Lynch had his first movie experience in 1952 at age six, when he saw Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie (Henry King, 1952) with his family. We can easily predict which two scenes he remembers to this day: a little girl accidentally swallows a button, her father panics, her little brother screams and yells, and the dog adds its continuous barking to the cacophony; and a man reclining in a barber’s chair for a relaxing shave is killed by machine gun fire that suddenly comes blasting through the shop’s front window. Situations in which a realm of safety is invaded by chaos have fascinated Lynch throughout his life, and he still responds to them in other directors’ films. In 2002, he excitedly told me about a scene in Gregory Nava’s Selena (1997), the biography of the twenty-four-year-old Tejano superstar singer who was shot to death by her female fan club president. The moments that captivate Lynch occur at Selena’s (Jennifer Lopez) huge outdoor concert in Mexico. The singer, her guitar-playing boyfriend, and her overflow audience are bubbling with joy as she performs her most popular song, spinning and prancing back and forth. But in the next second the plywood stage is splitting and lurching beneath her feet, the crowd pressing forward, pinning a woman beneath the stage front as the happy music stops and screams fill the air.
Lynch consciously recalls the scary parts of Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie, but the film contains other details that relate to his work. The picture, which takes place in the late-1800s Midwest, is a small-town, neighborhood story (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, The Straight Story). The starfield of a night sky is emphasized (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Industrial Symphony No. 1, Sun Moon Stars commercial, The Straight Story). A man is nervous and agitated about his wife having a baby (Lynch’s own life, Eraserhead). Lynch has emphasized the color blue throughout his career, and Nellie features a woman wearing a brilliantly blue dress who stands up at a party and whistles bird song in a moment of small-town surrealism. Another key Lynchian color, especially in his films, is red, which he often iconically relates to women in the forms of lipstick and/or blood, and Nellie has a woman prominently applying red lip rouge. Nellie’s central emotional dynamic, in which one person’s freedom and aspirations are curtailed and squelched by a powerful, dominating individual, is certainly familiar to Lynch-watchers, and as in Eraserhead and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the sound of a far-off night train whistle has the ring of potential escape to an entrapped soul. As in most of Lynch’s fictions, two of Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie’s characters are having a secret emotional relationship behind the back of someone who trusts them. The film, like Blue Velvet, features a youngadult son character who’s drawn into a netherworld of morally suspect behavior. Nellie first showed Lynch the image of a stage with draped curtains, a church at night with its windows lit up (as in Blue Velvet), and a flaming wooden structure being tended by firefighters (The Straight Story). Like Blue Velvet, Nellie ends with a sense of darkness banished and wholesome small-town values reaffirmed, though a woman paid a terrible price in the process.
The children’s book Good Times on Our Street (Gates, Huber, Peardon, Salisbury, 1945), which Lynch says he cherished “about a hundred years ago,” is a compendium of the benign spirit and imagery of his boyhood life, and a key to themes and motifs in his adult artwork. On the first page, we find a tree-lined street of a small town that’s surrounded by woods: the archetypal setting for many “neighborhood stories” to come. Naturally, the welcoming front yards are bounded by white picket fences, against which brightly colored flowers bloom. The boy protagonist (wearing a horizontal-striped T-shirt like young Lynch did) always has a girl companion, with whom he experiences exciting adventures, at his side.
The book’s town is full of appealing little shops like the hardware stores in Blue Velvet and The Straight Story, and blue-collar workplaces like Twin Peaks’ gas station and Lost Highway’s car repair shop. The presence of smiling firemen and child guardians recalls the opening and closing of Blue Velvet. The book’s way of calling characters The Little Boy, The Grocery Man, The Bread Man, and The Farmer’s Wife probably inspired Lynch’s method of giving some of his characters names (The Boy, The Man From Another Place, Curious Woman, Little Girl) that have the evocative resonance of archetypes.
An episode in the book is a forerunner of the scenes in Lynch’s fictions (especially Blue Velvet’s ending) where people get together, the human and natural worlds are in harmonious balance, and all is right with the world. At the conclusion of one Good Times on Our Street story, characters gather on the grass to share food and radiate their love for each other. The similar concluding backyard communion in Blue Velvet is preceded by a huge close-up of a robin on a branch, the bird signifying the triumph of light and love over darkness and evil (malevolence symbolized by the black insect in the bird’s beak). After showing the close view of the robin, Lynch has his young hero and heroine gaze out the window at it in wonder. The director’s use of this robin motif is a prime example of the way a long-buried, forgotten memory “can be released into your conscious mind, and it seems like a new idea.” For as a six-year-old, looking at Good Times on Our Street, Lynch saw a full-page illustration of a robin on a branch. On the next page, the book’s boy and girl peer at it from their window with enchanted looks on their faces. The book speaks of the robins’ springtime return as a breath of fresh air, the end of the dark season, the flourishing of new life. In Lynch’s film the birds are first spoken of regarding the heroine’s dream of long-absent robins returning like a blessing to their benighted town. The birds in Good Times on Our Street hold no devilish bugs in their beaks, but in the book’s only instance of violence and pain, a boy is repeatedly stung by insects.
Remaining in the animal kingdom, the book presents a twenty-page story about elephants, which contains a picture of a pachyderm looking angry and scary, like the nightmarish elephant that menaced Mrs. Merrick in The Elephant Man. And did Good Times on Our Street’s trickster monkey and the frequently mentioned name of the book’s leading female character (“Judy”)100 combine in Lynch’s subconscious to produce Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’s mysterious monkey whispering, “Judy”?
The kids in the book have plenty of playtime, but Good Times on Our Street also emphasizes that work can be fun, especially when you pursue your heart’s desire. Like Lynch’s father did with David, the book’s Father shows the main boy character, Jim, how to organize and carry out a project using wood and tools. Jim and young Lynch both want to devote themselves to making things with their minds and hands.
The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), which Lynch has seen many times from boyhood on, maps major portions of his artistic territory. With its opening-credit cloudy sky and evocative wind sounds, the film vividly conveys the enthralling, transportive power of cinema, a force that director Lynch, with the help of some of that same whooshing wind, communicates so well. And, in Oz’s sepia-toned opening moments, as Dorothy walks down a desolate-seeming, farm-country dirt road, Lynch felt the quiet magic of “America’s nowhere places” touch him, and he absorbed the sense of film, and life, as being a road trip, a journey, a quest. The rounded shapes of brown earth that flank Dorothy’s road and form humps in her aunt and uncle’s farmyard seem to answer Lynch’s lifelong question of where his “love of mounds of dirt” comes from. The barren, denuded trees that adorn Lynch’s drawings and paintings, animations (drawn and computergenerated), and films also populate the landscape of Dorothy’s Kansas. If we note the gaunt, leafless tree sprouting from the earth mounded over the Gales’ storm cellar, we see a prototype of Eraserhead Henry’s bedside earth-mound-with-bare-tree-branch, which today Lynch displays like a sculpture in his home.
Lynch took to heart The Wizard of Oz’s narrative dynamic of having a sympathetic character overwhelmed by darkness, assaulted and trapped by forces more powerful than her, and in desperate need of a way out. Like Lynch and so many of his characters, Dorothy is a dreamer, and she showed young David that having the imagination to envision a brighter tomorrow, and the courage to go out and find it, can transform the mundane and threatening world into a charmed and rewarding place. The possibility of a magical deliverance from trouble and pain thrilled Lynch as he first watched The Wizard of Oz, as did the idea that the means of attaining it was mysterious: “you can’t get there by a boat or plane; it’s far away beyond the moon, beyond the rain.” After Dorothy sings her reverie of yearned-for escape (“Somewhere, Over the Rainbow”), we hear birdsong and see glowing shafts of light break through dark clouds, a passage which could easily have inspired Blue Velvet’s Sandy’s recitation about robins and the pure light of love banishing the evil of her small town.
One of the most influential concepts Lynch absorbed from The Wizard of Oz was the idea that Dorothy’s vivid, super-detailed adventures in the Land of Oz take place within her own mind, yet are as real as life—they are her life. The emotional authenticity and dramatic validity of Dorothy’s dream journey showed Lynch the wondrous way that film scenarios can externalize a character’s psychic conflicts and interior narrative: the portal to the greatest storyland of exploration and discovery is the human head. In Lynch’s cranial-centric cinema characters often receive head wounds, and Dorothy’s trip begins with a bump on her noggin. Throughout his career, Lynch has been fascinated by the idea of multiple selfhood, which The Wizard of Oz visualizes with Dorothy’s single face becoming many as she slips into dreamland. (Lynch has Betty’s and Rita’s faces flutter multitudinously in Mulholland Drive.)
The Wizard of Oz is a resonant parable about a child learning to grow up and cope with a world that’s both “not very nice” and “beautiful,” and Lynch reflects its core dynamic in Blue Velvet as Jeffrey comes to see that life can be “horrible” as well as “great.” Dorothy’s surrogate parents are weak and unable to keep evil at bay (like Jeffrey’s folks), so she has to take action. In her dream she confronts the Wicked Witch, which represents her own capacity for darkness (as does Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth for Jeffrey), and destroys her nemesis (as Jeffrey does), thus affirming her ability to choose goodness. In her dream, Dorothy’s self-perceived lack of a smart-thinking brain, a feeling heart, and courage to act for what’s right are externalized as the needy Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. At story’s end she’s fully integrated, realizing that she already possesses, and has exercised, the inner-resource qualities she needs to get home: The house of her psyche is resoundingly in order and able to withstand the most wicked Kansas twister.
Secrets and revelations drive Lynch’s fictions, and a key Lynchian moment occurs in The Wizard of Oz when the great and powerful Wizard is discovered to be not a fearsome giant head surrounded by fire and smoke, but a non-supernatural man hiding behind a curtain, pulling levers. This showman who creates illusions is a metaphor for what Lynch does with his life: dreaming up realities and using technology (movie cameras, paint brushes) to project them onto screens and canvases. The way that the Oz Show director is hidden behind a masking curtain reinforced Lynch’s sense that there are veiled realities working behind/beneath the obvious ones we perceive, concealed forces pulling the strings of our lives. Eraserhead’s lever-pulling Man in the Planet, Twin Peaks’ Leland-possessing BOB, and Lost Highway’s Mystery Man are certainly kin to The Wizard of Oz’s man behind the curtain.
Other Wizard of Oz elements are reflected in Lynch’s work. Dorothy asks a seminal question: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” just as The Other Wizard of Oz elements are reflected in Lynch’s work. Dorothy asks a seminal question: “Are you a good witch or a bad witch?” just as The Elephant Man’s Treves wonders, “Am I a good man or a bad man?” and Blue Velvet’s Sandy ponders whether Jeffrey is “a detective or pervert?” As Dorothy proceeds into the Land of Oz she has to learn the place’s special physical and metaphysical properties, its games and rules, and the balance of its powers, just as do many of Lynch’s stranger-in-a-strange-land protagonists. As in Lynchland, there are dark forests with creepy trees (complete with a spooky owl), threatening fires in various forms, and menacing animalism (in the Wicked Witch’s subhuman flying monkeys.) In The Wizard of Oz, a sudden snowfall, provided by angel figure Glinda the Good Witch, saves Dorothy and her friends, just as an unexpected rainfall blesses the ending of Dune, and showers of space dust do in Eraserhead and Industrial Symphony No. 1. Glinda’s snow drifted down after the suffering characters entreated the skies for help, just as, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Ronette Pulaski is released from a dire predicament after praying to her angel for help.
There’s a harbinger of Lynch’s characteristic emphasis on the colors blue and red in an iconic close-up of Dorothy’s blue ankle socks and ruby-red slippers. And the lightning-shaped sparks that the slippers emit, beyond showing Lynch the power hidden within objects, have zapped the air in a number of the director’s films and TV shows, lent their form to the patterns of floors, and leapt from the electric guitar Lynch plays in his website Thank You Judge music video. The Wicked Witch, like Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, and Twin Peaks’ BOB, is a villain who fiendishly enjoys her evil work. In the Wizard of Oz, she speaks words that could sum up the world as Lynch often sees it, with one pole of reality hidden inside another: “something with poison in it, but attractive to the eye.”
The Wizard of Oz showed Lynch how affecting a happy ending based on a literal or metaphorical homecoming could be, and exemplified the dramatic power of a story that centered on the dark and light aspects of womankind.
excerpt from the book by Greg Olson 'Beautiful Dark'/Chapter 12: Man of the World