Lynch’s Worlds in the Spotlight

One of the most iconic scenes in Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s distinctly warm-toned and sensual 1990’s series is when Detective Dale Cooper has a vivid and disturbing dream, his subconscious divided and characterized, separating present Cooper from past Cooper, the latter represented by a small man. In his dream, the dead Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) joins Agent Cooper and the small man as they speak incomprehensibly in a vivid red-curtained and geometrically carpeted area of Cooper’s mind. Laura delivers her obscure message twice, one time with a quiet authority and sensuality, the next quickly followed by a piercing scream as her eyes roll back, face awash with red as a multicolored spotlight pulses with colors. The scene is vivid, startling and obscure, her screams still ringing in my ears after the credits have begun to roll. The ringing quickly turns into questions as this depiction of a “good girl” losing her head from her inability to express her true self lodges itself in my mind, leading me to question my own relation to this character. The show is nothing if not complicated, focusing on many obscurities including the characters’ struggle with what I see as their repressed sexual desire, as well as the clash between the main genres the series embodies; horror and drama.

However, most of Twin Peaks is nowhere near as confusing or obscure, a part of the appeal of the show its’ ability to never stay bizarre long enough for us to become comfortable, restricting us to the outer facade of the town. It is interesting to note that in the follow up to Twin Peaks titled, Fire Walk With Me, Lynch endeavored to step out of his own self-created bounds, this time focusing on the surreal with a dose of the conventional. Eric Diaz of The Nerdist reported that Fire Walk With Me was met with intense criticism, painting a vivid picture of Lynch’s struggle with and desire to transcend the norm, twisting the audience’s mind to make them observe the way they are complacent to the darker side of American society. The way Lynch acknowledges the limits of his art form and yet continues to transcend the traditional film viewing experience leads me to see him as more of a spiritual guide than a filmmaker. BFI Film Forever explains the reoccurring spiritual theme that becomes apparent in all of Lynch’s films as, “The soul’s essence remains untouched and untouchable, and after however many cycles of rebirth its eventual homecoming is assured, has happened, is perpetually happening. It only remains for the soul to wake up in order to realize it never left.” This spiritual concept is the closest tie between Lynch’s films and Lynch himself, a reiteration of his films’ subliminal message: That there is so much more going on beneath the surface of everyone, especially the nondescript white man.

After watching a Lynch film, it is hard to return to real life. For a while, I feel as though I am floating in a dream-like state, unable to concretely connect with the world around me. Is it real, or a figment of my imagination, the connections I am seeing a result of my subconscious projections? I start to see figments of truth, making connections between the world I see around me and the weirdness Lynch inserts into all of his work. When I am watching, I am quick to dismiss it as merely a product of his “Lynchian” oddness, playfully dismissing it before my mind can fully analyze the deep-rooted resonance I feel lingering inside. However, out in the light of day, things are more real, more concrete, more dependable. I am no longer able to dismiss these small disturbances and am left with the harsh reality of real life. Real-life, while not exactly a small man speaking backward in a red room, is not as normal as we hold it in our minds to be, not as dependable and “picture perfect”. Lynch often intentionally or unintentionally gets close to truths we ourselves are not ready to see and it makes us uncomfortable, not knowing what to do with this semi-unpleasant reflection of our true nature that is staring back at us. However, it leads me to wonder, is Lynch aware of this effect of his work and furthermore, is there a definitive through-line to his work?

The clearest message in any of David Lynch’s work can be seen in his first film made in 1967 titled, Six Men Getting Sick, a combination of chaos, melodic visuals, disturbing images, and a prevailing underlying theme. Six bust heads depicting Lynch himself in various states of agony pulsate, vibrating with motion as the screen flickers, the word “SICK” flashing on a red screen, only to be immediately followed by the busts returning, filling up with white paint only to spew painted sickness from their mouths all over the frame. The sequence then returns to the beginning, Lynch’s likeness tormented time and time again by the uprising of what I see as a representation of my own repressed desires in the form of paint. The cyclical nature of the pattern is both horrifying and mundane, each cycle anesthetizing me slightly to the impact. Yet each time the red begins to fill underneath the men’s’ heads, I feel tension rise deep inside me as my mind fills with anxiety. As the paint reaches the men’s’ heads and they release their pent-up material, I am awash with a calm emptiness that can only be likened to the catharsis the piece implies. The film’s effect is the combination of paint and flame, pencil drawings and the high pitched wail of a siren. The patterns’ repetition prevails again and again, and yet I can’t help thinking this might be the time that the men’s repression wins out, signifying he either successfully repressed his feelings or stepped out of the cycle entirely.

One of the main themes of Lynch’s work seems to be the human cycles of repression and the regurgitation of feelings and desires unfit for society, often hazily articulated through the genres of drama and horror in the films that followed Six Men Getting Sick. Six Men Getting Sick differs from the rest of his work in its explicit presentation of what I see as the overarching concept of repression and release, as opposed to the implicit cyclical psychological struggle seen in his other films’ characters. From Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) in Twin Peaks, monotonously cycling through finding evidence, plateauing, losing grip and then finding more contradictory and confusing evidence, to the cycles of abuse Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) endures in Blue Velvet, we are taken along for the ride, each time thinking this time something will change. Even in his first film, we see hints of the beginnings of Lynch’s fascination with the repression of our human desires.

Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet, serves as an alternate representation of the repressive cycle we see in Six Men Getting Sick, this time shown through live characters. Lynch’s films repeatedly introduce a character’s outer shell/facade first, only to be followed by the darker underbelly of their personality. This cycle is often difficult to watch, the regurgitation of the characters’ repressed emotions startling us out of our passive absorption after our coming to relate and sympathize with the character in the previous scenes. As opposed to the paint in Six Men Getting Sick, Lynch usually uses actors and visuals to craft that recurring unpleasant feeling in his native cyclical form, intensified by the connection I make between what is happening on screen and the world I experience outside of the comfort of the movie theatre. For me, every time I see these characters repress parts of themselves, only to have those parts build up and explode on the surface, I feel a part of myself grow anxious, my own repressed emotions feeling under threat.

The recurring cycles strike me as eerily familiar to my own attempts to uncover and peg down the connection between Lynch and his work. While I desire to lump him in with his other fellow male filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, telling complex stories with complicated female characters, I realize doing so would be ignoring the complexity of his art form. While both directors tell stories following similar tropes, drawing us in with their drama and beauty, Lynch’s work differs in its break from the norm, using surrealism to surprise the audience and make us question first his, and then our sanity. Tarantino, however, chooses to smooth out any weirdness, making his work more palatable to the general audience and commercial. The disturbing and dreamlike quality of Lynch’s work leads me at first to question whether it was driven by a deep inner turmoil and yet the authentic nature of his public spiritual work and advocacy of mindfulness questions this assumption. As Cinephila & Beyond, an independent film publication poetically explains, “The peaceful, the serene, the mundane may linger on the surface, but there is darkness and horror to be found, patiently hovering just below.” Lynch’s obsession is with what Todd VanDerWerf and Caroline Framke, two film critics of Vox, speculate as “the collapse of American innocence” and the darker side of human beings, whether it be an expression of his own struggle or the struggle he sees in the world around him. Lynch’s work’s value lies not in its storytelling capability, but in its observation and representation of extreme depictions of repressed human behavior. In many ways, however, Lynch’s weirdness often seems almost comical, a splash of surreal to keep things interesting. The dreamlike quality of his work sets it apart, the surreal used to stylize psychological and spiritual concepts, sticking in the viewer's mind and shining a hazy spotlight on the darker side of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge.

When questioned about the meaning of his mysterious films, Lynch is cryptic and conscious to never reveal himself. He stated in an interview with Bilge Ebiri, “Every viewer is different. People go into a world and they have an experience, and they bring so much of what makes them react, it’s already inside of them. Each viewer gets a different thing from every film.” Because of this, it is nearly impossible to say for certain the meaning or even thread that ties Lynch’s work into a cohesive whole, and so I find it helpful to see Lynch as a silent overarching presence present in every one of his films, pulling the strings under the gauze of surrealism and an understanding of your commitment to complacently sitting through the film you paid for. The opaque nature of Lynch’s characters is somewhat manipulative, bringing us in to relate to his characters and then pushing us away with the surreal, allowing Lynch to catch us in limbo as we struggle to place our relationships to the characters and then directing our awareness to reflect back on ourselves and the greater beliefs we subscribe to.

“Lynchian” films often pose questions about our innate human urges and the consequences of their repression, often conveyed through the characterization of the different parts of one human psyche. Jeffrey, Blue Velvet’s protagonist, embodies Lynch’s recurring conflicted identity in the form of hero and antihero, as the evil he sees in the villain, Frank (Dennis Hopper), he soon begins to notice in himself through wide-angle shots that isolate the villain and reveal the recesses of our hero’s mind. The film explores the darker, more sinister side of American life through Jeffrey’s (Kyle MacLachlan) discovery of his own sexuality and the role of women, articulated by presenting people and places as embodiments of the protagonist’s internal struggles. In many ways, Blue Velvet is the first of Lynch’s work that so obviously correlates to modern society, a striking work that functions much like a distorted mirror of American culture as we are pushed up against the glass to see the cycles of repression we often observe in ourselves and others.

These concepts are especially noticeable in Lynch’s female characters, leading me to question whether Lynch’s silent and idealized women that function onscreen as merely objects of male desire are a subtle critique of our society’s values or a conformist approach to filmmaking norms and what we expect from this form of entertainment. My instincts notice the complexities of Lynch’s female characters and hint that the latter cannot be entirely true despite the obvious paradox in his often highly sexualized representations of them. Both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks’ female characters slip under the radar under the gauze of conventionality, often playing into female stereotypes and conventions only to later reveal their multidimensional identities and the ways in which they drastically break those norms. Oisín Murphy makes an interesting point in his analysis of misogyny and sexual violence in Lynch’s films that “[i]n immersing himself in the iconography of American cinema, and thus its ideology, Lynch’s metamorphoses are of a purely superficial nature, his surrealism concealing a fundamental conservatism.” Murphy asserts that the violent qualities of Lynch’s sex scenes are merely conforming to the conventions of cinema, functioning as character development disguised as having a deeper meaning. However, I disagree, observing that despite their obvious violent and sometimes surrealist nature, Lynch’s sex scenes often strike me as more realistic than many romanticized sex scenes in other, more conservative films that rely on suggestion and the normalization of repressed desire. In this way Lynch’s depictions of sexuality function as social commentary, projecting the qualities we have repressed by presenting seedlings of truth amidst fantasy, leading us to wonder why we relate to something so disturbing. This tactic plays a role in many of Lynch’s films, a subtle manipulation of the viewer’s expectations as he draws us in with stunning visuals and conventional stories only to rip the rug out from under us, pushing the responsibility back onto the viewer to contextualize and observe why and how these depictions bother us.

Lynch once stated in an interview that “I like to do things that you’re really unable to talk about.” If this is his goal, then he is successful. While I enjoy watching Lynch’s films very much, I feel a simultaneous distance between myself and what is going on onscreen. While most films attempt to engross you in an alternate and distance you from reality, Lynch intentionally shapes his films to be slightly withdraw from reality, never allowing the viewer to fully immerse in what is happening onscreen due to its surreal and impossible elements, functioning as an invitation to reflect back on yourself as a viewer. In other, less well-executed films, this distance and ultimate inability to convince the viewer of the film’s realism would be a sign of the film’s failure. However, the effect differs in that when watching a Lynch film I am aware that I am watching a spectacle and am not part of what is happening onscreen and yet it is so visceral it pulls me in nonetheless, my mind preoccupied just enough to objectively see pieces of truth within fantasy. This distance sometimes frustrates me, my cinematic expectation to be distanced from my subconscious self left unfulfilled. Every time I feel myself starting to get comfortable in my inactive absorption, Lynch startles me out of my bubble of conventionality. Returning back to societal life after watching a Lynch film might take some adjusting, his films often embodying the parts of ourselves that we repress, introducing an awareness of our own deep-rooted psychological struggles. This method of subliminally communicating truths is important in our current humanitarian climate, its ability to transcend the barriers we build around our consciousness utilized by many modern works such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Lynch recognizes that film’s power lies in its utilization of its viewers’ complacency, planting truths amidst fantasy in the viewer’s mind to later grow outside in the light of reality.

“BFI — page title here for accessibility.” BFI | Sight & Sound | Remain in light: Mulholland Dr. and the cosmogony of David Lynch, The British Film Institute, 12 Feb. 2012, www.old.bfi.org.uk/sightandsound/feature/49820.

Carroll Harris, Laurencarrollharris. “What do David Lynch’s films say about sex? The Toast.” Lauren Carroll Harris / writer and artist, 17 Sept. 2015, www.laurencarrollharris.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/what-do-david-lynchs-films-say-about-sex-the-toast/.

Diaz, Eric. “TWIN PEAKS Revisited: ‘Fire Walk With Me’.” Nerdist, 30 Aug. 2015, nerdist.com/twin-peaks-revisited-fire-walk-with-me/.

Framke, Todd VanDerWerff and Caroline. “Twin Peaks, decoded for novices and obsessives alike.” Vox, Vox, 19 May 2017, www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/19/15660502/twin-peaks-explained-showtime-david-lynch.

Gore, Chris. “Is David Just a Little Weird? : The David Lynch Interview.” Film Threat, 4 Feb. 2017, www.filmthreat.com/interviews/is-david-just-a-little-weird-the-david-lynch-interview/.

Murphy, Oisín. “David Lynch: Misogyny and Sexual Violence.” Totally Dublin, 27 Mar. 2012, www.totallydublin.ie/film/film-features/david-lynch-misogyny-and-sexual-violence/.

Purdom, Clayton. “Explore what David Lynch’s films say about Americana.” News, News.avclub.com, 6 June 2017, www.news.avclub.com/explore-what-david-lynch-s-films-say-about-americana-1798262687.

Schrodt, Paul. “The one moment from ‘Twin Peaks’ you need to know before the new season.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 21 May 2017, www.businessinsider.com/twin-peaks-red-room-episode-recap-2017-5.

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