by Terence Blake
Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL is a brilliant film, thoughtful and moving, visually powerful and emotionally rewarding. I cannot recommend this film too highly.
However, just as his BLADE RUNNER 2049 differentiates itself from the original BLADE RUNNER by providing an explicitation of certain of its elements and themes, and even of its enigmas, Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL can be seen to modify Ted Chiang’s original novella STORY OF YOUR LIFE in order to render it more comprehensible.
The novella deals with an alien race with a different conception of time, one that is based on apprehending causality as a synchronic array rather than as a diachronic sequence. The film tries to concretise this alien conception in terms of an alien perception of time, one that involves precognition. It is never stated in the novella that actual foreknowledge is obtained from learning the Heptapod language. The synchronic vision of our life may be “just” a consequence of retroactive apperception of meaning. Saying yes to the event involves affirmation of its consequences, both good and bad.
This shift from synchronic conception to precognitive perception is useful to show how the alien language rewires the human brain and its vision of the world but the drawback is that it reintroduces linear causality in form of the use of inside information about the future to bring about a desired outcome.
Whereas in the novella we never know why the aliens came, it seems to be just part of their existential fatality, in the film they come to gift us with their language and with it their precognition, because they have foreknowledge of a future time when they will need our help. This reintroduces a sort of egoism, and reduces the exchange to our linear model, making it a sort of insider dealing.
In the novella there is an exchange between humans and aliens, but the Heptapods seem to have no idea of equivalence: each side gifts the other without a requirement of equal value. The only seemingly new “gift” of scientific knowledge, aside from their language (whose value seems more philosophical than practical) turns out to be a not yet widely publicised recent discovery.
Villeneuve adds the “insider futures trading” aspect as a pragmatic repetition of the more epistemological linguistic exchange. This pedagogical explicitation does not necessarily betray the original story, but can be considered to fill in a gap, or to spell out an implicit motive. The aliens bring us something we needed, a linguistic vehicle for the revelation and assimilation of the Stoical, and Nietzschean, Eternal Recurrence. In return, they may need our linearity so that their own seemingly passive habitus of willing the event may be redoubled into active willing.
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The next few scenes catalog melancholy aspects of that life as Sandrine and Pierre live it. In the first, Sandrine again walls herself off from their quarreling with a pair of stereo earphones, listening to a lugubrious performance about loneliness at night. Pierre tries to break through her isolation with vicious names (whore, bitch) and complaints about their marriage.
In the second, Pierre offers suppositories to Sandrine, who is suffering from two weeks of constipation. She asserts her independence: "It's my kitchen, they're my children, it's my ass." But she admits that "too much" has accumulated, and that the situation is more "complicated" than Pierre's solution implies. He goes off to participate in a strike at his workplace, leaving Sandrine to droop over her coffee and tell Nicholas about her physical problem.
The third scene in this sequence presents two views of Sandrine at home. On one screen she continues to mope in the kitchen. On the other she returns from a shopping trip "all charged up," flops onto her bed, and masturbates, sending Pierre away when he shows some interest in joining her. "When we don't get on with a man we can always leave him," she soliloquizes. "But what do we do when it's a state, a whole social system that violates us?"
The next scene is more positive in tone, yet also more transgressive in its view of sexuality as a family affair. Naked on their bed, Sandrine and Pierre call the children for a sex-education session. Using their own bodies for the demonstration, they describe their genitals as lips (the vagina) and a mouth (the tip of the penis) that embrace during lovemaking. "It's like we're kissing. It's like we're talking," Sandrine explains. "It's love that teaches us how to talk," she adds. "And afterward when it's finished," Pierre continues, "death lays a finger on our lips and silences us. Off to school now, kids! Goodbye!" The idea of orgasm as petite mort or "little death" smacks of an old-school romanticism out of keeping with Numero deux as a whole. Still, it suits the more conventional aspects of the household's fundamentally bourgeois outlook; and a satirical undertone may be intended.
As an essay on family life, among other things, Numero deux has taken care to show mother, father, daughter, and son in a variety of situations and interactions. Largely missing so far has been the older generation, which now arrives with a near-ferocious energy that opens a whole new dimension within the film.
The grandmother peels vegetables, makes a bed, and scrubs a floor while her off-screen voice speaks on the sound track. Her activities are stereotypical "woman's work," but the words accompanying them - from The Female Eunuch, feminist Germaine Greer's pioneering 1971 study are hardly the innocuous pablum with which a nice old lady might pass her time in a traditional picture of middle-class life. Rather, they continue the movie's focus on abjection - on matters of the body, on female oppression, on oscillation between "high" and "low" states of physical and mental life.
"Women do not realize how much men hate them," the voice-over says. "She is punished as an object of hatred, fear, and disgust because of her magical orifices: the mouth and cunt." The text then indicts masculine domination and suggests that women should "deliver" men from sole responsibility for sexual power. "Women must have rights to their sexual organs," it continues, implying that female subordination results from suppression of bodily awareness and control. "Most women only become aware of their ovaries and womb when something goes wrong," the text goes on. "Which almost always happens."
This is followed by a word-and-image combination that might seem disconnected if not for the film's unifying theme of abjection, centered on "low" social states (the infantile, the feminine) and separation anxieties. On the screen, the grandmother cleans a floor; on the sound track, her voice-over turns to the subject of children, noting their desire to "become independent of adults." What is desirable for children is elusive for women, however, since they face ongoing burdens of social and sexual subordination. Given the difficulties of both celibacy and conjugal life, the narration goes on, "women must learn to view happiness as a victory. The greatest service a woman can provide to the community is to be happy."
This is followed by a key statement that crystallizes much of the film's radical philosophy: "The depth of rebellion and irresponsibility she must achieve to become happy is the only indication of the social metamorphosis that must be effected if there is to be sense in being a woman."
The voice-over repeats what may be the most important words in this statement: the depth of rebellion and irresponsibility. At the same moment, the scene's images of domestic drudgery are replaced by the old woman removing her robe and standing naked before a bathroom mirror and the camera.
This gesture confounds commercial-film notions of visual pleasure as exemplified by conventionally "beautiful" bodies. It also gives Numero deux a fresh infusion of vitality, welling from the unembarassed selfexposure of a woman whose nudity would be rigidly excluded from any mass-audience commodity that traded in traditional glamour or eroticism. While she washes herself, her off-screen voice proceeds with a diatribe from Greer that takes on a scathingly sarcastic tone, begining as a Utopian celebration of woman-as-Venus-figure ("The sun only shines to gild her skin and hair. . . . She is the crowning glory of creation") but passing to a catalog of death and depredation (pillaging of the sea, slaughtering of fur-bearing animals) committed in the name of fetishized beauty.
Might one argue that Numero deux itself fetishizes woman? Godard's use of female nudity in this and other films - to be discussed further in the next chapter - has led to charges of insensitivity, exploitation, and commodification not unlike the charges he levels at the prostitution business and other forms of sexual trafficking. If the unglamorized female images in Numero deux are simply the other side of this sexist coin, substituting gender-political novelty for old-fashioned titillation, they might be called equally problematic. Evidence can be found for either argument, here and elsewhere in Godard's work. However, it seems to me that the balance is tilted toward the progressive end in Numero deux by the film's innovative focus on cultural abjection, which is examined from a commendably wide range of perspectives, most of them centered firmly and sympathetically on challenges faced by women.
As the film proceeds, it adds to this interest a growing concern with social ramifications of the aging process. By paying sustained attention to young Vanessa and grown-up Sandrine, it examines the "low" status of both the still-developing child and the dominated wife. The grandmother's presence brings in the crucial subject of old age - to which Bakhtin accorded great importance in his carnival theory, regarding the last stage of life as a natural borderline state that should be greeted with humor, good will, and cheerful impropriety. The old characters of Numero deux seem somewhat in tune with such an attitude (the impropriety part, if not the humor or cheerfulness part) as they shed their clothing, bare their bodies and their thoughts, and help the movie accomplish its inversions of narrative-film convention.
Despite their feistiness in some respects, however, their lives are full of frustrations and sadnesses bred by their suffocating society. This becomes mournfully clear as the grandfather reminisces about his years at a warequipment plant. Death punched in every night at 8 P.M., he recalls. The plant was isolated from its community, he continues, by flowers that made it virtually invisible. (This revives a familiar motif; plants hiding a plant - is it a landscape or a factory?) A strike gave him and his colleagues time to reflect on their work as manufacturers of deadly devices that would inevitably hurt "women and children" as well as combatants. "I don't mind earning my living by death," he candidly admits, "but I won't die in order to live." So he found a new job, in the concession stand of a Gaumont movie theater - an amusing but not-quite-satisfactory outcome for this moral dilemma, as Godard and Mieville hint by throwing in an intertitle that says MERCHANDISE.
Grandpa is a central presence in three more household scenes, all involving the media saturation of daily life. He quarrels with Nicholas over whether to watch a soccer game or a Russian movie on television. He listens to a doleful, somewhat surrealistic Leo Ferre pop song about the modern world, briefly sharing his headphones with Vanessa and Sandrine, and commenting that he sees the world as one sees "the unbelievable," that is, what cannot be seen. Finally, he joins the family to watch a tangled TV show about a secret agent, a financier's daughter, skullduggery in Mexico and Dachau, and international communism.
He then becomes the film's main attraction again, sitting naked in a chair and recounting a misadventure he had in Singapore during his days as a communist organizer. "It was stupid," he comments, "but this is history, not the movies." Further insulting cinema, he says the movies are time-consuming in contrast with words, which can relate forty years of life in two minutes. Taking hold of his penis, he decides to give up moviegoing and look at his genitals instead. "This way to the exit, ladies and gentlemen," he sarcastically chants.
The films egues back to Pierre by way of a voice-over about the landscapeand-factory theme. The screen shows Sandrine's sleeping (dreaming) body appearing and disappearing over an outdoor shot. "In the end," Pierre's voice says, "there is not one factory and one landscape. There are two in one. There's a landscape that we cross like idiots, to punch in at home. And a factory, where we can never work while we sleep in the shade of the trees, because there aren't any."
By now we are well-schooled in Godard's criticism of the cultural divide between working life and private life, but he renews its freshness with another revealing household scene. Nicholas asks Pierre why he used the word "impossible" during an argument. Pierre describes the quarrel, saying Sandrine complained that he helped too little with the wash, whereupon he responded that it's impossible for a man to consider his "home" a workplace or "factory," as a housewife naturally would. To ask if her underwear is dirty, moreover, would be as embarassing as asking if her body were soiled.
Pierre's musing continues in the next scene, counterpointed by nonsensical static on two video screens. Nicholas brought home some pornography, he recalls. The boy quickly forgot about it, but Pierre himself fell to thinking about Sandrine's vagina and his irrational anger at the idea of other men occupying it. In their own lovemaking, he says, he sometimes feels their genders are reversed, especially when he asks her to touch his anus. This returns abjection to the foreground, evoking "low" or "dirty" behavior and using anal sexuality to blur divisions between male and female roles.
Indeterminacy also dominates the visual style, as we see Sandrine's face superimposed first over Pierre's body and then a prosaic shot of the couple doing domestic work. Sandrine has taken a shop-assistant job to get out of the house, we learn; but she has already decided to quit, realizing that more extreme measures are needed to make a woman's life fulfilling. "I know how to manufacture tenderness," she says of her role as a culturally conditioned woman. "I know how to cook. I know how to do Nicholas's homework. I know how to suck a cock." In the end, she concludes, there is too much in her life - and yet not nearly enough.
Sandrine probes this condition more deeply in a voice-over linked to images from earlier scenes: Grandma scrubbing a floor, herself touching Pierre's penis with her lips. In other words, two kinds of labor.
"I felt like I was producing," she says, "but they'd already distributed my products. I was producing at a loss. And who profited from this? Not him. Someone behind him. Something between us. Work." Once again the film sees behind and between as incredibly complicated places, capable of providing great pleasure and taking shameless advantage of anyone not fully aware of socioeconomic pressure points outside and inside the individual body. We have seen that between is the natural habitat of abjection, a state thriving on ambiguity and ambivalence. The mention of behind recalls Sandrine's opening speech (when she replaces "left" and "right" with "before" and "behind") and Pierre's sexual aggression.
Also important is Sandrine's statement that the "products" of her household work have been distributed in advance, at no profit to herself or anyone she cares about. Godard finds this a great tragedy, feeling that all production should be a joyful process linking creativity and dissemination; and he bitterly resents the frustrations that result when this is blocked or aborted. In a text written fourteen years after Numero deux, he contrasts the authenticity of true cinema - "freedom speaking" - with the commercialized deadness of mass-market television, which "doesn't create any goods" but rather "distributes them without their ever having been created."7 This describes the flip side of Sandrine's predicament, as she produces real benefits that society simultaneously exploits and undervalues, meanwhile draining away their possible rewards before she ever has a chance to enjoy them.
The text just quoted also supplies another reason why Godard and Mieville use video - a form including TV, although not limited to it - in Numero deux, which takes blockage of private and public fulfillment as a primary subject. "To program is the only verb of television," Godard writes in this 1989 statement. "That implies suffering rather than release."8 This comment about the public world (television) applies ruefully well to Sandrine's private world. In the next scene, she tells Nicholas of a biological blockage ("I haven't shit for two weeks") that mirrors the social blockages of her domestic life. Her constipation is not a simplistic symbol for psychosomatic discontent, moreover. In another transgressive maneuver, Godard and Mieville stress the productivity of defecation by likening it to childbirth, also a natural human activity. "Eight years ago, in a sense, I shit between my thighs," Sandrine muses. That was a normal event, but she can no longer function so harmoniously. "Now everything is blocked," she laments.
My tissue is cracking. I feel like everything I say is shit. . .. Everything that should happen in my ass happens somewhere else. In my ass nothing is happening. It's me who does the cooking. It goes in and it goes down, but nothing comes out. I'm becoming both a giver and taker of shit. I wonder if there are many women in France like this?
And with this large, difficult question Numero deux starts moving quickly toward its end - not by achieving some conventional sort of closure, but by falling apart in a deliberate and purposeful way that echoes its step-by-step coalescence some eighty minutes earlier.
Godard sits in his studio, slumped over a recording console. "Suddenly it's over," Sandrine says, continuing her last voice-over. "Something happens. My role is finished. What are we playing at? He interprets me - but he shouldn't, because it's me who understands." What she understands is the eternal scam whereby men order the times and places for everything from work and dishwashing to sex and vacation - and, too often, filmmaking.
To whom, however, are we listening here? Is it Sandrine the movie character speaking of her problems with Pierre, or Sandrine the movie actress (i.e., Sandrine Battistella, who plays the part) departing from her fictional role to address the deficiencies of our age? And where does Godard figure in the situation, especially now that he has returned visibly to the film?
Answers begin to emerge as Sandrine notes how difficult it would be for a man to occupy or understand her place. Godard raises his head from the console, watching the video screen that now carries her image. He is one who "tells the news about others," in Sandrine's sarcastic phrase. "That's special work," she continues, "especially if you get paid for it. But letting others tell you news about yourself is a crime. Especially if we don't get paid for it."
Women conspire in this crime against themselves, she continues. "We go to the movies. We buy a ticket, and in exchange we sell our roles as producers." Also guilty are women and men who purchase "news" as disinterested observers. "You turn on the TV and become an accomplice. Worse, you become the organizer of the crime. We look for news about ourselves where there's only news about others. We want others with us, but without danger. An animal would never do that. But we are men and women, we are superior," she says with withering irony.
Vanessa's face, visible over the edge of a bathtub, has now appeared on another monitor. Sandrine's voice muses on, offering a brief catalog of paired concepts that correspond to the Number i and Number 2 that have run as leitmotifs through the film: again and already, yesterday and today, child and parent, today and tomorrow, now and later.
"And me?" she concludes. "Finally in my place, Number 3.... Between my past and my future, between a girl and an old man. I invent the grammar, I find the words - and those 'shes' and 'hes' who have already invented music."
Godard is still at the control panel, but Sandrine is not without power of her own. As she mentions "words" and "music," her image disappears from the monitor (Vanessa has already vanished) and, as if she had willed it, a Ferre song replaces her monologue on the sound track, with lyrics conjuring up nostalgia for the night and the past.
The movie continues toward dissolution by recalling that while society attempts to order and discipline its members, its oppressive efforts face ultimate limitations. Pierre recites the rules for living in a rented home ("The lessee ... should meet all the orders of the city and the police, and fulfill his role as head of the family") to Vanessa - and she responds by asking whether he'll still be her daddy when he's dead.
The screen fills with a close-up of the sound-control panel. Sandrine and Pierre ask Vanessa two questions: "Do you know what a landscape is? Is Papa a factory or a landscape?" Godard's hand slides a switch on the panel and pop-song lyrics take over again:
These eyes look at you night and day,
Not just at numbers and hatred, as they say.
These forbidden things you're creeping toward . . .
Nicholas's voice returns: "I'm carefully studying my plan. I see that it can't be realized." Vanessa repeats the beginning of the film: "There was a factory and we put a landscape around it." And finally, Godard's gliding fingers fade in the song-poem that terminates Numero deux:
These eyes look at you night and day,
Not just at numbers and hatred, as they say.
These forbidden things you're creeping toward . . . which will be yours . . . when you close the eyes . . .
Of oppression. . .
Godard closes the cover of the sound console as the song reaches its last lines. His hands leave the frame. Lights go out, one by one, until the screen is dark. A blur of random noise continues for a few seconds, followed by a single orchestral chord. Its orderliness and finality assure us once again that this seemingly chaotic film has been firmly under the control of its makers from first moment to last.
Godard's appropriation of pop-culture material dates to the early stages of his career, but the song lyric that ends Numero deux is almost uncannily apt for its context, and the importance of its message is clear. Godard and Mieville have indeed been creeping toward "forbidden things" in this movie, which oscillates between politics and pornography via purposely transgressive devices - reenacting the primal scene, mixing childhood innocence with adult sex and power games, looking closely at anal sensuality and other manifestations of the abject. This fascination with the forbidden will continue in future Godard films; pungent examples include the father's incestuous fantasies in Sauve qui peut (la vie) and the anal sex in Passion, where this is not abusive but romantic. Never will it be elaborated as single-mindedly as in Numero deux, however.
In addition to their self-contained meanings, the words of the song join with the film's visual conclusion to create an elegant cinematic equation. The lyrics tell us that forbidden things will be ours when we close the eyes of oppression - and immediately the lights of the screen go dark, closing the eyes of the movie itself. The lesson is clear: image = oppression. This is an enduring Godardian theme, stated directly and economically.
The reference to oppression also takes us back to Godard's familiar feud with notions of "normal" and "decent" in our stifling society. The oppression evoked by Numero deux is identical to the conspiracies of "official" power and "authoritative" knowledge that Foucault warns about in his analyses of social self-regulation. An earlier philosopher calling for rejection of "civilized morality" was Herbert Marcuse, who also anticipated Godard's cry against alienated labor by noting that its limited pleasures have "nothing to do with primary instinctual gratification" or the satisfactions of a healthy erotic sensibility.
"To link performances on assembly lines, in offices and shops with instinctual needs is to glorify dehumanization as pleasure," Marcuse writes,9 in a critique that Sandrine and even Pierre would surely endorse. Marcuse calls for a new "reality principle" based on freedom rather than repression. "No longer used as a full-time instrument of labor," he predicts, "the body would be resexualized." Sexual energies would spread across all zones of body and personality, "genital supremacy" would decline, and the polymorphous eroticism of infancy would be joyously reborn. "The body in its entirety would become ... a thing to be enjoyed - an instrument of pleasure," blasting away the suffocating institutions that hold us in their grip, including the "monogamic and patriarchal family"10 that Numero deux so critically examines.
As dark and disturbing as this film frequently becomes, therefore, its conclusion can be seen as Utopian. Freed from the division of labor that bisects life into separate domains of work and domesticity, Sandrine would no longer suffer from blockages of mental creativity, bodily productivity, and sexual gratification; and Pierre would stop channeling his energies into exhausting work, alienating arguments, and alternating fits of sexual aggression and dysfunction. Their relationship with the children might be modeled on the convivial sex-education session rather than the morbid dynamics of the domestic rape scene. The older generation might exchange its drudgery (Grandma) and nostalgia (Grandpa) for a productive and companionable role in the household's daily life.
Might our culture actually see the changes that would enable such bright metamorphoses to occur? Only tentative responses to this riddle will emerge from subsequent films by Godard and Mieville, whose explorations of aesthetics and mysticism will search more for suggestive clues than definitive answers.
In the end, the filmmakers' response to the question may be most clearly visible in the very existence of the movie that raises it. "Art attracts us," wrote Godard as early as 1952, "only by what it reveals of our most secret self."11 His own secret self is never closer to the surface than in Numero deux, his most radical effort to close the eyes of oppression and glimpse whatever visions this passionate blindness may provide.
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
If this "charging and discharging" refers to the body's built-in biological functions, then this "hurt" may simply be the existential pain of what Freud called the "ordinary unhappiness" of life. One suspects Sandrine is less worried about this "natural" human discomfort, however, than about humanly caused sufferings brought by social, economic, and political abuses specific to the industrial and postindustrial eras - sufferings not limited to the "factory" or "power plant" aspects of capitalism, as conventional reformers would often have us believe, but wreaking more havoc as they spill into the domestic sphere with which Numero deux is largely concerned.
The porn movie is back on the upper-left monitor and brassy jazz has joined the sound-track cacophony as Sandrine continues, "We play music. But why play music? To see the unbelievable." The monitor with the little girl now fills much of the screen, displacing commercially jaded sex with a reminder of how promising childhood is before dehumanizing forces have a chance to sour it.
"What is the unbelievable?" Sandrine concludes. "The unbelievable is what we don't see." This is of course a resonant phrase for Godard and Mieville, who are dedicated to exposing the limitations of the visible and locating the invisible dimensions where power and influence often reside. Here as before, their goal is to refute two propositions: that seeing = believing (which allows film to deceive us) and that believing = seeing (which allows us to deceive ourselves). Numero deux wants to explore the unbelievable by probing the limits of "what we don't see," as Sandrine puts it. This focuses the film on two sorts of material: that which is socially forbidden - a child should not witness the sexuality of its parents, for instance - and that which is psychologically inaccessible, such as the repressed desires that surge through our subconscious minds. (Later films by Godard and Mieville will approach the "unbelievable" from another angle, using cinema to locate a spiritual dimension within the material realm.)
The child works away at her blackboard, meanwhile, writing a very unchildish slogan: "Before being born, I was dead." As noted, many elements of Numero deux evoke childhood: the girl and boy who speak at the beginning, the nursery-rhyme cadence of "once ..." and "twice upon a time," the composite image of adult sexuality and a young girl's face. The child's blackboard phrase now implies concern with a still earlier stage, speculating on the nonexistence that precedes birth. What both separates and joins the obscurity before birth and the self-awareness of life is, of course, the pivotal moment of conception. Numero deux follows Freud in recognizing the disavowed but unbreakable links among eros, the sexual drive; thanatos, the desire to reclaim the equanimity of nonexistence; and the lifelong urge - beginning in infancy - to understand and resolve the tensions generated by these powerful forces.
More than one contemporary thinker has investigated the territory that Godard and Mieville delve into here, and a glance at some of their ideas will illuminate Numero deux and its place in an important cultural tradition. I recognize that the movie is dense and strange enough in itself, without bringing in a host of cultural references to complicate it further; but Godard and Mieville are ardently intellectual artists, and to trek through a work like this without at least touching on its philosophical "backstory" would be antithetical to their spirit. Since one of the movie's most striking (and controversial) qualities is its fascination with the interplay between sociopolitical norms and the body's indecorous demands, I focus on modern theorists who give intellectual weight to aspects of human experience that have traditionally been considered too "low" or "base" for consideration by serious-minded persons.
One we have already encountered is Mikhail Bakhtin, who celebrates the carnivalism of freethinking works that challenge the social, cultural, and political norms of their day. Such writings frequently dwell on urges of the body (especially the lower body, where sexuality and excretion blur the boundaries between self and other) at the expense of rules, regulations, and laws designed to squeeze the unbridled individual into governable patterns. Another is Georges Bataille, whose concept of the informe argues that materiality is irreducible and "unformable," and that theory must resist the impulse to shape it with abstract schemes and systems. Still another is Julia Kristeva, who states that infants pass through an abject stage of development, during which they cannot conceive of being either part of on separate from the mother. At this time they inhabit a borderline mental realm that oscillates among the exhilirating prospect of independence, the smothering fear of being entrapped or reabsorbed, and the dread of unmoored existence in an outside world of solitude and instability.
Numero deux refers directly to none of these authors, but its concerns are rooted in the tradition they represent. Like the outwardly chaotic Weekend, with its casual cannibalism and cartoonish violence, it exudes a subversive spirit through polymorphous sexuality and a seemingly disjointed structure; both movies also have quick-as-lightning mood changes that reflect the proud instability of carnival grotesquerie. The superimposed video images in Numero deux are especially effective in this regard. Although their implications can be unsettling, as in the primal-scene material, their fluid form and provocative content create a transformative atmosphere in which ingrained rules may be bent, broken, or reshaped beyond recognition in the blink of an eye.
Two facets of Numero deux would have earned Bataille's particular applause. One is its rejection of linear narrative in favor of a thematic density that foregrounds the physicality of word and image. The other is its focus on "unformed" materials, defining this territory broadly enough to encompass phenomena as different as the still-developing mind of the young child and the presence of excrement as an intimate ingredient in daily life. Moreover, the filmt reats such "low" material without necessarily twisting it into shapes held acceptable by social convention. Bataille calls for a new brand of theory that he names "heterology" - actually the opposite of a theory since it "is opposed to any homogeneous representation of the world, in other words, to any philosophical system." Such systems, he says, always aim at deflecting our "sources of excitation" and developing a "servile human species, fit only for the fabrication, rational consumption, and conservation of products." What needs to be reclaimed are the substances rejected by these processes, "the abortion and the shame of human thought," so that philosophy can become a servant of "excretion" and introduce "the demand for the violent gratifications implied by social life." Those gratifications took center stage in Weekend, which asked how cultures and classes might "consume" and "excrete" one another in acts of war and revolution. The same gratifications assert themselves in Numero deux, here taking more homely forms (power games linked with bodily functions) but still charged with potentially disruptive power operating within and around the individual human being.
Kristeva's notion of the abject is perhaps clearest of all in a movie preoccupied with intersections of "low" and "high" material, and with a wide variety of borderline conditions: political/pornographic, natural/ artificial, public/private, sound/image, attraction/repulsion, and so on Among the most important of these is film/video, since even the production methods of Numero deux are designed to blur conventional boundaries. For the infant, Kristeva suggests, the abject stage is marked by profound ambiguity as to where the parent leaves off and self-identity begins. Manifesting this condition in cinematic terms, Numero deux embodies the ambivalence of a young medium (video) caught within its parent medium (film) at precisely the moment when its newly acquired powers, purposes, and sensibilities are ready to assert themselves but are still uncertain as to what their own distinctiveness and usefulness will be. One of the qualities that make Numero deux unsettling is the fact that it doesn't just allegorize but vividly actualizes - one might even say incarnates - the abject.
Numero deux is also concerned with the difficulty of crossing sociocultural barriers, be they physical or psychological. Rarely has a film concentrated on the concept of blockage in so many forms. This starts at the beginning, when the title has trouble appearing on the screen, as if the movie were facing some invisible block or obstacle on its way to the audience. The film does get started eventually, but various devices keep the sense of blockage going. Some operate through the film'ss tyle: the uneven progress of the story; the frequent interruption of one scene by another; the competition between filma nd video images, which sometimes seem to get in each other's way. Others operate through the movie's content: the stopand-start pictures on the monitors in Godard's workshop; the image of a primal scene that must be repressed as soon as it is witnessed; the linkage of birth (commencement) and death (cessation) in the girl's blackboard sentence. When the narrative proceeds a little farther, we will encounter the film's most blunt metaphors for blockage: the constipation and impotence that plague Sandrine and her husband, respectively. When she compares her mother with a "factory" that "hurts" when it "charges and discharges," Sandrine is also describing herself and many others - women who feel cut off from life's flow by the demands of work, and deprived of healthy sexuality by the insensitivity of their husbands. We will also learn that Sandrine's spouse is abusive, using anal intercourse (blocking a channel) to punish and control her.
One more aspect of Numero deux that Kristeva's ideas illuminate is its Godardian use of sound (immediate, surrounding, ungraspable) to combat the tyranny of the image (distant, hard-edged, authoritarian) that dominates commercial cinema. Kristeva holds that early infancy is bathed in sound as the child develops within the "chora," which is both the fleshly envelope of the womb and the sonic envelope of the noises (most notably, the mother's voice) that filter through to the infant's hearing. Nostalgia for this stage of life persists long after its peace and plenitude are ruptured by the rude awakening called birth. This helps explain the power of music (increasingly important in Godard's cinema) to touch us in ways for which rational considerations can't wholly account. It also helps explain the cacophonous sounds in Numero deux, a film that extravagantly favors physical immediacy over coded communication. Numero deux loves noise - noise for the ears, such as the gobbledygook of overlapping sound tracks, and noise for the eyes, such as video static and on-and-off television pictures. Godard told us earlier that language games can cure sickness, so it isn't surprising that verbal and visual puns are a major component of this movie (which was produced after he himself had recuperated from his serious motorcycle accident). The way to heal blockage is with slippage - and nothing slides more easily, or with a more liberating effect, than a word or image whose meaning has no fixed abode other than in-the-moment dialogue with its audience.
Even as it pursues its fascination with the materiality of sight, sound, and cinema, Numero deux has ideological goals in mind, with specific analyses to conduct and sociopolitical messages to convey. Accordingly, some of its mostly brief episodes reduce the frequently high level of verbal and visual "noise," presenting lucid images with synchronized sound - in other words, coherent "scenes" appearing one at a time. Though these often range from difficult to obfuscatory, if measured in ordinary movie terms, they gather significance and force as the movie progresses.
As we would expect, many episodes continue the film's concern with culturally "low" subjects, focusing on women, children, housework, and biological details that transform the "abject" from an abstract category into an everyday affair. Inflecting their meaning are Godard's familiar intertitles, drawing our thoughts from the manifest content of the scenes to the ideas behind them, generally in punning, allusive ways. As the girl writes her "before I was born" statement on the blackboard, for instance, the intertitle REPRODUCTION appears and then changes to REGULATING, suggesting a long list of possible meanings and interconnections.
Soon afterward, Sandrine irons clothing in her kitchen while the little girl, Vanessa, paces restlessly about. Perhaps prompted by the seminudity of her mother, naked beneath an open bathrobe, Vanessa asks whether she herself will have "blood between [her] legs" when she is older. "Yes," replies Sandrine, adding, "You'll have to watch out for guys. They're not reliable." (Intertitle: REGULATING becomes EDITING.)
The composite image of sexual intercourse and the face of a girl (Vanessa) returns, and now the child makes an apparent reference to it: "Sometimes I think what Mama and Papa do is pretty, and sometimes I think it's caca." (Intertitle: MONTAGE becomes FACTORY.) Then we see Vanessa's lower body as Sandrine washes her in a bathtub. "Do all little girls have a hole?" the child asks, and a bit later, "Is that where memory comes out?" Answered with a cheerful "yes," the child asks where memory goes after it "comes out," and Sandrine replies, "It vanishes. It vanishes into the landscape. There's a factory in the landscape now."
The film's chain of associations is becoming more complex: Factory and landscape are still tightly connected, but the latest intertitle uses FACTORY as a link between MONTAGE and the body, which produces memories (residues of images previously consumed?) that disappear into the landscape, where (completing the cycle) they join another factory! It would be a challenging task, and perhaps an endless one, to count up all possible meanings of this visual-verbal rebus; but its most important point may be the comparison of the (female) body to a factory, at once physical (complete with "holes" that produce both excrement and new life) and psychological (there is a memory "hole" too).
We have seen the foregoing shots on a video screen that almost fillst he larger surface of the movie screen. Doubling this arrangement, two video screens now appear. A little boy (Nicholas) sits at a school desk, doing calculations and reading from a book about a "stupid wolf" who is ignorant, hungry, and lost. Then we see him at home, sitting moodily apart as his mother and little sister (Sandrine and Vanessa) dance nearly naked to a song with political lyrics. Sandrine likes the song's message that "anarchy is not a bomb, it's justice and liberty."
Intertitle: SOLITUDE becomes NUMBER ONE. A pop singer yowls about loneliness on the sound track, and we cut to Nicholas and Vanessa conversing about pop culture. More accurately, they are trading narratives obviously borrowed from pulp fiction or B movies - as they gaze at each other across a table. Nicholas begins, "She's the one who betrayed him, eight years ago.... She decided to kill everyone in her way." Vanessa continues, "By way of welcome she plowed five bullets into his belly. He'd committed two murders, but he loved her. What an odd time!" The scene is photographed to favor Nicholas, with the camera facing him over Vanessa's shoulder; yet her image often scrolls videographically over his, and her face dominates the whole screen for a moment near the end.
Once again, two important points emerge from a moment with little story or character development. For one, this represents a new approach to improvisation in cinema, made possible by video technology that allows artist(s) to manipulate or "play" the contents of the screen as spontaneously as if it were a musical instrument or the canvas of an "action painting." Godard's longtime interest in improvisation (dating back to Breathless) thus finds a new outlet and a host of fresh possibilities.
As for this particular improvisation, it is as if the two makers of Numero deux were making their own voices heard through the on-screen children, with the lesser-known Mieville wrestling the world-famous Godard for her fair share of attention. Reinforcing this interpretation (and the notion that Numero deux deals largely with gender politics) is the intertitle reading NUMBER TWO that appears just as the girl starts to speak. For years now, the names of Godard's films have cropped up at odd moments during the action; but this particular instance does not seem merely random and interruptive, especially since NUMBER ONE materialized just before Nicholas began his turn in the spotlight. These intertitles remind us that society indoctrinates even the youngest males and females into their "natural" places: Number i and Number 2, respectively. Fortunately, this movie is named after the "lesser" person, and an invisible hand at the video panel makes sure her image gets fair representation, despite the primary camera's all-too-typical position privileging her male companion. This is improvisation with an agenda.
The adult world returns on side-by-side video screens. On the left, the grandfather of the household tries to amuse a clearly bored Nicholas by burning a piece of cigarette paper and exulting over how completely the paper is consumed - a Godardian joke, perhaps, suggesting the minimal value placed on (old-fashioned) paper in the age of (fashionable) cinevideo. On the right, Sandrine and her husband (Pierre) quarrel violently as he tries to remove the stereo earphones that allow her a temporary escape from domestic life.
Two new screens then appear. On the right, Sandrine lies sleeping while factory-and-landscape imagery scrolls and unscrolls over her image, as if revealing her dreams. On the left, Pierre soliloquizes about city discomforts and the inadequacies of education; then he explains his job (as a recording technician) to Sandrine. He keeps talking after she leaves the room. "I've had kids," he says. "I never screw them. It's not allowed. I agree with that. I screw my wife, but it's no good. Thanks, boss." This remarkable speech points in three directions at once: toward the id impulses raging within him, toward the social norms restraining his behaviors, and toward the domestic unhappiness brewed by these unresolved tensions.
Intertitle: LANDSCAPE becomes NIGHT. Compressing to a single screen, the film returns to physical blockage as a metaphor for the repression of abject urges. "Shit! It's blocked up again! Awful plumbing in these projects," Pierre complains, moving from the toilet to the bathroom sink, where he urinates after getting Sandrine's permission. Talk then turns to sex:
SANDRINE: Do you want to tonight?
PIERRE: I don't know. We'll see.
SANDRINE: Thanks, boss.
She grasps his penis and massages it, complaining that he or "his job" always determine whether they'll have sex. He agrees with her anger, adding that getting an erection is often impossible for him nowadays. She sympathizes with him, but he makes a wisecrack about her periods and stalks out. "It all has to change," Sandrine wistfully laments. "But where does this [change] happen?"
The quarrel continues in the next scene. As a static-filled video monitor pulses on one side of the screen, Pierre does a household chore on the other, arguing with Sandrine about his reluctance to spend time with her. "There's always other [available] guys," she says - apparently a casual threat, but actually a turning point in the film'sm inimal story. An abrupt cut brings back the jolting primal-scene image, and Pierre finally reveals what this image means in narrative terms, integrating it into the movie's plot structure for the first time. "Something awful happened," he tells us. "Sandrine screwed another guy. She wouldn't say who. I wanted to rape her. She let me, and then I screwed her in the ass. She screamed. Afterward, we realized Vanessa was watching. Family life - maybe that's what it is."
This is strong stuff, and the filmmakers take immediate steps to defuse any melodramatic effect it may have, following it with a sort of grim comic relief: Pierre tries to help Sandrine figureo ut the controls of a new washing machine, and Sandrine's bent-over position echoes her posture when Pierre violated her. She wins this round by managing to start the washer - a victory for woman as "domestic engineer" in her household factory and fixes Pierre with a told-you-so look.
The next scene returns Pierre to dominance, however, as the couple has intercourse in what we learn is his favorite position, with Sandrine straddling him and facing toward his feet. She ostensibly has some control in her on-top location; but the camera views the scene from his perspective, and he tells Sandrine that he likes this position because it allows him to see parts of her that she cannot see herself. He then describes the view, offering (his) words as a replacement for (her) images. His description turns out to be surprisingly poetic, likening Sandrine's body to a river and its banks; yet the scene's visuals are deliberately awkward, as we stare past Pierre's nose to Sandrine's buttocks. His dominance of the situation is suspicious at best and unacceptable at worst, given our knowledge of his capacity for sexual violence.
Accordingly, the film counters this scene with another bedroom episode that privileges Sandrine, who faces the camera across Pierre's body as she masturbates him (without much effect) and delivers a monologue far more practical, poignant, and meaningful than his:
Every morning you leave. You get out of here. I'm not criticizing, but / don't have a job. I see your ass leaving, going off to work. That's a part of you that you never see. At night. . . and when you come home, I see your prick. ... I think love would have to be a job for you. ... If we were rich, I think I'd pay for it.
They aren't rich, Pierre quickly points out. The next scene finds Sandrine looking for a job of her own, while turning away a politically active neighbor who wants to interest her in the oppression of Chilean women. Problems in Chile are too distant for a woman preoccupied with difficulties close to home; but then again, oppression is a phenomenon Sandrine knows something about. As the right-hand video monitor reminds us of Pierre's sexual problems - his penis remains flaccid as she repeatedly takes its tip into her mouth - on the left-hand screen we watch her read a pamphlet describing female Chilean prisoners who are blindfolded, manipulated, and subjected to the desires of male guards.
"They are other women," she concludes. Then she adds, "Me, too." Could this be the beginning of a radicalized consciousness, or at least a politicized one?
We will not find out right away, since Sandrine must still give most of her attention to household chores, which she does not associate with political thinking. Raising her children is one of these, and a new challenge may be looming here, since Vanessa appears to be brooding over sexual subjects. While this is normal for a growing girl, it is surely more complicated than usual in this case, given the violent sex scene that Vanessa recently witnessed.
Sandrine greets Pierre cheerfully, then scrubs at Vanessa's shoes while the girl questions her about intimate matters: "Does Papa touch your breasts when you sleep together? Is it he who likes it, or is it you?" Sandrine answers directly: "Both of us do. But it's not the same. Sometimes it hurts. I like it anyway." Vanessa asks if she can watch them sleep together, and Sandrine replies with a noncommittal "we'll see," as if they were discussing a favorite dessert or some other casual treat.
This family is uncommonly candid about sexuality, and Godard and Mieville see this as a mixed blessing. It has liberating aspects, such as the parents' willingness to discuss sex with the kids; and it has oppressive sides, such as the sexual threats and abuses thrown heedlessly about the house. In any case, the family's day-to-day dynamics are steeped in the bland regularity of middle-class routine, suggesting that the filmmakers see sexual openness in itself as a weak defense against the bitter forms of alienation brought by blockages and brutalities of contemporary life.
excerpt from the book:The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
Printed words fill the screen again: A L'ARRIVEE, signaling the delayed arrival of the film proper. Godard starts it off by noting that many kilometers away, the Vietcong are thinking about Saigon - while "three meters away, in this factory, you have to produce. Have to produce. But what to produce? And to go where?"
The notions of work, creation, and manufacture, here centered on the punning word "produce," will be central to Numero deux as it proceeds. For now, the words meaning ARRIVAL turn into THERE WILL BE, and the screen lights up again with a pair of video monitors, showing an old man at a stove and an old woman on a sofa. Looking distinctly unhappy in their domestic setting, they call out impatient phrases like "Always that!" and "No more of that!"
The word REPRODUCTION takes shape, and the video screens display a soccer match on the right and a household scene (grandparents, father,child) on the left. Reproduction has obviously taken place in this family - that is how families are made! - and reproduction now establishes itself as one of the film's subjects.
As the older folks sit in the background, the father leans down to talk with the young girl, then leaves with an abrupt swipe at her head, just as the sports announcer reports a penalty play on the sound track. Have we finally settled into an absorbing domestic drama? Evidently not, since the film's title appears again, and then we are back in Godard's studio, with two stacked-up video monitors dominating the screen. Godard is dimly visible, too, watching and occasionally adjusting the monitors. The upper one fast-forwards through the beginning of Vincent, Francois, Paul... and the Others, a French commercial drama (Claude Sautet, 1974) about male buddies whose hard knocks are softened by weekends of shared friendship. The lower one shows a news report on Southeast Asian developments (Saigon's name has changed to Ho Chi Minh City after a "pure and hard" revolution) and on Paris's traditional May Day parade, surely a poignant event for leftists like Godard seven years after the near-revolution of 1968. (May Day now focuses on conventional union demands, according to the report, but left-wing demonstrators are present, suggesting the continued possibility of radical change.) Occasionally the image is replaced by more printed words that change their messages one letter at a time, THIS SCREEN is transformed into A FILM THAT, foregrounding the movie as a material object. The capitalistic MERCHANDISE becomes the cultural MUSIC, calling attention to the Sautet film's lugubrious melody, as well as to the commodification of art in the commercial marketplace. Most important, WORK becomes SHIT and EQUALITY becomes LIBERTY - two pairings that foreshadow major themes of the film.
Numero deux then undergoes a larger transformation. We still see the video workplace with its two monitors juxtaposing news and entertainment, but we hear the voice of a new narrator: a character called Sandrine, adding her presence (invisible so far) to that of Godard, until now the film's dominating voice. Her delayed appearance suggests a subordinate status - she might be the "Number Two" of the title - but her position within the movie is not passive, as she shows by commenting on its content. "What about this film called Numero deux}9 ' she asks, competing for attention with continued sound from the TV monitors. "It shows incredible things. Ordinary things. Shitty things. Good things."
At about this point, the attentive viewer will notice that the Sautet movie on TV has been replaced by a different production: a hard-core sex picture with an emphasis on oral pleasures. "Pleasure isn't simple," observes Sandrine, ringing a less melancholy variation on Nana's discovery in My Life to Live that "pleasure is no fun." Printed words do another on-screen dance as CINEMA changes to POSSIBLE. "I think pain is simple," Sandrine goes on, ratifying Godard's earlier statement to that effect. "Not pleasure. Unemployment is simple. Not pleasure. I think that when unemployment is pleasurable, then fascism moves in." A sign in the porn movie reads "Dead End."
Sandrine then speaks again about the movie itself. "Numero deux is not a film of the left or the right," she informs us, "but a film 'before' or 'behind.' Before, there are children. Behind, there's the government... les enfants de la patrie .. . the nation. You learn that it's a factory." As she speaks the words "before or behind," the shot of Godard's audiovisual workshop is replaced with a jarring new image: a composite video picture that combines a little girl's face with a superimposed view of a couple having sexual intercourse; both partners are standing as the man (his pants around his knees) penetrates the woman (her skirt over her hips) from behind.
So much is going on here that again it is necessary to dwell in detail on one fleeting moment. By combining images of a child's face and two adults having intercourse, the composite shot strongly suggests that the girl is watching this sexual activity. This makes it a reenactment of what Sigmund Freud calls the "primal scene": the moment when a child witnesses (or fantasizes) intercourse between the parents, is seized with jealousy at being excluded from this intimate act - and also stunned with fear of such overwhelming physicality - and instantly represses the experience into the unconscious, where it will retain its haunting (and tantalizing) emotional energy forever after.
Heightening this moment in Numero deux is the image's interplay with Sandrine's narration. At first, her replacement of "left and right" with "before and behind" appears to be a whimsical example of the "word games" defended by Godard a little earlier. However, the sense of whimsy diminishes as her monologue continues: "Before, there are children. Behind, there's the government.. . ." If children are "before" or "in front," they must be in the position of the woman on the screen; and if the government is "behind," it must be in the position of the man, mechanically "screwing" its passive and possibly unwilling partner.
If government = power and children = innocence, Sandrine and Godard clearly see modern society as corrupt, brutalizing, and sick. Moreover, the government is not some alien entity that exercises power through its own self-generated strength. Sandrine links government with les enfants de la patrie - the "children of the nation," as citizens are called in "La Marseillaise," the French national anthem. She then labels this hydra-headed monster a "factory," thus returning us to the film's opening words, about a factory and a landscape locked into close but uneasy coexistence.
By this point it is clear that Numero deux aims to analyze and criticize a number of interlocking phenomena: the home, where children must cope with such daunting existential challenges as the primal scene and other parental mysteries; the education system, which ill prepares them for present or future tasks; the industrial world, where people's lives are not their own; the government, which uses and abuses us; and the mass media, including the film and video technologies used to make Numero deux itself.
Continuing the latter thread, the shot of Godard's audiovisual workshop returns to the screen, its monitors still showing a commercial movie and a news report. "Film is also a factory," Sandrine observes, "a factory that manufactures images, like television." She then offers a sort of mediasavvy nursery rhyme, again confirming childhood (and its comparative innocence) as an organizing factor in the movie:
Once upon a time there was an image.
Once upon a time there were two images.
Twice upon a time there was a sound.
Once upon a time there were two sounds.
Number One and Number Two.
This leads (at last!) to the credits of Numero deux, which Sandrine recites aloud. But wait a moment - surprises are frequent in Godardian cinema, and this turns out to be not the credit sequence after all but a "coming attractions" teaser. "Numero deux: coming soon on this screen!" announces Sandrine, with typically deadpan delivery.
Has the film actually started, or are we still in some kind of preamble? Does Numero deux have an "official" beginning at all? It is probably better not to worry about such things, turning our attention to the momentby-moment progress of whatever it is we are watching.
Sandrine encourages us in precisely that direction. "This screen is on a wall," she notes, pointing out the obvious. Then she problematizes her simple statement by asking, "A wall between what and what?" We know from earlier films that Godard loves to challenge the commonsense borders, boundaries, and dividing lines - that is, the conceptual walls - that we customarily use to organize our everyday thoughts and activities. He is willing to grant that movies and videos materialize on screens, an these screens generally have walls behind them. What, however, do those (metaphorical) walls separate the movies and videos from? Is it the multitude of real-life problems continually thrust at us by families, governments, schools, factories, and the market forces that determine what cinema and television will comprise? If so, our fascination with screens and spectacles - our willingness to gaze at them without really thinking about them - ties in with far-from-ideal social situations that cry out for critical reflection.
The two-sided coin of separation and combination is a fundamental theme of Numero deux. The movie's interests range from common yet ambiguous categories like "before" and "behind" to such filmic phenomena as the juxtaposition of different shots, which are separated by "cuts" in conventional film, but can merge and combine in video composites like the "primal scene" image we've just watched.
Most profoundly, Numero deux is concerned with the hazy boundaries between different people - boundaries that are both affirmed and erased by sexual activity - and between different aspects of a single person. These aspects may be conflicting facets of the mind, forever split between conscious and unconscious, reason and unreason, influences of the past and imperatives of the present. Then again, they may be various parts of the unruly human body; we have noted Godard's tendency to see the body in fractured terms, using strings of words or images to represent bodies as collections of separate part-objects rather than coherent wholes.
All of which explains why Numero deux is itself simultaneously divided and unified in its interests and methodologies. "So another political film?" Sandrine asks rhetorically. "No, it's not political," she immediately answers, "it's pornographic. No, it's not pornographic, it's political. So is it pornographic or political? Why do you always ask either-or? Maybe it's both at once."
She then restates the phrase "twice upon a time," which is becoming an unofficial motto of the film, and another video screen lights up with a little girl writing on a blackboard. Sandrine proposes that we put aside "talk, talk" and attend to quiet looking and listening.
"Look at what?" she queries. "You don't always need to go far. There's a lot to see.... Your sex, for example. Have you ever looked at it? Did you let others know you looked at it? Honestly. Not like in commercials or adventure movies."
The idea of gazing at a part of one's own body, instead of at manufactured body-images in entertainments and advertisements, suggests that visual pleasure can be found by (a) distinguishing between two ways of seeing and (b) choosing the one that is most often overlooked. The overrated way is institutional, fabricated for consumption by a wide, lowestcommon-denominator audience. The underrated way is introspective, focused on the everyday and close at hand.
Another key metaphor of Numero deux then reappears in a new form, further blurring divisions between personal and public, animate and inanimate, natural and artificial. "Didn't you ever ask yourself if Papa is a factory or a landscape?" Sandrine asks. "And if Mama is a landscape or a factory? In my opinion, a factory.... Or maybe a power plant. It charges and discharges. And it hurts."
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
Abjection - at the crossroads of phobia, obsession, and perversion. ... Its symptom is the rejection and reconstruction of languages.
- Julia Kristeva
Weekend does not mark the dawning of abjection - that drastic preoccupation with the low, the dejected, the discarded - or the beginning of narrative breakdown in Godard's work. He had been traveling in these directions from the beginning, picking up speed when My Life to Live brought new radicalism to his complex relationship with movie conventions. His skepticism toward linear narrative made a major leap with A Married Woman in 1964, grew more pronounced in Pierrot le fou and Masculine/ Feminine over the next two years, and became a dominating factor in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her and La Chinoise, which show their disregard for storytelling by largely ignoring it - rather than disintegrating it in full view of the audience, as Weekend does.
Pulverized beyond repair, narrative remains mostly absent from Godard's work for a dozen years after Weekend. What replaces it is an ongoing extension of the Weekend scene where the Arab and African laborers deliver their ideologically charged speeches - bringing the already tenuous plot to a standstill in order to address the spectator as an alert, thinking presence who is engaged with the film's ideas as actively as Godard himself.
Le Gai Savoir (1968), his first picture following Weekend, consists largely of political conversations held by a young man and woman who are seeking what theorist Roland Barthes calls a "degree zero" of language - a verbal "style of absence," to use another Barthes phrase, emancipated from limiting burdens of conventional meaning. Following this in Godard's filmography is a series of radical cinematic experiments, including a group of collaborative Cine-Tracts, revolutionary essays lasting a few minutes each and intended for distribution outside the theatrical circuit. Other works of this varied and provocative period include Un Film comme les autres (1968), the first movie bearing the Dziga-Vertov Group signature; One Plus One, alternating record-studio footage of the Rolling Stones with stylized dramatic scenes about race, revolution, and violence; and Wind from the East (1969), cinema's first Marxist western.
Adding notions of authorship, individuality, and identity itself to the list of conventions he wanted to interrogate, Godard put a disorienting spin not only on the styles and subjects of his movies during this time but on his own auteur status as well. Seven projects completed between 1969 (the year of British Sounds and Pravda) and 1972 (the year of Tout va bien and Letter to Jane) are attributed either to the Dziga-Vertov Group or to Godard and one of his collaborators, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean-Henri Roger, both as committed to radical cinema as their famous partner. Still, it was Godard's established (if contentious) reputation that played an essential (if ironic) role in getting such outlandish projects out of the discussion group and onto the screen.
Not many screens, however. Godard's determination to revolutionize society by contesting the pleasures of bourgeois entertainment was audacious in theory, problematic in practice: As one critic wrote, the audience for the Dziga-Vertov Group shrank and shrank until even Godard and Gorin were no longer speaking to each other. In their penultimate project together, Tout va bien, they sought wider attention by employing movie stars (Jane Fonda and Yves Montand) and telling the more-or-less linear story of a strike by angry workers against an exploitative factory and the greedy capitalist who runs it. The result was a qualified artistic success but an unqualified commercial failure, reinforcing the growing suspicion that whatever the potential might have been for an effectively subversive cinema in the years immediately after 1968, there was little prospect of its realization now that the 1970s were in full swing.
Events in Godard's personal life - never all that separate from his professional life - provided more impetus for change. His marriage to Anne Wiazemsky, who around 1967 had initiated him into the ways of Maoist idealism, ended as unhappily as had his earlier relationship with Anna Karina. His new companion, Anne-Marie Mieville, helped him recover from his serious motorcycle accident a few months before Tout va bien started filming, and soon became his artistic as well as domestic partner. Godard's last collaboration with Gorin was the 1972 essay film Letter to Jane, a fifty-two-minute critical analysis of a still photograph of Jane Fonda, star of Tout va bien and all-around leftist agitator of the period. This was followed by two years of cinematic silence and then Here and Elsewhere (1974), the first of several Godard-Mieville collaborations. Here and Elsewhere grew from a 1969 trip that Godard and Gorin had taken to Jordan and Lebanon, where they shot material for Until Victory, a documentary on the Palestinian revolution. A year later the Palestinian effort was smothered by events of Jordan's civil war, and the two filmmakers proceeded to terminate both their Palestinian project and the DzigaVertov Group itself. Godard was learning to capitalize on seemingly unusable footage, however. Shots from the unfinished 1 A.M. I One American Movie had been recycled into the proudly eccentric 1 P.M. I One Parallel Movie (1971) under a joint Jean-Luc Godard-D. A. Pennebaker signature. In a somewhat similar move, Godard and Mieville now edited material from Until Victory into the very different Here and Elsewhere, which deals not with the Palestinian movement as such but rather with the ways in which media representations conveyed (and distorted) its meanings for people close to it (here) and in distant places (elsewhere). The result is as radical and polemical as anything the Dziga-Vertov Group produced during its three years of existence; yet along with a now-familiar dissection of political issues and cinematic forms, it also suggests a renewed interest in self-examination by Godard and his collaborators. Much the same can be said of Comment ca va, a 1976 docudrama that uses discussion and debate to seek ideologically acceptable ways of spreading information about progressive activities.
It was between these two political-essay films that Godard and Mieville produced their signature work of this period: Numero deux, a picture steeped in dissidence and dissonance. Although rigid sociopolitical norms had been on Godard's enemies list for years, his partnership with Mieville appears to have stimulated his outrage on this subject to new intensity. If moralizing, standardizing, and circumscribing are the weapons used by cultures to enforce "proper" thinking and "correct" behavior, thereby erecting arbitrary borders around our potentially unlimited lives, then he and Mieville would attack these insidious practices without mercy. They would do this not through the abstract theorization that had proved so hard to manage in the Dziga-Vertov Group films, however. Instead they would make an aggressively concrete movie capable of grabbing attention and galvanizing imagination through the sheer extremity of its approach.
The arrival of Numero deux in movie theaters was surrounded by what amounted to an elaborate practical joke. Godard was still a celebrity in 1975, despite his years of "hiding" from conventional audiences behind a barrage of unpopular films. He also knew that revolutionaries of his generation had a tendency to "mellow" and "mature" as they grew older, particularly as the widespread radicalism of the 1960s gave way to a more conservative Zeitgeist. Playing on expectations that he might follow this pattern, he let it be known that he planned to leave radical cinema and return to the "mainstream" filmmaking that he had done so much to energize in bygone years. The impression spread among his admirers that his comeback vehicle was called Numero deux, or Number Two, because it was a remake of Breathless, the hugely acclaimed film that had launched his filmmaking career; evidently they overlooked the fact that his partner in the production was the same Anne-Marie Mieville who had worked by his side on the demanding Here and Elsewhere, and few observers took his hints about the new film to mean it would be as drastic in style and confrontational in content as any of the works that had lately been testing their patience.
Whether despite this misunderstanding or because of it, Numero deux was greeted respectfully by thoughtful critics who looked far enough beyond its sensational elements to see that it contained an effective set of solutions to many of the problems Godard had been posing for himself and his audience. The movie told a story without being enslaved by narrative; it developed characters without being confined by their insular concerns; it probed social, political, and philosophical issues without sliding into rarified abstraction.
None of this means that Numero deux is a remake of Breathless in any readily detectable sense, of course, or that it recognizably returns to some earlier form of Godardian cinema. Among its other new departures, it is his first feature-length work to make extensive use of video footage, much of it filmed from video monitors that retain their television "look" within the larger motion-picture frame. During much of the film, two monitors with different images are shown at the same time; filmmaker and critic Harun Farocki suggests that Godard picked up this idea from his recent experience in video production, since video editing is normally done with a pair of monitors showing edited and unedited material, respectively.
The film does mark a clear continuation of theories and practices Godard had explored earlier, however, and its logical place within his body of work is confirmed by three of its central qualities. One is a deep concern with modern society's division of everyday life into separate domains of "labor" and "leisure," allegedly a "natural" arrangement but really an unnecessary attack on human fulfillment, perpetuated by its own alienated victims. Another is a continued interest in sexuality as both human behavior and artistic metaphor, dissected here with a psychosocial intensity that makes Weekend look almost well-mannered. The third is an undimmed enthusiasm for discursive interruption, cinematic interference, and creative obstruction of the image flow that seduces us so effortlessly in regular movies.
All three of these interests can be traced back to Godard's early features; yet they acquire extraordinary force and clarity in Numero deux, indicating the undiminished desire of its makers not merely to communicate with but (in proper Brechtian fashion) to stimulate and activate the widespread audience they hoped to attract with this "return to mainstream cinema."
As previous chapters have indicated, perhaps the most straightforward way of reading Godard's career is to see it as a steady trajectory away from conventionally seamless cinema (resisted since the early shorts) and toward an energetic fracturing of the film-watchinge xperience. From the impulsive jump cuts of Breathless to the collagelike rhythms of Weekend and the wholesale rejection of narrative in the Dziga-Vertov Group films, Godard shows growing interest in fragmentation - of movies, of the creative processes that produce movies, and of the places and objects (especially bodies) that appear within movies.
Numero deux is another milestone on this path, as its very first images make clear. The screen is divided into three distinct areas. On the left is a patch of bright red video static. On the right is a rectangular patch containing close-ups of a man and woman, who turn to gaze into the camera. In the center are printed words, some (the column on the left) steadily readable but others (the two on the right) blinking on and off
SON IMAGE SON
Translations are easy: mon = my, ton = your, son = his, image = image. However, the word son also means "sound," and we certainly hear sounds as we read these words: chirping birds, distant voices of children, and kitchen or household noises. (Note also that Numero deux is the second film - after Here and Elsewhere the preceding year - from the Sonimage production company, set up by Godard and Mieville as an alternative to the commercial studios.) Instead of inviting us into a story, therefore, the movie starts by establishing the screen (and sound system) as a place not of narrative illusion but of visibility and audibility for their own sakes. This explains the barrage of disconnected images, random sounds, and printed words that assert their punning personalities here (also getting in a plug for the outfit that made the film!)
The next scene is equally fragmented. We see two side-by-side video images. On the upper left is a city view with a plaza in the foreground, trees in the midground, and buildings in the background. On the lower right are two children, a boy and a girl. "There was a landscape," the boy says, "and a factory was put into it." The shot of the children then starts alternating with a shot of two adults, a man and woman, puttering in a kitchen and talking about injustices faced by workers who lose their jobs or labor in unsafe conditions. The little girl speaks a variation of the little boy's comment: "There was a factory, and a landscape was put around it." Since this is still the very beginning of the movie, one might hear in this sentence a hint of "Once upon a time. ..."
Preceding these images, we saw the film's title in provisional form: NUMERO 2 / TEST TITLES. Now it returns more formally, with NUMERO DEUX fully spelled out; but no sooner does it materialize than it starts to change, one letter at a time, until the screen spells out AU DEPART, meaning "departure." (The metamorphosis happens in stages, so evocative fragments like ERO and DEO make fleeting appearances along the way. This happens with intertitles throughout the film, and although the transformations are generally simple letter-by-letter replacements from left to right, some produce more puns and double entendres than space allows me to trace here.)
The movie then begins all over again, this time with Godard himself appearing as a sort of host or master of ceremonies. He stands at the right of the screen, resting his hands on a TV monitor that displays his face, which is otherwise hard to see because of the camera's angled position. He faces various pieces of audiovisual equipment, including a couple of movie projectors. Talking in the manner of an introductory speaker leading up to a main topic, he remarks on subjects that have long been important to him: language, politics, control. Given its in-person delivery and its position at the beginning of a major work in a transitional phase of Godard's career, his monologue is worth sustained attention.
"When the delegate makes a speech," he begins, "he reads the words of others. I think it's the paper that gives orders, and that's the trouble." Assuming that Godard functions as a sort of "delegate" in this movie appearance, he is evidently criticizing the scripts that supply conventional films with their prefabricated, predigested content. Like a jazz musician (or Beat poet) warming up some favorite riffs, he then launches into a few vague anecdotes based on puns or slippery definitions. In one he uses the word "machine" in both its standard meaning and its specifically French meaning (machin) of "what's-his-name." In another he calls his roomful of audiovisual equipment a "library" with no books. In a third he speaks of "paper" in the different contexts of books, printing, and money.
He then introduces a subject that will be central to the movie as a whole: the factory as a metaphor with a wide range of applications, from the intensely personal to the sweepingly social. "In biology, you know, this is a factory here," he says, still speaking in his free-associative manner. "You could call it a factory. The body's a factory, too. I listen to the machines. That machine's going faster. That machine's going slower. And I'm the boss, but I'm a special boss because I'm a worker as well. And because I'm not alone as a worker, we've taken power."
Godard is probably being ironic here, since his "power" is only that of an independent film artist operating far from the financialr esources of commercial cinema. Nevertheless, this speech appears to come from his heart, and its personal nature is underscored by a reference to his stillrecent road accident: "I was sick for a long time, and that made me think, about the factory." Also sincere - wistful, even - are subsequent remarks about his "factory" being different from others with names like Fox, Metro, Mosfil'm, and Algerian National Cinematography, all connected to "a multinational company that does the programs." He then complains that people are programmed, too. "You can't ever use what you learn in school," he gripes. "If I did literature, I'd tell you that the government programs people with methods that are full of holes. Stepping stones: workers, the children of workers. They go to school, and after school to the factory. It's all the same."
Good point. Still, in a monologue that slips so mercurially from multinational film factories to shortcomings of the French school system, we may be wondering by now whether Godard is wholly in earnest or if he has shifted into his stand-aside-and-ironize mode.
Staying a quick step ahead of us, he anticipates our question - "Games with words, you say?" - and affirms the importance of hard-to-pin-down language that ambushes our ingrained habits. "In democracies there's something that doesn't surprise me: Word games are banished in a certain sense.... We say they're not serious. But puns - a word that slides on a thing - it's a language, and after all, love taught us language." Wordplay should liberate instead of enslaving, he continues, expanding on a perennial theme. "It slides. That shows short-circuits, interference, and so on. We use it to cure sickness sometimes. So it's serious. We say it's complicated ... but it's things that are complicated. Pain is simple."
The monologue ends with a lengthy anecdote about a friend named Georges (probably Georges de Beauregard, his erstwhile producer) who came to visit, saw Godard's machines, and said the filmmaker should put them to use. Godard replied that he needed money, and the two repaired for a drink at a nearby bus station, where Godard agreed with the proprietor that provincial Grenoble is "smaller, sweeter, softer" than Paris, his former home. Georges then boarded a Paris-bound plane, promising to raise 600,000 francs for a movie. Godard concludes his story, "A newspaper would have said, 'It was a chilly November morn. The tires squeaked on the runway....' But no literature. Money, commerce, beauty."
That last phrase is Godard's three-word definition of modern filmmaking.
excerpt from the book: The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible by David Sterritt
by Dijana Knežević
The grotesque implementation of Marquis de Sade's novel "120 Days of Sodom" (O Le 120 Giorante Di Sodoma) is a film about which for almost forty years there has been a strong debate. The reason for this is the brave genius of the director in his attempt to show us the atmosphere from the darkest depths of human nature.
One of the most powerful of Pazolini's "tools" here is the context and time of the film itself: the 1944th and the arrangement of Mussolini's, fascist Italy (as the film itself says "We Fascists are the only real anarchists") and the blasphemy and misery of distorted minds in the free space .
The main actors, four representatives of the authorities (Duke - Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, President Aldo Valletti and Umberto Paolo Quintavalle), with the help of fascist units, capture the group Young people and imprison them in a luxurious villa. They become former prostitutes in their old age (prostitutes Castelli - Caterina Boratto, Prostitute Vaccaari - Helena Surgere and Magi Maggi - Elsa De Giorgi) which tell young prisoners stories from their own experience, and, based on these stories, the film itself is structured, divided into three parts:
Antechamber of Hell
Circle of Obssesions
Circle of Shit
Circle of Blood
The inspiration for such a structure, Pazolini found in the "Divine Comedy" (La Divina Commedia) by Dante Alighieri (Dante Alighieri).
Although in the original Marquis de Sad has placed his novel a couple of centuries earlier, Pazolini's ingenious idea of transferring the film's work to the time of the most monstrous in the history of mankind has absolutely brought forth the fruit.
Visually and emotionally, this Pazolini film might resemble the worst-ever ever-fictitious thing, but its artistic and aesthetic value is more than noticeable.
For a deeper understanding of this story, it is important, even partially, to know the work of Marquis de Sade, whose story is directed and directed. Namely, in each of his novels, the "role" is more or less the same: the very top of the social scale that impairs those listed below. The distortion of the Sadow's mind found the most incredible ways to explain this, but the very essence would lie in (De Sade to say) the fact that there is no God, but only nature, and nature, besides beauty, creates destruction. How life is governed by the laws of nature, claims that it is clear that the law of the stronger must be respected. Man's destructive impulses are also part of nature and must be distributed. In his novels, this usually happens in the form of the most horrible (mostly sexual) tortures and revulsions. What is emphasized in his novels, and what is in the film, it would be said, "propelled" to be transmitted (in De Sade's always emphasized) the importance of human unbridledness, in some way (and again, first of all, sexual).
The movie "Salo" is considered one of the most controversial films of the twentieth century. It's not by chance, because rape scenes, fecal eating, cutting off language, homosexuality, etc. Leave the viewer, and not only the one with a weak stomach, maximally disgusted. Nevertheless, this Pazin's directing achievement should in no way be viewed outside the context in which it is located. Whether we do this, apart from directing and photographic genius, we will remain purely grotesque, devoid of aesthetic values. Pasolines in this film represent the world, a cold, hopeless, apocalyptic era in which evil wins, but also implicitly suggests that such a regime can not survive (which is why the action is located in the area of the Hall). He deliberately rejects the subtle approach and choices explicit (to him and, in all likelihood, irritating), portraying fascism as a transformation that, at the same time, refuses and attracts.
Here, at the same time (as is often the case in De Sad's novels), it could also be said of a nature that is long overdue, most often imposed, imposed social norms, and becomes distorted and in constant search for the ways in which their interference could channel. In this case, this results in total sexual harassment, revenge on innocent victims, etc.
While prostitutes, in their enthralling costumes, tell the worst stories of their sexual and business life, the victims (most often) are seduced, humiliated, on the floor, until some of the main actors, encouraged by the "hot" story, take it and do not use it for The "revival" of what has just been listened to.
The epilogue of the film is also the most stressful and almost resembles culmination, rather than the epilogue:
The four commanders choose young men and girls who were not absolutely obedient, and the guards take them to a nearby yard and kill them in the worst ways. The commanders, almost indifferently, are looking at the binoculars, from the remote room, that scene. An aggravated pianist, who played and worked for them, spotted a scene and committed suicide by dropping from the window. The sound of "Carmina Burana" by Karl Orff (Carl Orff) is radiating from all the time. After all, two young guards change the station on the radio, play the happy song and cheerfully, and still indifferently, dance. One asks another for his girlfriend's name. "Margarita," he replied.
These final scenes, accompanied only by calming music, deepen the damages that the scenes themselves bring.
Whatever, even today, criticized and forbidden was, this Pazolini film is absolutely a huge artistic achievement (at the same time, the last ones that the author worked, because it was just before the premiere of the film and he was killed). Only the "revival" of the novel, and even of the Garden, reflects a great knowledge of the director's work, but also of the aesthetically fascinating experience and appreciation of reality. Imminently, the filthy picture of Italy and, in general, the humanity, which Pazolini sent to the world with this film, is also a jewel in the sea of cinema, which gives us a chance to see the reality through absolutely black, and with its grotesque glorious, glasses.
Translated from Serbian by Dejan Stojkovski
This article is taken from:
by Greg Olson
Lynch has said that Blue Velvet is “a trip into darkness, as close as you can get, and then a trip out. There’s an innermost point, and from then on it pulls back.”93 Jeffrey makes his journey to the center of night in the hour after he struck Dorothy in bed. As he says goodnight to her, she makes plain her raw need for him and calls him “my special friend” (the next time MacLachlan works with Lynch, he’ll be a special agent). While the youth and Dorothy talk, Lynch disconcerts us with an out-of-context shot looking down the apartment’s staircase. Sixteen years earlier, in The Grandmother, the director surprised us with a shot looking up a staircase in the midst of a narrative about a parentally abused boy. The lad eventually discovered that the stairs led up to the nurturing world of his grandmother, while Blue Velvet’s harbinger steps will take Jeffrey down into purgatory. When he steps across Dorothy’s threshold into the hallway, there are Frank and three of his depraved, cackling pals coming up. Previously, Jeffrey has only seen Frank from the relative safety of Dorothy’s closet, and now he’s faceto-face with the monster. Frank mixes a “Howdy, neighbor” mock joviality with his deep rage as he suggests a “joyride” to the trembling youth, who, with good manners, declines the invitation. But social niceties and personal boundaries are like dry fall leaves to the flaming furnace blast of Frank’s will to power. He already holds Dorothy’s family hostage, and now he spirits off her and Jeffrey in his roaring Dodge Charger, whose grille and headlights Lynch frames so that they look like a fierce animal’s jaws and eyes devouring the night.
Along with Frank’s three loony cohorts, they go to Ben’s Pussy Heaven where, as did Eraserhead’s Henry, Jeffrey must endure a bizarre and punishing social evening. Pussy Heaven is a low-rent-district bordello stocked with fat women who sit silently aligned against a living room wall as though trapped in the numbing stasis of a Diane Arbus photograph. This blasphemous Heaven is presided over by the marvelously effete Ben (Dennis Hopper’s pal Dean Stockwell) who, with his lip rouge and ruffled-front shirt, is, as Frank proclaims with deadpan Lynchian humor, “One suave fucker.” Ben and his scarlet women hold Dorothy’s little boy, Donny, behind a locked door. And when we hear her visiting him, it sounds like she’s been accused of being an absentee parent, for she says, “No, no, Donny, Mommy still loves you!” Perhaps this moment is a guilty projection of Lynch’s own sense of being, to some degree, an unavailable father to his children.
After Frank and Ben use Jeffrey as a punching bag and reveal their majorplayer role in Lumberton’s clandestine drug-dealing network, Ben does a special performance at Frank’s request, lip-synching to Frank’s audiotape of Roy Orbison singing “In Dreams.” This song and “Blue Velvet” are Frank’s anthems; both speak of men weeping over lost loves. When Ben does his unforgettable pantomime, holding a construction-site electric lamp under his chin like a microphone so that the glaring light makes his pasty face glow, Frank is transported. He seems lulled as Orbison-Ben sings “Go to sleep, everything is all right,” but his face stiffens with apprehension as the singer falls asleep “To dream my dreams of you,” and he winces with pain when the narrator walks and talks with his now-vanished love. Many commentators simply characterize Frank as the Anti-Christ, an incarnation of abstract evil. He is certainly loathsome and terrifying, but Lynch as writerdirector and Hopper as actor invest him with a wrenching pathos. We sense that Frank has grown monstrous because of some wounding loss or horrible abuse visited upon him. Frank and Dorothy, a sadist and his masochist partner, are ultimately both victims. Frank is possessed by some eros-perverting past trauma, as Twin Peaks’ daughter-molesting Leland Palmer is possessed by the evil force of BOB. Both Lynch and Hopper say that Frank truly loves Dorothy, and when he watches her sing at the Slow Club, he weeps tortured tears, simultaneously grieving for her and himself.
Lynch understands the nuanced shadings of those who express themselves with malevolent behavior, just as he allows his upholders of righteousness to manifest a full human complexity. And once, years before Blue Velvet, he was surprised to learn that his daughter, Jennifer, was dwelling seriously on such matters. As she remembers, “I was very young, and I was fearless when it came to the grotesque. My father got upset with me when he found me reading my dog-eared copy of Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which detailed Charles Manson’s horrible crimes and how he was apprehended and brought to justice.”94 Just as Lynch, in his art, presents two characters with their heads almost touching when things get intense, “He leaned his head next to mine and said, ‘This is beyond darkness, it is not the opposite of light, this is evil.’”95 As though anticipating Blue Velvet’s “areyou-a-detective-or-a-pervert” dialectic, Jennifer replied, “But Dad, I’m not fascinated with Manson—what I like is the guy who caught him, the guy who figures everything out and captures him.”96 Still, Jennifer responded with humane empathy toward Manson: “Here’s a soul tortured throughout his life, shunted from home to home, beaten, turned wrong by hatred and fear,”97 just as her father sees Frank Booth as both a monster and “a man who’s deeply in love but can’t express it in a normal way.”Jennifer feels Frank “is a poignant character: I have a sadness and a pity for Frank. When he does his baby voice and his whimpering it’s so revealing, the way he’s violent to get what he needs.”99 She agrees with my thought that Frank was the victim of incestuous sexual abuse: “Yeah, all the Mommy/Daddy/Baby roles are fucked up in his head. My father puts such interesting details of humanity in Blue Velvet, it seems so absolutely real to me psychologically.”100 So the bestial Frank has a human side, the humane Jeffrey harbors animal impulses, and Roy Orbison will bring them face to face.
When Frank, Dorothy, Jeffrey, Frank’s hoodlum trio, and one of Ben’s fat whores drive off into the night, Jeffrey does something no one else in the film has had the courage to do: He defiantly glares into Frank’s eyes after being ordered, “Don’t look at me, fuck.” Frank fires back a damning truth at the youth: “You’re like me.” And Jeffrey, as if to both acknowledge and defy Frank’s insight, lashes out and punches him in the face. Jeffrey’s shocking aggression inspires Frank the warped artist to pile out of the car and stage a perverse ritual comparable to his sadistic sexual theatrics with Dorothy.
While Frank’s gang holds a knife to Jeffrey’s throat, the fiend exhibits some of the homosexual leanings of Lynchian villains in The Elephant Man, Dune, and Twin Peaks. When Frank was ready to leave Ben’s place he showed that his animalistic appetite encompassed all sexes (and perhaps species) as he declared,” I’ll fuck anything that moves!” (Frank’s form then suddenly vanished from Ben’s living room and was next seen driving down a highway. This split-second jump from one point in space to another could be Lynch’s conscious or subconscious reference to The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy’s observation that in Oz, “People come and go so quickly here” [regarding the Witches’ magical transports]. Blue Velvet’s Lumberton is far from the land of Oz, but near Twin Peaks on the map of Lynch‘s imagination, and the supernatural aura of Frank’s uncanny mobility in this one instance prefigures BOB’s [another evil force with a hunger for men and women] otherworldly coming and going every time he travels.) Frank calls Jeffrey “our pussy” and “pretty-pretty,” and, after forcing the youth to feel his biceps, says, “You like that, huh.” The villain then grabs Dorothy’s lipstick, paints his mouth, and kisses Jeffrey repeatedly, smearing his face with red: a visual signifier of the dark erotic linkage between Jeffrey and his two netherworld guides, Dorothy and Frank, that makes all their mouths taste the same. Now Frank, his face harshly lit by a handheld electric light as Ben’s was, does his own rendition of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.”
As the song plays, Frank exhibits a deranged intermingling of love and hate, sex and violence. First, he growls at Jeffrey that if the youth gets out of line, “I’ll send you a love letter. Do you know what a love letter is? It’s a bullet from a fuckin’ gun, fucker. You receive a love letter from me, you’re fucked forever.” This passionately delivered physical threat is terrifying, but Frank’s next mood swing is even more disturbing. Lynch stages arguably the most intense of his two-heads-in-confrontation clinch scenes, as Frank breathes into Jeffrey’s face with the erotic ardor and cold malevolence that a predator holds for the victim he controls. In stunning close-up, his eyes burning cool blue, Frank intones with Roy Orbison, “In dreams, I walk with you. In dreams, I talk with you. In dreams, you’re mine, all the time.” Throughout the film, Dennis Hopper has given Frank expressive gestures: He always points with two aggressive fingers, like a child forming his hand into a revolver. As Frank says, “You’re mine,” he bunches his extended fingers together and holds them next to Jeffrey’s head, as though he could reach in and own the young man’s psyche. Because of the dark, mirrorimage symbiotic bond between the two men, Jeffrey knows that Frank is capable of stealing his soul. Indeed, the youth may already have precious little of it left.
In Lynch’s script, Jeffrey was to wake up lying on the ground after being beaten unconscious by Frank. His pants were to be pulled down and a lipstick “FUCK YOU” scribbled on his leg in the aftermath of a homosexual rape. Kyle MacLachlan pleaded with Lynch to delete the sexual violation details, and after giving the matter some thought, the director agreed. Lynch will sometimes acquiesce to his actors’ strongly held opinions, as when he let Anthony Hopkins keep his beloved beard in The Elephant Man and, in Twin Peaks, he abandoned a certain romantic storyline for Agent Cooper that MacLachlan just didn’t think was right.
Jeffrey has reached the heart of Blue Velvet’s darkness and seen it as the murky shading of his own psyche, and now it’s time to start to pull back and journey toward the light. Lynch is interested in the full range of human emotions, and has said, “If you’re a man, you can cry.”101 Jeffrey reaches his turning point sobbing in his room alone. But banishing Lumberton’s darkness (and his own) isn’t as easy as switching on a light. When he sits down to breakfast with Mom and Aunt Barbara, and Barbara starts to chatter about his beaten-up appearance, Jeffrey’s answer sounds like Frank Booth: “I love you, but you’re gonna get it.”
The youth nurtures and strengthens his capacity for goodness by staying away from Dorothy, telling Detective Williams all he’s learned about Frank’s law-breaking activities (without mentioning Sandy’s investigative help), and telling Sandy he loves her. She returns his feelings, and they dance and kiss to the music that accompanied her dream-of-the-robins narrative, the chorale-like melody which now has lyrics by Lynch sung by Julee Cruise: “Sometimes a wind blows / and the mysteries of love / come clear.”
Jeffrey is going straight and staying clean, but his choice to indulge his dark side has repercussions, as it always does in Lynch’s world. The shadowy force that beetle-churned beneath the Beaumonts’ lawn has spread all over town, and now it pops up in Jeffrey’s living room. When Lynch and his brother were boys in a small Northwest town, they looked out their bedroom window one night and saw an unclothed woman walking in the street. Now, in the director’s fiction, after Jeffrey and Sandy’s dance, the achingly vulnerable, bruised, and naked Dorothy Vallens steps into those bastions of domestic propriety, the Beaumonts’ front porch and the Williamses’ living room. Once again, Lynch displays his gift for staging excruciating embarrassments and violating social niceties. As Jeffrey consoles the dazed Dorothy, hugging her exposed body against him, in front of Sandy and her mother, the clandestine sexual relationship that he’s hidden from his golden angel comes gushing out. Dorothy calls him “my secret lover” and, looking directly at Mrs. Williams and Sandy, tells them, “He put his disease in me.” Sandy and Jeffrey have not yet made love, but this grotesque revelation of his emotional unfaithfulness and untruthfulness causes her to break out in deep sobs, with the corners of her mouth curved down like the traditional Greek mask of tragedy. As with Sandy’s narration of her robins-and-love dream, some viewers snicker at the extreme gestures of her weeping and think that Lynch is making fun of her. But, as Laura Dern has said more than once over the years, “that’s how I cry.” True, her manner of weeping in other films resembles her Blue Velvet behavior, but her sadness seems most gut-wrenching under Lynch’s direction.
Sandy and Jeffrey speak words to try to repair their rift, but the youth’s actions are needed on the dark side of town, for Dorothy has called from a phone booth to say that they’ve hurt her husband, and entreated Jeffrey to “help him.” Jeffrey first entered Dorothy’s apartment to see what the police couldn’t, and now he will be the one to precede the law and strike the decisive blow against the powers of night. As he approaches Dorothy’s door, he knows he is in the realm of insect energy, for there’s a buzzing from inside. A TV has been kicked in and a lamp is ready to short out. Like Jeffrey’s father’s hose caught on that bush, the natural pathways of electrical flow in this room have been kinked and disturbed. What Jeffrey next sees in the room defies the laws of gravity and mortality.
Earlier in the film, the youth discovered that the man in the yellow blazer who came to Dorothy’s door is Detective Williams’s partner, and also a partner to Frank’s dope-dealing cabal. Now the Yellow Man, his head a travesty of oozing red, a police radio crackling in his pocket, stands frozen like a statue, not lying flat like a proper corpse should. Aside from Frank Booth’s bizarre behavior, Lynch has exhibited plenty of evidence in Blue Velvet that would make Jeffrey declare “It’s a strange world.” One of the director’s subtly disturbing motifs is to put people in places and postures that are a few degrees removed from normal. While Frank sang and punched “In Dreams” to Jeffrey, one of Ben’s fat whores incongruously danced on the roof of Frank’s car, and at Ben’s, one of Frank’s goons had stood on the arm of a sofa while Ben sang. Lynch once said, after viewing a music video of animated store-window mannequins, “Anything that looks human, but isn’t, is frightening,” and he creates this haunting quality in Blue Velvet by showing people who don’t move. In an early establishing shot of the town, there’s a large, immobile man positioned by a store for no explained reason. And when Jeffrey begins his first night walk to Detective Williams’s house, there’s an eerily inert man standing under the trees with a little dog on a leash. We’re clearly not in Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
Back in Dorothy’s apartment, the seemingly dead standing Yellow Man scares Jeffrey and us when his hand twitches out and knocks over a lamp: Throughout his work, Lynch makes the boundary line between life and death ambiguous, a road that travels in twin directions. There’s no question, however, that Dorothy’s husband, Don, is dead. He sits bound in a chair, displaying the hole where his ear used to be, and in true Lynchian maximally disturbing fashion, littering his wife’s kitchen countertop with the contents of his head. And where there is death, there is Frank’s touch, for a length of blue velvet fabric spews out of Don’s mouth like a frozen scream, recalling the attenuated animated scream line that flowed from The Grandmother’s Boy’s mouth. Lynch is adept at making pain palpably visible.
Jeffrey goes to leave this house of carnage, but he sees Frank coming up the stairs and Frank sees him. The youth must manfully face the responsibility of his decision to walk on the wild side of town, for there’s no place to go but back into Dorothy’s apartment. The first time Jeffrey laid eyes on Frank, the youth was invisible, hiding within Dorothy’s closet. Following Lynch’s characteristic scheme of balances and parallels, Jeffrey again takes refuge in the dark little room within a room. And if the hearing function got Jeffrey in trouble before (his toilet flush made him miss Sandy’s warning car honks and get caught by Dorothy) it now benefits him. He calls Detective Williams for help on the Yellow Man’s radio, and when he realizes that Frank can hear him on his radio, misleads the villain by telling Williams that he’ll be hiding in Dorothy’s bedroom. Jeffrey then grabs Yellow Man’s pistol and dives into the closet just ahead of Frank’s entrance. Now all of Dorothy’s men are in attendance.
Lynch underscores his homosexual-villain subtext by having Frank call out, “I know where your cute little butt’s hiding.” Jeffrey’s radio may be making noise in the bedroom, but the youth’s not there. Frank yells “prettypretty,” makes some animalistic grunts, and fires bullets into the empty room. Enraged and calling out, “Where are you?” like some wicked hideand-go-seek player, Frank comes back to the living room. He is the maker of final deaths and when, in frustration, he pumps a bullet into Yellow Man, the standing canary figure must at last fall over and prostrate himself before the Lord of the Flies.
Through the slats in the closet door, Jeffrey has watched Frank commit brutal acts of sex and violence, and the youth has stepped through those doors to act out the parts of himself that are like Frank. Jeffrey is now fully aware of his capacity for good and evil, and that he can consciously choose which path to follow. In the next second or two he must use violence to save his own life, as well as to smite the predatory-animal powers that seethe in darkness a mighty blow. Frank throws open the closet door, and Jeffrey fires a single shot into his forehead. As the monster loses the back of his head, Lynch mixes the scream of a beast with the gunshot blast. If Dorothy and Frank have been Jeffrey’s benighted parent figures, nurturing him in the ways of the netherworld, then the young man has now closed the Oedipal circle, having slept with his mother and killed the father who wanted her all for himself.
On this night, the police have closed in on Lumberton’s web of criminals, and as Jeffrey and Sandy kiss in the apartment hallway, their true love is irradiated with white light, and outside we see light-flashing police cars descend on the building like robins pouncing on beetles.
Jeffrey has entered a severed ear and probed deep beneath the surface of his own and his town’s consciousness, and now Lynch pulls out of a ruddy canal that is Jeffrey’s sunlit ear, as he snoozes in the Beaumonts’ backyard. When he opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is a plump red robin on a branch. As if to codify his status as the hero who has mastered darkness and light, Jeffrey wears black pants and a white shirt. Having destroyed his bad father, Frank, the young man’s good father has been restored to him. In Lynch’s favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz, far-traveling Dorothy concludes that “There’s no place like home,” and now Jeffrey enjoys the most wonderful of homecomings. For the first time in the film, the Beaumont and Williams families are conjoined, as if to bless Sandy and Jeffrey’s union. Tom Beaumont is “feeling fine,” and Detective Williams tends to the barbecue in the backyard. Sandy and Aunt Barbara are fixing lunch, and Jeffrey’s and Sandy’s moms can’t wait to eat. Sandy’s original involving of Jeffrey in the ear mystery, which she’s regretted all along, has resulted in the vanquishment of evil. For there on the windowsill is her dream come true: that fat robin, a squirming black beetle in its powerful beak. Sandy looks at Jeffrey, recalling all the terrible and wonderful things they’ve shared, and there’s only one way she can put it into words: “It’s a strange world, isn’t it.”
The warm, sweet music of “Mysteries of Love” carries us to another homecoming. For the first time in the film, we see Dorothy Vallens in daylight, sitting on a park bench in the sun. Her little boy, Donny, now free as the wind, is enfolded in her smiling embrace. If any character in Blue Velvet has been as torturously entrapped as The Grandmother’s Boy, Eraserhead’s Henry, and The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, it is Dorothy. She evinces a shift in Lynch’s sensibility toward a growing concern for the victimization of women. Each of the director’s earlier characters escaped their bondage through the transcendent grace of love, and Dorothy also seems to have thrown off her web of darkness.
But Lynch knows how complex the world really is and he remains haunted by Dorothy’s suffering. Her smile fades, and there’s a tormented look in her eyes as we hear her voice sing the words that symbolize her unholy union with Frank: “And I still can see blue velvet through my tears.” As Lynch pans up from her and Donny to a beautiful blue sky, we remember that Don and Frank, Dorothy’s good and evil husbands, are both dead, and Jeffrey has chosen to stay on the side of the angels. But maybe some night the young man will again take a walk on the shadow side of town and Dorothy will find him in her closet. There are countless more hidden insects in the world than there are robins. The last thing we see in the film isn’t the wide-open sky; it’s a curtain of blue velvet that’s being rhythmically moved, as though the darkness behind it would never stop breathing.
Lynch says he is able to visualize thoughts and behavior more horrific than anything he has put before our eyes. In an earlier conception of Blue Velvet, the director let Frank Booth’s death-dealing perversity lunge out, violating the boundary of his own physical demise, and touch Dorothy one last time, making her, at this point in Lynch’s career, the director’s ultimate female victim. In a script-dialogue line not in the film, Lynch has Jeffrey say that Frank “had to have Dorothy cause her whole life was blue.”105 As the film ends now she’s still the Blue Lady, but being reunited with her loving little Donny and the exultant atmosphere of a sunny afternoon have let some light into her life and dispelled some of her soul’s gloom. Yet just as Lynch had initially planned for Eraserhead’s Henry to perish without the saving grace and love of his radiant Lady in the Radiator, Dorothy was originally to be swallowed by the ravenous black insects of darkness.
We would have seen the bloody body of little Donny, killed by Frank, found under Dorothy’s bed, as though birthed into death by the twisted, violent sex his mother was at first forced to practice, then loved to practice, in this room. Then, looking up the towering facade of Dorothy’s apartment building at night, we’d see a single red shoe fall toward us. Unlike Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, this poor Dorothy has no hope of finding Oz or getting back to Kansas, so she throws her unmagical ruby slipper into the abyss of night. Then her naked body, which we’ve previously seen stripped of protective clothes for sex and bruising, leaps from the rooftop toward us and past, into a final embrace with death, making literal her panicky words from earlier in the film that had summed up her plummeting spiritual state: “I’m falling!” Then her blue velvet robe drops toward us—can Lynch be providing a glimmer of redemption even in this darkest of endings?
The ruby slipper may not have gotten Dorothy where she wanted to go, but by throwing off the blue velvet robe that symbolizes her oppressive bondage to Frank, she has leapt into a transcendent freedom. (In Sunset Boulevard, which Lynch dearly loves, William Holden’s character removes the expensive cuff links that symbolize Norma Desmond’s oppressive hold on him before meeting his death.) As Lynch has said to me, he likes to “get people trapped in a hellhole”106 and then he often shows us, or implies, that there is an escape route. For Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer and The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, the process of achieving a final release involves their own death, as it will for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’s Laura Palmer and Mulholland Drive’s Diane Selwyn. Perhaps, as death enabled John Merrick to merge with the spirit of his truest love, his dear mother, so Dorothy will unite with her husband and child who have passed on before her.
After Dorothy leaps to her death, her blue robe would have fallen into our faces and frozen there, filling the screen as Bobby Vinton’s words “and I still can see blue velvet through my tears” hang in the air. Dorothy would be gone to some other place. We the living would be the ones still seeing blue velvet, still haunted.
David Lynch had found himself. He was home again, back from the dream-convolutions of Eraserhead’s mind, The Elephant Man’s nineteenthcentury England, and Dune’s interplanetary future, to the small-town streets where America lives. Blue Velvet was just as he wanted it to be, for it sprang from his innermost feelings about a young man becoming sexually and psychically mature, the terrors and exhilarations of acquiring knowledge, and the sustaining potency of love and family. In Isabella Rossellini, Lynch had a passionate and devoted love of his own, and he would face the eruptive response to his film, both the veneration and vilification, with a renewed personal confidence. The lucid, reality-based style of Blue Velvet seemed to heighten the director’s ability to convey resonant ideas, dreamlike poetic associations, and complex states of being. Just like Jeffrey, Lynch was growing, learning, and maturing, but some things would always remain the same. There would be a beautiful cherry tree in a boy’s backyard, and red ants swarming on it. Robins and bugs, blue skies and blue velvet, a curious young man and a severed ear, an FBI detective and a dead high school girl. Born amid Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo in Missoula, Montana, David Lynch would forever reside between twin peaks.
excerpt from the book: David Lynch:Beautiful Dark / Greg Olson
by Greg Olson
Reflecting the time-honored American myth that equates urban precincts with evil, Sandy and Jeffrey’s night walk takes on an ominous air as they leave her tree-lined, homey street for the wide concrete boulevard downtown. He protectively takes her arm as a slinky black 1950s car cruises by and men leer from the windows, “Hey babe, hey.” This is the seedy Lincoln neighborhood, the zone that Jeffrey’s parents have warned him to stay away from all his life. Sandy points out the singer’s forlorn, old brick apartment building and turns to go. “Come on,” she admonishes, but Jeffrey stands transfixed, staring at the building for many moments as Lynch holds a traffic light on red in front of the dilapidated structure, a motif warning of infernal danger that he will memorably repeat in Twin Peaks. Sandy is intrigued by mysteries up to a point, but she knows when to pull back, her sense of self-preservation is strong. Jeffrey, on the other hand, is obsessed; like so many of Lynch’s characters, he will risk his body and soul in order to learn the secrets that the night holds.
Back on home turf, heading toward the Williamses’, Jeffrey lightens up, spouting a bit of Lynchian grotesquerie as he recalls “a kid I used to know who had the biggest tongue in the world.” Sandy, who’s in perfect synchrony with Jeffrey’s moods, laughs. Then she turns solemn with him as he laments, “All my friends are gone,” and we remember that this boy’s father lies near death. Lynch has talked about a giddy feeling he’s had while “saying goofy, corny things” to a woman he’s fond of late at night. Jeffrey suddenly asks, “Do you know the Chicken Walk?” and parades up and down the sidewalk with his knees bent low and his torso and head held unnaturally stiff. Sandy breaks up in laughter and Jeffrey touches her shoulder for a second in affection. Lynch ends his masterful night-walk sequence with a moody image worthy of an Edward Hopper painting. From far away we see the small forms of the boy dressed in black and white and the girl in pink strolling slowly under the canopy of dark trees, we hear their faint laughter on the wind, the spark of their shared joy clouded by the mournful low moan of a far-off foghorn.
Even in broad daylight, filling in for his father at their bright and clean family hardware store, Jeffrey finds mysteries. Working with him at the store are two older African American gentlemen who’ve been there forever. They radiate affection for Jeffrey and he just calls them Double Ed, since they always walk and stand together. One of the men is blind but he can tell you which shelf the overalls are on and correctly ring up cash register sales. When Jeffrey holds up four fingers and asks, “How many?,” the blind man instantly answers, “Four.” With an awestruck grin, the youth replies, “I still don’t know how you do that!” In Lynch’s script, there was just one Ed, who could see just fine. Aside from showing the director’s love of twinning and doubling, the film’s Double Ed scene projects his and Jeffrey’s need for some mysteries to remain unsolved so that they retain their preternatural power. Like Lynch, Jeffrey wants to remain a little naive about some things; he seems to be willing himself not to guess Double Ed’s secret. Even though we in the audience see the two men facing us from Jeffrey’s point of view, it’s pretty easy to realize that all sighted Ed (Leonard Watkins) has to do is tap blind Ed (Moses Gibson) four times on the back.
Jeffrey can cruise on past Double Ed’s puzzle but he’s compelled to burrow deeper into the ear. He plans to put on those store overalls, grab an insect-exterminating sprayer, tell the woman singer he’s from pest control, jimmy a window in her place while he’s spraying, and sneak back in at night to search for clues. On the surface, he seems to be an idealistic Hardy Boys–style junior crimefighter, but he isn’t playing detective primarily to help Williams or impress Sandy: Subconsciously he’s on a profoundly personal quest, an involved process that will make him a fully integrated human being.
Sandy is part of Jeffrey’s plan, and he verbally pulls her away from her high school girlfriends and takes her to the local diner, Arline’s (as she leaves with him, she tells her friends not to mention this trip to her boyfriend, Mike). Symmetrically left and right of Arline’s front door are red drapes drawn back like theatrical curtains. These draped fabrics, which Lynch also features in The Grandmother, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Twin Peaks, frame narrative details and concentrate the audience’s focus. They also alert us to intermixtures of reality and illusion. Lynch echoes the entranceway’s symmetry by placing Sandy on the left and Jeffrey on the right in a booth, each sipping a Coke. The stage is set for Jeffrey to convince Sandy to help him, and his words recall Dune’s Duke Leto’s words to his son, Paul, which Lynch had screenwritten from Frank Herbert’s novel. Lynch had Leto say, “But a person needs new experiences. They jar something deep inside: the longing to grow. Without change, something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken.” Lynch pares this down for Jeffrey: “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a risk.” Jeffrey is gathering steam to take some major chances, and through them Lynch can live out hazardous fantasies through his art, as can we, the viewers, gaining some measure of Jeffrey’s self-knowledge.
Lynch then has Jeffrey speak the director’s own adolescent fantasy virtually verbatim. “I could learn a lot by getting into that woman’s apartment. You know, sneak in, hide, and observe.” Sandy shows how much she cares about Jeffrey by speaking right up when his notion violates her empathetic sense of his safety: “Are you crazy? This is too dangerous, she could be involved with murder!” But like an artist pursuing an alluring, dark muse, Jeffrey won’t be deterred by mundane, cautionary worries. Lynch wants us to share Sandy’s rational, common-sense concerns, but he, and we, are most interested in pursuing Jeffrey’s imaginative scheme. Like Dune’s Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother Mohiam, Sandy’s attempts to curb male initiative and enterprise will be overridden. The prevailing males in both films are played by Lynch’s screen alter ego, Kyle MacLachlan, and there’s the sense that we’re witnessing some of the artist’s uncensored psychodrama, his own obsessive pursuit of creative endeavors despite the curtailing entreaties of wives, friends, and business advisors. Perhaps Sandy is a version of Lynch’s ideal woman, expressing her heartfelt feelings with spirit, then going along with his plan. Jeffrey wins Sandy over by saying, “No one will suspect us because no one would think two people like us would be crazy enough to do something like this.” This awareness of their square, straight-arrow image in the community bespeaks Lynch’s own understanding of the persona that the media have created for him: a friendly, grinning, Jimmy Stewart and Eagle Scout type who’s secretly a crazed, far-out artist. Lynch is attuned to the multivalenced nature of things, the interplay between what is and what appears to be. We recall that Jeffrey told Detective Williams that he found the ear “behind Vista,” referring to a street or neighborhood. The ear is the youth’s mysterious ticket-to-ride, a portion of the secret world hidden behind the vista of Lumberton’s wholesome facade, and Jeffrey wants to see the whole show.
Lynch, in his opening montage, symbolized the town’s hidden world with the seething black insects and their ravenous, endless cycle of carnage and copulation. Jeffrey, dressed in his exterminating gear, enters the Deep River Apartments (deep waters being an ancient symbol for the human subconscious mind). Upon crossing the threshold, he hears the insectoid buzzing and humming of a “no vacancy” sign that’s shorting out: This is indeed the entrance to the netherworld. The low-rent building’s elevator is out of order, so he climbs seven flights of exterior stairs, as Lynch gives us the feeling that Jeffrey is beginning the exertions of an arduous quest.
Up the stairs, down the gloomy dark-gray hallway, Jeffrey travels deeper into the ear. The youth gets no response when he knocks on Dorothy’s door, so that Lynch can build to her dramatic entrance into the film. The door suddenly cracks open the width of a safety chain, a vertical shaft of light falling on the ripe, red lips of the director’s original Blue Velvet vision, and the anxious eyes of a woman teetering on the edge of fear. She spits out a foreign-accented challenge: “Yes, what do you want?,” but Jeffrey’s roleplaying gets him past her defenses.
The exotic strangeness of Dorothy’s accent is matched by the look of her living room, which is unlike anything Jeffrey has ever seen. It’s as though his penetration of the ear canal has brought him deep inside a human body, or mind, where the walls and floor are dark red and the curve of an armless couch seems to have grown out of the wall like a fleshy organ. And, in contrast to the normal-looking plants that grow in the Beaumonts’ garden, there are two green erections of frond foliage shooting up from unnaturally tiny pots against the red walls. These phallic plants reflect the surrealistically part-plant, part-animal growths that sprouted in Lynch’s early animated film passages (The Alphabet, The Grandmother).
As the ants crawling on the newfound ear and the bug-like buzzing lobby sign indicate, Jeffrey’s pursuit of the ear’s mystery will lead him into the zone of raw animal impulses, a fearsome region that will both surround and inhabit him. As he sprays Dorothy’s kitchen, he bends over at the waist, a creeping-animal posture that Lynch will assign to the feral BOB of Twin Peaks. There’s a knock at the door, which Jeffrey expects to be Sandy posing as a Jehovah’s Witness to divert Dorothy’s attention. But instead there’s a big man in a canary-yellow sports coat, who takes a good, hard look at the youth. To explain Jeffrey’s presence, Dorothy says, “It’s only the bug man.” This line wasn’t in Lynch’s original script, so the director must have decided during filming to add this phrase that describes Jeffrey’s pretend occupation, his low-bending posture and dark, beetle-like jumpsuit that covers him from feet to Adam’s apple, and his psychological metamorphosis into a darker self.
While Dorothy bids goodbye to the Yellow Man, Jeffrey spies her house key and pockets it. Back outside, Sandy apologizes to him for not coming to the door because she figured the Yellow Man did her diversionary job for her. That night, she lies to her boyfriend and father in order to be with Jeffrey as he plans his next step. At the Slow Club, Jeffrey, in true Lynchian food-and-beverage-appreciation style, rhapsodizes about the Heineken beer he’s drinking. He and Sandy watch Dorothy Vallens sing two numbers, the stage set in what will be the standard for Lynch’s performance scenes: red curtain backdrop with blue spotlighting. Indeed, the vertical folds in the Slow Club’s curtains, and the white light behind them emphasizing the fabric’s ruddy membranes, anticipate Twin Peaks’ iconic Red Room. Starting out in what seemed to be the 1950s, the film has mixed in 1970s cars, 1980s computers, and now Dorothy sings into a 1930s art deco microphone. In Blue Velvet, Lynch is pioneering a subtle stylistic motif that other filmmakers will try to copy; he’s giving us an evocative dream time, an ambiguous mix of various decade signifiers in which we float around, subtly disconnected from the waking realities of our own time-bound lives.
As Dorothy sings “Blue Velvet” on stage, we notice an incongruous talisman of bestial energies at her feet: the wicked six-foot-wide horns of a longhorn steer. Dorothy is not herself essentially animalistic, but she is a body in which bestial men deposit their impulses, debasing her emotions into a desperate sadness that’s like an unsatisfied hunger. Sometimes Lynch’s character’s names are literal descriptions (The Man in the Planet, The Lady in the Radiator, The Blue-Haired Lady), but Dorothy’s name at the Slow Club, The Blue Lady, refers more to her hidden bruised soul and midnightstained grief than to her blue eyeshadow makeup and the light that bathes her on stage. She sings her last number, whose lyrics are Lynch’s: “Shadows fall so blue; as lonely as a blue, blue star.” The director then accomplishes another of his elegant, expressive scene transitions by taking the last musical note of Dorothy’s lament and flowing into a progression of descending musical chords, which dissolve from the singer in shadow on stage to Sandy and Jeffrey driving into their nocturnal mission of mystery. The falling chords not only give a sinister gravity to the evening and Sandy’s worried look, but the music’s linkage to Dorothy is a prelude to her wish to end her miserable life by plunging from a great height. In his script, Lynch alludes to the possibility of Dorothy leaping from her apartment roof, but in the film he condenses her feeling of a panicky plunge into the abyss to a scream at street level: “I’m falling!”
In Lynch’s aesthetic, the two primal modes of moving through space are floating and falling. Floating is the positive pole. The artist has spoken of how he “fishes”80 for ideas and intuitions that “float” by, and how he tries to transfix and float the viewer into his films and paintings and musical/song compositions. Floating figures are found in Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Wild at Heart, Industrial Symphony No. 1, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, various paintings, drawings, photographs, and song lyrics (“You and I float in love and kiss forever,” “We’re floating as one”. Falling is the negative pole. The Grandmother’s Boy falls over after his granny dies; Industrial Symphony No. 1’s bereft heroine, who floats singing 60 feet above the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s stage, suddenly falls; figures plunge in drawings; the doomed Laura Palmer of Fire Walk With Me speaks of “falling forever until you burst into flame”; and song lyrics bemoan “Falling through this night alone.”84 Floating and falling are the physical equivalents of those heightened states of being and emotion that fascinate Lynch: times when our feet aren’t firmly on the ground.
Sandy can feel the darkness pulling at Jeffrey, and she worries that he’s going to fall. Parked in front of Dorothy’s apartment, she regrets having told him the police-case details that got them to this moment, but she will help him by honking the car horn four times when Dorothy arrives, so Jeffrey will know she’ll soon enter her flat. Just as Jeffrey’s declaration, “It’s a strange world,” crystallizes the viewpoint of both Blue Velvet and the man who wrote and directed it, what Sandy now says to Jeffrey applies to both him and David Lynch. “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert,” she wonders, as Jeffrey heads up to hide in a strange woman’s room.
Lynch’s films delve deeply into disturbing realms of human emotion and behavior. The director is a detective scanning the psyche’s netherworld for clues to the big mysteries of existence and death, but the fierce persistence of his fascination with the darkest veins of fear and desire seem sick and perverse to some viewers and critics. What really gets under our skin about Lynch’s work, and causes some to demonize him, is the realization, if only subconsciously, that we ourselves might be capable of the thoughts and actions the director depicts so intensely. Even if we can’t admit this, we like to watch.
We who view movies are voyeurs, we sit in the dark gazing at the often intimate behaviors of (albeit) fictional people who don’t know we’re looking at them. Of course, we’re actually watching actors playing characters, but the aesthetic contract enforces the feeling that we’re indulging the privilege of spying on other people’s lives. While voyeurism is the subtext of the movieviewing experience, some films consciously acknowledge the concept in notable scenes (Psycho) or extended thematic treatments (Rear Window, Peeping Tom). The watchers in these films are looking at sex and death, the twin aspects of human experience most guarded by societal taboos: Once again, the movies fulfill our secret desires, our urge to see all that human beings can do. Jeffrey wants to gather clues in Dorothy’s apartment and help solve a crime, but, we’re sure, he (and we) also want to see her naked. Perversion denotes abnormality, and the wish to see another’s bared flesh is not unusual. It’s the context of Jeffrey’s viewing that will be transgressive: He’s an uninvited, hidden spectator whose gaze will have power over the one that he’s looking at.
To Sandy’s “detective or pervert” musing, Jeffrey replies, “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” In Lynch’s original script, we would already know of the youth’s lascivious leanings by now. There was to be a scene early on in the film before Jeffrey was called home from college. Hiding in the shadows, the youth watched a male student “trying to rape his girlfriend. She is crying and telling him to stop but the boy keeps forcing her down toward the ground. . . . The boy is now hurting the girl.”85 Only when Jeffrey hears his off-camera friends calling for him does he (still concealed by the darkness) yell at the rapist: “Hey, shithead. Leave her alone. . . . Don’t force girls!,”86 at which point the boy releases the girl. Watching this scene, we would have noted that Jeffrey’s fascination with what he was viewing allowed the crime to progress, and it was a reminder of outside social sanctions (his calling friends) that prompted his intervention. Without interruption, how long would he have watched? Though this is clearly a strong scene, Lynch chose to leave it out. So when we meet Jeffrey in the film, he’s absolutely identified with the benign and wholesome small-town universe, against which his gradual descent into the ear’s mystery and his own sexual and spiritual darkness will provide a more dramatically potent contrast.
Beginning with the wildly feeding beetles in Blue Velvet’s opening montage, Lynch has linked rampant animal appetites with primal evil, and as Jeffrey began to penetrate Lumberton’s netherworld, he was called “the bug man” by one of this sinister realm’s denizens, Dorothy, who ought to know one when she sees one. Now, as the youth breaks the law to enter her apartment, his appetites, and his penis, immediately get him in trouble. Because of all the Heineken beer he consumed at the Slow Club, Jeffrey is loudly peeing into Dorothy’s toilet and flushing it when Sandy gives her warning beeps that the singer has entered the building. Jeffrey’s cut off from Sandy’s lifeline in this place; he doesn’t hear her warning. The youth, in detective fashion, is starting to carefully examine Dorothy’s dressing table for clues when she starts to open her front door. He dives for her living room closet where, hidden inside and peering out through its louvered doors, he looks more the pervert, recalling the image in Psycho where Anthony Perkins peeped through the wall hole at the undressing Janet Leigh. Lynch has realized his adolescent fantasy on film: His cinematic alter ego is secretly watching a woman in her room at night. Jeffrey provides a textbook example of the nefarious “male gaze” that feminist critics deplore. A man has written his visual sexual reverie into a film, shot by a male cinematographer, in which a man looks at an unpersonalized woman as a sexual object, and then a higher percentage of males than females watch the film. These are the facts in the case, but Lynch’s truth is more complex and balanced than his detractors care to admit, or notice.
Lynch may be visualizing his teenage fantasy, but he presents Jeffrey’s view of Dorothy stripping to her bra and panties and doffing her performance wig without a hint of erotic spark. She arouses no prurient interest as she has a desperate phone conversation with someone named Frank and, burdened with spiritual malaise, retreats to the bathroom where, far away from the camera, she quickly strips in rear view while standing straight up. Not only is the leering male viewpoint absent from this scene, but Lynch turns the traditional male power position topsy-turvy. For Dorothy hears (ears again) a rustle in her closet and, wearing her blue velvet robe, rousts out the frightened Jeffrey at the point of a butcher knife. Her surprisingly commanding voice is harsh and ragged: “Get on your knees. Do it!” Concealing his detective persona, Jeffrey takes refuge in a pervert’s defense, saying he’s the bug-spray man who “just wanted to see you.” In a stunning reversal of Jeffrey’s expectations for his spying session, Dorothy spits back, “Get undressed, I want to see you.” The narrative surprise of this moment parallels the sudden revelation of the beetles churning beneath the Beaumonts’ lawn, and it won’t be the last rude shock that Jeffrey will endure as he ventures deeper into Lumberton’s underworld. He’s dealing with powerful, scary forces that he can’t control. But like young David Lynch going down into that menacing New York subway tunnel, he can learn something about himself if he keeps riding into the darkness.
Lynch believes that both the malevolent and the benign aspects of life can teach us a thing or two, and Jeffrey’s guides into the dark realms he doesn’t yet know about will be Dorothy and Frank. The curriculum will let him experience the roles of both victim and sadistic perpetrator, the teaching tools will be sex and violence, and there will be minor electives in pain, weeping, degradation, and corruption. Homework will be inescapable; sleep-learning will consist of nightmares. Like the girl in The Alphabet, Jeffrey will be absorbing the horrors of learning. Lynch, aside from having Dorothy and Frank give Jeffrey life lessons in depravity, will use the pair as benighted, underground reflections of the youth’s warm and loving aboveground parents. And the director won’t shy away from pushing Oedipal logic to the nth degree. Dorothy makes Jeffrey take down his underpants, which are, naturally, all-American red plaid boxers. Kneeling in front of him, she invitingly asks, “What do you want?” He says, “I don’t know,” and she does what he wants, but won’t speak, taking his penis into her mouth at an angle the camera can’t quite see. Jeffrey gets a teasing few seconds of pleasure, but Dorothy is in control, holding her big knife a breath away from his genitals, and barking orders: “Don’t move; don’t look at me; don’t touch me or I’ll kill you.” Dorothy is playing a sadistic game, but Jeffrey is no masochist, and tells her he doesn’t like that threatening talk. They move to the fleshy couch that seems like an organic outgrowth of the wall, and enact one of the film’s iconic tableaux of melded six and violence: Dorothy in her blue velvet robe straddling Jeffrey’s pelvis and bending forward to kiss him, her ready blade glinting against the ruddy wall. She makes a potent dominatrix, but a sudden, thunderous pounding on her door announces the arrival of this underworld’s alpha male predator, the power of Lumberton’s darkness.
The Frank Booth that Lynch wrote and Dennis Hopper acts out is a phenomenal creation. If Jeffrey is trying on the role of bug man, Frank is the real thing. Wearing a stiff black leather coat like a beetle’s carapace, sucking in nitrous oxide gas from a plastic inhaling mask that covers his nose and mouth and gives him a gleaming bug-like jawline, his eye popping, Frank is an insect ready to feed on flesh. And he’s got a bug in his noggin: a buzzing sexual obsession with Dorothy, the Blue Velvet Lady. Like a demented artist of the libido, Frank has devised a theater-of-cruelty ritual that he enacts with Dorothy. As Jeffrey watches aghast and fascinated from his closet, he encounters a new mystery: Why does she put up with it?
Dorothy douses the electric lamp, lights a squat, white candle (like the ones at Laura Palmer’s Twin Peaks murder site), and Frank intones the archetypal Lynchian incantation: “Now it’s dark” (which isn’t in the script). Repeating an established pattern, Dorothy brings over a small chair and sits on it, and gives Frank a glass of bourbon. As in some perversion of a 1950s sitcom, Frank casts himself in the role of Daddy coming home, but Dorothy slips and calls him “Baby.” An understandable mistake, for there’s a maelstrom of Oedipal confusion in Frank’s psyche. He next calls her “Mommy,” and in a plaintive, childlike voice, declares, “Baby wants to fuck” and “Baby loves blue velvet.” Then, as Lynch’s script specifies, he gives commands to himself, which degrade into vocal self-abuse, “Get ready to fuck! You fuckers, fucker, you fucker.” And when he throws Dorothy to the floor, jumps on top of her and, with all his clothes on, bounces up and down frantically for a few seconds before ejaculating, Frank is “Daddy” again, and keeps assuring us that “Daddy’s coming home.” (Many critics’ theories about Frank being mad at the world because he’s impotent—based on his staying zipped-up during his frenzy of sexual thrusting—are vaporized by a line in Lynch’s script: “faster and faster, then he has a climax in his pants.”)
Whether Frank is seeing Dorothy as herself or his mother, he heaps abuse on her. His harrowing expression of sexuality is an act of rage against the world, women, and himself. Fueling his assaultive acting-out with hits of nitrous oxide gas, Frank attempts to hide his vile self-image by repeatedly yelling, “Don’t you fucking look at me!” and striking Dorothy if she seems to disobey. To see himself in her eyes is more than he can bear. If Frank loathes himself, he also abhors Dorothy’s femaleness. Before climbing on top of her, he roughly jams his fingers into her vagina, and after climaxing he looks at the hand that touched her, as if it wasn’t part of him, and makes a splayed-finger throwing gesture like he’s trying to rid himself of slime or the hand itself. No wonder Daddy chooses to come home in his pants.
Lynch stresses the brutal animalism of Frank’s behavior by having Hopper growl and slaver vocalizations that aren’t words. Frank’s snarling sounds as he hovers over his victim recall The Grandmother’s Father barking and looming over his hapless Boy, and prefigures similar configurations of characters that will show up in the director’s future works.
After Frank is finished with Dorothy, he stands above her supine form and cryptically says, “Stay alive, baby. Do it for Van Gogh.” This data convinces the watching Jeffrey that Dorothy is suicidal, and adds to the youth’s sense that Frank has kidnapped her little boy and husband, and has cut off her spouse’s ear (“Van Gogh”). Frank then uses his control over Dorothy’s loved ones to manipulate her any way he wants.
It now becomes clear that Dorothy’s sadistic sexual bossing of Jeffrey is a pale reflection of the way Frank treats her, a way of coping with her hellish situation by taking on some characteristics of the man who has power over her (she commands Jeffrey using Frank’s words, “Don’t look at me”). Given Lynch’s penchant for casting parents and parent-surrogates as potential and actual sexual abusers of young people (The Grandmother, Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), it’s reasonable to surmise from the “Mommy loves you” and “Baby wants to fuck” of Frank’s perverse sex ritual that the man has been traumatized by a past, perhaps incestuous, sexual experience. (Freud believed that a boy witnessing the primal scene of his father and mother having intercourse would develop a sadistic sexuality fixated on the power of the strong male dominating the weaker female. He also surmised that the last object a boy sees before he first glimpses his mother’s genitals becomes fetishized: It wouldn’t surprise us if little Frank Booth’s mother wore a blue velvet robe.) Frank’s victimization has compelled him to visit sexual violence upon Dorothy, who continues to cycle with Jeffrey. Foisting rough sex on Jeffrey may help Dorothy cope, but she’s most deeply conditioned to express her erotic nature through victimhood. When Frank has left and she and Jeffrey are alone again, the youth gently comforts her and they both get aroused, and she implores him, “Hit me, hit me.” He won’t, so their first evening is over.
Or so Jeffrey may think as he’s putting on his clothes. But walking away from Dorothy’s building in the darkness, his black-clad form starts to glow with phosphorescence; then we see Jeffrey’s father struggling in vain to speak, the guttering flame of Frank’s white candle, Dorothy’s face begging “Hit me,” and a Dorothy’s-eye-view of a grimacing Frank mashing his fist into our face to the sound of her scream. Then Jeffrey is in bed in the morning, his head reeling from a nightmare (“Man oh man”). Lynch has not only toyed with our sense of reality by slyly immersing us in what we now realize was a montage of Jeffrey’s dream, but he’s emphasized how profoundly the youth’s consciousness has become immersed in the ear-mystery, and how dangerous his quest is. He’s awake, his bad dream is over, he’s in his own comforting bed. But on the wall above him is an animalistic rubber Halloween mask that’s all devouring mouth and hungry teeth—a reminder of the metaphysical evil of the dark beetles gnawing beneath sunny lawns, Frank’s brutal appetites, and the unsettling fact that the mask fits Jeffrey’s face. As artist Vito Acconci says of Lynch’s oeuvre, Lynch shows us that we are both “scared and scary”: We are threatened by shadows from outside and inside.
Twenty-four hours after Jeffrey’s dark introduction to Lumberton’s underworld with Dorothy and Frank, the sober and sad young man sits in the Williamses’ car with Sandy. Whenever Jeffrey drives, they go to the wrong side of the tracks. But when Sandy’s at the wheel, they stop in front of a stone church with stained glass windows, in which we can hear an organist practicing a beautiful melody. Sandy, the agent of angelic goodness, would naturally guide them to this site. (We note that Jeffrey drives a convertible, signifying his dual nature as wholesome, upright youth and dabbler in darkness; Twin Peaks’ Leland Palmer, Laura’s demon-possessed father, also drives a convertible.) Gazing at Sandy’s blonde loveliness, Jeffrey gathers himself to speak of the raven-haired Dorothy’s inferno. He first said, “It’s a strange world” to Sandy on their initial night stroll, when an amorphously defined forming mystery could be contemplated with innocent enthusiasm. Now, having gained some experience of the mystery’s shape and lived some of the life its main characters lead, he says, “It’s a strange world” with a melancholy whisper. Jeffrey has discovered a secret realm hidden within the world he thought he knew by heart, and it’s tainted him. His account to Sandy keeps secrets from her: He makes no mention of the sexual activity of he and his two netherworld guides. Wanting to believe that people can be either all good or all bad, Jeffrey condenses the evil of the ear mystery into the form of Frank Booth, and passionately asks Sandy, “Why are there men like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in the world?” Sandy doesn’t know the answer to this major mystery, but, given Lynch’s love of opposing forces in contrast, she offers an antidote to the world’s evil.
Sitting at the steering wheel, the church and its uplifting melody softfocus in the background, Sandy says with sweet exultation, “I had a dream,” words that are a Lynchian declaration of principles. “The world was dark because there weren’t any robins, and the robins represented love. And for the longest time there was just this darkness. And all of a sudden, thousands of robins were set free. And they flew down and brought this blinding light of love, and it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So, I guess it means there is trouble ’till the robins come.”
If Frank’s sexual abuse of Dorothy is Blue Velvet’s most searing statement of malevolence, then Sandy and Jeffrey’s car talk is its antithesis. And, as evidence that the powers of shadow and radiance are equally valuable to Lynch’s sensibility, each scene runs about the same length of time. As Laura Dern has said, “David believes in the robins as much as in Frank Booth.”89 Some viewers, whose sense of wonder is dimmed by an overdeveloped need to find everything ironic, are convinced that Sandy’s dewy-eyed dream description is a put-on, a way for Lynch to mock her corny credulity. But this artist who calls himself naive, who meditates on Eastern concepts of spiritual transcendence, values dream states, and in previous films has portrayed the ability of higher powers to deliver benighted souls, most certainly has his ears pricked for those robins’ song.
Other than his creepy human animals, the critters that appear most in Lynch’s work are insects and dogs, though there are a few other birds outside the precincts of Blue Velvet. The graceful, feathered creatures that can defy gravity have a positive connotation for the artist. There’s the cheery robin on a fir branch in the Twin Peaks credits. The joyful feeling in Lynch’s song “I Remember” that’s “So happy, so warm / That sent seven little red birds up my spine / Singing.”90 The way the director compares a well-made film to the “perfect composition” of a mallard duck’s anatomy, the bird’s eye having been positioned “in exactly the right spot.” And there are Lynch’s angel figures, one of whom, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, has white-feathered wings.
Sandy’s dream has the resonance of a prophecy but, unlike in Dune, where it’s telegraphed ahead of time that Paul’s visions will come true, Blue Velvet trades in true moment-to-moment existential mystery and revelation. (Every frame of this film shows how much more at home Lynch is here than in the imperial throne rooms of far-flung galaxies.) Sandy had her dream the night she met Jeffrey, so maybe he’s the one who can make the robins come, though he seems more interested in debauchery than birds. Lynch cuts directly from Sandy and Jeffrey’s sanctified scene in front of the church to Jeffrey on the prowl in night town, anxious for Dorothy to open her door, and more, to him.
There’s something murky in him that responds to the dusky pull of her blood, and Jeffrey thrusts himself into Dorothy’s desperate body. He can see that she’s half crazy, looking for Jeffrey in her closet every night, scared of Frank and soul-sick over what he may do to her entrapped husband and little son. She’s sunken so low in abuse that she keeps entreating Jeffrey, “I want you to hurt me.” One night, when the youth says he’ll tell the police of her predicament, she gets furious with him and literally starts to kick him out of bed. Up to this moment Jeffrey has maintained, “I want to help you, not hurt you” but, with relief, he yields to the darkness within him, and whacks her hard in the face with the back of his hand. (Following Freud’s logic, Jeffrey, having psychically processed and absorbed the primal scene of his netherworld surrogate father and mother Frank and Dorothy having punishing sex, is now able to model Frank’s sadistic erotic power-plays.) Like a visual reverberation of the blow, Lynch shows us a huge close-up of Dorothy’s chipped front tooth, which dissolves in a gust of flames that becomes Jeffrey pouncing onto her in a sexual slow-motion embrace, over which we hear distorted animal roars and the sharp-end punctuation of a woman’s scream. The scene goes to black and Dorothy says, “I have your disease in me now.”
The question of the exact nature of this disease generated much discussion after Blue Velvet came out. In the mid-1980s, America and the world were still trying to comprehend and cope with the concept of AIDS, a horrendous, fatal plague spread from person to person primarily through sexual contact. A number of commentators thought that Dorothy’s “disease” was AIDS and that Lynch was making a sociopolitical point about the Reagan administration’s avoidance of this crisis-magnitude public health issue. Indeed, many hip viewers were sure that Lynch, by exposing the moral rot behind the sugar-sweet facade of smalltown USA, was subverting Reagan’s Up With America ethos. Of course, these cognoscenti were shocked to learn that their radical-director hero was a supporter of the Gipper. Lynch wants his art to mean different things to different people, to speak to the individual viewer’s needs and imagination: The connection between artwork and public is what matters, not the communication of a neatly formulated and circumscribed message from the author.
The “disease” in Blue Velvet is one of the director’s beloved abstractions, which he wants us to interpret as we will, but his original script gives us some clues about his take on the concept. On the page, Dorothy ruminates, “You put your disease in me—your semen. It’s hot and full of disease. Men are crazy. They put their craziness into me, then it makes me crazy—then they aren’t so crazy for awhile. Then they put it in me again. . . . [Starts Crying] It’s burning me!”92 This from the supposedly male chauvinist director who lives to abuse women onscreen: These script words could have been written by Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot artist Andy Warhol and founded the Society for Cutting Up Men (SCUM). For Lynch, the disease is the evil that men do, which can invade another’s personality and bring out their worst. Bad, twisted thoughts and actions can be contagious, and the director will further explore the question of whether evil is a possessing or an intrinsic force in Twin Peaks.
excerpt from the book: David Lynch:Beautiful Dark / Greg Olson
When People Cannot Differentiate Between Internal and External Worlds And Then Take One For Another
Behind the credits of the “Hour of the Wolf” we hear noises of a set being made ready for the shot – a black frame… a black screen in fact, an image (if one can so describe it) of total darkness before the first real, luminous images… All this – night passing into day, darkness into an image – to anchor the narrative in a kind of primordial night… Liv Ullmann is revealed… confiding the story… This second narration (the first is the introductory darkness) is soon “illustrated” – a third narrative, this time peopled with “characters” follows on from her confession. This narrative proceeds up to the point when Liv Ullmann discovers her husband’s diary… So, there is a fourth narrative superimposed onto the first three… Her reading is in turn illustrated: a fifth narrative is grafted on to its predecessors. Phantasms of extreme violence are unleashed by this new proliferation of the unfolding narrative. Up to the moment when Liv confesses to her husband that she has read his diary. Now begins a long night, in which the couple’s phantasms… begin to develop in common… After the night in the castle, the climax of this eruption of dreams, the house of cards begins piece by piece to collapse. The characters evaporate, melt into the night… Liv resumes her confession at the point where we left her in the start, in the same close-up.
Cahiers du Cinema 1960 – 1968, Harvard Univ. Press, p. 313, 315
The worst are the ‘hours of the wolf’… between three and five. That is when the demons come: mortification, loathing, fear and rage. There is no point in trying to suppress them, for that makes it worse.
Ingmar Bergman, “The Magic Lantern”, Penguin, 1988, p. 226
Of course, works of art create themselves, and dream of killing both father and mother. Of course, they exist before the artist discovers them. But it’s always “Orpheus”, always “Oedipus”. I thought that by changing castle I’d change ghosts and that here a flower could make them flee.
Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”
Bergman’s film is about a psychological phenomenon that is quite widespread in our time – when a person’s impulses, intentions and desires go out of the control of his/her psychological wholeness – of his personality and holistic identity. In US in the 21st century we observe more and more people with the inability not only to control their impulses, but to rationally take into consideration the consequences of their actions. Even people’s everyday actions and decisions become impregnated with their instinctive impulsivity, impatience and expectation of quick results. More, this is true not only about regular people – even the decision-makers are like this – immature and not capable of self-reflection, whose calculations are not thought through and made angrily, often belligerently and with electronic speed. “Thinking” for these people means to justify the decisions they already instinctively have made. It expresses itself in all the areas of life – in personal relations, in politics (Bush Jr. type of bravado decision-making, the neo-conservative politicians’ adolescently blind and wide-sweeping passions, today’s policemen’s panicky shooting unarmed people, erroneous profitmaking of the financial entrepreneurs, with disastrous consequences for global populations because of their inability to resist the imaginary profits, arm-chair killing of civilians by sitting in air-conditioned offices drone operators, in general thinking about life as moneymaking and fight for more power, the inability to keep the sexual impulses and private addictions under control, impersonalized and depersonalized consumerism, etc.)
The socio-psychological phenomenon of pluralism of social life which was always a point of pride for democratic systems, is perceived in the 21st century as an adversary factor – for people ruling democracies today the international versatility is not only a burden but an obstacle and a menace. They encourage in masses suspicion for otherness and paranoid reactions. Bergman’s film shows the process of pluralization of reality through multiplication of narrations, characters and situations which the main characters cannot assimilate and tolerate without extremely defensive reactions and frustrations. Collapse of the artist’s psychological wholeness and transformation of peoples into (shattered) phantoms and ghosts – shadowy creatures without identities – here is Bergman‘s comment about the future of human societies which becomes a reality for us today. In this sense Bergman’s “Hour of the Wolf” is a dystopia not without a political connotation. When individuals are no longer able to think without fear deforming their thinking, when philosophers become just specialists in philosophers of the past, when artists become entertainers, then the regular people are transformed into phantoms without identity and humanity (contaminated with aggressive, dangerous unconscious energies).
Bergman masterfully personifies this situation as a problem of the artistic self’s failure in the talented painter Johan Borg, whose partial creative impulses as a result of his psychological fragmentation are going out of control – when his imaginary constructions (his phantoms, his aesthetic interpretation of various people, his figurative imagination) started to rebel against his artistic will. But let’s be sure that in Bergman’s film these imaginary personages which are the inner images of the artistic unconscious/conscious are also real human beings who are like appendixes to their obsessions and suffer from existential depravity – the ontological incompleteness producing a basic “inferiority complex” fixating people on external achievements as a result of their internal emptiness. Psychological fragmentation tends to flatten the human psyche, reduce it to partial interests, which are always impulsive and unable to provide human being with a solid ontological rootedness and existential perspective. That’s how people today hunt after jobs and consumer items, after images ripped away from the context, after ideological sound-bites and crumbs of bliss provided by rock concerts and mass events, alcohol and drugs. So, Bergman in “Hour of the Wolf” simultaneously analyses the situation of a talented artist who is losing creative control over his figurative images – his phantoms (his internal objects), and the psychological condition of regular people who pursuit false (absurd) goals (like the inhabitants of Baron von Merkens’ castle) because they are ontologically deprived and unconsciously feel that they are “inferior” and for this reason are restless and over-agitated to achieve and be rewarded with social status and power.
As a result of his sensitivity and talent the artist repeats in his sub-conscious the condition of people he comes across in social settings and through his imagination reinvents them for the purpose of his art. By the logic of artistic creativity Johan Borg shares his social phantoms’ ontological deprivation to the horror of his wife Alma. The artist (Johan Borg) registers the condition of people as that of his inner objects which “represents” inside his psyche the truth about the psychological condition of people in the real world.
But the artist (Borg) personifies not only his own inner objects and not only the psychologically regular people (the members of Merkens family and their entourage), but also the condition of human culture in the times of cultural fragmentation (much like this period we live in today in the Western societies when culture cannot democratically control (humanize) the psychological state of its people who dramatically regress from the more rational way of psychological organization into chaotic and impulsive feelings and behavior). Bergman’s film is a diagnosis of today’s planetary culture (symbolized by Johan Borg’s psyche which reaches the point of anomie).
A big part of the film is dedicated to the depiction of the artist’s relationships with figures of authority, stylistically enigmatized and demonized by his imagination, while also reflecting truth of these personages with their self-confident manners, the imperative verbalizations, rather of mature age, materially very prosperous and socially influential. Amongst them there are modifications of parental figures (paternal and maternal) – Baron von Merkens (spider-man) and Corinne von Merkens (his wife), of grand-maternal (Countess von Merkens, Baron’s mother), of grand-grand-maternal (The Lady with a hat) who not only takes away her hat, but also her face (in order to hear better the music of an imaginary composer). There is also an uncle-like Ernst von Merkens. Besides that Bergman introduces us to the personifications of two aspects of an intellectual art-criticism – the performative aspect (archivist Lindhorst, the bird-man) and the “public relation” aspect (curator Heerbrand) in two incarnations – as a “homosexual” attracted to the artist’s exhibitionism, and the development of the theme of “schoolmaster with the pointer in his trousers” – a despotic (self-imposing and intrusive educator).
Johan Borg in the film represents rather a modernist painter with the ability to perceive other people critically – the ability which contributes to the artist’s conflict with society (that contradicts the traditional “romantic” concept of art as a beautiful alternative to the reality). Archetypal figures of the Western psyche whom Bergman represents as Borg’s neighbors, want to be idealized, worshiped and adored, and they strike back for a lack of reverie towards them on the part of the artist. Johan Borg becomes the hero of modernist (critical and democratic) art, fighting with the despotic images and social structures from the past and falling in this battle while trying to deconstruct and to debunk the traditional authoritarian values. Before his psychological collapse, Johan Borg was existentially oriented and didn’t want the images of art to be grandiose, superhuman, eternal, over-beautiful as they are supposed to be in the traditionally understood “great art”.
Another extensive topic Bergman touches on in this film is the antagonistic relation between the artist’s personal life on the one hand and his fixation on the archetypal images of his imagination on the other. “The art of living together is Bergman’s central concern.” (P. Livingston, “Ingmar Bergman and the Ritual of Art”, Cornell Univ. Press, 1982, p. 244). Johan’s inability to stay with his wife Alma (who personifies the human wholeness), incompatibility between his more and more shattered psyche and her holistic personality refers to a tragedy not only for art, but for human culture when both losing wholeness and becoming an appendix to the drive for material success (art-makers) and immediate satisfaction (the audience). Traditional forms of despotism are activated in democratic societies under new masks, and purity of the soul (Alma) is unable to withstand growing irrational fears armed with animosity. The intellectual artist must fight alone and is doomed. Johan feels farther and farther from Alma’s love. She is a metonymy of existential genuineness, of ontological presence. Three Alma’s gazes are registered by Sven Nykvist’s camera – one at Johan when he is going through his sleepless night hours, the other – at the puppet representation of Mozart’s opera, and third – at Johan’s portrait of Veronica Vogler – represent the abyss between life and art in a condition of disintegration. In these three gazes Liv Ullmann expresses a mixture of curiosity and disgust, a combination of disappointment and compassion, of disbelief and contempt for the miserable human condition of being obsessed with pleasures of darkness, with self-aggrandizement inside a cave (with the same expression Alma could look at the TV or movie screen showing commercial TV programs or entertaining Hollywood films). The artist cannot reach personal happiness – he is too divided between his concentration on the images of ontological inferiority and the reality of human wholeness.
Johan Borg is involved in two relationships – with an existential woman (Alma) and with the object of his “romantic” obsession – Veronica Vogler. The coexistence of these two types of love refers to a clash between an elevated seductive love – a greedy-consumerist one, and a pure but artless and wingless, even, somehow a prosaic love of “real life”. Then the scene of the film where Johan Borg is searching for Veronica Vogler in the castle of voyeurs and vampires is Bergman’s surrealistic parody not only on “Magic Flute” – on Mozart’s idea of ordeal which the beloveds have to go through on their way to happiness, but on the very tradition of romantic love and conventional idea of love between man and woman. Johan is successfully passes through the five ordeals, all of which violate and go against his morality and integrity.
But the real comedy of horrors starts when Johan Borg approaches his beloved who, according to the code of behavior suggested by the endless tales of Western culture, is lying as if dead while waiting for his resurrecting gaze-and-touch (her nakedness is covered by a white sheet like in morgue). Parody on traditional concept of heterosexual love here has an impressive intensity. Woman is supposed to pretend that she is completely sexually inert so as not to shock man and by this inactiveness to arouse him. Then he will be able to feel his vigor and assert himself with her with his magic touch/kiss which will bring her to life from her natural state of passivity. Under Borg’s desiring palm Veronica not only resurrects but becomes feverishly, maniacally excited and starts to hysterically kiss him with an uncontrollable urge. This is a caricature version of how a woman ought to react on a man’s touch, according to traditional cultural expectation. Not less symptomatic is the fact that when our great lovers Johan and Veronica are on the way to sexual culmination, the phantoms who with voyeuristic voluptuousness watch the scandalous love affair, started to jeeringly laugh at the romantic pair. With this humiliating laughter announcing to the oblivious couple their presence, the phantoms express to the lovers their jealous revenge. Borg’s vampires here behave like majority of American public in the situation of Clinton-Lewinski affair – they watched this affair while holding their breath and with secret pleasure, but unanimously scolded the president for immorality.
Today, the psychological situation of American public is even worse. With the intensification of neocon austerity agenda the suspiciousness and paranoid emotional predisposition in political and world views and personal relations become intensified, like relations between Johan Borg and the inhabitants of the castle – his neighbors, and eventually, between him and his wife. Psychological tolerance of others and ritualistic politeness (civility) are in a process of being transformed into despair armed with crimes and hysterical violence (like in road rage). If in a situation of Bergman’s Johan Borg his figurative images become mutually repulsive, in a situation of regular people the very perception of others become more prejudicial and impregnated with suspicion and hate – in terms of Bergman’s film people start to see others as demonic figures. A wave of hateful suspicion struck Russia and Germany in the 30s and US during the presidency of George Bush Jr. in the very beginning of 21st century. Today, the American civil population is under the most extensive surveillance in human history. American culture today is losing its humanistic and democratic orientation. The young need education and guidance and not police brutality. Non-commercial art and humanistic education (liberal arts) are losing support, and more and more students have to turn to technical and applied professions to be able to work for corporate Tyrannosauruses.
By showing the collapse of Johan Borg’s internal world Bergman points at the weakening of positivity in human relationships inside and between countries, a growing hate between people in parallel with diminishing rationality and kindness towards others. The film analyses the brutalization of the emotional environment between people. Johan Borg was an intellectual artist who became mentally sick and lost his creative ability. In the “Hour of the Wolf” Bergman warns our culture about the decline of our psychological health through losing our existential taste for humanism (this situation is visually expressed in the film by the loss of mediation between light and darkness – stepping into a world of extreme contrasts).
In Johan Borg’s disturbing psychological portrait we not only see the predicament of today’s humanistic intellectuals but the situation of ordinary people who have lost control over their inner and external environment.
“Flower is made from your blood (said Cegestius in Jean Cocteau’s “The Testament of Orpheus” to the artist) and has adopted the same rhythms as your destiny.” Bergman’s Johan Borg was “devoured” by his figurative images/psychological objects (and people incarnated them) because he lost his “phoenixological” ability to restore “flowers” to life in and through his art.
posted on 11, 11 2015 – “Hour Of The Wolf” (1968) By Ingmar Bergman by Acting-Out Politics
by Greg Olson
A rebel for the cause of unbridled free expression, Hopper stormed through life wolfing down booze and drugs, and romancing every starlet he could get his hands on. Hopper’s compulsion to maintain a militantly antiestablishment stance kept hurting his career: He couldn’t resist alienating the very people who could help him. He wrote, “Jimmy Dean once pulled a switchblade and threatened to murder his director. I follow his style in art and life.” Hopper’s former wife, Brooke Hayward, recalls, “We’d go to these parties where you’d have the crème de la crème of Hollywood, and he’d tell them that when he ran things heads were going to roll, they’d be in chains.”
Lynch calls the 1960s “the decade of change,” an era in which America was divided against itself: young against old, those who hated the Vietnam War against those who supported it, the counterculture against the establishment. While Lynch was painting in his studio, Dennis Hopper was walking with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the Alabama Freedom March for African American civil rights and being spat on by southern bigots who called him “a nigger-loving Communist.”
Though Hopper’s mind was engulfed in drugs, rage, and paranoia, the excess and chaos of his life spawned the landmark American film Easy Rider, which he directed, co-starred in, and co-wrote. Made for only $350,000, the movie tapped into the archetypal American myth of the promise of the open road, which had been sung by everyone from the first explorers and pioneers to Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, and Jack Kerouac. (In 1990, Lynch would join the freedom-loving road chorus with Wild at Heart.) Unlike Lynch’s artwork, Easy Rider was consciously, overtly political, and it expressed the mindset of many baby boomer–generation youth who celebrated peace and free love and railed against the corporate warmongers who were napalming babies in the jungles of Vietnam. The film asks a wrenching question that haunts us today: How can each of us be free and make American the way we want it to be without hurting each other and trampling on each other’s freedom?
Easy Rider made the brooding Hollywood outsider Dennis Hopper wealthy, famous, and instantly reclassified as “a creative genius.” His film changed the face of the movie business. Graying studio executives began catering to the “youth market” by hiring twenty-year-old “do-your-ownthing” filmmakers, and soon even the top-level-management ranks surged with younger blood. Hopper was given free reign to make his magnum opus, The Last Movie, a heavy-handed treatise against Hollywood/American imperialism presented in a boldly deconstructed narrative that turned off critics and audiences in droves. Hopper was once again exiled from Hollywood, and his professional and personal life spiraled down into drug addiction and psychotic hallucinations.
Hopper was absolutely out of control, and his friends stepped in and got him into a detoxification program. Actor Dean Stockwell, whose career had been revitalized after he played the traitorous Dr. Yueh in Lynch’s Dune, was instrumental in helping his comrade stay clean and sober, one day at a time.
Lynch had put Hopper on his first list of possible actors to play Frank Booth, but the director figured that if even half the stories about the legendary rebel and crazy man were true, he’d best leave him alone. Still, he’d heard that Hopper had cleaned up his act in recent months, that his searing talent was no longer compromised by scrambled brain chemistry. One day, the director’s phone rang, and Hopper’s intense voice declared, “I’ve got to play this part, David, because I am Frank.”37 Impressed and shaken by the actor’s unorthodox audition, Lynch said to the assembled cast and crew, “My God, he just told me that he is Frank. I don’t know what he meant by that. Maybe he’s right for the part, but how are we going to have lunch with him?” They decided to risk it.
Once the world saw Blue Velvet and experienced the blast-furnace power, frightening, sadistic perversity, and commanding authenticity of Hopper’s Frank Booth, word got around about the actor having said “I am Frank,” and once again he had some explaining to do. “I understand Frank very well. I was known to abuse people when drunk or high, but not exactly in this way. I’ve also played a lot of sex games, but I’m more a masochist than a sadist.” For Brooke Hayward, Frank Booth’s behavior was a portrait of “the way you would have seen Dennis behaving” in the 1960s.
Whatever the origin and history of the ferocity that Hopper brought to Frank Booth, Lynch was thrilled to have captured it with his camera. And Hopper was excited to be playing “perhaps the most vicious person who has ever been on the screen.” The actor credited Lynch with helping him reach his peak of frenzy: “David kept me up really high, pushing all the time. He insisted I keep playing it at a high level. I love what I do in the film, and I love what David did with me.” Hopper admitted that just a few months earlier that he “would have taken cocaine” to achieve his riveting acting effects, but now he was deeply gratified to be enjoying the sober life and drawing upon the pure, unadulterated streams of his talent. Lynch and company learned that having lunch with Dennis was no strain at all.
Hopper’s old pal Dean Stockwell rounded out Blue Velvet’s cast as the flamingly suave drug dealer Ben, and Lynch completed his technical crew by bringing in his longtime friend and sound-design maestro Alan Splet. Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy would have to sing a couple of nightclub numbers, so the director hired composer Angelo Badalamenti to coach her vocal performances. Lynch had such a positive rapport with the genial, rotund music man that he engaged Badalamenti to score the entire film, thus beginning a creative “marriage” that has included the director’s every movie, TV, and stage production through Mulholland Drive. Badalamenti wrote a beautiful melody to accompany Jeffrey and Sandy’s falling-in-love scene and Lynch was inspired to pen lyrics for it, thus opening up another avenue of self-expression that the director would pursue in the future. The resulting song, “Mysteries of Love,” needed just the right person to sing it, and the ethereal-voiced Julee Cruise was given the job, initiating still another of Lynch’s longtime artistic partnerships.
After Dune’s ultimately frustrating and dispiriting three-and-a-half years of inflated gigantism, making Blue Velvet felt like an intimate homecoming to Lynch. As with Eraserhead, the director was working with a smallish budget and an extended family of friends and collaborators, and he knew that the vision that reached the screen would be his alone. He was regaining his creative confidence after the Dune debacle, as Kyle MacLachlan recalls, “David was able to say, ‘this Blue Velvet material comes from me; I’m going to trust that it’s right.’” Lynch’s Blue Velvet dream was unique, but, as with Dennis Hopper’s road-tripping Easy Rider, it tapped into a primal, potent American myth.
For the country’s early, colonizing settlers, America was the frontier, a world of limitless space in which they could move about, build, worship as they pleased, and reap the bounty of their new land. Ordinary, common folks could chart their own course in this rural paradise, but as wave after wave of immigrants washed ashore and industrialized cities began to sprout, the frontier of wide-open promise and possibility kept elusively advancing westward. In 1890, newspapers from coat to coast delivered a traumatic shock to the American psyche: According to the latest census, the frontier was officially and forever closed. As more people jammed into cities, the urban areas expanded their boundaries and crowded out the wild, unsettled land. Cities pulsed to the oppressive beat of machines, and lived on a schedule of mechanized time, rather than the cycles of nature. An alfresco, neighbor-to-neighbor democracy was replaced by institutionalized government, blue skies became sooty gray, and the crime statistics worsened every year.
But there remained enclaves of rural hope and freedom, places that struck a perfect balance between the secure comforts of civilization and the spirited call of the wilderness. Small towns preserved the agrarian pursuits and free-ranging roots of the American experience. Sure, we’ve got cars and newfangled tractors and telephones, but in our hearts we know that the frontier starts right out where Maple Drive ends. The town grown-ups and kids all know each other, we leave our doors unlocked, and solve little problems in the front-porch twilight and tackle big ones at the town meetings. We jump right in to help in a crisis, but otherwise we let each other be. We’re a tight community of ruggedly individualistic souls, not a cheek by-jowl lonely crowd of strangers rat-racing after the almighty dollar in some skyscraper metropolis. Smelling fresh-cut wheat on the wind is more valuable than all the Mercedes-Benz exhaust fumes in the world.
In the American mind, there is a sun-dappled line of continuity that stretches from the earliest settlers’ idealized New England image of a village in the seventeenth-century wilderness; to Sarah Orne Jewett’s romanticized Tales of New England (1879); to Booth Tarkington’s The Gentleman from Indiana (1899), whose town is “one, big, jolly family”; to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938); to the Andy Hardy movies of the 1930s and 1940s; to William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy (1943); to Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover illustrations of the 1950s and 1960s; and to the wholesome TV and movie small-town fun of The Andy Griffith Show, The Waltons, Happy Days, American Graffiti, and Back to the Future of recent decades. The national imagination warms to the idea of small towns as repositories of tranquility, virtue, and bedrock democracy. However, for centuries, our psyches have also conjured dank and shivery forces of fear and evil waiting to seize us in shady, bucolic lanes.
The early Puritan settlers felt that they had found God’s country in America, but they brought their Old World Devil with them. The sect had broken away from England’s Anglican Church, an institution that, the Puritans believed, was woefully blind to the essentially corrupt nature of human beings and the Christ-ordained biblical manner in which fallen souls should properly worship. The benighted sinners could only attain the bliss of divine grace by strictly following God’s written laws. The Puritans were masters at projecting their own dark psychic shadows onto convenient scapegoats. In 1692, Betty Parris, the daughter of sin-and-Satan-obsessed clergyman Samuel Parris, began to position her body in strange postures and speak words that no one could understand. Soon, five of Betty’s girlfriends were suffering feverish fits in which it felt like insects were crawling beneath their skin, and seeing visions of wild animals with manlike faces (it seems Lynch’s intuitive urge to portray insects and animalistic humans as agents of evil taps into an ancient archetype). The parson’s daughter singled out Tituba, a black West Indian slave woman, as their tormentor. Tituba confessed to having made a pact with the Devil, whom she said was a tall man dressed in black who rode through the air on a stick. Witch-hunt hysteria gripped Salem, and the town locked up 150 bedeviled suspects, twenty of whom were put to death before the town’s malignant mass-delusion passed.
It wasn’t just the newly arrived European Americans who were seeing fearsome apparitions in the deep woods. The indigenous Native Americans, who the newcomers would tragically slaughter and displace from the lands that were the center of their universe, believed that mischievous and maligned spirits dwelled beyond the comforting glow of their cooking fires. In all cultures and eras, the ancient part of our psyches that fears being eaten by something bigger than us, that trembles at the seasonal death of the sun and the sudden, unaccountable deaths of our crops and our tribe-mates, stimulates our imaginations to produce images and scenarios of natural and supernatural predatory dangers. As a serpent slithered into Adam and Eve’s garden, agents of darkness crept into even the most idyllic small settlements where human beings dwelled.
Some early European American settlers felt the Native Americans were void of humanity, and conjured up the image of the evil Indian, which the nineteenth-century’s James Fenimore Cooper applied so forcefully in The Last of the Mohicans (and which he balanced against a host of beneficent and admirable Native Americans).
Caucasians were more than capable of haunting their own wilderness settlements, of course, and the souring of the pastoral dream began in earnest. Mark Twain detailed the emptiness of Mississippi village life in Huckleberry Finn (1885) and Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915) reveals people thwarted and wasted by the repressiveness and hypocrisy of their small-town home. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) examines the lives of misfits whose dreams and gifts are bigger than their narrow-minded little town. In Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, the town seems founded on the principle of “dullness made God”46 and is a place lacking in “beauty and strangeness,”47 qualities that Lynch sees everywhere. A town in the book (1940) and film (1942) King’s Row was “a good place to raise your children,”48 as well as for delving into insanity, murder, suicide, incest, euthanasia, unnecessary amputation, and embezzlement. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), chaos comes to sunny Santa Rosa, California, in the form of big-city Uncle Charlie, a killer of women, whose train pulls into the station spewing a monstrous black cloud of smoke as though, Hitchcock says, “the devil is coming to town.”49 So forces of darkness can come from the outside and invade a town, as also happens with the outer space–spawned seed pods of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)—or the roots of malevolence can have been here forever, ancient as the roots of grass.
Blue Velvet’s sense of lurking darkness is very close to that of Ray Bradbury’s 1946 story The Night, in which a small-town boy approaches a dreaded ravine. “Here and now, down there in that pit of jungled blackness is suddenly all the evil you will ever know. Evil you will never understand. All of the nameless things are there. Later, when you have grown you’ll be given names to label them. Meaningless syllables to describe the waiting nothingness. Down there in the huddled shadow, among thick trees and trailed vines, lives the odor of decay. Here, at this spot, civilization ceases, reason ends, and a universal evil takes over.” Bradbury continues,
There are a million small towns like this all over the world. Each as dark, as lonely, each as removed, as full of shuddering and wonder. The reedy playing of minor-key violins is the small town’s music, with no lights but many shadows. Oh the vast swelling loneliness of them. The secret damp ravines of them. Life is a horror lived in them at night, when at all sides sanity, marriage, children, happiness, are threatened by an ogre called Death.
We hear Bradbury’s “reedy . . . minor-key violins” in the sinuous Badalamenti music that accompanies Jeffrey’s mystery-seeking night walks around Lumberton. Lynch’s devouring insects hidden beneath a perfect lawn are “all the evil you will ever know,” churning beneath giant grass blades as in “that pit of jungled blackness.” The nameless “disease” with which men poison Dorothy’s psyche and make her want to die is the “meaningless syllables to describe the waiting nothingness.”And Jeffrey’s town, like all the other towns, is full of “shuddering and wonder,” so much fear and awe that his only response can be to exclaim, “It’s a strange world.”
In Ray Bradbury’s 1920s Waukegan, Illinois, childhood, there was an actual spooky ravine. Visiting it as an adult with grown daughters, he found that this shadow zone was as deep, dark, and mysterious as ever. As Bradbury grew up, his indelible boyhood image of the ravine became the serpent in the small-town garden of his writing. David Lynch also carried with him a childhood image of paradise poisoned. The artist’s childhood in the town of Spokane, Washington was
“Good Times On Our Street.” It was beautiful old houses, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building forts, lots and lots of friends. It was a dream world, those droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America the way it was supposed to be. But then on this cherry tree would be this pitch oozing out, some of it black, some of it yellow, and there were millions and 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.
The wounded tree has a special resonance for Lynch since his father was a research scientist who probed beneath tree bark seeking pockets of invasive disease to study. As the director once said of his daughter, Jennifer, who was launching her fledgling foray into surrealistic filmmaking: “The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.” And like his father, Lynch digs beneath the surface of external appearances to explore deeper realities, the hidden life within all things. The diseased tree convinced young Lynch that “there is a goodness like those blue skies and flowers and stuff, but there is always a force, a sort of wild pain and decay, accompanying everything.” These childhood recollections show that the director’s consciousness was working on Blue Velvet a long, long time before it became a typed script. The bleeding tree is Lynch’s Bradbury ravine: that oozing bark, those ants.
The years in which young David Lynch so carefully observed those ants swarming on his small-town-backyard cherry tree were part of a golden decade. America had saved the free world from the Nazi and Japanese hordes, and the economy was booming. Young families with a single wage-earner could afford a house with all the newest appliances, a car, and vacations. The divorce rate barely registered on a graph, women were pregnant, and people felt no guilt about smoking cigarettes, eating cheese and charbroiled beef, and stomping on the gas pedals of their low-gas-mileage, highhorsepower, V8-powered cars, those big beautiful Detroit vehicles with voluptuous curves to rival Marilyn Monroe’s. She and Elvis Presley were the iconic Queen and King of an era that gave birth to rock and roll music, drive-in movies, sleek modern houses, and a playful, future-imagining, optimistic sense of design and color. We weren’t involved in any wars that were our fault, schoolkids respectfully minded their teachers, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin were the stuff of pulp fiction, not streetcorner business deals, and we learned our family values from Dr. Spock and TV’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It To Beaver, and Father Knows Best. The possibility of realizing the age-old, land of plenty American Dream quickened hearts from coast to coast.
For the baby boomers, the largest generation in United States history, the golden dream of the 1950s was soured by the harsh realities of becoming adults in the 1960s. With a burgeoning sense of social conscience, young Americans saw their beloved President Kennedy gunned down and our military involvement in what seemed to be an immoral, genocidal war against Southeast Asians in Vietnam escalate. Carefree playtime was over: You could get drafted and die. Many young men didn’t want to fight in a war they didn’t believe in, a euphemized “conflict” that their father’s generation of 1950s military-industrial, corporate empire-builders had blundered into and were perpetuating and lying about. The cadre of young folk was so big that it spawned its own youth culture, whose folkways were shaped as a reaction against the older generation’s traditionalist establishment: To hell with those bland old 1950s, when the civil rights of African Americans and homosexuals were grievously ignored, when witch-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy imagined a Communist hiding under every bed, and people liked blond-wood furniture and pink and turquoise, for God’s sake. We’re going to stand Ozzie and Harriet on their ears. We’re gonna grow our hair long and sleep in the park and ditch school and pop pills and live life instead of punching a time clock like those squares in suits. We’re gonna fuck who we want when we want, we’re gonna trash the dean’s office until the university gives us the curriculum we want, we’re gonna march until we stop the war, we’re never gonna trust anybody over thirty.
In the 1970s, as the ignoble, soul-killing war finally ground to a halt, the counterculture and their semi-rebellious sympathizers gradually quieted down and were subsumed into mainstream life. The rift between generations narrowed and it became all right to relax and love America again, to embrace Mom and apple pie and hang up that Norman Rockwell print, though it was damnably hard to warmly welcome home the boys who had fought in the jungles. Having faced numerous national traumas in their early adulthoods, the grown-up baby boomers competed fiercely for jobs, realized that their standard of living was never going to even equal that of their parents, became walking definitions of the phrase “stressed out,” and began to look back at the 1950s as though that time was a lost secret garden.
From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, filmmakers began to portray the 1950s and pre-Kennedy-assassination 1960s with a yearning, misty-eyed reverence: American Graffiti (1973), Grease (1978), Back to the Future (1985), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). Rock musicians, who had stuck it to the establishment throughout the 1960s, now declared that “It’s Hip to be Square.”65 Young Americans were being monogamous and having families again, buying cookbooks full of 1950s favorites like Pepsi-Cola cake, and plunking down big money for thirty-year-old blond coffee tables shaped like boomerangs.
Lynch’s approach to the 1950s in Blue Velvet is very subtle; there are no artifacts in evidence, no wall-to-wall greatest hits soundtrack. He’s not climbing aboard some retro-chic bandwagon, nor is he viewing earlier decades from a distanced, ironic, hipper-than-then stance, putting postmodernist quotation marks around the past. The flood of sweet imagery that flows in the film’s opening seconds comes straight from Lynch’s heart. The artist never repudiated the 1950s over the intervening decades; those weren’t protest-song lyrics he was penning on Bob’s Big Boy napkins, they were sketches of atomic-age furniture. The loyal Lynch lived by Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s words, “Be true to your school,”66 and he never stopped loving the decade that enveloped his idyllic Spokane, Washington, childhood. The director’s earliest days are on his mind as he opens the film with his personal red tulip–white fence–blue sky American flag.
The director has said of his boyhood home life, “Yeah, it was like in the fifties.” And his experiences were so glowing that he recalls them in idealized images. “There were a lot of advertisements in magazines where you see a well-dressed woman bringing a pie out of an oven, and a certain smile on her face, or a couple smiling, walking together up to their house, with a picket fence. Those smiles were pretty much all I saw.”
In Blue Velvet, Lynch accomplishes the feat of suggesting the decade with his characters’ attitudes and behavior, the sense of a kindly, mannerly social contract that binds neighbor to neighbor in a network of peace and safety. The director follows his flowers-fence-sky image with two more that show we’re in a safe place for children: an old-fashioned fire truck, charming because it’s small and coasts down a residential street, with the fireman smiling and waving in slow motion and a white-and-black Dalmatian sitting on the outside running board; and, in slow motion, a gray-haired woman stands in the street at a school crossing, a red stop sign in one hand and gesturing with the other for the parade of little ones to keep progressing across the intersection. Drifting by slowly and joined by gentle dissolves, these images are like dreamy memories of the director’s, and our own, American past. Both shots are comforting, for they show us agents who strive to keep destructive forces from harming people, and we’re painfully aware that menacing powers are at work in our and Lynch’s world: a fire truck would really come in handy in Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks. There’s even the sense that Blue Velvet’s toylike fire truck is protecting our childhood innocence and love of playful fun, for the Dalmatian on the running board subliminally reminds us of good ol’ Uncle Walt Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. And, speaking of family, Lynch next shows us Mom sipping coffee and watching TV in the living room, and Dad wearing his sunglasses out on the lawn watering the garden with a hose. Everything is in its proper place and all is right with the world.
Looking at Lynch’s Blue Velvet script, the tone he’s attempting is evident in the words on page 1: “clean, sweet, clean, clean happy, safely, gorgeous, happy, sparkling, light.” Then things change: “SUDDENLY, dark, GETTING DARKER, ominous, black, LOUD HISSING.” The archetypal Lynchian struggle between light and darkness has begun. In his script, the director shows his gift for creating fraught imagery as he writes in a shot in which the lawn-watering man’s neighborhood and its sheltering dome of blue sky are reflected in a close-up of his dark glasses, thus tainting the good and cherished world we’ve seen so far with shadow. However, this image isn’t in the director’s film: it was probably too technically difficult to get the effect of a whole neighborhood reflected in the dark glasses. Instead, Lynch begins his shift to a darker tone with the two-shot scene in which Mom is watching TV (the television set is one of those 1950s-style big, dark wooden boxes on four legs that stands in the middle of the living room). He cuts from Mom, relaxing on the sofa and lifting her coffee cup to her lips, to a shot of the TV, on which we see a black-and-white close-up of a hand holding a pistol and advancing from right to left (toward Mom) in the TV set frame. Lynch chooses and films the images in this opening montage with such care and precision that we pay rapt attention to the details that our eyes are drinking in. The pistol looms as a major signifier: danger is advancing on Mom; evil has entered the house of Blue Velvet. And the garden. Dad’s enjoying his watering routine, but his green hose gets caught on a bush, putting a disruptive kink in the water flow. The soundtrack thus far has consisted of Bobby Vinton singing the favorite “Blue Velvet,” in which the lead voice speaks of his intense love for a woman in blue velvet, and how their love blossomed, yet she left suddenly, leaving the man with his warm, melancholy memories and a vision of blue velvet seen through the veil of his tears. With the introduction of Dad, Lynch, with sound maestro Alan Splet, lightly mixes in the hissing of the watering hose and, when the kink is added, stresses an unsettling rumbling. Wayward water sprays from the unsound connection between hose and tap, and the rumbling intensifies as the kinked watering system is put under near-bursting pressure. Then, at the moment Bobby Vinton sings “like a flame burning brightly,” referring to him and his Blue Lady’s lost love, Dad slaps the back of his neck as though he’s been bitten by an insect, and falls to the ground, making choking sounds as he’s wracked by a massive seizure. Here’s “a flame burning brightly” that the fire truck and its smiling fireman could never put out.
In this opening montage, Lynch does an almost subliminal manipulation of sound to further disquiet us. Beginning with the first shot of the tulips and fence, the director cuts to the next shot right on the beat of Bobby Vinton stressing a word or starting the next verse of his song. This harmonious pattern remains unbroken for eight shots/song passages, until the pressured throbbing of Dad’s hose shatters the visual-aural rhythm that our senses, without our being consciously aware of it, have grown accustomed to. Once Dad is stricken, Lynch doesn’t return to that regular rhythm that’s been linked to the preceding happy times in this sequence.
Following Lynch’s poetics, the TV gun pointing at Mom is Dad’s imminent seizure, the throbbing water in the kinked hose is the blood beginning to burst the vessels in his head. A family and, metaphorically, a town, have been stricken with chaos. A few wooden stakes linked with string, which form the layout for some garden project, define a precisely right-angled, 90-degree-cornered grid pattern on Dad’s lawn. Now the lawn’s presumptive master lies writhing uncontrollably within the neat, schematic design he tried to impose upon nature.
The next shot in Blue Velvet’s opening sequence is one of the most amazing images in Lynch’s entire body of work. Dad lies shuddering and gurgling on the ground, his hand rigidly gripping the hose and holding its nozzle near his groin, so it looks like he’s peeing or ejaculating into the air. A small orange-and-white dog is standing with its front paws on Dad’s thigh, growling and snapping at the water that spurts from the nozzle. With the horizontal man, hose, and dog large in the shot’s foreground, a little toddler comes wobbling straight forward toward the incredible spectacle in front of him. With the groin shooting fluid, Lynch foreshadows the wildly unbounded sexual energies that will course through his film. The playfulominous dog is the classic Lynchian nemesis, the embodiment of unleashed animalistic impulses. The child is, perhaps, the one who was looking up at those beautiful red tulips next to the white fence. Or maybe it’s Lynch’s memory of himself as a young watcher, taking in the phenomenon of the pained human being trembling on the ground, the beautiful spraying water, the frolicking dog, and learning that, as Jeffrey says later in the film, “It’s a strange world.”
The opening sequence ends with the famous camera’s point-of-view shots of Dad’s formerly aimed, now random, water spray falling onto the huge, close-up grass blades; diving through and beneath this jungle, and plunging into a glossy black pool of seething forms, beetles chattering and devouring until the end of time. In a passage of bravura filmmaking, Lynch has taken us from the innocent red tulips of small-town serenity to the hungry, gaping mouth of hell, in two minutes of screen time. And, true to his love of contrasting, balanced dualities, the trip has been exactly one minute light, one minute dark.
Jeffrey Beaumont is the young man who will bridge the worlds of sunshine and shadow, and discover that both realms compose the elemental core of his being. Whereas Dune’s Paul Atreides was pursuing a preordained path to self-knowledge which the viewer could surmise before Paul did, Jeffrey and the audience are on equal footing in a world of living mystery. Our minds and senses become as abuzz with alertness as Jeffrey’s are. If external and internal Mystery is one of Blue Velvet’s key themes, then Family is the other. Lynch’s opening montage has introduced us to another of his households with big problems.
Tom Beaumont (Jack Harvey), the lawn-watering man gravely stricken, is Jeffrey’s father, and his hospitalization forces his son to leave his college studies and come home to run the small family hardware store. Jeffrey is now the man of the house that he shares with his mother (Priscilla Pointer) and chatty Aunt Barbara (Frances Bay). It’s a lot of new responsibility for a youth not that many years past boyhood. And, walking through a vacant lot grass field to see his father after Tom’s seizure, Jeffrey does a boyish thing, stopping to throw a rock at a distant shack and some debris. It’s a warm spring day but Jeffrey wears what a grown-up male (and David Lynch) would wear, a black suit with an unbuttoned beige-gray shirt (which Lynch would button): his rock-tossing and attire emphasize his boy-man status. Before he heaves his rock, Jeffrey stands for a second with his back to us as he regards the tawny grassland, assuming a pose that Lynch’s heroes have exhibited in The Grandmother, The Elephant Man, and Dune. The energy the watcher puts into his looking compels us to tip forward in our seats, as though the scene had a hidden message to tell us. This repeated image is the way Lynch the artist sees himself: a figure in black contemplating a murmuring world. Jeffrey’s surroundings will have to speak to him, for his father cannot. At the hospital, Tom Beaumont lies in bed, his head immobilized within a torturous framework of metal rods. Pushing a button device at his throat, he tries to talk, but like many Lynchian characters (and, sometimes, the director himself), he can’t get the words out. Father and son can only touch hands and shudder together on the verge of tears. Like all young children, Lynch had troubling thoughts of his parents getting gravely sick or dying, and Blue Velvet’s stricken-father theme may reflect an experience Lynch had when he was eight. Walking through his idyllic smalltown Idaho neighborhood, Lynch “saw a boy my age sitting in the bushes crying. I didn’t know this boy, but I asked him what was wrong, and he said his father died. It just killed me. I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat with him for a while.”
Lynch continues his doubling ways and has Jeffrey pass by that grass field again. Needing to blow off his sadness, he stops and throws more rocks this time. Jeffrey’s first field scene was accompanied by Angelo Badalamenti’s low-key jazz music, but now Lynch subtly stresses the human hearing function by filling the soundtrack with the chirping and buzzing of birds and insects (the film’s totemic symbols of, respectively, good and evil, innocence and experience). His ears absorbing the sounds of both light and dark forces, Jeffrey makes a discovery that tips his world toward shadowed realms. A human ear lies in the golden grass, as though it is an entryway leading down underground, where dark insect appetites pounce and devour. Lynch now fills our ears with a high insectoid singing as his camera studies this object that he has created with painterly care and detail. The pale ear, roughly severed from a living person, is smudged with a little dirt and some gray-green splotches of decay, a few blackhairs sprout from its top curve, and small brown ants crawl and feed near the central black hearing canal opening. The artist has spoken of the abstract beauty that he sees in objects that consensus reality deems to be repulsive, the way our preconceived associations about an object color our perception of it. “Take an old used Band-Aid in the street. It’s got some dirt around the edges and the rubber part has formed some little black balls, and you see the stain of a little blood and some yellow on it, a little ointment. It’s in the gutter next to some dirt and a rock and a little twig. If you were to see a photograph of that not knowing what it was, it would be unbelievably beautiful.”
Lynch himself no doubt finds the ear aesthetically pleasing, just as he loves rusty, old, moldering factories in real life but, as with the negative, threatening way he portrays heavy industry on the screen, he knows that most viewers will be shocked and frightened by the severed skin and he uses it for that effect. Jeffrey is fascinated by his find; he only winces slightly as he picks up the ear with his fingers and slips it into a paper bag. This is a bold meeting of live and dead flesh that eclipses Jeffrey’s more self-protective approach in the script, where he uses a twig to push the ear into his sack. The young man has a need to touch the quick of death as well as life, and his journey has begun.
Lynch the artist knows that our alert senses can transport us into experiences of profound discovery. “If Jeffrey hadn’t found the ear, he would have walked on home, and that would’ve been the end of it. But the ear is like an opening, a little egress into another place, a ticket to another world that he finds.” The director gives many of his heroes such tickets. The Grandmother’s Boy finds the bag of seeds that will grow his loving Granny, Eraserhead’s Henry enters his apartment’s radiator and embraces Heavenly Love. When Dr. Treves meets The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, both of their lives change, and when Merrick rests his head on his pillow, he merges with his lost mother for eternity. For Dune’s Paul Atreides, a spaceship to the desert planet is the first step to becoming Master of the Known Universe. When Sailor and Lula blast off in Wild at Heart’s Thunderbird convertible, they begin a high-octane trip through Hell and Heaven. And Laura Palmer’s plastic-wrapped corpse leads Twin Peaks into deep earthly and cosmic mysteries. Lynch adds that, in Blue Velvet, the ear “draws Jeffrey into something he needs to discover and work through.” The youth needs to become a man, to experience the hot, wet rawness of sex and violence and evil that’s hidden within his chaste little town, to be fully conscious that he has the capacity for both light and darkness within his own soul, and to then resolutely choose the righteous path.
By day, the ear is a naturalistic object that Jeffrey dutifully takes to Detective Williams (George Dickerson) at the Lumberton Police Department, a clue that launches a careful combing of the grass field where Jeffrey found it. There, investigators lay out a gridwork of string lines like the one in the Beaumonts’ garden where Jeffrey’s father collapsed: human design again trying to put a frame around chaos. But by night, as Jeffrey walks dark neighborhood streets with rustling trees arching overhead, Lynch makes the ear a passageway into the youth’s primal psychosexual adventures. With his shirt now buttoned to the top like Lynch’s, Jeffrey’s form dissolves into a shot of the ear, which the camera approaches ever closer, dissolving through the archway of the hearing canal into the curving inner passageway of the organ as the soundtrack roars with a pressurized hissing. Lynch then dissolves this interior penetration into Jeffrey arriving at the arched doorway of Detective Williams’ house, where he’s welcomed in by Mrs. Williams (Hope Lange). The first thing we see inside the house is the arching, golden oval frame in which rests the cherished smiling photograph of the Williamses’ golden daughter, Sandy. These five shots, subliminally joined by the echoing arched forms, are a hypnotic example of the way Lynch wants to “float” us into the experience of his films, to carry us on a flow of imagery that feels like our own dream.
Like Lynch’s father, Donald, Detective Williams has a homey innersanctum office, and he ushers Jeffrey in. Jeffrey may have gained access to Williams’ private domain, but the policeman says he can’t say anything more about the case until it’s “sewed up.” The youth literally twitches with curiosity and, carried away by his romantic view of crime fighting, says it must be “great” to be a defective, but the seasoned cop, who’s actually seen the worst the world has to offer, somberly adds, “And horrible, too.” The message to Jeffrey, courteously delivered: Leave this dirty business to the big boys.
Jeffrey, mannerly as any well-brought-up kid in a 1950s TV show, says goodnight to the Williamses and asks them to say “hi” to Sandy.
Once again, as in the grass field, Lynch puts Jeffrey in the position of “if he hadn’t found the ear, he would have walked on home, and that would’ve been the end of it,”76 but the severed flesh keeps echoing. As the youth leaves the Williamses’ door and heads up the sidewalk, he hears the night speak to him in a disembodied female voice: “Are you the one who found the ear?” The voice is behind Jeffrey, and he turns toward it with the same motion that Henry in Eraserhead turned to find his love, the Lady in the Radiator, in a transcendent flood of light. Jeffrey sees only blackness and the hint of a weeping willow branch stirring upper left. Then, in one of Lynch’s most gorgeous images, a faint, pale form materializes out of the dark, getting larger and taking on color as it approaches and becomes the teen angel, Sandy, golden hair falling down her long neck, bared collarbone framed by a pink dress, an unsmiling wisdom on her slightly parted lips. Lynch frames Sandy’s approach from the waist up so that we don’t see her walking; she truly does float into Jeffrey’s life. The director has spoken of his admiration for the great American painter Edward Hopper (1882–1967), and the way that Lynch and his cinematographer Frederick Elmes make Sandy positively glow against the night reflects Hopper’s technique of frontlighting objects and people that are standing before a looming darkness. Elmes’s color photography for Lynch’s films has occasionally been criticized by prosaic viewers for inconsistency: Some passages are super bright, others almost indiscernibly murky. The reason, of course, is that these shifting tonal moods create the atmosphere that the director is after. As Elmes once put it, “David and I spend a lot of time figuring out how dark is dark.”
Jeffrey answers Sandy’s “Did you find the ear?” with a question of his own: “How did you know?” She continues to float in his mind as an agent of mystery as she replies, “I just know, that’s all,” and steps ahead on the sidewalk. Jeffrey, of course, follows her lead. They both acknowledge that her father said not to talk about the case, but the allure of the unknown makes them circumvent the rules. Lynch builds on the deadpan severed-ear humor that Detective Williams unconsciously expressed (“when the case is sewed up”) by having Sandy say about the case, “I don’t know much but bits and pieces; I hear things.” Sandy, like lead characters in The Grandmother, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Twin Peaks, has an upstairs bedroom. For most of these people, the house’s upper regions, which symbolically correspond to the mind’s higher consciousness, are places of deliverance from earthly trials, though Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer endures abusive terrors up under the eaves. Sandy’s room gives her knowledge; it’s situated above her father’s office, so police-business details filter up through the floor. In Lynch’s world, sometimes two people in a room can’t make out each other’s words, but on occasion the invisible can speak.
The communication between Sandy and Jeffrey is certainly flowing freely; there’s an immediate bond of sympathy and trust between these two solitary nightwalkers who have found each other. She tells him that she keeps hearing her father mention a woman singer who lives in an apartment near Jeffrey’s house and the field where he found the ear. To this moment, Jeffrey’s equation of mystery had been simple and inert, with no place to go: It was just him and the ear. Suddenly, the beautiful woman at his side has given the equation a thrilling triangulation that vivifies it with open possibility; now it’s Jeffrey, the ear, and this nameless singer. He is moved to sigh with the night wind, “It’s a strange world, isn’t it,” and Sandy, his perfect complement, answers, “Yeah.” As with a couple who’s been together a long time, she anticipates his next thought: “You want to see the building where she lives, don’t you?”
excerpt from the book: David Lynch:Beautiful Dark / Greg Olson
by Greg Olson
David Lynch was lost. He fastened the top button of his white shirt every morning, but tendrils of panic and confusion snaked their way into his chest. How could his second attempt at sustaining a marriage be slowly withering? How could Dune turn out so bad? He couldn’t understand how his thoughts and feelings, which he seemed to know so well, could be so at odds with each other, so scrambled. He experienced the way “you can play tricks on your mind, or your mind can play tricks on you, and it keeps you from seeing what’s really happening. I don’t know.”
Lynch continued to reside with Mary and Austin, but his soul needed to find a home. In The Grandmother, Eraserhead, and The Elephant Man, the director provided the flagging, downtrodden spirits of his heroes with a locus of solace and creative growth. Even Paul Atreides, who had to exchange his lush home world for a barren desert, found on Dune a place and people that nurtured and expanded his being. The director needed to go where, as Robert Frost said, “When you go there, they have to take you in.” A place where the voices of criticism and failure would fade into the silence of his inner peace. Where he could rediscover the ideas and reveries and sudden insights that had guided him to so much good work in the past, and know that he was following the true and only path of his art.
Lynch once said, “If you cut my father’s leash, he’d run straight into the woods,” where he had spent so much time communing with nature and studying the diseases that blighted healthy plants. Well, now the director was free of the leash that, if Dune had been successful, would have bound him to the task of making two mega-epic sequels. In his imagination, Lynch joined his father and headed for the trees. His mind dwelt in the Northwest lumbertown realm of his Spokane, Washington, and Sandpoint, Idaho, childhood, in the comforting innocence and security of the 1950s. Lynch didn’t want to get on a jet and fly across the country to the actual towns of his youth, for if he saw the real locations “too clearly it would destroy the imaginary picture” that had formed so evocatively in his head. And it would be Dino De Laurentiis, of all people, who would help him go home again.
The mogul had established his De Laurentiis Entertainment Group operation 200 miles south of Lynch, Mary, and Austin’s Virginia home, in Wilmington, North Carolina. How perfect that the production family and the director of the calamitous Dune would shake hands on another deal in the treacherous hurricane country near Cape Fear. Lynch wasn’t afraid to work with Dino again since he had comprehended the lesson of his threeand-a-half-year Dune ordeal: “The right of final cut is crucial.” Lynch would be getting a much-reduced director’s fee and a production budget one-tenth the size of Dune’s. But for the first time since Eraserhead, he would be filming a story that sprang totally from his own subconscious; he would pick his own crew and actors and locations, and, as when he stood in front of one of his paintings, only he would know when the film was complete, and there it would end.
Lynch’s Dune producer, Raffaella De Laurentiis (looking back from 2003), realized that due to the monstrous size of the production, the pressures of time and meeting budgets, “David had to give up his creative freedom.” (Lynch also had a problem with the way Raffaella, while working on Dune, was simultaneously producing Richard Fleischer’s Conan the Destroyer on nearby Mexican soundstages. Once, when she left Lynch to visit Fleischer, David’s face went white with anger.) She remembers that after Dune Lynch “said he’d never do another big movie, and he never has. He’s been really happy doing smaller films: he’s found his niche, the thing he loves doing.” Blue Velvet would begin (or reinstitute, á la Eraserhead) Lynch’s felicitous outpouring of human-scale, deeply personal cinema.
Like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet would be synthesized from the substance of Lynch’s life. The director’s first feature film was built upon his experience of Philadelphia as an urban hell; his queasiness about procreation and fear of fatherhood and the freedom-restricting responsibilities of family life; his dealing with the fact of his own daughter, Jennifer, being born with clubfeet; and his belief in the powers of spirit and imagination to deliver us from earthly turmoil. Blue Velvet would portray the artist’s base and lofty obsessions.
Having suffered the dilution and disintegration of his personal vision while toiling on Dune, Lynch sighed with relief as he returned to his primal first principles in Blue Velvet. The famous, iconic opening image of the film, in which the low-positioned camera looks up at red tulips bobbing against a white picket fence with blue sky beyond is, for former Spokane tyke Lynch, specifically “a child’s view”8 of an archetypal red-white-and-blue American tableau. Not only would Lynch’s small-town roots be displayed in his new film, but this very private man would expose, and own up to, one of his own transgressive daydreams. “I always had this fantasy of sneaking into a girl’s room, hiding, and observing her through the night.”
There have been secrets in the director’s films from the earliest days: The Grandmother’s Granny hidden up in the attic, where she and the Boy share a clandestine life removed from his abusive parents; Eraserhead Henry’s intimate bond with the Lady in the Radiator, a private treasure he keeps from his wife; The Elephant Man’s sweet and cultured soul, which is masked by the brutish monstrosity of his deformed flesh; and the concealed cosmic truth that Dune’s Paul Atreides is the prophesied messiah. Secrets aplenty, but, beginning with Blue Velvet, Lynch will forcefully make secrets and mysteries the declared subject of his work, something that his characters both live out and talk about. The elusive director, with unconscious selfrevelatory humor, acknowledged his fascination with hidden verities in the year of Blue Velvet. When asked if he was secretive, the director responded, “That’s a possibility, yeah.”
Lynch had carried around his fantasy of spying on a girl in her room at night since the early-1970s time of Eraserhead. Like a magnet, this story element attracted bits of the director’s imagination over the years. Jeffrey, the young man who was the girl-watcher, would see a puzzle piece from a murder mystery in her room. In a field, he would find a severed ear that would take him to the police. He would become involved with the policeman’s pure-hearted daughter, then also the darkness-tainted woman he had spied on. He would make a fearsome night journey from innocence to experience, discover that his tranquil town has a noxious underside, battle the forces of evil, and wonder if that evil stirs within his own heart.
Since the creation of Blue Velvet’s scenario was a gradual process, Lynch had plenty of time to talk about the project with his cinematographer friend, Fred Elmes. The two had met in 1971 when they attended classes at the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies in Beverly Hills, and it was Elmes who had realized on film the evocatively dark-charcoal-andebony Eraserhead imagery that brooded within Lynch’s mind. Lynch and Elmes’s hours of Blue Velvet talk proceeded from the general to the specific. What would the town look like? What do people do in this town? What’s the feeling in Dorothy’s strange apartment? What color makes it strange?
While determining the final shape of his story and its setting, Lynch set about casting Blue Velvet’s principal roles. Who better to portray Jeffrey Beaumont, an adventurous youth on the verge of manhood, than Paul Atreides himself: Kyle MacLachlan. Dune remained an emblem of negativity in Lynch’s mind but the director greatly admired his lead actor’s abilities. He felt MacLachlan possessed abundant mental and physical prowess, and projected both spiritual depth and innocence. He also knew that Blue Velvet, unlike Dune’s ponderous, magisterial narrative, had passages in which MacLachlan’s boyish zeal and quirky playfulness could shine through.
The young actor wasn’t feeling very frisky after Dune came out. The film’s failure dissolved his six-picture contract with De Laurentiis, and he fell into a dark depression in which he questioned everything he was doing. Aside from sharing Lynch’s post-Dune blues, MacLachlan agreed with his friend and director’s post-mortem of the Dune problem: Given half a chance, studio bosses will fold, spindle, and mutilate your artistic vision. Oliver Stone offered MacLachlan a leading role in the much-anticipated production of Platoon, but the actor stayed on Lynch’s wavelength and waited for Blue Velvet to gear up at its own proper time. The Platoon role turned out to be Charlie Sheen’s breakout part, but MacLachlan felt that Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey made a far more fascinating journey than the comparatively undeveloped lead character of Platoon.
Sharing Jeffrey’s journey is the immaculate Sandy, police detective’s daughter and, for Lynch, “the most beautiful, popular girl in high school." The director rhapsodizes in his inimitable way, “If you wanted to buy a bottle of innocence as a shampoo, you’d buy Sandy.” Sweet smelling and pure of heart, Sandy is nonetheless the one who facilitates Jeffrey’s Walpurgis Night trip into a lethal small-town netherworld.
MacLachlan’s film career was still in its fledgling stage, and he wanted his parents to be involved in the process he was going through, so he gave each of them a copy of Lynch’s Blue Velvet script. “I wasn’t too worried about my dad, but my mom was going through chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. She was very sensitive, very protective, and felt like her baby was getting into something that she was very concerned about. But I trusted David, and I finally said to her, ‘You’re going to have to be okay with this.’ It was about being able to say to her, ‘This is really important to me,’ and her being okay with that. She died before the film came out, ironically.”13 So for both Jeffrey Beaumont and Kyle MacLachlan, Blue Velvet was a maturing, coming-of-age experience of independence from loving parents.
Lynch had talked to just about every young actress in Hollywood and still hadn’t found his high school sweetheart. He was growing impatient and frustrated when in walked Laura Dern. Or rather, Dern was sitting on the hallway floor outside the director’s office when Lynch dropped an earthy greeting as he hurriedly strode past her, “Hey, I gotta go pee. I’ll be right back.” As Dern recalls, Lynch’s job interview technique was casual as usual. “We talked about everything, from meditation to movies to clothing designers to lumber,”and the director simply “decided he wanted me to be in the movie.”16 Lynch needed his new leading lady and leading man to get to know each other, so he initiated Dern and MacLachlan into one of his favorite rituals of creativity: lunch at Bob’s Big Boy.
Sitting in his favorite restaurant, eating the burgers and fries and milkshakes he had loved as a kid in the 1950s, and dreaming about a film that would have the feel of that cherished era, Lynch felt his post-Dune malaise start to lift. For years, the artist had sat in this clean, well-lighted place, sketching images and jotting words onto paper napkins, doodlings that became paintings that hung in galleries and collectors’ homes, and films that people throughout the world respected. As a boy, Lynch had loved “building forts”17 with “lots and lots of friends.”18 Now, after being crushed underfoot by the relatively impersonal behemoth that was Dune, the artist would, as he did with Eraserhead, be building a deeply felt film with a human-scale circle of friends. The burger griddle was hot that day at Bob’s, and Dern and MacLachlan sparked some warmth of their own, for their meeting generated a romance as well as one of the most notorious films of the 1980s.
So Lynch had found his Sandy, blonde angel of love and light, but where was Dorothy, the dark lady of pain and sorrow? In a serendipitous way, Dino DeLaurentiis would provide her. One night in New York, Lynch and a male friend were having dinner in Dino’s restaurant, Allo Allo (the words the producer uses to answer the phone). Humphrey Bogart was not the nightspot’s host, nor was Dooley Wilson playing “As Time Goes By” on the piano, but Casablanca was on Lynch’s mind as he regarded an uncommonly beautiful woman across the room, who was dining with Dino’s wife. “Would you look at her, she could be Ingrid Bergman’s daughter,” the awestruck director said to his friend. “You idiot, she is Ingrid Bergman’s daughter”20 was not only the reply, but also the answer to what Lynch needed—both as an artist and as a man.
Thirty-three-year-old Isabella Rossellini was indeed the daughter of actress Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982) and Italian film director Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977), whose union had caused one of Hollywood’s most notorious scandals. In 1949, Bergman, at the height of her Hollywood success and near sanctification by adoring moviegoers, left America, and her husband and child, to make films with Rossellini in Italy. She divorced her spouse, married Rossellini after becoming pregnant by him, had three children with him (including Isabella), was vilified by the American media, and condemned in the halls of Congress. In the late 1950s, after divorcing Rossellini, Bergman was finally welcomed back by the American public and Hollywood moviemakers.
Isabella Rossellini—who, with her twin sister, Ingrid, was born in 1952—was insulated from the harsh winds of vilification that swirled around her mother. She enjoyed a happy childhood near Rome with lots of friends and pets and games. When it was time for the afternoon siesta she could never fall asleep, so she lay there quietly, daydreaming—sounds like a simpatico playmate for a younger David Lynch. Blessed with her mother’s moon-faced beauty (she’s been called one of the most lovely women in the history of the world), Isabella began modeling as a teenager, and she let loose her playful spirit performing on the Saturday Night Live–like Italian TV comedy The Other Sunday, for which she also filmed offbeat reports on notables such as Muhammad Ali and director Martin Scorsese. She was married to Scorsese for three years (1979–1982), acted in A Matter of Time (1976), Il Prato (1979), and White Nights (1985), and became the exclusive spokeswoman and representative image for Lancôme cosmetics. She had another short marriage, to filmmaker Jonathan Wiedemann, with whom she had a daughter, Elettra-Ingrid, in 1983.
Even before meeting Lynch, Rossellini had been swept away by his Blue Velvet screenplay. The script opened up “a world of deeper truths,” and courageously portrayed “the reality of abused women, the many layers, the horrible twists, the unclear emotions.” The character of Dorothy was an actress’s dream: a “beautiful broken doll,” a tarnished-glamour façade that masked “shadings of desperation, helplessness, madness.”
Rossellini felt a kinship with the world of Lynch’s art, and the director’s intuition was quick to recognize her as Blue Velvet’s perfect Dorothy. She seemed to embody the very words of his script: the ripe, thirty-something sexuality of a woman who has borne a child, the “beautiful full figure, dark eyes, black thick wavy hair, full red lips.” The blooming, ruddy lips that had whispered Blue Velvet into being in Lynch’s mind were now breathing and speaking before his eyes; Rossellini understood him so well. She saw Lynch as both “serene, happy, well-adjusted,” and obsessed with “the dark side, the inexplicable, the mystery.” She marveled at his intuitive ability to tap into the “strange thoughts that we all have” and blast them onto the screen with a “raw, emotional” power.
Isabella would be Dorothy on screen. And, as the director acknowledges, Kyle MacLachlan would, to some degree, be Lynch’s surrogate in the film. So while Dorothy leads the innocent Jeffrey into a realm of dark sensual experience, Lynch will find in Rossellini a kindred spirit and a lover who will crystallize his need to move beyond his second marriage.
Now who would Lynch choose to portray Frank Booth? Many Hollywood males, including Robert Loggia (Prizzi’s Honor) and singer Bobby Vinton (whose “Blue Velvet” song helped inspire Lynch’s film), dearly coveted the role. Just as children love to dress up as witches and monsters and devils on Halloween night, actors relish playing villains. Agents of the night, of tears, violence, and death, villains allow actors to express some of their own malevolent impulses, to unburden their souls in a safe, make-believe setting. In turn, members of the audience, in experiencing the actor’s and dramatist’s art, can recognize their own darkness in the villain’s devilishness and then redemptively feel it vanquished and purged by the triumphant hero’s killing stroke. Alfred Hitchcock often said that “the stronger, the more colorful the villain, the better the picture.”30 Blue Velvet would be powered by the hellish energy and twisted psyche of Frank Booth, a scary and fascinating monster who would stand alongside Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) as one of the cinema’s most unforgettable villains.
But there was a possible Frank Booth who Lynch was curious about, and more than a little afraid of. Dennis Hopper was celebrated as a gifted actor, painter, photographer, and director (Easy Rider, 1969), but he was also a notorious holy terror. Hopper had starred and became friends with James Dean in the archetypal teenage-angst film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and he seemed born to live out the moody, sensitive, explosive persona that Dean acted for the cameras. Hopper tangled with director Henry Hathaway while shooting From Hell to Texas (1958), forcing Hathaway to shoot eighty-six takes of Hopper saying a few simple lines of dialogue. After fifteen ego-clashing hours, Hathaway yelled at Hopper, “You’ll never work in this town again! I guarantee it!”
excerpt from the book: David Lynch:Beautiful Dark / Greg Olson
by Carlo Antonicelli
No Country for Old Men, a film of ruthless pessimism that graciously chiseled work by Cohen brothers, has succeeded almost perfectly to overcome the poetic sign and the content of the same book of Cormac McCarthy. A work, that of the Texan author, capable of metabolizing and representing the Zeitgeist of the time in transit, and in particular the dialect of Western civilization.
Carlo Antonicelli: I would like to start with the figure of the sculptor Bell, an elderly man who wakes up from the incarnation of the wise figure of a wise man, finds himself in front of the wondrous wickedness and violence that he does not seem to understand or want to understand. To me, it is pertinent, but anchestrating, that the one who ought to be the lover of the "healthy" values of the nation refrains from applying them as if it were overwhelmed by a louder necessity than him.
Gabriele Guerra: It does not seem to me that the position of the scribe is described as "agnostic" around the problem of the other: in the contrary, the Sheriff Bell seems to me an "ascetic" figure of radical rejection of evil. Like all ascetic figures - it suffers, like all the "saints": but the definition would lead us to an overly religious context - the sheriff knows good the evil of the world, he obviously fought him, but now has intervened a form of rethinking his own action, Which leads him to change his behavior (bottom Askesis in Greek means first and foremost "practice", and therefore there is no movement of a practical philosophy, that is, ethical), that it ceases to withdraw from any "action", but not necessarily approaching "contemplation" (which is the "Antithesis around which, as is well-known, Christian-Western ascetic practice is built).
C.A.: The same Sheriff -Bell in Western dramaturge is absolutely heterogeneous. It is not courageous, but it would be unclear. It's bipolar, "he says even unfortunate bad guys in the book, and McCarthy does not care to protect him. In the movie, but still, in the book, Bell regrets the times gone by, a mixed attitude of cynicism disenchanted toward this world. But this talk about lost tradition has not originated very early, already in the first Aristotle? How come back to common sense and the plot of this work?
G.G.: True, Bell incarnates everything in Western movies we're used to considering the "hero". But we need to look at the figure. The key to understanding his attitude is instead the "dream" telling his wife how to spin the end of the movie: his father riding overboard him, handing himself a burning torch, traveling on a road to cook a new bonfire to give way to something like a new beginning. The dialectical light/darkness on which the interpretable is built (that is, that asymptotic process that leads us to approach the "truth", which is in the depths of the story of telling), obviously articulates a problem (religious but not only) Specifically modern: the jammed with the tradition. In this regard, I do not know how to deal here with the first Aristotle, as you say; With this dialectic I meant rather a very conceptual - not archetypal - device that maybe, if anything, we find ourselves in Plato (but I prefer to refer to the testament contest, particularly to the Gospel of John). The fact is that the world is irreparably shaded in a partially illuminated and (still) obscure implies not only a dialectical, but also a moral so to speak: on the one hand, there are some who are still dominated by darkness, who do not mind and continue to this to do evil. On the other hand, those who, illuminated by the light of salvation (from the Messiah's truth), are able to see the world in the connexions (and disconnections) - an elective dialect of choice and not. But let's go back to the relationship with tradition: while the "natural" transmission chain of salvific knowledge (the lighthouse illuminating the path) involves the passage of father son, the gnostic period in which the action of the film lives, or the perception of a world impregnated with evil, causes it to become overwhelmed; and if the task of tradition had always been to repeat the same gestures, so that to make and maintain an orderly cosmos (Eliade), now it only becomes the one to interpret the message itself that in those gestures was contained. After that, it will only sit to remember the message itself and then perpetuate that message without understanding it, and so on, in a process of inexorable subtraction. In the end, the problem of the atradition is the problem of memory, as Benjamin it has condensed in the famous formula: "Death is the sanction of everything that the narrator can tell."
C.A.: Throughout the long history, Bell lives immersed in the history of his own family, relatives who like him grow older. Leaving his employability is a breakthrough in tradition, as dictated by me, but in the dream it seems that the very idea of advancing progress, the father passing by his son to light a flame of hope. More in the book Bell invokes the coming of Christ as the sole author of the present state of things. So a Palingenese, an ancient but also popular idea of rejection of the status quo, but in the dream the idea of progress towards the future, and of tempting, seems to me to be subverted in a more radical way.
G.G.:"The father who passes in front of his son" - did not think of Bell's ultimate parable of this interpretation, but gave me a progressive reading, whether it was a breakthrough, sick, in crisis - but still progress; But it seems to me that the frequent recall of the Bell of the Romance to the Christ of salvation confirms my interpretation: in the end, the "new time" inaugurated by the Advent of Christ is a time destined to subvert the pagan continuum - in this sense then the father he does not surpass his son, but simply precedes it, is literally a precursor, representing a "typological" conception of history: all those who intend to make a light of disreputability in the world must adapt to the figure of Christ, becoming his type.
C.A.: Does Bell need to present a weak dietary version? He says she is not a contemplative man, and he seems to be above the events, indeed he is always late on what is happening, is always a step backwards with respect to the violent emergencies. But Bell knows good only as a memory of good, he can not put it into practice. Is this a post-modern character in this sense? Or is it more like an amethyst tragic background?
G.G.: I will reply to you with a parable, what Gershom Scholem tells us in closing his book The Great Currents of Jewish Meditation: "When Baal-Shem [the founder of the ultimate throne of Jewish mysticism] had to fulfill some difficult task, he went to a place in the woods, he ignored and said prayers, absorbed in meditation, and everything was done according to his purpose. When, a generation later, Magogd of Meseritz found himself in front of the same task, he went to that place in the woods and said: 'We can no longer fire, but we can say prayers' - and everything went according to his wish. Another generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassow had to perform the same task. He also went astray, saying, 'We can no longer ignite the fire, and we no longer know the secret meditations that enliven the prayer'. But we know the place in the wood where all this happened, and that's enough. And that was enough. But when again, another generation later, Rabbi Ysra'el of Rischin had to face the same task, sat in a golden seat in his castle, and said,: "We can no longer fire, we can not say prayers, and we no longer know the illusion in the woods, but of all this we can tell the story. And his story alone had the same deeds as the other three. " It also seems to me to be a good allegory of Bell's dream: tradition is subject to strong corrosion, a progressive reality, what remains is just the possibility of dealing with it-more importantly having lost the "strong" interpretative keys; This is, if you like, a weak, typically post-modern ethic (although I think I do not have to indulge in the Eco as an infinite semiotic game, but to think about it in the tragic nature of its "post-" . Every amletic character is a "post-character").
C.A.: We come to the character Chigurh. It is possible to understand a figure of the character, but by listening to choosing his own jokes, he parallels his action to a sort of inexhaustible dinecession. As he pulls the coin for air to end the fate of the victims. Chigurh says, "I've got a lot of money and we've come up with it." It seems to have eradicated the freedom to decide. And this is totally inhuman. Chigurh is a Knight of Revelation?
G.G.: Certainly, Chigurh is an enigmatic character. But, like the Oedipus Sphinx, it is only if he questions himself as a "character" in its entirety, while it seems to me a "function" that has only one side, or rather is dominated ('possessed') by its being function - that is to do it, like that of the Sphinx is to question Oedipus, or to put it in crisis. It is then to be asked what type of function incarnations. And in this sense it seems to me to be a very high definition of Chigurh as someone "uprooted by the freedom to decide." The question then becomes: Does Chigurh incarnate the Greek tyche, or if he prefers the inscrutable fate (the thread of the Fates), or is it rather a function necessary for the "salvation economy" evoked by Bell, or 'antipathy' of Christ, in a word Satan? It is not here, of course, to decide on the conceptual fundament - pagan or Christian - but to settle it into a philosophy of history. More concretely, Chigurh is the "diabolic" side of a fairy tale that is its "sim-bolic" moment in Bell. I mean, that while Bell intends to "hold together" the different moments of existence, grouping them in their highest ethical moment - as sanctioned by the "jump" in the symbol - Chigurh seems to me to be represented by a divisional instance, "dia-bolica" just, intending to separate the different plans of existence once and for all. As he wrote what I consider a great Italian philosopher, Vincenzo Vitiello, in his latest book: "Without the world it would hurt evil, without the multiple would not be bad. But it's bad more than negativity. Evil is the manifold not related to one, which is self-evident, nothing separate from the possible".(Reflecting Christianity, De Europa, p.244).
C. A.: Socrates said: "If you really needed what you were doing, you would not hurt; You do it because you do not know what you are doing." But even in the Gospel there is a trait that says this unknowingness approaching, which identifies the malecoline of not knowing what we are doing: "Lord, forgive them because they do not know what they are doing." Llewelyn seems to know how to make the right choices for his destiny and to justify his "small" misdeed. The evil perpetrated by Chigurh, however, is irrational, but at the same time accompanied by a rigorous ethics that leads him to kill Llewelyn's wife in the word he had given to the latter. How do you break this tragic paradox?
G.G.: It seems very important to me this aspect. To resume what I said above: Chigurh's would not call it "a strong", but rather "a rigid ethos ", that is, demonic in the sense I have illustrated; It seemed like allowed, it is the same as Terminator of all the other machines "programmed to kill". There is no paradox in this regard, but only resistance to evil by the people, like Llewelyn's wife, does not accept this logic. It is unfortunate that, unlike what is happening in the novel, his brutal assassination by Chigurh is not shown, I do not want to be explained precisely with reference to his "diabolical" ethos: a behavior that even the eye would give me refuses to see.
G.A.: Throughout this incredible story and in a sense of violence does not seem strange to let the affair come from the good action of Llewelyn that goes to bring the Mexican water to the desert? Is it just a narrative pretext?
C. G.: It does not, however, seem to be a fundamental engine of the philosophical course that we witness in the film's work: the modern world is structured around an acronymatic and methodological heterogeneous of the ends, which transforms finishing into good and vice versa. Llewelyn's good action is, in other words, a direct, conscientious way as "Socrates said", which is lurking under our eyes; the subject of the process is the conquest of power - money, success, etc., but above all: power of life and death.
G.A.: From the dramatic point of view, McCarthy has decomposed Western classic slabs, and the Cohen have borrowed the way to proceed with the book, succeeding in coinciding with the form and content of the film. The two outlaws, Llewelyne and Chigurh, never clash either with them or with the sheriff, the law is not restored, and the villain is not killed. He thinks that this destructiveness is necessary for the contemporary co-location of this work, and what is its news?
C. G.: No Country for Old Men is a great movie, because as Walter Benjamin wrote "a significant work, fonds the genre or flows; in the perfect works, the two things merge." It seems to me that all McCarthy's work witnesses to the intrinsic difficulty in this sphere, the relationship of a literary work to a certain genre - in this case the western, as you rightly recall; a difficulty that McCarthy resolves to make it explode, using the background pattern (which is the Mezzogiorno di Fuoco , as you rightly sums up) just to show the inadequacy of the present time only to show its inadequacy at the present time (if you want, it's also a great representation of the impossibility of making an epic today.). But I do not know so much about the American novelist that I may be able to produce in a disagreeable judgment on his work. Cohen brothers make a great film because they can blend the foundation and the final moment of the genre. Regarding the message it addresses to our present: I do not know how to express it - there is certainly a message inside the "specific film", as was once said, which I must first emphasize: the violence contained in this film is a sign spectacularly opposed to that of Tarantino's films; while in these the violence becomes calligraphy, distracting exercise end in itself (and thus becomes autonomous, producing an aesthetic that does not succeed in defining "fascist" - if for fascistas the aesthetic worship of violence becomes purpose to itself)), then there is continually Bell's gaze that he judges - and condemns - such an explosion of violence. Violence without Tarantino's morality is thus replaced by a morality without violence. And this seems to me to be a short message.
Gabriele Guerra was born in 1968, after graduating in Germanica at the University of Rome "La Sapienza" with a thesis on Walter Benjamin, and having pursued a research doctorate at the Freie Universität in Berlin on political syathology in some Jewish-German thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century, became a professor of German literature at the University of Rome "La Sapienza".
He has written the following volumes:
Das Judentumzwischen Anarchie und Theokratie. Eine religionspolitische Diskussion am Beispiel der Begegnung zwischen Walter Benjamin und Gershom Scholem, Bielefeld 2007;
La forza della forma. Ernst Jünger from 1918 to 1945, Civita vecchia-Roma, 2007.
He does not deal with cinema professionally, but he's just a curiosity, especially as far as his philosophical implications are concerned.
Translated by Dejan Stojkovski
A 1980s science fiction script reaffirms human feelings within the networks of virtual sociality.
"There will soon be nothing more than self-communicating zombies, whose lone umbilical relay will be their own feedback image – electronic avatars of dead shadows perpetually retelling their own story.”
- Jean Baudrillard in Telemorphosis
Around 1979 the American filmmaker Robert Kramer and the French schizo-analyst Félix Guattari started working together on a film about two Italian fugitives from the Italian Autonomia Movement, Latitante. The film, which was to star Pier Paolo Pasolini's regular actress Laura Betti, was meant to be a sort of first person collective reflection on the finitude and fragility of the body, “opposing the enormous weight of things-as-they-are, systematically defined by vast power.” A film about the intimacy of resistance. Somewhere along the way the film morphed into a significantly different creature, the science fiction flick A Love of UIQ, a formal shift (sub)consciously informed by the wider political changes taking place off screen: from the grand ideological narratives of the 60s and 70s, to the videodrome mutations that would characterize countercultural developments in the 80s.
Guattari's narrative somehow bridges these two currents, borrowing the resolve from the former and the conceptual tools from the latter. The headless body of workerism with its absence of political organs prefigured some of the most politicized forms of cyberpunk and its anti-authoritarianism. Hamburg's early incarnation of the Chaos Computer Club, underground zines like Hackerfür Moskau or the British Vague, the militant sci-fi of Italy's editorial collective Un' Ambigua Utopia or the galactrotskyist novels of Mack Reynolds, YIPL or the soviet cyber-fantasy flick Kin-dza-dza (1986) and other undetected influences all seep through Guattari's unfilmed script. At the time of the first draft (1980-81), Kramer was to direct the film and Guattari himself wanted it to be produced in Hollywood. He had in fact sent a copy to Michael Philips, the producer of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Taxi Driver, who took it to be “too political” for US audiences. A second draft, still co-written with Kramer, dates back to 1983 while the final version that has just been published in English for the first time was completed by Guattari alone around 1986. Kramer himself will flirt with science-fictional tropes in his 1985 Diesel, his first and last foray into commercial filmmaking, a film that might have been aesthetically influenced by his work with Guattari, but bears none of its narrative characteristics.
A Love of UIQ reverses the spatial coordinates of science fiction from outer to inner space, from the vast stretches of faraway galaxies and star warmongering to the infinitely small interstices of molecular resistance. Guattari's unfilmed script envisions the discovery of a formless intelligence by a fugitive biologist who finds refuge with the help of an American journalist in a hi-tech squat in Frankfurt. There, along with a group of cypher-punks and techno-squatters, connection is established with this post-structural intra-terrestrial, a sort cognitive interference able to disrupt and hijack official signals (enough to seriously worry the President of the Investigation Commission into Hertzian Disturbances) as well as questioning the linear phenomenology of things. It's the infinitesimally small Universe of the Infra-Quark (UIQ). Initially shaped in pixels, via a screen, as sort of hypothetical Max Headroom from an Autonomist pirate radio, UIQ's immanent manifestations can take multiple forms. “It can take whatever form it wants, one minute it's in the sky, the next in the crowd, but it's the same thing. It can appear in a freak weather front, in radio interference, in anything...” It is the very concept of subjective identity that baffles the mysterious entity: “yours, mine, ours. You, me, you, me. You...yes I understand you. But me...Me, I'll never get it. This face on the screen is only for you. I can change it,” observes UIQ during a conversation with the person it will fall in love. It's precisely that quintessential device of narrative cinema, (heterosexual) love, that will debase UIQ's protean and boundless essence to the self-interested pettiness of jealousy and detonate a “new type of cosmic catastrophe.”
Set in the post-industrial immateriality of data among the embryos of the cognitariat, A Love of UIQ belongs to the science-fiction sub-genre of (political) contamination, somewhere between the bio-tech dystopia of Warning Sign (1985) and the semiotic horror of Pontypool (2009). Culturally and aesthetically though, the script is clearly indebted to Muscha's Decoder (1984) and F.J. Ossang's L'affaire des divisions Morituri (1985) and their politically charged atmospheres and allusions, as Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson, who translated the script from French, point out in their insightful introduction. Containing no descriptions of camera movements, set or light design, the script reads remarkably agile to be written by a philosopher known for his ornate, neologistic prose. Significantly, for someone who had reclaimed the militant role of desire and confuted Freudian repression in his Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, A Love of UIQ is haunted by a post-human pessimism tinged with a residual confidence in the possibility of technological innovations. A distinctive touch of Parisian snobbery, if not outright classism, is evinced in the characterization of the only two working class members of the cast—“who left their provincial hometown in search of the American Dream”—to which Guattari accords, in fact, the most thankless roles. That aside, A Love of UIQ still reads as a legitimate and compelling enough attempt to explore “the rise of computerized forms of imagination and decision-making,” as well as “the digitalization of a growing number of material and mental operations” and how difficult it would have been for all this to be reconciled “with the existential territories that mark our finitude and desire to exist.” Read today, when the science fiction prophesy of Kornbluth's and Pohl's Space Merchants seems to have come true in the digital totalitarianism of Silicon Valley, Guattari's script is both outdated and timely. Outdated because the technological utopia of the early hackers generation has been co-opted and monopolized by corporate interests, but also timely because it reaffirms the centrality of human feelings within the networks of virtual sociality. Cyberpunk after all was the culmination of the progressive nearing of two previously distinct realms, the technological and the humanistic.
As fascinating as the script and the idea of a film by Félix Guattari are, one cannot help imagining how it could have actually ended up looking and feeling, especially since, by Guattari's own admission, “certain thematic elements, though essential, can only be crudely sketched” and “taking form will require a particular stylistic visual and spatial treatment that will not become apparent until shooting.” A Love for UIQ's script is in fact traversed by a palpable tension reaching towards a cinema not only able to critically elaborate the present and its realities, but to radically transfigure them.
this article is taken from:
(Twin Peaks, Season 2 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me)
In August, Lynch and Sweeney broke away from their bundle of joy for twenty-four hours and flew up to Washington’s Snoqualmie Valley for the American premiere of the film, which had already been playing to big crowds in Japan. A local Washington group, headed by Snoqualmie’s Vicki Curnutt, thought it would be great to have a summer festival honoring Twin Peaks and its fans. Combining efforts with New Line Cinema, the film’s distributor, the group presented “Twin Peaks Fest 92” on the weekend of August 14–16. New Line flew in actors Sheryl Lee, Ray Wise, Moira Kelly, Catherine Coulson, Al Strobel, and Jonathan Lepell for the event. The esteemed visitors amiably mingled with the ten thousand fans who gathered from around the world to talk about the show, buy Peaks-related souvenirs, and sample a number of activities such as a celebrity look-alike contest, tours of filming locations, a cherry pie-eating contest, a climb up Mt. Si (one of Twin Peaks’ peaks), the Log Lady Relay Race, and a raffle of the old gray sedan in which Agent Cooper first drove into Twin Peaks. There were also several soldout events which allowed smaller gatherings of fans to have “Dinner With the Stars” and “Breakfast With the Stars,” all leading up to the big film showing in the funky old North Bend Theatre just across from the Mar T Café. This would be an unusually racy, R-rated evening for the movie house, which normally showed Disney and other family-oriented fare. The whole weekend had a mildly subversive air about it, as the churchgoing, flag-waving towns of North Bend and Snoqualmie were swarmed by people obsessed with a fiction that centered on sex, drugs, incest, and child-murder.
Lynch had been scheduled to appear at earlier festival events, but he kept his participation under tight control, flying in late on Sunday afternoon, talking to no media representatives, and, with Mary and the actors, only showing up a few minutes before the film screening at 8:00 p.m. The premiere was long-ago soldout, but throngs of people crowded the sidewalk outside the theater hoping for a spare seat and at least a glimpse of the celebrities as they pulled up in long black limousines, with the mountains of Twin Peaks filling the twilight background.
Lynch stepped out of the car, waved to the cheering crowd, and stepped into the sweltering, non-air-conditioned theater, his hand outstretching to whoever would first take it, that person being a local boy who tore tickets on the weekends. The director said “Glad to meet you” to his impromptu greeter and, with Mary, took a seat in the far right back section of the auditorium, on the aisle. The director, Sweeney, Sheryl Lee, Moira Kelly, Catherine Coulson, Al Strobel, and Jonathon Lepell were each dressed in formal black (no tie for Lynch), but Ray Wise, perhaps to counteract all the darkness he portrays in the film, wore a white suit and tieless shirt. In contrast to Lynch, the actors sat halfway down toward the screen, surrounded by adoring fans, who included Pat Cokewell, owner of the Mar T Café and maker of those heavenly pies.
The seats filled quickly, and as everyone exclaimed about how bloody hot the room was, Lynch said a few words before the film. A tall dark figure against the white screen, he stood onstage and, with a wide smile, acknowledging the standing ovation. He spoke with confidence to the large group, and his natural humor bobbed to the surface. “Thank you guys very much. This really reminds me of a theater in Los Angeles called the NuArt, where I once stood in front of a packed theater and talked a little bit about Eraserhead. You’ve got a great theater here. [Audience laughter, assuming he’s being sarcastic.] No, I’m not kidding you—this is, ah—it smells—and it—it’s definitely the real thing.” [Much crowd laughter.] Then he treated the group to a classic Lynchian non sequitur, beginning a convoluted story that went on and on and led up to the reason he and Mark Frost originally decided to shoot Twin Peaks in the Snoqualmie Valley: “‘I’m still not sure where we’re going to shoot it, Mark.’ So I said, ‘Call me,’ and he said ‘Okay’—now before the film, I want to introduce some members of the cast.” [Audience laughter over another abrupt Lynchian swerve away from revealing information.]
Lynch introduced his actors and had them join him on stage, as the crowd whooped and applauded, and he acknowledged, “in the back, my girlfriend, Mary Sweeney, the editor of the film.” He closed by thanking all the Washington communities that had helped make the film possible and said, “the cast, Mary, and I are all very happy to be here and we truly hope that you love Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” The Lynchian paradox was palpable: This well-mannered, funny, and endearing master of ceremonies was proudly ready to plunge us into his carefully wrought creation, which many critics would characterize as a depressing miasma of moral degradation.
However, thanks to the complexity of human nature, the audience jammed into the North Bend Theatre was ready and eager to take the dive with Laura. The buzz of voices faded as the auditorium grew dim—but then a woman’s voice called, “Lights! Turn on the lights!” As though in a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover depicting a small-town community project goof-up, Twin Peaks Fest organizer Vicki Curnutt took the stage to do two things she’d forgotten. After directing a round of applause at the festival’s many volunteers, she called Lynch back to the stage. Since he hadn’t been around to attend that afternoon’s Celebrity Awards Ceremony, she handed him his trophy: a varnished wooden plaque with a rope hangman’s noose attached to it. He chuckled along with the crowd’s laughter and applause, and added, “Things were a little slow at Cannes this year, so this really hits the spot.”
At last, it was night in the room, and Lynch’s darkness would flow. The director could not have handpicked a more receptive audience for his work. They were thrilled to be the first in the country to see the film, and, especially to have key cast members and Lynch himself in the auditorium with them breathing the same hothouse air. As the film opened, the crowd cheered and clapped for every actor’s name and technical credit name, and when each actor first came on the screen, no matter how far into the movie it was, they exploded again. Lynch was sharing less of this experience with the crowd than they thought, however. Like parents who have tucked their audience in bed so it can have a dream of Laura Palmer, Lynch and Sweeney tiptoed out the back after the first few minutes unreeled, so they could hasten back south to their dear little Riley.
The first thing we see is one of Lynch’s visual abstractions signifying mood and emotion, like a black smudge of malaise that haunts an oppressed character in one of the artist’s drawings. Here the screen is filled with a vibrating blue storm of electrical particles that roil within the frame of a TV set like the churning black insects beneath the idyllic lawnscape of Blue Velvet. In the earlier film Lynch used insects to represent the evil hiding within our environment and our own psyches, and in Fire walk With Me, electrical energy, the wires that transport it, and the Palmer’s humming ceiling fan, allow malevolent forces to invade our world and wreak havoc. A moment after watching the angry swarm of blue energy we hear a woman scream “Nooo” for the last time in her life, and then the ugly thud of a death blow. Filtering his feelings about electricity through the childlike-wonder part of his sensibility, Lynch restores a sense of primal magic and menace to the invisible force that hums within galaxies and the neurons in our heads, flows into our homes to heat us and cook our food, and which can kill us if we’re not careful.
Michael J. Anderson remembers a moment during the filming that illustrates Lynch’s mystical feeling about electrical vibrations. They were shooting a scene in the Red Room where The Man From Another Place holds a ring up to the camera.
The generator blew out in this scene. So they plugged in another generator and tried to run the scene again. And it blew the generator again. So they plugged in a third generator and this time Lynch made some changes: “Well, this time say this part first and then this part, and instead of being over here, stand over there and point this way.” Now, he didn’t change the power requirements, he did not adjust the lights or the camera or anything. He merely moved the pieces of the scene around a little bit. When we hooked up the third generator it ran, and kept on running. I heard David say, “Yep, I thought that might have been it.”
In 1997, Lynch spoke about how the massive concentration of electrical lines can cause tumors to grow in the heads of people living near the wires. “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not, you know, whacking you.” (The workers who strung the original power lines of Thomas Edison’s pioneering electrical company said they were afraid of “the devils in the wires.”) The director’s first major fictional linkage of electricity with danger and evil occurs in his unproduced screenplay for Ronnie Rocket, which he began in the mid-1970s. Inspired by the concept of alternating electrical current, Lynch imagined a story in which a villain reverses the flow of power so that he can control a large city by zapping people with “bad electricity.” This terrible rain of negative power makes people confused, dizzy, and unable to talk straight, and when the rain becomes a deluge, some start to eat their own hands and feet, and others burst into flames. Like the motif of a man simultaneously braking and accelerating a car in his earlier unproduced One Saliva Bubble, which Lynch eventually utilized in Fire Walk With Me, the director uses the Ronnie Rocket idea of bad electricity in his Twin Peaks movie, though in a more subtle way. In Ronnie Rocket, the villain overtly employs the electricity as a weapon, while in Fire Walk With Me it is a darkly poetic signifier of evil’s intrusion into our world, a warning of disturbance in the air when BOB’s dimension hungrily invades the one we live in.
The blue-electricity TV screen that opens the film is linked to the murder of Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley), which FBI agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak), Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland), and, later Dale Cooper (Kyle Mac- Lachlan), come to investigate in Washington State. Lynch uses this first, thirty-minute portion of his film, before he takes up Laura’s story, to show us the depth of the mystery that his detectives are confronting and to indicate the limitations of their investigative skills.
In a fanciful, yet straightforward way, Lynch spells out, through his character of FBI boss Gordon Cole, his sense of the correct proportion between phenomena we can decipher and happenings that are beyond our understanding. Enacting the same artist-to-audience relationship that Lynch has with his viewers, Lynch as Gordon Cole presents Desmond and Stanley with a performance-art piece for them to decipher. This puzzle is Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), a gawky, pinch-faced woman in a red dress who makes odd, dance-like motions. The seasoned Desmond helps Stanley read her messages: They’ll have trouble with the local authorities on the Teresa Banks case, the sheriff is hiding something, there’ll be lots of legwork, the case involves drugs. But, Stanley wonders, what about the blue rose pinned to Lil’s lapel? Desmond replies, “I can’t tell you about that.” What a succinct summation of Lynch’s ethos: By paying close attention we can comprehend much that we encounter in life, but the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know. That botanically impossible blue rose, that bit of the Beyond that remains a mystery, will forever tantalize us and arouse our questing souls.
Desmond and Stanley enact a condensed version of the investigative process that Twin Peaks’ TV lawmen played out over many episodes. The two make careful observations, perform forensic science, and talk to witnesses, but they’re nowhere near a solution to Teresa Banks’ murder. Then Desmond follows his intuition into blue rose territory, revisiting the trailer where the victim lived, getting an eerie vibration from the number six electrical pole, and, at dusk, finding Teresa’s lost ring beneath a strangely shining silver trailer. Having plugged into some ineffable energy circuit, Desmond vanishes from the film.
After Lynch gives us a patriotic Eagle Scout image of the Liberty Bell, he shows that more mysteries are gathering at Philadelphia’s FBI headquarters. For the audience members who viewed the whole Twin Peaks TV series, the experience of watching Fire Walk With Me creates the almost subliminal sensation that we’re simultaneously seeing things that happened both before and after the TV show. And this feeling perfectly synchronizes with the fluid, dimension-interpenetrating sense of space and time that permeates Lynch’s film. So when we see Agent Cooper crisply stride into Gordon Cole’s office, it’s as though he’s snapped out of some of the sartorial and touchy-feely emotional excesses that Lynch didn’t like about Copper’s second-TV season presentation, those character modifications that happened while Lynch was disengaged from the production. Cooper is hyper-alert this morning because of a troubling dream about February 16, and his nocturnal subconscious agitation takes daytime substance in the form of long-lost agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie), who unexpectedly shows up at the FBI building.
Jeffries comes in via a veritable Blue Rose Highway, whipping out of the elevator through a blue archway and striding down an azure carpet into Gordon Cole’s office. When he enters the room, it becomes charged with metaphysical turbulence. We’ve never seen Cole and Cooper so unsettled, and as the deeply shaken Jeffries spews out fragmentary impressions of the things he’s witnessed, a strange reality takes over Cole’s office and fills the screen. The agent mentions someone named Judy that he’s not going to talk about (more blue rose material) and says “we live inside a dream” (a truly Lynchian sentiment) as we see what he saw at “one of their meetings” above a convenience store. Assembled in the dilapidated space are Twin Peaks’ extra-dimensional BOB and The Man From Another Place, sitting at a table covered with pans of creamed corn, which they call “garmonbozia.” Across many cultures, corn has been seen as a sacred food since ancient times. It is a vegetable composed entirely of edible seeds, so when we eat it we are literally and poetically consuming the kernel of life, gobbling up the future in the present moment. In ancient Mexican and South American lore, corn symbolizes death as well as life, and is linked with blood sacrifice. BOB may dine on garmonbozia, but his primary occupation is consuming the lives, souls, and futures of human beings; and at the end of the film the corn takes on the connotation of “pain and sorrow.” Twin Peaks is also concerned with the point at which life and death meet and change places, and Fire Walk With Me is a journey leading to Laura’s blood sacrifice—and beyond. It was Lynch’s intention to imbue the creamed corn with sacramental power, and Michael J. Anderson (The Man From Another Place) says that Lynch “got quite upset” when the actor spilled some of it. “He didn’t get angry, but it was like a big concern came up and he got down and talked to me, and he goes, ‘Now you don’t want to spill this at all. Not even a little bit. It’s like gold.’ And then he just stood there like, ‘Do you get it? Can you grasp what I am telling you?’ He was very serious. It wasn’t a joke.”
Among those present at the convenience store gathering Jeffries witnessed are Mrs. Tremond (Frances Bay) and her grandson (Jonathan Leppell), the pair who Donna encounters on TV in her Meals-on-Wheels route. The boy, who’s a clairvoyant magician, wears Lynch’s favorite blacksuit-and-white-shirt outfit, and was played by the director’s son, Austin, in the series. The film’s grandson wears a white plaster mask that lifts momentarily to reveal a shadowed monkey’s face. The mask and what it hides are another statement of Lynch’s belief in a multifarious reality, in deep truths concealed by facades. Looking underneath the detestable surface behavior of Elephant Man–exploiter Bytes, Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, and Marietta of Wild at Heart, Lynch finds love—a quality of primal grace and goodness—that’s been twisted and perverted into evil. Most often, however, the director delves into the darkness hidden beneath benign surfaces, thus projecting the balance he sees in the world around him. The monkey behind the mask signifies Lynch’s characteristic linkage of animalism with evil, and is a metaphor for monkey man BOB’s dwelling within Leland. Jutting out from the mask’s “third eye” position on its forehead is a crooked stick of wood, indicating that the BOB-possessed Leland’s spirituality is earthbound and blocked. Only when he is released from BOB in death is Leland able to “go into the light,” where he sees his beautiful, shining Laura. In her poem, young Harriet Hayward had also seen Laura glowing after death. For Fire Walk With Me, Lynch reshot the iconic image of Laura’s dead blue face being unwrapped from its plastic cocoon and, as he did two years earlier on a cold Washington beach, he carefully placed a glimmering grain of sand in the region of her third eye. Leland tragically succumbed to BOB’s domination, while Laura heroically defied it, and thus her forehead’s spiritual eye is ready for an illuminated divine vision.
Jeffries’ remembered experience with this otherworldly crew seems to bleed through the reality of Gordon Cole’s office in a cloud of blue static like the film’s opening TV screen. As the spent and screaming agent finishes his narration, Lynch stresses his notion of electrical-atmospherical disturbance being a sign of transport between dimensions by having Jeffries vanish amidst more blue static and a shot of power lines against blue sky. In the Fire Walk With Me script, Lynch specifies that Jeffries is standing in a Buenos Aires hotel one moment, and the next he’s in Gordon Cole’s office, and then suddenly back in Argentina. In the film, the director pumps up the mystery quotient by having Jeffries materialize from nowhere and everywhere. It’s interesting to note that the numerals in Jeffries’ hotel room number add up to nine, as do Cooper’s at the Great Northern Hotel, and to recall our discussion of the cosmic, circling, yin-yang energy that impels nine to become six: the universal constant of dualistic poles trading places and realities transforming. With his white tropical suit and burnt-out, shellshocked manner, Jeffries is like one of novelist Graham Greene’s or Joseph Conrad’s northern men whose life falls apart in southern climes. Lynch wants his characters, and us, to hit the road, delve into mysteries, learn all we can, and gain enlightenment from the experience. But he also knows that this path is fraught with dangers, and he makes Jeffries a man who bears the psychic wounds of too much traveling. Earlier, Fat Trout Trailer Park manager Carl Rodd sounded a cautionary note about voyaging when he talked with agents Desmond and Stanley. Lynch juxtaposed a shot of eerily twittering power lines against blue sky with the haggard, bandaged face of Rodd, who spoke like a haunted man: “I’ve already been places. I just want to stay where I am.”
When Cooper travels to Washington State to investigate agent Desmond’s disappearance, he visits Carl Rodd’s trailer corral and is drawn to what looks like an unremarkable patch of earth where a trailer was once parked. We know what Cooper doesn’t, that this is where Desmond touched the ring and was lost to sight, that the trailer belonged to two members of Twin Peaks’ otherworldly cosmology, and that the “Let’s rock” written in red on the windshield of Desmond’s car is a phrase the little Man From Another Place will say to Cooper in a dream twelve months from now. Cooper, the magician who longs to see, can recognize investigational elements that give him “a strange feeling,” but he can’t perceive what they mean. This state of mind mirrors Lynch’s comments about how his own process of art-making proceeds in a “strange, abstract way,” in which he lets his feelings guide his creating hand and only later sees how the assembled elements coalesce into intellectual meaning.
Agent Chester Desmond: vanished. Agent Phillip Jeffries: vanished. The murder of Teresa Banks: unsolved. Even Cooper, the detective’s detective, must concede that the FBI’s quest has reached “a dead end.” In The Wizard of Oz, which Lynch loves so much, Dorothy and her three male companions reach a roadblock on their odyssey to Oz when they’re told that they can’t enter the city that they’ve been striving so hard to reach, and which holds the Wizard’s special knowledge that they seek. But, when the officials see that Dorothy is wearing ruby slippers, the doors are opened. And, likewise in Lynch’s world, there is often a means of entry, a gateway to deeper mysteries, that is waiting to be recognized. The investigating men can take us no further into the dark wonders of Fire Walk With Me. To proceed all the way to the end of the night, we must walk and die with Laura Palmer, the saddest schoolgirl in the world.
As Lynch opens Laura’s story, he presents images that make a quick transition from sunny innocence to dark experience, as he did at the start of Blue Velvet. Teenage Laura and her best friend, Donna, wearing their 1950s-echoing plaids and sweaters, walk to school down the same sidewalk they’ve trod for years and years together. At school they link pinkie fingers to say goodbye—and then Laura’s snorting cocaine into her brain and weeping and saying, “I’m gone, long gone” as James, one of her boyfriends, touches her naked breast. In Blue Velvet, a shadowy, insectoid force churning beneath an idyllic small town invaded the daylight world when, like a bug bite to the neck, Jeffrey’s father was stricken with a seizure. In Fire Walk With Me, the darkness seems to have already been gnawing at Laura for some time; she must have been doing some harrowing traveling to feel so “long gone” at such a young age.
It is a measure of Lynch’s commitment to his artistic vision that, in Fire Walk With Me, he strips away all the user-friendly, trademark Twin Peakson-TV elements that viewers love (detectives, pie and coffee, humorously quirky characters) and focuses the world through Laura’s pained, sad, and desperate consciousness. The second law of thermodynamics states that everything in the universe will eventually run down, wear out, fade away, melt; that unless new energy is introduced from an outside source, things will devolve from order to chaos. Lynch has spoken of his poignant feeling that there’s an underlying “wild pain and decay”65 gnawing at the world, of how even bright new buildings and bridges carry the seeds of their own dissolution. The director says that “it’s the scariest thing” to see the forces of entropy consuming a human being, especially one as beautiful, gifted, and loved as Laura. She’s the community’s golden girl, but Lynch shows us that this radiant seventeen-year-old is “dying on the inside.
Since age twelve, BOB has been a plague on her body and mind, creeping through her bedroom window in flashes of blue light and thrusting himself between her legs as she moans with eyes closed like a troubled dreamer. She sees BOB as the animalistic man with long gray hair, whereas most people viewing the film, because of their experience of the TV show, already know that her sexual partner is her BOB-possessed father, Leland. Part of Fire Walk With Me’s drama hinges on Laura coming to this shattering realization late in the film. For now, BOB is not content to feed on her sexuality, he also wants her soul, her personhood, and much of the film is devoted to Laura’s attempt to cope with this threat. Enthralled beneath the ceiling fan outside her bedroom, which whirls infernal energies into her life, Laura hears BOB hiss, “I want to taste with your mouth.” She lives with BOB using her sexually, but she fights against his hunger to penetrate and own her soul. Lynch, in his screenplays for Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, uses the verb “open” to denote one person having transgressive sexual access to another (Bobby Peru leers at Lula, “I’ll open you like a Christmas present.”68) In the Twin Peaks TV series, when Leland lies dying, the terrible knowledge that he killed his own daughter and was possessed by BOB finally comes flooding into his conscious mind. Even though the young Leland had invited BOB in to play his wicked games, the dying adult’s language of recollection connotes a homosexual rape: “He opened me and he came inside me.” By implication, BOB joins a list of Lynch’s villains (The Elephant Man’s Bytes, Dune’s Baron Harkonen, Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth) with homoerotic appetites, for if Fire Walk With Me’s evil entity gains possession of Laura, he will be having sex with the men she beds.
Those who perform dark deeds in Lynch’s work often do so with an ecstatic glee that embodies the Marquis de Sade’s idea that “crime is an enchanting affair, for, in truth, from the flames by which it licks us is kindled the torch of our lust. Only crime is sufficient, it alone inflames us, and only crime can ravish pleasure through all degrees of our sensibility.” Hearing this idea, BOB would certainly grimace and grunt his agreement, but Laura would burst into tears. She is sexually promiscuous, sells her body for money, has a major cocaine addiction, and laughs when Bobby blows Deputy Howard’s head open, yet her night prowling brings her no pleasure or solace. So, as her friend Donna entreats, “Why do you do it?”
In Jennifer Lynch’s book, The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, young Laura often hears BOB’s disembodied voice like her own private cult leader giving her affirmations from hell. “I’VE BEEN HERE FOR YEARS AND YEARS, YOUR BELIEF DOESN’T MEAN A THING. YOUR OPINION IS NOTHING. THINNK ABOUT IT. LOOK AT YOUR LIFE. YOU GO FUCKING AROUND WITH PEOPLE. DRUGS ALL THE TIME. YOU’LL BE SIXTEEN SOON. YOUR LIFE IS SHIT AND YOU’RE NOT EVEN SIXTEEN YET. LOOK IN THE MIRROR AND SEE FOR YOURSELF. YOU ARE NOTHING.” Ironically, Laura has devolved into this degraded state by trying to elude BOB, reasoning that it was her sweet innocence that first attracted the long-haired invader through her bedroom window, so if she acts like a depraved slut, he will leave her alone. To her despair and horror, she learns that she can’t loosen his grip on her no matter what she does, and that the manipulative BOB thrives on toying with her autonomous sense of self and personal volition as “an experiment.”
In his film, Lynch characteristically avoids the detailed verbal sparring matches between BOB and Laura that Jennifer Lynch includes in her book, preferring to keep his villain and heroine’s minimal exchanges on the primal level of an animalistic predator stalking his prey: “He wants to be me or he’ll kill me.” By not spelling out the motivation for Laura’s bad-girl behavior, Lynch frees us to hypothesize that BOB’s intrusion into her life at a crucial stage of her psycho-sexual development has twisted her sense of identity so that she feels unworthy of leading a normal, wholesome life, and that the dark, shadow side of her nature is her true self. She can be kind and giving and loving to those around her, but she feels she doesn’t deserve the same in return and she uses her sexuality to manipulate and gain power over others. If BOB wants to be her, then she must already be BOB-like. She feels that her angels have all gone away at the same time that she has turned away from them. The girl who feels “long gone” parties until dawn with a fellow night-denizen who calls himself “The Great Went,” as in Go all the way to death; a fellow whose motto is “There’s no tomorrow.”
As nihilism and despair make Laura’s world a permanent midnight, she becomes fictional kin to Blue Velvet’s Dorothy, another victim of deeply wounding sexual-emotional abuse. In the earlier film Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey strove to keep Dorothy from embracing death, and in Fire Walk With Me his Agent Cooper, appearing in Laura’s dream, warns her not to take the ring that’s linked to Teresa Banks’ murder and Agent Chet Desmond’s disappearance. Lynch, through his alter ego MacLachlan, again shows his urge to protect victimized women. And he again illustrates the fluid nature of space and time in Twin Peaks, for the Cooper that Laura sees is from the future, the “good Dale” who’s trapped in the Red Room, while his dark self provides the TV series with its final, chilling images (BOB grinning back at him in the mirror). Jeffrey was able to prevent Dorothy from losing her mortal life, but Cooper can’t stop Laura’s death. Lynch as he did with Henry in Eraserhead and The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, has a higher destination in mind for Laura, a rewarding realm beyond our temporal world that she, like Henry and Merrick, can only reach through the portal of death. In her dream, Laura quakes with fear when the ring pops into her hand for a moment, but her journey toward spiritual fulfillment has already begun.
Hungry BOB, with his ability to get inside your head and poison your house, is the force of willful control that Lynch fears, and that some of the director’s characters resist unto death. Poor Leland Palmer has yielded his psyche to BOB, and actor Ray Wise shows the inhabiting entity’s shadowy presence creeping into Leland’s pleasant face with superb subtly. One afternoon Laura encounters BOB in her bedroom tampering with her diary, and then sees Leland emerge from the Palmer house. Her conscious mind panics and tries to deny the thought that BOB and her father are one and the same, but her being begins to absorb this terrible possibility. Laura at this moment is an interesting contrast to Wild at Heart’s Lula, who never gained the conscious realization that her mother killed her father. Like Agent Cooper, Laura’s soul moves her to want to see and to know, and when BOB next comes through her window at night, she focuses her mind while he has intercourse with her and furiously demands, “Who are you?” And, as BOB’s grunting face fleetingly transforms into Leland’s, her most devastating suspicion is confirmed. Lynch includes a few precious moments of loving tenderness between Leland and Laura in the film, thus poignantly giving us a measure of how much emotional treasure BOB has stolen from the Palmer family. Ray Wise and Sheryl Lee deserve surpassing praise for their rich, complex, and emotionally draining incarnations of Leland and Laura. Every moment of their relationship is heartfelt, and indeed Wise for months carried Lee’s photograph in his wallet with the pictures of his own family.
The don’t-fence-me-in dynamic of Wild at Heart propelled Lula away from her dictatorial mother and out onto the road, where she found her maturing sense of self, sexuality, and love while traveling with Sailor. Laura tries to define her identity apart from her father by seeking the solace of friends, lovers, and drugs, but Leland is also BOB, and BOB is everywhere. Taking a road trip away from Twin Peaks would only bring her to the same dead end. Like Eraserhead’s Henry and The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, she must find physical escape and spiritual deliverance close to home.
A true friend with a heroic sense of loyalty, Laura does her utmost to keep the darkness that’s engulfing her from tainting and endangering those she loves, such as Donna, James, and Harold Smith, the keeper of her secret diary. Lynch has—either consciously or not—put Laura in a position that, with poetic resonance, echoes the mythic stance of Tibetan Buddhist nuns who, in ancient tales, personally engaged and grappled with devouring demons in order to keep the world safe from harm. However, Laura is not a sacrificial lamb with a martyr complex. Her primal need is to save herself from BOB, and to do so she must die. Like Henry, she must follow a trail of subconscious promptings, reading her dreams and the clues in the wind, and finally committing an act that obliterates her temporal self. Henry picked up scissors and killed his baby, and Laura slides that fateful ring onto her finger.
A derelict train car that no longer travels is Laura’s point of departure for her journey beyond death. As the air crackles with blue electricity, the bound Ronette Pulaski is freed when she prays for deliverance and her guardian angel appears. Laura feels she’s in an abject state that’s unworthy of prayerful help: she’s seen her guardian angel vanish from her bedroom picture, and the angelic figure of roadhouse singer Julee Cruise asks in her song, “Why did you turn away from me?” Laura has fought to keep BOB from invading her psyche, and in the train car she glimpses what it would be like if she lost the battle when she sees the fiend glowering back at her from a mirror. This horrifying vision gives her the final jolt of courage she needs to leap into the unknown, and she slips on the ring.
Lynch, rather than simply having Leland be BOB’s unwitting pawn at this climatic moment, makes him tragically semi-conscious of the horror he is about to perpetrate, as he matches his daughter’s screams with one of his own: “Don’t make me do this!” Lynch visualizes Laura’s murder as an abstraction in which we see short-duration images separated by flashes of light and blackness: Leland thrusting a knife, BOB thrusting a knife, a passage of various views of Laura’s pale face spurting blood from her mouth, her golden broken-heart necklace, her face finally not moving. This last shot, which Lynch frames upside-down, with her forehead at the bottom of the frame and chin at the top, recalls a shot he composed for his 1968 film The Alphabet. In that student work, he had positioned a woman’s face in the same topsy-turvy way and added a false nose on her chin to make it look like the bottom of her face was actually the top, as if to say, “Appearances can be deceiving.” In the twenty-four years sine The Alphabet, Lynch had not composed a close-up of an inverted face until he filmed Laura, whose dead face paradoxically hides the truth of her deathlessness.
After killing Laura, BOB propels Leland into the extra-dimensional realm of the Red Room, where he’s confronted by the only entity he fears: Mike, his former partner in crime. After moving Leland’s body to bow respectively to Mike, then emerges from his host and the two stand facing Mike and the little Man From Another Place. When Mike had decided to spurn BOB and live on the side of good, he took off his arm, which was tattooed with the powerfully evil symbol that’s still inscribed on BOB’s arm and which adorns the ring that Laura chose to wear. Mike’s discarded arm was transformed into the Man From Another Place, who can still exhibit a malevolent streak. But now Mike and his “arm” speak in unison, demanding that BOB give back the sacramental corn (“garmonbozia”) he stole. Garmonbozia also means “pain and suffering,” some of BOB’s choicest food, so giving it up is true punishment for the demonic entity. BOB accomplishes Mike’s demand by touching Leland’s shirt, which is stained red from the bloody murder-scene towels he stuffed inside it. BOB then pivots his hand away from Leland and, with a throwing-away gesture, splatters Laura’s blood onto the zig-zag-patterned floor.
BOB, one of the scariest fictional manifestations of evil to be portrayed in late-twentieth-century culture, has been, at least for the moment, subdued—though he’s certainly back at full power to wreak havoc in the TV series that’s still to come in some alternate time stream. Still, in our time frame, this movie comes after the series, and its conclusion allows us to depart the world of Twin Peaks in a glow of exaltation. In counterpoint to the hours of fear, pain, sadness, and dread we have lived through in the Twin Peaks experience, Lynch leaves us with the feeling that a hard-won measure of justice had been attained. As the Man From Another Place, following the proper ritualistic protocol of his realm, lovingly sucks up the golden garmonbozia corn between his full lips, we see the face of the monkey that was hiding behind the mask in Philip Jeffries’ recollection-vision of his harrowing encounter with the extra-dimensional denizens. The mask is now gone, and the simian face smiles slightly and softly says, “Judy.” Throughout his career Lynch has linked animalism with evil, and in the Middle Ages the monkey was a symbol of the devil, heresy, lust, vice, and paganism. The simian was related to the Fall of Man and represented a distorted, debased aspect of humankind. And in Lynch’s dear The Wizard of Oz, menacing flying monkeys abducted Dorothy and her friends and delivered them to the Wicked Witch. In Jeffries’ vision, the monkey behind the mask suggested BOB, with his ravenous animal appetites, hiding within Leland. But now the garmonbozia has been returned and consumed, Laura’s burden of pain and sorrow has been lifted, and the face of animalistic energy wears a benign expression and speaks the name (“Judy”) of she who is perhaps the ultimate authority/spiritual figure in this dimension. Is BOB a bad boy who eternally disobeys a maternal goddess? Or is it just that Lynch knows that when, in his beloved The Wizard of Oz, one of the little Munchkin women comes up to Dorothy (Judy Garland), she looks at Garland and says, “Judy” by mistake.
Lynch maximizes the evocative power of his Twin Peaks lore by not spelling out its details too clearly. Fantasist writer-director Clive Barker has emphasized that in his Hellraiser films he doesn’t tell the audience where the monstrous villains, the Cenobites, come from: There’s a mythology, a cosmos, that we only glimpse. As Lynch says, “it leaves you room to dream.”
At any rate, BOB will soon be back in potently evil form, riding the black wind of night, manipulating Leland like a puppet, making him kill Maddy, then making Leland smash his own head to death, extracting Windom Earle’s soul, and guiding the dark aspect of Agent Cooper into an unsuspecting world. But Laura will not be his. As the Roman philosopher Seneca (4 B.C. –65 A.D.) said, “He who learns how to die unlearns slavery.”73 Defying the forces that would control her soul, Laura had courageously chosen her own spiritual path—but where does it lead?
The iconic image of the plastic wrapping being pulled aside to reveal Laura’s cold, dead blue face with its glittering grain of sand in the “third eye” position of the forehead melds with a familiar zigzag-patterned floor and ruddy curtains, and we find ourselves in the Red Room, where a more grown-up-looking Laura wearing a long black dress sits in a comfortable chair. Standing beside her, his hand on her shoulder, is Dale Cooper the Good. She has a blank, lost look, but as blue-white light illuminates her face and draws her gaze, a smile begins to form, mirroring Cooper’s beneficent smile. With a childlike expression of wonder, Laura receives all the grace and love of the universe, and she sees the white-winged guardian angel that had faded from her bedroom picture now, magnificently, floating in the dark air above her. Throughout the film, she has wept with shame, loneliness, fear, and despair, but now, for the first time, she cries tears of joy and laughs as though she would laugh forever.
The felicitous meeting of Laura and Cooper in the Red Room has a beautiful poetic resonance. The abject victim/courageous heroine and the questing detective, both longing to see, have followed their dreams, intuitions, and deeply felt impulses and reached this point together. The translucent walls of the Red Room are like the enclosing membranes of a heart, and in this ruddy chamber Laura sees both Cooper, her loving protector, and her winged female angel, and Cooper watches Laura his dark muse and dream lover finally find the light. Will they gaze on until the next heartbeat, or as long as the world spins? These are Blue Rose questions.
This moment, which gloriously culminates David Lynch’s Twin Peaks saga and perfectly balances his craving for both knowledge and mystery, is one of the director’s most magnificent achievements. Surely, he felt, fans of the series would empathize with their dear Laura’s last seven days of degradation and abuse and glory in her well-earned spiritual triumph. And Twin Peaks novices would be intrigued by this in-depth psychological exploration of an incest-infested home and be swept up in the romance of all the lowdown nightlife, the evocative dream sequences, the surreal Red Room, and the one who lurks in the dark woods and behind the eyes of Leland Palmer. How much more wrong could David Lynch be?
Greg Olson/ David Lynch/ Beautiful Dark
(Twin Peaks, Season 2 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me)
Today, Lynch looks back at Twin Peaks with frustration and regret over “the many clues and threads that we never got to follow.”Frost is more calmly philosophical about the show’s demise. “That three-year period was great from start to finish. It would have been much better to see Twin Peaks continue for another year or two. But sometimes the best experiences aren’t the longest running, and in a way that makes them sweeter. As the years go by I think of the show with great fondness. It was a very happy experience, something really special and meaningful in all our lives and in our work—a very rare combination.”
Twin Peaks is a glowing memory for Frost: He ranks it at the top of his list of distinguished creative accomplishments. But he also honorably takes responsibility for production decisions that caused the show’s downfall:
I left to make Storyville during the second half of the second season, after we finished the storyline of Leland Palmer being his daughter’s killer. I regret my decision to not be there. That’s where we dropped the ball. Once the central Laura Palmer–Leland Palmer story was resolved, we were at a deficit in coming up with a story that was as compelling. And frankly, we didn’t. The Windom Earle thread took too long to develop, it didn’t start off with a bang. Selecting that story and allowing it to get too leisurely paced really hurt us.
Mark Frost and writer-producer Harley Peyton assumed that the show would follow the stunning death of Leland Palmer with a radiance of love. The smoldering longings of Audrey and Cooper for each other would flame into overt romance: The series’ two most charismatic surviving characters would share their hearts and bodies, and because we cared about them so much, they’d be prime candidates for exciting plot lines that would put them in jeopardy.
Stacks of letters from eager viewers reinforced Frost and Peyton’s conviction that the Cooper-Audrey union would bring robust life to postLeland Palmer Twin Peaks. But Cooper, rather than offering Audrey an invitation, was an impediment to love. As Frost recalls, “even though we made a point of stressing that Audrey was eighteen, Kyle MacLachlan felt strongly that Cooper, with his steadfast moral and ethical compass, would never engage in that relationship. He may well have been right.” Frost half-seriously jokes that “we should have revealed that Audrey had flunked high school for three years and was actually twenty-one—that might have satisfied Kyle.” So since Cooper and Audrey couldn’t face love and danger together, “we introduced the Annie Blackburn character for him, which was too little too late. And the Windom Earle storyline got pushed to the launching pad before it was ready to go, which was a big problem.”
Everyone from Harley Peyton to directors Tina Rathborne and Lesli Linka Glatter to actors Kyle MacLachlan, Catherine Coulson, Kimmy Robertson, and Jack Nance felt that the show had lost its focus and initial high level of inspiration: The quality of the material just wasn’t up to the rarified level to which they’d become accustomed. Some of the actors entreated Lynch to step in and somehow make things like they used to be when the series was fresh and magical. But Frost was jumping at the chance, made possible by the notoriety of Twin Peaks, to go and direct a film, and Lynch felt stymied and frustrated by his other collaborators doing “not what you would do.” His heart wasn’t absolutely devoted to the show any more; it was no longer the center of his Art Life: “you don’t have enough time to get in there and do what you’re supposed to do.”
Aside from a unified Lynch-Frost energy not being engaged with the latter stages of Twin Peaks, the ABC executives made what Frost calls “the bonehead move” of shifting the show to the TV graveyard of Saturday at 10 p.m. And President Bush the first was culpable. Frost stresses that “the Gulf War was an under-appreciated element in the show not making it over the hump. We were pre-empted for six out of eight weeks, and we didn’t have a chance to come back from that. Too much time had gone by when we resumed. Viewers couldn’t sustain their concentration over the gap. We’d laid out so many threads that it was very difficult for even dedicated fans to keep track of them.”
Frost had some definite threads in mind for season 3, a series of episodes which he felt would far surpass the second year in quality. Audrey and Pete would survive the bomb blast at the bank, Ben Horne would be back, the good Cooper would be trapped in the Black Lodge for a long time, while the bad Cooper menaced Annie and other townsfolk. Frost recalls that during the second season, Joan Chen, who played Josie, asked to leave the series to make a film. To accommodate her, the writers stuck Josie in a wooden drawer pull for safe keeping, so that she could be retrieved for a comeback. But there would be no season 3, so Twin Peaks fans were left with the mystery of flesh melded with wood grain, and the sorry spectacle of an evil, cackling Cooper loosed on an unsuspecting world.
Because the script for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me mentions creamed corn, and since the film’s co-writer Robert Engels has spoken a number of times of a cosmology in which one-armed Mike, BOB, and the Man From Another Place all come from a “place of corn,”31 many people assumed that Engels originated the corn concept. Actually, it’s another of Lynch’s spontaneous inspirations, which struck two years earlier during the first third of the TV series’ production. In 2003, Mark Frost told me that “David always loved the process of discovery, of finding something in a scene or a performance or in life that would take things in a completely unexpected turnaround. He had the confidence to see and sense that something was happening, and to make the most of it, to not rely completely on Plan A.” Frost always insisted on discussing changes before they were shot, so one of Lynch’s alterations of Plan A “threw me for a loop.” Looking at the rushes of the day’s shooting, Frost watched a scene in episode 10 in which Donna brings a Meals-on-Wheels to the bed-ridden old Mrs. Tremond. There was no creamed corn mentioned in Harley Peyton’s script, but here was Mrs. Tremond stressing that she didn’t like the stuff, and then Frost saw the corn on her plate vanish, only to materialize across the room in the cupped hand’s of David Lynch’s son. Young Austin, playing Tremond’s magician grandson, and dressed and groomed to look just like his dad, held the golden corn in his hands, then made it vanish into thin air. After viewing the footage, Frost tracked down Lynch and asked him what the deal was. Lynch replied, “I was eating creamed corn at lunch; it looked so fantastic, I just had to do something with it.” So the corn component of the Twin Peaks mythos was born because David Lynch had lunch at the ABC commissary on a certain day.
The folks watching the final episode at the Mar T Café in Washington State may have had divided opinions on the series’ conclusion, but they voiced a unanimous sentiment as they stepped into the rainy June night to go home: “I hear they might make a Twin Peaks movie—wouldn’t that be great!”
Twelve hundred miles to the south, David Lynch shared their sentiment. “At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn’t get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move, and talk. I was in love with that world and I hadn’t finished with it.”36 Rather than brood over the loss of the TV series, Lynch poured his creative energy into writing a feature film screenplay with the series’ head creative script consultant Robert Engels. There would be no UFO references, no Miss Twin Peaks Contest or Civil War reenactments, no doublecrossing business schemes, no arch and clever Windom Earle, and no plaid shirts for Agent Cooper. Series co-creator Mark Frost amicably declined to be part of the film project, citing his belief that the audience hungered for the story to move forward and tie up loose ends. Whereas Lynch wanted to return to the broken heart and endangered soul of Twin Peaks: the final seven days of Laura’s life, so that “we could actually see things we had only heard about”37 on the TV show from those who had survived the town’s favorite daughter. And Lynch would conduct his mission to reclaim the authentic essence of Twin Peaks up north where he’d shot the pilot episode, where “a certain wind” blows through the woods and small towns of Washington State.
Lynch chose cinematographer Ron Garcia, who’d shot the pilot episode in the sunless, overcast February of 1989, to lens the feature film, which would be called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Assuming they would again be working with a palette of chilly grays and earthen browns, Garcia and Lynch were shocked to find Seattle and the Snoqualmie valley bathed in eighty-five-degree Indian summer sunshine in September 1991. Rather than being thrown off course aesthetically by the unexpected weather, the pair decided to, according to Garcia, “exploit the contrast, with these golds and greens and blue skies against which these horrible things were happening to Laura Palmer.” Once again, Lynch let happenstance help determine the “correct” form of his art.
It was chance that let me witness some of Lynch’s art-making process. Being the director of the Seattle Art Museum’s film program, I often work late and don’t watch the local eleven o’clock news. But one night I saw that Lynch and company had arrived to begin filming at a dilapidated Snoqualmie trailer park. By early afternoon the next day, I was on the case. Lynch, who loves to delve into hidden secrets in his work, wanted the plot details of his film to remain a mystery until it hit the screen, so the news cameraman had only been allowed to catch a glimpse of the closed trailer park set through a knot hole in a cedar fence. Lynch wanted absolutely no media coverage of the production, and I later learned that a friend of mine who wrote for Entertainment Weekly magazine out of New York was told to “not even think about catching a plane to Washington State.” I didn’t want to photograph or write about the production or have fire walk with me, but I did want to see. I was fascinated by the way that Lynch’s fictional neighborhood intersected with the touchstones of my own physical and imaginative life. My Swedish-immigrant father had been a young pre-chainsaw lumberjack in the woods just outside Twin Peaks, I’d gotten my first driver’s license a stone’s throw from the Double R Diner and graduated from high school in a nearby salmon-hatchery town, and as a boy the surrounding rivers, forests, and mountains had been the dwelling places of Huckleberry Finn and Rip van Winkle. And at night the deep black sky and its sparkling stars, at full force so far from city lights, held the promise of stories and possibilities without end.
As I approached the trailer park near Meadowbroook Street in Snoqualmie, I was stopped by a roadblock that was backed up with numerous police cars and local law enforcement officers. Parking a few blocks away, I approached the police blockade on foot, trying to look purposeful and busy, like the movie crew members who swarmed back and forth within the cordoned-off area. Expecting to be challenged at any second, I strode past the policemen, picked up my pace, rounded a corner, and almost smacked right into Dale Cooper. What an arresting sensation, suddenly sharing three feet of sidewalk with a fictional character, his double-breasted overcoat, monumental ivory chin, and slicked-back black patent-leather hair as perfect as they were on my TV at home. The illusion passed in a second, as Kyle MacLachlan’s natural, looserthan-Cooper body posture and grinning demeanor asserted themselves, and I marveled at the transformative power of the actor’s art.
I found the fence that the TV news crew had peeked through, and an unexpected gap through which the crew was moving equipment, so I slipped into the film’s Fat Trout Trailer Park. And, right behind me, stepped David Lynch. He was wearing baggy tan khakis, a white shirt with its collar button closed, a rumpled black blazer with holes at the elbows, and a charcoal, long-billed cap. A toothpick, like a little splinter of divining rod, jutted from his lips. The furrow between his eyebrows gave him an earnest, concerned look that opened easily into amusement and amazement. For eight years (in Dune, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks), MacLachlan had tracked clues and read dreams as Lynch’s truth-questing alter-ego, and the two men—who both spent their early years in Washington State—began work on their new collaboration with a firm handshake.
First up is a scene in the town of Deer Meadow, where young Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) has been found murdered and wrapped in plastic. FBI boss Gordon Cole (David Lynch) has sent agents Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland) to investigate, and Desmond has mysteriously disappeared. This is one of Cole’s “blue rose cases,” referring to the botanical impossibility of a blue rose and thus coding the mystery as one that violates the borders of rational scientific investigation and delves into paranormal dimensions. This is Cooper’s territory, so Cole sends him out to see where Desmond went one year before. Once in the field, Cooper hears about a place called Twin Peaks and a girl named Laura. The last place Desmond had been seen was the Fat Trout Trailer Park, and I watch Lynch set up scenes in which Cooper talks to scruffy, haggard park manager Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton) and they look around the lot. Rodd points Cooper toward a certain trailer and then, exasperated, sees the agent, who seems almost in a trance of aroused intuition, wander off in another direction. For a number of rehearsals and takes I savor Stanton bellowing, “Why the hell are you going up that way?” Lynch speaks only a few quiet words of direction, but on one take says “Okay, Harry Dean, let’s get that anger up there” before calling “Action!” through his amplified megaphone. As the Gordon Cole–volume twang of his voice cuts the still Snoqualmie air over the course of the afternoon, I notice that he calls actors by their real names, but refers to MacLachlan as “Cooper.”
With the scenes involving Stanton and MacLachlan in the can, Lynch thanks them for their “doggone good job.” A teenage girl crosses the shooting area and joins two friends near me. One asks, “Could you see a lot over there?” The girl looks wistfully at MacLachlan and sighs, “All I know is, there he is.” But in a blink, he isn’t there anymore, nor are Lynch and Stanton.
I follow a dirt path arcing left through the trailers to the lazy Snoqualmie River. On the grassy banks, kids skip stones across the green water that flows from here to the double smokestacks of the Weyerhaeuser sawmill (the Packard Mill in the series’ opening credits), on to the Salish Lodge (the Great Northern Hotel), and over the 217-foot Snoqualmie Falls (Whitetail Falls) that local Native Americans still worship. Hearing an occasional soft murmur of voices, I look over my shoulder and see Lynch and his two actors sitting on the narrow porch of Stanton’s character’s trailer. After taking a silent pause to gaze at the river, Lynch gets up and spends a lot of time playing with a hose and some dirt. His fascination with the interface between industrial and organic textures is fully evident as he alternately floats dust and mists water onto the weathered steel of a 1970s car. Finally, the car looks like it hasn’t been driven or touched in months—except that it’s got “Let’s rock” written across its windshield in hot pink.
Speaking of rock, this evening the MTV Music Awards are being handed out three hours ahead in New York, and they’ve sent a crew here to beam a live message to the viewers from popular singer-actor Chris Isaak. Wearing his Chet Desmond FBI overcoat, he sits down with the river in the background for a short on-camera interview. While Isaak is earnestly answering questions, Kyle MacLachlan exhibits an un-Cooperesque sense of mischief. Grabbing a small tray and a cup of coffee, and wearing his own FBI overcoat, he intrudes on the interview. Like a butler, he holds out the tray, saying, “Your coffee, sir.” Isaak throws him a curve: “I didn’t order any coffee,” to which MacLachlan responds with BOB-like intensity “You must take this coffee!”
As the afternoon spends itself in golden splendor, a little group of production-watchers gathers. The cast and crew cheerfully mingle with trailer park residents, town locals, and tourists from New York, England, and Sugarland, Texas. There’s a feeling that we’re all Twin Peaks dwellers in spirit, and it seems perfectly natural that when Lynch has to stop a take around 4:30 p.m. (“We’ve got a bad siren”), a Snoqualmie resident calls out, “That’s the Packard Mill changing shifts.”
As twilight adds an eerie aura to the meandering rows of ramshackle old trailers, Lynch sets up a shot in which Isaak will walk between them looking for clues. The director reveals his eagle eye, and part of his conception of Twin Peaks, when he spots a 1990 trailer license tab the size of a postage stamp in the far corner of his camera frame. A production assistant, responding to Lynch’s “We gotta lose that ninety,” covers it with tape, thus keeping the director’s fictional world running on expansive dreamtime rather than constrictive calendar chronology.
Lynch and his work bespeak his feeling of kinship with those who are physically and socially outside the consumer-culture-imaged mainstream. The director next readies for a scene in which Isaak and Stanton are interrupted by an old woman with a sunken chin and permanently stiff arms ending in curled hands. “Where’s my goddam hot water? Where’s my goddam hot water? Where is my goddam hot water?,” she importunes Stanton. The woman, a local, speaks at the wrong moment. This is the last natural-light shot of the day and there are precious few minutes left to get it. Lynch stops the take and patiently tells the woman how he wants her to enter the action. They take the shot three times, and she demands a lot of hot water in perfect form. After the final “Cut!” he walks straight past Isaak and Stanton and puts his long arm around the woman’s stooped shoulders: “That was very, very good, Margaret.”
Night gathers around the trailer park, which is illuminated into hyper-reality by all the movie lights, and a sense of camaraderie and happily shared experience bathes the scene. Lynch, with his hand on an electrical switch, experiments with various ways to get a flash of bright light to flood through the window of a trailer when someone opens its door. He calls this “a beautiful day,” and grins when Mar T Café owner Pat Cokewell arrives with a steaming bowl of special-order chili for Harry Dean. Chris Isaak signs autographs and Keifer Sutherland, who plays his FBI cohort Sam Stanley, shows up with a bag of burgers from the 1950s-vintage Burgermaster drive-in. He’s accompanied by two large, loving golden dogs that have traveled with him from L.A. And if you think that anyone’s going to mention the fact that the Pretty Woman, the Runaway Bride herself, Julia Roberts, just called off her and Sutherland’s romance and wedding a few days ago, you’ve been out in the woods too long.
Watching the production at work was an addictive experience, so as the strangely unshrouded Northwest sun beat down on a balmy September and October, I tracked the filmmakers all over the territory. Since they adamantly did not want any plot details leaking out, I realized that my anonymous sixfoot-two presence could be challenged at any moment. Sure enough, as I stood at Lynch’s elbow while he watched a scene rehearsal of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) walking to school, assistant director Bill Jennings gently pulled me aside and asked, “Are you with us?” If I said yes, he would want to know in what capacity, so, reluctantly, I replied “Not really” and retreated to a respectful distance. Over the weeks Bill’s gatekeeper stance relaxed, and I huddled with him in the deep night woods watching moths flame out as they batted into hot movie lights, while I listened to this African American who so wanted to be in the film industry speak movingly of his mentorship with independent director John Korty (Crazy Quilt, 1966). The crew got used to seeing me around, and I developed a chatting relationship with Lynch assistant/publicist Gaye Pope and location scout Julie Duvic, started using actor’s trailers for bathroom breaks, and heard Dana Ashbrook’s (bad-boy Bobby Briggs) enthusiastic rendition of a dirty joke involving a hunter who enjoyed getting blowjobs from a grizzly bear. Still, no matter how at-home I felt with the production, I knew that Lynch could instantly eject me, so I diligently tried to avoid catching his eye.
In this film all eyes would be on Sheryl Lee, the young Seattle actress who became world famous playing the corpse of Laura palmer in the Twin Peaks pilot, and did a solid job of portraying Laura’s unworldly cousin Maddy. For Fire Walk with Me she would have to carry the full, harrowing emotional weight of Laura’s tormented existence but, like Lynch, she was eager to return to the character: “Laura always had a tremendous amount of life, because for two seasons everybody talked about her—yet I didn’t get to do those things and be her.”41 But being Laura was an emotionally draining ordeal, in which Lee felt she was “living a lifetime in just two short months.”42 Desperation, fear, pain, and weeping were her constant companions, and above all, “Everyday I felt an incredible loneliness that was very hard to bear.” We know that Lynch and his protagonists love the thrill of pursuing and revealing dark, hidden secrets. But in Fire Walk With Me the director is exploring the “horror of secrets”: the torturous burden that the one keeping the secrets must bear. Lee had to inhabit the terrible truth that though Laura’s community sees her as its golden girl, she’s actually whoring and drug-sniffing her way through life. And, at the root of everything, there’s BOB, the scary entity with long gray hair who’s been forcing sex on her for years and who is also, somehow, her father Leland. And there’s BOB’s voice hissing from the ceiling fan that he wants to be her or he’ll kill her. Believing that she’s contaminated by some virulent spiritual contagion and is beyond saving, she doesn’t reach out to those who might help her, but rather strives to contain her “disease” and not infect those who love her. Lee felt all the isolation and psychic tension of Laura’s double life: “There were days when I didn’t know how I was going to go another minute.” Lynch fully understood and appreciated the anguish Lee was experiencing for the sake of his art, and he tenderly guided her through Laura’s journey. “Thank God for David. I had to go to a deep place to play Laura, a place I didn’t think I could reach, but he helped me get there and survive it all.”
I first witnessed Sheryl Lee’s awe-inspiring incarnation of Laura as Lynch filmed a traffic-jam scene in which Leland and daughter are accosted by one-armed Mike (Al Strobel), BOB’s former familiar in malevolence who’s now out to stop his partner’s evil. While Laura and Leland are stuck in traffic, Mike raves at them, concluding, “It’s your father,” meaning that Leland is BOB’s incest-committing host. While Mike yells, Leland simultaneously holds one foot on the brakes and races the engine with the other, a motif that Lynch employs in his unproduced screenplay of One Saliva Bubble and the 1999 film The Straight Story. In the context of Fire Walk With Me, this gesture mirrors the conflicting impulses warring within Leland, who is both Laura’s loving, protective father (brakes) and her slavering, BOB-inspired molester (accelerator).
Mike drives off and Leland roars the Palmer convertible into a gas station, where he and Laura have an intensely emotional scene while sitting in the car. Mixed feelings boil in close-up shots. Even though Leland isn’t consciously aware that BOB sometimes uses his body to do bad things, the BOB-part of his psyche is severely disturbed by the threat Mike poses, leaving the surface Leland confused and angry. Intercut with this scene in the finished film will be footage detailing Leland’s extramarital sex with Teresa Banks (who “looks just like my Laura”) and the time Teresa lined up an extra girl to party with, who turned out to be his daughter (unbeknownst to Laura, he fled when he realized it was her). So, back in the car, there’s a component of BOB-inflamed suspicion and sexual jealousy to Leland’s inner turmoil (So, my girl is ready to screw an anonymous man for money!).
Filming Leland’s subtly shifting, distraught face without any dialogue, crouching just outside camera range, Lynch calls for “absolute silence” and, as he and Ray Wise focus intently, the director intones: “Look at her ... now back forward . . . change slightly, settle into it . . . steal a look . . . a little more devious, more frightening . . . and cut. That was beautiful Ray.”
In this scene, Laura’s emotional storm has to even exceed Leland’s. She has to react to Mike’s raging, denouncing words, her father’s extreme reaction to Mike, and his weird stomping on the accelerator while they’re stopped, plus, in the midst of her fear and trembling, she must project an accusatory, angry tone toward Leland as she speaks of the day she first realized he and BOB may be one and the same. In order to reach the emotional heights she needs, Lee surprises us all by screaming loudly a few times just before the first take rolls. Lynch seems thrilled by her heartfelt participation in his project. He began his odyssey with her by carefully arranging sand grains on her forehead as she lay wrapped in plastic on a freezing Washington beach. And now, almost two years later, he speaks softly to her between takes and gives her a little kiss on her blond bangs. Her arduous day over, Lee strolls toward her trailer, smiling down at the waist-high Snoqualmie kids who encircle her and say, “Goodbye, Laura, goodbye.”
A few nights later Lynch demonstrated both his affectionate bond with his leading lady and his embrace of spontaneous happenings. The film production was occupying a large section of land in the center of the town of Fall City, just downriver from Snoqualmie Falls. This huge set encompassed the parking lot and exterior of the Roadhouse and the exterior of the Log Lady’s (Catherine Couslon) cabin. So on a Friday night, lots of unusual lights and activity were evident right next to the town’s only bridge across the Snoqualmie River, and a crowd of hundreds had gathered to watch the moviemakers. Dana Ashbrook was there just to hang out, and Coulson arrived cradling her log and wearing her hiking boots, long tweed coat, and glasses for the upcoming scene. As Lynch talked camera moves with Ron Garcia, Sheryl Lee arrived dressed in Laura’s all-black, short-skirted nightprowling ensemble, her long blonde locks pulled up away from her face by large pink hairpins. The director stepped over to her end and, as they put their arms around each other’s waists and he kissed her on the cheek, the segment of the watching crowd nearest to them went “Awhhh.”
In the scene, Laura, with her hair down, will drive her yellow ’56 Buick into the dirt lot, park, and walk to the Roadhouse entrance, where the Log Lady will intercept her and give her some words of advice. Everything goes fine in rehearsal, and Lynch gets ready to roll his camera. During the preparation period, the crowd has been in a festive mood, eating snacks, drinking beer, keeping track of their children, and shooing away a big white dog that’s been cruising for handouts and occasionally trying to hump the backs of various crowd members who are sitting on the ground. Just to be safe, assistant director Bill Jennings grabs the canine and plants it firmly on the sidelines, where it is content to sit.
Lynch calls “Action!” through his megaphone, and Lee pulls up, stops her car, gets out, and starts across the puddled parking lot. At this point the dog stands up and strides straight into the shot, almost clipping Lee as she walks, and then keeps right on going off into the night at a diagonal angle from Lee’s trajectory. Lee completes her walk, meeting the Log Lady, and Lynch yells “Cut!”—and then for all our benefit, “Perfect!” He’s got a grin on his face, and his crew and the watching hundreds erupt in laughter, cheers, and applause.
On another night, without spectators, the director and his crew shot what would have been the largest-scale scene in the film, but it didn’t make the final cut. At a forested place appropriately called Ravendale, we see on the right a ramshackle low building that will be the truckstop bar where Laura and Donna spend a debauched evening with lustful loggers Buck (Victor Rivers) and Tommy (Chris Pedersen). Left of the structure is a long dirt lot with a tall metal post supporting a sign that says, with Special Agent resonance, “Cooper Tires.” Lynch positions his camera near the bar looking back into the lot, with the paved forest road beyond. To round out his composition, the director has placed a long line of parked logging trucks on the paved road that will dwindle to the vanishing point in the background of the shot, and behind the trucks, in the woods, he’s put an atmospheric light source that shines spectrally through the trees. In the midst of all these hectic preparations, which take hours, property master Daniel Kuttner brings over a tarnished old silver metal ice chest with a red Coca-Cola logo on it for Lynch to approve. The director’s ability to disengage from the commotion around him and focus on the object was positively Dale Cooper–like. He silently stared at the chest for what seemed like two minutes, and simply concluded, “That’s a beautiful thing.”
Around 10 p.m. everyone’s ready to realize on film these few lines from the script: “EXTERIOR, BORDER TRUCK STOP—NIGHT. Establish. Tommy takes the car like a rocket into the parking lot and does a complete three-sixty before rocking to a stop.” The scene will not use stunt people. Chris Pedersen will be driving, with Moira Kelly at his side and Sheryl Lee and Victor Rivers in the back seat, and they’ll all be grasping beer bottles. They rehearse the action at half-speed and then, after workers sweep the dirt lot smooth, they’re ready for what everyone hopes will be a one-take shot.
With the camera rolling, the car’s headlights appear way down the road and quickly grow larger as the vehicle roars along the line of logging trucks. Without slacking its speed, the car veers off the pavement into the truckstop lot, heading straight toward the camera. If it kept coming for a second or two more it would wipe out Lynch and many of his crew, but Pedersen expertly jerks the steering wheel, sending the car into a perfect donut spin around the Cooper Tires signpost. Almost up on its two inside wheels, the sliding car spews dust and sprays a wave of gravel in its wake. The car skids to a stop after circling the signpost, and the driver and his three passengers climb out on wobbly legs as the camera cuts. All eyes but two are on the intrepid riders as Lynch and his crew crowd in with cheers and congratulations. I notice that the bill of Lynch’s cap is pointing straight up and follow his gaze in time to see a round beige cloud of dust rising into a twinkling star field. I am sure that if he could have grabbed a camera fast enough he would have tried to film this poetic exhalation of his car-action scene.
I spent my final night watching the production miles above North Bend’s Mar T Café in the lower Cascade Mountains. I turned off the highway, drove down a secondary road, parked, and trekked in to the encampment. Up here, night is night, and in a sweeping, murky panorama of forest, mountains, and black sky, the only light and heat emanated from the moviemakers’ electrical generators.
There was definitely enough illumination for the prop men to see what they were doing as they stuffed the head of a mannequin that resembled actor Rick Aiello (Deputy Sheriff Cliff Howard) with raw hamburger and explosive blood packs: it looks like Cliff isn’t going to make it through the night. Like drivers who can’t resist looking at a car crash, a group of crew workers and actors eating dinner from paper plates gathered to watch the gory head-shot preparations, knowing their stomachs were going to turn flip-flops. But at least they got to emote in histrionic disgust, “Oooooh, yuk!,” and one wag added, “Hey, spoon some of that onto my plate.”
After eating, the crew, using flashlights to see with, carries the mannequin and all the necessary equipment a half-mile down a narrow dirt path deep into the evergreen forest. Setting up camp at the base of a huge oldgrowth cedar tree trunk, Lynch takes hours to film the sequence in which Laura and Bobby, high on cocaine, meet with Deputy Cliff Howard to score more of the drug. Laura and Bobby arrive before Cliff, and Lynch illuminates their scenes with just their flashlights, which play only on their faces and a few spooky trees, so that the darkness truly envelops them.
Laura, giddy and goofy with cocaine, gigglingly points out some of the natural attractions to her escort (“Bobby, I found a leaf; Bobby, I found a twig”) in a drug-induced perversion of Lynch and Cooper’s wonderstruck way of seeing the world. In the next scene, when Cliff shows up with the snow, he pulls out a gun and looks as though he’s going to plug Bobby, so Bobby shoots first. Even though Dana Ashbrook’s gun is loaded with blanks, a concussion and some black powder will still shoot out of the barrel, so the actor does some test firings against a white sheet to gauge the safe distance he should stand from Rick Aiello. With a very high percentage of assurance that he will be safe, Aiello takes his “bullets” like a man and dies a good movie death. Still, I am on edge watching this scene. We’ve all seen thousands of gun killings on the screen, but to witness firsthand someone pulling out a revolver and shooting a person a few feet away from them is a viscerally shocking experience. In a few seconds the illusion of violence is committed to film and vanishes from our world, with Ashbrook and Aiello both laughing as the killer helps his victim to his feet. My composure is just returning to normal when, out of the corner of my eye in the dim light, I realize that the man standing next to me has a long narrow face and shoulder-length gray hair brushing his black leather jacket. It is BOB himself, standing in the middle of the night woods, and I have to concentrate to transform his grinning face into that of the friendly, jocular Frank Silva. It’s slightly reassuring to realize that I’m a bit taller than one of the creepiest essences of evil ever put on film, the fiend who has haunted some of my friends’ dreams and attics. Lynch concludes the first stage of this evening’s work by splattering the Cliff Howard mannequin’s meaty brains and blood across the forest’s green vegetation. And he lingers on the incongruously smiling face of Laura, who feels her own life is so devalued that she reflexively laughs and laughs above the lawman’s steaming corpse. She gets the joke of just how close her own death is to her.
This evening’s stage two begins around ten o’clock as Lynch and company penetrate still deeper into the woods and set up their camera on the narrow path looking back in the direction they’ve come from. And in the scene they’re preparing, Laura and biker James (James Marshall), her truest love, pause on the metaphorical abyss-edge of Laura’s coming dive into death and poignantly sum up their relationship. This will be one of those visually uncluttered, emotionally complex two-person scenes that Lynch does so well.
As Lynch’s characters often do, Laura and James emerge out of darkness, the tiny far-off flicker of his Harley’s headlight growing larger and larger as James, with Laura clinging to his waist, rumbles up the forest path and stops in front of the camera. Lynch wants to make the lighting even more atmospheric, so he has his crew rig a translucent window shade over a big light, and they practice the new setup a few times. As the motorcycle couple rides up near the camera, Lynch hand-signals “Now!,” and two crew members raise the windowshade, seamlessly bathing James and Laura in extra illumination, so that her golden hair and ivory skin glow against the rich, deep, forest black.
Sheryl Lee and James Marshall rehearse their most intense moments together in the film, as she does a bravura job of inhabiting Laura’s sadly fluctuating feelings. No single way of being brings her peace, so she wavers desperately between emotions, alternately kissing him with lust, mocking him with words and a slap, declaring her love and saying “Let’s get lost together,” then coolly withdrawing and telling him to take her home. Laura was drugging and boozing before he picked her up so, in addition to portraying Laura’s fragmented emotions with breathtaking conviction in her forest scene with James, Lee makes a wonderfully subtle transition from a woozy, sexy, slurred manner to a chilly, alienated lucidity.
Because the dense woods comes right down to the narrow path Laura and James are on, Lynch and about ten of us are just outside the camera’s frameline as Sheryl Lee slaps James Marshall and they whisper and weep and cling to each other for dear life. If I tripped and fell forward I’d be in the shot so, standing on a spongy carpet of fallen twigs and leaves, I try to freeze my muscles and scarcely breath during the long-duration takes. Lynch is very subdued and soft-spoken with Lee and Marshall, and during filming only he and a few of the crew look directly at them. These are actors pretending to be other people, and yet when they share their intimate moments, most of us can’t bear to intrude with our eyes, so we look down at the ground.
By now, it’s after midnight, and I’ve got to be at work later this morning. So when everyone takes a breather before finishing the scene, a couple of crewmembers head back down the path toward the filmmakers’ main encampment, and I go with them. It takes a while for me to walk all the way back out to my car in the total darkness, but my key finds the lock and I look back toward the production area. In the horizon-to-horizon blackness, a bright spot of light emanates from the trees, giving the stone bases of the surrounding mountains an eerie sheen. Lynch is beginning the shots in which Laura gets an unexpected jolt of terror and seems to see something in the woods beyond James’ shoulder—but nothing’s there. Suddenly, far off, yet weirdly close in the still air, I can hear Laura scream.
Back in Los Angeles, she most certainly screamed again on Halloween night, when Lynch finished shooting the film with the train-car-interior scene of her murder by the BOB-possessed Leland. Out of respect for the arduous emotional journey Sheryl Lee was taking with Laura’s life cycle, the director chose to have her enact the death scene in sequence at the end of the production process. Even though BOB was wielding the power in the scene, the night was disturbing and “scary” for Frank Silva, and it gave Sheryl Lee nightmares. But the dark, death-of-Laura vibrations generated on that October 31 were somewhat mitigated by the fact that after shooting the harrowing scene everyone celebrated Frank’s Halloween birthday.
Lynch told his old friend Catherine Coulson (The Log Lady) that on Fire Walk With Me “he’s never been happier shooting a movie,”49 but the May 1992 Cannes Film Festival did not help him sustain a well-pleased mood. The film was poorly received by the audience and Lynch, reacting to all the “hostility, upset, and anger”50 in the air, fell ill during the night and had to call a doctor to his hotel room. When he walked into his press conference, “feeling like I was made of broken glass,”51 some critics actually hissed and booed. Surrounded by a cadre of friends (composer Angelo Badalamenti, co-writer Robert Engels, actor Michael Anderson, producer Jean-Claude Fleury), Lynch kept his cool and politely fielded many questions. He maintained his familiar positions, saying that just because his films contain drug use and savage violence it doesn’t mean that he condones such activities, and emphasizing that his works have definite meanings for him, but that he doesn’t want to color the viewer’s personal interpretation by talking about his own private conception. Lynch summed up his remarks by restating the core of his worldview: that studying the details of a phenomenon like the life and death of Laura Palmer, and receiving some answers from it, will not dissipate its essential mystery.
From the international media’s point of view, Lynch himself was a walking mystery as he strolled the sun-bleached promenades of Cannes, for two years earlier he had kissed Isabella Rossellini on the lips before a mass of flashing cameras, and now he was holding hands with an anonymous, and very pregnant, woman in black. England’s The Daily Mail, after interviewing Rossellini, reported that she had, in the paper’s words, “severed all romantic ties”52 with Lynch, having found his “individualism, eccentricity, and whacky idiosyncracies tiresome and irksome.”53 But later Rossellini said, “I had thought David had finally relaxed and had believed after so many years that we could finally, officially, be a couple.” Lynch doesn’t like to talk about his romantic relationships, but Jennifer Lynch told me that “there was a time near the end of his five years with Isabella when she wanted more than he felt he could safely give. What man doesn’t want to be everything for a woman like that? But he realized you can be everything you are and still not be everything the woman is looking for. Things end in relationships for him for what may at the time seem really brutal or sad reasons, but they all seem appropriate.” Rossellini must have felt like the Heartbroken Woman in Lynch’s Industrial Symphony No. 1, but like that suffering character who found a glimmer of hope in a shower of sparkling space dust, Rossellini, as Lynch does, believed that “there is always some light in every situation.” After some time passed she achieved a state of equanimity in which she spoke of Lynch’s talent with warm respect, said that she would love to work with him again, and declared that of all the men she has had relationships with, including Martin Scorsese, Lynch was the most supportive of her creative endeavors. In 2004, Jennifer Lynch added that “my father and Isabella are very close to this day.”
The media covering the 1992 Cannes Film Festival learned that the pregnant woman accompanying Lynch was his new “girlfriend,” as he said in his 1950s-adolescent way. Mary Sweeney, a graduate of the prestigious New York University cinema studies program, was a painter and film editor who had helped Lynch piece together Blue Velvet, Industrial Symphony No. 1, Wild at Heart, and part of Twin Peaks. Lynch had been drawn to the black-haired, sweet, laughing woman who sat with him in Los Angeles and put as much energy and care into poring over every frame of his films as he did. She was already sharing the rhythms of his work, and Lynch found it natural and wonderful to embrace her into the flow of his life. What a perfect situation for an artist, to have one’s professional collaborator and romantic partner be the same person. Lynch felt so at home with Mary that he allowed her to move into his artist-bachelor’s Hollywood Hills lair and fill the architectural work of art with cooking smells. Leaving their disappointing Twin Peaks: Fire walk With Me experience behind them in the South of France, Lynch and Sweeney stopped off in Paris on their way back to Los Angeles. Lynch has spoken of how, when you look in the mirror, one becomes two. And now, in the City of Light, two became three as Sweeney gave birth to Riley, Lynch’s third child and second son.
Greg Olson/ David Lynch/ Beautiful Dark
(Twin Peaks, Season 2 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me)
The following week’s episode 10, directed by Lynch and written by Robert Engels (the two would combine talents on Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), is a solid effort, though it does not present any of the inspired setpieces that highlight each of the other installments the director personally guided. Still, even an “average” Lynch episode has its rewards. As Cooper enjoys his breakfast at the Great Northern Hotel, he speaks of the former rulers of Tibet, known as “the happy generations,” while a cheery barbershop quartet serenades the diners. The FBI man, and Lynch, understand the age-old threat of malevolent forces that would supplant joyful Tibetan rulers and shatter their culture, as the Chinese Communists did, or would endanger the pleasant scene of breakfasters relishing good food and music, as does something in the dark woods of Twin Peaks. Indeed, Cooper’s mood shifts toward concern and fear as he learns that his former partner, Windom Earle, has escaped from an asylum. And Cooper is surprised by the pang of emotion he feels when he’s told that Audrey is missing (we know that she’s being held against her will at One-Eyed Jack’s). The agent’s tendency to “dwell on the contents of her smile” is the beginning of the storyline that would have developed a romance between Cooper and the high schooler, a relationship which Kyle MacLachlan found unseemly and talked Lynch into abandoning. Episode 10 also launched the connection between the doings in Twin Peaks and extraterrestrial activity, as Major Briggs tells Cooper that the agent’s name and the phrase “The owls are not what they seem” are linked in recorded radio signals (“COOPER”) from outer space. The further development of this extraterrestrial plotline, which Lynch did not endorse, showed the director that the world of Twin Peaks that he loved so much was not as subject to his control as he would like. As this episode scans the communicative skies, it also may have inspired future X-Files creator Chris Carter, especially as Major Briggs declares, “Any bureaucracy that functions in secret inevitably lends itself to corruption.”
Laura’s best friend, Donna Hayward, is interested in secrets, especially the ones that would shed light on her best friend’s murder. In her girl-detective mode, Donna takes on Laura’s former Meals-on-Wheels duties, hoping to gain information while visiting homebound town residents. At the home of old bedridden Mrs. Tremond (Frances Bay), Donna has an entertaining experience. While chatting with the woman and her young grandson, who’s studying magic, the creamed corn on Mrs. Tremond’s plate vanishes, then appears cupped in the boy’s hands, then dematerializes completely. Donna appreciatively responds as though she’s witnesses a well-done trick, but we, who have beheld more of the town’s paranormal space-time properties than she has, know that the magic is real, a visual manifestation of the multidimensional currents that course through Twin Peaks. The grandson is played by Lynch’s eight-year-old son, Austin, who was named after the director’s beloved grandfather. The boy has the face, hair, speaking style, mannerliness, and black suit and white shirt of his father. It’s a telling point that Lynch chooses to have his own flesh and blood portray a magician. In the Lynch-authored poem Cooper hears in his earlier dream, “The magician longs to see,” the FBI agent, with his uncanny deductive abilities, is that magician—as is Lynch, who wants to see things that are hidden and, through his artistic conjuring, show them to us. For Lynch, one who makes magic is a metaphor for one who makes art. Both tap into powers of spirit and pull a tangible conclusion out of the air that wasn’t there before: As Cooper says to Harry Truman at a puzzling crime scene, “Sheriff, a picture is forming.” Cooper’s abilities may seem like magic to his fellow mortals, but he, in turn, is mystified by the deeper necromancy of the Giant, the Man From Another Place, the Red Room, and BOB, and it will be his ultimate test to try to fathom its methods and meanings.
It is indeed a black art that enables BOB to inhabit the uncomprehending Leland and make him kill his own daughter. Episode 10 is the first to overtly link the two males, as Leland recognizes BOB’s face on a police poster and remembers him as a boyhood neighbor.
Cooper is both challenged by Twin Peaks’ mysteries and soothed by the town’s old-fashioned, kinder, and gentler way of life, which reflects Lynch’s idealization of the 1950s. Sensitive biker boy James, equipped with his electric guitar and two microphones, and his girlfriend Donna and Laura’s cousin Maddy aren’t out in the garage stoned senseless, screaming anarchic punk anthems. They’re safely and soberly ensconced in Donna’s living room, with good old Doc Hayward upstairs, singing a slow song that could have come out in 1955, in which Lynch’s simple lyrics say it all: “Just you, and I; just you, and I; together, forever; in love.” The song is soulful, so they aren’t smiling, but they seem to embody that Tibetan “happy generation” spirit Cooper referred to. Lynch’s artistic intuition tells him, of course, that this is the perfect time to add emotional discord and fear to the scene. There’s a reverb echo in James’s sound system, so he’s singing with two voices. And, as he faces toward his love, Donna, and Maddy, who looks so uncannily like his lost love, Laura, it’s like he’s singing to multiple women. Seeing the eye contact between him and Maddy, Donna is upset and breaks off the song, and James goes to comfort and reassure her. Alone in the living room, Maddy feels the comfy space become charged with menace as Lynch mixes a breathing sound into the soundtrack and BOB enters. Moving directly toward Maddy (and us), he creeps bent over like an animal, stepping over the barriers of the sofa and coffee table and lunging his face into ours. He vanishes as quickly as he came, but we have the terrible feeling that Maddy has a demon suitor who lusts to tell her, “Just you and I, together, forever.”
The next episode that Lynch directed, number 15, does indeed consummate Maddy’s terrifyingly unwished-for relationship with BOB. This outstanding installment, written by Mark Frost, conveys the same all-consuming dread and sadness that the co-creators brought to their series’ pilot episode. In this episode, Lynch revisits one of the fundamental dynamics of his artistic sensibility: a perfect home world invaded by contagion. For Leland and Sarah Palmer, niece Maddy, who looks just like their dear Laura, has been a consoling presence who’s helped fill the void left by their daughter’s tragic death and eased their period of traumatized grieving. Lynch positions Maddy snuggly between Sarah and Leland as Louie Armstrong sings “What a Wonderful World,” his words evoking the idyllic, before-the-fall town in Blue Velvet and the imagery of Lynch’s own childhood memories: “trees of green, red roses too, clouds of white, skies of blue.” As the three sip after-breakfast coffee, Maddy announces that she’s going to head back to Missoula, Montana (Lynch’s birthplace), to resume her own home life. Leland reacts with avuncular understanding, which surprises the women. But we, the viewer-detectives, note that Leland’s “I’m happy, everything’s fine” demeanor often seems to mask more agitated and disturbing subterranean feelings.
The vinyl surface of the “Wonderful World” record glows white with the same reflected morning light that bathes Maddy’s, Leland’s, and Sarah’s loving-family tableau. That night, however, the living room is empty, and the now-shadowed record clicks and clicks endlessly long after the song is over. No longer broadcasting love and goodness, the dark, unstoppable spiral of the spinning record is like a black vortex waiting to suck in souls. The endlessly circling disc and its sound recall the incessant, oppressive mechanical poundings of other Lynch films, and it foreshadows a primal theme of Stephen King’s 1998 miniseries Storm of the Century: “Hell is repetition.”
Across town, at the Road House bar, Cooper has a vision of Julee Cruise singing on stage being replaced by the Giant, who gravely tells him, “It is happening again.” Everything that the Giant has previously told the agent has come true, so Cooper ponders the full weight of his spiritual helper’s ominous words. But what could be happening, now that Cooper’s got Laura’s killer, Ben Horne, locked up in jail? Horne may have violated his marriage vows and any number of society’s moral codes, but he didn’t murder Laura, who he had been sleeping with. How can it be that Cooper has made such a big mistake? The agent has demonstrated his keen ability to discern meaningful patterns within clusters of seemingly random events. As a police detective in Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway says, “There’s no such thing as a bad coincidence,” but Lynch and Frost know that this isn’t always true. In a world where Absolute Knowledge is hidden behind a fog of uncertainty, it’s comforting to believe that we can combine the small glimmers of truth we see into an approximation of the everlasting Light that will illuminate our correct path of action. This practice has stood Cooper well in the past, as it has his creator Lynch, whose life’s work is built upon synthesizing thoughts and feelings that occur together into expressive artistic structures. Lynch likes to let his mind drift into that childlike, dreamy state in which the associations, coincidences, and correspondences the world sends him have magical significance; but he also knows that, of the four times he’s presented a movie at the Cannes Film Festival, the fact that his left shoe was untied has only won him one Palm D’Or.
All the signs that Cooper’s read have told him that Ben Horne is the killer, so having the unscrupulous tycoon behind bars should put our FBI man at ease, but instead he’s edgy and hyper-alert as he sits in the Road House. It’s as though a kind of atmospheric disturbance generated by the Palmer house’s rotating ceiling fan and spiraling record turntable, and the horror about to be unleashed there, have galvanized the air all over town. Before passing out, the drug-groggy Sarah Palmer sees a white horse, a traditional symbol of death, in her living room. In an ancient Chinese legend, the Yellow Emperor used magic to imprison the cosmic forces of chaos within mirrors, but it was known that someday the spell would weaken and our human world would suffer a terrible invasion. Now, as Leland admires his image in a living room mirror, Lynch and Frost give us the payoff we’ve waited months and hours for: Reflected back at the smiling patriarch is the lasciviously grimacing BOB. Even if we’ve suspected that Leland had sex with and killed his own daughter, this moment of revelation is stunning, as is the realization that Leland, as BOB’s unwilling human host, has been a victim along with Laura.
While we’re off-balance from receiving this dramatic news, Lynch hits us with one of the most disturbingly violent sequences ever shown on non-cable television. Maddy, smelling the stench of burnt motor oil that emanates from BOB’s murderous frenzy, and fearing there’s a fire in the house, runs into the living room and right into Leland’s attack. Wearing white surgical gloves, he bloodies her face with a single hard punch and, as she babbles and cries in a delirium of pain and terror, he pulls her slumping, gasping body against his chest and spins her in a ghastly dance. Leland alternately weeps and calls Maddy Laura as though she’s his dying daughter, and manifests as BOB, who with guttural animal sounds hungrily nuzzles her throat. Then, enraged that Maddy, his consoling surrogate-Laura, wants to leave him, Leland yells, “You’re going home to Missoula, Montana,” and fatally smashes her head into a photo of a serene mountain lake. Another Lynchian character with a will to stifle others’ freedom, BOB-as-Leland has shown Maddy that he is the ultimate controller of her comings and goings. But if he had been getting what he wanted from Laura, by enjoying her sexually for years, why did he kill her? Lynch will delve into this mystery in his Twin Peaks feature film.
For now, the director makes us register the full impact of a dear young life extinguished. Maddy may have wanted to be like her fast-living, darkness-dabbling cousin Laura, but she wasn’t, and Lynch saturates the final moments of episode 15 with a poignant mood of innocence snuffed out. The harsh white light that has supernaturally linked the hellish doings at the Palmer house with Cooper and the Giant in the Road House fades, as does the Giant, but both locations remain awash in sadness. We now know the tragedy that the BOB-possessed Leland has been living, and at the Road House, Donna feels responsible for the suicide of recluse Harold Smith, and toughie Bobby Briggs realizes that his scheme to enjoy domestic bliss with Shelley, that’s subsidized by Leo’s comatose condition, isn’t going to work. Donna and Bobby have their own problems, but as agitation and pain distort their faces, they seem poetically to be responding to Maddy’s death. And the old bellhop from the hotel who stood interminably above Cooper after he’d been shot comes over and tells the FBI man “I’m so sorry,” as though the agent has lost a member of his own family. Cooper doesn’t know that Maddy’s dead. He doesn’t know that Leland kills young women. Try as he might to read the vibrations in the room, he doesn’t know what has just happened. Lynch has spoken of his characters and he himself being “lost in confusion,” and for a person of Cooper’s abilities to be in such a state indicates the magnitude of the mysteries he is facing. It is a sad night, ruled by evil and loss and indecipherable happenings, but our hero does not bow his head and slink away in defeat. Lynch leaves us with one of his archetypal headshots, and one of Twin Peaks’ most iconic close-ups, as Cooper’s alert, pale face, tilted upwards, scans the air for signs and meanings. Behind him, red curtains materialize, and his head slowly fades into them: The Red Room will be his ultimate destination and challenge.
Episode 15 aired on November 10, 1990, and Cooper won’t set foot in the red Room until June 10, 1991, in the Lynch-directed second-season finale. During these twenty-eight weeks, ABC consigned Twin Peaks to the death-zone slot of Saturday night, put it on hiatus for two months, and saw its viewership decline to only 10 percent of TV-owning households. Laura’s murdered body was found in the April 8, 1990, pilot episode, and her case wasn’t wrapped up until episode 17, shown on December 1. In the time frame of the town, only eighteen days passed, while viewers had to wait eight months for the mystery’s resolution. Fans of the show were happy to absorb the narrative at Lynch and Frost’s slow-for-TV pace, while less-committed viewers felt frustrated, angry, and exploited. Without the emotional dynamo of the Laura Palmer case to drive the series, and since Kyle MacLachlan was unwilling to let his Dale Cooper fall in love with teenage Audrey (some say MacLachlan’s jealous lover, Lara Flynn Boyle, who plays Donna, influenced his decision), Twin Peaks’ various writers launched a number of lower-voltage subplots that weren’t able to sustain a mass audience’s interest. It seemed that Twin Peaks couldn’t win: Viewers deserted the show both because Laura’s murder wasn’t being solved, and because it finally was resolved. Also, since the show presented such a complex and voluminous intertwining of plot threads, quirky characters, unfamiliar cosmologies, and paranormal happenings, it was dauntingly difficult for a casual viewer to drop into Twin Peaks in mid-stream and understand what was going on. The show was indeed “TV like you’ve never seen it,” but also TV that was too different, challenging, and provocative for many to want to see.
Most commentators agree that Twin Peaks’ second season scattered its creative energy all over the landscape while trying in vain to regain the intense, inspired focus of season 1. Still, even though it was firing on less than eight cylinders, the show provided enough engaging material to keep its loyal followers watching. They witnessed a Mark Frost–written passage where Agent Cooper tenderly guides the dying, head-wounded Leland into a redemptive spiritual light in which his beloved Laura dwelled. They saw scheming land-grabber Ben Horne, (deliciously played by Richard Beymer) descend into madness, recover his psychological bearings by elaborately acting out tableaus of the South winning the Civil War (reverse the flow of history, reverse the course of your life) and emerge as a zealous environmentalist who chomps carrots instead of his usual foot-long cigars. And writers Mark Frost and Harley Peyton paid due respect to the multitude of impulses warring within Ben by having him declare, “Sometimes the urge to do bad is nearly overwhelming.” Since daughter Audrey doesn’t get to consort and cavort with Cooper, and probably be prime victim material for BOB, she does enjoy an emotionally closer, full-fledged-adult relationship with her father. Twin Peaks is rife with family dysfunction and upheaval: Even the stable and secure Hayward household is about to be rocked as Donna discovers that nefarious Ben, not good old Doc Hayward, is her real father. So it’s gratifying that there’s a new warmth and mutual respect between Ben and Audrey, but how can we not miss the Audrey who cut a swath through town with impish attitudes and pranks, rather than grown-up behavior? Still, even though she wears gray power suits and takes high-level meetings in Seattle, she’s able to give us a major surprise, for this schoolgirl with a gale-force air of sexual knowingess, whose tongue can massage a cherry stem into a blissed-out knot, is still a virgin.
While Audrey is discovering sex and love with the preternaturally pretty Billy Zane, Cooper, with the biggest smile we’ve seen on his face, is falling for diner waitress Annie Blackburn (Heather Graham), who’s fresh from a convent where she’d sought solace from an unhappy relationship that drove her to slash her wrists. Good guy Cooper sees Annie as a beautiful young woman who he can rescue from sadness, but he’s also drawn to her for a very Lynchian reason. Because she’s been cloistered away from the wide, wide world, she now sees things the way a child does, the way Lynch likes to. For Annie the world is new and amazing, and mundane occurrences have a wondrous significance: “music and people, the way they talk and laugh, the way some of them are so clearly in love.” And she has a Lynchian sense of the balance between known and unknown worlds: “It’s like a foreign language to me; I know just enough of the words to realize how much I don’t understand.” Drawn to Annie’s innocent, life-discovering viewpoint, Cooper feels that by embracing her they can each start afresh on the road to love and redeem their own personal romantic tragedies.
Cooper had been in love and having an affair with Caroline, the wife of his psychotic former FBI mentor and partner, Windom Earle (Kenneth Welsh), who stabbed Caroline to death and is now lurking in the woods of Twin Peaks waiting to destroy our hero. If BOB, who says little but terrifies much as he evokes the timeless primal power of animalistic evil, is a Lynchian villain, then the brainy, verbose, multiple-disguise-wearing, chess and social game-playing Windom Earle is a Mark Frost malefactor. (As Lynch says, “Windom Earle is all Mark Frost.”9) Earle is like a mastermind villain out of the Sherlock Holmes books, whose cerebral malevolence is spiked with a wicked sense of humor and who relishes the theatrical flair he employs to stay at least one step ahead of Cooper. If Earle is an earthly spark of evil adept at destroying human flesh, then BOB is a roaring fire who spans worlds as he devours the very marrow of human souls. This is the “incomprehensible” power source that Earle covets, and which his scholarship has told him resides in the Black Lodge, a spectral dimension which relates to Major Briggs’ extraterrestrial monitoring and which is the source of the town legend’s ancient darkness. Earle’s mission is to gain access to the Lodge and obliterate Cooper in the process, which brings us to the secondseason finale, scripted by Mark Frost and chief writers Harley Peyton and Robert Engels, and directed by Lynch.
Lynch’s working procedure when making one of his own films centers on the actors and technicians “tuning in”10 and harmonizing with his fundamental conception of the project. He considers others’ suggestions and sudden intuitions as part of the process, but he hews to the core of his original inspiration. Working on a weekly TV series with a multitude of collaborators frustrated his natural modus operandi: “There are other directors, other writers, other things that come in. It may be fine, but it’s not what you would do.”11 And whatever he wants to do is the motivating principle of Lynch’s art. The director felt that “Cooper is real close to me; he says a lot of the things I say,”12 and earlier in the series Lynch felt that Frost and some of the other writers weren’t striking the proper Cooperesque note of awestruck terseness in the agent’s speeches. It’s more than a casual remark when Lynch, playing FBI boss Gordon Cole, tells Cooper to lose those colorful, open-collared plaid flannel shirts and get back into his crisp, black Federal Bureau of Investigation suit.
Peggy Lipton, who played Norma Jennings, notes that as the second season progressed Lynch was “no longer as involved as he had been,”13 and “tensions and dissentions began to divide the Twin Peaks family.”14 It is a measure of Lynch’s distance from the day-to-day shaping of the show that, when we total up the entire two seasons of Twin Peaks, he has four writing credits, while Frost, Peyton, and Engels together have thirty-two. When it came time to direct what turned out to be the final hour of Twin Peaks that would ever be broadcast, Lynch could not abide the all-important conclusion of the script that his colleagues handed him: “It was completely and totally wrong.”15 Lynch and Frost had conceived and launched the show in a perfect synchrony of creative energy but, in Lynch’s judgment, Twin Peaks had wandered off course, bogging down in a swamp of conventional soap-opera plotting and cerebral, prosaic, rationalistic philosophy. Knowing that his relative lack of hands-on participation had contributed to this sorry state of affairs, he dipped into his rich pool of inner vision, determined to give Twin Peaks a final jolt of magic and poetry.
First, he gave his old friends, Eraserhead colleagues, and former husband and wife Jack Nance (Pete Martel) and Catherine Coulson (the Log Lady) their only face-to-face scene of the series. Then, after filming written plot elements in which benign Doc Hayward brutally attacks Ben Horne for announcing that he is Donna’s real father, and Audrey is in danger when a bank blows up, Lynch threw away the script and spontaneously created a heartfelt fantasia on what he considered to be the key Twin Peaks themes.
Throughout the series, Cooper’s masculine, heroic quest has been aided by the feminine intelligence, courage, wisdom, and vision of the Log Lady, Sarah Palmer, Audrey, Donna, Ronette Pulaski, and Laura, who finally makes sure he remembers her whisper about Leland being her killer. And now the Log Lady, with her news about the scorched motor oil being “an opening to a gateway,” helps Cooper slip through the forest’s red curtains into the Black Lodge.
Windom Earle, with the kidnapped Annie in tow, has proceeded Cooper, certain that the agent will come to rescue his love, and thereby fall victim to Earle’s Black Lodge–enhanced evil power. Frost, Peyton, and Engle’s script had the season’s final confrontations occurring in an abstracted black-andwhite location that melded a doctor’s office with a throne room, but Lynch knew that he must return to that ultimate seat of mystery, the Red Room.
Cooper has visited this Lynch-imagined place in dreams, but now he’s really there, breathing the air contained by the red-curtained walls as his polished black shoes click on the zig-zag-power-field-patterned floor. As the poem has it, Cooper has been the seeker who “longs to see,” and here he’s met by a vocalist (the legendary Jimmy Scott) who seems to personify the Black Lodge’s secrets as he soulfully sings, “And I’ll see you, and you’ll see me,” implying that all will be revealed. The singer also ominously intones, “I’ll see you in the trees,” recalling the way that Josie Packard’s spirit, thanks to the gloating BOB, ended up imprisoned within a wooden drawer knob: The Black Lodge is a place charged with great danger as well as potential knowledge.
In the last thirty minutes of Twin Peaks, Lynch gives us a profound gift by making the red-curtained rooms and corridors of the Black Lodge a place beyond Cooper’s and our absolute comprehension. At first we’re able to keep track of which room the agent is in by noting the placement of a white marble Venus statue in the corridor outside, but then the signpost statue is gone, and it’s impossible to know which way is backwards or forwards, and Cooper is able to enter the same room from different directions. After disorienting Cooper’s familiar sense of space, Lynch brings time into the mix by having the agent receive a cup of coffee that, within a few seconds, turns from liquid to solid to a viscous sludge that oozes slowly from the cup like one of Salvador Dali’s melting watches. Further confusion is added when the Man From Another Place (the dancing, backward-talking dwarf) tells Cooper that the Great Northern Hotel’s old bellhop and the Giant are “one and the same,” or is it the Giant and the man From Another Place that are the same—or all three?
The little man also says that the Red Room contains the doppelgangers, or shadow-selves, of people Cooper is familiar with, and as the agent traverses corridors and rooms, he has some scary and mystifying encounters. The doppelgangers have creepy white eyes, and Cooper meets a pale-pupiled Laura, who screams at him; Leland in his sly “I didn’t do anything wrong” mode; and Caroline, Cooper’s former love who was slain by her cuckolded husband, Windom Earle. Then Annie and Caroline seem to interchange places, evoking Cooper’s guilt and pain over his adulterous part in Caroline’s death and linking it with his anguish over the way his love for Annie has made her a potential victim of Earle and the Black Lodge. Has Windom Earle absorbed enough of the Lodge’s power to be able to torment Cooper by manipulating these images of Caroline and Annie trading places, or is some higher authority trying to break down our hero’s stalwart sense of righteous self-possession?
Earle thinks the force is with him and bossily tells Cooper he’ll let Annie live if the agent will give up his own soul, which Cooper agrees to do. However, BOB, and probably Lynch as well, is tired of wordy windbag Earle trying to usurp the Black Lodge’s power, and the demonic entity growls “Be quiet” in his face. Asserting his dominance, BOB tells Cooper that Earle had no right to make such a bargain. And, facing the terrified Earle, tears his soul out, which Lynch visualizes as a flame shooting up out of the villain’s head. Flaming souls feed the fire that walks with BOB, as does fear. Cooper is usually cool under pressure, but his psyche has just received two major blows: He’s been wracked with guilt over the perverse way that his love for both Caroline and Annie has put them in harm’s way, and, in darkness whipsawed with white-hot flashes of malevolent electricity, he’s seen BOB’s ferocious, soul-stealing power close up.
Cooper’s face remains calm, but inside he’s beside himself with agitation. Lynch has said that the Red Room reflects the mindset of the person experiencing it. When Cooper first visited the Room in his dream shortly after arriving in Twin Peaks, he was falling in love with the young, beautiful, murdered Laura, so his encounters were pleasantly mysterious. It was a place of “good news” with “music in the air,” where the Man From Another Place smiles sweetly, as did Laura, who kissed Cooper and told him her biggest secret. And now that Cooper’s actually in the Red Room, and has, for the past weeks been immersed in the dark side of Laura, Leland, and the whole town, and has been reminded of some of his own profound mistakes and failures, the Room has become a head-splitting locus of disorientation and fear. Our intrepid, resolute, single-minded hero has lost his way, and the Black Lodge is able to pounce on his vulnerability, splitting him in two, so that a shadow-shelf Cooper cackles with BOB and chases the terrified good Cooper down the red corridors.
And yet, behold: An unconscious Cooper and Annie materialize back in the real-world woods, where good old Sheriff Truman has been keeping a vigil all night. Again and again in his work, Lynch projects a sense of home disrupted and then reconstituted. A feeling of homecoming and reunion permeates the endings of Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, and Wild at Heart, and now, Cooper wakes in his familiar bed, surrounded by Doc Hayward and Truman. This tableau makes the world of Twin Peaks seem once again safe and secure, as Lynch evokes the ending scene of his beloved The Wizard of Oz, in which far-traveling Dorothy awakens to find family and friends at her bedside. Cooper’s first words are “How’s Annie?,” and Truman reassures him that she’s doing fine in the hospital. As if to certify the restoration of order over chaos, creature-of-habit Cooper gets up to enact one of the simple ritualistic pleasures he (and Lynch) so appreciates, and that keep his life centered.
Alone in the bathroom standing before the sink and mirror, Cooper picks up his toothbrush and paste and starts to squeeze the tube. But, with the significance of a cosmic disruption, he’s gripped by an uncivilized, animal impulse, and empties the whole tube in the sink. Then, to our horror, he smashes his head into the mirror, causing two trickles of blood to stain his forehead, for now Cooper, like the rest of Twin Peaks, is marked by doubleness. Then, to end the season and the series, we see the most dreadful sight Lynch could imagine: the feral face of BOB leering in the mirror back at Cooper, just as the evil one reflected back at Leland. The last thing we hear is our normally sincere and caring hero mocking his own recent words of loving concern (“How’s Annie?”) with a sneer and laughing and laughing like a man possessed.
There weren’t many Twin Peaks viewers left to witness Cooper’s sad and tragic last moments on the air. The series’ premiere had attracted an audience of thirty-five million, while its finale only managed to scrape together six million. The show finished a distant third in its time period, beaten by sitcom reruns and a rerun of Northern Exposure, a much less challenging and daring Northwest small-town show with quirky characters and occasionally surreal storylines that some called “Twin Peaks for beginners.” When the first season ended the year before, so many fans wanted to watch the finale in the series’ spiritual home, the Snoqualmie Valley of Washington State, that they filled the big dining room of the Salish Lodge (Twin Peaks’ Great Northern Hotel) to overflowing. This year, there were barely enough supporters to fill the booths at the little Mar T Café (the show’s Double R Diner). As that last, disturbing image of Cooper faded into the eleven o’clock news, the fans’ reactions were mixed; “The show started off plain and simple and then really went off into the bizarre”16; “How could David Lynch do that to Agent Cooper—it just really hurt”17; “It’s the evil that I really like”18; “They kept leaving more strings untied—there better be more to come”19; and “To show that even Cooper could succumb to BOB was a perfect way to end.
Greg Olson/ David Lynch/ Beautiful Dark
(Twin Peaks, Season 2 and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me)
In the late spring, summer, and fall of 1990, everyone heard about David Lynch. All of America’s TV viewers may not have been impatiently waiting to discover who killed Laura Palmer when Twin Peaks resumed in autumn, but anyone who came in contact with news and entertainment media felt like they were living in Lynch’s world.
Wild at Heart’s Cannes Film Festival win was trumpeted far and wide, and Lynch- and Twin Peaks–related articles appeared in, among others, People, US, New York, M, Esquire, Arena, Rolling Stone, TV Guide, Entertainment Weekly, Egg, Video Watchdog, Radio Times, and Soap Opera Weekly. Broadcast journalists Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer covered the Twin Peaks cultural phenomenon, and the hit daytime TV talk show king Phil Donahue devoted a whole show to Twin Peaks, CBS’s series Northern Exposure parodied Twin Peaks, Kyle MacLachlan portrayed Agent Cooper when he hosted Saturday Night Live, and Twin Peaks received a stunning fourteen Emmy nominations. Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer, published the bestselling The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer; the evocative strains of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks music haunted elevators and supermarkets aisles across the land; professional conservative William F. Buckley’s magazine, National Review, featured a cover story called “David Lynch’s Weird America”; and Lynch himself, his face half-lit with red and half with green, his eyes looking in two directions at once, adorned the cover of Time magazine and the feature story “Czar of Bizarre.” And Lynch/Twin Peaks mania gripped foreign lands, especially Japan, where viewers were moved by the show’s air of melancholy, and held mock funerals for Laura Palmer.
Lynch and his art had never before received so much attention, and he was gratified by all the recognition. But he also knew that, since the beginning of his career, a fair number of people would respond negatively to his work, so he tried to be ready for the “tearing down”1 that would surely follow the “building up”2 of his public image. With his formidable powers of mind, Lynch concentrated on “what you’re supposed to be thinking about”: the work that needs to be done.
Domineering Marietta may have melted out of Lula’s life, but her meddling spirit was now trying to keep Lynch from being wild at heart. The Motion Picture Association of America, which assigns ratings to movies exhibited in the United States, would not let the Cannes Film Festival–winning version of the director’s picture be shown here without an X (adults only) rating, which would severely curtail the film’s earning potential: Some newspapers wouldn’t even run ads for X-rated films. High-caliber directors like Martin Scorsese, Paul Veerhoeven, Phil Kaufman, Pedro Almodovar, and Peter Greenway were being told that they had to alter their films to secure a commercially viable R rating. Lynch says that it takes a lot of provocation to get him angry, but issues of artistic freedom really push his hot buttons, for his mission in life is to express his ideas with maximum power and feeling. Still, he knew that he was contractually obligated to provide an R-rated picture for the Samuel Goldwyn Company to distribute, so he artfully set out to do as little as possible to earn his film the stamp of approval.
The ratings board insisted that Lynch rework the scene in which Bobby Peru, twisting and falling from many bullet hits, accidentally lodges the barrel of his shotgun under his chin and blasts his own head off into the sky. The committee objected to the specific visual of Bobby’s head tearing away from his shoulders, so Lynch simply added a puff of shotgun smoke to obscure the few milliseconds in which his villain’s flesh is rent asunder. The image still explodes with the shocking surprise of what Lynch calls Bobby’s “bad accident,”4 but even without the smoke, it would be eclipsed for visceral impact by the censor-approved moment when Sailor takes Bobby Ray Lemon’s battered head in his hands and smashes it again and again against the white marble floor. A moment which fully engages our kinesthetic senses through its use of hands performing a task, and which still, years after it was filmed, causes even some Lynch fans to moan and look away from the screen.
Wild at Heart generated a strongly mixed critical and audience response. Lynch’s themes and aesthetics were becoming recognizable, familiar, and predictable, and since his characteristic fascinations and concerns were too unsettling for many viewers to cope with, he began to be blamed for being David Lynch. Millions celebrated the well-known artistic personalities of Alfred Hitchcock, Jane Austen, and Tom Clancy, but the dark, twisted vein of human psychology and behavior that Lynch tapped into was too disturbing to contemplate. Word began to spread that the film was a harrowingly sick and violent experience, so many moviegoers stayed away. Even some Lynch appreciators felt that the film’s narrative was too fragmented, its characters and their actions too cartoonishly exaggerated: Wild at Heart didn’t flow hypnotically and hint at deep, cosmic mysteries. But other viewers understood that Lynch intended his film to be an aggressively blaring recitation of lurid tabloid headlines, not a softly murmuring, half-hidden mystical text. They felt the director had painted a passionate, accurate portrait of American malaise, and were charmed and moved by Sailor and Lula’s ability to, as Lynch put it, “find love in hell.” Some filmmakers were clearly thrilled and inspired by the movie’s fugitives-on-the-run road trip, it’s lowlife atmosphere and raw-nerve violence and sex; Wild at Heart echoes in the work of Quentin Tarantino and Oliver Stone, and in films like Keys to Tulsa, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Truth or Consequences, N.M., Love and a .45, American Strays, and A Life Less Ordinary.
Some commentators, who’d been storing up negative feelings about Lynch’s boundary-pushing art, launched their attacks after Wild at Heart came out. The director was accused of victimizing African Americans, as though it was inconceivable that the knife-wielding Bobby Ray Lemon could be a black man in this Southern tale. And those who could overlook the complex, partly erotic, partly violational nature of Lula and Bobby Peru’s embrace, found it easy to brand Lynch as a cinematic perpetrator of violence against women. Those screaming “Misogynist!” found it best not to mention that, balanced against Lula’s confrontation with Bobby, seven men were killed and an eighth fellow beaten up. And some damned Lynch for indulging himself with “gratuitous violence,” ignoring the fact that the director’s mayhem was integral to the plot, revealed character, and had meaningful consequences for those who practiced it.
Between Wild at Heart’s opening and the start of Twin Peaks’ second season, people exchanged heated words about Lynch, the film brought in lukewarm revenues, and the director released a fifty-minute video called Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Broken Hearted. In 1989, Lynch wrote the lyrics and composer Angelo Badalamenti (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart) did the music for an album of songs performed by Julee Cruise, who, in the Twin Peaks pilot, had tenderly sung, “I long to see you, to touch you, to love you, forever more” as angry bikers and townies traded blows on the dance floor. When, in the autumn of 1990, New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music asked Lynch to stage a live performance piece for them, he called in his two musical collaborators and put on his thinking cap. With only two weeks in which to prepare something, Lynch had to “make stuff up real fast,”5 and this exercise in spontaneous creativity stimulated him to merge aspects of his painting, music, film, and television work into a hybrid world.
As in one of Lynch’s paintings, the structural stage-setting elements would remain unchanged throughout the performance, and the composition he created clearly evoked his canvases. Out of a rusty darkness emerged vertical factory towers left and right; a horizontal pipe, electrical wires, and a high-flying string of black bomber planes spanned the stage; steam and smoke filled the air; and blond Julee Cruise, suspended by a wire 60 feet above the stage, floated like one of the artist’s pale oil-painting stick figures in the center of a murky space.
An echo of Wild at Heart is present in the form of Nicolas Cage (Heartbreaker) and Laura Dern (Heartbroken Woman), who have a painful phone conversation that ends their relationship, as though Lynch was visualizing the downbeat conclusion of Gifford’s book that the director chose not to use in his film. After this sad introduction (“I can’t do it no more, I gotta go”; “Please don’t go, please, please”) we experience the Heartbroken Woman’s inner emotional turmoil as sung by Julee Cruise (Dreamself of the Heartbroken Woman) and enacted by stage performers.
Lynch’s lyrics evoke the violent aspects of his films as the Heartbroken Woman sings “I fell for you baby like a bomb, now my love’s gone up in flames”; “You should’ve shot me, baby, my life is done”; “I hear those sirens scream my name.” As her anguish projects the pain of her lost romanticsexual relationship, a bare-breasted woman wearing only black panties writhes within the prison-bar-like structure of the phallic stage-set tower, and she continues her tormented dance in that symbolic site of youthful American passion, the back seat of an old car.
Lynch is fascinated by darkness, as both a state of physical reality and a spiritual-moral condition, and he often announces its arrival through his characters’ words or his cinematic mise-en-scène. Here the Brokenhearted Woman’s “Now it’s dark,” whispered as she floats alone in the blackness high above the stage, signifies the depth of her grief and depression as she cries in song, “Where are you? Come back in my heart.” In her world of pain, “Shadows fall so blue,” recalling Blue Velvet’s shadowy Dorothy Vallens, the singer of melancholy nightclub songs who was known as “the Blue Lady.” Lynch’s Blue Velvet script emphasized that Dorothy wanted to kill herself and was terrified of “Falling . . . falling so low.”6 Now, suddenly, the Brokenhearted Woman plummets to the stage, as though acting on a suicidal impulse. Some men put her body in the car’s trunk and close the lid (“My heart was stuffed in a trunk”). She has indeed fallen so low, but Lynch knows that light glimmers within darkness.
Interspersed with the Brokenhearted Woman’s sad songs, the director has presented images of regeneration. Michael J. Anderson, who plays the red-suited little Man from Another Place, dancing and talking backward in Twin Peaks, here appears as a red-suited Lumberjack who saws and saws and saws on his log. Another example of surrealistic Lynchian time-stretching, the Lumberjack’s focused concentration is a metaphor for an artist dedicated to his work. But, as Lynch has experienced in his own life, someone disrupts the Lumberjack’s sawing and he retreats from his task, only to come back on stage with a single lit light bulb, showing that his resilient soul and inspiration still glow. And at another point in the performance, a dead deer, raw and red from having been skinned, is brought back to life when some men pass lights over its body, with the Lumberjack shining the biggest and brightest light of all.
The Brokenhearted Woman enjoys a hopeful rebirth to the light when the car trunk opens and she sings an up-tempo number (“I want you, Rockin’ back inside my heart”) accompanied by dancing debutantes and showgirls. And she recounts a happy memory of a woodsy day spent with her man that’s right out of Twin Peaks, or Lynch’s Northwest youth. The couple has a picnic by a lake, walks among the trees, builds a comforting fire at night, kisses and cuddles, feels a wind come up, and hears an owl call. The woman “thought our love would last forever,” but in Lynch’s world the wind can suddenly turn cold, and her song-and-dance number dissembles in panic as the bombers high above the stage start to drop their payload. This setback on the Brokenhearted Woman’s road to recovery exemplifies Lynch’s characteristic bad-things-happen-when-timesseem-good rhythm, and reflects the natural ebb and flow of the human grieving-healing process.
Always able to surprise us, Lynch has his planes drop not bombs, but an array of doll babies suspended on wires, their hair blond, their faces charred black. These infants are both the children that the woman and her departed lover will now never have, and the blonde woman’s own disfigured and scattered sense of herself. But reintegration is still possible, for Lynch shows us one of the dolls with a clear, unscarred face as the woman begins her final song. This doll image appears on a TV monitor as the director once again stresses that there can be a number of simultaneous views of reality.
At the conclusion of Industrial Symphony No. 1, the Brokenhearted Woman’s crisis of loss and sorrow is not over. She still yearns for her love to “Come back and stay, forever and ever,” but she’s able to see beyond the prison of her intimate pain: “The sun comes up and down each day, the river flows out to the sea.” Working through her suffering in her dream, the woman is touched with sudden grace, for the air in which she floats, which once rained charred babies now fills with twinkling silver cosmic dust. Her immersion in this field of shimmering particles recalls Henry in his dust cloud at the end of Eraserhead and John Merrick’s mother in her sea of stars in The Elephant Man, and affirms Lynch’s belief in spiritual transcendence. Even a hell of hurt can pass away, for, as the Brokenhearted Woman sings in her final words, “The world spins.”
The small-town boy from the Northwest who’d been scared of the New York subway had grown into an artist who explored a woman’s emotional agonies on the New York stage. Industrial Symphony No. 1 confirmed Lynch’s commitment to the inner life of his characters: The original title of Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman, Inside His Head, would fit most of the director’s fictions. And this time he made it perfectly clear which parts of his work were waking and dreaming reality (the lovers’ break-up phone talk preceded the Brokenhearted Woman’s dream). Lynch’s first, and, so far, only stage production was well attended (Jodie Foster was in the house) and was received with varying measures of enthusiasm, respectful appreciation, skepticism, and repudiation. The director’s daughter, Jennifer, was sitting in the audience, and heard someone say, “David Lynch should never show his face in public again!”
Lynch did show his face at the Emmy Awards ceremony in September, and he had to make it a brave one, for Twin Peaks lost in twelve of its nominated writing, directing, and acting categories, picking up what felt like token statuettes for editing and costume design. During the evening Lynch gamely commented that since he always enjoyed the theater of the absurd, he felt right at home. Still, it was troubling that the industry which, a few months earlier, said it was eager to travel into Lynch’s imaginative new realms was now content to celebrate programs of status-quo, formulaic mediocrity. Lynch’s visage may have been staring out from the cover of every Time magazine in the land, but maybe masses of Americans were not in sync with the visionary auteur’s unique sensibility.
One part of the country more than any other was on Lynch’s wavelength and eagerly awaited Twin Peaks’ second season return: the Northwest region centering on Seattle. Lynch and his Agent Cooper, Kyle MacLachlan, had both been raised in this upper-left corner of America, and the eerie, chilly wind that crept through the show’s pilot episode and set the atmospheric tone for the series was filmed and recorded in the dark forests surrounding Seattle. Strange small-town characters brooded, and evil denizens lashed out, in this region where more serial killings went unsolved than anywhere else in the United States. And Lynch’s almost religious love of coffee drinking was appreciated in Seattle, where one of its myriad coffeehouses is called The Church of Caffeine and sports a Coffee Saves (instead of Jesus Saves) neon sign. In the period that Twin Peaks rose to national prominence, Seattle’s grunge music scene, with its roaring-chainsaw guitar sound, lumberjack flannel shirts, and screams of teenage anger, torment, and fear, sent waves of raw, evergreen energy thrashing through the pop-culture zeitgeist. At one point, there were more than a thousand rock bands playing in and around Seattle, and some of their names sounded like descriptions of Lynch’s world: Screaming Trees, Malfunkshun, Room Nine, Dead Moon, Deranged Diction, Shadow, Dinette Set, The Throbbing Continum of Dirge, Love Battery, Mystery Machine.
One crisp fall day just before the start of Twin Peaks’ second season, a sleek silver tour bus with no writing on it except for North Carolina plates glided into this Northwest bastion of shredded-metal rock and roll. The bus whispered to a stop in front of Seattle’s Backstage, a funky little club in the blue-collar Scandinavian neighborhood of Ballard, and onto the sidewalk hopped Julee Cruise. Her T-shirt, jeans, and motorcycle jacket were well suited to the capital of grunge, but at her single-performance appearance that night she would be wrapped in David Lynch’s imagination, and wear a pale-blue, angelic dress that perfectly matched her short, Kim Novak– esque platinum blonde 1950s haircut.
With her high, ethereal voice singing of gossamer melancholies, yearnings, and ecstasies, while her body was subdued in a trance of subtle gestures, Cruise’s performance was the antitheses of grunge’s explosively loud, semi-coherent yelp and frenzied stage presentation. And yet many of the young people who flocked in to see Cruise’s show were dressed and groomed as though they were heading for a headbanger’s ball. Cruise’s concert was in no way connected to the ABC TV network, but the presence of the young and the hip in her audience showed that the Twin Peaks phenomenon was luring in exactly the demographic that the television executives were aiming for. Whether or not these eighteen-to-thirty-four-year-olds would buy the sponsors’ products was an open question best left to the bean counters—what really mattered was that, in the six months since Twin Peaks debuted, a cult had formed around the show and the world of David Lynch. So what if the series had lost all those Emmys and was not embraced by plodding mainstream viewers? Their rejection was a badge of honor worn proudly by that select, smart, and imaginative group who absorbed and interpreted Twin Peaks’ most miniscule nuances and shared a sense of community based on their powers of observation and appreciation, and their collective special knowledge.
Julee Cruise’s concert had the aura of a secularly religious ritual. Totemic steaming coffee urns and tall sacks of donuts provided the communion sacraments, and Cruise sang the beloved, familiar hymns of the BadalamentiLynch canon. To hear the ominous and rapturous notes of Badalamenti’s music vibrate the air the audience breathed was a thrilling experience, and Cruise masterfully enacted the shifting moods of Lynch’s lyrics. During the instrumental introduction to one of her sad ballads, some heretic male yelled out, “Hey Julee, why don’t you set your dress on fire?” From the calm center of her being Cruise smiled slightly and said, “Maybe next time” in the slow cadence of the song she was about to launch. The silenced man was not excommunicated: Twin Peaks was a place that tolerated eccentric outbursts, and, lord knows, fire walked there.
Finally, after much anticipation, the opening, two-hour episode of Twin Peaks’ second season aired on September 30, 1990. When Mark Frost had written and directed the first-season finale there was a good chance the show would not be renewed, so he made episode 8 an everyone’s-injeopardy ultimate cliffhanger. Now, in episode 9, knowing that they have twenty-three hours to fill, Lynch and Frost begin to chart the course for their saga’s future.
Fully aware that his audience is dying to know who killed Laura Palmer, Lynch begins his direction of episode 9 in a maddeningly perverse vein, with the shot-and-bleeding Agent Cooper, who’s lying on the floor, having a full five minutes of dialogue exchange with the world’s oldest, and slowest, bellhop (Hank Worden). As in a bad dream, the bellhop seems unable to register the fact that Cooper has three blood spots on his white shirt (which resemble the two eyes and gaping mouth of Lynch’s drawing Three Figures On A Stage and his painting I See Myself). As the director once again stretches time out to absurd lengths, Cooper, though in dire straits, remains true to his character and politely signs the tab for the warm milk he ordered and exchanges the thumbs-up with the ancient man.
Just as Lynch had had visions of Blue Velvet’s standing, yellow-jacketed dead man and Twin Peaks’ Log Lady well before he realized them on screen, he had foreseen a giant interacting with Cooper, and the director has his Giant (Carel Struycken) appear to the wounded FBI man after the bellhop leaves. Along with the Log Lady’s log, Sarah Palmer’s visions, Cooper’s Tibetan rock-throwing divination method and his dream of the Man Form Another Place and Laura in the Red Room, the Giant is another agent who will aid Cooper with knowledge from out beyond the boundaries of Aristotelian logic. Before vanishing, the Giant tells Cooper of three things that will come true: “There is a man in a smiling bag,” “The owls are not what they seem,” and “Without chemicals, he points.”
In the movies, being shot even once in the stomach-chest area, let alone three times like Cooper, constitutes a certain death sentence. (Witness Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense: his single gunshot wound is the strongest early clue that he’s a ghostly presence for the remainder of the film.) Yet Cooper, citing the restorative powers of the will, gets operated on, taped up, and works on the Laura Palmer case for thirty-six hours without sleeping. (Because of Cooper’s multiple middle-body wounds, some Twin Peaks analysts hypothesize that the rest of the series is the dream of the dead FBI man.) The agent’s working-wounded zeal fits perfectly with Lynch and Frost’s conception of Cooper as a man of extraordinary powers of mind who’s a scholar of Asian cultures in which spiritually evolved people can control their own heart rate and blood pressure.
Cooper is, endearingly, both a semi-superman and a fellow who needs a giant’s help, who makes some discoveries through blind luck and is fallible. The three bullets pierced his flesh because he rolled up his bulletproof vest to scratch his stomach. And, as the Giant tells him, “You forgot something.” For one thing, Cooper didn’t find Audrey’s note about her going to the One-Eyed Jack’s brothel, where’s she’s now entrapped, barely escaped having sex with her unknowing father (thanks to a hastily grabbed mask and feigned shyness), and is expected to be ready to service “everyone.” Cooper couldn’t forget the note he never found, but what has slipped his mind is the killer’s name that Laura whispered in his ear in his dream.
Episode 9 underscores Cooper’s harmony with, and affection for, the town’s people and their caring, humane values, He takes the time to listen and give comfort to Ed Hurley (Everett McGill), who’s distraught over his wife Nadine’s suicide attempt. And he does his best to defend his new friends against the relentless sarcastic onslaughts of big-city cynic and forensics whiz Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrer), who feels that the townsfolk are at the barnyard level of the evolutionary scale.
As Twin Peaks’ second season starts, Lynch and Frost keep Cooper true to form, but introduce changes for other characters. Laura’s usually sunny and cheerful cousin Maddy shakes with terror when she envisions a red shape spreading across the Palmer’s living room carpet, a foreboding abstraction of horrors to come that’s like the dark cloud shape that drifts across Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette’s living room before Lost Highway’s hell breaks loose. And Leland is a transformed man, his hair having turned white over night (a sign of encounters with the supernatural in The Sixth Sense) and his zeal for singing lighthearted songs has increased to manic proportions. Lynch and Frost, knowing that Leland (while he’s playing host to the evil spirit BOB) is their killer, have him behave like a man possessed even in benign social situations. They cannily link Leland’s debut as the white-haired living-room singer with Maddy’s scary rug-stain vision, thus subliminally prefiguring a stunning future encounter between uncle and niece. And they introduce the theme of Leland’s eventual redemption by having him sing “We’re heading ’cross the river, wash your sins away in the tide, It’s oh so peaceful, on the other side.”
Lynch and Frost show how a powerful metaphysical aura can haunt a concrete object when the wholesome Donna Hayward puts on Laura’s dark glasses and becomes an unsmiling, cigarette-smoking femme fatale type, who Sheriff’s Office Receptionist Lucy barely recognizes when she comes to visit James Marshall in jail. Under the sway of Laura’s darker, BOB-influenced shadow self, Donna exhibits a raw, uncharacteristically animal-like sexual appetite for James, hungrily kissing him through his cell bars and closing her teeth on his finger.
And usually belligerent bad boy Bobby Briggs and his upright, no-nonsense career-military father, Major Briggs, reveal surprising new depths as the father brings his son to the verge of tears when he tells him of his vision. In his mind’s eye, the major had seen Bobby “living a life of harmony and joy,” and by sharing this idyllic prophecy with his son, he is bestowing a loving gift, though the major touchingly remains true to his formal, military-man demeanor by ending the scene with a handshake rather than a hug. It’s characteristic of Lynch’s fictions that the verbal imagery of the major’s happy-family vision is delineated in terms of a household and a homecoming.
In this episode, Lynch and Frost keep alive the poetic sense that the whole town of Twin Peaks is an empty home without Laura, and that her spirit has not settled down peacefully. As psychiatrist Dr. Jacoby surmises that Laura wanted to die, to let herself be killed (an idea that Lynch will fully explore in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), we see her dead, gray-blue face superimposed over his. And young Harriet Hayward (Jessica Wallenfels) recites a poem in which she’s seen Laura off “in the dark woods.”
Audrey, too, is far from home, and all her family clout and impish chutzpah can’t help her escape from One-Eyed Jack’s brothel. Trying to impress Cooper and aid his investigation, she’s gone dangerously under-the-covers. Afraid, and confused as to why he hasn’t come to rescue her (the note he didn’t find), she poignantly prays to the deity she loves with all her highschool heart, “Special Agent, can you hear me Special Agent?” Lynch and Frost conclude episode 9 in an atmosphere of free-floating distress and menace, a mood that is one of Twin Peaks’ key characteristics. This afternoon, Cooper laid out a step-by-step overview of the known facts concerning Laura’s murder, declaring that Leo Johnson and Jacques Renault were her partners in rough sex and drug use, but not her killers, and pointing toward a shadowy “third man” who took Ronette Polaski and Laura to the abandoned train car, where Ronette escaped and Laura bled her life away. Now the midnight hour is dark with something more than night: Audrey prays for deliverance from her flesh-world trap, the Giant troublingly tells the sleeping Cooper that he forgot something, and at the hospital a terrifying vision invades Ronette’s coma.
Anyone needing to be convinced of Lynch’s powers as a filmmaker should take a look at the final moments of episode 9. The director shows us different dread-inducing shots of empty hospital corridors, with no comforting doctors or nurses in sight. Each hallway image has its own distinct, low-level humming sound, and as Lynch’s camera starts to move down one of the corridors and pick up speed, the tone becomes higher, as though the point of view of an unstoppable, space-penetrating force was going into overdrive. This incoming-force viewpoint then glides up to Ronette’s bed and slips into her mind, where she dwells in a house of horror: the ugly black derelict train car in which Laura is being killed.
During the ten hours of Twin Peaks that have led up to this moment we have both longed to see and been afraid to watch the scene of Laura’s murder. When it comes, it has a great impact, for it seems to answer the call of all the sad emotion poured out over her loss at the beginning of the series. The subjective viewpoint of the hallway-penetrating force, which has been our view, becomes BOB racing toward us in slow motion, as Lynch implies that there’s a bit of BOB in all of us. His long hair flaps back from his ears like gray bird wings (“The owls are not what they seem”), and his grimacing-grinning mouth bares the teeth of his bestial appetite. Lynch presents Laura’s murder as a nonexploitive, though definitely harrowing, abstraction. In blackness illuminated by lightning-like flashes, we see short, chaotically random-feeling bursts of imagery: Laura’s ruddy face screaming, BOB raising his joined hands high and plunging them down to strike the body that we can’t see below the frame line. Laura’s now-pale face lying still, the “FIRE WALK WITH ME” note written in blood, BOB tossing back his head to scream-growl three times above his victim, emitting a chilling sound that mixes an animal’s roar of bloodlust satisfied with the pained voices of multiple souls in torment. While we experience Ronette’s nightmarish vision we see her thrashing and screaming in her hospital bed, one of the long line of Lynch’s characters who’s tormented in bed (or in a horizontal position) that stretches back to 1968’s The Alphabet.
By showing us the privileged sight of Laura’s murder, (something that Agent Cooper will never see), Lynch and Frost underscore the savagery of the evil that’s loose in Twin Peaks, and sensitize us to be more afraid than ever of anything to do with BOB. They may not have tied the Laura Palmer case up in a neat bow in the first episode of season 2, but they have shown us her killer—or at least one of his forms. But is BOB such a bad guy? The challenging sport of interpreting Twin Peaks was very popular as the second year debuted, and seasoned Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg insisted that BOB was trying to resuscitate Laura by pounding on her chest.
Greg Olson/ David Lynch/ Beautiful Dark
In the world of 1993, Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer, was getting ready to launch her debut feature film, Boxing Helena. Her father had been making movies all her life (her crying voice enlivens The Alphabet, made in 1968, the year of her birth), and some of her earliest happy memories were of being surrounded by the actors and technicians making Eraserhead in the first years of the 1970s. While growing up, Jennifer helped out on the sets of some of her father’s films, and had been entrusted to write The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer, the bestselling book which created details of Laura’s character, and story elements, seminal to the evolving shape of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Sheryl Lee told Jennifer that she “studied the diary like a bible” while making the film).
After the Twin Peaks cycle ended, Jennifer wrote a screenplay from a story she developed with Philippe Caland. It’s a story that David Lynch said was “sick” and that he would never film himself; and a story that, when Jennifer’s mother, Peggy, described it to her friends, they said, “Why would any viewers want to submit themselves to that?” Boxing Helena tells the tale of a surgeon who’s crazy about a woman who despises him, and after she’s in a car crash he amputates her arms and legs and keeps her captive in his house, enshrined on a throne-like box.
Madonna, at a time in her career when she was interested in exploring daring, taboo themes, was interested in playing Helena, but she backed out before the start of production. Then Kim Basinger got cold feet after she said she would be Helena on screen. Jennifer, believing in a “Screw me once, it’s your fault; screw me twice, it’s my fault” philosophy, joined with her producers in bringing legal action against Basinger, and won her case, forcing the actress to pay $7.4 million for breach of contract.
As Jennifer says, Madonna and Basinger had been “vocal about their bravery and how little the role frightened them. People aren’t real big on recognizing that one of the bravest things you can say is that you are afraid. I owe Madonna and Kim for showing me some colors of people I didn’t know existed.”
Jennifer offered the part to Sherilyn Fenn, whose alluring, vixenish charm had made Twin Peaks’ Audrey Horne’s journey from mischievous highschool girl to fledgling woman so compelling. Jennifer knew Fenn was right for the role when Fenn “came up to me and said, ‘I’m terrified of it—and that’s why I want to do it.’ I strongly felt she could execute the material with honesty.”
With Fenn on board as Helena, and Julian Sands eager to play the surgeon, Jennifer and cinematographer Frank Byers, who shot all of TV’s Twin Peaks (except the pilot), began filming scenes. When David Lynch saw the finished movie he said to Jennifer, “How did you learn how to do that?,” knowing that he and Peggy had had a profound effect on their daughter’s sensibility and ability to design and build an arduous project. Peggy visited the production while the film was being made, and was “stunned that Jennifer was so calm and commanding; it was like she was born to do it.”
In 1993, Lynch and Peggy found themselves in a position that David’s parents, Sunny and Donald, had been in in 1970: watching a film (Boxing Helena) that their child had made, in which a mother and father were portrayed in a scathingly negative light. As Lynch says, his mom and dad were “very upset” by The Grandmother’s Mother and Father, who made life hell for their Boy: Sunny and Donald “wondered where all this stuff came from.” In The Grandmother Lynch wasn’t saying that his parents, like those in the film, victimized him with emotional, verbal, physical, and sexual violence. But in his fiction he was forcefully communicating core dynamics of his psychological self: I’m sensitive; I have extraordinary perceptions that inspire me to make things; Don’t fence me in—let me be free to hear and respond to my muse’s call. Lynch and his parents had been acting out this psychodrama in the years before The Grandmother, generating family tension while going back and forth about David’s obsessional need to be an artist. Even if it was not Lynch’s conscious intention to jolt his parents, he made The Grandmother an anti-authoritarian cry for independence.
Even when Lynch and his parents were having their differences, they all loved each other, and even though Jennifer’s parents separated and divorced, and David didn’t live in her house anymore, she never doubted his love for her. But she still ached with the pain of her playful and imaginative father not being as available as he had been during the first six years of her life.
It’s hard to read the first scene of Jennifer’s film as not being a portrait of David Lynch. Lynch has said he’d have enjoyed being a doctor, and we see a little boy, Nick Cavanaugh, approach his doctor father’s study door, which has a Lynchian red curtain. The boy pokes his head in and softly says, “Daddy.” We only see the back of the father’s head—he doesn’t turn to face his son, and bluntly says, “Not now, I’m working.” In Lynch’s work, his art, he explores deep within the human interior, and Nick’s father is poring over an X-ray of someone’s insides.
After seeing Boxing Helena Lynch said, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and Jennifer’s film dwells on a theme that’s central to almost every Lynch picture: “The home is a place where things can go bad.” If Nick’s father is too busy to spare a moment for his son, his mother is aggressively rejecting, striking him, not telling people that she has a child, and not minding that Nick knows she’s cheating on daddy. Sensitive young Nick is perfectly situated to grow up with a warped psychosexual nature. His father shows him how to be remote and unavailable, and his mother, who’s sometimes nude while she berates him, links eroticism with being shunned in the boy’s mind.
So where does Nick turn for emotional connection and sustenance? In the world of the Lynches, to art, of course. A focal point within the Cavanaughs’ opulent mansion is a white Venus de Milo statue (reminding us of the one in Twin Peaks’ Red Room), to which Nick is obsessionally attached. For Jennifer the statue is significant because, unlike Nick’s parents, it looks lovingly at Nick and doesn’t move away from him or strike him. After Nick grows into manhood (Julian Sands) and assumes his father’s position as a master surgeon, he’s able to love people, but only in the twisted way he learned at home. As Nick’s father was with him, he’s lukewarm and evasive toward Anne (Betsy Clark), who really cares for him, while he’s desperate to win the affection of the unattainable Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), who, like his mother, is sensual, hostile toward him, and would rather spend time with her lovers.
In Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a young man hides in a woman’s closet and watches her have sex with Ray, a psychotically domineering man, and Jennifer has Nick climb a tree outside Helena’s apartment and watch her have sex with a possessive macho stud (there’s a ruddy David Lynch–style curtain on the window). Jennifer emphasizes the intensity of Nick’s Helena-fixation by having him spy on her while he’s neglecting Anne, who fixed dinner for him at his house hours ago.
Nick’s parents have died, but he chooses to live in the big old house of his tormented youth, alone with his dear Venus de Milo statue. Nick once had a one-night-stand with Helena, but now she wants nothing to do with him. He lies to her and uses manipulative tactics to get her to his house, where he offers her food and passionate Puccini opera music. Like David Lynch and many of his fictional characters, Nick is a romantic who believes in the supremacy of love’s healing power. Jennifer Lynch and Julian Sands sympathetically portray Nick as a pubescent boy in an adult’s body, a man whose emotional-erotic development has been stunted through no fault of his own. His perceptions seem blinded by his overwhelming need for Helena to be the object of all the unexpressed love he’s stored up over the years, for she’s clearly a shallow, mean-spirited, vindictive woman—or does Nick feel his ardor can call forth a warmly amorous, caring aspect of her nature that she doesn’t even know she has?
Before the film presents a major dramatic development it establishes Nick as a Lynchworld guy who’s wild at heart and follows his dreams, but who’s dangerously close to being a pathetic stalker (Blue Velvet: “Are you a detective or a pervert?”). After Nick lures Helena to his house, she explodes with anger, and while running away is hit by a truck, thus galvanizing Nick into acting out his light and dark emotions in extreme forms. Helena’s legs are crushed by the truck, and instead of taking her to the hospital, Nick keeps her in his house and operates on her, removing her ruined limbs (we see none of this). Nick cuts himself off from the world outside, centering his life on Helena, who’s his unwilling prisoner. The Venus de Milo is still visually prominent in his house, and for Jennifer, Nick is an artist “moulding Helena into something that doesn’t make him afraid and doesn’t go away,”48 like the statue he’s always worshipped. And to be exactly like Nick’s statue, Helena’s arms have to come off. Jennifer’s mother, Peggy, grew up looking daily at her mother’s Venus de Milo statue, and in adolescence found the figure titillating: “Because she had no arms, she couldn’t cover her breasts; she couldn’t stop someone from touching them.”49 But Nick isn’t interested in forcing himself on Helena—he wants her to love him.
Now, at last, Nick, the adoring, perverse artist, has completed his creation: beautiful in a dress as white as the Venus’s marble, armless, legless, and never in physical pain, Helena sits as the centerpiece of Nick’s idealized composition, a devotional altar surrounded by white flowers. Nick’s parents never wanted or needed him, and Helena certainly doesn’t want him, but now she must depend on him to provide everything she needs to stay alive. It’s interesting to note that David Lynch, who grew up in an intact, undivided family unit that came to feel “claustrophobic”50 to him, made early films about characters who feel trapped by their families and need to escape the physical presence, dependencies, and demands of others. While Jennifer, an unplanned child who’s the product of a broken home, made a film whose main character finds bliss being cocooned with a person who needs him every hour of every day and night. (A few years after creating Boxing Helena, Jennifer had a daughter to whom she is an attentive, devoted mother.)
Like her father, Jennifer is adept at burrowing beneath surfaces. Nick may have sculpted Helena into his living Venus de Milo goddess, but this is a flesh and blood woman with a mind of her own who angrily engaged Nick in dialogues that tear at the roots of his psychosexual dysfunction. Her clear-sighted rage sees and speaks aloud his fear of “women, me, yourself, everything.” It would take Helena craving his tender touch on her aroused body to complete his growing-up process. Nick doesn’t say this but the tension of his primal need agitates the air. Helena senses it and returns it; she wants to “feel like a woman again,” and she kisses him with awakened desire. Yes, everything we’ve seen after Helena got hit by the truck has been Nick’s dream. He visits Helena’s hospital room and finds her sleeping peacefully, with all her limbs intact. The film’s conclusion takes a final measure of Nick’s psychosexual health. He wakes with a woman, presumably Anne, sleeping next to him. It seems Nick’s psychodrama sessions with Helena in dreamland have purged his painful, toxic feelings for his mother by letting him act them out with mother-surrogate Helena, thus freeing him from being emotionally stuck in childhood. He’s truly a grown-up now, who knows he’s worthy of healthy love and able to give it, so he can accept Anne, the one who’s consistently loved him, as his appropriate partner.
But Helena’s pre-accident lover, Ray, bursts in and attacks Nick, and just as the Venus statue is falling to crush Nick, he hears Helena say, “I need you; I love you”—and then he wakes up, in the hospital.
Blue Velvet is one of Jennifer Lynch’s favorites of her father’s films, in which the light and dark aspects of its male protagonist’s (Jeffrey) psyche are stimulated by, respectively, Sandy and Dorothy. Boxing Helena’s Nick, like Jeffrey, takes a trip into a netherworld, experiences his own capacity to act out transgressive impulses, and learns to choose the path of light. At the end of Blue Velvet Jeffrey is resolutely with Sandy, but, given Lynch’s understanding of human complexity, might he not still be tempted by Dorothy? In Blue Velvet’s final shot, we see Dorothy, the film’s battered Dark Mother figure, for the first time in daylight, reunited with her kidnapped son and looking peaceful, yet on the soundtrack her voice hauntingly sings, “I still can see blue velvet through my tears.” Jennifer beautifully evokes this complex, “yes . . . but” mood of conscious/subconscious dissonance in Boxing Helena’s final shot. Nick, having left Anne sleeping in bed, goes to the Venus de Milo statue and touches his forehead to the marble woman’s forehead (the intimate closeness of two heads is a David Lynch trademark), as his inner voice shows that Helena is still deeply on his mind: “I’m still haunted by my love for her. Those dreams. . . .”
After Boxing Helena came out, Jennifer Lynch seemed to have a target on her back. No matter which way she turned, she was vilified. Some accused her of not having the courage of her convictions by having Nick’s physical reshaping and imprisonment of Helena be just a dream, hence trivializing and negating half of her film. While others felt that even treating Helena’s mutilation in a dream was a misogynistic sin that set the women’s movement back decades. Jennifer responded that “the only way I would make this film is if it were a dream: I want no part of a movie that condones the act of removing a woman’s arms and legs as the way to get her to love you.” As David Lynch discovered in The Grandmother when he portrayed the imaginary act of the Boy killing his abusive parents in an animated vision, Jennifer knew that she could best confront the raw, gruesomely intense psychological and physical issues that intrigued her in passages that were one step removed from cinema-verité naturalism. Her father’s films had taught her that onscreen all states of consciousness (waking reality, dreams, fantasies, memories) are capable of communicating resonant, meaningful emotions to the viewer. The woman and man who brought Jennifer into the world were artists who venerated the inner life, and Jennifer says,
I was raised to base a tremendous amount of value on my dreams. Dreams aren’t just little things you have at night; they’re what’s going on inside you. The fact that people may or may not feel that I copped out at the end of the film has everything to do with how much respect they have for their subconscious. If you’re not paying attention to the voice inside you, there’s some kind of denial happening there. I don’t consider my dreams prophecies, but I don’t ignore them. It was a tremendous gift for me, as a child, that nobody put fences around my imagination.
This last sentence echoes Lynch’s praise of his parents for giving him art-making materials and not forcing him to stay inside the lines when he was drawing on a piece of paper as a boy. Some critics wondered if Boxing Helena’s bitter portrayal of Nick’s parents as rejecting and unavailable was Jennifer’s way of sending a message to David and Peggy. If, on some level, she was expressing animus toward her parents, as her father may have been doing toward his folks in The Grandmother, it shows the value of art as a pressure-release valve for calming and dissipating the artist’s negative emotions, albeit in a public way.
Lynch’s response to Jennifer’s film was warm and supportive. He turned to Catherine Coulson, who’d been part of Jennifer’s extended family ever since the Eraserhead production days twenty years earlier, and voiced his fatherly pride and praise in artistic terms: “Cath, she’s round as a ball.” Jennifer was thrilled that “he totally digs my movie.”
No matter how the world reacted to Boxing Helena, Jennifer knew, as her father does, that realizing your vision the way you want to is the true reward of making art. The film’s story was a personal one for Jennifer, allowing her to express her adult feelings about voyeurism, intimacy, sex, love, emotional freedom, and dependence. She began working on her Boxing Helena concept six years before making the film, at age nineteen, but the story also touched the vulnerable little girl within her. For as a child, wearing braces on both legs because of being born with clubbed feet, she had gazed lovingly at the Venus de Milo statue in her maternal grandmother’s house. Like Jennifer, the marble figure’s limbs were “not perfect, but she was still so, so beautiful.”
In the months following Boxing Helena’s release, denunciation, and burial, David Lynch finally felt that his book, Images (for which he began to compile materials in 1991), was ready for publication. Composed of scenes from his films and Twin Peaks, and some of his paintings, drawings, and photographs, the 192 pages contain rare examples of his non-screenplay writing. The book’s cover is primal Lynch: a color photo of a couch in front of flowered curtains, a mundane domestic tableau into which intrudes a ghostly mystery—a vertical cloud of white smoke that floats above the furniture. A sourceless something that shouldn’t be in the house nonetheless occupies its space.
Opening the book, Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey Beaumont peering through the louvered slits of Isabella Rossellini’s closet door leads us to the control room of Dune’s evil Baron Harkonen, then on to Laura Palmer and Cooper in Twin Peaks: Fire walk With Me’s Red Room, to a big close-up of Isabella Rossellini in Wild at Heart and, finally, to the two-page-filling icon of Laura Palmer’s dead face with its plastic shroud. Lynch has compelled our attention with his mysterious cover, and then Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks’ magician who longs to see and Lynch’s surrogate who, in Blue Velvet acts out the director’s personal closet-hiding voyeuristic fantasy, leads us into successively intimate rooms, and progresses to the deep enigma of life, death, and secrets coded in Laura’s cold face. Lynch has designed his book as a journey that, like his films, shows us images and ideas that move him, and then concludes with a mystery undiminished in power: the white smoke from the book’s cover still floating in the living room of his mind. Rossellini in Wild at Heart and, finally, to the two-page-filling icon of Laura Palmer’s dead face with its plastic shroud. Lynch has compelled our attention with his mysterious cover, and then Kyle MacLachlan, Twin Peaks’ magician who longs to see and Lynch’s surrogate who, in Blue Velvet acts out the director’s personal closet-hiding voyeuristic fantasy, leads us into successively intimate rooms, and progresses to the deep enigma of life, death, and secrets coded in Laura’s cold face. Lynch has designed his book as a journey that, like his films, shows us images and ideas that move him, and then concludes with a mystery undiminished in power: the white smoke from the book’s cover still floating in the living room of his mind.
Before Lynch takes us back through his film and TV career, from most recent to earliest, he shows us his self-portrait, a pale, simple clay figure with arms and legs that dwindle down to no hands and feet. The image displays a modest genital bulge and has a huge, almost torso-sized, faceless head that is half-eaten by black ants. Insects: those troubles, confusions, and bad thoughts that can plague the head can also eat away at the house, the supposed sanctum of safety and sanity, as Lynch’s 1990 painting Ants in My House indicates. The title of a 1992 drawing done the year Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was released could sum up the desperate state of Laura Palmer’s head and homelife: Bugs Are in Every Room—Are You My Friend? (In the film a sobbing, traumatized Laura, who’s beginning to believe that her father and BOB are one, asks Donna, “Are you my best friend?”)
Always a man who likes to get down to first principles, Lynch groups some of his black-and-white photographs in Industrial and Organic categories. The Industrial shots focus on the factories he loves, the powerful machines that keep our familiar world humming along (a number of the shots relate to electrical energy). Rather than showing us clean, bright, new machines, Lynch exercises his fascination for textured surfaces by presenting aged equipment in dimly lit spaces where the entropic forces of rust, dirt, gravity, and corrosive liquids are at work. Decay and dissolution are built into the world Lynch sees, and he records their beauty. Even his Organic section includes mostly subjects that are not alive: a weathered cat corpse almost indistinguishable from the earth, an oyster shell, the fake bloody head that pops off Henry’s shoulders in Eraserhead, a medical specimen jar containing an amputated foot.
And speaking of severed body parts, we finally get to see Lynch’s fabled Fish Kit and Chicken Kit, which are photographs of messily dissected dead animals that are arranged and labeled on white paper bearing instructions for their assembly (“Place finished fish in water, Feed your fish, Watch your fish swim, Clean and scrub your room”56; “If assembled properly your chicken will either lay eggs or automatically wake you very early in the morning”).57 The grisliness of these torn-apart-animal photos is mediated by their being monochromatic, but they can still be an off-putting aesthetic experience: when Laura Dern was working with Lynch, her father, hip actor Bruce Dern, was appalled when the director gave him a Chicken Kit image as a gift. We can only imagine the public outrage that would result if Lynch had used a dog or cat as his subject.
For Lynch, the glistening internal organs, wings, fins, tails, beaks, and bodily fluids arranged on white paper are intriguing visual abstractions, and the process of segmenting the wholeness of nature and examining it with great care evokes the scientific methods of his tree-researching father. Like author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley who, in Frankenstein (1818), wrote of a man piecing together human body parts to make a living being, Lynch is fascinated by the primal force that gives animal tissue life: the spark of electricity.
An invisible flow of electrons enables us to think and move, it pulses within plants and animals and sings in the stars. It’s possible to learn specifically how and why electricity is such a universal motivating factor, but Lynch chooses to see it as a mysterious force, a poetic principle that he allies with both dark (Ronnie Rocket, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) and luminous (the Blackout episode of Hotel Room) aspects of human nature. He devotes ten pages of his book to close-up black-and-white photographs of spark plugs and their component parts, which are accompanied by text detailing the interrelationship of electrodes, insulators, and spark gaps. The words are scientifically precise (the gap between two wires must be .015 to .025 inches), yet the overall impression of this section is mystical. In Lynch’s pictures, the spark plugs and their parts are held by human hands, thus imaging the linkage of inorganic and organic energy. And because the spark plug material is presented in the context of an artist’s book, the gleaming wires, ceramic rods, steel circle, and triangular gap-adjuster seem like esoteric tribal power implements which, when combined under the proper spell, enable 3,000 pound metal living rooms on wheels to transport people down wondrous highways.
Lingering in the realm of electrical fascination, Lynch devotes two pages to photographs of car-engine distributor caps, black plastic domes pierced by nine holes through which wires carry the igniting charge to the spark plugs. The distributor is another vital component that facilitates the mysterious invisible flow of electrical energy, but it may also intrigue Lynch with its form and numerical message: eight symmetrically arrayed holes in a circle surrounding a central ninth. This mundane plastic product bears the pattern of a mandala, the ancient circular symbol that unites all opposing dualities in a transcendent universal wholeness. It also signifies the number nine, which Lynch has placed in Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, and Hotel Room, and which symbolically represents ultimate truth, for no matter what other number you multiply it by, you always get nine (by numerological mystic addition):
9 × 247 = 2,223 (2+2+2+3 = 9);
9 × 248 = 2,232 (2+2+3+2 = 9);
9 × 12,345 = 111,105 (1+1+1+1+5 = 9).
Aside from the textbook-like spark-plug dissertation, Lynch’s prose contributions to Images consist of lightly humorous character dialogues that introduce the distributor and spark-plug topics (“Pete Wants To Speak To Bob,” “Old Doug Talks To Billy”59) and a 900-word paragraph called “Meaningless Conversations.” Having the feel of a stream-of-consciousness notation dense with ideas that poured out too fast for normal punctuation, this section mentions familiar Lynchian preoccupations: “several abstract somewhat hidden emotional tendencies . . . positive and negative forces . . . a vital link between the subconscious and superconscious minds . . . the much argued over proposition that one cannot tolerate the existence of two or more intensely opposing ideas at one point in time . . . knowledge of the truths behind the all-pervading essence which is unending . . . the long journey toward understanding,”61 “abstractions associated with the laws of nature,” and “the dark and evil forces which would have us living forever in confusion.” This philosophical declamation segues into passages of imagistic brilliance: “Sometimes in the evening a feeling of the type which haunts young children in the forest will come in on a dark wind and all the light will fade leaving a low sound penetrating the eyes which follow the dark shapes running for safe nests just out of reach of small white teeth.” A foresty, haunting wind, an animalistic threat accompanied by a low droning sound—we are clearly in Lynch territory. Next, he provides an autobiographical-sounding section: “the home which will remind us of the red cookie jar and the smiles dancing around it in the golden afternoon while the pipe puffs out clouds of smoke from the mouth of the father with an axe to cut wood growing on the tall mountains.” What’s surprising about Lynch’s writing is not the vivid simplicity of these descriptions, but the convincingly academic-speak tone of the material that surrounds them: “which therefore can only be considered as actual structures with two separate and distinctly different qualities as we have seen when one or more intensely varying energies become associated with the higher levels of perceptible phenomena.”66 Could you run that by me again? In Lynch’s fictions, sonic barriers and distortions can curtail human communication, and here he shows us that even clearly rendered words can diminish meaning and understanding. He concludes his book’s prose section with an archetypal image of head-invasion, in which dental disease can “fester and transfer negative energies to the once quiet and peaceful mind giving it over to strange and unproductive thinking.” Along with “people trying to find love in hell,”68 these words constitute the most concise summation of his themes that Lynch has voiced.
Senseless confusion and chaos threaten the precious human mind in Lynch’s book, but the artist counters their entropic power with properly installed automobile distributors, fresh spark plugs, proper dental care, and Ricky Boards. We’ve previously noted Lynch’s appreciation of the serenity-inducing sparseness of Japanese domestic interiors, and how he keeps his own home meticulously clean and uncluttered. And he’s spoken of how symbolically manipulating the elements of life through art gives the artist an illusory, but nonetheless sanity-preserving, sense of control. Ricky Boards and Bee Boards are Lynch’s notion of how a Japanese artist might organize the maddening swirl and swarm of existence into neat four-by-five rows of collected dead flies and bees (some real, some drawn) with individual name tags (Ricky, Ronnie, Chuck, Sid) mounted on white paper or wood. Out in the world, as in Blue Velvet, brutal insectoid energy may gnaw at the roots of beautiful gardens, but in the artist’s studio, Lynch is their whimsical master. The image of mounted bugs also contains a loving echo of Lynch’s childhood, when his scientist father took him into the magical woods and showed him trees and insects that he had labeled.
There is much darkness and some light in Lynch’s work, and often a complex, ambiguous blending of the two. Images’ fourteen pages of blackand-white dental hygiene photographs, if viewed without their reassuring captions (“Next the hygienist uses the tools to scrape the plaque off all the teeth”69), look as torturous as they are therapeutic. (Lynch doesn’t state this in Images, but he had “soft, bad teeth as a kid,”and spent a lot of time in the dentist’s chair; his dental hygiene photos can be seen as his homage to Dr. Chin of Santa Monica, “the greatest dentist in the world.”)
In general, the photographs in Images make a stronger impression than Lynch’s paintings. (Catherine Coulson’s beautiful black-and-whites of the years-long Eraserhead production are outstanding, and among other wonders, show us the white Nair foam mound with a black mouse tail protruding from it that indicates the Lynch-legend stripping of hair from a dead rodent is in progress.) The paintings, which in person have a great deal of surface interest and texture, lose impact when reproduced on the page: three 42" x 48" canvases are reduced to 2 1/2" x 2 1/2" squares, thus hampering Lynch’s intention to open up “a huge, big world”72 of viewerparticipating interpretation. In general, the paintings show large blackish or grayish color fields in which recognizable forms (a human figure, a head, fish, cloud, building, tower, rectangles, triangles, biomorphic shapes) are rendered semi-legible by bold brush strokes. We can admire Lynch’s compositions, which feel like undesigned, intuitive outpourings, and appreciate the paintings’ subtle color modulations, and get a hint of the works’ surface detail and layered depth, but the book format in which the paintings are presented keeps us from dreamily floating into these particular worlds of the artist’s imagination.
Lynch’s drawing, being much smaller (11" x 14") than his paintings in their original state, fare better in book form. Consisting of a few black ink lines and strokes on a white paper background, the drawings have a free, loose, naïve feeling that suggests a child’s work. Amidst the seemingly casually applied lines, blots, and smudges we recognize the rough, primitively rendered shapes of a house, rectangle, dog, fish, gun, and electrical outlet that are like fragments of a world that’s deconstructed or not put together yet. With his Ricky Boards and Bee Boards, Lynch organized chaos by giving individual names to particular insects from the swarm of an anonymous crowd. (He’s spoken of feeling disquieted because many people in the world know a lot about his life while they remain nameless, unknown quantities to him.) Various words (Pin Dog Wind, Wood Fly Ammo, Fish Hot Bandaid, Monkey), rendered in a coarse, unrefined printing style, are also part of his drawings’ picture plane, but since they don’t match up with any recognizable images, there’s a sense of dislocated reality as though a child were trying to figure out which words match parts of the world he sees. This feeling of dissociation also projects Lynch’s belief that there are unclassifiable realities beyond words.
Lynch’s Images book is an engaging sampler of his themes and aesthetics that shows the wide range of his creative expressions, though the best way to become immersed in the flow of his unique mind is to watch and listen to his moving images on a movie or TV screen.
During the artist’s 1992–1997 cinematic dry spell, Americans had a chance to revisit or discover Twin Peaks when the Bravo cable network broadcast the entire series starting on Halloween night, 1993. Bravo obviously reached fewer homes than ABC, but they were pleased with the audience response to the show and have rebroadcast it a number of times over the years. Lynch showed his abiding love for the series’ imaginative world by shooting some short introductory prologues for Bravo that featured his dear friend Catherine Coulson as the Log lady: she of the fire-killed husband and the oracular log, conduit of visions and messages from beyond our immediate sensory sphere. Margaret Lanterman sits before her boarded-up fireplace, cradling her log and speaking words that Lynch wrote, short philosophical-poetic passages that shun the dense verbal convolutions of Images’ “Meaningless Conversations.” “Where there was once one, there are now two. Or were there always two? What is a reflection? A chance to see two. Where there are chances for reflection there will always be two or more. Only when we are everywhere will there be just one.” In the series’ final episode, the Red Room shows us that the singular Laura, Leland, and Cooper indeed do have two aspects. And if we had truly enlightened powers of sight we would see that all manifestations of being, even seemingly opposing entities like Cooper and BOB, are each part of the universe’s single primal consciousness: the One masquerading as the world’s manifold forms, most of which aren’t wised up enough to realize they’re all the same being. The Hindu-based teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation movement, which Lynch has practiced since 1973, certainly struck a resonant, long-lasting chord in the artist: In December 1999, he said that the Maharishi was the most important man of the twentieth century.
As the 1990s approached their finale, Lynch tried to launch a new film project. Dream of the Bovine, according to co-writer Robert Engels (Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), concerned “three guys who used to be cows. They’re living in Van Nuys, trying to assimilate their lives. Trying to live with us. They look like people, but they’re cows. They do cowlike behavior. They like to watch cars drive by the house and stuff.” Since the early 1990s, Lynch had a three-picture deal with French industrial magnate Francis Bouygues’ company CiBy 2000, which financed Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Lynch thought his agreement with CiBy meant that it would automatically fund whatever project he proposed, but, perhaps gun shy over Fire Walk With Me’s abysmal performance, the company passed on Dream of the Bovine and nixed a couple of the director’s other movie ideas. Lynch’s lawyers eventually pointed out to him that a “play or pay” clause had been violated and that this was an actionable offense. The court ruled in Lynch’s favor, so one afternoon he found himself $6.5 million richer. As usual, Lynch used this money to further his Art Life and pay the salaries of his professional associates, rather than to indulge in the Hollywood high life.
Lynch kept his hand in the film game by lending his name to Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb (“A David Lynch presentation”). Robert Crumb, who now lives in France, was America’s most brilliant and notorious underground comic book artist of the 1960s and 1970s, who used his artistic gifts to satirize uptight, militaristic, corporate-suburban American society and to portray the full-tilt counterculture boogie of cross-racial kinship, rampant drug use, and polymorphous sexual expression. Lynch was happy to endorse Crumb’s obsession with artistic freedom (“he doesn’t have any responsibility to paint pretty pictures of people!” 74). And he was fascinated by Crumb’s two brothers, whose emotional and behavioral extremity, their social-outsider strangeness and quirky humanity, are qualities that Lynch of the Norman Rockwell childhood has always been attracted to, and which propel his fictions.
Lynch and his love, Mary Sweeney, produced Michael Almereyda’s 1995 independent feature Nadja, in which Dracula’s daughter (Elin Lowensohn) stalks the nocturnal streets of contemporary Manhattan. Lynch appears in a cameo as a tousle-haired, unsmiling morgue attendant who is suspicious when Lowensohn comes calling.
In Nadja, Lynch dwelt in the realm of the dead and undead, and in the 1992–1997 period of his real life, he suffered the loss of three members of his professional family. Prop man Frank Silva who, thanks to a flash of Lynch’s intuition, had been catapulted from film crew anonymity to international fame for his chilling portrayal of BOB in Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, was living with his girlfriend in the greater Seattle area in the mid-1990s. He had fallen in love with the Northwest, and was occasionally hired to meet with thrilled Twin Peaks tour groups of often-Japanese travelers. He would grimace and growl like BOB and then become his naturally warm, good-humored, and outgoing self, posing for pictures, signing autographs, and telling behind-the-scenes stories for hours. During the August 1995 Twin Peaks Festival, actor Michael J. Anderson (The Man From Another Place) and some fans drove to Frank’s apartment and tried to get him to join in the weekend’s fun, but he begged off, saying he wasn’t feeling too well. On September 13, this lean and physically active man died of a heart attack, and was buried in his Northern California hometown. Frank’s incarnation of BOB’s otherness and ravenous evil was so convincing that he scared even seasoned viewers of movie and TV horror. It is a measure of the mystery and art of acting that Frank always maintained he didn’t recognize BOB as being part of himself. “During the series I had a rough time watching it. It really disturbed me. And it still disturbs me when I see it, but I also know that that’s not me.”
Lynch also lost Francis Bouygues, the Parisian industrialist who had championed and financed his cinematic vision, and who had visited the Fire Walk With Me production at the Mar T Café in rural North Bend, Washington, gamely and elegantly wearing an ascot around his neck and a tweed jacket in the Indian Summer heat. In the period after Bouygues’ death, his company affirmed their intention to maintain their late leader’s financial-backing deal with Lynch.
For Lynch the hardest death to accept was the tragic slaying of his friend Jack Nance, the man who labored for six years to brilliantly incarnate the character of Henry Spencer in Eraserhead (1976), hence giving cinematic shape to the raw fears and moody ruminations of Lynch’s own psyche. Nance, also, was not a stranger to darkness in his off-screen life. Before meeting Lynch in 1970, he had performed for eight years with the prestigious American Conservatory Theater, toured in children’s theater, and starred in the acclaimed, politically radical West Coast production of Tom Paine. With his quizzical, impish, intense expressions, his warm grin, and drawling speech that gave words an emphatic stretching, he was a gifted actor and a lovable human being. But Nance had a tendency to be as dedicated to the bottle as he was to his craft. As a young man beginning his acting career in Dallas, Nance thought, “This is not half bad. I can drink, and I’ll never have to get a job!” In the seven years after Eraserhead, Nance did more drinking than working. His marriage to Catherine Coulson broke up, and he scraped by doing menial odd jobs, slept in rented rooms as bleak as Henry Spencer’s, and even lived on the street for two years. More than once Lynch pulled his friend up out of the gutter, and Nance credited the Eagle Scout with saving his life, as Lynch had previously done for the illness-stricken Catherine Coulson.
Lynch found good, small parts for Nance to play in Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1987), Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, cut out of the released version), and Lost Highway (1997), and gave him the memorable, continuing role of Pete Martell in TV’s Twin Peaks (1989–1991). Nance also did solid work for directors Dennis Hopper, Ken Russell, and Wim Wenders, and appeared in low-budget genre films.
In the spring of 1991, when Twin Peaks’ TV run was drawing to a close, Nance took a chance on love and married Kelly Van Dyke, the spirited daughter of TV funnyman Jerry Van Dyke (brother of Dick), who was also, like Nance, a recovering alcoholic. During the course of their marriage, Nance discovered that Kelly was still abusing booze and tranquilizers, and during one of Nance and Kelly’s high-volume fights she told him that she’d secretly been staring in X-rated sex films. With the happy prospect of his new marriage soured, Nance told friends that he and Kelly were going to divorce.
While on a movie location in a remote part of California, Nance was on the telephone with Kelly when she threatened to kill herself. Their frantic conversation was cut off when a big storm knocked out the phone lines, and Nance was terrified that Kelly might think he’d purposefully hung up on her. Sure enough, Kelly was found dead, dangling at the end of a nylon cord tied to a ceiling plant hanger. So now not only was Nance’s wife tragically dead, but he had to live with the possibility that she might have been pushed over the edge by believing that he didn’t care enough to talk to her anymore. Lynch was always there to listen if his old friend wanted to share his troubles or elations, but oftentimes Nance preferred to be alone with his thoughts, out where the vibrant blue of Pacific ocean and sky merged, piloting a little sailboat with “nobody around to complain when I light up a cigar.”
Once Lynch and Nance went on an archeological expedition and found, in the industrial part of Los Angeles, the mammoth concrete wall with the gaping square aperture into which Nance as Henry Spencer had disappeared in the beginning of Eraserhead. Revisiting the site that launched them both into the cinematic history books, the actor and his director retraced Henry’s steps, walking into the shadowy mouth, pausing to feel the chilling darkness, and emerging back into the bright sunlight.
When Nance attended the 1995 Twin Peaks Festival in Seattle, he was lit up with the high spirits of being appreciated for all his good work and the simple fact of being his own unique self. As usual, I presented the festival’s film night at the Seattle Art Museum, and when I first shook hands with Nance he excitedly said, “I hear you’re going to show The Grandmother.” When Nance first met Lynch and the director tried to interest him in playing the lead role in Eraserhead, Nance was confused by the unorthodox project’s “weird world and strange characters.” Lynch, not wanting to lose the man who he knew would make a perfect Henry Spencer, projected a 16mm print of The Grandmother for Nance to show him what his cinematic style looked like on the screen, rather than the printed script page. Nance, jolted by the film’s fierce, dark poetry, said watching it was “like sitting in the electric chair for thirty-four minutes!” Awestruck by the artistry of Lynch’s fictional universe, Nance felt that “suddenly there was nothing more in the world I wanted to do than Eraserhead.”
I was proud to be the one providing Nance with his second viewing of The Grandmother since Lynch showed it to him twenty-five years earlier, and before the lights went down in the packed auditorium, he gave me a big wink. Nance and the audience had a good time with the film, but during the feature presentation of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me I passed through the museum’s cavernous lobby and saw Jack sitting by himself on a bench. “Taking a breather?” I asked. The film was heading into the harrowing passages in which Laura Palmer tries to numb the pain of her torn heart and endangered soul with a steady diet of illicit drugs, promiscuous sex, and a conclusive choice of death. Perhaps Jack’s late wife’s own descent into similar abuse that ended in death was heavy on his mind as he replied, “I just can’t stand to watch her go.”
Before Nance showed up in 1997’s Lost Highway, he joined Lynch, his former wife, Catherine Coulson, and Charlotte Stewart (Mary X) for an Eraserhead reunion that was filmed by Lynch’s boyhood friend Toby Keeler and included in Keeler’s excellent Lost Highway/world-of-Lynch documentary, Pretty as a Picture. As the four reminisced on the grounds of Beverly Hills’ Greystone Mansion, where they’d toiled six years for the sake of art in the early 1970s, each showed the signs of passing years, but Nance seemed truly wizened: pale, white-haired, and walking with a cane after having suffered two strokes. At age fifty-three, he was only three years older than Lynch, but he looked like he was in his late sixties. Still, Nance’s dry humor was as alive as ever as he reminded his laughing comrades of the days when the Eraserhead makers had grown their own crop of potatoes to help keep body and soul together. “When we harvested them they were the size of little pinto beans. Little bitty ‘pea-taters,’ we called them. They were small, but there was a bunch of them, and we made little bitty French fries.”
As twenty-somethings, Lynch and Nance, with meager financial resources and a surfeit of talent and imagination, had crafted a film that made them both pop-cultural icons, and Pretty as a Picture showed the two nowmiddle-aged men repeating an idiosyncratic gesture of mutual respect and love that spanned thirty years. As Lynch said “Great to see you, Jack,” the two stood side by side, each with a hand on the small of the other’s back, and made a fast patting motion. Many many pats on the back from one to the other, in the fast rhythm of the beating of a small animal’s heart.
In the mid-1990s, Nance was living alone in a South Pasadena apartment. On December 29, 1996, he told a friend that he got what he deserved when two young Latino men beat him up after he “mouthed off” to them at a Winchell’s Donut House. When Nance’s friend checked on him the next morning, he found the actor dead. The investigating detective recognized Nance and said, “Jack left me with a mystery. He’d probably appreciate the shit out of that.” And a mystery it remains, for Nance’s death is still unsolved.
Greg Olson/David Lynch - Beautiful Dark
Throughout the seven installments of On the Air, no matter who wrote or directed them, there are flashes of Lynch’s sensibility. Characters on the show love (and sometimes nervously spill) coffee, and chew Chiclets gum (perhaps this is the gum that Twin Peaks’ Man From Another Place tells Cooper is going to “come back in style”). A woman traumatized by being on TV has a seizure in which she repeats “I forgot my purse; I forgot my purse,” recalling dying car accident victim Sherilyn Fenn in Wild at Heart (“My purse is gone; my purse is gone”). Fenn, like a number of Lynch’s female victims, had blood in and around her mouth; as The Lester Guy Show’s jittery makeup man tries to apply Betty’s lipstick before the big premiere, he gives her mouth area a similar red-stained look. The lipstick that crazily strays beyond its proper bounds also reminds us of madwoman Marietta’s lipstick face-painting fit in Wild at Heart. In one episode Betty, carrying a cloth sack, walks among a group of white ducks and says, “Who wants corn?,” recalling us of the corn manna that Fire Walk With Me’s entities BOB and Mike revere. And, also recalling Lynch’s Twin Peaks film, we see Betty wearing a white-winged angel costume, which underscores her role as a secular agent of goodness. Episode 6 finds Budwaller making a disparaging remark about guest magician the Great Presidio, whose grasp on reality seems tenuous, and whose words would fit perfectly in a film Lynch hadn’t even written yet (1997’s Lost Highway): “As far as I can ascertain, he thinks he’s an auto mechanic.” Presidio makes us think of BOB when he voices his fear of “a shadow walking the earth” and “the dog of transformation.” Presidio appears to be a charlatan, but to everyone’s surprise, he’s a true wizard who makes Lester Guy vanish and reappear in Akron, Ohio, where the episode ends with the repeating industrial-pounding sound of Eraserhead.
Episode 7, co-written by Lynch with Robert Engels, is the most thematically interesting of the series, and gives On the Air a felicitous conclusion. By now, we know that Lynch loves the 1950s (specifically, he would like to live in 1956) and that he’s attracted by the decade’s melding of two polar qualities: the square and the hip, Eisenhower and Elvis, Norman Rockwell and Jackson Pollack, the Eagle Scout and the Northwest Surrealist. We recall the artist’s 1950s childhood when, nestled within a safe and nurturing family and a reassuringly stable sense of the world at large, he yearned for a counterbalancing power of disruptive wildness to manifest itself. Experiencing a broader spectrum of life as he grew up, Lynch learned that forces of transformation, disintegration, violence, and pain do dwell inside places and people. A tension between a secure status quo and the impulse to violate boundaries and limitations vitalizes Lynch’s creative expressions and shapes the way he likes to live: relaxed, yet alert within a supporting framework of ritualized habits and controlled occurrences, from which he can launch his consciousness to the farthest reaches of imagination and subconscious inspiration.
The Surrealists of the early twentieth century opened up this fertile artistic territory, listening to their inner voices and seeing with their mind’s eye. In episode 7 of On the Air Lynch reverently evokes the names Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, avant-gardists with whom he is “very happy to be a fellow traveler.” There’s plenty of chaos-producing transgressive energy coursing through the series’ first six episodes, but it’s all generated by the establishment culture of which The Lester Guy Show and the ZBC network are a part. On the Air’s last installment brings in something new: a beatnik counterculture element that introduces the spirit of art—and being—without limits.
Into the studio comes a personification of Lynchian mystery dressed in a black leotard, the Woman With No Name (surely she is full of secrets). In her clothing of seamless night, she is clearly a member of 1950s Beat culture, but she also evokes the image of Irma Vep, the feline nocturnal criminal in French director Louis Feuillade’s landmark serial Les Vampires (1915–1916), who, with her black tights and brazen villainy, thrilled and inspired the young Surrealists.
The Woman With No Name performs her uninhibited free-form dance to the untamed squawks and wails of the jazz group The Void, who are like abstract expressionist artists aggressively applying sounds instead of paint. Especially frenzied is the playing of the saxophonist, who, along with that earlier episode reference to an auto mechanic, foreshadows two of Lost Highway’s (1997) main characters.
This installment of On the Air is the only one with a strain of true darkness, and contains the sole passage of sinister music that Badalamenti wrote for the show, which accompanies the inventor of the Voice Disintegrator’s boast that his machine could “start World War III in a matter of hours” by scrambling communications at the United Nations building. Lester Guy, of course, plans to use the infernal machine to obliterate Betty’s sweet singing and shoot down her rising star. (We note that in a 1966 episode of TV’s Batman, a show familiar to On the Air’s baby boomer creators, Catwoman wreaks havoc with her “Voice Eraser”25 machine.) This episode also reveals that hard-to-understand director Gochktck has a shoe fetish, and he thinks that the “beatnik” woman dancer is actually a “bootmaker,” so he falls headover-heels for her. The menacing Voice Disintegrator and Gochtck’s kinky sexuality establish a decidedly Lynchian tone, to which the director adds a coffee ritual (a white and an African American technician keep calling each other “my good friend” as they obsess over their java: “It’s very fresh!”), some wood (Lester Guy hides a microphone in a wooden planing tool to record Betty’s voice), and an anxious and despondent heroine (Betty is distressed because she can’t remember her mother’s first name).
Present in every episode, and introduced on the premiere that Lynch directed and co-wrote, is a character that personifies Lynch’s fascination for altered states of perception and consciousness. Blinky (Tracey Walters) the soundman has a condition called Bozeman’s Simplex that makes his visual field 25.62 times wider than ours. In our realm, he’s virtually blind and he navigates by touch and the help of his friends. But, beginning with episode 1, Lynch set the precedent of giving us a momentary peek at the world through Blinky’s extraordinary eyes. What we saw were a toy Santa Claus figure, a fuzzy toy dog, and a female doll. Blinky is an adult studio technician, not a toy salesman, so these images indicate the childlike innocence of his inner nature. The Santa Claus image reminds us of Wild at Heart Lula’s disturbed cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), who we saw wearing a Santa suit all year round and bemoaning the fact that “trust and the spirit of Christmas” are being destroyed by aliens from outer space. For Lynch, trust, love, the Christmas spirit, and the sincere goodness of a child’s viewpoint, are defenses against devouring forces outside and within us.
The impoverished art student who playfully dangled paper clips and colored bits of paper over his daughter Jennifer’s crib matured into an artist who reveres the freshness and wonder of the child’s world. Lynch began Blue Velvet with the viewpoint of a little person with young eyes looking up at swaying flowers and a white picket fence, in Lost Highway twenty-yearold Pete gazes over his backyard fence at a child’s wading pool and rubber duck, and The Straight Story’s (1999) middle-aged Rose regards a child’s pale rubber ball rolling down the sidewalk outside her window as night falls. The “child things” in Lynch’s work don’t always project a sunny mood, but usually they connote a sense of joy and unpolluted promise, as does the ten seconds of stop-motion animation the director crafted for a 1991 Japanese TV program about Twin Peaks. This snippet of film, which has never been shown in the United States, marks Lynch’s first return to animation since the days of Six Figures Getting Sick (1967; moving drawings), The Alphabet (1968; drawings and live action), and Eraserhead’s (1976) perky live-action worm. The Japanese segment shows familiar Twin Peaks touchstones (a piece of pie, a cup of coffee, a donut, two pine cones, Cooper’s mini tape recorder) happily circling around on a Double R Diner table top, while red and green Christmas ball ornaments dangle and dance above, with the parade of objects being accompanied by an orchestration of Twin Peaks music that includes jingling sleigh bells. The playful spirit of benevolent fellowship that informs Lynch’s gesture toward his Japanese fans also infuses his conclusion of On the Air.
Viewing the show’s first six episodes, we’ve laughed at the characters’ vanities, egomaniacal rants, venal schemes, general foibles, shortcomings, and penchant for making big mistakes, and have recognized them as our own. As he did in Wild at Heart, Lynch is showing the mass of humanity to be an unruly, messy, and confused lot, but human nonetheless. He has spoken of the way art-making helps one shape the chaos of life into a manageable form, and he illustrates his point in the finale of On the Air. As usual when The Lester Guy Show is broadcasting live, pandemonium reigns. Lester and Betty are dressed in 1920s flapper-era beach costumes for their big number, which fell apart when he tried to use the Voice Disintegrator on her and ended up reducing his own song to a croaking warble. Discombobulated Betty, still plagued by the fact that she can’t recall her mother’s name, stumbles onto the stage where The Woman With No Name is gyrating to wild saxophone sounds. Betty incongruously starts to sing her 1920s song, which involves the words “the good ship Queen Mary”—and she suddenly remembers that Mary is her mother’s name. Betty’s art has led her to the truth she’s been seeking, and it’s allowed Lynch to dramatically highlight the name of his lady love, Mary Sweeney, on national TV.
Betty and the beatnik (the square and the hip, the old-fashioned flapperstyle entertainer and the cutting-edge performer) have shared Lynch’s On the Air stage, and now he makes room for Gochktck to express his erotic fixation. The Lester Guy Show director, joined by ZBC owner Zoblotnick himself, zealously deposits armloads of shoes at the feet of the Woman With No Name as though bringing offerings to a goddess. Then, after Lynch thoroughly emphasizes Gotchtck and Zoblotnick’s obsessive passion for footwear, Gotchktck declares his love for the “beatnik” (“bootmaker”). Then, while perennial loser Lester Guy is being consoled by his loving assistant and Betty is off calling her mother, Lynch leaves us with an egalitarian, everyone is included, Peaceable Kingdom finale. Labor and management, technicians and performers, all crowd onto The Lester Guy Show stage. Like children playing with their parents’ over-sized footwear, they put their hands inside shoes and raise them high overhead, swaying in unison with the Woman With No Name’s dance as the saxophone plays on into the night. Gochktck, his heart overflowing, signs off with a final, double-meaning pronouncement: “There’s no business like shoe business!”
In On the Air, as he did with Wild at Heart, Lynch shows us how messy and unpredictable life can be, though here he conveys the message with goofy humor rather than torture, murder, sexual power plays, and fatal accidents. The show is a decidedly good-natured work that corrals the darkness of human nature within a comic context, and it once again allows Lynch to express his respect for feminine wisdom. When everything’s going wrong in episode 1, golden-haired Betty saves the day with her sunny, asong-can-solve-any problem philosophy, which recalls Twin Peaks’ Gordon Cole’s (played by Lynch) credo, “Let a smile be your umbrella.” Betty’s tradition-revering character is also linked to hearth, home, and family-loving values. The concluding episode’s black-tressed Woman With No name incarnates the lunar feminine aspect, the undomesticated wild woman who, through the spontaneous movements of her body, expresses the flow of what she feels in the night air. Betty sang On the Air’s first love song, the Woman With No name leads its final dance, and so Lynch again honors both squaresville and the avant-garde, the twin poles of his worldview.
However, it seemed as though there were not that many people still interested in having David Lynch show them the world as he saw it. When ABC only broadcasted three, out-of-sequence episodes of On the Air and hastily ended the series, there was no protest movement calling for its return. Whereas when the network shifted Twin Peaks’ schedule back and forth and put the show on hiatus for a time, they were flooded with angry phone calls, faxes, and letters. In the summer and fall of 1992, Lynch learned that the populace didn’t care much for his TV show or his film (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me), which was in theaters for just barely six weeks and lost an average of 60 percent more business each successive week of its release. The picture made just more than $4 million, which was less than its production cost and roughly equivalent to what a highly successful film would take in for a portion of a day’s ticket sales on its opening weekend.
The general climate of Lynch’s underappreciation spread still wider when, in his birthday month of January 1993, the pay-TV cable network HBO presented Hotel Room, the fledgling effort of Lynch’s own production company, Asymmetrical. This three-story, ninety-minute omnibus was executive-produced by Lynch and his friend Monty Montgomery, who helped produce Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, and Industrial Symphony No. 1. Lynch directed episodes 1 (Tricks) and 3 (Blackout), both written by Wild at Heart novelist Barry Gifford, while director James Signorelli staged author Jay McInerney’s (Bright Lights, Big City) episode 2 story, Getting Rid of Robert. Each of the tales takes place in the same room of New York’s Railroad Hotel during a different decade. Hotel Room’s introduction, narrated by Lynch’s voice, defines the show’s concept in mystical-poetic terms. Mankind “captured” the “space for the hotel room” from the undefined flow of time, “gave it shape, and passed through.” And in passing through, people sometimes “found themselves brushing up against the secret names of truth.” Lynch, in his art and life, believes that there are abstract, hidden truths that can be easier sensed and felt than verbally named. And if verities are too glaringly obvious, he will use the eraser of his imagination to keep them floating, powerful, magical: something you inhale from the air rather than read as a computer printout.
Tricks, set in 1969, is a challenging piece that requires that the viewer be an intuitive detective, as Lynch’s works often do. Gifford’s tale, in which Moe (Harry Dean Stanton) brings a prostitute (Glenne Headly) to the room, where he is later surprised by the arrival of his acquaintance Lou (Freddie Jones), fits perfectly with Lynch’s characteristic preoccupations. From 1968’s The Alphabet onward, the artist has shown a fascination for shifting realities and a fluid, boundary-crossing sense of human identity, the idea that this can also be that, that surface seeing can be misleading. In The Alphabet a voice tells us to “remember, you are dealing with the human form,” while we read an image of a face (a mouth beneath a nose) that is actually a face upside-down, with a false nose positioned on its chin: Lynch addresses the human form by shaping it with his art. The Grandmother’s Boy sprouts a strange botanical form from his shoulders and, in Eraserhead, Henry’s head pops off and is replaced by the wailing head of his burdensome mutant baby. The Elephant Man’s John Merrick is perceived to be a monstrous sideshow freak and a refined English gentleman, while his benefactor, Dr. Treves, sees himself as both a good and a bad man. Dune’s Paul Atreides feels himself to be a normal young man, but he is nonetheless inexorably becoming the messiah of an ancient prophecy. Blue Velvet’s Sandy isn’t sure if Jeffrey is “a detective or a pervert” as the wholesome youth starts living life on the dark side of town. Wild at Heart’s Sailor and Lula hide their shadow sides from each other, and in Industrial Symphony No. 1 a lovelorn woman (Laura Dern) grieves in a song cycle performed by her Dream Self (Julee Cruise). Twin Peaks shows masked identities, secret lives, and intruding supernatural dimensions to be as plentiful as fir trees. And in Lynch and Mark Frost’s unproduced script One Saliva Bubble, four main characters and thirty-five Texans and Chinese acrobats find that their identities have accidentally taken up residence in each other’s bodies. Lynch’s hotel room signals that it too will be a place where one’s self and sense of reality change and transform, for its number 603, which numerically adds up to nine—the nine that becomes six that becomes nine in the symbolic, eternal yin-yang cycle.
Tricks is the first project Lynch staged that he did not write or co-write, but since he co-executive produced and directed it, and hence endorsed every word that is spoken, I will refer to him as the one guiding our experience of the piece.
From the first moment that Moe and the prostitute Darlene walk into room 603, Lynch establishes the theme of doubled reality and identity. Moe calls her Arlene instead of Darlene, and he says things twice (“Okay, okay,” “Right, right,”; “You, you need to use the bathroom?”) He turns on a lamp with a two-stage motion, reaches for the room-service phone twice, and is disappointed that the room has single beds instead of a double.
Moe and Darlene are rather wan and grey characters, whose life force is at low ebb. Lynch has brilliantly visualized them and room 603 (with its grey walls, carpets, and bedspreads, and sparse, outmoded furniture) to evoke the mood of melancholy and inertia that permeates the paintings of American artist Edward Hopper (1883–1967), whom the director greatly admires. Hopper portrayed transient lives momentarily frozen in interiors and landscapes that connoted a lonely stasis, a spiritual limbo. The name “Railroad Hotel” is probably an homage to Hopper’s famous painting House by the Railroad, and we note that room 603 displays photographs of speeding streamlined locomotives that comment ironically on the lives of hotel visitors who are going nowhere. We recall that Lynch, in Eraserhead and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, used the sound of a passing train to symbolize an elusive freedom for both Henry and Laura Palmer, who are trapped in a hellish existence.
Moe and Darlene are half-heartedly going through the motions of a john and a hooker about to transact business when a vital burst of energy knocks on the door. It’s Moe’s acquaintance Lou, whose arrival agitates and angers Moe, as he indicates in his double-speak way: “What’s Lou doing here, doing here now?” Lou, looking like a vibrant, lascivious Santa Claus with his bushy white hair and beard, takes control of the room and walks all over Moe, drinking his bourbon and fucking the woman he’s paid for, as Lynch focuses on Moe’s woebegone face and we hear Lou’s grunts of sexual exertion. A palpable tension between the two men remains in the air, but the balance of power shifts back and forth as they talk about Lou’s late wife, Felicia, and Moe brings up the Hollywood star Martine Mustique who, in this multiple-identity matrix, was really named Rema De Duguide, and who played the role of the Great Voukovara.
We learn that Moe, Lou, and Darlene are vulnerable human beings who have each suffered losses, but the exact nature of Moe and Lou’s decadeslong antagonistic-yet-companionable relationship, with its strong half-defined emotions, remains tantalizingly mysterious. Everything the men say to each other seems to have an undefined double meaning, and Darlene says that they’re playing some strange kind of game she’s never seen before. Her notion that what Moe and Lou are engaged in is less than serious enrages Moe, and suddenly an unspoken threat of violence, even death, hangs over Darlene, who manages to slip out of the room when the maid comes to the door. Back inside the room, the men fraternally share the bottle of bourbon and say, “That was close,” and “It could have happened,” meaning, we almost got caught; we might have killed her. While Moe tells a story about the single occurrence of good luck in his life, Lou clandestinely slips a wallet into Moe’s coat. Then, saying “Are you coming? . . . Don’t wait too long,” Lou departs. Lynch fades in on a shot of Moe sleeping on one of the beds and being woken by a pounding on the door. It’s the police, who find Lou’s identification cards in the wallet, but with Moe’s picture on them. As the police get ready to haul him off to jail for the murder of Felicia, the bewildered and anguished Moe repeats himself: “No, no, I don’t understand, I don’t understand.”
In Lynch’s work vivid worlds full of places, people, situations, and engaging, compelling emotions exist within the human mind. Eraserhead’s Henry can have encounters with the woman of his dreams that thrill both him and us while lying on his bed. For Lynch, dreams, visions, and intuitions can communicate at least as much truth as waking reality, and our intuition tells us that Moe and Lou are one and the same person. Moe is a cautious man with a heart condition who has nonetheless murdered his wife, Felicia, and perhaps Martine Mustique, who was found dead in her bathtub. Moe’s mind is unable to accept the fact that he perpetrated dark deeds, so it creates Lou, who mocks Moe’s heart trouble, goes about lustfully indulging his appetites and has the unrealistic, superhuman ability to intuit all the details of Darlene’s downward slide in life without ever having met her. The scenes we’ve seen with Moe, Darlene, and Lou have been a psychodrama that Moe has been living out while sleeping a boozy sleep in room 603. Perhaps earlier he did have a session with a prostitute, just him and her, but he experienced it as a situation in which the Lou part of his nature was a major player. The state of being in which Moe was interacting with a despised part of himself that was still him accounts for the curious, knowing looks between the two men and their edgy, yet comradely exchanges, and it explains why Moe angrily tells Darlene “Felicia was my wife” while Lou’s in the bathroom: Moe’s inner drama sees Felicia as wife to both the good and bad aspects of himself. Lynch gives us a visual clue that Lou is an imaginary part of Moe’s psyche when he shows Moe and Darlene, who are talking to Lou, reflected in a mirror in which Lou does not appear. Lynch being Lynch however, he suspends us in a moment of perfect ambiguity, for the shot is angled so that if Lou was in the room he might be just barely too far to the left to be reflected. Lynch and writer Barry Gifford are intently focused on drawing the viewer’s imagination and intellect into their tricky cinematic puzzle box, and this twenty-six-minute episode of Hotel Room, as we shall see, introduces a particular identity-mixing dynamic that the two creators will explore at feature-length in 1997’s Lost Highway.
One of Lynch’s artistic objectives is to probe the psychological depths of his characters, so it’s understandable that he would leave the direction of Hotel Room’s second episode, Getting Rid of Robert, to someone else (James Signorelli). This story, penned by Jay McInerney, the celebrated chronicler of Manhattan yuppiedom, inhabits an urbane world of socialclimbing golddiggers, catty comments, and cutting ironies that is foreign to Lynch’s sensibility. Set in 1992, this episode brings together bitchy Sasha (Deborah Unger) and self-absorbed Robert (Griffin Dunne) for a tryst in room 603. Before they arrive, we learn that they’ve both been cheating on each other. Director Signorelli, in order to herald the battle of the sexes that’s about to commence, cuts to a close-up of a bronze sculpture of two wrestlers grappling. It’s hard to imagine Lynch including such an obvious this-is-a-symbol moment in his own work. Sasha fully intends to initiate a break up with Robert, but he surprises her by saying he’s through with her and her egomaniacal emotional terrorism. This sudden power shift in the room throws Sasha off balance, and, rather than being cast as the loser, she tells Robert she’ll change her behavior in order to keep him. But his mind’s made up, he’s leaving, and to keep him from walking out the door, Sasha picks up a fireplace poker and smashes in the back of his head (cut to a still larger close-up of the sculpted wrestlers). In a dark variation on the classic screwball comedy theme of a couple’s verbal and physical combat actually being an expression of their affection for each other, Sasha says “You really hurt me,” Robert apologizes, and they start to kiss passionately. The only problem is that the contents of his head just won’t stop seeping out onto the tasteful beige carpet. This, their final, perverse embrace is the closest thing to love one can find in the mean-spirited world of Getting Rid of Robert, which serves as a black-comedy social-satire interlude before Lynch concludes Hotel Room with the masterful Blackout.
Lynch’s direction of Barry Gifford’s story, like Getting Rid of Robert, also presents a couple under emotional duress, but unlike the Jay MacInerney– James Signorelli entry, Blackout employs a hypnotic stylistic simplicity that gently reveals the deep-rooted cause of its lovers’ disquietude.
It’s a hot, muggy night in 1936, and all the lights are out in New York City. Danny (Crispin Glover), a young man from a small Oklahoma town, brings Chinese food back to room 603, where his wife, Diane (Alicia Witt), waits for his return with just a few candles glimmering in the black air surrounding her. Beyond this tale’s literal darkness, Blackout explores the primarily Lynchian theme of the absence of light in the human soul. When we first see Diane, she’s holding her hand over her eyes to shield them from Danny’s bright flashlight beam, but she’s also trying to keep a past horror from registering and being retained in her mind’s eye. It’s immediately clear to us that something is not right with Diane; her grasp of reality is tenuous as she muddles the time scheme of events in her and Danny’s seventeen married years and wonders if he’s been speaking Chinese and if it’s a Chinese doctor she’ll be seeing tomorrow, to which her patient husband replies, “The only thing Chinese is this food.
Danny speaks slowly, carefully choosing his words as he talks to Diane, as though he’s speaking to a child; and with her almost plump, smooth, fleshy face and full lips, she suggests a very young, innocent person new to the grown-up world, yet her wide, unblinking eyes are haunted by too much experience. In the eerie darkness, Danny looks at his wife as he talks to her, but her gaze trails off into her own inner reality: She’s one of Lynch’s living mysteries who commands our attention as we try to understand and soothe her. The first nine minutes of the half-hour Blackout are a textbook example of the director’s ability to create a floating, mesmerizing journey for the viewer. We’re entranced by the two people speaking softly, cryptically in the blackened room, their words almost subliminally supported by Angelo Badalamenti’s spellbound musical tones. We’re gripped by the ancient power of storytelling as Diane speaks of walking by the black waters of a nocturnal lake (Did this really happen; is it a dream she had?). Then, after pausing for a rapt sixteen seconds, she says, “I saw you on the other side of the lake,”—and suddenly screams out, “And I shouted, Danny, Danny, but it wasn’t you.” Diane’s panicky outburst shows the severity of her psychological torment, and we feel the terror of a woman wandering like a lost child within her own mind. But Lynch, by having Diane suddenly half-rise from the stable sitting position she’s established, and lurch toward Danny as she screams his name, makes us fear Diane herself: She becomes a startling presence of true Otherness. The fearsome spectacle of Diane’s mental anguish gives a full measure of the burden Danny gladly, but wearily bears in living with and trying to help this woman he loves so much. Like a detective, he tries to decipher the clues of dislocated sentences and strange images she presents so that he can map a pattern of cogent narrative that will help guide her home.
One of Lynch’s “special people”27 with an extraordinary consciousness, Diane has visions that are at once mystical, poetic, and reality based. She speaks of a Chinese fish that jumped up from the black waters of a lake and spoke to her of Danny and their “five perfect girls.” We, like Danny, see that the Chinese fish comes from their earlier talk about Chinese food, and the nighttime lake setting recalls the many evenings they spent at Lake Osage back home. But what of the five girls, for Diane insists, “Danny, these are our children; don’t you recognize them?” Gently, he leads her back to the terrible truth she’s trying so hard to separate herself from through dissociative denial and fantasy. The couple once had a child, a baby boy they nicknamed Danbug, who drowned in Lake Osage while they were preoccupied making love on the shore. What tragedy, to have the loving act of intimacy that produced their child also metaphorically snuff out its present and future. This trauma was compounded by the pitiless attitude of townsfolk who said Diane wasn’t responsible enough to mother children, and the medical fact that she could never have any more. So, her vision of her and Danny’s five girls was both a healthy rebuke to their neighbors’ condemnatory stance and a sad defiance of her physical inability to conceive again.
Diane felt that the whole unspeakable mess “stuck in my brain like a knife” (still another Lynchian head trauma), thus distorting her rational thought process. Pain, sorrow, and shame are her constant companions, even though she tries to bury them beneath her conscious mind, and Lynch stages a beautiful poetic association between the thought of Diane and Danny’s drowned baby and the blackness-reflecting mirror in Room 603 which, framed left and right by two burning white candles, is like an altar to their loss. Barry Gifford’s spare writing, Lynch’s economical, unshowy direction, and the subdued performances of Crispin Glover and Alicia Witt present this highly emotional material in an unsentimental, Midwestern-dry idiom that gives certain dramatic moments great force—as when the almost otherworldly Diane jerks her hand out to touch Danny’s shoulder and says, “I couldn’t live without you, Danny, I . . . I really couldn’t.” Diane felt that the whole unspeakable mess “stuck in my brain like a knife” (still another Lynchian head trauma), thus distorting her rational thought process. Pain, sorrow, and shame are her constant companions, even though she tries to bury them beneath her conscious mind, and Lynch stages a beautiful poetic association between the thought of Diane and Danny’s drowned baby and the blackness-reflecting mirror in Room 603 which, framed left and right by two burning white candles, is like an altar to their loss. Barry Gifford’s spare writing, Lynch’s economical, unshowy direction, and the subdued performances of Crispin Glover and Alicia Witt present this highly emotional material in an unsentimental, Midwestern-dry idiom that gives certain dramatic moments great force—as when the almost otherworldly Diane jerks her hand out to touch Danny’s shoulder and says, “I couldn’t live without you, Danny, I . . . I really couldn’t.”
The couple can never produce another child, but Danny labors day and night to achieve the rebirth of his wife, to bring the mind and body he loves into a healthy balance and restore Diane to herself and to him. He’s tried as hard as he can to find the bright side of their travails, but he feels desperate and “useless.” He’s afraid that part of her wants to keep wandering in the dark, for she says of their blacked-out hotel room, “I could get used to this.” Danny knows that she already has. Still, maybe the New York doctor can work miracles.
Like so many of the people in Lynch’s work, Diane and Danny are in danger of being overwhelmed by a world of trouble and confusion: They are in need of deliverance and grace. Now, on top of everything else, Diane has a burning fever, but she wants Danny to kiss her anyway as she lies on the bed. He hasn’t been afraid to confront the dis-ease of her mind, and he doesn’t shy away from her body, leaning down to touch his lips to hers. Their kiss signifies the reestablishment of the erotic circuit between them that was sundered by the death of their love’s child—and at this moment, the lights come on. Even the bed headboard’s carved art-nouveau plant forms, which are now illuminated, herald growth and renewal. Like tender shoots turning toward the nurturing light, Danny pulls Diane off her sickbed and to the window, where their faces glow with reflected brilliance. He says, “Look, Di, the whole city’s lit up,” and, her smile mirroring his, she says the word that has brought light to her world like a benediction: “Danny!”
This ending, in which rays of transcendent love brighten benighted lives with an exaltation of hope, is spiritual kin to the conclusion of The Grandmother, Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and On the Air, and speaks to Lynch’s optimistic belief in the intervening power of goodness. Danny and Diane’s illumination especially recalls the moment in Blue Velvet when Jeffrey, having extinguished Frank Booth’s evil energy with a bullet, pauses with his loving Sandy in an apartment hallway. Like Danny and Diane, they kiss beneath the glow of a regular ceiling-mounted light source, but as Lynch fades the scenes in both films, he bathes his lovers in a supernaturally bright, poetic light that comes from all directions at once.
Hotel Room displayed Lynch’s ability to compellingly direct material bounded by the parameters of a single stage set, as in one of those special stage-curtained areas within his other films and artworks, where certain moments and dramas are given special attention. The HBO program also found Lynch exploring favorite, primal themes like the fluidity of human identity and the conjunction between anxiety, eroticism, and death. Lynch and his co-producer, Monty Montgomery, conceived Hotel Room as an ongoing series, but HBO confined it to the one, low-rated installment. In a period of just seven months, Lynch had to cope with the fact that Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, On the Air, and Hotel Room were deemed to be critical and financial failures. Naturally, it was painful to have work he put so much of himself into rejected by the masses who had celebrated him not so long ago. But, following the lead of many of his fictions, he philosophically concluded that rebirth follows death, and set about bringing himself back to creative life. Instead of feeling trapped and blocked, he realized that he had the freedom and the expressive talent to travel some avenues other than feature films and television shows.
In the five years between Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Lost Highway (1997), Lynch felt honored to exhibit his paintings, drawings, and photographs in solo shows at galleries, museums, and city halls in Valencia, Spain; Paris; twice in Los Angeles; and in four Japanese cities including Tokyo. Despite his meager performance in the film-revenue grosses department, his reputation as a cinematic artist remained high. Prestigious international firms sought him out to shoot their commercials, which helped maintain a positive cash flow for Lynch, Mary Sweeney, and little Riley, and kept Asymmetrical Productions, housed in a compact former home next to his own Hollywood Hills abode, busy.
It’s fascinating to see how the director’s advertisements bear the brand of Lynch as well as the name of the particular product. In “Opium” for Yves Saint Laurent, he emphasizes the dreamy interior of a private sensual experience by gliding his camera into the black opening of a perfume bottle and dissolving through a wavy dark curtain of Asian plum blossoms, to focus in close-up on a woman titling her head back with eyes closed and touching her perfumed fingers to her throat as Angelo Badalamenti’s music climaxes. For Calvin Klein’s Obsession perfume, Lynch interpreted four short, romance-themed quotes from the fictions of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, and Gustave Flaubert, and he managed to work Twin Peaks actors Heather Graham, Lara Flynn Boyle, and James Marshall into his mix. A couple kisses against a field of stars, a pining lover’s eye fills with a huge tear as lightning flashes, we hear a wind of mystery, and, as we’ve seen so often in Lynch’s work, lovers touch and hold each other’s faces as they kiss (D. H. Lawrence: “To gather him in by touch”). The artist’s love of Southern California’s modern architecture is even in evidence, as we note the Mayan brick walls of a Los Angeles Frank Lloyd Wright house behind the Obsession bottle.
Mystery and revelation permeate Lynch’s work, and in “Reveal,” for the American Cancer Society, a pleasant-looking sixty-year-old woman with a neutral expression strips to her brassiere to encourage older women to have mammograms, her blouse’s mother-of-pearls buttons reflecting the brilliant blue of her eyes. “The Wall” for Adidas athletic shoes shows a male runner’s head distorting as he strains at his task and, via a close-up of his ear, we go inside to see his red-pink cells laboring hard. Lynch dives his camera down the man’s screaming throat, where fires burn and, after the runner bursts through a literal wall, he serenely strides along in the clouds. Another Lynchian character has persevered and gone from hell to heaven. A young woman’s head floats in the clouds after “breaking free” from her cold, thanks to Alka-Seltzer Plus. And in “Sun, Moon, Stars” (for Karl Lagerfeld’s new perfume), Darryl Hannah is in two places at once, both dreamily wishing while looking skyward, and floating among the stars, her pale hair and dress streaming in a gorgeous flow of celestial images that dissolve from one to the next. Lynch employs earthier motifs in “Instinct of Life,” which heralds Jil Sanders’ masculine eau de toilette fragrance. We see the director’s favorite red curtains, a candle blowing out in a Now-It’s-Dark moment, and the linkage of human and bestial energy as a man and a black panther race through the night. favorite red curtains, a candle blowing out in a Now-It’s-Dark moment, and the linkage of human and bestial energy as a man and a black panther race through the night.
The extended, sixty-second commercial Lynch filmed for Giorgio Armani’s perfume Gio is the director’s personal favorite, and it contains this apolitical artist’s most blatant political statement. Lynch has lived in Los Angeles since 1970, and he dearly loves his adopted hometown, but his acute perceptions can’t help but notice its troubling fault lines. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, fear and animosity clouded the air as racial tensions approached the flash point. Gang warfare and drive-by shootings were commonplace; many Asians, African Americans, and whites regarded each other with mistrust. The police beating of black motorist Rodney King reinforced prejudices on both sides of the color line, and the trial of the officers who wielded the clubs galvanized intense emotions. It was during this time of charged racial feelings that Lynch shot the Armani commercial (in black and white), which is driven by the question “Who is Gio?”
Another Lynchian woman of mystery, she moves in a social circle of wealth and taste, turning heads wherever she goes, being photographed by the paparazzi, and kissing various men. Universally adored, she seems to have it all, but her moody eyes often gaze right or left out beyond her immediate environment, looking for something more to complete her life, or perhaps seeing something she’s trying to forget. She often wears a subdued expression, but she really comes alive in an extended music club sequence in which, as Lynch says, “all races and religions are getting along so fantastically.”30 Gio and a huge multiethnic group of musicians, dancers, and photographers all swing and sway to a hot salsa beat in a production number of harmonized opposites that recalls On the Air’s big beatnik-shoe-dance-number finale that unified the disparate factions of the Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company. Ironically, Lynch shot his Gio dance scene, which anticipates the spirit of Rodney King’s famous and haunting question, “Can’t we all just get along?,” on the very night that the L.A. riots broke out. Earlier in the day, the California judicial system dismissed the men who beat King with a slap on the wrist, and by nightfall there was rampant looting and property destruction in the ghettos of the South Central neighborhoods. What Lynch calls “the strangeness”31 quickly spread around town and soon “they were setting fire to Hollywood Boulevard”32 and there were “five thousand fires burning.”33 The artist has spoken of how he found the “drastically out of control”34 feeling of the L.A. unrest “very unnerving.”35 Lynch’s art tells us how deeply he understands the human capacity for physical and emotional violence, but to see so many people acting out their darkest impulses was a very scary and saddening sight. In the middle of his commercial’s happy dance, Lynch cast a brooding shadow over the scene, as Angelo Badalamenti’s synthesizer strikes a somber note and Gio’s wistful gaze, for the first time, looks right at us. When evoking Gio’s melancholy, Lynch may have had the real-life supermodel Gia Carangi (1960–1986), at one time a $10,000-a-day Vogue model, in mind. An international fashion- and party-world sensation, Gia was wracked with emotional pain, slid into heroin addiction, and was one of the first American women to die of AIDS.
Lynch revisited the world of Twin Peaks in four thirty-second commercials for Japan’s popular Georgia Coffee. Only shown in Japan, each segment works as an independent episode in which Agent Cooper enthusiastically endorses pop-top cans of Georgia Coffee and gives a hearty thumbs-up gesture. Taken together, the four segments tell a story about Cooper’s efforts to locate Isami, a missing young Japanese woman, and reunite her with her boyfriend, Ken. Cooper’s investigation is aided by the TV series’ Officer Hawk, Deputy Andy, receptionist Lucy, and the Log Lady, and the segments include familiar motifs such as cherry pie, Cooper saying “Damn fine coffee,” a taxidermy deer head on a conference table, and the Log Lady switching the lights on and off. Lynch was concerned that portraying the Twin Peaks realm in a light-hearted vein might destroy its somber, hypnotic magic, but Cooper manages to give us a dark thrill when, surrounded by a nocturnal forest, he soberly intones, “The Black Lodge is not in this world.”
Greg Olson/David Lynch - Beautiful Dark
In mid-to-late 1990, when Twin Peaks had the world fascinated and David Lynch appeared on the cover of Time magazine as the “Czar of Bizarre,” his creative partner, Mark Frost, observed that the rest of us had finally caught up with Lynch’s quirky sensibility and were in sync with it. However, the hostile and indifferent responses to the director’s 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me showed just how quickly the majority of Lynch watchers could change direction and revile and reject his deeply felt artistry.
In our flavor-of-the-month culture, home of the incredibly shrinking attention span, our ears are filled with blaring sound bites, our eyes and brains made dizzy by assaultive images edited at quantum speed. We build up celebrities, worship them, then reject them in record time. By the summer of 1992, Lynch was no longer “a hot topic” in the public mind, but it was nonetheless shocking that Time, Newsweek, and the popular TV filmreview show Siskel and Ebert at the Movies did not deign to say one word about Lynch’s new film.
Some critics, however, did have plenty to say, the majority of which was resoundingly negative. Roger Ebert, writing about Fire Walk With Me after seeing it at Cannes, called it a “shockingly bad film, simple-minded and scornful of the audience.” People magazine’s Tom Gliatto characterized it as “a nauseating bucket of slop.” Interview viewed it as “an ill-structured, lurid, shock-crazy prequel to a once-popular saga. This is torture.” Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman judged the movie to be “a true folly—almost nothing in it adds up.” And the esteemed Vincent Canby of the New York Times added it up thusly: “It’s not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be.” Some reviewers, such as David Baron of New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune, attacked Lynch as fervently as they did his film: “This is the latest lurid monstrosity by the nation’s most repellant director. It is as gratuitous as it is ugly,” containing “sophomoric insights” that reveal only “the banality of Lynch’s vision.”
Al Strobel, who plays BOB’s one-armed former consort, Mike, has an eloquent response to the attack-dog critics. “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is hard to look at if you’re not prepared to look at a work of art. It’s like going to a gallery and seeing extremely expressionistic paintings when you were expecting English landscapes. This was more a piece of art than a movie. The juxtaposition of horror and beauty has an elevating sense that brings out things in your mind and in your heart and in your soul like a very fine piece of art does. The critics didn’t see that, and that makes me angry.”
No one in our Christian-majority society even gave Lynch credit for having a biblical angel figure prominently in his film, as he presciently anticipated the angel-adoring pop-culture trend that culminated in the Broadway hit Angels in America, TV’s Touched By An Angel, and millions of white-winged commercial items. Lynch’s Presbyterian roots still influence his art, despite his chapter-and-verse embrace of Hinduism and the Hinduistic endings of his original Dune script and unproduced Ronnie Rocket screenplay. Like many baby boomers, Lynch takes spiritual nourishment from both Western and Eastern traditions.
Compared to the dearth of TV coverage that has greeted Lynch’s post–Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me films, it’s amazing to see the hours that Entertainment Tonight, CNN, and MTV devoted to Fire just before it was released. Lynch, Dana Ashbrook, Sheryl Lee, and James Marshall went on TV talk shows separately to generate positive buzz for the film, and Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan were interviewed together on Good Morning America. This joint appearance of the director and his cinematic alter ego made Lynch fans buzz, because MacLachlan’s strangely minimal participation in the movie spawned the idea that there was some creative discord, even a rift, between the two old friendly collaborators. But everything seemed harmonious as Lynch and MacLachlan sat sideby-side in a Hollywood café having pie and coffee and fielding Good Morning America’s questions, beaming their Twin Peaks-is-still-cool message out to as many million viewers as used to see their show. The interviewer, a blonde woman named Chantal, noted that there was a lot of coffee and pie in the world of Twin Peaks. Lynch replied in classic, deadly serious form: “In the Northwest where I grew up, coffee is extremely important. And pie is extremely important. And people have pie and coffee, sometimes together.” After chuckling at Lynch’s furrowedbrow earnestness, Chantal asked if he was ready to take a lot of heat for the sexual violence in his film, and he replied, “I live in an oven, that’s how much heat I’m going to take,” to which MacLachlan responded with a sympathetic laugh. As she concluded the interview, Chantal noted that “You two have such a great relationship: do you finish each other’s sentences?” Lynch and MacLachlan looked into each other’s eyes, and the quick-witted Lynch said, “Yes . . .” expecting MacLachlan to complete the sentence with “we do.” But MacLachlan didn’t get it, and said, “I think we did from the start.” Lynch prompted him again, “Yes we.” MacLachlan still didn’t supply the “do,” and Lynch said, “He’s rusty; I haven’t seen him in awhile.”
In the summer of 1992, Lynch received a second critical and audience drubbing for his and Mark Frost’s ABC TV series On the Air. Premiering in June, this was a comedy that chronicled, according to Lynch, the wacky trials and tribulations of “a fourth- or fifth-rate”23 1950s New York TV network (Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company) trying to put on a weekly variety program, The Lester Guy Show. Since the 1950s was the age of live TV broadcasting, many unexpected, absurdly humorous happenings foil the best-laid plans of ZBC president Buddy Budwaller (Miguel Ferrer, Twin Peaks’ acid-tongued FBI forensics wizard, Albert Rosenfield). He must cope with nervous, ineffectual producer McGonigle (Marvin Kaplan) and bumbling director Gochktck (David L. Lander), nephew of ZBC owner Zoblotnick (Sydney Lassick), who, with his uncle, speaks with a barely intelligible eastern European accent (“scream” sounds like “scram”) that has to be translated and subtitled. Crossing over from the world of Twin Peaks to join the new Lynch/Frost production were writers Robert Engels and Scott Frost and directors Lesli Linka Glatter and Jonathan Sanger (producer of The Elephant Man). Lynch also brought in his longtime friend, and early painting buddy, set designer, director, and former brother-in-law, Jack Fisk. Fisk filmed episodes 3 and 7 of On the Air, but viewers only got to see 3, since ABC shifted the series from Wednesday night to Saturday (the graveyard evening that helped kill Twin Peaks) and only broadcast three episodes (1, 3, and 5) of the seven installments that Lynch/Frost filmed.
As with Twin Peaks, ABC lost faith in the latest Lynch/Frost product after an initial burst of high enthusiasm, though with On the Air the network’s attitude shift happened at relatively lightning speed.
ABC committed to On the Air at the moment of the Twin Peaks cycle in which the zeitgeist was buzzing about the enchanting, groundbreaking show and its mastermind creators. The network was happy to give Lynch and Frost a new stage on which to enact their imaginative and profitable visions. But by the time On the Air was ready to hit the air the Twin Peaks craze was dead, the show had been cancelled, and the advance word from the May 1992 Cannes Film Festival was that Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was a stillborn atrocity.
Nonetheless, buoyed by positive reviews from TV Guide and Variety, ABC debuted On the Air with an episode written by Lynch and Frost and directed by Lynch. In a half hour dense with frenetic events and slapstick behavior, the director explored some familiar themes in a comic context. In his own life, Lynch the longtime visual artist warmed up gradually to the process of communicating verbally, and in his fictions he often portrays the difficulty people have in understanding each other and correctly comprehending information. There is a flurry of words in the air at the Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company, but much confusion. Most people in the studio can’t follow what the thickly accented director Gochktck says, and sweet, slow-on-the-uptake Betty (Marla Rubinoff), Lester Guy’s co-star, speaks non sequiturs as her brain grasps only fragments of concepts while she strains to see the whole picture.
In past works, Lynch has often shown chaos intruding into a person’s home and head, and as The Lester Guy Show enacts a domestic scene for the live cameras, it happens again. The little play is supposed to show Betty, playing a married woman, ironing clothes in her kitchen, and the then greeting her secret lover, played by Lester Guy (Ian Buchanan, Twin Peaks’ haberdasher Dick Tremayne), at the window. They are surprised by Betty’s enraged husband, who bursts into the room and shoots Guy, who then dies at Betty’s feet while she mourns, “Oh, I loved him so!” In episode 1, Lynch employs the same narrative dynamic he used at the beginning of Blue Velvet, in which he first showed us a perfect world and then revealed everything that could go wrong with it. The Lester Guy Show’s domestic scene played smoothly in rehearsal, but when the future of the underdog network depends on it and the show is being performed live, everything falls apart.
Framing the opening, show-within-the-show image with the theatrical curtains he loves, Lynch shows us smiling Betty in her all-white kitchen, recalling the smiling-housewife homey tableaus that Lynch saw in 1950s magazine as a child, and in his own family’s kitchen. Young Lynch had longed for some force or occurrence to disrupt the wholesome sameness of his domestic life, and in On the Air, as he’s done in most of his fictions, he introduces such an element. Beyond foregrounded Betty, deep in the scene, we see an older man who shouldn’t be there, squatting with his back against the kitchen cabinets. We laugh, because the man is an unexpected, incongruous factor juxtaposed with the unsuspecting Betty, who’s blithely smiling to the cameras and doesn’t know the man is behind her. The image yields humor, but it is also disturbingly Lynchian: The man, a distressed look on his face, his aged body frozen in a strange position, his purpose a mystery, contributes a suspended moment of disquieting surrealism.
The fellow turns out to be a prop man whose suspenders are caught in a cabinet door, and when he tries to run out of the scene the rubberbandlike straps stretch and spring him through the air like a cartoon character. This action causes a fluffy white dog to fly through the air and Lester Guy, for some reason hanging upside-down from a rope tied around his ankles, to suddenly swing into the center of the tableau instead of appearing at the window to talk to Betty. Swaying back and forth in his inverted position, Guy dispiritedly mouths his lines (“Our brief moment of happiness is over”) as the audio engineer miscues a cacophony of discordant sounds. This is all hilariously funny, but as half the stage lights go out and the upside-down Lester Guy becomes an eerie black shape and Betty’s husband fires his gun again and again, Lynch gives the tableau a sinister edge that blends Dadaist theater of the absurd with film noir. Earlier the director had evoked the atmospherics of noir as Guy opened his show playing the role of a lonely nocturnal stroller traversing a night-city backdrop accompanied by the midnight-saxophone sound of an Angelo Badalamenti theme. This poetic-mood moment is a touch of pure Lynchness, as is the first thing we see in On the Air’s opening credits: a neon sign representing flashing lightning bolts of electricity pulsing against the deep darkness of a cosmic star field.
Another Lynchian passage occurs early in the kitchen scene when the timing’s all wrong and poor Betty is left with minutes of dead air to fill. Grown-up Betty has the kind of childlike sensitivity and capacity for wonder that Lynch admires; her sweetness of soul reminds us of John Merrick in The Elephant Man. Director Gochktck, faced with the prospect of dimbulb Betty having to wing it, pronounces the situation “A nightmare.” But she, like other of Lynch’s angelic women, faces adversity with grace and wisdom. Invoking her mother, as Merrick did, she pulls out her good-luck music box and sings a schoolyard-simple song that recalls the little ditty of beneficence and happy promise that the Lady in the Radiator sang to beleaguered Henry in Eraserhead. As Betty’s music box tinkles and her words ring out (“The bird in the tree / It sings merrily / With a tweedle dee for you / A tweedle dee for me”), Lynch links her song with the lighting bolt sign flashing against the night sky, the red lights on the ZBC phone bank happily lighting up, and old grannies at home smiling dearly, as though a benign force was making the whole world hum. Of course, a few seconds later, Lester Guy swings into the scene upside down and chaos continues to reign at the ZBC studio. Everyone, from the network president to the producer and director, to the soundman and Lester Guy himself, thinks the show was an absolute disaster. Their willful attempts to control reality and shape it to their liking have failed miserably; they are defeated and depressed. But Betty, with her pure, childlike vision, her ability to follow her intuition and ride the wild wave of spontaneous occurrence, sees the evening differently: “That was fun!” This is certainly the view of Lynch and Frost and also, it turns out, that of ZBC owner Zoblotnick, whose necessarily subtitled words are piped through the studio, and end episode 1: “WE HAVE A HIT!”
The ZBC may have inadvertently created a crowd-pleaser, but ABC, alarmed by the underwhelming ratings performance of On the Air’s first episode, decided to show less than half of the installments that Lynch/Frost had produced. Thankfully, all seven episodes are available on tape and disc, and show the program following the perfect-rehearsal/disastrous-broadcast dynamic set up in episode 1. The emotional-dramatic thread linking the weekly explosions of physical comedy is Lester Guy’s jealousy of Betty, who becomes America’s TV sweetheart overnight. Guy, an effete, egotistical, washed-up, minor movie star who pompously puts on grand airs, resents the fact that Betty is showered with love and acclaim for just being her own simple self. Surely, it is unfair, unjust, that his protean talents and sophisticated charm are not recognized and celebrated. Guy is English, so once again in American fiction, an elitist foreigner has been trumped by a homegrown innocent. But Guy is a trouper, and he mounts various schemes to sabotage Betty’s rise to stardom and remain the sovereign monarch of his own show. However, in the moralistic world of On the Air, Guy is born to lose, and his plans (infiltrating Betty’s dinner with Mr. Zoblotnick, rigging a quiz show on which she appears, ruining her singing with a Voice Disintegrator) suffer humorous reversals of fortune that cast him as the fall guy.
The universe of On the Air is a cartoonish, make-believe place, where a stagehand can fall from a high platform, dust himself off, and continue his business, and where one answered phone makes a quacking sound and another, which has an angry boss on the other end of the line, shoots flames. The burning air bursting from the receiver has no metaphysical Fire Walk With Me significance, just as the show’s characters naturally lack the resonant depths of Agent Cooper, Laura, Leland, and BOB. Still, the power of Lynch’s aesthetic is so strong and transferable that seeing Miguel Ferrer as Buddy Budwaller (whose verbally abusive manner easily reminds us of Ferrer’s Albert Rosenfield on Twin Peaks) holding a phone that’s flaming makes part of our brain think, “Oh my god! BOB’s calling!”
Greg Olson/ David Lynch - Beautiful Dark
Only violence helps where violence rules.
- Bertolt Brecht
At the beginning of Weekend, as described in the published edition of Godard's screenplay, "we find ourselves in the penthouse of a Paris apartment block, looking out through some french windows to a terrace with green trees beyond. Two men, Roland and a Friend, are seated outside, chatting, a table laden with drinks in front of them." This sounds like the first-act setting for some thoroughly traditional play or movie. The location is comfortable, even luxurious, and the people appear to be members of the privileged classes enjoying their privileges, as Hollywood director George Cukor once described some of his characters. Entering this world, our first reaction might be pleasurable envy, as we settle back for two hours of vicarious enjoyment with a movie whose very title signifies leisure, diversion, and respite from workaday cares.
We are in for a bumpier ride than the screenplay's bland description lets on, however, and Godard signals this promptly. The movie's first printed words are not the title but a bizarre label: A FILM ADRIFT IN THE COSMOS. The first sounds evoke not the cozy routines of bourgeois living but the cacophony of modern society - the roar of traffic, the hum of conversation, the insistent ringing of a phone - in all its multitudinous complexity. Soon the movie will offer another enigmatic self-description, A FILM FOUND ON A SCRAP HEAP. Only after a burst of dialogue about death ("Wouldn't it be great if both of them died . . .") and chaos ("Did you know that seven people got killed ...") will the title finally appear, in this startling form- printed in the red, white, and blue colors of the French and American flags.
END WEEK END
WEEK END WEE
K END WEEK EN
D WEEK END WE
EK END WEEK E
ND WEEK END W
EEK END WEEK
The movie's way of presenting its title merits consideration, since it carries a number of meanings relevant to the picture as a whole. For spectators who saw it in 1967, when it was new, an obvious reference point would have been the pop-art style being catapulted to prominence by Andy Warhol and others who shared (like Godard) a refusal to draw boundaries between rarified conceptualism and earthy materialism. Pop prides itself on absorbing the products and processes of commodity culture, defamiliarizing them through rhythmic repetition and self-referential irony, and transforming them into art objects that are mechanical embodiments of and critical commentaries on the relentlessly productive society from which they emerged.
The title frame of Weekend announces its pop affinities in two major ways. One is the use of red, white, and blue as its (literally) primary colors. These colors have become hopelessly hackneyed - almost invisible, one might say - through their use in national flags; yet they carried a major expressive punch during a decade when politically alert individuals were ratcheting up their skepticism toward governments that wrapped these hues around themselves as they pursued imperialistic policies, jingoistic wars, and other ill-founded projects. Leftists like Godard were increasingly repulsed by manifestations of brute nationalism in France and also in the United States, which had inherited one of France's most tragic colonial follies (the effort to keep Vietnam under Western control) and carried it to extremes that even moderate politicians were beginning to reject in the second half of the 1960s. Godard was drawn to the red-white-and-blue with a sort of morbid fascination, using the colors with aggressive irony in La Chinoise and other works. This was at once an aesthetic gesture (in themselves, the colors are a vivacious trio) and a sarcastic commentary on current events in the sociopolitical sphere.
The title frame also evokes the assembly-line aesthetic of pop, which rejects the once-sacred notion that art must have "unique" or "special" properties - a sort of "aura," in philosopher Walter Benjamin's term - if it is to be considered genuine or authentic. The mid-1960s saw a great flowering of cultural production that chose not to hide or camouflage its mass-manufactured origin but revealed and even flaunted the mechanized processes that produced it. Godard was very interested in this development, which both excited his aesthetic imagination and suggested a new departure point for his escalating critique of the culture industry - as in his 1968 film One Plus One, also known as Sympathy for the Devil, which chronicles the creation of a Rolling Stones rock recording, with emphasis on the calculated, repetitive labor that goes into it. Godard readily included theatrical cinema in his expanding list of cultural products that were being deprived of their souls by commercialization and commodification; indeed, not long after Weekend he renounced commercial film altogether, pouring his energy into a search for alternative modes of production, distribution, and exhibition. The design of the Weekend title, stamped out repetitiously and mechanically in a sleek parody of industrial chic, joins additional elements in that movie and other recently made Godard films - the pop-music recording session in Masculine/Feminine, the ad-slogan party scene in Pierrot le fou, the landscape of commercial products in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, and many more - to provide a vivid foretaste of his ultrapolitical phase, which would begin with Le Gai Savoir the following year.Finally, the title reflects an important aspect of Godard's artistic method: his habit of putting words and pictures into productive competition with each other. With its eye-catching design and runaway multiplicity, the WEEKEND logo captures the spirit of an age that often values quantity over quality. Equally important, it captures Godard's growing fascination with cinema that "disassembles language into images and makes language out of images," as Angela Dalle Vacche describes the process. He knew that all movies turn images into language; one of his first published articles praised Soviet cinema for giving "the idea of a shot... its real function of sign," that is, for integrating visual material into a languagelike structure with a recognizable "grammar." Doing this equation in the opposite direction, the WEEKEND title card turns language into image, since its verbal meaning is considerably less striking than its shape, color, and overall visual impact. In addition to this double operation - language becoming image and vice versa - Godard gives both image and language a distinctly rhythmic function in many portions of Weekend, often using them to provide more of a "musical" pulse than a "literal" set of meanings. His collagelike conjunctions of the verbal, the visual, and the musical demonstrate his wish to throw different systems of communication into eccentrie new configurations that may (he hopes) produce meanings and ideas not available via more traditional routes.
Along with his affection for Brechtian devices and pop-art irony, this ambition explains the frequent out-of-the-blue wordplay that fills the screen in Weekend - reappearances of the title, pointless reminders of the day and hour, vague indications of Godard's underlying agenda for a scene, and so on. Most interesting are the typographical blocks that attack conventional language head-on: "ANALYSIS" and "FAUX TO GRAPH Y," for instance. These point up similarities between Godard and provocateurs in two radical French movements of the 1950s and 1960s: the Situationist International and its predecessor, the Lettrist International, which proclaimed the limitations of logic by seeking to liberate the letters of the alphabet (innocent building blocks) from the words and sentences (ideological tools) that imprison and control them. Godard was not a card-carrying member of these groups, which have roots in the earlier surrealist and dada movements; indeed, his allegedly "pretentious pseudoinnovations" were attacked more than once in the Internationale Situationniste journal published by Guy Debord and company. Nevertheless, his films often share the Lettrist mixture of deadpan whimsy and dead-serious outrage, and his characters have a frequent habit of spray-painting their slogans onto the scrubbed facades of polite society, a practice the Situationists themselves honed into a fine art during the late 1960s.
Weekend reached the screen in 1967, when the era known as the sixties was approaching its European climax. Social unrest and political protest were on the upswing, and many French dissidents expected full-fledged insurrection against a capitalist-imperialist order they despised.
These hopes were disappointed the following year, when revolt fizzled and the powers-that-be reasserted their dominance; but the electricity of the period was still building as Godard went into production on increasingly radical films like 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, with its subversive critique of capitalism and its discontents, and La Chinoise, with its wry look at Marxian alternatives to commonsense norms. Weekend is perhaps the most explosive of these movies; yet while Godard clearly wished to carry the cinematic and political implications of his earlier work to new extremes, he was not quite ready to throw off all traces of traditional moviemaking. What places Weekend among his most exciting films is the fact that within it we see the most drastic transition of his career - from liberal skeptic to radical mutineer - gathering speed and energy before our very eyes.
The growing urgency of this transition appears to be an integral part of Godard's plan for the film, as it builds from its chatty opening in a bourgeois apartment to its ferocious finale in a decimated countryside. The deceptively conventional beginning hints at the craziness to come, since its main reference points in Hollywood cinema are derived from the film-noir cycle of the 1940s and 1950s, which specialized in tales of intrigue, treachery, and betrayal. Many self-respecting noirs might have inspired the dialogue between our heroine, Corinne, and a friend who's visiting her and Roland, her husband:
FRIEND: Wouldn't it be great when Roland drives your father home if both of them died in an accident?... Did he get his brakes fixed?
CORINNE: No. I managed to make him forget.
FRIEND: Did you know seven people got killed last Sunday at the Evreux junction?
CORINNE: Yeah, that would be great. . . .
And here is Roland on the telephone, a few moments later: "Listen, you're not to phone me here any more. It's dangerous. ... I've got to be cautious after those sleeping pills and the gas.... She may be dumb, but she'll start getting suspicious. . . . Anyway, the main thing is for her old man to croak. Afterwards, when Corinne's got the money, we'll deal with her.... Of course I love you...."
Has this movie stumbled into some outlandish den of iniquity where civilized values have inexplicably been forgotten? Quite the opposite: Civilized values aren't what they used to be, and for Godard, the violenceprone household of Corinne and Roland catches the spirit of the late 1960s as well as Ozzie and Harriet Nelson's home represented aspects of the previous decade. In an age when greed and belligerence have overtaken the Western world at large, people like Corinne and Roland hardly stand out from the crowd. Rather than simply preaching this proposition, Godard weaves his disturbing vision into the substance of the film itself. This clarifies further why he punctuates the action with those jarring, disruptive blocks of typography. In other ways, too, he surrounds the story with signs of social disjunction and dysfunction. The first such outbreak comes between Corinne's conversation and Roland's phone call, when two motorists have a furious fight after their cars collide on the pavement below. This introduces automobiles as the film's main symbolic objects, embodying the materialism and aggression of a society being crushed by its own fetishized commodities. Important too is the look and feel of the brawl as Godard presents it. As filmed from the apartment's balcony, it would appear pointless and absurd even if it weren't so wildly hyperactive (the Three Stooges were never more frenetic) and so wildly out of proportion to the trivial fender-bender that prompted it. The movie is still in its opening moments, but already we see that the sociocultural center cannot hold, human relations are falling apart, and mere anarchy is being loosed upon a world that indeed seems adrift in the cosmos.
Weekend might be too volcanic to watch if it kept up this pace indefinitely. It shows signs of subsiding as Roland's phone call concludes with a (visual) fade to black and a (verbal) riff that repeats his last words with the inanity of a broken record, recalling Nana's repetitive "parrot talk" in My Life to Live. The following scene has a very different rhythm, with ramblingly long takes and a numbingly long speech by Corinne to her stillnameless friend.
The film has not settled down as much as first appears, however, and "numbing" doesn't quite describe Corinne's monologue. Prompted by her friend's curiosity, she sits on a tabletop in her underwear and interminably describes a small-scale orgy she had with two companions, Paul and Monique, at their home. The beginning of her speech might have been lifted from an ordinary melodrama: "He started in the Mercedes. . . . We necked for a long time in the parking lot...." Then the scene being described changes to Paul's place and Monique enters the tale, adding a new layer of perversity: "She asked me if I didn't think her ass was too big ... and she turned round, spreading her legs open. . .. She asked me to describe them...." Her voice stays as flat as the table she's sitting on, making wild statements and banal ones in the same affectless tone.
Is this some new kind of sociopolitical critique or just a dose of oldfashioned pornography? Godard's later film Numero deux asks this question explicitly about its own content, and the answer turns out to be both. The same goes for Weekend, where the ironic absurdity of Corinne's monologue grows increasingly clear, culminating in a round of carnivalistic sex (e.g., Corinne masturbating while Monique squats in a dish of cat milk) that eventually peters out in what can only be called an anticlimactic climax:
FRIEND: Did all this really happen or was it a nightmare?
CORINNE: I don't remember.
FRIEND: I adore you, Corinne; come and excite me.
Fade to black. Whether all this "happened" or not is moot, of course, since Corinne's words pack a sensationalistic punch regardless of any "real" past events. What matters about the scene is that it escalates Godard's war against the tyranny of images. Convinced more than ever that show business is bad for us, he now wants to undermine the very idea of cinematic spectacle. He does this through a sort of verbal flank attack, combining contradictory elements - prurient speech and puritanical picture - that throw movie-sex conventions into a deliberate muddle. (Adding to the irony is the fact that Corinne is played by Mireille Dare, widely known for sexy roles in commercial films. Roland is played by Jean Yanne, a more conventional choice. Many other characters have no fictional names within the film, incidentally, and are called by the names of the performers who portray them - e.g., the revolutionary leader is called Kalfon after the actor Jean-Pierre Kalfon.)
The tactics of this scene are based on Godard's conviction that a basic strategy of commercial film (in keeping with the commodity system as a whole) is to stimulate our visual appetites, then gratify this artificial desire by providing the material it has teasingly promised. This is built into the most common pattern of movie editing, where "eyeline match" shots alternate between someone looking and what the person sees. The same strategy is behind almost every kind of narrative scene, from sophisticated suspense sequences (What will the outcome be?) to exploitative sex episodes (What will we see next?). The sound track is usually limited to a supporting role, designed to make the visual tease more alluring and the eventual payoff more gratifying.
Determined to thwart such manipulative uses of film, Godard has pioneered a provocative (and highly Brechtian) approach that turns image and sound into equal partners, each with its own aesthetic and expressive integrity. Democratized like this, sight and sound have new freedom to interact in unexpected ways, challenging our analytical powers instead of lulling us into passive spectatorship. This is why Corinne's monologue cannot be called gratuitous, to borrow a favorite term of would-be censors. While its subject cries out for pictures, Godard's refusal to supply them makes us keenly aware of (a) how effective movies are at sparking superficial desires, and (b) how much more interesting it can be when a filmmaker calls sardonic attention to these instead of pandering to them on the screen. If show business is bad, how about a cinema that doesn't show?
Weekend returns to its film-noir roots as Corinne and Roland begin the journey that dominates the movie's fractured story. Jumping into their Facel convertible, they start for the distant town of Oinville, where they hope to pin down Corinne's inheritance and speed the demise of her father so they can collect it - each dreaming of the other's death, meanwhile, so the loot won't have to be shared.
They don't get out of the parking lot, however, before encountering more of the slapstick-style buffoonery that punctuated the opening scene. Roland bumps his car into a parked sedan, leading to a quarrel with the owner's little boy, who pockets a bribe and calls his mother anyway. She arrives in a rage; Roland and Corinne fend her off with a paint gun; she retaliates with a blitz of tennis balls; and her husband joins in with a shotgun as their son shouts, "Bastard! Shitface! Communist!" Godard labels the episode with a blue intertitle reading "SCENE FROM PARIS LIFE," as if this were a nineteenth-century literary vignette. His view of urban living is plain: Honore de Balzac meets Moe, Larry, and Curly.
On the road at last, Corinne and Roland promptly run into one of the most bravura sequences in any Godard film: a cinematically stunning traffic-jam scene that brings together many of his most original and subversive ideas. Automobiles are central to this scene, and it is interesting to note how the metaphorical meaning of cars has shifted in Godard's value system. In the early Breathless they represented a Beat-style dream of liberation via speed, flexibility, elusiveness. They played a more somber role in My Life to Live, introducing Nana to the sad pavements she would walk, and carrying her to the lonely street where pimps would gun her down before speeding away to safety. Weekend veers even more sharply in this cynical direction, paralyzing cars altogether by cramming them into a self-suffocating gridlock so devoid of action and energy that the movie itself almost stops moving.
The scene begins as Corinne and Roland steer their Facel down a country road that's backed up with cars as far as the eye can see. Godard's camera runs parallel to the road, gliding along the shoulder at about the same pace as the convertible. Since everything takes place on the roadway, the action seems stretched and flattened into a two-dimensional spectacle, as shallow as the society that has allowed everyday life to degenerate so badly.
Sound also plays a key part in the scene, filling the air with horn honks so loud and persistent that they lose any potential meaning as greetings or warnings. This is cacophony as sheer self-assertion, blaring away with no regard for purpose or utility; yet it conveys a bitter sort of beauty all the same, celebrating its own belligerence with a heedless panache recognized by critic Pauline Kael when she described the horns as triumphant, "like trumpets in Purcell." In addition to its metaphoric value, the noisiness also serves a clever cinematic function - counterpointing the flatness of the image with a direct assault on the audience's eardrums, stamping the scene's immediacy on our bodies as we experience it.
This goes on for hours of narrative time, as Roland maneuvers his Facel through the tie-up with even more edginess and impatience than most of his fellow drivers show. The panorama that he passes, and that Godard captures on film, amounts to a microcosm of social activity: On view are recreation (card playing, a chess match), sports (ball tossing, sailboat rigging), culture (book reading, radio listening), personal hygiene (relaxing, urinating), and so forth. The most arresting images are two that stand out for their own pictorial value as well as the fact that Coutard's camera gives them a bit of extra attention. One shows a traveling menagerie including monkeys, lions, and a llama staring back at us with the calm assurance of a creature that knows its dignity and integrity are leagues above those of the Homo sapiens so chaotically surrounding it. The other is a gigantic Shell Oil tank truck. It greedily sucks up screen space with its intimidating bulk and aggressive red-and-yellow colors; yet it's even more stymied than the other vehicles, stuck in a nose-to-nose stalemate with a white Fiat headed in the opposite direction on the same stretch of roadway. This is a prototypical Godardian symbol, transforming the personal car crash that climaxed Contempt into a socioeconomic car clash (Shell vs. citizen) with darkly comic undertones.
Many arguments, insults, and altercations later, Roland and Corinne finally approach the end of the congestion and discover its cause: a horrifying accident that has left wrecked vehicles and mangled bodies strewn along the street. Not surprisingly, our heroes couldn't care less. They zip past the catastrophe, turn off the main highway, and enter a rural area that holds forth the possibility of a calmer, cooler atmosphere. Roland wrecks the calm about two seconds later, bowling over a trash can as the Facel screeches into a town square and careens up to the curb. We know by now that suc