David Lynch Corner: Blue Velvet (1986)

For all the human intrigues and noir mysteries in David Lynch’s work, there is always the intrusion of the otherworldly, and a foreboding sense of that which lurks beneath the story. The most famous examples of this are those supernatural beings which occupy the corners of his films – the dancing Man from Another Place and his Twin Peaks cohort and Lost Highway’s Mystery Man are two paradigm cases. But while the bizarre and uncanny are clearly evident in Blue Velvet, it’s hard to say that anything is truly ‘otherworldly’ going on. How does the straightforward narrative of a young man’s descent into the criminal underside of small-town USA become invested with such menace, such magic?

The answer is sound, the creation and command of acoustics and physical space that goes one further than a visual, classical mode of filmmaking. Of all Lynch’s films, this is most clear in Blue Velvet – in the opening sequence, we are repeatedly made aware of the importance of sound and its relationship to the events to follow. Against the opening, full-colour tableau of flowers, picket fences and sunlit suburbia, we hear the floating tune of Bobby Darin’s ‘Blue Velvet’, and the encroaching sounds of insects, running water and barking dogs. After a schmaltzy radio bite, introducing us to the tone of the town of Lumberton, USA, we meet a silent Geoffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), who tosses a stone into whistling grass. Geoffrey does two things before the main plot truly begins – he visits his ailing father, who fails to communicate to him, and then he finds a human ear.

The ear becomes a gateway into the main plot, and the terrifying truths of Lynch’s universe. The mystery of the ear’s owner, leading into the stories of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and her abusive ‘captor’ Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), is repeatedly moved forward by sound and hearing. From the facts of the case, overheard by Sandy Williams (Laura Dern, in her first of many critical roles in Lynch), to the bizarre coupling of Vallens and Booth, described by Michel Chion as a “an archaic acoustic impression”, that is, a weird image reconstructed from sounds, a great deal of the film’s key scenes arise first in the acoustic register.

Not since the singing, dancing Lady in the Radiator has the performed song been so prominent in Lynch. ‘Blue Velvet’ reappears, sung by Dorothy Vallens at the Slow Club. Her song doubles with the fetish-object of her nightgown, the blue velvet that muffles Frank’s voice, transforming Hopper’s Booth from caricature villain to nightmarish human being. Later, Frank will sing to Geoffrey – Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’, which has earlier been lip-synched by “suave motherfucker” Ben (Dean Stockwell) to magical effect. And in one of the film’s pivotal scenes – Laura Dern recounts her dream of the robins and a “blinding light of love” – Chion writes that “she has the eyes of a blind person”. Though vision and Lynch’s stunning cinematography are prominent parts of Blue Velvet, the ideas of sound and voice are most central to the narrative and Lynch’s thematic treatment.

The result of this acoustic filmmaking is, as in Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, the masterful command of space and time, the creation of a living, breathing location. Lynch’s treatment of small-town America, in Lumberton, Wild at Heart’s Big Tuna, and of course Twin Peaks, gives you the sense of having lived and wandered in these places. This command of space carries onto the map of relationships and psychology that makes Lynch’s characters so memorable, characters that speak, weep and resonate with the world around them. This return to sound is not a regression, as it might seem from the image of the ear as gateway to sin and corruption, but rather a return to the type of understanding that envelops, enfolds its subject. As Geoffrey and Sandy dance together to the sound of Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries of Love”, we see the hopeful signs of a David Lynch that hopes to take us through the dark.

David Lynch Corner: The Elephant Man (1980)

Im glad I got a second chanse in life like you said to be smart because I lerned a lot of things that I never even new were in this werld and Im grateful I saw it all even for a littel bit. And Im glad I found out all about my family and me. It was like I never had a family til I remembired about them and saw them and now I know I had a family and I was a person just like everyone.

Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon

 

Our command of language, whether we use it to craft an Oscar-nominated film or to order a cup of coffee, is what allows us to function as human beings, alone and in society. Nonetheless, there is always the sense that language regulates, or perhaps covers up, one or two basic facts about ourselves as subjects. Lacan talks about this a lot – he divides human identification into the Imaginary (one-to-one, aggressively narcissistic identification with a threatening other) and the Symbolic (identification mediated through the system of language, the Big Other), with the Real occasionally intruding. But more importantly, David Lynch shows this to us in The Elephant Man, charting the movement of a threatened, voiceless soul into a community of language and friendship, with all the pitfalls in between.

When Fredrick Treeves (Anthony Hopkins) wanders deep into the corridors of a Victorian freak show, he passes an array of fragmented, disconnected images – namely midgets and bearded ladies. The Elephant Man that he eventually meets (John Hurt) is caught in a system of humiliation, spectacle and aggression – the audience comes to be terrified of him, and he is rightfully terrified of them for it. Horribly disfigured, the Elephant Man’s only hope of functioning as a human being is contained in the phrase “My name is John Merrick; I’m very pleased to meet you.” Though he speaks with difficulty, hampered by the realities of his body, Merrick’s newly-discovered voice is sweet, even musical. It is through his discovery of language that Merrick is able to articulate his plight, and gain acceptance by the Victorian community.

But in Merrick’s movement, from the carnival to the hospital to bourgeois society, the nature of his embodiment never goes away. There is always a sense, discussed by many of the characters in the film, that the public’s ‘fascination’ with Merrick is no different from the leering, primal horror of the carnival crowd. This is most clear in the fact of Merrick’s ongoing abuse at the hands of the night watchman (Michael Elphick) – the carnival returns, only this time in that dark inversion of language, the market. Once more, Merrick is made into an object, but unlike Mr Bytes (Freddie Jones), who declares of Merrick, “He is my partner… my treasure,” the night porter’s actions work intelligently to destroy our Elephant Man.

The juxtaposition of these scenes – Merrick in language/society and Merrick in language/marketplace – reminds us that, while language must step in to mediate our frightened desires, this mediation is still a source of pain. When we begin to distinguish words and things, we begin to create objects for consumption – the aggression we seek to overcome is in fact sanctioned by the systems we put in place to control it. This is what keeps Fredrick Treeves awake at night, causes him to ask “Am I a good man? Or a bad man?” Are we any better off, given language and community, if the result is to be made a spectacle of in new and cruel ways?

But John Merrick offers an answer to this question: “My life is full because I know I am loved.” In the crucial theatre scene towards the end, Merrick marvels at the movement and shifting patterns of the pantomime theatre. He is at once a child, scared of the unknown, and a man, grateful for it. In a very sincere way, Merrick is a model for all of us, a limit-case of the difficulties we find in reconciling those parts of ourselves – the child threatened by their reflections, and the subject trapped in language. But there is a kind of joy to be found here, when those aspects of ourselves are reconciled, through art, through human connection and through engagement. At The Elephant Man’s conclusion, Merrick has constructed an entire cathedral having only seen its tower from his window. And we have reconstructed his subjectivity, from the outside-in, and found it to be a beautiful place.

David Lynch Corner: Eraserhead (1976)

I put every damn pipe in this neighbourhood. People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!

-Mr X, laying some pipe

 

As part of my Lynch series, now a pilgrimage from start to finish as I pretend to speak authoritatively on my thesis topic, I can’t help but begin at Eraserhead. David Lynch’s debut feature, which rose to infamy alongside Jodorowsky’s El Topo as part of the 1970s ‘Midnight Film’ phenomenon, still holds a powerful place in the Lynch canon. This is partly due to its unforgettable, horrific imagery, but Eraserhead holds its own against the director’s later works in terms of themes, treatment and pure atmosphere.

So let’s all have a look at the film that made Mel Brooks call David Lynch “Jimmy Stewart from Mars.” I won’t be recapping the entire film, but I will begin with a closer reading of the opening sequence:

Henry Spencer (Lynchian hero Jack Nance) begins this film as a horizontal, floating head, superimposed over a moon-sized, grainy ‘planet’. So far so good. Inside this planet, the appropriately-named Man Inside the Planet pulls a few levers and voila! Out of Henry’s mouth there issues the first of many stringlike, swimming white creatures. This intrepid little creature eventually drops into a milky crater on the side of the planet. Shortly after that, we see a tracking shot down a hairy tunnel towards a circular light. It’s impossible to get around – you’ve just witnessed sex, and the birth that sometimes ensues.

And Henry Spencer? He’s a dick. A swinging dick, for better or worse. He wanders his apocalyptic home like a chubby Charlie Chaplin, his feminine moon-shaped counterpart replaced by the unforgiving architecture of industrial Philadelphia. And Henry will be contrasted against his surroundings and fellow characters for the rest of the film, as his swinging dick-ness becomes the subject matter of Eraserhead.

To clarify, the film revolves around fathering and fatherhood, according to Lynch, to which I would add the question “What is it that the male-as-subject actually does towards fathering?On paper, it would seem that the father (Henry) has helped in creating life, but the child he fathers with Mary X (Charlotte Stewart, who reappears as Don Davis’ wife in Twin Peaks) is an absolute monster, an animatronic prop of movie folklore, gurgling and chuckling his way into the psyche of all concerned. You can’t help feeling, alongside Henry Spencer, that his procreation was really an act of destruction.

Destruction abounds in Eraserhead. From the empty hollows of Philadelphia, to the dead trees that populate pots throughout the various interiors we see, to the tiny portrait of a mushroom cloud in Henry’s room, we are moved to see a world emptied of life, emptied of energy. Notably, by the film’s shocking, apocalyptic end, the mushroom cloud has disappeared from Henry’s wall. Even the apocalypse is swept away by the time Henry finds his scissors. Because Henry decides that his only hope for agency is to be the eraser on the hard tip of the pencil, obliterating his child (and castrating himself in the process, as the film binds the two of them together) and the world that he inhabits.

So yeah, the film has an unhappy ending, and its construction of masculinity is a little bit nihilistic. But David Lynch was an impoverished young artist with a baby on the way – how do you think he felt? Well, we know at least the dark side of what he imagined was to come. In this side of the Lynch universe, pipes don’t grow, they get driven into the earth, turning “pastures” into “hellholes.” Fortunately for his sake, Lynch was to refine and temper his approach to the subject in the three decades that followed. But Eraserhead forever sits at the heart of his (and our) own fears and dreams, and continues to resurface at points of rupture in his work. The results of this are often the most memorable.

88%

Classics: Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Having known me, you’d say I was a David Lynch devotee. I’ve devoted a huge portion of my study and thought to the auteur and his universe, as my Inland Empire review may have hinted at, and I stand behind everything the man has committed to film, paper and bathroom stall scribbling. But I’ve always had difficulties enjoying Lost Highway. Whether it’s because the motifs and material have been handled better before and since, or the differences in form and style that estrange the film from his corpus, but the 1997 effort lacks the uncanny charms of classics like Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive.

Despite this feeling of mine, the film’s execution is typically flawless, its themes of (again) sex, death and illusion are well handled, and each shot and sequence offers memorable glimpses into a classically embodied Lynchian universe. Contrasted to his previous effort, 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which was guillotined and gutted by critics for its awkward pacing, bizarre sentimentality and supposed misogyny, Lost Highway ought to be the better film. But I don’t think it is. Perhaps an examination and contrasting of the two films will help justify this.

Song to the Siren

Compared to Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway has been a better critically received film, but then this wasn’t a hard thing to accomplish. FWWM is Lynch’s conclusion/prequel to the acclaimed TV series Twin Peaks, which centred largely on the death of beloved Laura Palmer (Cheryl Lee) and its subsequent investigation by FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan). This driving mystery was solved in the series’ second season and, its raison d’être gone, the show was cancelled shortly thereafter. FWWM returns to the circumstances of Laura Palmer’s death, her last seven days, and the warped relationships between Laura, her father Leland Palmer (Ray Wise) and the malevolent entity known as BOB (Frank Silva).

Lynch’s treatment of what is essentially known information to fans of the TV series could have, in lesser hands, been little more than a retread. But we know better. This expressionistic telemovie is buoyed by Cheryl Lee’s intense characterisation of Laura – oscillating between tortured child, promiscuous femme fatale and certifiable psychotic, Lee’s performance is a standout even among Lynch’s considerable body of work. Laura Palmer, true to her words, freefalls until she bursts into flames, and then falls further. But Lee is able to invest this descent into hell with fierce, almost unconceivably fierce, defiance, and stands with Laura Dern and Naomi Watts as one of Lynch’s unforgettable heroines.

Wrapped Plastic

The same cannot be said for the protagonists of Lost Highway. This is, in part, a product of the script – co-written with Barry Gifford (whose novel Lynch adapted in 1990’s Wild at Heart), Lost Highway’s dialogue and characterisations are deliberately pared-down, keeping in step with the film’s noir atmosphere. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) are a couple with troubles – not only wracked by overt infidelity on Renee’s part, but increasingly unnerved by anonymous videotapes left on their doorstep. When one of these videos reveals Fred howling over Renee’s dismembered corpse, we cut to Fred on death row, awaiting the chair. Hilarity ensues – Fred, unable to cope with his crime, metamorphoses into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty, of TV’s Brothers and Sisters, and little else). Pete, being not Fred, is released to his life as a mechanic, where he meets the girlfriend of Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia), whose name is Alice (Patricia Arquette once more).

Things get complicated, but Lost Highway’s setup is relatively simple compared to Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, and its execution is emotionally drained when compared to Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart. Bill Pullman/ Balthazar Getty make for one of Lynch’s only forgettable protagonists, through stale delivery of minimalist dialogue. Fred Madison’s arc is obscenely signposted early on in the film, with this line: “I like to remember things my own way, not… necessarily how they happened.” Amateur. Patricia Arquette suffers too – though undeniably femme fatale­-ish, one gets the feeling that David Lynch has (uncharacteristically) placed his actress in a series of exploitative filmic situations, with little investment resulting beyond that of the protagonists. Robert Loggia mugs his way through a hammy, Tarantino-derivative set piece on Mulholland Drive, and only becomes remotely threatening when paired briefly with the ghoulish Mystery Man (Robert Blake, but more on him later). As far as this sub-villain is concerned, car chases, LA roads and Dennis Hopper have all been done far better elsewhere. Notably, none of these main actors have been called upon to appear in any further Lynch films.

Nine Inch Fail/ Red Roomies

At every point, Fire Walk with Me is the stronger “David Lynch” film, especially when considered alongside the director’s later, arguably more sophisticated works, while Lost Highway remains anomalous. Lynch maestro Angelo Badalmenti brings an incredible orchestral/jazz score to FWWM, featuring the sublime work of singer Julee Cruise. But where FWWM is timeless, Lost Highway is just dated. The film is punctuated throughout with contemporary singles by Rammstein, Trent Reznor, Marilyn Manson and the like. No comment on the merit of those particular artists, BUT their appearances in the film often sour what could’ve been classic scenes. These aren’t the brilliant, defamiliarising music choices Lynch has gifted us with, such as Bobby Vinton’s ‘Blue Velvet’ and Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ and ‘Crying (Llorondo)’. They just kind of suck.

And perhaps most importantly, Lost Highway just doesn’t bring the crazy. Aside from Fred Madison’s transformations and some isolated stylised scenes, the only true weirdness comes from Robert Blake’s Mystery Man. Like a pale-faced assassin he intones to Madison, “You invited me in. It’s not my custom to go where I’m not wanted.” His presence brings this dull affair to life in brief spurts. A demonic force on par with BOB, the Mystery Man must compete, though, with the most recognisably Lynchian folklore – Twin Peak’s Red Room, home to the backwards-talking, dancing midget (Michael J Anderson). Not a fair contest.

Fat Trout Trailer Peaks

But more significantly, Fire Walk with Me is infused throughout with the Lynchian uncanny. Each scene and characterisation is shot in an archetypal, almost cartoony fashion, and the film is thus able to weather instances of the lamest dialogue since “Why is there so much trouble in this world?” (Blue Velvet). Special mention, too, to the film’s prologue, in which Dale Cooper doppelganger Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) navigates the anti-Twin Peaks town of Deer Meadows, in a glorious summary-by-contrast of the beloved TV series. Lost Highway’s best treatment of the meta-cinematic is probably that lame Fred Madison line from earlier.

To sum up, though, Lost Highway is not a bad film – it’s just definitely the weakest David Lynch film (disregarding Dune, of course). Its superb elements simply do not cohere in an organic fashion – they’re let down by subpar performances of overly-minimalist dialogue and unwise concessions to then-popular culture. Filmmakers need to stop wearing “Marilyn Manson is a fan” as a badge of honour (Jodorowsky, listen). Meanwhile, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me is an idiosyncratic, visually gorgeous piece of film, which succeeds in evoking genuine atmosphere and emotion, and in crafting an expressionistic character study of one of the richest characters in TV history. I know which one I’m watching right now.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): 91%

Lost Highway (1997): 76%

Classics: INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

“Were you, in fact, seeing another man?”

– A Rabbit

Nature may abhor a vacuum, but David Lynch certainly does not. At the ontological boundary between two bodies, two worlds and two minds, reality warps and fragments are scattered, falling where they may. And in Lynch’s oeuvre, this boundary is a vacuum, because the pieces fall without friction and land in bizarre formations. This is particularly true of his 2006 magnum opus Inland Empire – shot on digital video, with scripts reworked frequently, an amalgam of 4 decades of Lynchian symbolism, the arrangement of elements is nothing short of disconcerting. It is to the auteur and his diligent audience to make sense of the tea leaves, to know the pieces as they’ve fallen, and to wonder at their origins.

Lynch compatriot Laura Dern is the film’s foundation, inhabiting multiple roles, each a refraction of the other. As actress Nikki Grace she is a serene, soft-spoken cipher of a woman, eager to inhabit the role of middle-class adulteress Susan Blue in the film “On High in Blue Tomorrows”. As she clothes herself in the role, playing off of Justin Theroux’s confident Devon, even venturing an off-screen affair with him, the narrative fractures – Dern is flung between sets and roles, spaces and times, each fragment of her circling themes of jealousy, marriage, sexuality and revenge.

Against the Oscar-bait romance of “Blue Tomorrows”, her tenure as Susan Blue is pained and bitter, dwelling on her infidelity to her husband (Peter J Lucas, as Nikki Grace’s Piotrek and Susan Blue’s Smithy). As the film’s psychosis deepens, aspects of the film “Vier, Sieben” (of which “Blue Tomorrows” is a remake) are interspersed – its romantic leads (Julia Ormond and a moustachioed Peter J Lucas) are murdered. Other, ostensibly unrelated passages appear, including prolonged instances of foulmouthed psychoanalytic confessions by Dern, and open-air set pieces in the California’s Inland Empire region (yes, it’s a place).

Now, this is all supposedly stems from a curse, embedded in the gypsy folk tale to which “Vier, Sieben” and “Blue Tomorrows” are beholden. But the pacing of the film, in which the narrative break occurs at the instant of infidelity, might suggest that this ‘curse’, this ‘something inside the story’ is some kind of trauma, perhaps common to all romances of this type. To suggest that all love stories are born of, and remain in proximity to, a nightmarish kernel of desperation and fear is perhaps not a total stretch to those who have lived them. Nikki Grace’s breakdown of identity, and therefore of embodiment and sexuality, is a fractious, multifaceted exploration of this desperation. “The world’s longest running radio play” is, perhaps reductively, love and betrayal.

This is, of course, classic David Lynch territory. Romantic obsession and violent jealousy haunt his entire filmic output, from Isabella Rossellini’s manic depressive turn as Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet, to Naomi Watts’ sublimely broken Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive. Even Lost Highway’s Bill Pullman couldn’t escape his obsession, and he spent half the film as Balthazar fucking Getty. This is Lynch’s vacuum – prostitutes lit by torchlight, telling you everything you’ve done wrong before doing the Locomotion (to the sound of distorted train whistles, of course).

This harem of prostitutes is a relatively tame figure in Inland Empire. The film is a primer of Lynchian symbolism – red curtains, transitional blue light, shorting lamps, doubling upon doubling, deformed jump-scare faces and groovy furniture, among others. Its most notable addition to the corpus is, of course, those darned rabbits – three figures (voiced by Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey, all three featured in Mulholland Drive) that inhabit a (green) “red room” where time and language are out of joint. And in this film, that’s saying something. At least one of these rabbits plays a decisive role in Laura Dern’s path of self-discovery, wearing the aspect of her analyst. Elsewhere, the film is populated by your typical sideways-talking, nominally pointless, possibly prophetic Lynchian characters, and the austere Lost Girl (Karolina Gruszka), whose relation the proceedings is both impossibly obscure and undeniably crucial.

It seems that, in Lynch’s world, Laura Dern always gets her happy ending. With the possible exception of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, it would appear that the only means by which a Lynch film ends well is the harmonising presence of Sandy Williams or Lula Fortune. Dern in Inland Empire is both these women and their neo-realistic undersides, gazing at herself through the miracle of creative editing, facing up to the Phantom that stalks her three-hour nightmare (Krzysztof Majchrzak who, in his final appearance will haunt your nightmares too) and wringing an impossible, uncannily happy ending.