses and deliberate pacing. The master is back in the driver's seat.

The real Lynchian touch is the final half-hour of the episode, and indeed the series, in which Agent Cooper disappears inside the much-discussed Black Lodge. This mysterious space turns out to be the Red Room from Episode 2, only cranked up to 11 (or 111). Completely scrapping the written sequence in order to improvise what we see onscreen, Lynch's imagination runs free with deadpan shapeshifting, backwards talking, reverse motion, trippy pyrotechnics, and pale-blue-eyed doppelgangers rustling out of strobe-blasted red curtains. But there's a method to the madness and the overarching theme is the dangerous proximity between good and evil. This isn't ambiguity per se (the contending forces are as clearly distinguished as ever), but duality: even Cooper can't escape his dark side, and only when he tries is he overtaken. This leads to one of the darkest, bleakest, yet emotionally rich Lynchian scenes as Cooper smashes his head into a mirror and is greeted by Bob, fully in possession of his latest human vessel. The cackling special agent has joined the legion of evil, and Lynch's world vision has completed a sharp turn since the happy ending of Blue Velvet, only compounded by the show's subsequent cancellation. The  fragile walls of virtue have finally collapsed - the robins have disappeared, the prayer books have disintegrated - and for the first time since the amoral Eraserhead, goodness is defeated by its own fear.

As well as Lynch's most morally complicated work to date, the Black Lodge sequence of the Twin Peaks finale proved Lynch's most experimental cinematic venture since Eraserhead (putting aside Industrial Symphony No. 1, essentially a filmed stage performance). The sequence experiments in similar fashion to Lynch's first feature (distinguishing it from his later, more freeflowing avant-garde works), confined to a few spare sets and sharp design elements, employing deliberate, methodical cuts and character movement to cultivate a trancelike atmosphere, and juxtaposing a bewildered but unresisting protagonist with unpredictable and often animalistic characters. Pointing to a new direction in Lynch's experimentation, on the other hand, is the finale's anything-goes openness; with its billowing curtains, bold colors, and seemingly roofless construction, the Red Room never feels as claustrophobic as Henry's or even Dorothy's apartments. This is a dangerous space, but it is also free. Neither Bob nor new (and quickly defeated) archvillain Windom Earle (Kenneth Walsh) can ask for Dale Cooper's soul; only he, by fear and avoidance, can volunteer it. And so he does.

Around the time the Twin Peaks phenomenon ended, Lynch shot one of his most interesting advertisements, a public service announcement called We Care About New York (1991). Warning about the dangers of littering, the short spot shows swarms of rats sweeping through the shadows, corrupting the city like Bob in Twin Peaks or Frank in Lumberton. Tellingly, though - as in the Black Lodge - careless, insensitive normal people have invited the enemy inside. Even in an ad, Lynch's darker mood and newfound moral anxiety is clearly communicated.

Early in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton) - the proprietor of the hilariously decrepit Fat Trout Trailer Park in scuzzy Deer Meadow (the polar opposite of lovable Twin Peaks) - makes two offhand statements that provide keys to the second part of the film. Asked to show murder victim Teresa Banks' (Pamela Gidley's) trailer to FBI agents he cracks, "That place is gettin' more popular than Uncle's Day at a whorehouse." We may chuckle at the sick joke until we reflect that, indeed, Teresa was killed for inadvertently revealing Laura Palmer's prostitution to her father (she had invited him to a orgy, not knowing their relationship) and that incestuous lust lies at the heart of Laura's suffering. Carl's second remark is more cryptic, arriving after a dirty, confused old lady arrives at his doorstep and then turns away without saying a word. Developing a thousand-yard stare, he swallows hard and mutters, apropos of nothing: "See, I've already gone places. I just wanna stay where I am."

For the rest of Lynch's career, the desire for safety, protection, and simple joy - a desire which has characterized all of his works up to this point - will continue. What changes from this point on is the impossibility of such security, based as it is on repression and denial. Fire Walk With Me goes out of its way not only to disturb the fragile lies its characters tell themselves (as will every single one of his features from now on, including even the gentle Straight Story) but to upset and provoke the viewer as well. Twin Peaks fans expecting a return to "the town of damn good coffee and cherry pie" (as the film's DVD case deceptively describes) were beyond disappointed, and new viewers were baffled as Lynch used the big screen to extend rather than explain the show's mythology. Fire Walk With Me focuses on Laura Palmer's final week, preceded by a half-hour mock-TV episode in which Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) bumble around Deer Meadow (and a surreal sequence, with a bizarre David Bowie cameo, in which the nightmarish images of the Black Lodge penetrate FBI headquarters in Philadelphia).

Although this is Lynch's most impressionistic, unconventional narrative yet, the bulk of the film is structured around a growing sense of discovery, laid out over seven days and nights (this format - and the alternating scenes of decadence and alienation - echo La Dolce Vita, by Lynch's beloved Federico Fellini). We follow Laura's dawning realization that her molester, whom she's envisioned as long-haired, jean-jacketed Bob, is in fact her own father; we trace Laura's self-destructive behavior which escalates from drugs to prostitution to involvement in murder as the film progresses; and we slowly learn the extent of Leland Palmer's depravity - and responsibility for his own depravity (through flashbacks revealing that he slept with Teresa and then murdered her himself to prevent blackmail - no Bob in sight). The culmination of all these threads arrives on the penultimate night as Laura writhes in bed, attempting to seduce her rapist into revealing his true identity before horrifically holding her father's face in her hands.

Fire Walk With Me is about discovering the truth, no matter how painful it might be. Using a haunted painting of an open door as a metaphor, Lynch takes Laura, the audience, and himself on a troubled voyage into the darkness. Unlike Jeffrey in Blue Velvet or even Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks, Laura cannot avoid garmonbozia ("pain and sorrow") - she doesn't seek it out as they do, it is forced upon her. Her only choice is whether or not to become another cold, hard abuser (as her father, almost certainly molested himself, did), a gesture as self-protective as it is self-destructive. And yet after allowing best friend Donna (Moira Kelly) to be drugged at a sex club, Laura leaps to her rescue: she's isn't ready to open her soul up to Bob. A green ring which appears throughout the film, a ring that the one-armed man tosses to her in the train car (and that Teresa wore when [before] she was murdered), seems to be both a talisman of death and a gateway to redemptive self-protection - when Laura wears it she is telling Bob, and her father, that they cannot "put their disease inside of her" and so she must die.

The heartbreaking conclusion of the film can appear baffling as well, with its angels and bright light. Why is Ronette Pulaski saved while poor Laura can't be? Up till now, the movie has completely subverted the series' initial conception of a "corrupted" Laura who invited her own death and was somehow responsible for the sexual violence enacted upon her. Why then does the angel neglect her, and why is death her only opportunity for release? As with all the spiritual beings in the movie, the angels are symbols of a deeper psychological (or rather, spiritual) reality. Laura sees an angel disappear from the portrait on her wall (which has already been displaced by the open door); when Ronette prays in the train car, she begins her prayer with the word "Father..." The point is that Laura has no "Father" to pray to - her supposed protector is the very one who has violated her. While Ronette is visited by an angel, Laura is confronted with her own reflection, which morphs into Bob. And yet when she dies and finds herself sitting sorrowfully in the Red Room with Agent Cooper's hand on her shoulder, Laura is greeted by an angel.

Perhaps this is Laura's dying realization that she is not to blame for her suffering and is a good person after all, perhaps it is Lynch's pained admission that only by dying could Laura escape the evil that befell her father, or perhaps the appearance of the angel is simpler than that: perhaps this is a deeply personal gesture on Lynch's part, an act of charity and reconciliation, reaching out to embrace the character he created and infused with such suffering. In the world of his own characters, the filmmaker is God and so Lynch offers Laura peace as only a creator can. Coupled with the usually cagey director's statements about "falling in love" with Laura Palmer and "wanting to see her," this final scene - and indeed the whole project - feels like a personal act of penance for achieving popularity through her pain. As with all true acts of penance, this would have real consequences, and like Cooper trapped in the Lodge to comfort "our schoolgirl of the sorrows" (as Lynch biographer Greg Olson calls her), Lynch himself suffered for his act of generosity. Fire Walk With Me was reviled by critics, ignored at the box office, and rejected by most Twin Peaks fans. Yet Lynch emerged from the roller coaster ride of Twin Peaks a changed filmmaker, his dreams of mainstream success dashed but his commitment to express a darker, more sensitive vision of human suffering strengthened. It would be a while, however, before he could follow through: Lynch would not make another feature film for half a decade.

And now for something completely different. As if Lynch needed a dumping ground for all the comedy extracted from Twin Peaks for Fire Walk With Me, the madcap TV pilot On the Air (1992) provides twenty minutes of undiluted zaniness. An unhinged cast and crew attempt to broadcast a live performance of The Lester Guy Show in the late fifties but Lester's middle name must be Murphy because everything that can go wrong does - and even some things that can't still do. Lovably ditzy blonde Betty (Marla Rubinoff) appears to be our protagonist, especially once the eponymous star of the show (Ian Buchanan, Twin Peaks' dapper Dick Tremayne) is sandbagged (literally) and left hanging (also literally).

Buchanan is joined by several other Peaks supporting players including David L. Lander and, most notably, Miguel Ferrar as a producer, reprising the sarcastic disgust that characterized his FBI Agent Rosenfield. Other than perhaps Ferrar's character, there isn't a sane character onscreen, and if the fictional viewers of The Lester Guy Show find this amusing (when the TV camera falls over, a couple old ladies even turn their heads to catch the action; perhaps Lynch's fantasy about audience accommodation), real-life viewers of On the Air did not - or were never given the chance to. This final Lynch-Frost collaboration (after Twin Peaks and American Chronicles, a short-lived documentary series for Fox) made it only two weeks on ABC. Four of the seven filmed episodes were never even aired (remarkably, Lynch and ABC gave each other a third chance in 1999 and this time his project was dropped before broadcast). It was a poignant, inglorious end to Lynch's TV career although the charmingly wacky pilot - the only episode he directed - made TV Guide's list of 100 Greatest TV episodes.

As it played out, 1992 was the Bizarro World version of 1990 for Lynch - while in the spring of '90 he had arrived in Cannes with the most celebrated show on TV and a film that won the Palme d'Or, now he was back in France with a series that would be gone by the Fourth of July and a film that was booed at the festival and resolutely ignored by audiences and critics (at least by those who chose not to savage it) in its wide release. This was the beginning of Lynch's wilderness period; after so many predictions of mainstream success and brand-name recognition, the director would spend the mid-nineties far from the spotlight. He kept working - indeed his projects multiplied - but with few of the resources and none of the attention he had grown accustomed to. A series of commercials, music videos, and short contributions to omnibus films followed, and through these Lynch expanded and experimented with his aesthetic, developing a more impressionistic, fragmented style that would come to characterize his features as well. Even On the Air indicates this new direction, with its breathless pacing (previously, slow had been funny to Lynch), disregard for any last feint towards "realism," and manic visual touches like the pulsating superimposed objects observed by technician Blinky Watts (Tracy Walter). Blinky stumbles and fumbles through his duties because "he actually sees 25.26 times as much as we do" (apparently including floating, vibrating Santas). Those around him assume he's near-blind and are unappreciative of his extra vision. Possibly Lynch was thinking of himself.

Who is Gio? (1992) continues the feminine trend in Lynch's work begun by Fire Walk With Me. This spot for Armani perfume features a mystery woman, but we feel drawn into her world rather than merely observing her from outside. There's no male character to be identified, and notably the question the commercial proposes is not "who killed Gio?" (or even "what perfume does Gio wear?" although obviously that's implicit) but who is she? The moody visuals and shadowy figures suggest she has dark secrets, although what they are we'll never know.

Opium (1992) portrays addiction (to Yves St. Laurent, don't worry) with swooning romanticism while the Dangerous (1993) video teaser is Lynch's first animated work in over twenty years; its distorted manipulation anticipates future digital projects.
In the midst of his experiments with sound and image, Lynch collaborated with Wild at Heart author Barry Gifford on the 3-part HBO anthology Hotel Room. Lynch directed two chapters but only Tricks (1993) is available online in English. Basically a filmed play, it opens in the late sixties with the square Moe (Harry Dean Stanton) escorting hip young hooker Darlene (Glenne Headley) into Room 603. As he fumblingly attempts verbal foreplay ("The white knight is about to take a dangerous journey into the dark forest"), he is interrupted by Lou Boca (Freddie Jones), a sort of demonic Santa Claus who steals instead of gives - in this case, screwing Darlene while Moe meekly protests from the corner of his bed.

Undercutting initially innocuous dialogue and gesture with sinister music, and making the most of the satanic gleam in Jones' eye, Lynch fills us with a sense of anxiety; we nervously suspect a turn for the worse. The dialogue is constructed from fragmentary stories which we strain to string into semi-logical sequence. Darlene, threatened by the two men, escapes and we are left alone with them, but still can't get a bead on their real relationship. When Lou leaves, he drops his wallet into Moe's coat pocket, and then the police burst in, mistaking Moe for Lou and accusing him of his wife's murder. But how could Lou's picture ID implicate Moe? The strange behavior of the two characters, their weird symbiotic relationship, and the nature of Moe's arrest suggest that in fact Lou is a projection of Moe's shadow self, recalling Twin Peaks and pointing toward Lynch and Gifford's next collaboration on Lost Highway.

Lynch's Japanese ads for Georgia Coffee (1993) reunite the director with his Twin Peaks stars on sets meticulously reconstructed from the series. Cooper and the gang pursue a missing girl over four zippy spots, eventually rescuing her from a very minimalist Red Room in the woods. Capitalizing on the success of Fire Walk With Me in Japan (one of the film's few triumphs), the commercials were nonetheless discontinued sooner than expected. Three strikes you're out - Lynch never entered the Peaks universe again.

Around this time, Lynch shot two French commercials, Tresor Lancome Paris (1993) (continuing his penchant for overlapping images) and Barilla Pasta (1993), with Gerard Depardieu's cafe owner rescuing patrons with packaged noodles. It's hilariously un-Lynchian.

The Wall (1993), for Adidas, is one of Lynch's most hallucinatory works, loaded with sweaty superimpositions and extreme close-ups of screaming mouths. A fairly abrasive advertisement, its fast MTV cutting of distorted imagery is both indicative of the period and increasingly distinctive of the director himself. Just as Lynch brightened and colored his visual style in the eighties, so in the nineties he adopted manipulation of the image itself as a major trademark. He would take this manipulation even further in the zeroes but already physical reality is mutating in Lynch's eyes.

The Instinct of Life (1993), for Jill Sanders' Background, features colored lights, smoke, flashes, and ripples of light to create a luminous texture. Sun Moon Stars (1994), starring Daryl Hannah in another perfume ad, continues the gauzy mystical trend of Lynch's mid-nineties commercials.

The music video for Longing (1995), by X Japan, echoes the sea-and-night-sky imagery of The Instinct of Life, merging facial features with the horizon and superimposing objects and shapes alongside the moodily lit singer. With its visual motifs and layered imagery, it serves as a culmination and synthesis of the impressionistic, non-narrative approaches the director has been developing over the past few years. Shooting Malibu as if it's Arakkis from Dune, Lynch also captures the mysterious side of the Californian landscape - from now on, most of his work will be set close to home.
Challenged to compose a silent, unbroken 55-second shot using the original Lumiere camera, many contributors to the international anthology film Lumiere & Co. punted. Lynch's contribution, Premonition of an Evil Deed (1995) is far and away the most inventive and memorable of the bunch. In flickering, sinister imagery shot on a rotating set (which allowed him to follow the rules while subverting their constrictions), his juxtaposition of bizarre, perhaps extraterrestrial laboratories with an eerily normal living room suggests psychic uneasiness. Thick with atmosphere, this is Lynch's most distinctive work since Fire Walk With Me.


The five years between Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway (1997) marked the longest break between Lynch's features to date. Taken up with impressionistic, non-narrative projects in the interim, when he returned to a bigger canvas, the director had lost interest in expressing themes within conventional frameworks. If Fire Walk With Me was enigmatic and esoteric, Lost Highway is near-impenetrable: its plot reverses course, derails, and then seemingly syncs back up with itself, while characters and locations double, disappear, and switch places. On first viewing, the disparate pieces are only linked together by a mood of dread, a feeling of unexplained guilt. Yet if the narrative offers a maze, the film's form presents a united front. Like Eraserhead and Wild at Heart, this is as much an exercise in style as in story although Lynch can't escape his attachment to character psychology and mysterious plot twists.

In mood, the movie picks up where Fire Walk With Me left off. There's no cheerful Lumberton montage or Twin Peaks ensemble to greet us at the doorstep of Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette), two mopey, reticent Angelinos who seem lost with one another, and therefore lost in the world. We will not be moving into an unmoored, decentered universe because we're already starting there; the robins flew the coop long ago and as for angels, the English translation of the film's city speaks for itself. Fred, impotent and suspicious of his wife, receives three videotapes in the mail: the first shot from outside his house, the second inexplicably sliding across the ceiling, the third revealing the mutilated body of his wife...with him crouching over it. We smash cut to a cop punching Fred and calling him "wife-killer" before transitioning to death row, where Fred is miraculously replaced inside his cell by Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). The baffled authorities return Pete to his family in suburbia (only here to do we begin to see the sunnier side of life, though not for long). Pete begins an affair with blonde femme fatale Alice Wakefield (also Arquette), the wife of hotheaded criminal overlord Big Eddie, aka Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), and she seduces him into robbery and murder. Abandoned by the teasing Alice in the desert, Pete becomes Fred once again, gun in hand, ready to do some damage.

Appearing several times throughout Lost Highway, always when an evil act is conceived or executed, is the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a pasty-faced ghoul who seems to be the projection of Fred's own dark side, his "Bob" if you will - except that other characters can see him as well. While there appears to be a "real" story to decode here, it doesn't come with Rosetta Stone scenes like Mulholland Drive or even Inland Empire; the dream must be interpreted from inside of itself, because this time the entire film operates on an allegorical level. Essentially Lost Highway personifies and literalizes the rationalizations and evasions of someone who did indeed kill his wife (Pete is an idealized, innocent version of Fred, Alice a culpable temptress rather than undeserving victim). Lynch believes his screenplay, co-written with Wild at Heart's Barry Gifford, was subconsciously inspired by O.J. Simpson's apparent dissociation from his own crime (we won't even get into the Robert Blake connection). Yet the exact correspondences of Lost Highway, i.e. who's really who, remain elusive, at least to this viewer. Some characters, like Laurent, are probably "real," while others seem more like manifestations of Fred's mental checks and balances. Pete's protective parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler), for example, mysteriously and conveniently vanish from the room (and the rest of the film) when Big Eddie and the Mystery Man threaten their son over the phone.

Although it lost money at the box office and baffled most critics, Lost Highway developed a cult following that paved the way for Mulholland Drive's stronger showing. While the mindbending story was part of the appeal for young, hip viewers, the music and crime-genre trappings no doubt played their part. Badalamenti's score is mostly overshadowed by the Trent Reznor-produced soundtrack of experimental electronica and sinister rock, connecting Lynch with a new generation of viewers via featured artists like Marilyn Manson and Rammstein. It also helped that for the first time Lynch's teenagers aren't straight out of Archie comics - although Pete echoes fifties greasers with his leather jacket and mechanic's coveralls, his friends look and talk like rebellious nineties youths with the requisite hairdos, piercings, and outfits. That mid-nineties staple, the black video cassette, even plays a major role in the story; indeed, Lost Highway proves to be one of Lynch's few real time capsules, capturing the period it was made as much as the various American eras referenced throughout.

Lost Highway is also Lynch's entry into (or subversion of) a genre he may have helped inspire - call it the postmodern neo-noir, whose greatest practitioner Quentin Tarantino had proclaimed (after Fire Walk With Me), "David Lynch has climbed so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch film until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. Loved him." Like Tarantino and his imitators, Lynch set his hip crime flick in L.A., a first for the director who'd moved there twenty-five years earlier (Lynch's subsequent feature would be his last not anchored in Hollywood). The goateed, bathrobe-wearing Andy (Michael Massee) could've wandered in from any Pulp Fiction knock-off, and the character's hilarious, squirm-inducing demise at the tip of a pointy glass coffee table sees and raises Tarantino's creative body count. However, like the much more straightforward L.A. Confidential (which came out later that year), Lynch isn't using the form to joke around or merely look cool. Cryptically or otherwise, Lost Highway is about the pain, denial, and disconnection simmering beneath the city of dreams - and the same would be true of Lynch's next mystery-in-L.A. project.

If Lost Highway zoomed into new territory for Lynch, the accompanying music video for Rammstein (1997) is not particularly innovative, leaning heavily on footage from the film. However, it does feed off Lynch's nineties pyromania as flames engulf Till Lindemann's arms.

In four very short, very simple spots for the Sci-Fi Channel (1997) (mostly reliant on a single shot), Lynch establishes atmosphere, offbeat humor, and a sense of mystery. "Aunt Droid," with its punning captions, cleverly combines two fifties genres, the domestic sitcom and the sci-fi B-movie. "Rocket" also employs nostalgia for the early space age (it's the most sentimental and least spooky of the promos) while "Dead Leaves" plays on Hitchcockian suggestion. "Nuclear Winter" is a less playful homage to postwar dreams and nightmares, gazing out a wintry window to wonder if it's the end of the world or just a particularly bad snowstorm.

Lynch brings a Daliesque touch of surrealism to his commercial for the pregnancy test Clear Blue Easy (1997), with a clock that trades numbers for alternating "Yes" and "No." Crisp and bright in its black-and-white, it's also rather clinical. The glamorous-looking actress and photography (if not subject matter) also offer a reminder of Lynch's ethereal, feminine early advertisements; this will be the last until Lady Blue Shanghai a dozen years later. Increasingly "Lynchian" will mean bizarre disorientation rather than haunting elegance.

Speaking of bizarre disorientation, this grungy, head-spinning spot for Parisienne (1998), a Swiss cigarette, builds off the fire motifs of Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks. Two men zip through a junkyard in what appears to be reverse motion, shooting flames from the ground and dodging falling fish (I think?). If Lynch's nineties work represents a tug-of-war between speed and slowness, here speed wins out. But not for long...


Usually cited as David Lynch's most atypical film, The Straight Story (1999) is in fact Lynchian in all but the most obvious ways. Mary Sweeney, Lynch's companion at the time, adapted the real-life adventures of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a septuagenarian Iowan who journeyed on a small John Deere tractor all the way to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). But if Lynch didn't write the screenplay, it's easy to see what drew him to the story...and the character. Like Lynch, Straight was polite but reticent, eccentric and efficient, independent yet easygoing. The scenes in which the old man constructs a homemade trailer in his backyard must have reminded Lynch of his student days, building sets for Eraserhead in AFI backrooms, wrangling bemused onlookers until they were full participants in his personal drama.

A road movie that amusingly reverses usual conventions - age over youth, solitude rather than camaraderie, slow and steady instead of speed - The Straight Story nonetheless embraces the freedom of the genre, as well as the notion (stretching back to the myths of wandering heroes) that the journey brings wisdom. As with all great odysseys, Alvin must arrive at his destination only when the time is right and the correct path has been chosen. Several times he declines shortcuts or a helping hand, determined to complete this trip his "own way," knowing it's a metaphysical as well as physical voyage. He and his brother haven't spoken in years, and a certain ritual must be observed before the rapprochement can be achieved. Lyle too seems to understand. Sitting next to Alvin at film's end, he observes his brother's ornery contraption and only then do his eyes fill with tears. He gets it - the slow, painstaking journey is a kind of penance Alvin must pay, a purging, a purification.

There's something else touching about this moment. As Lyle stares at the tractor, it's invested with a new, deeply emotional meaning. No longer is it merely a vehicle to take Alvin from one place to another. Suddenly it's a physical manifestation of the love and pain that can't be spoken openly. Lyle's gaze, which the camera follows, liberates meaning in the machine. This is pure Lynch. His fascination with bizarre objects has led some critics to accuse the director of caring more about fetishistic totems than character, but this is backwards. Always, the object is a key or clue to character. Think the ear in Blue Velvet, the blue key and box in Mulholland Drive, even Laura Palmer's corpse in Twin Peaks: in each case, an ominous form serves as a gateway into deeper, painful human understanding. So it is with Alvin's tractor. As always, Lynch moves through the symbolic object to reach humanism.

The form of the narrative, a collection of incidents strung together by a simple device, also lends itself to Lynch's particular strengths. Most scenes are more concerned with capturing a moment through landscape, character interaction, or silent expression than with advancing the plot. Yet as always, there's a not-only-geographical progression at play. Initially Alvin is more observer than participant. He dispenses wisdom to a pregnant runaway and some cocky young bicyclists, listens to a hysterical motorist rant about deer, and parks his trailer outside a house but politely declines to enter when making a phone call. The turning point arrives when Alvin goes out for a drink with a local senior (Alvin orders milk, though later he'll tiptoe off the wagon for a touch of liquid courage in his brother's village). His drinking buddy wants to share war stories, and at first we suspect Alvin will avoid unloading his own. Instead, he opens up about a comrade killed by his own friendly fire. The conversation also references Alvin's past alcoholism and stormy relationships, and from this point on he'll be less guarded, a bit warmer in his interactions with others.

As for Lynch, this G-rated Disney film was basically the last pitstop on his route out of narrative, mainstream cinema. His next feature would become infamous as a mindbender (although it too would be seem relatively audience-friendly compared to what was coming), and never again would the director anchor his visual motifs, stylistic techniques, and affection for performers to a sturdy, straightforward narrative structure. Like Alvin's tractor parked in Lyle's yard, the reliable framework of narrative cinema had now served its purposes for Lynch. He was ready to look elsewhere.

As the new millennium dawned, Lynch directed The Third Place (2000), a dizzying display of hallucinatory imagery (floating women, detached heads, arms shooting out of mouths). Hyperactive visual effects build on Lynch's commercial work in the nineties and anticipate his return to animation and eventual abandonment of a slower, more methodical approach to surrealism.


There's something cathartic about the triumph of Mulholland Drive (2001). While no megahit, it was Lynch's first film since Wild at Heart to surpass its budget at the worldwide box office. Lynch received his first Oscar nomination since Blue Velvet and his first-ever Best Director award at Cannes, while sweeping numerous critics' awards. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive (even Lynch-hating Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and rather presumptuously "forgave" the director his previous work). Most importantly, Mulholland Drive's reputation has only grown with time. It is the second-ranked film on the They Shoot Picture Don't They list of most acclaimed 21st century titles, and #73 on the same website's all-time list, just edging out Blue Velvet. For a director who had spent the past decade in the doghouse, and whose suddenly beloved project had been rejected by ABC a quarter-decade earlier, this was a remarkable comeback. Why the turnaround?

Partly, of course, it's due to timing. Just as the commentariat was rooting for his success in 1990 and his downfall in 1992, by 2001 enough time had passed that critics and industry types were ready to welcome him back once again. But that cynical, superficial reading doesn't quite do the phenomenon justice. There is much in the film itself to explain its success. Perhaps unfairly, the relative lack of shocking violence and re-appearance of wholesome, sympathetic characters (at least for part of the movie) rehabilitated Lynch in some eyes, especially following The Straight Story's gentle humanism. Mulholland Drive, powered by Badalamenti's haunting score, also carried an emotional resonance many had missed in Lost Highway (where it admittedly required digging) and Fire Walk With Me (where it didn't, but the film caught viewers off-guard). With its Hollywood romanticism and romantic-tragic character arcs, Mulholland Drive is one of Lynch's most aesthetically satisfying works; although it has frustrated countless viewers with its byzantine narrative, those viewers are frustrated precisely because they invested so much in the story and characters.

The film began life as a TV pilot shot in 1999 for ABC's fall season. Why Lynch wanted to return to the network after Twin Peaks and On the Air is anybody's guess, but he was quickly reminded why he'd once sworn off television. Mulholland Drive wasn't even picked up as a TV movie let alone a series, dropped by nervous execs in favor of Friends clones with Smash Mouth-scored promos (Tad Friend's essential New Yorker article explains what happened in heartbreaking detail). The pilot begins with a car accident on the titular road. The sole survivor, a dark-haired woman (Laura Elena Harring), was about to be murdered in the back of a limo when drunken teenagers smashed into its side; now lost and confused, she stumbles into a house inhabited by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Betty (Naomi Watts), hoping to make it big in Hollywood. Adopting the name of Rita, the amnesiac woman joins Betty in a hunt for her identity and history, culminating in the discovery of a woman's rotting corpse in a bungalow. Meanwhile, we meet various characters whose stories will presumably continue and intertwine throughout the series, most notably studio director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), whose project shuts down when he refuses to cast a girl suggested by a couple sinister Mafiosos (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti). The pilot ends as Betty outfits Rita with a blonde wig similar to her own hairdo. Together, they stare into the mirror and we wonder where they will go next.

Lynch wondered too, and could not bring himself to abandon the project. When French financing came through he translated Mulholland Drive into a feature, recontextualizing the material from an entirely new angle. A "closed" ending shot as insurance in '99 had resolved nothing; like Twin Peaks' alternate pilot ten years earlier, this additional footage provided an excuse to visit a surreal locale (in this case Club Silencio rather than the Red Room). Lynch, and the abandoned pilot, needed more. So the director resumed shooting in 2000 with Watts and Harring, bringing other members of the ensemble on board for a brief scene or two. Rather than attempting to peremptorily close off these characters' stories (or, on the other hand, cutting their footage out of the feature and focusing exclusively on Betty and Rita), Lynch did something brilliant and unprecedented. Then again, it's hard to think of a precedent for Mulholland Drive's situation, in which a serialized story was forced into feature form. ABC had ended Lynch's series like Coleridge's "Person from Porlock" in Kubla Khan, butting in and destroying the dreamers' delicate reverie. And so, following this logic, Lynch quite literally reframed his lost story as a dream, bookending it with memories and experiences from the darker reality that fed into it (echoing one of his favorite films, The Wizard of Oz).

In the final forty-five minutes of the theatrically-released movie, Lynch inserts a lesbian lovemaking scene between the end of pilot and the beginning of the "closed ending," adding another layer to the relationship between Betty and Rita. Then we are in Diane Selwyn's world. Diane (whose name was attached to the degenerating corpse in the pilot) is also played by Watts, but she's worlds away from innocent Betty. Through flashbacks, we witness her romance with and rejection by Camilla (whose name was attached to the mobsters' hand-picked actress in the pilot). Camilla is played by Harring, now knowing and manipulative rather than amnesiac and helpless. Camilla becomes engaged to a hotshot young director (Justin Theroux again), and then invites her poor, jilted lover to a dinner party above Mulholland Drive. Diane gets out of the car in the same spot where "Rita" was almost murdered in the pilot; one character's literal execution becomes the other's emotional assassination.

The party is a crash course in humiliation for Diane: another guest (Scott Coffey) butts into her conversation to suck up to Camilla, the director's mother (Ann Miller, who appeared as a solicitous landlady in the pilot) is alternately indifferent to and irritated with her future daughter-in-law's ex, and a beautiful blonde (Melissa George, who played the mobsters' actress in the pilot) openly kisses Camilla. It's too much to bear, and so Diane hires a hitman (Mark Pellegrino, a hitman in the pilot as well) to kill Camilla. As the film reaches its climax, Diane is tormented by guilt and creepy old people (Jeanne Bates and Dan Birnbaum, who played a kindly couple getting off the airplane with Betty in the pilot). Aside from this terrifying final appearance, Lynch adds two more scenes with the elderly couple: an opening in which they appear side by side with a smiling Diane, and a scene spliced in after the airport, in which they grin at one another like waxwork caricatures. Overcome by these forces, Diane kills herself and we conclude with images of a blue monster behind Winkie's Diner and a blue-haired woman in the mysterious nightclub whispering, "Silencio."

Viewers tend to either love or hate the film's final forty-five minutes. This passage has been variously described as too pat or too cryptic, the key to unlocking the film's mystery or a glorious extension of those mysteries beyond explanation. In fact Mulholland Drive is one of Lynch's most hyperlogical films, at least among his later works - while a relationship between the various parts of Inland Empire and Lost Highway can be deduced (or invented), nothing in those films fits as neatly as the two parts of Mulholland Drive. Although not necessarily demanded by the "dream approach," Lynch goes the extra mile to link reality and fantasy by providing cameos for the supporting players of the pilot, in locations and at events that have dramatic resonance. He even segues from a new pre-credits sequence (a hauntingly jaunty jitterbug) into the pilot footage with a point-of-view close-up descending onto a pillow.

Some baffled critics in 2001 proclaimed loudly (and defensively) that Lynch was obviously just trying to confound viewers; further down the line, fans of the film have complained that "it's all a dream" grossly simplifies and trivializes a complex aesthetic experience. Of course, the "dream" correspondence between beginning and end needn't necessarily be a traditional, unconscious sleeper's dream - it could be a conscious projection (a sort of movie Diane writes in her head). Moreover, it doesn't have to be invented or motivated by any character onscreen; it's enough to read it as Lynch's own psychological allegory, or even some quantum-infused alternate reality. The literal operation of the "dream" is its least important feature. Far more crucial is the overwhelming feeling that the first part reflects and fantasizes the second (ironic, given that they were created in the opposite order). Regardless of how one chooses to motivate the split, this is in fact a very tightly structured work and the relationship between the two parts is quite clear. There is a good reason people read the final forty-five minutes as "real," and it has to do with how the material itself was conceived and executed. Content follows form.

Stylistically, although nineties network television and twenty-first century art film meld surprisingly well they do remain distinguishable. The pilot footage is softly focused, brightly lit, and faster-paced in performance and camerawork (though still far too slow for ABC). The cinematic bookends are richer, darker, and sharper. The new scenes breath more deeply, lingering over objects and luxuriating in mood, preferring abstracting close-ups to comprehensible medium shots. Diane's dilemma, caught between reality and fantasy, echoes the film's, volleyed between the comfort of television and the bolder challenges of a feature film - or more broadly, the expectations of Hollywood entertainment and the demands of Lynch's own creative vision. When considering the bulk of the movie (the footage shot for the pilot), it's worth remembering that the structure was imposed after the fact, however well it works. Jason Mittell has written a very illuminating essay discussing the emotional impact the pilot's "frustrated seriality" has upon us as viewers and indeed few other films have set up so much and then incorporated their inability to deliver into the narrative itself. Our disappointment when these threads and characters are abandoned echoes Diane's own personal and professional disappointment.

Moreover, Diane's sadness mirrors Lynch's own deep-seated frustration with the pilot's rejection - or, even further back, with the cancellation of Twin Peaks and On the Air, and the failure of projected Dune and Twin Peaks film franchises (forgotten amidst Fire Walk With Me's tonal re-emphasis and dangling plot threads is its intention to be the first in a string of Twin Peaks movies). Indeed, Lynch's entire career has been characterized by "frustrated seriality." The filmmaker has always had a deep hunger to build and explore his own world, but granted only - and briefly - by Twin Peaks, this desire suffered heartbreaking compromises, failures, and rejections. In Mulholland Drive he finally found a way to ease and reflect this pain. Aesthetically and narratively, Lynch's ninth feature synthesizes his film and television work, avant-garde and narrative tendencies, and ability to indulge in free-associational riffs while pursuing meaning, however mystical and mysterious. The film was also his swan song, closing a phase of his career on a high note. In the coming decade Lynch would display little interest in celluloid film, theatrical exhibition, big-budget production, or narrative storytelling. The gun blast that finishes Mulholland Drive, possibly his masterpiece, sounds the end of an era - and the beginning of a new age.

Shot and released somewhere between 1999 and 2002 (different sources indicate different dates), the video for the Blue Bob song Thank You Judge (2002) definitely fits in with the immediate post-Mulholland Drive period. With a purposefully trashy look and wife-hating lyric (written by Lynch and Blue Bob co-member John Neff), the song is a sarcastic paean to a divorce judge; Naomi Watts plays the angry ex. Lynch exhibited his grungy video aesthetic, broad lowbrow humor, and fast-paced surrealism on his new website DavidLynch.com, where he didn't have to beg funds or ask permission to display his wares.

The animated Dumbland (2002) is pretty self-explanatory. While the sophisticated Mulholland Drive was traveling the world, Lynch took to the internets to share what else was on his mind: thankless neighbors with sticks gorily ripped out of their mouths; hunchbacked relatives who fart, vomit, and punch people in the face; and ants who tap-dance while singing, "You are an asshole!" In the episode shown at left, the rapid repetition of image and sound is as hypnotic as it is hilarious. Ridiculously or not, Lynch was moving into the future.

Darkened Room (2002) is one of Lynch's most haunting and inexplicable films. As in his Hotel Room segment with Harry Dean Stanton, the director makes the most of out-of-context dialogue. We've wandered into a baffling situation which no one bothers to explain (other than the chilling, cryptic intro straight to the camera); the characters seem both aware of and indifferent to our own presence in the room. The ominous music and eerie thumping accentuate our sense of dislocation, as do the hostile interactions of the young female cast. This is Lynch's most Dadaist experiment. Well, at least until...

Rabbits (2002) - later incorporated into Inland Empire - is even more bizarre and freaky as a standalone "sitcom." Giant rabbits share a room, stare off into space, communicate in out-of-context banalities, and worship some kind of disembodied, dimly-lit fire-face - all accompanied by a Darkened Room-like score and the occasional laughtrack. To date, it is probably Lynch's most uncanny, unsettling work. Watching it during my recent marathon a few scenes (the ones in which a single rabbit stands facing the audience and sings in eerie intonation) even sent me into a momentary trance.

Indeed, at times the video functions like an occult object - you can imagine it turning up in a Ringu-like horror film where the act of watching it opens your mind up to demonic messengers; in its most electric moments, subliminal suggestions from some alien culture flicker through the images like that match burning a hole in the frame itself. Of course with seven "episodes" totaling fifty minutes, passages can seem baffling and alienating rather than enticing. This may be as much comedy as horror (think of Rabbits as a scrambled extraterrestrial attempt to reproduce "The Lester Guy Show" from On the Air). Even when its hypnotic power dims, the images onscreen feel so totemic and ritualistic that we're bound to keep watching. The film has even been used in test studies gauging reactions to extreme surrealism under different pharmacological influences.

Still trippy if far less subversive is Lynch's commercial Nissan Micra (2003). Once again the screen is dominated by floating lips, which have become a trademark in Lynch's ads (isolated mouths appear quite often in his work, but usually not disembodied as they are in his commercials). The advertising script has Lynch scrambling old words to create neologisms; whatever the corporate purpose, this also mirrors what Lynch is doing with his twenty-first century digital shorts and upcoming feature - creating a fleet new, disorienting world from fragments of the old.


Inland Empire (2006) is a trap. If you enter into its universe looking for a narrative throughline, however obscure, you'll be confounded by non sequitur sequences impossible to reconcile with one another (no wonder - the film was improvised by Lynch over the course of several years; he would sketch out dialogue and action the morning of the shoot, later interweaving the results with footage from different projects, like Rabbits, featured prominently throughout). Yet if you give up on comprehensibility and attempt to embrace Inland Empire as a stream-of-consciousness flow of spooky images, cryptic dialogue, and jarring noises, you'll be equally stymied because the film never stops dropping clues that there is some larger puzzle to figure out.

Critics compared Lynch's work here to poetry; as Jim Emerson says, "We recognize the individual units of meaning, but the grammar and syntax have been altered." True in a sense, but to manipulate the metaphor, the individual units of meaning are more often sentences than words. What Inland Empire really resembles is prose sliced up and reassembled into poetic patterns, so that even as we appreciate the flow of the language we feel ourselves searching for the narrative structure each line has been detached from. Though there are very fractured passages in the movie, in which images, locations, and characters collide, combine, and detach, most scenes tend to make some sense by themselves - it's only when they are woven into the larger fabric that they become truly confusing. Furthermore, even the splintered, fantastical sequences are set within a larger framework which is explicitly narrative.

Hollywood actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is cast as Susan Blue in a Southern melodrama, only to discover that the film is a remake of another film, itself based on a Polish gypsy tale. All these productions have been "cursed." Little by little, Nikki disappears into her role - or rather, Susan Blue emerges into her consciousness and intertwines her own life with Nikki's (is Nikki really having an affair with her co-star (Justin Theroux), or is she just projecting his image onto her character's affair with a married man played by him?). This is clear enough for a while, although it doesn't explain the enigmatic prologue in which a blurred Polish man locks a "lost girl" (Karolina Gruszka) into a hotel room, where she tunes into a broadcast of Rabbits and snatches of the film we're to about to see.

But as Nikki's dysphoric dissociation grows more acute, so does the disorientation of the film (or rather, video; this was shot on a PD-150 which didn't even run at 24 frames a second let alone provide HD images). As if offering a microcosm of Lynch's entire oeuvre, the cuts become more elliptical, the superimpositions and cross-dissolves more frequent, the narrative stops more chaotic, the music and sound design more overwhelming, the storylines more blurred and overlapping. If in his last three films (excluding Straight Story), Lynch narrated two different plotlines, here there are at least three, possibly a hell of a lot more. And even within themselves, the three plots are not told chronologically. Repeat viewings unravel certain threads but don't reveal a single all-inclusive structure; the flow of the experience feels more like channel-surfing or browsing the web than taking in a stand-alone film.

The movie has been criticized for its look, and indeed the haunted elegance of Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive has been fully exchanged for a gritty, underlit, handheld aesthetic. This does reflect an overall cultural trend: whether helming blockbusters or indies, contemporary directors tend to favor a "realistic" style utilizing flat colors, shaky camerawork, and rapidly intercut close-ups. However, unlike more mainstream films that use these tools to signify a phony "realism," there is a sense of mystery and discovery to Inland Empire's images. Using the freedom of the home movie camera to truly explore the world onscreen, Lynch demolishes the limits of classical filmmaking, which enchant through enclosure.

Formally, Lynch's final feature film is as avant-garde as his debut but in a completely opposite manner: from cold, gorgeous black-and-white celluloid to the bleeding colors of digital video, from a single simple story to an insane mashup of countless narrative threads, from claustrophobic sets to boundless globe-trotting. If Inland Empire's ending echoes Eraserhead's, the similar spiritual message is conveyed through very divergent tools and forms of identification. Both Henry and Nikki kill their tormentors, and then embrace young women in a blinding light; but the neurotic man purges his physical limitations by murderously mutilating his helpless spawn, while the adventurous woman assassinates a sinister man wearing her own face.

After said assassination, we see images of Nikki in the Rabbits room, with hazy dancing shapes drifting across her body. This is footage from Ballerina (2006), Lynch's tone poem, which blurs a balletic solo until the human form becomes a lovely abstraction. This not only indicates Lynch's visual direction in the coming decade, but also his shifting focus from human behavior to painterly forms.

Ballerina is also incorporated into Scissors (2007) (aka Absurda), a winking self-spoof premiered at Cannes the year after Inland Empire. Unseen characters watch a movie full of random images, trying to interpret what they see and eventually finding the world onscreen has invaded their own. Scissors and other ominous images poke out beyond the boundaries of the screen - I won't interpret any of it lest I suffer the characters' fates.

Although essentially just a collection of deleted scenes from Inland Empire, the feature-length More Things That Happened (2007) plays out as an eerie complement to the full movie (an approach Lynch had apparently attempted before). Allowing each sequence to unfold in isolation with minimal visual or aural interference, it's a kind of callback to the old Lynch of Twin Peaks or the first half of Lost Highway. The director evokes ominous moods through ambiguous dialogue, slow movement, and uncanny silence.

The slower pace and absence of distractions allows us to immerse ourselves even more fully in the world of Inland Empire, in which an innocent girl is hypnotized by a watch-wielding sleazebag at an apartment party, a slurring movie star indulges in garbled crosstalk with her husband while lying on a hotel floor, and a despoiled Hollywood prostitute reminisces about her painful past while her indifferent interlocutor can only offer "I like pancakes" in response. While I am a fan of Lynch's increasingly free-form style and willingness to plunge ever-deeper into darkness and mystery, it's also nice to revisit his penchant for menacing, never-quite-fulfilled suggestion. Lynch is unmatched at cultivating an air of anxious anticipation; we relish genuinely not knowing what will come next. Discovering this feature on the DVD during my marathon was like finding an extra easter egg when you think the hunt is over. It seemed like my last chance to freshly sink into his world in lieu of a return to feature filmmaking - at least until I found out Lynch will be taking the same approach to the long-lost deleted scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Pinch me, I must be dreaming...

Apparently shot during the making of Inland Empire (seemingly in an abandoned Polish factory), Blue Green (2007) is Lynch's most Kubrickian film, its long, winding "following" shots explicitly echoing The Shining. More often pushed than pulled by the alluring but enigmatic characters, this roving camera exercise provides a nice, purely visual complement to the dialogue-driven More Things That Happened.

Alternately obnoxious and amusing, Over Yonder (Neighbor Boy) (2007) features Lynch and son Austin speaking in their own private, perverse dialect, while the shadow of a gigantic neighbor and the sound of charging cavalry pass by. Reminiscent of The Cowboy and the Frenchman, this is also one of the last Lynch projects to feature dialogue between characters (if you can call it that). As with most of the '07 shorts, this first appeared on DavidLynch.com, his prolific personal website which appears to be reduced to a permanent advertisement for his album. These were the web shorts still listed elsewhere.
Like the previous and following short, Boat (2007) is essentially an experimental home movie. A mysterious female narrator recalls a dream in which she found herself on a strange boat; meanwhile we see Lynch himself piloting his vehicle "so fast we'll go into the night." And sure enough we do, as without warning the light dims and the sky grows black. As always, even in lo-fi fashion, the director is fusing the everyday with the otherworldly. And without expensive special effects, he finds magic in the natural world and the time-blurring qualities of the movies, home or otherwise.
On that note, Intervalometer Experiment - Steps (2007) is a time-lapse exercise returning Lynch to his roots as a painter who wanted to see his paintings move. Apparently there were other experiments available on the website and the compilation DVD, but this is the only one online right now. There's not much to say about this video, although the imagery is pleasant enough. And yes, I suppose one could observe that shadows overtake the light, but really that's as much down to the nature of the experiment as to Lynch's own favored motifs.

A cool little animation that also works as a moving painting, with one element - the titular Bug (2007) - providing most of the dynamic visual interest while a smoking chimney, humming zeppelin, and flashes of lightning provide additional atmosphere. When the bug crawls inside the house we hear electricity within, as Lynch cultivates on offscreen air of eerie industrialized mystery. He's even said he'd like to return to this "character" and environment and why not? There's an enjoyably gothic feel to the rumbling soundtrack and coal-black images.

Like Bug, Industrial Soundscape (2007) is a moving painting (apparently employing digitally manipulated imagery from Eraserhead) which echoes Six Figures Getting Sick from the standpoint of exactly forty years later. Now the images are created with and for a computer, rather than celluloid and paint, and the terrain is more open, with objects rather than people the center of attention. The image loops and the clanking sounds linger on - perhaps this locale is just down the block from the mad scientist's cabin in Bug.

More figural animation characterizes Shot in the Back of the Head (2009), Lynch's first music video for another artist in twelve years. It's definitely his most inventive, distinctive video up to this point, with its tangled, scratched-over backgrounds and a floating, detached head echoing his 2000 Playstation commercial. A frequent collaborator with Moby (who sampled "Laura Palmer's Theme" in his breakout hit), Lynch used this opportunity to kick off a renewed period of videomaking; this was the first of five over the next five years.

Lynch's first commercial in seven years is also his most ambitious (it's a sixteen-minute online promo), and his most "conventional" work in a decade. Crafting a dreamy narrative starring Marion Cotillard and a mysterious blue handbag, Lynch saturates Lady Blue Shanghai (2010) in glamorous, exotic atmosphere. Extending the color, motif, and mood of Mulholland Drive confirms that the 2001 film has surpassed Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks as pop culture's go-to "Lynchian" signifier.

Likewise, Lynch's promo for singer Ariana Delawari's album Lion of Panjshir (2010) could have been shot at Club Silencio (or, admittedly, the Red Room) with its theatrical curtains and vanishing singers. Delawari, an Afghan performer and activist, has been promoted through David Lynch's foundation, the - you guessed it - David Lynch Foundation, which advocates for Transcendental Meditation, a cause that the once-reticent Lynch has increasingly taken public in recent years.

As if rebounding from his glamorous promos, Lynch returned to rapid-fire, abrasive form with I Touch a Red Button Man (2011), an Interpol video in which an animated man does indeed touch a red button, repeatedly. While the figure is cool and the conceit amusing, it grows rather redundant after several minutes even with the variations in position and size. Presumably this is meant to echo Lynch's "moving paintings" although it doesn't really fit the song's tempo.

On the other hand, Crazy Clown Time (2012) perfectly matches music and image. It does helps that the lyrics literally describe everything we see ("Paulieee, he had on a red shirt!" "Suzieeeeee, she ripped her shirt off completely!"); since Lynch wrote and (hilariously) sang the track, perhaps the video was already planned. But even aside from the lyrics, the drunken camera and propulsive cuts power along to the thumping, irresistible beat of this party dirge.

Taken from Lynch's 2011 album of the same name, the video's hilarious decadence is as seductively energetic as it is absurdly trashy. Cut from the same cloth as Blue Velvet's "This Is It" club and Fire Walk With Me's "Pink Room" - sans the assertion of apocalyptic evil - Crazy Clown Time depicts hedonism as probably painful (at least for the guy who lights his mohawk on fire), definitely degrading, and quite possibly a whole lot of fun. Like an R. Crumb cartoon come to life with its buxom, bare-bosomed bohemian gals and jacked-up, pea-brained misogynist muscleheads, this is a far cry from Lumberton's and Twin Peaks' sweet fifties-styled high schoolers. Personally, I find this the most hilarious, jarring, and visceral work Lynch has created since Inland Empire; discovering it while channel-surfing in the summer of 2012 I could only shake my head and mutter, "Damn, he's done it again!"

On the other side of the Lynchian universe, geographically, formally, and thematically, is Idem Paris (2013), a documentary portrait of the famed French print shop. Absorbed attention to diligent work, crisp black-and-white photography, and fascination with industrial processes recall Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. Amazingly, this is one of Lynch's few documentaries (excluding self-interviews and home movies); at sixty-seven, he's still branching out.

Complete with a warning for epileptics, the Nine Inch Nails video Came Back Haunted (2013) continues the escalation of pace Lynch initiated in Wild at Heart and cranked up for Dumbland. At the same time, in texture if not tempo, the gritty, stark visuals hearken back to early Lynch experiments like The Alphabet. Perfectly for a director whose first film was a loop, in the end we return to the beginning.

I was going to conclude by discussing the calm and eerily beautiful video I'm Waiting Here (2013), which uses a driver's POV of a long, winding stretch of desert road to accompany Lynch's musical collaboration with Lykke Li. Unfortunately as it turns out, Lynch himself didn't have anything to do with the video which was conceived, photographed, and edited by others, including Li herself. Nonetheless, it's a nice tribute to the director - whose hellish inner visions have been accompanied by a restless longing for open spaces - and an appropriate image to end on. The video (which we can safely say echoes the Lynch of Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and The Straight Story) closes with our invisible car pulling off the road at dusk, finding - for the first time - another car, an unknown human and mechanical presence in the eerily empty landscape. Who knows what adventures and mysteries await as we enter into the night? Only the coming years will tell.



Next week I will follow up with part two of this retrospective which will cover "the forest" - that is, the transformations and developments that took place over Lynch's career as a whole. See you on the last day of June and the close of David Lynch Month!

If this wasn't enough for you,  there's more. I've covered many of the titles here before, often at greater length and with a more personal angle. Recently, I discussed Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in a four-part conversation with Tony Dayoub on To Be (Cont'd). Here are the previous reviews: Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Inland Empire, Twin Peaks pilot, Twin Peaks (season 1 episode 2), Twin Peaks (season 2 episode 1)Twin Peaks (season 2 episode 2), Twin Peaks (season 2 episode 7), Twin Peaks (series finale), The Short Films of David Lynch (Six Figures Getting Sick/The Alphabet/The Grandmother/The Amputee/The Cowboy and the Frenchman/Premonition of an Evil Deed). I've also collected a series of images from Twin Peaks (season 2 episode 7), rounded up all of Lynch's posters, written about the critical reception of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, my initial reaction to Twin Peaks after finishing it for the first time, and the media frenzy surrounding the series in 1990. Finally, I included The Elephant Man in my Remembering the Movies series which examined particular weeks in cinema history.

38 comments:

Erniesam said...

3Hi Joel,

great to see you are back at it. I noticed your earlier post about reviews and the "downfall" of Twin Peaks. Man that was quite a post, you realy did your homework. I still haven't read all of it, it's just so much. Also, although I'm thrilled about Twin Peaks (the first season) I'm way more exited about Lynch's trilogy (well, I'd like to see it this way): Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. You've described all three of them here, so I would like to start with LH.

You mention that the plot of it might seem elusive and that it is very likely a complete allegory. I tend to disagree with you. I see all three movies as playing within the mind of the protagonist. So Lost Highway makes perfect sense to me, wherein a real, basic plot can be deciphered. The wonderful irony is, that the construction of the plot itself is right out impossible and I'd like to compare it to an Escher sketch. Let me start with what I believe to be the basic plot:

At the beginning of the movie Fred is already in jail, because we hear some voices and a door slam on the background. We also see Fred sitting in shadows. Another interesting thing to notice is that the house of Fred (I believe this is the actual house of Lynch himself at the time) has very small windows symbolizing a prison. Now in order to get back into his fantasy Fred must get through a major hurdle and that is his confession which he places outside of himself ("Dick Laurent is dead"). We also hear police sirens in the background when Fred walks slowly to the window only to find nobody outside. The police sirens are of course from the police detectives who are chasing Fred at the end of the movie.

Now Fred cannot hold on to his fantasy when he is convicted of the murder of his wife and is sentenced to the electric chair. So when he tries so hard to get back into his fantasy he gets head aches. So the doctor gives him relaxation pills so he can get some sleep. These pills make Fred able to go deeper into his mind in order to come up with a stronger fantasy. So he imagines he is somebody else entirely. But...just as in the first fantasy reality keeps creeping in so that in the end Fred finally realises he indeed has killed his wife.

Now the fun part of it is to figure out what the many symbols could mean and how exactly this deteriation of both fantasies takes place. I find the main problem to be to figure out what's true and false. We only have the fantasy and therefor the point of view of Fred to rely on and he's hardly trustworthy. For instance: we see that in the first fantasy Fred is having sexual troubles (I believe he ejacualates prematurely or it could be he's impotent). This we can see as an important building block in his jealousy of his wife. The problem is of course: Fred benefits greatly by this. It could be that he only imagines this sexual problem in order for him to have an excuse for the murder: due to this Renee cheated on him so that's why he killed her. How can we be certain that this is true? We can't. So we cannot take anything as being true, because Fred is a highly unreliable narrator.

There's much, much to discuss about this movie, but this is my brief summary of it.

Joel Bocko said...

Hey ES, great to see you back again! Take your time with the TP post, it is a lot to take in - and I'll definitely be interested in your thoughts when you get through it.

"I find the main problem to be to figure out what's true and false." I feel the same way about Lost Highway. In general, I don't think everything in a Lynch film has to be explained, but he does offer us a lot of tantalizing bait to get us to speculate - especially in this film where there definitely does seem to be something to "figure out."

When I say that it's complete allegory (or dream, or fantasy, or what-have-you) I don't mean it isn't centered around the consciousness of one person - so I kind of agree with you that it's more or less "playing within the mind of the protagonist" (that's how I see Mulholland Dr too - not 100% sure about Inland Empire).

I'll be interested to see your take on MD (which I see as being about as "straightforward" as Lynch gets in the latter half of his career, at least putting aside The Straight Story) and particularly Inland Empire where I have some general perception of the shape of it but often feel myself grasping at straws.

At the end of the day, I think the most important part of the Lynch experience is the atmosphere and the moments but that's not to say the themes and stories are irrelevant (a point I've seen some Lynch fans - and many detractors - try to claim). In a weird way, as random as he can be, Lynch is a very holistic artist - form & content are deeply interrelated in his films. I don't think the "plots" (if we can call them that) are there just as an excuse for surrealistic tangents. They seem to be more important to him than that, and more deeply related to the mood he cultivates and style he embraces.

Erniesam said...

"In a weird way, as random as he can be, Lynch is a very holistic artist - form & content are deeply interrelated in his films. I don't think the "plots" (if we can call them that) are there just as an excuse for surrealistic tangents."

Absolutely agree with this. I know there are people who do not think there is a narrative plot in any of his films, but I fervently disagree with that. To concentrate on the "trilogy" and LH in particular, I'm convinced there's no denying that there is a narrative there. However, Lynch doesn't work in a conventional way and perhaps he even doesn't travel from A to Z but randomly. The main characteristic of Lynch I find his expressing himself in metaphors. I guess this is due to his love of painting. Lynch uses the screen as a canvas wherein he expresses his thoughts and ideas through images. Despite this I believe his movies are highly structured and organised, but in an unconventional way. He doesn't concern himself with a "story" but with an inner proces of the protagonist. Even this is not an adequate description, because many instances in his trilogy cannot be accounted for by the protagonist personally. I mean that his expression of the main theme isn't neccessarily bound to narrative principles, but more like a series of paintings in which the viewer must figure out the connections themselves.

In LH we see the unfolding of a fantasy of the protagonist which comes crashing down on him when he is convicted and sentenced to death. A second stronger fantasy follows. This in itself seems simple enough, but the structure is very much like an Escher painting: it is quite impossible. His first fantasy begins with the words: "Dick Laurent is dead" while the second fantasy ends with this. The intriguing problem is of course that FRed is on different sides of the door in his fantasies when these words are spoken. So, the second segment cannot have preceded the first and yet...we KNOW this segment is the same as the first, because we hear the police sirens in the first segment. It seems logical that it preceeded the first segment and yet...it cannot have. An unbelievable construction. These fantasies play in the mind of Fred of course and so anything is possible. Yet to see it so vividly on the screen and to experience such a strange phenomenon I find truly unique. Just like in MD and IE Lynch uses the language of cinema superbly: these "stories" cannot be told in any other medium but cinema.

Joel Bocko said...

Yes, great articulations here of what Lynch does and why it feels so strange - the disorientation he evokes by both employing narrative conceits and subverting them (the same way Escher employs & subverts visual perspective rather than just abandoning it completely). Some would call this postmodernist, but Lynch lacks the playful irony - the feeling that it's all just a game - that characterizes most postmodernist works I know. He always uses these techniques and evokes these states not to tickle the intellect but penetrate the psyche.

'He doesn't concern himself with a "story" but with an inner process of the protagonist' Yes - his films are primarily, I think, psychodramas although I use the term carefully as Lynch himself is not a subscriber to psychoanalysis or its tenets.

Erniesam said...

I have a few friends with whom I can discuss the work of Lynch in depth, but overall the true apreciation of him is spread pretty thin in my circles. I gather Lynch is mostly regarded as an avant-garde artist working in the mainstream. Personally I'm not to keen on the avantgarde audience and critics: they seem to be pretty out there and regard art as something almost akin to religion. It's not my kind of crowd. Often I see or hear very mystical and arty farty readings of Lynch's work and I'm wondering: do they realy get what's going on in his movies? Many seem to think that his movies are all about atmosphere, feeling and getting into higher spheres or something. That there isn't any sense to be made of it and that when you do you spoil the experience. I guess it's a matter of personality and approach. I always like to make sense of things.

How do you approach his work in general and how is your immediate surroundings responding to it?

Joel Bocko said...

Great question, Ernie (if that's what I hould call you). I'll admit I get where your avant-garde friends are coming from in seeing a quasi-mystical/spiritual quality in experimental work, maybe all art to a certain degree. (Also, having encountered some avant-garde practitioners/advocates who express everything in cold, overly intellectual/cerebral terms - or who, worse, make everything a matter of ideological/political advocacy, I tend to prefer the overly metaphysical folks!) Anyway, explaining the feeling offered by dreamlike, experimental works can make one sound tongue-tied or pretentious, but I think it lies at the core of most artistic experience, even overtly narrative work. However, I don't think it's the sum total of aesthetic appreciation, nor that other factors don't matter.

Now, as far as Lynch goes - I see him pretty differently than more purely experimental filmmakers, like say Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage. Lynch exists at the cross-section of narrative and experimental cinema and I think one has to keep both approaches in mind. Personally, when I watch his films the first time I usually am more absorbed by atmosphere and mood than "explanations" of what is going on. But when I reflect or revisit, I find myself increasingly attempting to figure things out because there always does seem to be a pattern or mystery at his films' core. So I may be halfway between you and the people you disagree with.

Like you, though, I get a bit annoyed with he dismissive way many Lynch fans treat his stories and themes, as if they are just excuses to go crazy. If Lynch wanted to make purely non-narrative works he could easily does so, and indeed he has - especially in recent years. When he does tell a story or explore characters, it's for a reason. And this need not disperse or destroy his ethereal mood, although I'll admit it engages another part of the mind. Ultimately I think Lynch wants us to learn to use left and right brain simultaneously - to integrate the part of us that enjoys something irrational, beyond explanation, and the part that seeks revelation and deeper understanding. People read his interviews and get the impression he hates "understanding" but more often, he seems to be suggesting something else: understanding IS important, but it's something you have to discover for yourself, moving THROUGH the work rather than around it.

Man, this conversation keeps getting better and better. Keep 'em comin'!

Erniesam said...

Hi Joel,

I always use an alias on the net, because I'm very protective of my privacy. I know stories about identity abuse that would make your hair curl. My name is Bart, so you may call me that if you like. I'm not particular about that just as long as we can communicate with each other.

--- Anyway, explaining the feeling offered by dreamlike, experimental works can make one sound tongue-tied or pretentious, but I think it lies at the core of most artistic experience, even overtly narrative work.---

It indeed is often difficult to express the meaning or experience of experimental works of art or art in general in words. I guess the main function of art is to express ideas and feelings in a medium that cannot be expressed in another way. So I accept the fact that it is difficult to talk about the works of Lynch when you're aiming to capture the experience of it. However, when one indulges in metaphysical and wishy washy rhetoric my patience is seriously put to the test. Everybody has his own position in life and will approach, interpret and experience a work of art differently, but that doesn't mean you cannot discuss this experience rationally. It is quite impossible to (re)capture the experience into words, but an intelligent and rational dialogue will surely lead to an understanding of each others approach. Some people have a tendency to become pretentious when talking about things that are hard to put into words, but I would regard that simply as an incapabillity to capture their feelings and experience into a rational discourse. On the other hand I certainly agree with you that some things simply cannot be put into words without altering some element of the experience. I believe to experience a work of art has indeed a language of it's own. So a legitimate question to ask oneself is: is it even possible to share one's experience with others (without altering the experience itself)?

+++ Lynch exists at the cross-section of narrative and experimental cinema and I think one has to keep both approaches in mind.+++

Great observation. I do agree with you that we can regard Lynch as an intermediate, althoughg I do not consider Lynch as an experimental artist (apart from some shorts). I see more surrealistic influences like Dali, Bunuel and Escher. His work consists of metaphors and allegories. It´s easy to see that Wilder and Hitchcock are great influences of Lynch: the cynicism of Wilder and the fears and desires of Hitchcock. It´s like Lynch tells his stories in images with several layers of meaning. I don´t believe he drives a narrative, but mainly themes. To concentrate on the 'trilogy' (LH, MD and IE) I see a development within the fantasy of the protagonist towards reality. It isn´t neccesarily a narrative but the evolvement of an idea, a theme. In all three movies the protagonist is trying to flee into a fantasy, while the movie itself is working towards a revelation. I regard all three movies not as a story, but as an unfolding process. So I wouldn´t call the features of Lynch narratively driven, but rather theme driven. Above all, Lynch works rather with images and metaphors than with story lines. Even and I would submit especially his dialogue´s main fuction is to invoke images and emotion, not to tell what´s going on. His dialogue is inherently linked to the images we see and linked within the frame of the movie as a whole. In short I guess I will describe his feature films as complete works or gesammtkunstwerken in that every element is related to the main theme.

Erniesam said...

+++ understanding IS important, but it's something you have to discover for yourself, moving THROUGH the work rather than around it. +++

Wow, exellently put. Couldn´t agree more. The way to ´understand´ Lynch´s movies is to go through them, to experience them rather than to rationally explain them. I still believe that his movies can be understood rationally, but the exeprience of it encompasses way more. The rational understanding of the movies enriches the experience of it, but in and of itself it hardly does the movies justice. Like I said, the language that Lynch uses is practically impossible to put into words, so the only way you can ´understand´ his movies is to experience them. So the atmoshere, metaphors and inherent connections are all uniquely important for understanding the movies for they tell sides of the story that cannot be told otherwise. A rational discussion about his movies can only reveal so much.

I have read your brief summary of MD. I like how you realy dig into the backstory and into Lynch in general. You clearly have put alot of effort in examining him. The fact that MD was intended as a tv series akin to Twin Peaks. You would think that to turn this into a feature it would going to be a mess. I believe this process only attest to the fact that some works of art are created spontaneously or by accident. In my view MD looks and feels complete with a tight structure and precise handling of the main theme. The second part I find to be of essential importance to comprehend the first part. When people say that Lynch just wants to be as vague as possible just to look artful and intelligent I find seriously lacking of insight into the movie. To me every shot and item has a deliberate purpose while the atmosphere and `starngeness` of some scenes actually do make perfect sense within the whole.

You mentioned that MD probably is the closest Lynch came in recent years to a narrative that is reasonably easy to follow. I beg to differ in that I view MD as completely allegorical. The second segment I view also as fantasy, not as reality. Some would argue that it is an easy way out, but to me that´s the only way it makes sense and what´s more; it is what makes the `story` so tragically beautiful and deeply moving. To me it´s not about what we actually see, but what´s behind the images and metaphors that reveal a much deeper and poignant story. To view this film is to indulge oneself in a double layered if not a multi layered world.

To discuss MD I would suggest a space of it´s own is required, just like for IE. To me these form the highlights of Lynch´s career, along with LH, Blue Velvet and Eraserhead. I guess you would have to appreciate surrealism to agree with my choices, but that is a matter of taste. I guess.

A very enjoyable discussion. I´m curious about your perception of the work of Lynch ( his feature films) with a language all of it´s own. Would be nice if others would join as much as I like your views and approach. My experience holds that input from others can enlighten you in surprising ways.

Joel Bocko said...

"In all three movies the protagonist is trying to flee into a fantasy, while the movie itself is working towards a revelation."

This really crystallizes exactly what Lynch is doing in his later films. I think what sets The Straight Story apart, aside from the more conventional style and straightforward narrative, is that the protagonist and the film are in sync for once - they're both seeking reality together. It's one of his most harmonious films. I do think by the end of Inland Empire, Laura Dern has found the path too but it's quite a struggle to get her to accept that path whereas Alvin Straight sets himself upon it early in the movie. The struggle is to get there, but the commitment is resolute.

I'll be interested in your further thoughts on MD - what you feel lies behind not just the first part, but the second. I do love the idea of digging ever deeper and deeper, discovering answers but also more mysteries.

I think you'll quite enjoy next week's post, my final for the month (though you may disagree with some of the conclusions). It will document the evolutions and transformations over the course of Lynch's career, examining every facet of his work: narrative structure, thematic exploration, cinematic style.

Erniesam said...

I don't want to come across as selfabsorbed, but I realy like to talk about MD. It's the movie that got me into the work of Lynch and I still regard it as his finest work and perhaps even the best movie ever made. You see, I'm loco about it. It's also the movie I have analyzed the most. Still, during discussions online I now and than get feedback which makes me see things slightly different often thinking: how could I not have seen that or make that connection. But that is also the beauty of it: an ever evolving work.

First let me state briefly my approach to which I came very gradually after some glaring misinterpretations and just baffling wrong conclusions. So here goes.

I view MD allegorically by which I mean that to me everything fits when I look at it this way. To me it never made much sense for Diane to order the hit on Camilla: why doesn't she kill Adam instead? More importantly, there's no connection between the murder of Camilla and the opening of the Blue Box. None. So, that got me starting to think differently.

The personaes in Diane's dream and fantasy (during the day, that is the second segment) all represent an element in Diane's reality. I view Rita and Camilla as two distinctly different characters. Rita represents Diane's dream to make it in Hollywood. The dream that in reality has been shattered. Camilla represents Diane's real experience in Hollywood, the one she wants to forget. So in her dream Diane wants to kill Camilla so she can take her role. That murder fails because of reality creeping in: it could not allow such a drastic measure. So Diane ends up with Rita. She imagines her to have amnesia (also a very common tool in 40-ies film noir) so she is dependable on Betty and Betty can take care of her (to protect her dream to make it in Hollywood). The second segment we see Camilla, that is the true experience of Diane in Hollywood wherein she indeed was manipulated by Camilla. Notice the it is Diane pushing Camilla away from her which could be translated as it was by Diane's own doing that her Hollywood dream didn't work out.

Now, I'm convinced Diane has been sexually abused by her father while her mother was complicit in that she didn't do anything. This is enacted at the house of Adam. Notice we never see Diane's parents or hear anything about them. It's like they don't exist. I believe Diane has erased their image from her memory and has replaced it with that of her grandparents. Notice Betty tals during the rehearsal scene about dad being upstairs. I view this as her grandfather who she sees as her real father and that he was already dead during the abuse. This is the reason why Diane sees the old couple, her grand parents coming out of the Blue Box, because she has replaced the image of her parents with that of her grand parents.

Erniesam said...


I believe Diane and the "Lamp Lady" had an affair. This affair has been ended by Diane due to her depression (her failed dream to make it in Hollywood). This affair is reflected in the story of Diane and Camilla in which the nature and end of the affair is depicted. Now what is the meaning of the order of the hit of Camilla? Well, it's not Camilla that we see, but Camilla Rhodes! On the picture that Diane hands to Joe we see indeed the actress Laura Harring, but her appearance is different: she wears a white dress with a deep decollete and she has curls. This is NOT Camilla but a crossing between Camilla, Camilla Rhodes (the blonde girl in the dream) and Carol. This element in the movie signals another metaphorical level (alongside the depiction of the affair) and this level itself can also be split in two. That I would like to discuss in another post if I may. So here we have Diane ordering the hit on Camilla Rhodes, that is the combination of these three characters in her fantasy. This triggers the opening of the Blue Box which contains the trauma of Diane: her sexual abuse. This hit resembles Diane's own "destruction" of her dream to make it in Hollywood. Diane has always fled into here fantasy as we can see in the incorporation of Hollywood detectives, Rita Hayworth and indeed the jitterbug contest. So it was only natural Diane wanted to make it in Hollywood in order to escape her confrontation with her trauma. But since this has failed, Diane has nowhere to run to. So this order destroys Diane's option to flee to Hollywood or indeed to flee into her own fantasy and therefor her trauma is catching up with her. This order unleashes the trauma.

So in essence I believe MD is the portrayal of the last 24 depressing hours of Diane Selwyn.

Much, much to tell, but this is my brief overview.

Joel Bocko said...

This is a GREAT take on the film - it doesn't really contradict my own so much as flesh it out, by making the second part of the movie still closer to reality, but still with elements of fantasy. I've heard others suggest that option, but not in the detail you do.

I think my reading is borne out by the film but it has felt somewhat mundane/disappointing to me at times - frankly, I LIKE yours more and will probably run with it in future viewings for that reason (I've seen the film a number of times now, and need a new framework to view it through I think, lest my perspective grow stale).

As for the blue box - I've always seen it as an expression of Betty/Diane's self-knowledge, be it of the hit, of abuse as you suggest, or more broadly of the darkness outside of Betty's relatively sheltered confines in the first part of the film.

The abuse subtext - and the suggestion that her intense audition hints at this - is particularly fascinating to me. Obviously, Lynch's treatment of abuse has been one of the major themes in my coverage this month, reflected in the structure and selection of my round-up on Twin Peaks commentary, and in observations sprinkled throughout both my retrospective pieces.

Most importantly, Lynch's treatment of abuse is the raison d'etre of my video essay published last week. Interestingly, the video originally incorporated audio from Mulholland Drive - lines from the audition sequence (including the actor turning to the director and saying, "...Bob?" and the dialogue "My father's upstairs" & "What about your father? What'll he think about you" over footage of Laura discovering Bob in her bedroom in FWWM, and then seeing Leland exit the house). Ultimately, I cut it because it didn't seem to meld with the footage the way the Inland Empire and Lost Highway dialogue did, but reading your take makes me kinda wish I'd found a way to re-incorporate it.

"That I would like to discuss in another post if I may."

Please do!

Erniesam said...



"As for the blue box - I've always seen it as an expression of Betty/Diane's self-knowledge, be it of the hit, of abuse as you suggest, or more broadly of the darkness outside of Betty's relatively sheltered confines in the first part of the film."

A very nice reading indeed. I disagree with the hit part, because I view that as entirely metaphorical. Your description of it as "the darkness outside Betty" I find intrigueing. I didn't view the box as simply holding Betty's trauma, but you put it pretty succint. I guess we can view it indeed as the darkness within Betty which holds her trauma, but I bet it holds alot more: her failed dreams, her shattered hopes and desires etc. It's just that the sexual abuse seems to be at the top of all her fears.

When Betty and Rita take the box home and Rita is about to open it, Betty has disappeared. Rita is afraid and wonders where Betty is, because throughout the dream we never see Rita alone after she has met Betty. Rita and Betty are in essence one and Rita doesn't have contact with other people besides Betty. So when Rita is about to open the box Betty disappears because this is the only way she knows how to "handle" her trauma: in reality Diane has always avoided the confrontation with it, so in her dream Betty is incapable to face it too. Rita does open it. I guess because she has seen her fate in the corpse in apartment 17 and Betty has disappeared, Rita hasn't got anything to loose (or she just doesn't know what to do). Above all, Rita does not know what's inside the box so when she opens it she sees nothing. She only sees darkness (and Diane and the audience see this too). The darkness probably represents the area in which the trauma hides along other things.

We see a little blue box in the drawer of her bedside table when Diane takes out the gun and shoots herself in the end. I view this little box as containing personal items from her youth like earrings or braceletts or something. Stuff that is dear to Diane. The sexual abuse has ruined her youth, so this takes over her precious memories from her youth. This is speculating of course, but I like to view it this way.

Great to hear your treatment of abuse throughout Lynch's work and your video essay of it. Where can I find this? Now that you mentioned it, I certainly do see similarities between FWWM and MD, mainly in the context of sexual abuse. Laura was abused by her father (which in turn was taken over by Bob), while Diane has been abused by her father also exept that she "made" her father into her grandfather: just the other way around! Furthermore, I see alot of references to sexual abuse in many if not all Lynch's works: Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, FWWM, Lost Highway, MD and to a certain extent IE also in that it contains large portions with prostitutes. It seems to me that Lynch portrays sex in violent terms instead of loving ones.




Erniesam said...

The references to sexual abuse in MD are numerous, but I'd like to point out a view. We have the painting of Beatrice Cenci and her background; the enactment of this abuse at Adam's house ("Gene Clean"); the rehearsal scene; the shaking at Club Silencio; the way the Cowboy treats Adam; Diane having lesbian affairs; the pink paint over the jewelry etc. I don't think this is the place to expand on each element, but to me it is obvious sexual abuse is at the heart of the movie.

The way Diane deals with Camilla Rhodes in her fantasy I find realy fascinating. I believe Camilla Rhodes realy did exist and that she indeed manipulated Diane in reality just like we see Camilla do in her fantasy. I view the movie as working gradually towards reality. This means that the dream is the farthest away from reality (and even this dream is split into two) and the second segment is also largely fantasy, but it comes closer and closer to reality. So Diane tries to suppress the memory of Camilla Rhodes, the one who is responsible for Diane's failing in Hollywood (or so Diane imagines it, because I believe in reality it was due to her own vulnerabillity and naive simplicity). In order to do so Diane splits this memory up: one level consists of the image while the other level takes care of the name. In doing so Diane concentrates on one level on the image and on the other level on the name so that she looses focus of these elements on the contrary levels. On the level of repressing the image we see the blonde Camilla Rhodes (in her dream) as well as Carol. The image is indeed Betty-like, but her name is conform reality. The image of Carol is a step closer to the real Camilla Rhodes and her name also indicates this relation: the letters in the name Carol constitute the initials of the name Camilla Rhodes.

On the level of repressing the name of Camilla Rhodes we see that the image is closer to reality, because Rita and Camilla are played by Laura Harring, who represents also the real Camilla Rhodes. The name of Camilla Rhodes is succesfully repressed, because Rita initially doesn't know who she is. She has no name at all. So we see the following pattern: no name - Rita - Camilla - Camilla Rhodes. This illustrates the progress of the movie towards reality perfectly.

Right now I will be checking your previous posts since you mentioned you treated the abuse as a major theme in the work of Lynch. I believe this is indeed a driving force in his work and since this theme is so personal and up close I believe this is what makes his movies so poignant and in your face.

Joel Bocko said...

More great comments, Bart - I love what you're bringing to this conversation.

Re: Camilla, I was just going to ask you if you thought "Camilla Rhodes" was a real person or just a manifestation of a part of Diane, so I'm glad you addressed it. Who do you mean by "Carol" though? I don't remember a "Carol" in the film.

As for the video essay, it's actually last week's post, the third entry in David Lynch Month. It's called "Take This Baby and Deliver It to Death" which is a paraphrase from The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer written by Jennifer Lynch. Here's the direct link: http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2014/06/take-this-baby-and-deliver-it-to-death.html

Also, under that post there are some cross-posted comments from IMDb which also address Lynch's treatment of sex and abuse. Beginning with Wild at Heart (or, as I put it in the above retro, even earlier in The Cowboy & the Frenchman) Lynch begins to allow a more positive portrayal of sex into his films. Increasingly the idea is that sex itself is not necessarily tainted, but that abuse taints one's perception of it, and of everything else.

There's also a very intresting discussion featured in my Gone Fishin' round-up of a couple weeks ago - it's the very last excerpt chronologically (it occurred just in time for inclusion). It's between a couple authors/therapists/teachers regarding the film Fire Walk With Me and their perception of how it deals with abuse from many angles. Although Lynch of course doesn't practice or partake in psychoanalysis, there are some fascinating psychoanalytic correspondences in the film, particularly with the observations of Ferenczi, who was a pupil of Freud before being disowned (weren't they all eventually?). That conversation can be found in full here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvlaoTDEJ2Y

So much fascinating stuff to explore! It's neverending...

Mike said...

Wow... that is probably the most comprehensive thing I've ever seen on Lynch. I haven't read through everything yet, but this has inspired a mini Lynch retrospective myself, so as I watch and in some cases re-watch his films I will consult this post and leave my own two cents. I also look forward to reading the conversation going in this thread, as Lynch seems to inspire the most passionate yet concurrently different reactions from his fans amongst his films. That it's about Lost Highway (at least at first) is great for me, because I had no idea what to make of the film on first viewing and am predicting an upcoming re-viewing won't clear up much. And though I haven't dipped my toe in his non feature length work, this post might inspire me to do so...

For now though, I'd like to talk about Blue Velvet, which I watched for the second time last night. I'm not sure if I wasn't paying attention closely enough the first time around or I was just going along with the plot without asking many questions (it had been instilled in me that this was one of the straightforward Lynch films), but on this viewing the entire thing seemed absurd and almost inconsequential. First of all, the plot is, at times, inept from both a storytelling and logic perspective. Why Jeffery decides to pretend to be a bug exterminator to sneak into Dorothy's apartment, and why Sandy goes along with it, is bizarre in the first place. Then he conveniently finds the key to the place in the kitchen! Maybe I missed a line of dialogue where Sandy says she knows where the key is (because she seems to know quite a bit about this Dorothy character from eavesdropping on her father) but even still, it's a pretty big stretch. Thankfully Lynch never plays the plot straightforward, and instead builds an atmosphere of absurdity that keeps the audience engaged. Despite any contrivances (the toilet flush blocking out the honking car horn is another) every scene that takes place in Dorothy's apartment is genuinely suspenseful.

The lack of character establishment is also great, and a typical Lynch thing. When Sandy tells Jeffery that she's not sure if he's a pervert or a detective, and he responds that it's for him to know and her to find out, I get the feeling he is talking to the audience as well. His reaction to finding the severed ear is also strangely muted, how he didn't freak out at the thing is beyond me. And yes, he does hit Dorothy while they are having sex and manipulates both Dorothy and Sandy in the long run. So, I guess what I'm getting at is that he's not your typical innocent suburban wannabe sleuth, and I was half expecting an overt shift in character in the second half a la Mulholland Drive that revealed his darker nature. Hell, I even floated the theory that the whole thing is his sick fantasy when a shot of him waking up in his bed directly follows the first episode with Dorothy in the apartment. You say that a lot of hints about Jeffery's character were left on the cutting room floor? Very interesting, it could have been a whole different film if Lynch pushed that angle any further. (1/2)

Mike said...

(2/2) You note that the good natured humor in the film, much of which takes place in the first half (from Jeffery's playful encounter with a blind co-worker to his flirting with Sandy) was genuine, not meant to be ironic or with a dark overtone hanging over it. I'm not sure if I agree completely, since this light hearted stuff creates almost too stark a contrast to the more vulgar humor (that comes entirely from Frank and his boys) for me to buy that Lynch was being genuine. I tend to view it more as a parody of the old fashioned melodrama, maybe an homage, I suppose Lynch can have his cake and eat it too. Maybe I have to watch more of his short films or other projects to get a better idea of his humor.

I had not considered Detective Williams to be corrupt like his partner was, but that's a very interesting theory. That makes his withholding of information about the case from Jeffery seem more sinister and not professional protocol, and his telling Jeffery "easy does it" when Jeffery sees his corrupt partner arrive sounds like a threat to Jeffery, not a well-intentioned warning. You're right that this film probably has the most straightforward characters in any Lynch film, but they are still far from clear cut, and it's very tempting to apply Mulholland Drive/Lost Highway levels of investigation to the mix...

Joel Bocko said...

"so as I watch and in some cases re-watch his films I will consult this post and leave my own two cents"

Great idea & I look forward to your reactions.

Blue Velvet has always been a tough film for me to suss out, much tougher than the more overtly challenging films for some reason. Watching it as part of a chronological retro reminded me that Lynch was working out a lot of his themes and stylistic quirks for the first time. I often feel like I'm expecting more from it, maybe based on what's coming.

The absurdity you note is interesting because this is one of the screenplays Lynch wrote completely by himself and most people don't consider him much of a "plot mechanic" (if that's an actual term). Eraserhead, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire are his other solo efforts (Wild at Heart grants him sole credit, but it is based on someone else's novel). Blue Velvet is obviously the most clear and straightforward of these, but it still has that element of cheerful nonsense hinting that Lynch is more interested in A and B individually then in getting from A to B.

With the tonal shifts - obviously Lynch is conscious of the contrast but I think he's fully-invested in some of the seemingly "corny" moments. He has an interesting quote about parodying soap operas which I think speaks to his sensibility: "Soap operas to me should not be camp. These are very real characters (that) feel and do what they do with all their heart. Camp is not only not creative, it is putting yourself above something else that has already been done and poking fun at it. To me that is a lower kind of humor."

Which is interesting because there often seem to be intentionally campy elements in Lynch's work, especially in Blue Velvet and the first season of Twin Peaks. But I think, in a way, it comes from a different place than much camp. (I was listening to director commentary on Twin Peaks today and one of the episode writers or directors noted that Lynch nixed the "Invitation to Love" soap-within-a-soap parody from Twin Peaks because it seemed too on-the-nose and mocking.

The question of when Lynch is serious and when - or if ever - he's putting us on is a fascinating one and something that I think played a big role in Twin Peaks' eventual derailment.

Mike said...

Ah, that quote kinda clears it up.. Like I said, I might just need to see more of his work to better understand his humor, like the second season of Twin Peaks (which might make the humor in Blue Velvet feel more genuine in hindsight).

Speaking of Twin Peaks, I re-watched Fire Walk With Me the other night, and, like my first viewing of it, was in a daze for the majority of its run time. Even the first half hour or so, which seemed so throwaway the first time around, was bizarrely compelling. I was in for a jolt when the actual theme from Twin Peaks starting playing, having forgotten that this was a prequel to that show... And once the story of Laura Palmer took off, I started to get the feeling I was in the dark concerning her character. Lynch's quotes about her make me feel like this was the conclusion to the Twin Peaks myth, his final goodbye to the fictional character he fell in love with, a re-creation of her suffering that only fans of the show (or, at least people who saw the show) can truly appreciate. That's not to say the movie panders to the show's fans, or is a cash grab, but having missed out on the town's obsession of Laura after her death, her life in the film feels somewhat opaque. As the film drew closer to its inevitable conclusion, her character felt harder for me to stay interested in, as horrible as that sounds. Perhaps it's because she has no chance against the evil forces Lynch throws her way, or everything is so abstracted by Lynch that I simply couldn't follow it. I understand the basic premise, and it is a hard thing to watch unfold, but I certainly felt kept at arms length. Hopefully I'll have more to discuss about Lost Highway, which is the next one coming in.

Joel Bocko said...

The question of whether or not it's better to see FIre Walk With Me after Twin Peaks is an interesting one. Most people would immediately say it's best to watch the how first, and even that it's impossible to appreciate the movie otherwise but I have strong doubts. For one thing I've noticed that most of the people who really hate the film, or at least strongly dislike it, are fans of the show. And te reasons they usually give for their disappointment have to do with it not being like the series. So I think people who really fall in love with the series have a tendency to resent the film for being so different. Likewise, having set up who Laura Palmer was in their mind, many feel seeing her spoils the mystery. Obviously I disagree - strongly - but it's something I've noticed a lot lately.

I've grown to like the first part more too and ended up focusing one of my entries in the conversation with Tony entirely on the Deer Meadow and Black Lodge elements, things that I found distracting or even offensive on first viewing. One of the things I like about he movie is that it can be appreciated from so many different angles.

I would definitely encourage you to seek out season two at this point - at least to the part where Leland is revealed as the killer (the following two episodes are decent, and the finale is a stone-cold classic but the twelve episodes in between range from really underwhelming to mildly compelling). It will probably add to your appreciation of Fire Walk with Me and of Lynch in general. While the first season is more consistently entertaining, and the subplots feel better-integrated into the whole, the first part of season two is more fully Lynchian and as the surrealism and intrigue gets ramped up, the show reaches new heights - though there are more weak spots, the best moments are more terrifying or moody than anything that's come before.

(Continued)

Joel Bocko said...

(continued)


A couple other things to clarify/offer different perspectives on both Laura's character and the Twin Peaks universe...when you've watched season two, my Gone Fishin' round-up offers a lot of great insight into the series' decline and Lynch's growing fascination with Laura's character. I'd also recommend reading or at least perusing The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, by Jennifer Lynch especially if you feel somewhat estranged from the character. It goes even further than Fire Walk With Me in exploring her mind and expressing her torment, which sometimes makes for tough but compelling reading. It's a quick read (I read it in a few hours one night) an the full text can be easily found online if your library doesn't carry a copy. I consider the book to be a crucial but often overlooked step in the evolution of her character and the changing tone of the show.

As for the grim inevitability of the ending, I'm still not sure how I feel about the end of the movie which feels so fatalistic. I've read that after shooting the scene as scripted (in which there's no ring and Laura simply demands her father kill her) Lynch realized she deserved a more empowering climax and he edited in te ring motif to give her a positive action. This theory (which is speculation rather than documented fact) as well as some other readings of the film which envision Laura's arc as more proactive, are expounded in the latter part of the Gone Fishin' round-up. I'd say I'm still developing my take on the film's ending.

At the end of the day Fire Walk with Me will always be somewhat messy - it was intended to be part of a series of Twin Peaks films as well as attempting to straddle dual roles as a fulfillment of the series' plot lines and a reinvention of its tone and mythology. But the messiness is part of why I love it and can't sop thinking about it - a neater film might be more admirable in a way but also less raw. Ultimately I think there are two kinds of great movies: the perfect, in which every element is just marvelously executed in a harmonious, Apollonian fashion; and the powerful, in which the passion of creation is so overwhelming that things may come out jumbled or uneven but pulsating with emotion, a kind of Dionysian fury. I think Fire Walk with Me is the latter type of film (Blue Velvet, despite some goofy plot details, feels much like the former). It feels like the film nearest and dearest to Lynch's heart as the beating it took only adds to the pathos.

Mike said...

It's definitely a fascinating film, and the rift it creates between critics is especially interesting to me. The fact that fans of the show still haven't come around to it surprises me, I mean, it has grown in critical stature over the years despite carrying along its initial detractors. Slant Magazine named it one of the best films of the 90s, which might be a bit dubious, but eye-raising nonetheless. I can see fans of the show hating the first half hour of the film though...As far as seeing the show, I will definitely get to it sometime in the future, perhaps just all out immersing myself in it via bingeing and reading your episode guide + Laura's diary and tons of other reading material. Having seen the first episode, I feel as if I have to be in the right frame of mind to really appreciate it, like a lot of Lynch's filmography. If not it could be a real grind. But so far I've enjoyed digging through his films, and last night I watched Lost Highway again...

Well, I understand the film better now than after one viewing, but that's not to say I understand it well at all! Reading through the above conversation has helped in my approach to the film. It's cryptic, not meant to be taken at face value, but it's also kind of a tease, with plenty of genre tropes/accessible elements colliding in a nonsensical way. That's how I felt after seeing Mulholland Drive for the first time, which made for an incredible sensory experience from one scene to another but didn't make much sense to me on a logic level when all the scenes are added up. Lost Highway is even more of a mindfuck, though it's still a hell of a ride..

The first 30 minutes are great, layering up tension until we get glimpses of the actual crime itself. There's so much bizarre humor in this film, my favorite being the either incompetent or uninterested detectives who investigate the videotapes of Fred's home, and Dick Laurent's GTA style takedown of the tailgater is also hard to forget. And the film is certainly not short of memorable imagery, from the laconic close ups of various sexual acts (and the accompanying off putting soundtrack) to Pete's foray down an, erm, disorienting hallway..

But while the plot of MD makes sense to me in hindsight, the plot of Highway doesn't really add up.. I understand that it's a psychological study of a paranoid wife killer who indulges in a fantasy life after being locked up. And I definitely appreciate the less than linear way Lynch approaches probing his protagonist's mind. But some of Bart's (from this thread) explanation (or attempts at explaining) the plot have got me more confused than the film itself. Like this-

"His first fantasy begins with the words: "Dick Laurent is dead" while the second fantasy ends with this. The intriguing problem is of course that Fred is on different sides of the door in his fantasies when these words are spoken. So, the second segment cannot have preceded the first and yet...we KNOW this segment is the same as the first, because we hear the police sirens in the first segment. It seems logical that it preceded the first segment and yet...it cannot have."

Huh, what? The sad thing is that this is probably the most clear explanation of the actual events of the film, but it hurts my head to think about. Still, the overall premise of the film, which I believe is Fred's insecurities about not being able to please his wife, make it compelling enough to just run with it when it gets too meta.

When I get back from vacation I'll be watching The Straight Story and Inland Empire, both for the first time.

Joel Bocko said...

A lot of Twin Peaks fans do like Fire Walk With Me, to be fair, though many of them came around to it eventually rather than right away. But it increasingly seems to me that Peaks fans are far less inclined to like Fire Walk With Me than avant-garde, horror fans or even just general movie buffs. Though I was very impressed by the movie on first viewing - and actually troubled more by its connections to the series than its disconnections - that may be in part because I already liked Lynch and tend to prefer films to TV shows. For fans coming from the dark but alluring series, which (except in the crucial sequence revealing Laura's killer) tends to keep the ugliness of Laura's situation at an arm's length, the film felt like a slap in the face.

As for the show, I always tell people give it three episodes to hook you. The pilot is extremely well-done but a bit more restrained than the rest of the series, and the first regular episode is well-done - with at least one brilliant moment - but relatively conventional. It's the second regular episode (i.e. the third) which tells viewers if Twin Peaks is for them or not. That was the episode that completely hooked me, personally (though I wasn't able to see the pilot the first time I began the series).

Lost Highway...you may enjoy reading my earlier essay as well, linked up at the end of this one. It was my initial reaction after seeing the film, which through me for a loop same as everyone else. At the time though I think I just embraced it as an aesthetic object more than a sensible narrative. But, like Bart - and you it seems, I do think it's the story of someone who murdered his wife and is in denial. It's the details of his denial - and which parts are denial and which (if anything) are reality that still tends to confuse me!

The Straight Story and Inland Empire...wow, that would make a hell of a double feature! They may be Lynch's two most different movies though they both feel fully "Lynchian" to me (more so than Dune and maybe even The Elephant Man). Inland Empire takes the confusion of Lost Highway and ups it to the nth degree. Knowing what's "real", what's fantasy or dream becomes almost impossible; honestly, I'm not sure Lynch himself knows. I'll be really interested to hear your reaction to that (and still waiting for Bart's; hopefully he returns to share it). Though narrative threads have emerged for me on repeat viewings, I still can't say for sure what's happening at any given point. The trick is to just go for the ride, as in a dream, and not necessarily try to make sense of what's going on though Lynch makes this mindset difficult at times (something I tried to get at with my above review). The Straight Story, on the other hand, has a completely comprehensible surface but contains great depths. I've come to love both movies.

Mike said...

The film I kept thinking of as I was watching Lost Highway was the Coen brother's Barton Fink- have you seen it? It seems like a big influence on Lynch, particularly Mulholland Drive which also concerns a Hollywood outsider coming to town trying to make it big, and other Lynchian qualities I won't spoil in case you haven't seen it. It's tie in with Lost Highway is its ambiguous portrayal of male anxiety and paranoia. I'd also like to hear Bart's thoughts on that film if he's seen it.

After The Straight Story and Inland Empire, the only Lynch films left for me to see will be Eraserhead, Wild at Heart and Dune. And after I catch up with those, I will check out your video project on all of Lynch's films.

Joel Bocko said...

I still haven't seen Barton Fink though I think I'd really like it. It would be interesting if the Coen brothers had influenced Lynch - he often says he doesn't see many movies and their sensibility, despite some overlap, seems very different from his. Yet in a way their cinemas are kindred spirits.

Of the final 3 you mention, not sure if I should say anything lest I color your own opinion. So stop reading here if you want to go to them completely fresh! Eraserhead may be Lynch's best movie in terms of directorial control (ironically, since it was his first) - everything in it just feels so right and perfect for the story he wants to tell and mood he wants to create. It's very offputting in a way, but also remarkable. Dune didn't work for me, and Wild at Heart I'm mixed on. It's fun but feels like the only Lynch film in which "he's just being random for randomness' sake!" actually seems to apply. But when I watched it as part of his whole body of work, in its proper chronological spot, I realized how important it is to his filmography and appreciated it more. Still not one of my favorites though.

Mike said...

Ok, so I just got done with my "back from vacation movie marathon" and saw some pretty amazing films, several new favorites for sure (as well as some old ones), with The Straight Story and Inland Empire sandwiched in there as the only same-director double feature. The Straight Story emerged as the film I liked more, and it seems to be getting better the more I think/ read about it and consider it in Lynch's oeuvre, while post-viewing research of Inland Empire has yielded little in the way of satisfying conclusions...

First of all, The Straight Story was inadvertently the third tear-jerker I watched in a row during this marathon, so perhaps I was softened a bit, but I would have never imagined Lynch could tap into such sincere emotional resonance. Yet of course, the Lynch hallmarks are there, from the shady past of our protagonist (an alcoholic who perhaps wasn't the best father, or brother, or solider) obscuring his surface likability, to the wacky humor (I loved the scene where Alvin buys a grabber, from a guy who clearly didn't want to part from it). And I like what you say about the special meaning of the journey to Alvin, as his way to purge his past sins and prove he still loves his brother. Lynch never forces this at the viewer and it really only came to me in hindsight, though it makes perfect sense. Finally, the shot of Alvin as he sits at home during a thunderstorm is brilliant. It just holds on his face as his daughter talks on the phone in the other room, presumably (I think) receiving the news that Lyle had a stroke. Well I was so transfixed on the shot itself I don't remember the background dialogue. It makes sense, as this is the moment Alvin realizes he has to face his brother and his past, a past that the viewers are unaware of at this point. But the fact that such a dark, slow burning moment occurs in a Disney film is, well, unsettling...

Inland Empire was full of these moments, as I soon found out, but with little of the poignancy or sense of deeper meaning. I don't think I've ever been more baffled at a film, and though I expected this, it still came as a cold shock after seeing Lynch's skills shine through in genre mode. The fact that IE was improvised by Lynch and was sort of a hodgepodge of other projects makes me wonder if there's any deeper meaning here at all. Any singular reading/ theory of the film can't account for many scenes and plot threads that obviously seem culled from another filmic universe (the Poles, rabbits, party girls, the girl in the hotel). I'd love to be proven wrong about this, and perhaps in 30 years this film will be revived as a forgotten masterpiece and forbearer to some new form of storytelling in film.

As far as getting under my skin, or being a compelling sensory experience (you liken watching the film to flipping through channels, which is a nice way of looking at it), it didn't work nearly as well as Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive for me. Perhaps it's the way it was shot and the technical specs. It makes me appreciate the first half hour of Lost Highway all the more, for its delicate formalism that built a sort of ambient atmosphere. IE is just right in your face with those awkward, shaky close ups and grainy lighting. I had this same problem with Dancer in the Dark, viewed in the same marathon, though Lynch's artistic choice to shoot that way makes more sense than Von Trier's, who is not only making a period film, but one driven by a singular performance that really shines through when the camera relaxes a bit. But I digress.

So, since you've seen Inland Empire multiple times, I have to ask- is it worth pursuing meaning in the film? I get the sense that it would just lead to dead ends and make the viewer more frustrated. Or is it better to just fall into the trap, which can sometimes be a good thing but does it really make it a great film then?

Joel Bocko said...

Out of curiosity, what other films did you watch as well?

The emotional sincerity & quiet compassion of The Straight Story is oft-noted, but I do see it as being of a piece with The Elephant Man and Fire Walk With Me, although it also has a certain warmth neither of those films quite has. I love it - and watched it with my family on a recent visit home (it's one of the few Lynch films I can do that with!).

Your description of the lightning scene is a great description of how Lynch works. The scene has thematic and narrative importance, yet we come to that importance only through the aesthetic/formal experience of how he presents it. That's one reason he's such a great director.

I've seen Inland Empire three times now, and have begun to think of it as a favorite Lynch. Yet it still is very frustrating! It's the Lynch film I probably feel the most uncertain about, which is in a way a good thing (it maintains an aura of mystery and mystification which I've gotten past with some of the others - and as Lynch himself often says, being lost in the mystery can be a beautiful thing).

But I don't really know the answer to your inquiry, which is really the million-dollar question. Is it best to abandon any explanation? Or is it better to seek answers? Can one do both?

The thing I'm learning about Lynch, the more I read, is that Inland Empire is just the logical extension of his working methods and thought process. Even with more conventional films, he allows the pieces to accumulate without knowing where they will necessarily lead. Usually the demands of pre-production within the studio system demand that he figure this out beforehand but in Inland Empire he had the luxury of essentially fusing pre-production and production (and perhaps post-production as well). And yet the methodology is essentially the same as, say, Mulholland Drive in which he conceived the first 2/3 without having any clue where they would lead, or Eraserhead, in which the crucial Lady in the Radiator entered the story well into shooting, or Twin Peaks, in which the supernatural element was cobbled together from random inspirations until a coherent and powerful metaphysical underpinning had been assembled from bits and pieces.

(continued)

Joel Bocko said...

(continued)


This doesn't mean Lynch embraces every idea that comes to mind but when something resonates deeply, when he "falls in love" to put it in his own terminology, he goes with the idea and only later figures out how it works. Michael J. Anderson, who played the Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks, relates a story of walking past Lynch's editing suite and overhearing his conversation with Mary Sweeney, his editor and girlfriend for many years, in which he was watching footage and told her to freeze it and after a long pause said, "So THAT's what I meant by that..." Inland Empire just takes this to the extreme.

Formally, I know what you mean and I myself often object to the grungey/handheld aesthetic and yet it really works for me in this film as I said in the review. Something about it feels very spotaneous and raw, as if the camera is a scalpel, carving away the familiar layers of everyday life. It's like a home movie camera on acid.

Still hoping Bart returns to share his thoughts on that. I'm also looking forward to reading Martha Nochimson's book David Lynch Swerves, which covers his last 4 films in the light of Hinduism's Vedic texts (Lynch is an avid practitioner and promoter of the Maharishi's Transcendental Meditation and has been since the 70s) and also quantum mechanices, which Lynch has an intense amateur interest in apparently. The readings I've read of Inland Empire so far seem to emphasize the centrality of the "battered woman"'s story but on my viewings, Nikki the actress has seemed to be the "real" central consciousness if there is one.

The reading that works best for me at the moment is of the film as a metaphor for artistic creation and investment - how an artist loses themselves in their work, with identities and experiences blurring and intermingling like a dream before the work is sent out into the world to touch other lives. It's especially interesting to consider this aspect of the film - and also this aspect in Mulholland Drive - in light of Lynch's work with Sheryl Lee in Fire Walk With Me. Lee has often spoken of really losing herself in that role and of being haunted by nightmares for years in which she and Laura blurred together. She even wrote a "goodbye" diary entry to Laura on the last day of shooting and years later composed a poem to the character she played, addressing her almost as a possessing spirit. Knowing how taken Lynch was with both Lee's screen presence, and the daimonic power of Laura Palmer within the narrative of Twin Peaks, I wonder to what extent this experience played itself out in his later films.

Mike said...

I'll post my whole marathon re-cap on Sam's Monday Morning Diary at Wonders in the Dark, so you can see it there if you're interested.

I'm a little surprised to hear Inland Empire is your favorite Lynch! It certainly takes his style to the extreme, so I guess if your predisposed to that sort of thing it'll be right up your alley. Two things hindered my appreciation of it I think- one, that I watched it right after The Straight Story, and two, that I watched it in broad daylight.. Lynch works best in the dark, and the only other film of his I've seen during the day (besides The Straight Story) was The Elephant Man, which I wasn't a fan of.

A lot of reviews I've read on Inland Empire have taken a physiological reading of the film, which makes sense considering Lynch's sole description of it is as "a woman in trouble". But I think you're right that it more about the dangers of artistic creation and more specifically role playing. I think the most important scene is the first rehearsal for the film where Nikki first commits herself to the character, and then the rehearsal gets interrupted by some unseen "ghost" that some have pointed out to be Susan, the character Nikki plays. None of this is my original thinking, but from what I've gathered it seems like a good starting point to try and unravel the rest of the plot from. I also like your background about Lynch's infatuation with Sheryl Lee/ Laura Palmer, and this knowledge about Lee's devotion to her role under Lynch's direction opens up a lot of interesting angles on IE. I'll have to see if any of this helps my appreciation of the film on a re-watch.

Joel Bocko said...

It's definitely not my favorite - traditionally that's been Mulholland Drive, lately it's clearly Fire Walk With Me - but it may very well be in my top 3. Because it is so purely Lynch, taking all the unsettling, provocative, visceral aspects of his films to the max. But I wasn't very taken with it on first viewing. Five years later & another re-watch, it grew on me more. (Though it also grew in memory - in fact, I can see I ranked it pretty highly for 2006 in the Wonders poll, even though at that point I'd only had a not-very-satisfactory first viewing. In fact the same is true of Fire Walk With Me. I watched it once in 2008 and was really troubled by it but in retrospect it grew and grew in my memory. It ranked in the top 50 of my all-time favorites list, won Best Picture from me in the Wonders poll, and I discussed it numerous times - but I never actually had a second viewing until 2013. That first viewing remains one of the most memorable and distinctive experiences I've ever had watching a movie. I'd still love to see it on the big screen - in fact, see any Lynch on the big screen. The only one I've seen so far was Mulholland Drive in 2012 and I feel like I didn't appreciate the experience as much at the time as I would now.)

Joel Bocko said...

Out of curiosity, what were your further thoughts on The Elephant Man?

Mike said...

Oh my bad- misread "a" for "my". Mulholland Drive is still my favorite as well, and now Lost Highway is in the number two spot after this re-watch. Fire Walk With Me might actually be my second least favorite Lynch so far, though it still fascinates me and I look forward to reading about the recent re-release of it with the deleted scenes and whatnot.

The Elephant Man- well, I saw it about a year ago, and it felt kind of manipulative, perhaps worse. I remember thinking "what's the difference between Lynch and the people who exploited Joseph (/John) Merrick in his day", which is a pretty cynical way of looking at it, as I see now. But I can't help but wonder how many seats were filled by people who had a morbid curiosity to see the diseased man himself.. Ok, I should get off that.. even if Lynch is juicing the sentimentality of a mistreated man with a grotesque and rare disease, I'll grant him that he's at least sincere in portraying him humanely. That doesn't make it a great film though, or any less shallow. I might like the film even less now having seen Lynch pull a legitimate tearjerker with The Straight Story.

Or maybe I can only love one black and white lead actor driven character study from 1980 where the main character professes that he's "not an animal"... ;)

Joel Bocko said...

(revised from deleted comment)

I know what you mean about The Elephant Man - when I watched it for the first time in about 20 years this spring I was surprised by how clichéd much of the story is (especially given how far it strays from the actual events). And yet I've seen it a few times since then and can basically look past the simplistic elements because I like many things about it so much. Firstly, its simply luminous photography - possibly the most exquisite and gorgeous Lynch film. And the performances, which are superb, even in some of the more stereotypical parts. And while details of the screenplay annoy me the overall structure is impressive - we are led to subtly shift our perspective in a way few films dare. And I love the ending, which I find genuinely moving and a perfect complement to the ending of Fire Walk with Me (I ended up treating it as such in the video essay). But it does descend into formula at times and while many point to it as one of his more "adult" films (I guess on the conceit that surrealism is inherently juvenile) I have to disagree - I think his later movies display a far more complex and sophisticated understanding of human nature and behavior.

I just watched "the Missing Pieces" last night - my review will be up Monday, but the short version is that I was amazed at the way it linked the disparate perspectives of Twin Peaks and Fire Walk with Me, which I had begun to consider irreconcilable. Now, suddenly and unexpected, the entire Twin Peaks universe to me feels far more holistic and I feel most interested in Fire Walk with Me as the culmination of a spiritual saga, for the first time since I saw it 5 years ago. In that light, I'd recommend any watch/rewatch in the following order: Twin Peaks the series (you can safely skip ep. 19-23 or even 18-28 if you find yourself struggling/losing interest, although I'd recommend soldiering through for the little character and mythology glimpses sprinkled throughout that very weak post-Laura run). Definitely watch the Lynch-directed finale, possibly the best Peaks episode, even if you skip the second half of the second season or not (up to Leland's reveal is more uneven than season one, but with higher highs - and the reveal itself may be the most powerful work Lynch had done up to that point). After the series, watch the deleted scenes (think of them as a separate entity from the film, closer than the series to Laura but still distanced) and only then give a Fire Walk with Me a third spin. It may take a long while, but I believe this is how viewers will get the most of all the different parts, especially if they've already seen the film.

Mike said...

I'll definitely be consulting this site often when I dive back into Twin Peaks. I plan on going through all the way and not skipping episodes, maybe seeing the legit bad ones will help me appreciate the good ones. For now, I'm in season 4 of Arrested Development, the 'reunion' season so to speak, which might be a bit of a grind to finish. When I get done with that, I might either a) start The Sopranos, which will take up the rest of this year and who knows how much of next, or b) re-visit The Wire, something I've been meaning to do since I originally blew through the series nearly two years ago. If you're wondering, I like to tackle one show at a time, so Twin Peaks will have to wait for those two behemoths to have their shine. I know, it's probably a perfect time to get into Twin Peaks right now, but I think I'll better appreciate the show if I approach it on my own terms. But who knows, the impulse to go in to it might strike me anyway.

So, bringing it back to Lynch's films, I saw Eraserhead and Wild at Heart for the first time in the past two nights. Eraserhead lived up to all the hype- beautifully weird, hypnotic in a gruesome sort of way, amazingly paced especially for a debut film. It never falls into the indie film trying to be too abstract guise, as Lynch's visuals, along with the garish sound design, always held my attention in a very direct way. It works as a simple story of a man trudging through a miserable life in miserable conditions, with the birth of his child coming more as an avenue for more misery and confusion than a ray of light. But it also has enough mysterious undercurrents that open up discussion on the character's sexual frustrations and spirituality. As far as it being his best film, I agree that it feels like his most fully realized, and his most praise-worthy from a formal standpoint. But I think it needs a few more viewings before I can elevate it above Mulholland Drive, which remains, for me at least, Lynch's most dazzling combination of visuals, music, mystery, offbeat humor, suspense, sensuality, and a tragic undercurrent.

Now Wild at Heart left me cold, and despite it being entertaining in spurts, it definitely feels like a transitional work, and a pointedly empty one at that. It fascinates me that this film won the Palme d'Or, perhaps people were just excited to see Lynch in a different mode (like they were the following year for the Coen brothers), but I couldn't get with it. The car crash scene you describe came a jolt though, as it felt like the lone instance where the film depicted real violence, as random, uncontrollable and un-stylish, as opposed to the other sensational killings depicted in the film. I can see how this film influenced Fargo and Natural Born Killers as you mention.

Now I have one more Lynch feature to go- Dune. I'm dreading it, but this will make Lynch the first director of whom I've seen every feature film of.

Joel Bocko said...

Pretty much agreed with you on Wild at Heart, though I've warmed up on a bit. The reason it won the Palme d'Or largely the same reason FWWM was booed at Cannes later: viewers were responding to their excitement/exhaustion with Lynch as a pop cultural phenomenon rather than to the work itself.

Joel Bocko said...

Oh, and when you do check out the blu-ray look for the new Fire Walk With Me documentary, "Moving Through Time." It offers some great insight into the making of the film, particularly Sheryl Lee's performance; apparently, cast and crew were worried at times that she was approaching a complete breakdown because she had thrown herself so deeply into the role (particularly during the train car sequence). More than ever it seems to me that Inland Empire in particular - in addition to Mulholland Drive - was inspired (subconsciously, if nothing else) by Lynch's experience working with her.

Mike said...

Alright, finally saw Dune, and now I'm done with Lynch's feature filmography! But yeah, Dune sucked. Full of painfully stilted expository dialogue, making it all the more ironic that it is one of Lynch's most confusing films despite attempts to spell everything out. Occasionally some interesting visuals, like Kyle MacLachlan's hair, but by and large this was the weakest film from Lynch in that department despite the large budget.

Now I know from this post that there is a whole lot of other work Lynch has done, from short films, music videos, commercials, etc.. It's a bit intimidating. What would you recommend as a good starting point, or his best work outside the feature film world period? (excluding Twin Peaks obviously, as that is a beast for another day). In the meantime, I'm off to watch your video on Lynch's films, and will leave my thoughts on that when I get the chance.

Joel Bocko said...

"Full of painfully stilted expository dialogue, making it all the more ironic that it is one of Lynch's most confusing films despite attempts to spell everything out."

Exactly - although, yes, Kyle MacLachlan's hair is pretty remarkable.

Don't know if I'd recommend watching the video before you see Twin Peaks, at least up to the killer's reveal. Obviously you know it was Leland, but his identity is revealed in a way you may or may not already know about (depending on if you've read my Twin Peaks descriptions, I guess), but which should probably be experienced as a shock if you don't. I include the whole scene as the climax of my video, as I think it's perhaps the culmination if what Lynch was reaching towards, vis a vis good/evil and his presentation of violence in the first part if his career. Ironically, when I saw the scene for the first time I had the reverse of your experience: I knew why was going to happen (it had been spoiled when I stumbled across the info online) but not who Bob would be.

As for shorts, it's probably a good idea to start with the DVD of his (mostly) early shorts which is on Netflix. The most celebrated are probably The Grandmoter and The Cowboy and the Frenchman, which are wildly different and between the two of then capture the two extremes of his surrealism: creepy and dark vs. wacky and affectionate. Of the later ones, Darkened Room seems to get discussed the most - to my mind it's really effectively creepy in that I-have-no-why-I'm-so-creeped-out-but-I-am way. Rabbits and Dumblamd, which are short web series rather than standalone short films, are also pretty memorable and acclaimed.

For myself, my favorite shorts are the most aggressively experimental/otherworldly/trancelike ones so I recommend The Amputee, Premonition of an Evil Deed, Rabbits, Darkened Room, and the trampoline & ants episode of Dumbland.

And definitely check out Industrial Symphony No. 1. It's a trip, and of course wall-to-wall Julee Cruise.