"Call Me Sick But I Want To See That Again"
At the prime of Twin Peaks, just after his Palme d'Or victory for Wild at Heart, the cover of Time emblazoned a close-up of David Lynch's face smack dab into popular consciousness. For a week, it was impossible to escape that face, framed by peppery hair, climbing skyward like a gnarled root toward a tree trunk (a "Woody Woodpecker plume," Damon Wise characterized it in Total Film), pupils alarmingly askew. The look was pure mad- scientist, Hollywood's answer to Beethoven. Or so Time would have you think.
The irony of that cover wasn't just that Lynch, who remains a dues-paying Eagle Scout with a hefty appetite for milk- shakes at Bob's Big Boy, is quite normal looking. (His voice, just nasally tinged, has that Midwestern neutrality: you would not be surprised to hear a "Holy Jumping George!" spill forth, or indeed, "I'll be ding-danged," and according to his editor and current part- ner, Mary Sweeney, these do, and often.) The irony comes from where he had landed, relative to his cultist roots, making you wonder if the mainstrearning of David Lynch would have been inevitable, and if so, why. Success bears an artistic price tag, but was the appearance on the cover of Time the result of his own deliberate effort to dull the razor-like gleam of his instinctual avant-garde, or was this the mainstream finally cottoning on to the "repulsive" genius behind Eraserhead?
A decade later, after a Disney detour (of itself surreal) on a dismal lost highway, the buzz on Lynch is up and it is promis- ing. At Cannes, he was back in the awards circle, sharing Best Director for Mulholland Drive. The film was salvaged heroically (and expensively, at double the initial investment) from the wreck of his head-on collision with ABC, representing, one would sus- pect, his last and very last encounter with the medium he publicly swore off after On the Air failed to live up to its name (literally - having gotten canned at the outset). With the Canal Plus-spon- sored film version of Mulholland Drive, Lynch is reputedly back in beautifully twisted form, weaving the lives of a wandering amne- siac in Hollywood, her ruthless pursuers, and her lesbian ]over (and it'll arrive stateside whenever it finds a distributor). In the meantime, the kingpin of late century neo-noir has morphed into a digitally-savvy techno geek, working with a web designer on the launch of his official site, creating game content for his interactive company SubStation, shooting a Sony Playstation 2 commercial in DV, and creating Webisodes of a digitally animated series called Dumbland ("stupid humor," he recently volunteered for Holly Willis in Res), which premieres this summer at Shockwave.com.
For this quarter's Guerrilla Filmmaker, there can be no better symbol than the man whose first feature in 1977, Eraserhead, pioneered a generation's worth of underground and cult devotion. What follows is an unbridled dedication.
Hallmark Hallucinations: Lynchian Defined
By now, his stamp is recognizable and unique. A David Lynch movie is never a gorefest; the horror sidles up like a poisonous spider in the dark - stealthily, until the sting. Atmosphere is king; Lynch is a constant builder. His worlds are more ponderous than Tim Burton's, more accessible than David Cronenberg's, more relevant than Ridley Scott's. And how they work: his tidy claustrophobic suburbs conceal astounding wickedness, surrealism lurks and broods in his vision of choking industrialism, bodies wash up on the innocuous lakeside edge of his lumber mills, and Victorian England wears hypocrisy like a bloated philanderer's wedding ring.
Stylistically, directorial idiosyncracies abound. Lynch often slows, even freezes, time, in order to indulge a camera hell- bent on probing the enduring mysteries of life - a flickering flame, soil rich with creepy-crawlies, the canal of a severed human ear, past billowing curtains and into the stardust heaven occasioned by a million fragments of rubber eraser. Lynch's well-known fetishization of ordinary objects is synchronized with the kind of symphonic crescendo capable of cashing in on dramatic tension - pronto. Thus the radiator in Eraserhead beckons us to a stage fraught with symbolism. The sudden malfunctioning of a garden hose signals Tom Beaumont's stroke during the opening scene of Blue Velvet. And so forth. But the most memorable and endear- ing thing about his work is the interspersion of that drama with absurdity, in ways that long preceded say, hit men ravings about "Le Big Mac."
Endlessly, exhaustively, Lynch's films lay dualities on adjacent canvases - evil and innocence, weirdness and normali- ty, the absurd and the macabre. Character dualities are every- where, too. In Blue Velvet, (Lynch's ground-shattering, best- received film, which cultivated his fan base and for which the poster slogan, "call me sick, but I want to see that again," was borrowed from one such fan), Dennis Hopper's gas-snorting sadist shape-shifts between simpering inner child to raging mad- man with a compulsive fist. (In the ever-burgeoning school of cin- ematic villains, Frank Booth's seriously disturbed fool on edge still stands alone.) His victim, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), writhing in her potent stew of fear, can't decide if she'd like to be held or beaten. Meanwhile, Dean Stockwell glitters as a pretty- boy toughie with lipstick and false eyelashes, lip-synching Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" into the radiant head of a floor lamp (in a typically Lynchian moment, just as you think the seediness, debauchery, and rot has devoured all the goodness, a reassuring melody floats absurdly over the speakers and everyone on screen starts to cry). Like a Grimm fairy tale, Lynch's successful endeavors draw a reaction so deeply primitive that to dissect a Lynch film is a lesson in advanced lit(erature?), a study of the very elements, of earth, wind, and fire. Indeed, some of his favorite motifs are mounds of earth, howls of wind, fire in every incandescence, along with countless others: sirens, strobe lights, the color red (curtains, fingernails, lipstick), sounds of steam, industrial machinery.
As for Lynch's cult status, Eraserhead was so ahead of its time that the distributor, Ben Barenholtz, waited two years before setting it loose on the midnight audiences of the three hippest cities (NY, LA, San Francisco; at initial private viewings, the American Film Institute, under whose umbrella Lynch had created the film, were at a loss to even categorize the film, although it knew it was on to a good thing). Critical acclaim came later still, although nowadays, virtually no one would deny the rock-solid leadership of Eraserhead within the underground devotees' midnight mass. It makes sense. What sets Eraserhead apart isn't technical innovation (no less impressive) or the novelty of the errant narrative. It's the unconsciousness with which it achieved legendary status (it would seem not to behoove any filmmaker to consciously strive for cult: Lynch took four years to piece together a burning per- sonal vision, not to create fodder for cross- generational worship). It's the universality of the themes: procreation, free will, eter- nal happiness, censorship (think "eraser") and the sheer cleverness and bushy-tailed wonder with which they are interwoven into that elusive narrative. The film, as a statement about a reluctant teenage father living on industrially ruined land who ascends beyond passivity and vanquishes cosmic control to achieve happiness, arguably dying in the process, is at once eloquent and side-splittingly hilarious. And that is an assessment that can probably be made about all good Lynchian drama.
Swingsets and Popsicles: Fairytale Underpinnings
Much has been written about Lynch's picket fence childhood in small town USA. He was born in Montana, but his father's research role meant moves all over the country. Lynch had plenty of friends; his parents didn't drink, smoke, or argue. Yet, as any armchair therapist will tell you, placidity provides incendiary fuel for the overwrought imagination. Lynch clearly modeled Blue Velvet's pivotal Jeffrey Beaumont, all-American small town boy drawn inexplicably to mystery and strangeness, on himself. He wanted his parents to scream at one another and for stranger things to happen. Without proof, Lynch nevertheless had a hunch that nothing was as it seemed. And so it wasn't, if you paid attention. "On this cher- ry tree would be this pitch oozing out, some of it black, some of it yellow, and there were millions of red ants racing all over the sticky pitch, all over the tree. So you see, there's this beautiful world and you just look a little bit closer, and it's all red ants." You might say those ants have sustained a career.
The outdoors taunted the boy, but visits to his grandfather's seedy Brooklyn neighborhood were what really awoke the horror within, leaving him still thirstier. This fascination with fear, from a vantage point of utter safety, followed him to Philadelphia, where he enrolled at the Academy of Art and shared a gutted build- ing in the kind of neighborhood that must have made Brooklyn seem like Boise. For hours, he'd watch as the workers at the morgue across the street rinsed body bags clean from traces of dead people. He married and moved to a house which got broken into three times (twice while he was home, and once by gunfire on the windows), and remembers the kid "shot to death a half-block from our front door, and the chalk marks around where he'd fain stayed on the sidewalk for five days." In his early twenties, Lynch finally got his taste of the madness beyond.
It is common knowledge how broadly his talents abound. In addition to filmmaker, writer, and painter, Lynch is a photographer, composer, cartoonist, and furniture-maker (and now, web animator). His artistic beginnings were not lost in fiim- making: visual art plays prominently into everything, but particularly the early works. Lynch's first cinematic endeavor was essentially a sculpture - he called it a "film-painting" - the animated short Six Men Getting Sick, in which dripping birth- day candle wax formed streams of vomit emanating from each of six disembodied heads. It caught the attention of an art patron who commissioned Lynch to shoot something in a similarly endless loop to hang on his wall at home. The patron got The Alphabet, based on a child's feverish recitation of the alphabet during a night- mare, like PBS' Electric Company on acid, replete with a bloody incursion of small- pox. (During The Alphabet's four meager minutes, an "A" gives birth to a little a, signifying the birth of Jennifer Lynch.) Lynch was subsequently awarded an AFI grant, and with the $5,000 created The Grandmother, a '/2 hour fable about an unloved boy with all the early Lynchian touches: pallid faces, admonishing par- ents, procreation, swollen organic growths. This led gently into Eraserhead, and the rest of the story can be found in each of 100 interviews given by a man who isn't even supposed to like reporters.
Unraveling the Brain Spool of the Subconscious
According to Martha Nochimson, author of The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood, control and willpower com- prise the Lynchian dogma of evil. It's a well-founded conclusion, if not unique in film lore. Frank Booth kidnaps Doro1hy Vallens' husband and son to make her his sexual puppet. Lost Highway's jealous Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) wants to lay exclu- sive claim to Alice Wakefield (Patricia Arquefte). Wild at Heart's Marietta (Diane Ladd) commissions murders to gain con- trol over daughter Lula (Laura Dern). In contrast, Lynchian protagonists are almost always intellectually stranded, looking out from behind round eyes which practically glimmer with question-laden wonderment - think about poor clueless Henry Spencer, or Jeffrey Beaumont's naYve despair: "Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?"
This hatred of control carries through behind the scenes. Lynch's cre- ativity consciously embraces the subcon- scious, leaving logic, analytics, and control (literally) out of the picture. Lynch swears allegiance to the endurance of mystery: "It's better not to know so much about what things mean or how they might be interpreted or you'll be too afraid to let things keep happening. Psychology destroys the mystery, this kind of magic quality [which carries] the potential for a vast, infinite experience." (Ergo, he refus- es to see a therapist for its potential effect on his creativity.) To listen to him talk about the stream of consciousness which arrives in the form of daydreams and which informs his stories, he might be Moses, inscribing tablets dictated by an invisible muse. At this year's Cannes, he told reporters, "One night, sifting down in my chair, the ideas unraveled. They came to me like a string, and that was a beauti- ful night." If string is too clich6d, try vomit: in Midnight Movies, J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum postulate, "[Lynch's is] like a hallucinogenic view of history and the cosmos that somehow [manages] to interrelate everything in painterly terms, so that birth, death, waste, putrefaction, growth, electricity, orgasm, and annihila- tion could all be related to one another for- mally ... a poetic recipe for creation that [resembles] vomit and yet potentially [makes] everything possible and beautiful at the same time."
But back to string. The metaphor has been used to reference the overlap between Lynch films - as though his body of work has been one continual project with widespread release dates, and as such mimics the Scheherezade nature of television (indeed, the potential for the neverending story was what drew him summed it up last month in The Guardian: "what is ... oddly appar- ent is the way his projects, over the years, have a curiously inter- locking, incestuous feel: Fire Walk With Me arose out of the ashes of Twin Peaks, as did [the never-aired Mulholland Drive pilot]; and Mulholland Drive has wormed its way from the rotting corpse of a disastrous TV project. His filmmaking career doesn't so much develop as congeal." Lynch too has acknowledged the uncanny linkages: "There's something of Eraserhead in The Elephant Man, and some of both in Dune. There's some sort of thread that connects the three of them in my mind." This may be simplistic, but the point is well taken, leaving the interpreter to extract creative overlap from such divergent projects as the epic Dune, a nightmarish Lost Highway, the Disney-backed, G-rated The Straight Story. (incidentally, the latter is completely devoid of macabre, but The Straight Story is still Lynchian in its juxtaposi- tion of the ordinary - a sunset, a runaway hat, a bicycle race - with the extreme - the daunting lawnmower journey. Everitt are no less absurd for being G-rated and warming, rather than chilling, the heart.)
On a smaller scale, this deference to the subconscious - and indeed, to instinct - comprise material no less. This is a painter who will incorporate a fluttering moth into an oil, who spots a dead fly and thinks, "texture," who sets out a head filled with turkey and cheese in order to attract a four-day parade of ants, who depilates a mouse with Nair and sees only beauty in the hair- less result. So powerful is Lynch's sensibility for the offbeat, that he freely incorporates whims and mistakes, not merely as throw- away references, but as pivotal plot points. The most poignant example is Lynch's instinctive use of a real-life set designer as the alternate identity of Laura Palmer's murderer, "killer Bob," in Twin Peaks.
Hedonism Springs Eternal
Register for launch notification of Lynch's official website (www.davidlynch.com), and a vivid icon will pop onto your screen with ominous musical accompaniment. It's the top half of a clay man with jointed arms, wearing a suit. The detail is astonishing - you can see each gleaming button, his necktie carefully tucked behind his lapel as if preparing for a meal. But it's the face that makes you gasp - rather, the lack thereof. In its place is a blob of clay, hideously deformed evidence of an impatient sculptor, the Elephant Man without the humanity, Puncture marks replace a mouth, eyes. Instead of hair, the top of the blob contains a puck- ered opening like a mail slot, reminiscent of lips, or something alien. The whole darn thing makes you want to stare and stare. Call me sick, but ... And that's precisely the kind of hedonism which David Lynch continues to inspire. Luckily, we fans will get our sustenance soon.<<
Jean Tang is a freelance journalist based in New York. This piece, along with this issue's "Cannes 2001: A Rookie's Journey Through the Looking Glass, " mark her Guerrilla Filmmaker debut She has written for Indiewire.
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