Archive for the ‘lynch’ category

Blue Velvet

April 17, 2016

David Lynch’s masterpiece Blue Velvet, which is getting a limited 30th-anniversary re-release in theaters this year, has lost very little of its juice or shock in three decades. Since it wears the sheep’s clothing of fifties retro, not much ties the film to the mid-‘80s, either (other than the Aqua-Netted hair on some briefly seen high-school girls). It’s just this angelic/satanic hybrid reality, full of dichotomies and abstracted imagery and behavior. Like Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the film has a mystery at its center, but Lynch just uses it as an excuse to swim around inside his own obsessions, which become — and this is his artistry — our obsessions, at least for two hours.

The mystery here activates when college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), walking home through a field, finds a severed human ear. At one point, Lynch’s camera travels into the earhole, and the rest of the movie could be said to be a walkabout inside Lynch’s head. The ear leads to a drug ring, a kidnapped father and child, and the ultimate sadist and masochist — Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who seems to be made out of profanity, and Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), who seems to be his not-quite-unwilling sex slave. I really have zero interest in summing up the plot, though, because if there’s one movie that is resolutely not about its plot, Blue Velvet is that movie.

Soaked in Freud and Jungian dream logic, the film proposes a split between darkness and light in which both sides are absurdly, almost cartoonishly heightened. It’s either picket fences or industrial rust, colors that pop in the sunshine or shadows that hide secrets and kinks. Even the dialogue echoes with oppositions: “I don’t know whether you’re a detective or a pervert”; “I don’t want to hurt you, I want to help you.” (With both these examples, the movie proves that there’s no reason both can’t be true.) Frank, enacting his ritualistic tryst with Dorothy (in which conventional coitus, including penetration, seems off the table), flips between being “Daddy” and “Baby” — infantilized by his own thirst for macho domination. Hopper is certainly ferocious as this rough beast, but then he goes beyond that into a weird heartsick sensitivity. Face to face with Jeffrey, his opposite number, Frank taunts him by whispering “You’re like me” and then plants some lipsticky kisses on him. The movie is, in part, about how Jeffrey recognizes this kinship to Frank but then rejects it. The question is whether such kinship, once recognized, can be rejected.

Frank’s violently sexual/sexless relationship with Dorothy and his tweaking of Jeffrey seem to proceed from the same impulse that brings him to Ben (Dean Stockwell), a “suave” and fey criminal of some sort. Frank takes Jeffrey, Dorothy, and his amusingly bedraggled posse of ne’er-do-wells to Ben’s for a brief business meeting, and also so that Dorothy can see her little boy, who apparently rejects her. (Is it because he can sense that Jeffrey has “put his disease” in her?) Ben’s pad is full of matronly women with cat’s-eye glasses and bouffants; whatever else it is, it’s the least likely place of criminal business anyone has ever seen. Frank, who abuses and yells at everyone, seems to respect the effeminate Ben, and stands mesmerized and agonized as Ben lip-syncs Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams.” Frank seems to need this song as much as he needs whatever he huffs from his gas mask; his blasted, hopeless shard of a soul reaches towards the tune. He’s a bastard and a maniac but also infernally human.

Lynch and his invaluable sound designer Alan Splet turn Blue Velvet into an apocalyptic, chthonic noise-scape, wedded to Angelo Badalamenti’s lush, minacious score, whose main melody seems an extension of Bernard Herrmann’s looping music for Vertigo. The movie is perhaps the most conventionally plotted of Lynch’s weirder work — it has clues, narrative beats, a resolution — and that might be why it ranks as many people’s favorite Lynch film, but I think its undeniable technical sophistication also helps put it over for those who would have little patience for Lynch’s later puzzles (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive). It walks and talks like a classically structured movie, and yet it doesn’t; it’s decayed and curled at the edges in so many ways. The movie’s eroticism — the dangerously intimate bits between Jeffrey and Dorothy that pass over into rage and release — is probably still unsurpassed, except perhaps by Buñuel’s Belle de Jour. Rossellini possibly isn’t quite acting; she gives physically of herself totally, and her spiky emotions derive from her literal nakedness.

One of Blue Velvet’s last images, famously, is of a (fake-looking) robin with an insect in its beak, calling back to the vision of Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), the local detective’s daughter and Jeffrey’s sometime helper on this “case,” of the arrival of robins to dispel the darkness. The equally famous opening of the movie, with its hyper-bright flowers and fire truck giving way to Jeffrey’s dad’s stroke (I always think the kinked-up garden hose somehow causes the stroke — does anyone else?) and the subterranean black bugs, seems to be the entire movie in miniature, all its themes laid out in pictures — even the TV playing in Jeffrey’s house foreshadows things to come.

The fake robin may or may not triumph over or devour the insect it’s carrying. Entire books could be (and probably have been) devoted to that one bothersome image. But the very final image is of Dorothy, still wearing her fetishistic performer’s wig, in what you’d think is a moment of reunion and rapture, except that something seems to remind her of her bombed-out rendition of the movie’s theme song, and for a moment her expression becomes troubled. Even if the insect is vanquished by the robin, there are many more like it hiding in the grass, in the shadows under the white picket fence. I think Lynch sincerely wants to believe in Sandy and her vision, but Blue Velvet’s position during the “morning in America” Reagan era is neither an accident nor a coincidence; Lynch wants us to look under the shiny surface, as he did at greater length in Twin Peaks. Days are not always sunny, but nights are always dark.


December 6, 2006

I’ve never put much stock in dream-interpretation books — the ones that tell you a dream about your teeth falling out means you’re insecure. They may be accurate, for all I know — but to me, dreams should be experienced and felt, not subjected to cold waking logic. So I hesitate to put David Lynch’s new identity-crisis horror epic INLAND EMPIRE (yes, all caps) on the autopsy table and scrutinize its guts. Lynch has spoken of the creative process — how he “gets his ideas” — as “catching the big fish,” and this is his biggest fish yet; you swim around alongside it and on top of it and inside it for three hours, and you come out a bit dazed and confused, seeing everything as Lynch does for a while, focusing on mundane objects and noticing their texture. INLAND EMPIRE reboots your head.

The “plot” can be whisked away in a sentence: An actress (Laura Dern) is filming a remake of a cursed, unfinished Polish movie that got derailed by the murders of its lead actors, and she finds herself re-enacting the film’s story by falling in love with her co-star (Justin Theroux). But this is like saying that Lynch’s Twin Peaks was “about” who killed Laura Palmer. Lynch begins with a mystery — an ear found in a field, a videotape arriving at your door — and then collects odds (very odd) and ends to put all around it, like an artist gluing found objects into a collage. Lynch is an all-around artist, keeping his hand in painting and music and photography and sculpture when he’s not making movies, though his best movies, including this one, combine all those media.

It’s clear by now that, whatever else she does (and she’s been great in other movies like Citizen Ruth), Laura Dern was put here to be Lynch’s avatar, the ideal mix of innocence and depravity. Dern is the prettiest, most surprising fish Lynch ever caught — or, rather, a lure for his idea-fish. Mid-film, she has a lengthy monologue — at that point, it’s up for grabs what character she’s playing, if any — that comes from the nightside of human experience, the world of Frank Booth and Leland Palmer, the grubby under-the-rock “reality” that fascinates Lynch at the same time he works to transcend it. Dern knocks herself out whichever reality she’s in; whichever universe she occupies becomes hers, and Lynch’s digital-video camera isolates her at her most vulnerable, finding beauty in ugliness and vice versa.

Aside from that, Lynch fills the three hours (which fly by — it’s not the endurance test you might expect, provided that you’re attuned to Lynch’s style) with divertissements that have thrown various Internet message boards into orgies of theorizing. There are women (whores? angels?) who launch into a song-and-dance number set to “The Locomotion”; this is preceded by the sound of a train. (Lynch’s use of aural effects, as always, is impeccable; watch this with a good sound system or even headphones if possible.) Various characters speak solemn Polish to each other, referring to events just outside the narrative. Actors like Julia Ormond, Mary Steenburgen, Grace Zabriskie (filmed in tight close-up, her cheekbones linking her with the Radiator Lady from Eraserhead), and William H. Macy drop in more or less inscrutably (Macy is on for all of twenty seconds).

At first, you can tell the difference between Dern’s movie-within-the-movie (a potboiler called On High in Blue Tomorrows, directed by a flaccidly pompous Brit played by Jeremy Irons) and the movie surrounding it: the Blue Tomorrows footage is lazily composed, blandly un-Lynchian, and then, when Dern’s character starts feeling the desires of the woman she’s playing in the scene, Lynch takes over and the camerawork becomes invasive, vertiginous. In time, though, the movie-within-movie conceit falls away and we seem to be watching the original Polish story Blue Tomorrows is based on, sometimes in Poland and sometimes enacted in a Hollywood slum. What may baffle and irritate some about INLAND EMPIRE isn’t that it has no story; it’s that it seems to have three or four different incomplete stories shuffled together, commenting on and echoing each other.

There’s a lot of ominous mood, the usual fixation on electricity and smoke and static (an entire room seems to be lit to resemble a staticky TV screen at one point). Desolate rooms are illuminated by a single lamp casting cones of dirty light across the walls. Two homeless women discuss a bus route across the body of someone bleeding to death — are they heralds of an afterlife or ascension to grace? (Dern’s actress character is named Nikki Grace; she plays another woman named Sue Blue.) The camera disappears into a cigarette-burn hole in silk, just like it did with the ear in Blue Velvet and John Merrick’s hood eyehole in The Elephant Man. A Polish woman watches bits of Lynch’s funny-scary Internet series Rabbits (three actors in bunny heads trading gnomic dialogue as the laugh track bursts irrelevantly) and weeps. It’s an abstract jazz riff, it’s a painting (the slightly pixellated DV images add a certain degraded texture of which Lynch is famously enamored), it’s a monster movie and a musical and a psychodrama and an ellipsis made of black holes.

What does all this mean? Why try to impose meaning on it? Why not just buy the ticket and take the ride? Those who strain to provide the connective tissue for all of Lynch’s digressions and images are, I think, trying to nail down a drop of mercury. They want to break the code, to master this material; but only one person can master it, and he ain’t talkin’. Lynch has said that since life so seldom “makes sense,” people shouldn’t expect the same of art. That goes double for dreams, and INLAND EMPIRE is Lynch’s dream of, as he says, “a woman in trouble.” What will it mean to you? Well, that’s between you and you. I took it as an epic tone-poem about art vs. artifice, and how each informs and warps the other, but I also acknowledge there’s a lot more to it than that. Essentially, once again, Lynch has gone fishin’. Either you go with him or you won’t.

Mulholland Drive

October 19, 2001

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was supposed to be an ABC television series, but the network backed out after Lynch delivered the pilot episode. Given some French money to turn the pilot into a theatrical film by shooting new footage to make it self-contained, Lynch, bless his perverse heart, used it as an opportunity to make it ever more tangled in Lynchian symbology and mystery. He doesn’t even pretend to bring the film — or the various subplots designed for a TV season’s worth of exploration — to any conventional or even sensible closure.

I don’t think David Lynch will ever work in television again; Mulholland Drive feels like a vicious slap at ABC (the home of his cult hit series Twin Peaks) and any other network that would try to tame his wild-at-heart vision. But I hope his enthusiastic fan base in France and Japan will keep the wheels greased for more movies (since no American studio will back him), because Mulholland Drive, oblique and baffling as it is, is still the only English-language movie this year to use the film medium to challenge, provoke, arouse, and confound, often all at once.

Some dislike being confounded. They will find no solace in the “story,” which begins rather network-ishly, as aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts) and an amnesiac who’s named herself “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring) sift through Los Angeles for clues to Rita’s identity. For a while, that’s the film’s main throughline; we meet other characters — a frustrated, cuckolded movie director (Justin Theroux), a typical Lynchian Man of Mystery called The Cowboy (Monty Montgomery), two men in a diner discussing ominous dreams — who are neglected or entirely forgotten; Lynch uses them as divertissements but doesn’t bother tying them into the dominant narrative. It’s a bit like the European theatrical version of the Twin Peaks pilot, wherein the killer was revealed but subplot threads were left dangling.

Indeed, Mulholland Drive starts out all-American — it kicks off with images of jitterbugging, for God’s sake, and employs a classical American mystery arc — and then turns on a dime into European territory, complete with lesbian erotica and freak-out surrealism. I can only applaud the moment when the movie quite merrily decides to go lesbian (“We’re now into the R-rated portion of the evening,” you can almost hear Lynch say); this director specializes in the beautiful/evil sweetness of sin, the attentiveness to breath quickened by lust or dread or both. When lips brush together and hands explore the undiscover’d country of same-sex flesh, the screen trembles and burns.

After that, Lynch goes spelunking in the caves of his own pet obsessions. Rita’s identity crisis is also the film’s. As we saw in Lost Highway, Lynch has a taste for left-brain/right-brain narrative with no easy connective link — he wants you to climb into your own head and finish the work yourself, and so there are an infinite number of ways to read Mulholland Drive. I need to see it at least seven more times, armed with interviews with the notoriously unhelpful Lynch (who refuses to kill his mysterious babies by dissecting them), preferably on DVD where Peter Deming’s lit-from-within-by-hellflame cinematography and Angelo Badalamenti’s sad, menacing score can work their magic on me most efficiently and repeatedly.

As moviemaking — as pure abstract art writ large — this is a classic, a thing of dark mystifying beauty. What actually happens during the last half hour, and what does it all mean? I really couldn’t tell you (yet). Mulholland Drive demands to be chewed over obsessively, revisited devoutly, until its secrets unlock themselves — much as Lynch’s characters (and their creator) circle around a central mystery only to find an enigma inside. Those who are willing to put that much effort into a David Lynch film — or are at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt — will enjoy Mulholland Drive; those who aren’t, won’t.

The Straight Story

October 15, 1999

David Lynch began the ’90s with a triumph (Twin Peaks) and finishes it with another one. The Straight Story is based on the true account of Alvin Straight (played here by Richard Farnsworth), a 73-year-old Iowan who sets out to visit his long-estranged brother Lyle, who’s recently had a stroke. Alvin can’t drive — his eyes are too far gone — so he makes the journey on a John Deere lawnmower, pulling along a makeshift trailer where he sleeps and stores his things.

Lynch is best known — some would say most notorious — for his severe, very R-rated shockers exploring the nightside of human sexuality and brutality: Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway. Yet it isn’t at all out of character for him to do this 180-degree turn and make a becalmed, soothing ode to rural life. Lynch, a Montana native, always comes across in interviews as folksy and gee-whiz, despite the heart of darkness beating in most of his work. It’s not an ironic put-on; he really is that way, and The Straight Story brings out a part of him that he’s maybe had to sneak sideways into some of his other movies (Blue Velvet had its folksy moments).

The movie is exquisitely simple, near-plotless, as Alvin makes his slow journey from Iowa to Wisconsin. As always, Lynch draws the scenes out, letting them breathe, giving us time to drink in the images. His measured pacing is completely organic to the subject — a 73-year-old man with two canes, travelling at about five miles an hour on a 1966 lawnmower. We experience life as Alvin does. The cars and trucks zooming by on the highway seem like demons violating the rural space — why are they in such a hurry? There’s a beautifully spooky moment when dozens of bicyclists whoosh past Alvin in a bike race, looking like silent white aliens streaking down the country road, like something out of Close Encounters. Don’t be fooled by the G rating: This is probably the first true art film to come out under the Walt Disney banner.

Veteran actor Farnsworth, who was actually six years older than Alvin when he played the part, gives a stunning near-silent performance. This is a movie of few words (I’d be surprised if the script, by Mary Sweeney and John Roach, came in at much more than 60 pages), with a hero of few words. Lynch and his great cinematographer Freddie Francis get a lot of mileage out of the countryside — the deep blue sky, the rustling corn, the rusty old farm machines chugging in the fields — but the movie is all in Farnsworth’s weathered face, his way of looking at someone and understanding all he needs to understand. “How far along are you?” he asks a sullen runaway girl. She isn’t showing yet; he just knows.

The Straight Story also gives Lynch an opportunity to put slightly askew characters on the screen; as always, he’s not really laughing at them — he respects them, enjoys them for who they are. There’s the set of twin mechanics who fix Alvin’s mower; one of them has a strange bandage on his cheek. There’s the woman who keeps hitting deer with her car no matter how hard she tries not to. There’s the hardware-store clerk who’s moved nearly to tears when Alvin asks to buy the man’s beloved “grabber.” Most radiantly, there’s Alvin’s daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek, who goes way back with Lynch but has never acted for him before), a somewhat slow woman with a vocal hesitancy that hides her essential level-headedness.

This is the only G-rated movie Lynch has directed and probably ever will direct. For that reason, some parents may think it’s a movie they can take their little kids to. While there’s absolutely nothing kids shouldn’t see in The Straight Story, there’s also very little to interest them. The movie is really for mature audiences, and it’s for patient audiences, too. If a meditative pace isn’t your thing, you’d better pass. But for some of us who find subtle, hushed, easygoing movies an immensely refreshing change of pace from today’s usual bang-bang, The Straight Story hits the spot. Leaving the theater, a friend remarked that he’d enjoyed the film, but that nobody would ever say “That movie rocks.” “No,” I said, “it rocks quietly.”

Lost Highway

February 21, 1997

In David Lynch’s Lost Highway, we get to know an L.A. jazz hipster named Fred Madison (Bill Pullman), who suspects his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) of cheating on him. Renee is murdered — cut into pieces — and a confused Fred is tried and convicted. In his cell, Fred (who’s been having headaches) somehow changes into a young mechanic named Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) — and we’re into a whole other story.

Or are we? Pete, who fixes cars for mobster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), falls for Mr. Eddy’s moll Alice — played by Patricia Arquette again. There’s also a Mystery Man (a ghastly Robert Blake) who can be in two places at once and seems to function as a monitor/puppetmaster, like the lever-pulling Man in the Planet in Lynch’s seminal Eraserhead. The movie demands patience and attention, and some viewers may not feel it’s a fair trade. In Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Lynch set up a mystery and then sprinkled surreal oddities onto it. Lost Highway is all oddities, and the mystery is the film itself.

Most Lynch fans, I think, will much prefer the first half, and not only because Balthazar Getty is sullenly inexpressive and annoyingly “cool” — a rebel without a pulse. The Fred section is doomy and deliberately paced, heavy with voluptuous erotic dread; the languid nothingness sucks you in. The Pete section is noisy and overwrought, with occasional bursts of thrash metal and freakish violence, such as death by coffee table — which seems meant to be funnier than it is. (It’s staged poorly, or maybe it was trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating.)

Yet even the weak second half offers distinctively Lynchian pleasures. When Alice is forced to strip at gunpoint, our response is divided between moral disgust and detached appreciation of Lynch’s pristine composition of the shot (the cinematography, by Peter Deming, is superb throughout). When Mr. Eddy assaults a tailgater, it’s the movie’s comic high point, but we also feel sorry for the poor pistol-whipped victim. Lynch was a wizard at this comic-horror stuff years before Quentin Tarantino cut off that cop’s Blue Velvet ear in Reservoir Dogs.

Lost Highway is a movie about divisions, so it’s fitting that we come away from it with mixed feelings. Some may prefer the faster, more lurid Pete section and find Fred’s half boring. Lynch himself seems split between artist and entertainer. In the climax, a chaotic seizure in which the literal and the symbolic collide, Lynch is a capital-A Artist who can’t, or won’t, bring the movie together in any satisfying way. He expects us to do it. Lynch is courting audience hostility here in a way he hasn’t since Eraserhead, which at least was wacko from the start. Lost Highway begins conventionally and then takes a hard left. The defiant strangeness reminded me of Alex Cox’s career-ending doodles Straight to Hell and Walker (both of which I liked).

I enjoyed much of Lost Highway, though I hesitate to recommend it to the uninitiated. It’s classic Lynch — a metaphysical horror movie about the dark mysteries of sex. I was enthralled even when I was baffled. Yet many Lynch fans may find it depressing. Lost Highway is mesmerizing yet cold and remote — an exotic fish we can’t touch. Instead of connecting with us, David Lynch now wants to withdraw into his brilliant void, and he doesn’t care whether we go with him.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

August 28, 1992

After the Elvis impersonations and Wizard of Oz nonsense in David Lynch’s previous movie, the flawed but hot-bloodedly fascinating Wild at Heart, it’s a relief to see him returning to cool, dreamlike obsession in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Parts of it are foolish, but much of it is as daring and fierce as anything this always-powerful director has done, and I wish I could recommend it to everybody. But, alas, not everyone has seen Twin Peaks, the defunct TV show to which this film is a prequel, and if you go into Fire Walk With Me with no prior Peaks knowledge, you’ll likely get hopelessly lost. Fair warning.

For those who did watch the show — those who know who killed Laura Palmer, who Waldo and Diane are, and whether Agent Cooper’s favorite gum is coming back in style — Fire Walk With Me, written by Lynch and Robert Engels, offers a wealth of pleasures. Don’t listen to critics who dismiss it as incomprehensible: they probably never saw the show and don’t know what they’re watching or what they’re talking about. If you were a fan of Twin Peaks, and stuck with it through the goofiness of its last season, the movie is a parting gift to you.

The show opened with Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) already dead — “wrapped in plastic.” Here, Lynch unwraps her. I’ll be vague about the plot, even though those who watched the show, and even many who didn’t, know how the movie ends. From the show, and from the tie-in book The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (written by Lynch’s daughter Jennifer), we learned that this Homecoming Queen had a dark side — cocaine, prostitution — and a personal tormentor named Bob, who visited her at night. The movie, which presents the last few days in Laura’s life, shows us the full squalor of her existence, the deepest reaches of her pain. Though Lynch dabbles in other areas of the show, it’s Laura’s misery and self-loathing that provide Fire‘s emotional pull. We feel protective of her, and because we know she’s going to die, her situation becomes that much more poignant; some of the scenes have the sting of great tragedy.

Sheryl Lee, a healthy-looking actress with a wide, toothy grin, played a mock version of Glinda the Good Witch in Wild at Heart before becoming TV’s most famous corpse. In the series, she got to act a little, first as a figure in Agent Cooper’s dream and then as Laura’s cousin Madeleine. Those earlier appearances don’t prepare you for her bravura work here. Lynch’s camera feasts on Lee; he lights her to resemble a wounded angel — Glinda the Bad Witch. Lee has one moment — laughing helplessly after her boyfriend Bobby Briggs (Dana Ashbrook) has committed some ultraviolence — that I doubt any actress could improve upon. People attack Lynch for the way he treats women in his films, but he writes roles actresses can triumph in.

And the rest of the film? It’s erratic, sadly. Moira Kelly pinch-hits for Lara Flynn Boyle as the innocent Donna Heyward, and though she has a much warmer presence than Boyle (and is likely the better actress), it’s undeniably jarring to see someone else as Donna after all those episodes of Boyle’s Donna mourning Laura. Lynch putters around with two FBI agents (Kiefer Sutherland and Chris Isaak) — they’re investigating the murder of Teresa Banks, the victim prior to Laura — who have so little impact that we long for Kyle MacLachlan’s Zen-Boy-Scout Dale Cooper, who’s blown off in a few clumsy scenes.

There’s a good deal of Black Lodge mystification — spooky dreams and hallucinations that could mean anything and distract a bit from the thrust of Laura’s story (though some of the oddball images will stay with you). Various characters familiar from the show walk on, sometimes for mere seconds, to remind us we’re at a Twin Peaks movie. Lynch also recruits some cult figures (such as Harry Dean Stanton) purely for their bizarro appeal; David Bowie appears, babbles, and disappears, in the film’s most shameless “Huh?” moment. Some of the show’s trademark images have worn out their welcome, even the famous Man from Another Place (dancing dwarf). But the film’s core burns intensely enough to make up for all the digressions. We already knew who killed Laura Palmer; the unsettling revelation of the movie is that it hardly mattered who. She’d been doing a good job of it herself.

Wild at Heart

August 2, 1990

David Lynch’s Wild at Heart isn’t wild at heart — it’s wild everywhere else, particularly the groin. “Heart” isn’t a word you might associate with Lynch, who has made two of the most heartless films in recent memory — Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, which just about dare you to stay in the same room with them. I don’t, by the way, mean “heartless” as an insult. Lynch does have a taste for melodrama — romantic anguish and bliss pushed far beyond what’s ordinarily accepted as literal — but he seldom shows much affection for his characters, or, if he does, it’s aesthetic affection. Lynch puts his people in weird or terrifying situations, and when they respond in a way that satisfies him he leans back and says “Fantastic.”

Wild at Heart is something of a break from Lynch’s usual experimental detachment. He’s not studying his characters so much as presenting them this time. Yet they’re still inarguably Lynchian people, who say oddball things and nurse cornball fantasies. The movie is based on Barry Gifford’s novel, which Lynch probably selected because of its southern-fried road-gothic strangeness (almost all of the film’s dialogue comes straight from Gifford). It’s a gentle, rambling road novel, with two central characters — ex-con Sailor and his hot-to-trot sweetheart Lula — that perhaps Lynch is fond of, in his way. Gifford had the lovers separate at the end, but in the movie they stay together; Lynch has said he couldn’t bear the thought of breaking them up — they’re perfect for each other.

We’ve only just sat down when Sailor (Nicolas Cage) is set upon by a knife-wielding assassin. Sailor pounds on him for a while, then cracks the man’s skull open on the marble floor. That’s Lynch’s way of saying, “This isn’t the kind of dream that lulls you in, like Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.” And it’s not. If anything, it’s a return to the stink and paranoia of Eraserhead — full of vomit left to dry on motel rugs, splattering brains, body parts suspended in air or carried off by dogs. It’s not a pleasant film by any definition, and it’s not remotely for everyone, but it’s true to Lynch’s vision. He’s doing what he wants. It may not be what most other people want, but that isn’t Lynch’s concern; it never has been.

Lynch doesn’t fiddle much with the novel’s basic plot. He uses it as a springboard for bizarre attractions, as he did with Frank Herbert’s Dune. The whole movie is Sailor and Lula (Laura Dern) on the road, running from the various burnouts and psychopaths that Lula’s gonzo mother Marietta (Diane Ladd) has sent after them. For this reason, Lynch can’t ground the movie; there’s no innocent small town for him to explore. The universe of Wild at Heart is aggressively, unapologetically insane from frame one. But that has its own allure. The movie skitters along, stopping for a car accident here, a bank robbery there. Lynch also tosses in lots of people who aren’t in the book: a stone-faced hit man who has been hired by Lula’s mother to kill Sailor; a big-time gangster named Mr. Reindeer who does business over the phone while sitting on the john; a trio of wackos headed by David Patrick Kelly and Grace Zabriskie (both of Twin Peaks); a befuddled old space cadet (Lynch regular Jack Nance) who talks about his imaginary dog. There’s also a great deal of homage to The Wizard of Oz — Lynch apparently means this to be his R-rated version of L. Frank Baum’s over-the-rainbow world, with its menagerie of creatures and misfits.

The director also gives the Lynch touch to a few characters he imports from Gifford: Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), Marietta’s lover, who giggles and plays a bit of peekaboo with her; Lula’s cousin Dell (Crispin Glover), seen in flashback, who enjoys putting cockroaches in his underwear; and, worst of all, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), an ugly sociopath who nearly rapes Lula in her motel room (the movie comes to a dead stop so we can watch Dafoe, in fake-toothed grotesque closeup, forcing Laura Dern to say “Fuck me” over and over; the camera seems to be swimming in the delirium of sexual violence threatened but never acted on). They’re all here, the whole sick crew.

After a while, the parade of loonies becomes a bit tiresome. And Lynch’s ending is so cornball that I imagine most of this film’s audience, attuned to Lynchian irony, will take it as a joke and snicker at it; but it’s by no means clear that he means it as a joke. The movie is on fire, though; like it or not, it sticks to the ribs of your mind. Everything is there for effect, even the performances. Cage and Dern go way over the top into erotic desperation and doomed romanticism; the supporting cast, to a man (or woman), seem to have been encouraged to outdo the excesses of silent-film actors. There are really no humans here, just actors instructed to deliver lines that have no connection to our reality but are somehow true to the movie’s own frenetic reality.

Wild at Heart, despite winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes (or perhaps because of it), has been almost unanimously denounced by critics, and I think I can see why. The biggest mistake David Lynch ever made was releasing this film after his Twin Peaks series premiered and won the hearts of a thousand journalists looking for a good cover story. There’s been so much Lynch hype that he’s begun to seem like the flavor of the month, the media’s favorite oddball. But he’s their favorite only when he doesn’t shake them up — when he works inside a traditional, not wholly respected medium and brings art and class to it. Such people, I suspect, would rather Lynch made “nice” films like The Elephant Man for the rest of his life. That’s all right, Dave, make your little drama for television, but don’t get too crazy — don’t make us lose sleep, don’t make us lose our lunch.

Despite minor qualms, I don’t find Wild at Heart offensive, as many critics have (Roger Ebert just about wet himself panning the film on his show); but I do find those critics’ stay-in-your-place attitude offensive. Lynch is trying to grow as a filmmaker, to go somewhere he hasn’t gone before, but the critics want him to deliver Twin Peaks over and over. I find that too abhorrent to think about. Pauline Kael once wrote, “If you’re afraid of movies that excite your senses, you’re afraid of movies.” And if you’re afraid of Wild at Heart


December 14, 1984

Dune, the notorious 1984 flop directed by David Lynch, deserves serious reappraisal. When first released, the movie disappointed fans of the Frank Herbert novel, baffled American critics, and swiftly disappeared. About the only people who didn’t detest it (though even they were lukewarm) were admirers of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, the only other features Lynch had directed at the time.

Lynch’s fans, dutifully justifying what they consider a megabudget anomaly in an otherwise offbeat ouevre, have stuck to a party line: “Dune isn’t really a David Lynch film. He was a hired hand for producer Dino DeLaurentiis. Anyone could’ve directed it.” Not true. Dune is loaded with Lynchian oddities, which, in the context of a $40 million sci-fi epic, seem extremely odd. This isn’t just one of the weirdest sci-fi movies ever; it may well be the weirdest David Lynch film ever.

During the first half hour of Dune, you really feel sorry for Lynch, who has to shoehorn Frank Herbert’s entire mythos into a series of exposition scenes to get us up to speed. This happened, then this happened, and this is important to everything that’s going to happen …. It’s headsplitting, and Lynch resorts to corny inner monologues that only add to the movie’s surrealism. Typically, characters look serious while we hear a pensée like “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

Kyle MacLachlan, later the indelible Lynchian hero of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, made his screen debut here as Paul Atreides, who leads the people of Arrakis (Dune) out of the clutches of the evil Harkonnens, who control the valuable spice mines of Dune. The spice enables one to “fold space” (travel without moving) or receive divine visions — both of which are right up Lynch’s hallucinatory alley. The movie is as trippy and visually dense as Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

If, like me, you’ve previously only seen Dune on a cropped, pan-and-scan video, you’ve only seen half of it. The widescreen version is a revelation. The compositions, by cinematographer Freddie Francis, embrace the most ravishing desert vistas this side of The English Patient. And you finally get to bask in the elaborate sets, which presumably ate most of the $40 million (pricey in its day). The money obviously went into the sets, not into the semi-cheesy special effects.

Then there’s the unmistakable hand of David Lynch. Dune is as lovably absurd (absurdist?) and strikingly perverse as any Lynch film. When the hideous Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth MacMillan in a raucous turn that anticipates Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth) has captured Paul’s mother, he informs her, “I want to spit on your head,” then goes right ahead. My favorite Lynchian shot among many in Dune is a tight close-up of Dean Stockwell’s mouth as he intones, “The tooth! The tooth!” The movie is insane; it’s textbook Lynch.

Most surreal of all, though, is the voice-channeling method of combat the heroes employ, called “the weirding way”; it’s weird, all right — it sounds like nuclear sneezing. My Closed Captioning translates it as “Chusah!” Gesundheit.


September 28, 1977

“Yes, it’s innocent and good. It fills the heart.”

“You said the same about Eraserhead.”

“Don’t mention that obscenity,” Kinderman growled. “Atkins calls it Long Day’s Journey into Goat.”

— William Peter Blatty, Legion

David Lynch’s Eraserhead announced the arrival of a quintessentially American surrealist, a guy who could cheerfully and without irony attend a neighbor’s backyard barbecue and then get profoundly upsetting ideas out of it. As Lynch became better known in later years, and more people encountered his genuinely gee-whiz personality, Eraserhead became somewhat easier to read — though Lynch typically wasn’t any help when it came to unlocking the film’s thematic and imagistic mysteries. It was easy to assume that Lynch was merely a downtown hipster making fun of wholesome Americans — Roger Ebert based half his Blue Velvet pan on his offended interpretation of Lynch “prancing on with a top hat and cane, whistling that it was all in fun.” But Lynch is one of the great appreciators in movies; some of his villains may be mean-spirited, but he never is.

So in Eraserhead, when Henry (Jack Nance) goes to see his estranged girlfriend Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) and wades into the most excruciatingly awkward family dinner since Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the humor derives not from goofing on Mary’s oddball parents but from Henry’s blocked, terrified reactions to them. Fairly quickly, we imagine that this is how Henry sees the parents — menacing, weird, broken in a variety of ways. (There’s another Chainsaw parallel in the wizened grandmother in the kitchen, literally manipulated by Mary’s mother to toss the salad, much like the Chainsaw clan trying to help Grandpa “kill the bitch.” I don’t know if Lynch ever saw Chainsaw before or during the making of Eraserhead, but it wouldn’t surprise me.) The entirety of Eraserhead can be seen as a man’s highly subjective, anxiety-ridden (and resentful) response to becoming an unwilling husband and father — Henry has been invited to the X household to be told that “there’s a baby — it’s at the hospital — and you’re the father.” “They’re not even sure it is a baby,” sobs the constantly sobbing Mary, who “hasn’t been around much” because she’s presumably been busy carrying and delivering the not-even-sure-it-is-a-baby.

From that viewpoint, Eraserhead has a clear narrative. The baby, grotesquely deformed and continually mewling in a ghastly parody of an infant crying, is brought home. Mary can’t take it any more and leaves. Henry is tempted by a Dark Lady (the Beautiful Girl Across the Hall) and a Lady of Light (the Lady in the Radiator), just like Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet and, well, at least one character in almost every David Lynch project. Madonna/whore (though in this chaotic universe, the whore seems literally to be a whore and the Madonna sports what appear to be facial tumors). Henry gets sex from the whore but finds transcendence with the Madonna — I think. In Lynch’s hands, these are archetypes, not sexist tropes.

The baby, about whose behind-the-scenes genesis Lynch has remained notoriously silent over the decades, is the monster and the hero of the piece, to my mind. The baby is repulsive and demanding, but one’s heart goes out to it anyway, even if one is childless and prefers to stay that way (after seeing Eraserhead the summer before my senior year in high school, taped off of a late-night Movie Channel showing, I resolved never to reproduce, a vow I have stuck to, no thanks necessary). The baby, after all, is innocent and never asked to be born into this stark nightmare world — nor did Henry or Mary or any of us. The film levels such a powerful disgust towards (yet fixation on) sperm, vaginas, and the slimy detritus of birth that any attempt to label it as pro-choice or anti-abortion will be hilariously doomed to failure. Lynch looks at the primordial ooze of the stuff of life and regards it with the queasy fascination we reserve for ugly squirming things we find under rocks.

As pure cinema, Eraserhead is in a universe all its own, writing and obeying its own oblique rules. Alan Splet’s needling, deep-bass, industrial-apocalyptic sound design is a major character; at times I want to call Eraserhead “a film by David Lynch and Alan Splet,” so integral is the enveloping and oppressive sound. The Lady in the Radiator, a reported eleventh-hour addition by Lynch, looks like a wholesome sweetie out of a ’20s silent comedy but stomps with obvious relish on a series of umbilical-looking creatures; she also favors us with the sort of wistful, simplistic ditty Lynch has become known for in his later collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti. “In Heaven,” she assures us, “everything is fine.” At other times, Henry enjoys sitting in his suicidally bleak apartment and listening to Fats Waller on the turntable. Other than that, the movie seems to exist outside of culture. Yet I have no trouble linking it to the punk movement; at times it’s the cinematic equivalent of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and your ears need to be similarly attuned to both.

Eraserhead has been called everything from a horror movie to a jet-black comedy to (in Lynch’s words) “a dream of dark and troubling things.” It’s all and none of these. Really, all someone can do is to say, simply, “It’s Eraserhead,” and if you’ve seen it you know, and if you haven’t seen it there’s no way you can know. It has its ancestors, and God knows it has its imitators, but its genius is that it builds a highly specific yet maddeningly elusive dreamscape in our heads, and it looks different to everyone. It is both dreamlike, in the lulling, mesmeric sense, and nightmarish, sometimes both at once. It feels like a fever dream sweated out over the course of five years (which is how long it took to make). Visually, it’s a silent movie, with Jack Nance walking stiffly through industry-blasted landscapes like a silent comedian with no physical elegance; sonically, it’s a symphony of the damned rotting and rusting at the bottom of a frozen lake of muck.

Eraserhead used to make me literally, physically ill. The same thing used to happen to me when re-reading Stephen King’s Carrie: I would feel headachy, fluish. Both, I think, are examples of then-unknown artists straining fiercely and with great sincerity to unlock something heavy and chthonic inside them. I think I responded to that. (And both had Sissy Spacek as a guardian angel — look it up.) I got through a recent re-watching of Eraserhead without feeling bad, so maybe I’m detached enough now to disconnect from the discomfiting emotions it dredges up and focus on the art. It remains Lynch at his purest and most devoted, blissfully unconcerned with anything outside the view of his camera or the range of Alan Splet’s microphone. Orson Welles famously likened moviemaking to the best set of toy trains a boy could have, but he never said the toy trains couldn’t be oxidized and decayed and rolling over pulsating sluglike things to make them spurt.