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