Monday, November 3, 2014

Opening the Door: a conversation with Martha Nochimson, author of The Passion of David Lynch and David Lynch Swerves

Martha Nochimson, author of the critical analyses The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood (1997) and David Lynch Swerves (2013), has recently written two notable essays: "Don't call 'Twin Peaks' a 'cult classic'" and "David Chase finally reveals Tony's fate on 'The Sopranos.'"

When I returned to Twin Peaks earlier this year, it was through a book, Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Some essays were more compelling than others, but two immediately caught my interest. Both addressed what remained "unsettled" (unsettling?) about Twin Peaks for me - and thus what drew me back into that world after a five-year break. Diane Stevenson's essay "Family Romance, Family Violence, and the Fantastic in Twin Peaks" tackled one of the show's most troubled and tangled points, the intersection of real-world trauma with depictions of an otherworldly mythology. And Martha Nochimson's "Desire Under the Douglas Firs: Entering the Body of Reality in Twin Peaks," in contrast to some of the other essays in the book, explicitly analyzed the troubled making of the show. She rooted her analysis of the series finale - particularly Cooper's "defeat" in the Red Room - in careful research, observing not only what David Lynch and Mark Frost had done, but what they believed. The result perceptively located the psychological and spiritual resonance of Cooper's experiences rather than relegating them to narrative exigencies or over-theoretical impositions.

I soon learned that this essay had been followed by one of the most acclaimed books on Lynch. The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood extends the author's analysis of Lynch's (and, briefly, Frost's) visions, bringing a Jungian and feminist perspective to bear on the director's work. Her primary guide, however, is the work itself - and Lynch himself (she spoke with him several times before writing the book). She expected, according to the introduction to Passion, to "get an enormously precious something, which I would transmit in my book. As it turned out, much of the value of my time with David Lynch came as a result of letting go." Later, in one of the most important passages, she describes viewing a Jackson Pollack painting alongside Lynch. When she said she didn't understand it, he told her she did because her eyes were moving. "I saw that I could not contain the painting in some theoretical framework; he saw me performing with the painting." Throughout this book, Martha Nochimson performs with David Lynch's work in similar fashion. For me, reading the book was a series of epiphanies. Did I agree with everything she wrote about the work? No (and below we will discuss some of the interpretations I found more challenging). But there was a consistent sense of revelation I hadn't felt with other analyses of this work - a sense that the central phenomenon was always the emotional experience of what Lynch was presenting rather than a cerebral rationalization.

The follow-up book, David Lynch Swerves, brings a more pronounced framework to the table: using the Vedic scriptures and (especially) quantum mechanics to interpret Lynch's "second-stage" films, from Lost Highway to Inland Empire, in which a purely psychological reading limits what he is doing (the book very firmly rebuts the "it's all a dream" interpretation of the first two-thirds of Mulholland Drive). This, of course, runs the risk of applying a rigid grid to Lynch's films but instead the book is as revelatory as its predecessor: the focus on the Vedas and physics are based on Lynch's own curiosity about these subjects and, again, the interpretation is determined by the experience of the work itself. Besides, these unconventional tools remain shockingly apt. Lynch bends reality yet maintains (indeed deepens) emotional resonance in his later work, a process I see beginning even earlier than the "second stage," in Fire Walk With Me and, to a lesser extent, Twin Peaks. As with Diane Stevenson's earlier essay on "the fantastic," David Lynch Swerves distinguishes the director's visions from Hollywood's traditional genre approaches: "In the Lynchverse, the marketplace blocks experience of the larger energies of the real in the name of a fictitious normality. In horror, science fiction, and fantasy, the larger energies are violations of a highly valued normality conceived of as the real. In the Lynchverse, normality is questioned; in horror, science fiction, and dream/fantasy, it has traditionally been defended."

The most useful quantum concepts in the Lynch experience may be "entanglement" - in which multiple particles react as if they are one (much like the shifting and overlapping identities in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire) and "superposition" - in which a particle can be two places at the same time (recall the Mystery Man's phone conversation in Lost Highway, among other relevant phenomena in that film). The analysis even finds a way to incorporate The Straight Story, through the concept of "decoherence," which explains how traditional Newtonian physics appears to operate under certain conditions (indeed, this is how we perceive day-to-day life) even as experimentation proves that the larger physical reality is far more complex. Reading The Straight Story this way - as a narrative that takes place within what Swerves refers to as the "Lynchverse" but miraculously avoids the physical and psychological reality-bending of his other works - can seem like a stretch. However, the film is certainly a part of Lynch's oeuvre (and it is clearly a film he was passionate about, even calling it his most "experimental" work), consistent with his vision despite being exceptional in many ways. Recall, too, that Alvin's journey is all about self-imposed limits and sticking to a particular path, and "decoherence" becomes perhaps the most perceptive reading of a film near and dear to Lynch's heart, even as that heart was devoted to a very different perception of reality than Alvin Straight's.

Finally, David Lynch Swerves provides the most penetrating and clear-headed reading of Inland Empire that I've yet encountered. Early in the film, the strange woman who enters Nikki Grace's home borrows language from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation and David Lynch's own spiritual teacher. She speaks of "the Marketplace" (the confusion of day-to-day reality, also akin to the limited vision of classical physics) and "the Palace" (cosmic wisdom, to put it perhaps too simply). With these evocative words as guiding concepts, the book gently roots the swirling realities of the film's prologue in three distinct locales. There is the Rabbit Room, a "vision of faith" in which "three actors wearing rabbit suits wait for understanding in a state of Pinteresque/Beckettian confusion." "The world of human need," as represented by the Lost Girl's Room, "combines an elaborately appointed but realistic looking hotel room with a magic mirror shaped like an ordinary television." The self-descriptive Rage Room is inhabited by "two men, one of whom is filled with violent, negative energy in a beautiful, traditional, gilt-covered European salon." These physical places are visualized psychological concepts: "It is unorthodox to think of emotional states of being as places we can enter, which Lynch does here. Lynch also challenges the way we usually think about time by locating these 'feeling places' - bubble worlds - in a future that is already present when the film begins, way before Nikki finds these worlds." Nikki's visitor in the film also speaks of an "alleyway" through which one can avoid the Marketplace and reach the Palace. My own feeling is that David Lynch's films provide such an alleyway. Despite its elusive, "challenging" air, his work may in fact create a path to better understanding of art, the world, and our place within it.

After reading The Passion of David Lynch and David Lynch Swerves, I knew I wanted to speak to Martha about her work and David Lynch's films. The following conversation was conducted primarily through a single phone call, although preliminary questions and minor revisions were made via email as well.

• • •

You’ve been speaking to Lynch now for over twenty years.

Yes. The first time he and I talked was on the telephone. It was quite a conversation. He spoke to me in the voice of Gordon Cole.

Like, shouting?

Yes. (laughs) With all the intonations, everything. It was fantastic! And see, I never thought he was weird. He seemed to me to be a poet. And I still think so - of course, I’m absolutely certain that he is now. At the beginning I thought well, I seem to be the only one who thinks this. But now I don’t care how many people think it, it’s just so evident to me that he’s one of the great American cinematic poets. Maybe the great, living.

How did [conversing with Lynch about his work] effect you in the grand scheme of things, how you look at art in general, how you look at culture, and how you talk or write about it?

I think it rescued me from a very parochial academic attitude. I was always somebody who was more freewheeling. But when I visited him in his studio for the first time, I expected him to tell me reasons for everything he had done (if he felt like it). But the more I spoke to him, the more I realized that in thinking about art and thinking about talking to people who are artists, there are questions that are dead-end questions. "Why did you do that?" is a dead end question. You know, I wrote for the soaps and we always knew what we were doing and why were doing it. And if something happened beyond that it was, speaking ironically, collateral damage. If there was more on the screen than met the eye, we didn’t know about it! And it was interesting because at that point I had a PhD and I knew about subtext. But when you’re working you never think about subtext, you just don’t.

It’s making me thinking of how whenever Bob Engels, the co-writer of Fire Walk With Me, talks about making the film, it’s this madcap farce about planets full of creamed-corn and all that stuff. Which is no doubt what they talked about. But reading those interviews and watching the movie you’d be shocked, like wait, this is what came out of that? What? It’s fascinating.

Bob Engels is a very particular case. I did have a very short and not very nice interview with him. He was very different from David. David is about "I would tell you if I could, but I can’t tell you what you’re asking." Him, it was like a striptease, like "if I wanted to, this shoulder that I’m showing you," that sort of thing. He gave the impression that it was all very tricky and more like a puzzle. But for David, it’s not a puzzle. With David, it’s that what happens comes from a very deep place. And that’s why he can’t tell you.

Is there anything else you want to say about the impact he had on how you view art?

I think he allowed me to have confidence in the way I wanted to work. I think that when I heard him talk he was echoing the things that were in my heart. Although I think that’s a sentimental way of putting it, it’s more spiritual than that. Sounds like a Valentine’s card! Which it isn’t at all. I was so busy dealing with people in the academic world who want to pin it all down, tack it into place which is so opposed to the spirit of modern art. That isn’t true as much now. A lot of things have changed, but when I was coming up there was a pedestrian attitude toward literature and film. And television, of course nobody was talking about except a few of us. It kept cutting the wings of a bird. They would talk about it in terms of Freudian psychology. And they were imposing intellectual structures on it. And after a while they were only talking about themselves. They weren’t talking about the work. And what he did, for me, was help me to cut away from all of that and really allow myself to open up to the work and just let it take me wherever it was going without worrying about categories, without worrying about philosophical schemes etc etc. As you know I am interested in aesthetics and philosophy and maybe religion as well but I don’t impose it on the work. I let the work take me somewhere and then I say well, if you understand this framework - for example, Jung, or for example, quantum mechanics or for example, the Vedas - it gives us a good model for reflecting on the work. But you don’t impose those frameworks on the work because that cuts you off from the…well, mystery? Everything that’s going on.

The phenomenon of it.

Yes! I like it. The phenomenon of it.

The critiques of his work, partly some of the more political ones...I can’t remember his name: the guy who wrote the book that said Lynch was like a fundamentalist preacher...

I know. A Pervert in the Pulpit [by Jeff Johnson]. There aren’t many books I loathe. I loathe that book. One day one of the trolls online was saying that he and I were the same kind of critic. I just said to myself, you haven’t read either of us, have you?! I mean it’s just…yes, please. I’m sorry.

That's a succinct explanation of your feelings about that one, but the big one is the idea – to put it in the words of that New York article, “Twin Peaks has nothing in its pretty little head except the desire to please.”


A lot of people seem to feel that way in general. It’s enticing, it’s beautiful, it’s inexplicable, but it certainly doesn’t have any great meaning or purpose.

I’m going to go to that place that you asked about [in a previous email]: postmodernism and modernism. Modernism really is about a radical shift from 2000 years of Western culture which is about imposing the intellect. It's Platonic: the intellect is trustworthy, the passions are not. And so it's all about conventions, about traditions, about categories, about rules, about intellectual statements. But modernism is about the direct communication of a work of art onto the nervous system of the person. There are people who believe that’s chaotic. I am not one of those people. I believe that neuroscience is on our side: that everything begins with the nervous system. Everything begins with the capacity of human begins to form images in their minds. Judgment is a product of the communication with the nervous system. Which is very fast. Thinking is extremely slow. Thinking works on all the impulses. Thinking is no better than the ability of a human being to receive all kinds of sensory images and impulses. There is no possibility for judgment without that initial contact. So a work of art that communicates directly to the nervous system, which is what Lynch’s work does, is the basis of understanding. The artist gives this to you and then it is our job to reflect on what we have seen and judgment follows. For somebody like ... the [person] who wrote about nothing in its beautiful head, they’ve got it upside down and backwards. They think it’s the intellect that tells the passions what to do which is a 2000-year-old tradition. It may be that in some instances it is true, but not with art. Anything that is valuable with Shakespeare doesn’t come from the head, it comes from a much deeper place. The modernists have seen a truth that was there all along, but has now come out into the open and we have a different form of art. Lynch is that kind of artist. And so is Orson Welles and I also think Alfred Hitchcock.

That makes sense to me. In the book you compare him to modernists but [you say] there’s something that separates Lynch's work from modernism as well.

Well, it may be more spiritual.

You don’t mention postmodernism too much. Whenever people talk about Lynch, they talk about postmodernism more than modernism. I have issues with that. But I want to hear your thoughts.

In line with what I just said about modernism, it’s against categories. It’s about not sitting there and parsing everything and dividing everything up into neat little things. Modernism is a huge development. It is the turn of 2000 years of western culture. Now that’s big! There may be aspects of modernist works that differ. But postmodernism doesn’t exist in my opinion! Come on, people.

(laughs) That’s a great answer.

To speak about postmodernism is to say that modernism is over, to say "We solved that problem, now let’s go on to something else." No, you haven’t solved that problem! It is huge, it’s about the human condition. And so yeah, there are variations etc etc in what people do. That is, the communication with the nervous system can be more or less realistic-looking in shape. Lynch shows us a small town and nobody gets hysterical about it. They say, well, it’s a small town. But there are funny little things happening in this small town that make us look at the human condition somewhat differently. When he goes into the Red Room everyone loses their brain, right? I mean, they get hysterical about it but it’s all the same impulse that he’s showing us, that there is much more to life than the conventional way of seeing that we are taught as babies when we first open our eyes. We open our eyes, we see – God knows what a baby first sees, probably what the quantum mechanics physicists are teaching us is reality. But we teach the baby, this is a table and we teach the baby, this is your mother and this is a chair. And if you read this book you’ll know the rules of putting lights and a lamp together. And we teach each other to limit our vision to very specific ways of organizing the physical world around us and then we manufacture things. And those things “are,” they make everything look the way we expect it to look. That’s what quantum mechanics is. And if you look at Lynch, you’ll see that he often starts with particles like static. And then moves into the kind of world that we expect to see, but the kind of world we expect to see in Lynch always has fissures in it. And the question that you asked [in the email], having done this work for David Lynch Swerves, do I see [his earlier work] differently? Yes, I do. I see the rest of it very differently. There is always in Lynch as sense that there are fissures in what we’re looking at. But he doesn’t open up a full-throttle until Lost Highway.

Although I see Fire Walk With Me as a passage between two worlds, and Twin Peaks to a certain extent. But very much Fire Walk With Me is where you see break occur between the first and second-stage works.

I agree with you. That’s a terrible thing because every time I finish writing a book I look back and say oh wait a second! The reconsideration between Jung and quantum mechanics was too big - I had to write another book. I’m not going to write another book saying [Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me] are transitions to second stage but I totally agree with you. They are. Certainly Fire Walk With Me much more than Twin Peaks because Lynch lost control over Twin Peaks. Who the hell knows what it would have been if he hadn’t.

I think the Twin Peaks cycle (meaning the process he began in ‘88/’89 with the pilot and then concluded in ’92 with Fire Walk With Me)...the challenges it presented to him generated all of the shifts he’s come up with since. So first of all you have all the dual narratives. I suspect that’s in part a response to this story that started harmoniously with him and Mark Frost on the same page and ended up with him struggling to bring his vision back into it after it had departed from what he had intended. Also the shift from a figure like Jeffrey Beaumont to someone like Laura Palmer which has characterized all of the following works - I suspect that also came out of his infatuation with that character, and becoming more interested in that type of protagonist to carry the film. You generally seem to see more consistency between the early and later works thematically than I do so, so maybe I’m wrong. But I look at the practical problems he faced with Twin Peaks, it being an ongoing series, him not having as much control as he may have hoped, and yet unlike Dune he was able to finally rescue it with the finale and with Fire Walk With Me and turn it back into what he wanted it to be, and actually maybe something new that he hadn’t even originally intended. And I have to say, I’m glad that they did reveal the killer. I think it’s a far more profound work as it exists than it would have been had it just been an ongoing mystery for seven seasons and then concluded with the solution or whatever. That’s my take on it but I’m curious to hear yours in that sense.

Well, I agree with a good deal of what you’re saying, as cause and effect. I'm working right now with two editors who are putting together an anthology of essays to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Twin Peaks. And the essay that I wrote for them says just about what you just said. I think he did learn, I think Twin Peaks did become a crucible for him where things happened and changes took place. I think had he had complete control of it and we had never known, nobody had ever told us it was solved, there might have been something like what happened. Only there would have been doubt as to whether the solution really had taken place, and it would have gone in a very different direction...that wouldn’t have involved that ghastly story about Cooper being framed for drugs. Oh my God! We know what happened, we don’t know what could have happened. Just my own understanding of Lynch and how he moves, I would assume that there might have been false conclusions and that one of them might have been the one we saw. Instead of just, now we dust off our hands and say, well, that’s that and we go onto something else, we try to go onto something else, but something keeps coming up. And instead of having to go with Windom Earle - who is the kind of villain that you find in every goddamn mystery story on television - it would have continued to be Bob or more characters like Bob. And that would have flourished. Bob is a Rakshasha, as I argue in David Lynch Swerves. And so we would have had the sense of the world as composed in the Vedas. Although Lynch is never trying to prove anything. He’s never trying to prove anything about quantum mechanics, he wouldn’t even begin to think about that. You know that he said to me, I don’t know anything about this, I just know a few things. I’m not a physicist. He knows a bit more about the Vedas, but not as an expert. In any case what he knows of physics and the Vedas gets transformed poetically when he works.

You seem to be pretty fond of Episode 16 [in which Cooper catches Leland and then guides him "into the light" after Bob has left his body]. As you note in the book Lynch is not credited as a writer or director, yet it has a Lynchian sense about it. And I liked reading your take on it because honestly that’s an episode I have so many problems with on so many levels.

What are your problems?

It's problematic because of the direction and the writing, which is a little bit clumsy at times, they’re trying to wrap things up neatly. More fundamentally I don’t particularly like the way it presents Bob and Leland and their relationship. Episode 16 goes, well, he’s this evil demon-spirit from the woods, and he possesses people, and Leland didn’t really do anything and so that’s problematic to start with. And on top of it, explaining every clue, like the Little Man dances like Leland and the gum is back in style, it’s just a little too much for me. But you’ve given me a more positive perspective on it.

That’s very, very interesting because I think that I was uncomfortable with letting Leland off completely. Here was a place – and this is not at all usual for me when I look at Lynch like, wait a second – so are we excusing all child abuse by saying something came in from outside? That was very uncomfortable for me. You know, I never asked Lynch that question: was he uncomfortable with that too.

Because he doesn’t write or direct on that episode. Even though he told Ray Wise, they’re going to read you the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But he didn’t actually do it. So maybe he came up with the idea, I don’t know.

Here’s the thing. I found it very powerful. Just talking about sitting in front of the set. I found it very powerful. I found Cooper very powerful. Something about that was in the spirit of Twin Peaks. This detective is so much more than any detective has ever been. And he is that not because he carries a gun, and not because he can tell you what every little detail meant. But because of the greatness of soul. And that was there, very big-time, in that episode but everything else that you’re talking about was also there. So the show was rising to a crescendo at the same time that it was crumbling.

That’s a great way of phrasing it.

Let me say that I think that you and I have worked as partners in evolving this thought. Because I really haven’t thought that much about the failures of that episode as I am doing in this minute and I’m thinking about it because you are suggesting to me really important points about the episode. Because I have written about it as if it was great until that moment and then it dies, but that’s not what anything is like. There’s much happening at the same time. What’s happening is what had to happen because the network forced Lynch into an untenable position for his vision. But you know, I don’t know how much he had to do with that episode.

I get the vaguest sense that he participated in conceptualizing it because of the way he spoke to Ray Wise about it, and because it is very consistent [with his vision]. But that he played no part - this is total speculation by the way - that he played no part in sitting down and hashing out the details whatsoever. And they had to interpret his vision for him.

In this new essay that I’ve written for the collection, I do say that the spirit of Lynch was reasonably powerful until the end of that episode. In the next episode…

Oh God! On a weird TV show, that is THE weirdest episode to me.

It is the weirdest episode.

And the director of it, Tina Rathborne, she says, I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know why they were going in this direction…I wish I’d spoken to Lynch and Frost about it but Lynch wasn’t even around. It’s such a strange, strange episode.

Everything that Lynch and Frost had developed previously was taken away in that episode. It was ghastly. And then it continued along that line. He wasn’t around, he was doing work on Wild at Heart.

Well that’s another thing, I’ve heard him say that in interviews but if you look at the chronology Wild at Heart came out in Cannes in May before the second season premiered. And then it was in theaters in the U.S. that summer, before that stuff was shot. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but there’s an oral history [of Twin Peaks] called Reflections, by Brad Dukes, and it says during the mid-second season he was working on an art show in Japan. But the sense I get is, without any real rationale, he was just sick about what had happened, and he left. And then afterwards he looks and he says oh, it must have been Wild at Heart. But it seems from all the evidence that the end of Laura Palmer as a part of that universe just depressed him, and he didn’t want a part of that for a little while.

I would never ask him about that because I believe it caused him so much pain. The one thing that he will not talk to me about is Dune. His daughter told me that he didn’t speak for a year. It had been said, but when she said it, I realized it was true. I assume he said “pass the salt” and “I’m going out for a walk” but he didn’t really talk. I believe it because the kind of artist he is, it was like killing him. I think you’re right, I think you’re being very, very sensitive to what’s going on and thinking in a very focused way. Now, we also have the fact that he was on the show very often when it was a real mess. Gordon Cole came back! I think you’re right and I think he was heartsick and for some reason he was able to just come back in force in the last two episodes. I mean, he wasn’t sick enough to stop him from doing that and thank God he did that.

One other thing about episode 16...the thing that you brought to my attention is the idea that Cooper has to go to Laura to get the answer to the crime. That’s really interesting and that, more than anything else, made me like the episode a bit more and see it in a new way. Almost as planting the seeds for Fire Walk With Me.

Yes. I mean, the dead body in most mysteries has nothing to say. But the body speaks in Twin Peaks.

There’s been a lot of articles recently that go on about how Twin Peaks started the "dead girl" tropes. And none of them address how it completely subverted those. I don’t know if you had anything to say about the larger criticisms of Lynch that people say: he’s sexist or misogynist. You definitely seem to read the films in an opposite manner.

The first time I visited him in California I asked him, are you a feminist? I thought his teeth would fall on the floor! He was so surprised by that. His third wife said - and I totally agree - that he has a capacity for understanding female experience. It’s really extraordinary. To me that’s ground zero for feminism. I mean, female experience is not a male construction for him if we want to use a little jargon there. I think he is open to women in a way that very few men in Hollywood are. Maybe three others, and I don’t even know who they are! He is open to women as people who are subjects, who have a subjectivity that experiences things, that we are not just a part of what men experience. Now there are quite a number of men in the world who are that way, otherwise I don’t think the universe would go on. But as far as popular culture is concerned, really so many men – otherwise bright, and otherwise talented – they just don’t see us as people. You know, we’re just part of their fantasy life. The "dead girl" trope, I have no idea what that is, I have read nothing about it. You’d have to tell me.

It's this basic idea – True Detective, Twin Peaks, The Killing, Top of the Lake, they start with these dead girls and they are the objects on which everybody projects their images of either what’s going on in the town or ideas of feminine qualities or whatever. Have you read the David Foster Wallace essay about Lynch?

I am not a fan of David Foster Wallace - I think he had very little insight into Lynch. I found it very difficult to read. When I start reading it, it just fights me and I couldn’t go on.

I know what you mean, but I would suggest maybe selecting the passages on Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me. Although there’s a lot in there I disagree with, he really gets to the heart of what Lynch did with that movie in a way that few people had up to that point. One of the things he said is that the most morally radical thing that any Lynch work has ever done is to take Laura Palmer and turn her from an object into a subject.


And that’s the mission of Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me. He has a great quote [paraphrased]: "I’m not saying the film succeeds on that front, I don’t think it does, but the critics didn’t attack it because it failed at this mission. They attacked it because it chose this mission in the first place." And I thought, boy that’s profound and it’s so true!

No, I agree with that. That’s absolutely right. And no man wants to put himself in the position of a protagonist who is a woman who has been a victim of incest. It’s a very difficult imaginative transition. For a guy. Women on the other hand do, because finally our story’s being told. Not that we enjoy being putting in that position, but the story needs to be told. First of all, I have to say that I have read very little of the reductionist feminist stuff, it just takes old, old, tired feminist clichés and says well, that’s what he’s doing. Well, you are missing the whole point, my dear! What you said: it is not a dead girl who is dead matter, it’s subversion of that cliché. So no, I don’t have too much patience for that, I don’t have too much interest in it. It reminds me of a conversation I had at Columbia University. My book about soap opera and another book about soap opera were being debated and…

A negative book about soap operas?

Very. Very negative and based on totally bad – everything she said was not true. This totally lovely young woman, she said, what you’re saying makes sense to me but I agree with her. And what did she mean? She meant that she was part of the Army of God, that’s what feminists believe so I have to believe that. God! That is so bad. That is such a bad way to go about the marketplace of ideas. That I owe it to somebody to agree with baseless, foundationless, wrong information.

I want to touch on a couple of the things that I found challenging [in your books]. We'll start with probably the most contentious one among people, which is the whole Mulholland Drive thing. Is it a dream? Is it not a dream? That I could take or leave. The part that I find more difficult in you reading is that you do not see the final third as more real or going deeper than the first two-thirds of the movie, the part that was shot as a TV pilot. I very much do. It just feels so natural to me, and I don’t think it’s because of the dream reading. I think it’s because of the way it’s shot and performed and edited. It feels like we’re peeling layers back. The analogy I would make is Twin Peaks the TV show to Fire Walk With Me the film, where you’re looking at something from a distance and then you’re getting closer, and ripping the mask off and you’re really seeing it. You’re seeing what lies beneath. And that’s what the last part of Mulholland Drive feels like to me. Now obviously you feel differently.

Let me see if I can say it in a way that will resonate with you. There’s a difference between “realer” and “deeper.” In a way you might say that the second part is deeper but not realer. Let us say that you know somebody who is living with rose-colored glasses on. A real person. And then at some point something happens and she can no longer maintain the false optimism anymore. Is she less real when she’s got the rose-colored glasses on? She’s still a real person.

I would agree with that, I might just say is the world she’s seeing more real [before], or is it more real when she takes them off?

Well, what’s real, ok? What he’s showing in Mulholland Drive, indeed in everything, is a society that is shot through with the fantasy that everything that it thinks is real is really a dream. The studio has a dark side and a funny side to it. You have the audition that she has with the indie producer and the audition she has with the big blockbuster producer. The indie producer believes in the possibility of individual creation. The [studio] producer thinks everything is pre-determined in this situation that I’m living in. There is a guy somewhere who says that’s not the girl. You see what I mean? What you’re seeing there is something like what you see in Lost Highway, where he keeps descending into more and more horror because he is so cowed and frightened by the way society tells us we’re supposed to think and when something comes to him from beyond those limits, instead of saying - like Cooper does - wow, this is exciting, there’s something else here! - it’s fear. So what Lynch is really doing in these last movies is showing the capacity of fear to destroy human lives and human experiences, and what we are afraid of is the freedom that is being presented to us. Somehow society has twisted us about so that when we see freedom we see fear. So no, I think that the end is not realer. It is a product of the studio mentality about creativity, which is really a metaphor for [all] creativity because Lynch believes every one of us is an artist in one way or another. When we are stripped of our capacity to be creative, because we are hit over the head - over and over again - by the fake certainties imposed upon us by authorities, our world little by little turns gray. And withers.

So you see it more as the stripping of an avenue or a freedom? To me it reads as the stripping of a certain illusion.

Betty has a lot more possibility at the beginning than she does at the end. Having possibility is real, but the power structure of the industry takes her possibilities away from her. That's real too, but not more real than having options.

The Elephant Man is another one [I see differently]. In my video [on David Lynch] I intercut The Elephant Man ending with Fire Walk With Me. Not the ending of Fire Walk With Me, but the scene when she dreams and sees herself in the painting, looking out at herself. She’s going out into this other realm. Some people see this as the bad Laura coming out, but I see it the way you do which is much more positive. She’s realizing something about herself and her world. And coming closer to the truth. So, again, starting with the work, when I watch that scene [in The Elephant Man], it feels to me like he is removing a burden.

When he kills himself?

And you see it very much as a fantasy escape.

Why does he do that? I’m being Socratic here, please forgive me. There is no historical answer to the question of why did he do this. He knew that if he threw the pillows away he was going to die. So why does he do it? I think Lynch gives us an answer in this movie but it involves putting together a few things with something he said to me. So what do you see there that gives you the sense that he’s removing a burden?

It’s hard to say because a lot of it is intuitive. You watch it, and the music goes and there’s a grace to the scene, it’s almost like dancing in a way. There’s a grace to it that isn’t really in the rest of the movie, not to that extent. It almost seems like when Treves shuts the door at the end of the film and leaves the Elephant Man alone, we’ve reached the end of a journey. And it’s parallel to what he does in Twin Peaks. I think John Merrick also goes from being an object to a subject. Because he starts as a freak and we identify with Treves and when it ends we fully identify with [Merrick]. I know you see the pantomime as the trigger, but for me the trigger is he’s finished the [model] cathedral, he’s finished the project of assembling himself. He has finished that process of transformation from object to subject, from freak to a fully-fledged person. And then he lies down and he takes the next step which is to to liberate his spirit perhaps, I don’t know. And the funny thing is, I know Lynch hates – is absolutely adamantly opposed to suicide - so it’s peculiar.

It’s true. And also he’s opposed to completion. He doesn’t believe in completion. So when he signs that [cathedral], and takes that as an end... Our society is not opposed to completion. But Lynch is. There’s something equivocal there, at least, because it’s a Lynch movie. Also the question about when he becomes a subject is also open to debate. When he says I am not an animal, I am a human being, I believe that for himself and for the audience something is happening. So put all that together with the fact that it’s a pantomime [he goes to before he dies], which is the highly idealized fantasy of the human world. Not looking at human beings and finding beauty in them. Pantomimes by their nature are a sugar-coated fantasy. He is acknowledged by the entire audience as a human being, as one of them, and he feels like one of them. But what does “one of them” mean, if you look at the fact of the pantomime? It means that the ugly ogre is put in jail. He is identifying against what he is in some way. And when he kills himself it is really that normality is a concept that is highly destructive to us and of course this is a movie and the movie is highly touched with metaphor and poetry. To die here is of course historical, because there was a guy. But it’s a situation that Lynch knows very well. He could have died by being corrupted by Hollywood. But he wouldn’t do it. And what I think [The Elephant Man] means to Lynch is that he dies by internalizing the very reductive nature of what people believe, in freaks rather than we’re all human beings. When I spoke to Lynch about the pantomime, I didn’t walk into his office believing that. I walked out of his office believing that. When he talked about the pantomime his whole body...the thing about Lynch that’s very interesting, he’s physically like a chameleon. He changes before my eyes on occasion. On this occasion he just, the rage, it wasn’t towards me, it was towards the fantasy of the pantomime – sugary, saccharine, he was saying words like that. And I realized that he found it exceptionally ugly. And it wasn’t very long before I made the jump because he and I talked. The whole concept of normality can be a destructive fantasy as far as he is concerned. And so I think that he understood the mystery of the death of John Merrick as being the very thing that seemed like a happy ending to everybody else. So it’s just something to think about.

That’s one where it isn’t something I’ve reasoned out. It’s just this feeling. How do you interpret the fact that she says at the end, there is no death?

"Nothing will die." Good question. (silence)

(laughs) I’ll say this about the parallel with Fire Walk With Me. Both films have a mystery in their deaths. That’s the one part of the films that I still really struggle with. You say John Merrick becomes a subject when he says “I am not a man…”, well, Laura…

No, I would say that “something” happened here. We can’t be categorical about these things because I think that it isn’t closed.

It’s a moment, it’s an important moment in his development.

Yeah. We want to think in terms of these light switches on or off. But that’s not the Lynchian poetry. You can become a human being a little bit and still be the object and the subject, you know. There isn’t a clear moment.

So I guess a better way to phrase it would be it’s a moment of clarity. I think for Laura the moment of clarity comes before the ending when she sees her father in place of Bob in bed with her and that’s the moment when everything that she’s been building toward comes to fruition. And the movie keeps going. It has to keep going. It’s constructed that way. She goes to school, and she goes out that night, and she’s murdered. And something about it always felt a little anti-climactic, like we’ve followed her on this journey and now she’s just going to die? But you have that whole mysterious thing with the ring. You have all these flashes of insight, you have the angel. And so I would just say likewise, with Elephant Man I think the ending is almost – not superfluous, it’s almost outside of whatever easy-to-understand narrative structure is there. There’s a process taking place, because he does make narrative films, however loosely. But these endings, they occur almost poetically beyond the point where the story is digestible. If that makes any sense.

Well, how I would make sense of it is there are no endings. That was part of the problem with Twin Peaks.

With Eraserhead, am I correct as saying you see the baby as pure matter? There’s no consciousness, you see it purely as… You see it as a device basically.

No, I don’t see it as a device. I don’t think that’s the way to put it.

How would you put it?

I think that it’s the same business. It’s all part of the way that I see all of Lynch, that life is an energy that we impose form on. And when we impose form on it, various things happen. Mostly for the bad. To me it’s poetry, all of Eraserhead. The baby is something new, a new creation. Almost all his movies are about, what do we do with creation? That is his biggest subject in his life. What is creativity about? How does society treat it? How do we treat it? Where does it go?

So would it be safe to say then, it’s not so much that he’s killing the baby because it’s a device for [anything], but rather that he is maybe removing the energy from the form it’s been trapped in?

Yes! Uh huh. Very well-done.

I totally believe the entire movie is a spiritual allegory. At the same time he does interesting things, as revolting as the baby – I guess he’s called Spike, as revolting as Spike is, there’s also something very human about him. Beneath the horror of looking at this creature.

I don’t find him horrible!

Well, when he’s got the warts all over him.

I don’t find him horrible!

He’s grown on me, I’ll say that. I can watch it now without flinching. The first time I watched it I found it almost impossible to keep my eyes on the screen.


Especially when he killed him at the end. And I don’t have a strong reaction necessarily to violence but there’s certain grotesque things that make me squeamish.

That’s so interesting. There is violence involved in liberating ourselves from social pressures. There’s violence.

I think what interests me about it is, even though there are multiple ways you can read it, he is inflicting violence on somebody else who seems to be feeling pain and seems to be helpless. Among all of the other connotations it holds, the allegorical aspects, there is an element of it which is a mirror image of some of the other films. Fire Walk With Me is certainly an inversion. You have a father killing a child, and it’s seen from the opposite perspective. So I totally agree with you that there is something else at work in Eraserhead. It would be a mistake to simply reduce it to some literal level in which Daddy’s killing the baby because he doesn’t want to feed it anymore. Obviously that’s way reductive but I still see, among all the other stuff, that element there and it intrigues me that he went there because he didn’t have to. He could have made it work on that level, on the allegorical level without also at the same time giving you this conflicting feeling of horror and…

But see, it’s necessary to avoid sentimentality. Which is the essence of the pantomime in Elephant Man. David Lynch does not like sentimentality and I don’t either.

I want to wrap up on Inland Empire if we could. That’s a film that everyone seems to stumble over. I think you make a good case that in some ways it may be his masterpiece. It may be the film which most fully and poetically articulates what he’s going for in all of his other films.

So far.

So far, yes. Is there anything that you in particular wanted to say about that film?

It’s a very simple movie. It’s about an act of organic creation in a society that sees creation mechanistically. And it’s an assertion that it is possible. It’s a very, very, very optimistic movie. As opposed to Mulholland Drive, about the death of the creative impulse.

I agree with you entirely on that. I’ve heard people try to talk as if it’s more about the Susan Blue character and that everything else is a front for that. That doesn’t work for me. I think the movie itself guides you...I think there’s a reason that it chooses Nikki as the starting point to take you into those different worlds and then to lead you through the screen at the end. Out into the audience, basically. Sure, I struggled with it. But you really feel that sense at the end of the movie that it’s...I know you said Lynch doesn’t like endings. It feels like a doorway has been opened. And we’re stepping out into something that’s beyond the movie. We’ve gone as far as the movie can take us. It’s a passage into something beyond that.

That’s beautifully put. Using your imagery, just trace what happens when doors open throughout that movie and if you want to say that the end is an opening door, how different that is. It’s a really beautiful movie, it demands everything from you but it also repays everything.

You mentioned the Palace and the Marketplace, how those are terms the Maharishi uses. Inland Empire is the first time Lynch takes his spiritual teachings and explicitly puts it out there. What do you think is the significance of that for him?

Don’t know.

Fair enough.

But I think about it.

But for you?

For me, I’ll go wherever he takes me. (laughs) Where are we going, David? I never second-guess him. I used to think it would be kind of cool if I knew him well enough to be able to guess in advance what he would do next. But I’ve totally abandoned that, I want nothing to do with it. Wherever he’s going, I want to go with him. I'm happy that I don't know where that is until his films take me by the hand and lead me. It's all about discovery. And only a poet can give that to you. You can think about his work for a lifetime, can’t you?


Twin Peaks Worldwide Blog said...

Bravo Joel! An amazing piece. I finished Martha's first Lynch book Passion of David Lynch last year and loved it. Looking forward to reading the sequel! I especially loved the way you pressed the subject of Fire Walk With Me since that's my favorite Lynch film. I also like that you ended things with Inland Empire. Will be reading this again for sure after reading the sequel book! Also, looking forward to your contribution on the Twin Peaks Worldwide blog! We shared this interview on the Facebook page as well!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Joseph! It was a great conversation and I'm really looking forward to the upcoming Twin Peaks essay she mentioned. The gifts just keep comin'...

Anonymous said...

"Here was a place – and this is not at all usual for me when I look at Lynch like, wait a second – so are we excusing all child abuse by saying something came in from outside? That was very uncomfortable for me."

That's because Nochimson is, herself, prone to such sweeping generalizations about human nature (as self-professed feminists tend to be), and thus will tend to have a limited discernment about "hot-button" issues remotely related to feminist concerns. It is obvious to everyone else who has viewed the series that the despicable actions of the character Leland Palmer had been due to a quite specific, and most extremely rarefied, case of demonic possession. It is made abundantly clear in "Twin Peaks" that Leland did not, in fact, do such things, but that "Bob" had, and along with that was clearly explained how that distinction was to be made and the blurring of identities was to be perceived. That, in fact, is the core of the series' story.

Joel Bocko said...

Hmmm, well this opens up several cans of worms, so I'll take 'em one by one! Long response ahead...

1) Can you clarify what you mean by Nochimson's "sweeping generalizations" (especially considering Nochimson is more than willing to criticize other feminists, including in this interview) and "limited discernment"? Are you saying that because she has a certain reading of child abuse (presumably that the father is responsible for the abuse of his daughter, a reading I think is hardly limited to self-professed feminists), she is either purposefully avoiding or pointlessly objecting (or both) to Twin Peaks' narrative content? At any rate, I don't think her objections are hard to understand.

To offer a helpful analogy and make Godwin proud, imagine if a film depicted a good German who was driven to evil by a supernatural demon during World war II. There would likely be objections about a trivialization of the reasons behind Nazism (just as there were objections to films like Life is Beautiful and even Schindler's List for the approach they took to sensitive material). There would also be defenses, along the lines of "a very apt allegory for the power of ideology to overtake otherwise good people." What almost NOBODY would do would be to claim that the actual history of Nazism had no bearing on the story. Otherwise, why chose Nazism as a subject?

The same goes for Twin Peaks. Out of the numerous options available to them, Lynch and Frost decided to make Laura's killer her dad, went out of their way to emphasize that she had been sexually abused by him, and then chose to offer a supernatural component to Leland's crime. Especially when we consider that the universe Twin Peaks depicts is at least partly a realistic one - however heightened - rather than pure fantasy (this is not Lord of the Rings) AND that the show takes it upon itself to ponder serious moral questions and profound emotional states rather than just provide diversionary escapism AND that the bulk of the characters do not get demonic passes for their does bear asking whether or not Twin Peaks handles the subject of sexual abuse respectfully and honestly.

Now, as for the specifics...

2) In fact it is not quite made abundantly clear in Twin Peaks itself that Leland bears no responsibility for Laura's abuse. When first viewing the series, I was inclined to take your reading as well (Leland was a helpless puppet) but others have not. Surprisingly, even Mark Frost presents a more ambiguous version of ep. 16's events in interviews at the time. Don't have the quote in front of me, but it's something to the effect of, "Maybe it's like a vampire legend, where Leland is possessed, or maybe he's just crazy." I do agree that the show - particularly ep. 10 &16 very heavily slants us toward a certain reading of the Leland/Bob relationship though. But "clearly explained how that distinction was to be made and the blurring of identities was to be perceived"? Not quite. Look at the conversation at the end of ep. 16. The characters were as confused as many viewers and, to be perfectly honest, as the creators themselves may have been.


Joel Bocko said...


3) Regardless of Bob's relationship to him, Leland DID in fact, "do such things." No matter what else Bob does - subject to varying interpretations - he does NOT dematerialize Leland's body. This is maybe a semantic/philosophical distinction (after all isn't "Leland" his mind/soul more than his body?), but I think it's an important point because it reminds us that the question is not whether or not Laura was a victim of incest. She unambiguously was. The question is, in this particular story, does the perpetrator of said incest bear responsibility for his actions?

4) Additionally, the Bob-as-puppeteer explanation is in many ways nonsensical, and could be seen as lazy if used to entirely absolve the host. Where does Leland - or at least Leland's conscious mind - go when Bob takes over? Is he "put to sleep"? Does his soul travel to the Lodge? Is he a horrified bystander whose memory is subsequently erased? He says "when he was there I didn't know, and when he was gone I couldn't remember" but there are numerous ways this could be taken ("not remembering" does not necessarily equal "not doing", for example). We'll get to Fire Walk With Me in a second, but even ep. 14 of the show doesn't sit well with this interpretation, as at times during the murder of Maddy, Leland does not seem to be Bob at all, or least to not very much be Bob (as he sways with her and cries for "Laura").

5) Thematically, what purpose does the "quite specific, and most extremely rarefied, case of demonic possession" serve? If the point is to shock us with Leland being the killer/abuser of his daughter, doesn't it mitigate this shock completely to argue that it wasn't "really" him after all? If the point then is to show a demon overtaking a host, why choose Leland with all the distracting incestuous implications, rather than a more usefully empty vessel? Consider it as an aesthetic question.

You yourself call this the "core of the series' story" - what does that say about the series or the story? How can it be expected to resonate for the viewer? Is it just a spooky campfire story meant to make us shudder before we go on with our daily lives? Is it actually helpful in discerning demonic activity in the outside world (the religious explanation, if you will)? Or is it a useful metaphor to understand the psychological reality of abuse? As treated in ep. 16, I think the Leland/Bob relationship fails all these tests - in fact it comes off as a vapid, pointless plot twist, an attempt to have their cake (look, we're shocking you, it was her dad!) and eat it too (oh no don't get too upset, it was the evil demon from the woods). On the other hand...

6) You quite pointedly mention "the series" so I won't go into this too much, but obviously the film (which even Frost calls canonical) wildly complicates the series' implications about Leland/Bob. I think that has to be considered when going back to ep. 16. But of course that's a whole other subject...

amy said...

From Lost Highway, but don´t tell me there´s no throughline.

"It is not my custom to go where I am not wanted."

Joel Bocko said...