By MK Raghavendra
David Lynch is a difficult film-maker to write about if one wants to make any kind of rational sense of his work. It is not too difficult reviewing his films since reviewing is usually appreciation that does not commit itself to decipherment, but I don’t believe there has been much writing from film scholars which tells you what his films might mean to the spectators for whom they are meant. An instance of the deepest scholarship on Lynch would be that of Slavoj Zizek, who uses Lacan to interpret Lost Highway (1997). The major difficulty for the cinephile in Zizek’s approach lies in the truths of art not being those of science (assuming that psychoanalysis is ‘science’). The truths of art depend on the layperson’s recognition of something which has been outside his/her grasp but within the range of his/her experience, while the truths of science rely on investigation by experts, like clinical investigations in the case of psychoanalysis. More importantly, analysis of films by academics relies exclusively on what the critic has expertise in while the meaning of cinema cannot be similarly restricted – since films draw on the entirety of human life. Scientists, it can be argued, do not deal with the level of experience that artists deal with, which is why ‘scientific’ explanations for art benefit scientists more than they benefit students of art. It would therefore be more useful to Lynch’s admirers to have his work explained in terms of what they already know or might recognize about the milieu his films are set in.
Given the inaccessibility of his best work Lynch has not been prolific but there is little doubt that his first major work was Blue Velvet (1986), although Mulholland Dr. (2001) is higher rated on IMDB. Blue Velvet seems more straightforward than the latter film but it is more difficult to pigeonhole. Mulholland Dr. can be understood simply as a satire on Hollywood with surreal trimmings. Generally, apart from having something deep to convey, Lynch also has the capacity to hypnotize the spectator through his flow of images (and Badalamenti’s music) but the two capacities may not be always related. Mulholland Dr. contains segments (like the one in the Winkie’s diner and the ‘man with the horrible face’) in which he is mesmerizing the spectator through appropriate stimuli with little palpable intent, though on the other hand, his refusal to deliberately ‘intend’ is perhaps also his strongest quality.
David Lynch made Twin Peaks in 1990-91, a television series in which he directed only a couple of episodes and which other people later continued. This, like Blue Velvet, had the appearances of a thriller and which like that film, rather than fulfil expectations, simply led us into more and more bizarre territory. Unfortunately, the directors who continued the show after Lynch did not seem to have caught on to what Lynch wanted, and the series ultimately led to tepidity. Perhaps dissatisfied, Lynch subsequently made a prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), not particularly well-received but among his more provocative films. Twin Peaks re-emerged in a Season 3 in 2017, this time entirely directed by Lynch himself and concluded in a way that would prevent further continuations. This series, in my view, is among the greatest of cinematic achievements and what follows is an attempt to make some sense of it. Given Lynch’s propensities ‘making sense of it’ cannot evidently be in terms of plot and I will restrict myself to speculating upon the nature of the achievement.
Many epithets could have been attached to David Lynch’s work and I find it significant that it is ‘surreal’ that has stuck rather than, say ‘absurd’, ‘fantastic’ or ‘magical realist’. ‘Surrealism’, it may be noted, began as a political movement and Luis Bunuel, the greatest of surrealist filmmakers was also essentially political. To describe surrealism in cinema as practiced by Bunuel, it is close to satire except for the irrational element that serves to undermine what might be termed ‘bourgeois expectations’ – psychological reductionism and well-rounded, satisfying resolutions. A typical example of Bunuel’s approach can be found in Belle De Jour (1967) in which a happily married woman becomes a prostitute in her spare time, without any psychological explanation offered, and without the narrative working its way towards a tragic or melodramatic resolution. I described Mulholland Dr. as satirical and Blue Velvet is best understood as a brutal debunking of the reassuring mythology around the small-town community, furthered, for instance, by films like Jim Jarmusch’s charming Paterson (2016). Perhaps most importantly, it follows Bunuel’s dictum that surrealism must defeat obvious ‘sense’.
The 1990s Twin Peaks series (S1 and S2) was about the unexplained murder in the town Twin Peaks in Washington State, of Laura Palmer, homecoming queen, whose naked corpse is found, wrapped in plastic. FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is called in to investigate and it is discovered that Laura Palmer was into drugs and prostitution. Where this beginning should have taken the story into the expected route of clues, motives and connections, it goes instead into occult territory with Dale Cooper having strange dreams and visions that he uses to try to solve the mystery around Laura Palmer’s death. Among the entities introduced in the process are spaces like ‘the Black Lodge’ that is extra-dimensional, its entrance outside town, characters like ‘The Man from the Other Place’ and the ‘Giant’, cryptic clues like those uttered by the Giant in Cooper’s visions – e.g.: ‘The Owls are not what they Seem’. There are also two spirits MIKE and the evil BOB, who inhabit people in Twin Peaks. As it goes along, the murder loses importance and occult elements gain ground although BOB is nominally designated the killer. Dale Cooper is last seen trapped in the Black Lodge with his doppelgänger (inhabited by BOB) occupying his position in the world, though to the FBI, agent Dale Cooper has disappeared. Lynch himself plays Cooper’s immediate superior FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole, who is hard of hearing. The dead Laura Palmer is also last seen in the Black Lodge, as a spirit.
In the pre-title sequence of Season 3, a much older Dale Cooper is in the Black Lodge (signified by its red curtains). Among the others he sees here are the Man without an Arm as well as the Arm, which has metamorphosed into a talking heart, perched on a tree. Through the conversation between Cooper and the others it emerges that he can exit from here only if his doppelgänger returns. He also meets Laura Palmer twenty-five years older fulfilling the promise from the last season and repeated here by the young dead Laura. All this suggests that Season 3 will proceed by getting Dale Cooper back into the world. None of this apparently ‘means’ anything in itself but is only a thread to hang new events on. There needs to be continuity in the series and a connection with the past should be duly made; his journey back to being Special Agent Dale Cooper in corporeal form furnishes Season 3 with its ostensible raison d’être but it is the relationship between this and the new events that is most important.
The first two episodes of Twin Peaks Season 3 were part of a preview and they set the tone for what follows. To describe S3, it unfolds in a series of events taking place around Twin Peaks, in Buckhorn (South Dakota), New York, and Las Vegas. There are realistic bits dealing with people conducting themselves as people do though the way they are enacted gives them a comical edge that suggests social satire. The most striking happening in the first episode is perhaps the one set in New York in which a young man Sam is watching a glass box intently over a long period of time, capturing what is happening on film and storing the slides away carefully. The glass box is connected to a highly complicated electrical apparatus and the place is fiercely guarded. No one is normally allowed inside but Sam’s girlfriend Tracy comes in with coffee when the security guard is absent. Sam knows little about his ‘work’ except that this is an experiment funded by a billionaire; he has seen nothing so far but the man he replaced saw ‘something’ happening in the glass box although he does not know what.
The segment just described is riveting but hilarious at the same and the reason is that its effect is of parody. We are aware of SF films in which people watch for some phenomenon – usually celestial as in Contact (1997) – and Lynch is parodying it. To make it even funnier the opening in the glass box is from where Agent Dale Cooper enters the world! In another segment pertaining to Buckhorn a woman in an apartment block smells something foul from the neighbouring apartment of librarian Ruth Davenport and calls the police. When the police enter the apartment, they find Davenport’s severed head aligned on her bed with a nameless male body. When Davenport’s apartment is searched for prints those found everywhere belong to the local school Principal Bill Hastings, a classmate of the police officer in charge. This again feels like parody but of another genre – the police procedural.
It is difficult to explain the effects these segments have on us because they are so funny even while seeming to be in dead earnestness. My sense is that the solemnity with which they are enacted conceals the fact that they are essentially nonsensical – as all parody is making nonsense out of something intended as deeply serious. In other parts of Season 3 Lynch brings in issues like superheroes, nuclear explosions, the occult beliefs of native Indians and secret military experiments during the Cold War, not to mention the inner workings of the FBI, which serves as an undercurrent. The deaf Gordon Cole played by Lynch is himself a continual source of amusement as is his tendency to jump to occult explanations before comprehending what is happening. Still, Lynch is not simply lampooning generic films of various kinds in these segments but offering something else, evidently much deeper.
All film genres are based on mythologies in the public space and society functions with assistance from them. The mythologies help to fill gaps in public understanding and hence lend stability to any social structure. Motifs ranging from the civilizing influence of the early pioneers (embodied in the western) to monogamous heterosexuality (found in virtually every genre but especially in romances) are illustrations. The mythology around the alien landing is specifically that associated with a world superpower that does not see equals on its own planet and therefore looks outside – whether for company or stronger adversaries. Perhaps the belief in aliens helps citizens dispel the sense of loneliness at the top!
My proposition here is that the genre films, by ‘mythologizing’ social experience, obscure the fact that there is not enough understanding of a subject, make it seem that opaque matters like communications technology or secret military doings are within the grasp of the public and remediable – and they respond with mythical ‘feel good’ solutions to actual problems that defeat solutions. Iron Man, for instance, responds to the murky entanglement in Afghanistan by concocting an invention with the potential to help America overcome military adversities. The swamp creature turned into a ‘military asset’ in The Shape of Water could well be a prisoner from Guantanamo Bay from whom something is still to be extracted. Both Afghanistan and Guantanamo bay involve political decisions that the public are helpless about despite the US being a democracy.
What Lynch appears to be doing in Twin Peaks Season 3 is to subvert each genre he toys with, by leaving things deliberately mysterious – like how Bill Hastings’ fingerprints got all over Ruth Davenport’s apartment or what the experiment with the glass box and watched over by Sam is – and then offering intentionally ludicrous ‘occult’ explanations that ultimately satirize the public’s claim to full knowledge of its milieu and its smug sense that all problems have feasible remedies. A highly advanced technological society like the US controlled by a plutocracy depends on the public’s ignorance of what is going on since knowledge might become politically uncomfortable. Lynch, by mocking the existence of such knowledge and matching remedies, is providing a critique of his own society’s mythical presumptions.
Lynch’s films being a medley of different genres (like Tarantino’s) has led to the epithet ‘postmodern’ being used in connection with his work, but there is a difference that rests in Lynch’s work (unlike Tarantino’s) often being highly political. Twin Peaks S3 parodies genre rather pastiches them. Pastiche is ‘blank parody’ or parody that has lost its humour and people do not usually laugh when Tarantino pastiches ‘time management’ education in a segment from Pulp Fiction (‘The Bonnie situation’). Twin Peaks S3 is funny precisely because he parodies rather than pastiches genres. Lynch’s parody of genres, I propose, ultimately leads to social satire since it subverts the mythologies on the basis of which society subsists. Satire is normally quite obvious but Lynch’s approach makes it very elusive.
A last aspect of Twin Peaks S3 that needs commenting upon is Lynch’s use of popular music as performance. The second episode in the series concludes with ‘Chromatics’ performing ‘Shadow’ in a Twin Peaks bar. The performances thus rendered in the series are all conducted in the same ‘Bang Bang Bar’, at the conclusion of episodes, with the characters watching, and the first thing that one notices is how restful they all are. One recollects Dorothy Vallens singing ‘Blue Velvet’ in Lynch’s film and the unspeakable Frank Booth listening with tears streaming down his face and the people could be responding with similar emotions here. Twin Peaks S3 is not meant for passive viewing; we have to ‘cope’ with it. If ‘Shadow’ helps us cope, it is in the company of the characters themselves who see no end to the incomprehensible happenings in their lives. This leads us to another question – whether popular musical performance in an advanced technological society like the US is, likewise, not helping the public cope with matters also complex and incomprehensible, perhaps more so than David Lynch can ever make them.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and critic. He received the National Award for Best Film Critic in 1997. He has authored three volumes of academic film criticism – Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema (Oxford, 2008), Bipolar Identity: Region, Nation and the Kannada Language Film (Oxford, 2011) and The Politics of Hindi Cinema in the New Millennium: Bollywood and the Anglophone Indian Nation (Oxford, 2014). He has also written two books on cinema for the general reader 50 Indian Film Classics (Collins, 2009) and Director’s Cut: 50 Film-makers of the Modern Era (Collins, 2013). His essays on Indian cinema find a place in Indian and international anthologies. His book The Oxford Short Introduction to Bollywood was published in 2016.
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