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INNOCENCE AMID CORRUPTION: THE AESTHETIC POLITICS OF DAVID LYNCH

by Thomas M. Sipos, managing editor  [May 23, 2011]

 

 

 

[HollywoodInvestigator.com]  As writer, director, and producer, David Lynch has created a body of film and TV work that defies categorization or description. Eraserhead has been called a horror film, for lack of a better word, by those who know that it isn't. Blue Velvet may accurately be regarded as a noir crime thriller, yet that fails to prepare viewers expecting the usual hard-boiled tale. Twin Peaks has been called "Peyton Place on acid," and that's as good -- and inadequate -- a description as any.

Lynch watchers are bewildered by apparent contradictions in both the man and his art. Blue Velvet abounds with transgressive sex and violence, drug use and expletives, yet actor Dennis Hopper (whose Lynch-scripted character spouts "fuck" in every conceivable manner and context) reports that on set Lynch only referred to it as "that word." Lynch's admiration for President Reagan and support for Natural Law Party presidential candidate John Hagelin (for whom Lynch taped a campaign interview) add to the incongruities.

Seeking a pigeonhole, the L.A. Weekly's John Powers described Lynch as a man of aesthetic politics. Evoking Ayn Rand's Howard Roarke, Powers quotes Lynch: "People should be able to build what they want to build, when they want to build it, how they want to build it." And underscoring his passion for property rights, Lynch remarked: "This country's in pretty bad shape when human scum can walk across your lawn, and they put you jail if you shoot 'em."

Yet Lynch's political aesthetics eschew both the Apollonian romanticism of Rand, and the straightforward moral narratives of John Wayne. Despite his passion for Eisenhower era pop culture, Lynch's work is distinguished by unsettling juxtapositions of disturbing images with the profoundly sweet, offsetting the grotesque against the poignant, sordidness against innocence, with innocence emerging surprisingly uncorrupted.

 

 

Popular and critical reception to Lynch's work has been uneven. His career milestones began at age thirty, with underground cult status for his surreal debut feature film, Eraserhead (1976), followed by mainstream accolades for his Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man (1980), the big-budget bomb that was Dune (1984), critical respect amid controversy for his more personal Blue Velvet (1986), popular icon status for Twin Peaks (TV, 1990-91), Cannes's Palme d'Or for Wild at Heart (1990), the popular backlash against Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), indifference to On the Air (TV, 1992) and Lost Highway (1997), then renewed accolades for the surprisingly "normal" The Straight Story (1999) and incomprehensibly surreal Mulholland Drive (2001), and indifference again to Inland Empire (2007).

Eraserhead has been called the ultimate student film. Personal, indulgent, surreal, experimental, imaginative, darkly humorous, and shot in black & white. Lynch began the film in 1972 while at the AFI, but its financially ambitious elements extended production over four years. Long on symbols that defy meaning (Freudians may claim otherwise) and lacking a discernible theme, Eraserhead follows Henry (Jack Nance), a glum and unassuming man pressured into marrying his pregnant girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart). The baby is born deformed, and Mary deserts her family, leaving Henry to care for the infant.

 

 

 

But Eraserhead's story is subordinate to its mood (oppressive and depressing) and surreal imagery and sounds, which the characters accept in stride, as one would in a dream. From the squiggling, (sexually?) squirting turkey dinner, to the mutant Shirley Temple dancing about sperm droppings, to the boy carrying Henry's head, the film is unified not by theme, but by dream logic. Critics have identified the setting as post-apocalyptic, but no character mentions a causal event.

Eraserhead established Lynch's reputation for quirky characters, freakish imagery, aggressive sound effects, and a cinematic language conducive to revealing mysteries in the mundane. Unlike hyper-kinetically edited Hollywood films, but like Stanley Kubrick, Lynch favors extended, lingering shots, forcing us to examine what we would otherwise ignore. As with Gulliver, Lynch's extreme closeups and heightened audio transfigure the ordinary, making the commonplace grotesque and the safe threatening. Lynch is that rare filmmaker (George Lucas is another) who regards sound as the aesthetic equal to sight.

"I think sound effects are music," Lynch told The Hollywood Reporter. Paul A. Woods (Weirdsville, USA: The Obsessive World of David Lynch) reports that one of Lynch's longtime dream projects is an album of "sound effects as music."

 

 

 

A rumination of mood and texture and sound, Eraserhead began Lynch's probing into the mysteries -- physical, metaphysical, and dramatic -- that lie beneath the surface. Lynch next applied his probing camera to The Elephant Man, but with restraint, not fully revealing John Merrick's (John Hurt) deformities until he was humanized to audiences. Rather than clinically dissect a "freak", Lynch examined the sounds and texture of industrial London, circling Merrick without violating him, instead examining his affect on the people around him, thus revealing their souls and the gentle soul under Merrick's "elephant" hide. With The Elephant Man, Woods states, Lynch's emerging aesthetic was that of a "sentimentalist of the grotesque."

Lynch's extreme closeups in Eraserhead and Elephant Man demonstrated his fascination with organic change, yet although he continued this motif with Dune's Navigators' Guild, it remains his least personal film. Based on Frank Herbert's space opera novel, Dune's chief curiosity post-9/11 may be its sympathetic portrayal of Islamic jihad (however metaphorical). Its boxoffice and critical failure ("Huge, hollow, imaginative and cold," wrote Variety), was followed by Lynch's most personal film since Eraserhead.

Blue Velvet was Lynch's first crime thriller/mystery, a genre he would work within, and against, from then on, his probing camera especially adept at exposing mysteries inside puzzles within enigmas. The film also introduced what was to become a recurring Lynchian character: the innocent who is intrigued by and attracted to dark mysterious strangers, willingly seduced into the hidden corruption alongside a Rockwellian Americana.

This unseen world may be the secret lives of our neighbors (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks), or literally another dimension (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire). The innocent's naive adventure turns sordid, bizarre, and deadly.

But whereas "exposing the sleaze" of small town Americana is a favorite theme of sophisticates, Lynch confounds "progressive" expectations by reaffirming American innocence, even as he discomforts conservatives (and feminists) with his clinical probing of violence and sleaze. To an extent, Lynch himself is that innocent; the Boy Scout who remains true to his pledge, despite poking at dead cats or fumbling through Playboy.

 

 

 

Blue Velvet opens on a Lumberton so idyllic it seems parodic: bright flowers along a white picket fence, a radio jingle, a shiny red fire truck from which a smiling fireman waves to us, the filmgoer. An indeterminate period. Some cars and clothes are 1980s, yet fashion and music, malt shop and nightclub mike, also draw from the 1940s through 1960s. (Lynch detests 1970s design, telling Powers: "The cars were pitiful. I mean pitiful. It made you ashamed.") J.G. Ballard describes the visual style as a clash between Norman Rockwell's Americana and Edward Hopper's noir.

As in many Lynchian tales (Twin Peaks, Straight Story, Mulholland Drive), paradise is marred by unexpected tragedy. In Blue Velvet, a father's heart attack draws his son, college freshman Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), home to help at the family hardware store. Finding a severed ear, Jeffrey plays Hardy Boy and discovers a criminal underworld. Simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by lowlifes, Jeffrey's conflicted desires pull him between two women: a suicidal nightclub singer, the brunette Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), and an all-American girl-next-door, the blond Sandy (Laura Dern). Dorothy excites Jeffrey by raping him at knife-point, then demanding he beat her, whereas Sandy touches his heart by relating her dream of "the robins of love" accompanied by church music.

Jeffrey triumphs over his brush with crime and vice, into the arms of Sandy, unjaded. They delight in a robin chirping upon their white picket fence -- oblivious to its being mechanical. Yet far from parody, the robin scene, and the church scene, are sentimental and affectionate. But just as one must "suspends disbelief" to enjoy a film, one must "suspend cynicism" to appreciate Lynch. Only by becoming, for the moment, as pure as Sandy, can one appreciate her (or John Merrick, or Henry's deformed baby). Wood quotes Lynch: "There's an autobiographical level to the movie. Kyle is dressed like me. ...lumber and lumberjacks, all this kinda thing, that's America to me -- like the picket fences and the roses in the opening shot. It's so burned in, that image, and it makes me feel so happy."

This yearning for hope and innocence -- and finding it -- amid corruption, has emerged as a Lynchian theme. Twin Peak's FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) finds it in Annie's love (Heather Graham), the Bookhouse Boys' friendship, and things as simple and American as Douglass firs and cherry pie.

Wild at Heart's bad girl Lula (Laura Dern), aching to travel "over the rainbow" into Oz, finally finds happiness and family with the ex-con, Sailor (Nicolas Cage), after his dream vision of "the good witch." Like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart are crime thrillers that push the envelops of violence and sexuality (Lula partially enjoys her near rape, as Jeffrey before her), yet from which hope and innocence emerge intact.

The popular backlash against the film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (a prequel to the series), may partially be attributed to a rejection of this formula. Evil crushes hope. Like Lula, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) aches to escape into a fantasy (a picture on her wall). But unlike Lula, Laura is murdered by her incestuous father. Lynch's hint of Laura's peaceful afterlife in the White Lodge was too little sweetness for the series' fans. Conversely, some critics who defended the film as the most raw and honest American film on incest, were put off by what hope Lynch offered (the White Lodge, and the implication that a "devil made" Leland do it).

 

 

 

But with the exception of The Straight Story, Lynch's work darkened from then on, reputedly inspired, in part, from the added difficulties in getting his work made. In Lost Highway, a jazz saxophone player (Bill Pullman) morphs into another person's life midway through the film, for no given reason. It is the ultimate noir film, the lead character literally trapped in a quantum prison, forever repeating his doomed fate on a metaphysical Mobius strip. The film failed, although it remains curious for Robert Blake's portrayal of a demon.

After Lost Highway's highly convoluted plot, Lynch reportedly turned to the very straight The Straight Story to show he was capable of linear, G-rated fare. L.A. Weekly critic Manohla Dargis wrote: "The Straight Story mined too much of what's boring about [Lynch's] world-view, all that hokum and gee-whiz blather, instead of the freakish and the unbearably true. [Such as] In Blue Velvet a man screams "Mommy" between a woman's legs..."

Yet despite critics pining for the old sleaze, The Straight Story is not an atypical Lynch film. The film is based on the true story of an aged farmer (played by Richard Farnsworth) who wishes to visit his ailing but estranged brother, perhaps for the last time, and whose only means of transport over several hundred miles through the midwest was on a lawnmower. It was Lynch's first non-crime thriller since Dune, his first "people story" period, yet his hand is evident. There is his fascination with texture, the lingering closeups of corn fields and highways. There are (mildly) quirky characters and incidents (the deer lady; the repairman brothers). There are innocent characters carrying dark secrets (the vets discussing World War 2). There is his love for Middle America. The Straight Story is masterpiece -- and a typically Lynchian masterpiece.

Mulholland Drive brings us full circle, for with it Lynch restores some balance between innocence and corruption. As with Blue Velvet, Mulholland Drive requires a suspension of cynicism for full appreciation. Another starry-eyed innocent, Betty (Naomi Watts), expects to parley a small town jitterbug contest win into Hollywood stardom. Lynch depicts Los Angeles through her rose-colored eyes. Smogless skies, cheery cabbies, corny dialogue with her aunt and uncle, who depart with giddily optimist smiles. Betty even smiles ecstatically at seeing "LOS ANGELES" over the airport escalator.

This evoked much hilarity at a screening I attended, yet while the film, like Twin Peaks, is darkly comedic, it is not parodic. Betty is naive, but she is not ridiculous. Lynch never mocks his characters, however naive, quirky, or sordid. Although Lynch reportedly laughed on the Blue Velvet set at Hopper's sexual perversity (on his knees, sniffing inhalants, screaming "Mommy!" at Dorothy's vagina) Lynch explained: "Frank is totally in love. He just doesn't know how to show it. He may have gotten into some strange things, but he's still motivated by positive things."

 

 

 

The curiously un-PC audience also laughed at Betty's lesbian seduction of Rita (Laura Harring), although now with an underlying tension, a tribute to Lynch's ability to unsettle even the
sophisticated.
As in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive's characters inexplicably morph into new identities midway into the film. (The film's first hour was an ABC TV pilot, then after its rejection, re-envisioned and completed as a feature film with funding from Canal Plus.) It's been called a parable of Hollywood, its players the victims of unseen forces, actors hired or projects canceled for no discernible reason. Betty is the archetypical aspiring actress destroyed by Tinseltown. Even if critic Stephen Simon is correct in that Mulholland Drive is the final dream of a dying Betty, her fate is still bleaker than that of Laura Palmer, who at least finds afterlife peace in the White Lodge.

Like Jeffrey, Betty meets a mystery, plays Nancy Drew, and enters an unseen corrupt world. But whereas Jeffrey (and Sailor) survive crime gangs, none survive Hollywood. None, save David Lynch.

 

 

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