So, What’s the Deal with David Lynch, Anyway?
I originally published this on my blogspot (also sentimentalsurrealist because I have no imagination) account, and decided to move it over here, because I feel it’s one of my better essays.
Journey to the Center (if there even is one) of the Ironic Aspects of Blue Velvet
It seems almost stupidly obvious to say that David Lynch is a hard guy to pin down, but the thing that interests me about him is how hard it is to tell when he’s being serious and when he’s just fucking around, when all of his much-discussed strange goings-on are part of his broader point (if indeed he has a broader point – see below) and when they’re just in there because Lynch has a strange sense of humor. A fine example of this is his 1986 Blue Velvet, which you might remember for Dennis Hopper’s strange and completely uninhibited performance. I’ve talked to a lot of Lynch fans on the matter, and we all agree that Hopper is really, really funny in that film. “Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!” is the line that seems to provoke the loudest laughs, but if your sense of humor is so inclined, there are plenty of others where that one comes from. Now, Hopper was set up to be the disturbing, deranged villain of the film, so it might seem that Lynch failed somewhere along the line if we’re laughing at this guy.
But a phrase like “unintentionally hilarious” just doesn’t seem to sit right with a film like Blue Velvet. After all, the thing that makes most films unintentionally hilarious is discrepancy: while the audience is clearly and indisputably pointed towards seeing an event as scary, badass, romantic, heartwarming, or whatever else the director might have been gunning for, it is delivered in such a way that the person viewing the film can’t help but laugh at it. I don’t really see that gap between intention and execution in Dennis Hopper’s performance. In fact, it’s pretty rare that David Lynch comes out and gives you a clear sense of how you’re supposed to feel about his characters or the events of his films at all. We have our reactions to them based on their traits, but much of the time, the traits don’t seem to have been placed there to discern specific reactions. That’s why it’s usually hard to place just where the antagonist, or for that matter the protagonist, lies in a Lynch film: Lynch usually doesn’t write clear-cut antagonists or protagonists (the Elephant Man is a notable exception). It doesn’t help, of course, that a lot of the time his apparent protagonists actually wind up antagonizing themselves, one way or another.
Anyway, Frank Booth is one of the very few obvious “bad guys” you’ll ever find in a David Lynch movie (although Jeffrey Beaumont is, as anyone who’s seen that movie can attest to, a long way from an obvious “good guy”), but even with that in mind, it’s still hard to tell just what we as the audience are meant to make of him. Much has been made of his depraved, psychotic tendencies, which may make one think of Klaus Kinski, but there’s also definitely a moustache-twirling aspect to his villainy, and the fact that he’s able to ease from one mode into the other makes me almost certain it was intentional on Lynch’s part. In fact, just when it looks like Lynch and Hopper want us to think that Frank’s one way, Frank flips to the other: while his intro definitely sets him on the “depraved and dangerous” side of things, he then gets to ranting about Pabst Blue Ribbon and asking us to drink to his fuck, and it looks like it’s safe to just laugh him off as an over-the-top villain parody after all. But then, he looks both Jeffrey and the camera straight in the eye and snarls “you’re like me,” and what the hell do we make of that?
That’s just one of the many moments where it becomes easy to see why some people would see Blue Velvet as an elaborate joke. Other potential giveaways are the fact that Sandy, who I’ve concluded is meant to symbolize all sweetness and light and good in the world, hardly factors into the film’s plot; the ending, which switches the film to a more conventional action/thriller movie and features so many deus ex machinas (deux ex machina, perhaps?) I have to wonder if Lynch has just been pulling our legs the whole time, and perhaps most famously, the oversaturated, vaguely sinister images of suburbia that bookend the film. If my parody assumption is correct, that would certainly explain the first and third points: after all, how better to get us questioning our suburban ideals than by either pushing them to the side entirely or distorting them? The second piece of evidence is a little harder to explain, but it’s entirely possible that Lynch made this scene (as well as the suburban ones) deliberately unbelievable to get us thinking that maybe the entire scene, or to a degree the entire movie, is a fantasy of Jeffrey’s, that the poor kid’s grown so bored with suburban existence that he’s dreamed up some degree or other (maybe even all of it) of the Frank/Dorothy scenario.
That would certainly explain the fact that we’re offered no real reasoning as to what Frank’s doing around this part of town: he and his buddies Ben, Gordon, Paul, and whoever else came along for the ride just sort of drop out of the sky, perform vaguely unsavory actions connected somehow to the drug business of whatever major metropolitan area Lumberton is meant to be a part of, and return to wherever they came from (go to jail, perhaps?) after Jeffrey guns Frank down at the film’s climax. No threat of revenge or anything like that, just poof, they’re gone, “Mysteries of Love” plays and everyone’s happy and absolutely everything’s okay (except, of course, for the fact that Dorothy can still see blue velvet through her tears… man, what a fucked-up ending)? I hope you can’t blame me for thinking that something is afoot.
Look Up “Auteur” in the Dictionary and You See that Funky Haircut of His
Now, if I were to run my Blue Velvet theories by a couple of my friends, they’d probably have one perfectly sensible objection to it: that I wrote this whole essay assuming David Lynch actually made films with his audience’s expectations in mind. I’m the kind of guy who is opposed to the idea of taking something I see in a film (read in a book, hear in a song, what have you) I find confusing at face value – I always want to pick these weird moments apart and figure out what aim they might be serving. This sort of mindset got me through college just fine, but I’m not sure it’s the sort of thing you can apply to Lynch, because his approach to film is so insular (borderline autistic, in fact), I’m not sure the audience factors into what he does at all. That’s the tricky part about Lynch: I think it’s safe to say he does a good chunk of what he does simply because it seems interesting to him. He doesn’t feel the need to explain or justify why he’s interested in it to himself, and if he doesn’t feel the need to explain himself to himself, he certainly doesn’t feel the need to explain himself to his viewers.
More than anything, this is probably why a lot of people really hate Lynch: since it’s difficult to figure out where he stands, he scares the ever-loving shit out of people. A great deal of things that are either morally reprehensible, strange, or both happen over the course of your average David Lynch movie. The moral reprehensibility of many characters’ actions is off-putting to many people because it’s unclear whether Lynch is endorsing or condemning them: I often hear people give up on Blue Velvet sometime around the scene where Jeffrey watches Dorothy undressed, only to find himself raped at knifepoint, and it’s usually on account of Lynch’s detached approach to filming the scene. He takes a similar approach when filming the brutal beating Sailor Ripley dishes out to the guy who looks like Richard Pryor but apparently isn’t which kicks off Wild at Heart, the ways Betty manipulates the amnesiac Rita throughout Mulholland Dr., and Eraserhead’s Henry’s neglect and arguable murder of the freakish child his wife Mary gave birth to. Little to no judgment is passed on these characters as they commit these monstrous acts: Lynch simply presents us with their motivations (Ripley’s survival instinct, Betty’s desire to live “just like in the movies,” Henry’s paralyzing fears of fatherhood, the industrialized world, and suburbia) and shows us their actions.
To Lynch, a protagonist is someone who wants something, and the antagonist is a force blocking the protagonist. The protagonist is not obligated to be moral, and the antagonist is not obligated to be immoral. They simply are. Lynch’s films by and large exist outside of conventional morality, or for that matter morality at all: he seems more interested in getting an interesting story across than bothering with that sort of baggage. That’s something I’m okay with, since a) his stories, his visual approach, and the sheer weirdness of it all are infinitely compelling and b) I find casting moral judgments on art to be a frustrating remnant of the Victorian days, but since a) is a subjective matter and b) is a remnant people are quite attached to (my dad refuses to experience a story without a sympathetic character, regardless of any objective qualities; he views this as “time management,” but how well are you really managing your time when you’re watching Home and Garden TV?), a lot of folks end up hating David Lynch.
The second obstacle people often find to enjoying David Lynch is simply how goddamn confusing they find his movies. Well, “confusing” is how the sensible sorts who dislike David Lynch, the ones I’m more inclined to sympathize with, like to put it. No doubt, the guy specializes in mindfucks. I still haven’t the faintest idea of what the hell was up with Lost Highway, and while I formed a solid interpretation of Mulholland Dr. the first time I saw it, subsequent viewings revealed layers that I hadn’t even began to take into account. I, par un, like to be able to puzzle over films long after I see them, which is how I ended up with the above interpretation of Blue Velvet’s ending that just might be a Borges-worthy labyrinth. Others don’t, and that’s fine.
The people who frankly have it wrong are the ones who take “confusing” one step further and insist that David Lynch is pretentious. This just plain isn’t true. To be pretentious, the artist would have to have their audience in mind. They’d have to go in with the idea that they were going to blow anyone who experienced their art away by presenting them with all the trappings of an intellectual tour de force… except for, you know, the intellectual content itself. David Lynch isn’t trying to blow his viewer’s minds, for the simple reason that David Lynch isn’t making his movies for anyone but himself. The prospective Lynch fan has to accept that what they might want out of a film is not even vaguely part of the equation going in. If you expect objects, characters, or events that would elsewhere be interpreted as symbolic – Eraserhead’s Lady in the Radiator, Mulholland Dr.’s blue box, Inland Empire’s rabbits – you might be disappointed to find there are only clues to decipher their meaning when Lynch wants there to be clues to decipher their meaning.
This means if he wants to make Eraserhead an allegory about a man who doesn’t want a job in the factory, house in the suburbs, and bouncing baby freshly dissected E.T. even though he’s been raised to believe that this is the pinnacle of existence, he’ll do that. If he wants to have Bill Pullman honk away at his saxophone and bone and kill Patricia Arquette and get followed around by Satan and randomly transform into Balthasar Getty while a mob boss offers people pornos (“you know, give you a bon-ah?”) and Marilyn Manson and Richard Pryor hang out and call this whole mess Lost Highway, then he’ll do that. And if he wants to make a linear story of a man driving his tractor across several states to see his estranged brother before the latter dies (sans any and all sinister undertones, and with gorgeous cinematography), then by golly, there you have the Straight Story.
The reason why you can poke around a David Lynch film and find a lot that makes perfect sense under a certain light and a lot more that just doesn’t seem to have any reason for it is because Lynch doesn’t feel his films always have to make perfect sense. Not if he thinks there are enough neat ideas in there to keep things moving along. He’s not trying to beat you at some sort of intellectual game. He’s just doing what he thinks is cool, and putting it out there for everyone else to take or leave. You’re going along for a ride, and Lynch is driving the whole way, but you can get off whenever you like. So it strikes me as a little inaccurate to use a phrase like “the hollow symbolism of Mulholland Dr.,” because there’s a pretty good chance there’s no symbolism there at all. And hey, I’m not saying you have to like this about the guy’s movies, although it makes me quite happy when I meet another Lynch fan. All I’m saying is that you accept it as a fact of Lynch’s films before you toss about terms like “pretentious.” Remember, you can only be pretentious if you’re trying to impress someone. Lynch isn’t.
So, is he any good, this Lynch guy?
It’s hard to say. Do I like David Lynch’s films? I wouldn’t be writing this otherwise. In fact, I think they’re mostly terrific: Mulholland Dr. is up there among my very favorite films, and I can only think of one or two TV shows (Breaking Bad and maybe Firefly) that I love as much as Twin Peaks. But is David Lynch a good filmmaker? I mean the way someone like Coppolla (from the Godfather up to Apocalypse Now) or Kurosawa is good, someone whose movies have fantastic acting, dialog, mis-en-scene, soundtrack, that sort of thing? Now, that’s a tough call. I’ve seen the argument made that the acting in Lynch’s movies is bad (Naomi Watts’ performance Betty in Mulholland Dr. is a particular target of this – except, as people are inclined to note, when her character is acting in an audition for a film-within-the-film), that all of the strange goings-on add up to nothing whatsoever (see above, though, because I didn’t write that whole spiel for nothing), that the dialog is stilted, that his characters are unbelievable, that the soundtracks… well, actually, people tend to like the soundtracks, or at least the Angelo Badalamenti (he scored every Lynch film from Blue Velvet to Mulholland Dr., as well as crafting the beloved Twin Peaks soundtrack, which incidentally is some truly righteous stuff).
This answer at once seems like a cop-out and almost as obvious as saying that David Lynch is a hard guy to pin down, but I’ll give it a go anyway: you really can’t judge David Lynch by the typical “good filmmaker” standards, because well, he’s not aiming to be a typically “good filmmaker” by any stretch of the imagination. And it’s not like he’s self-consciously rejecting the idea of being a “good filmmaker,” either: he just doesn’t give a shit. Guys who make albums called Crazy Clown Time (see also: Crispin Glover’s indescribable “Clowny Clown Clown”) don’t really have a lot of shits to give. Besides, if you apply Lynch-logic to the seemingly incongruous elements of his films, they end up making a lot more sense. The reason why his actors give such peculiar performances is because his characters are pretty fucked-up. His dialog? Probably how Lynch himself hears people talk. Let us not for a moment forget that the kind of guy who makes films like Eraserhead for a living cannot possibly see things the way you and I do. And if his characters seem unrealistic in our universe, well, it’s because they’re perfect fits for Lynch’s, and again, his is not like ours.
As for the peculiar mis-en-scene, he sure does have a set of oddly specific shots that he loves returning to over and over again. Extreme close-ups on people’s mouths, driving shots which emphasize the road at the cost of the car, conversations over fires at night, shots of people dancing in the background while important exchanges take place, awkward facial expressions, the works. And I’ve got jack-all idea of how to justify any of these, except to keep saying what I’ve been saying: if you’re asking David Lynch to conform to your expectations of what makes a classically good movie, you probably shouldn’t be watching David Lynch movies.
No, in other words. He’s not a conventionally good filmmaker. But that’s only because he’s not a conventional filmmaker at all.
Except when he is. I think this is the reason why Twin Peaks’ first season was such an overwhelming success, and why he’ll occasionally score huge hits like the Elephant Man: he’s very much capable of translating his peculiar vision into something accessible without it feeling “safe.” Even if Twin Peaks isn’t to your taste, I think we can agree that it’s terrifically put together: the cinematography is gorgeous, particularly in the opening shots, and it’s amazing how that little town of his just springs right to life. That’s even before we take Kyle McLachlan into consideration. Same with Elephant Man – that costume of John Hurt’s was really something, the finale gets Merrick’s confusion, frustration, and isolation across perfectly, and I’m willing to go as far as saying I like Anthony Hopkins more in that film than I do in Silence of the Lambs. And of course, they both feel like the sort of things that could only come from Lynch – Twin Peaks is just as surreal as anything else he’s ever done, while Lynch is still working with the grotesque in Elephant Man, albeit in a more indisputably sympathetic way than usual. If you were wondering, that’s also how Elephant Man manages to still be a great film even though it seems more designed to please an audience than the rest of his output: Lynch still has plenty of personality besides that, after all. And it’s not like Lynch cares about box office success all that much – plenty of his films (Lost Highway, the Straight Story, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me) failed to make back their budget, as they tend to only see limited release. Not like it matters to Lynch, of course. As long as he gets to keep on making those movies, however many people show up to them is fine by him.
So, winding back to the original point…
Just how seriously am I meant to take Blue Velvet? In a roundabout way, I think I sort of answered that a while back, but let’s sum it all up here: David Lynch didn’t really set out for us to take Blue Velvet as a serious or a parody film. Instead, he wanted it to be a movie about a suburban guy who has some seriously kinky sex, runs into some seriously bad dudes who appear out of and disappear back into magical clouds of Bad Dude Dust, and lives happily ever after in Oversaturated Suburbia Universe, married to the Goddess of Sweetness and Light, while the woman he had seriously kinky sex with connects with her children but still sees blue velvet through her tears. If you’re gonna walk up to it and say “hey you, make perfect narrative sense,” it’ll ignore you, and it’s one of Lynch’s more cohesive films. But if you buy the ticket and take the ride (no sympathy for the viewer, remember that), you’ll find Blue Velvet is a compelling, unsettling, unique film. You might even like it.