The Terrifying Sincerity of David Lynch


“It’s okay to laugh.” Whenever I force my friends to sit down and watch a David Lynch movie or his TV show Twin Peaks, that is what I tell them. “You will see lots of weird stuff and some scary stuff, but you should find it funny, too.” So much of Lynch’s style is overdone, oversaturated, over-emoted, that when the on-screen images do not send our stomachs turning or jolt us out of our seats, they stimulate generous, albeit uneasy, laughter.

Zander Abranowicz / Kitsch Artist
Zander Abranowicz / Kitsch Artist

But laughing at an over-the-top scene in a Lynch movie is only step one. It’s an automatic physical response, and clearly intentional given how his filmmaking style overloads the senses with whirling camera movements, bold colors, and sappy pop music. We giggle in our seats because Kyle MacLachlan trotting around like a chicken in Blue Velvet warrants no other response. The weirdness comes out of left field, and we wonder if Lynch is just playing some big joke on us serious, grumpy cinephiles weaned on Bresson and Tarkovsky. Is this some Godardian satire? A Kubrickian black comedy? Is this just chaotic, undisciplined crap?

Appreciating David Lynch becomes a lot easier when you accept that he simply does his own thing. “Lynchian” is an accepted adjective in film criticism by now, and the late David Foster Wallace took a stab at defining it in a memorable 1996 profile of the director for Premiere magazine: “A particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Read that sentence again, since it’s unusually academic for the no-bullshit author of Infinite Jest. Basically, Wallace is saying that Lynch’s style works through ironic juxtaposition—by, say, finding a severed ear as you walk back to your white-picket-fenced suburban home, as MacLachlan does in Blue Velvet.

What I would like to add to Wallace’s definition is that Lynch employs ironic devices for the ultimate effect of reaching the viewer on a visceral, sincere level. His style is reflexive, intellectual and metacinematic (count how many cameras you see within his movies), but it differs from the detached, alienating “Brechtian” style we may prescribe to Steve McQueen’s Shame or David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis. Instead, Lynch embeds his cerebral questions—like the crisis of aging as a Hollywood actress in Inland Empire—within a lucid, direct style that engages the senses before the brain. Like any horror filmmaker, he knows what the union of image and sound can stir and even excavate in the individual audience member. Unlike the director of the most recent 3D Saw sequel, however, Lynch forces us to think about his art after we watch it, for it hits close to home even when it doesn’t make practical sense.

“The stuff that comes out in the work is, I think, a lot more truthful than the way you are just walking around,” Lynch told Chris Rodley in the book Lynch on Lynch. This rather colloquial expression of ideology explains Lynch’s fascination with the sinister “underbelly” of safe and sunny society, as captured in the opening of Blue Velvet or almost any scene in Mulholland Drive. What makes his films jarring and immediate instead of drily polemic is his insistence on seeing horrors from the eyes of the victimized. Haunted by nightmares in the real world and the mind in equal measure, Lynch collapses it all into the ineffable, and thus the fully cinematic, and thus, the sincere. It’s just that his brand of sincerity is so twisted that even the luxury of laughter leaves an awkward aftertaste.

an uncanny connection to 9/11

Looking back at the first decade of the 2000s, Joshua Rothkopf from Time Out New York observed, “Can there be another movie that speaks as resonantly—if unwittingly—to the awful moment that marked our decade? Mulholland Drive is the monster behind the diner; it’s the self-delusional dream turned into nightmare.” He refers, of course, to the events of September 11, 2001, as well as the moment in Mulholland Drive where we meet the “Bum” behind Winkie’s Diner. Despite Lynch finishing that film before 9/11, that terrifying jump scare has a lot to say about the way we process such a tragedy, particularly those of us too young at the time to comprehend the event.

Millennials connect with Lynch’s evocation of the uncanny, particularly as it is realized in Mulholland Drive, due to our inability to put the sensation of the uncanny—of something slightly normal, and thus elementally skewed—into words. Our verbal, analytical grasp of the uncanny is weak only because its innate potency within us is so strong. I believe that 9/11 had a formative effect on our psychological growth, much more than most of us may realize.

Those of us born in the late-eighties to mid-nineties have a pre- and post-9/11 mindset. The former is tethered to our childhood, which is, by default, supposed to be a halcyon time of white picket fences, green lawns, and friendly firefighters—or so Blue Velvet goes. The latter mindset crystallized in the midst of childhood, before adolescence and thus before we obtained much of an operable rational facility. And so, the violent, public display on 9/11 tore through innocence and burrowed deep into our emotional, rather than intellectual, space.

For Millennials, the event struck an ineffable register, influencing the way we view the world more than the way we comprehend it. For the horror of 9/11 derives from the sight of a passenger airplane descending from the sky, gliding over the Statue of Liberty and smashing into a skyscraper where fathers and mothers commuted for work. This is the unforgettable, unbelievable side of the uncanny: the opposite of faceless historical genocide or insular battlefields. We children asked inappropriate, incessant questions and only wrapped our heads around the consequences of the attack later. But it stayed with us, and it corrupted our grounding in some of life’s most essential concepts, like home, security—even morning.

The scariest moment in Mulholland Drive is when Dan (Patrick Fischler) meets “Bum” (as he/she is named in the credits) behind Winkie’s Diner. The scene takes place in broad daylight, presumably breakfast time. Dan first recounts a nightmare he had, about confronting a monster in the rear alleyway of that same place, to a friend at a window-side table. His friend assures him he must relive the nightmare outside, in order to prove that it was only a dream. When Dan does so, apprehensively approaching that white alleyway, we see the monster, and it is horrifying. Dan sees it (his friend does not) and faints, presumably dying from the shock. There is no plausible reason for the Bum to chill behind the Diner, aside from scaring the shit out of Dan. The monster springs from an unseen alleyway and stains a white, bright place with pitch-black terror.

That scene spooks us for the simple and effective jump scare at its climax, yet it troubles us, after the movie is over, because it arrives without any anticipation. Even as the camera glides in a gentle bobbing motion, inching toward the rear of the diner, we feel anxious without reason. We sense a creepy calmness. Because Lynch does not explain why the Bum appears for the remainder of the film, the scene only gains meaning by transcribing so little of it to the given scenario.

Lynch finished the film before the 2001 Cannes Film Festival in May, but it did not premiere in the United States until October 12 of that year. By that time, the U.S. had suffered a blow it was only starting to put behind it. In Rodley’s book, Lynch says, “[The outside world] just seems like a horror story!” Like any horror filmmaker, Lynch sets out to scare his audience, which he does in that second-long, wordless shot where the Bum appears.

Yet Lynch also displays tremendous empathy for Dan, even while ostensibly killing him. The face of evil shows itself and takes an innocent life suddenly, randomly. The circumstances of his death go unknown to Dan as he enters it and to us as well. We try to solve what happened in the scene after the fact, detecting clues and stringing together elaborate theories. It’s 13 years later and no viewer can proclaim with certainty why this strange “murder” occurred. All we are left with is an unsolvable, unbelievable crime. Death has visited home, and home will never be safe again.

the face of laura dern

In early November 2006, David Lynch sat at the corner of La Brea and Sunset Blvd. with a billboard, a banner, and a live cow. The billboard read, “For Your Consideration: Laura Dern,” for her performance in Inland Empire, while the banner advertised, in all-caps, “WITHOUT CHEESE THERE WOULDN’T BE AN INLAND EMPIRE.” When asked about the meaning behind that slogan, Lynch told Variety, “I ate a lot of cheese during the making of Inland Empire.” Typical Lynch: Come for the crazy, leave touched but still confused.

That (actually true) story is proof that Lynch cares about Laura Dern. Blue Velvet made her, if not a star, then an iconic 19-year-old actress whose expressive, contorting face attracted as much attention as Isabella Rossellini’s bruised and naked performance. Lynch has only worked with her twice since, in 1990’s Wild at Heart and 2006’s Inland Empire, but their collaborations have been nothing short of mesmerizing. While those two films attract as much hatred as they do admiration, Dern sears through any pretentiousness and leaves no question about her talents. More than almost any other female performer, Dern focuses all energy in exposing her interiority through her face. Lynch recognizes this peculiar gift and, in their films together, maps onto her face a mirror for how we react to life’s horrors.

In Blue Velvet, Dern gives a (in)famous monologue about a dream she had. “In the dream, there was our world, and the world was dark because there weren’t any robins and the robins represented love,” Sandy (Dern) tells her boyfriend, Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), in his car. She gushes, with awkward ebullience, about how the robins then swooped down and vanquished darkness in a “blinding light of love.” Lynch syncs this scene to Angelo Badalamenti’s overbearing score, which is to say a typical and very pretty piece of music from Lynch’s maestro. We may think Lynch wants us to pity Sandy for her naïve, on-the-nose sincerity, and that instinct explains why theaters, like Cornell Cinema the fall of my freshmen year, often erupt into muffled laughter as she speaks.

Yet this scene depends on its antithesis, which arrives later at her house, where Jeffrey’s mistress, Dorothy (Rossellini), shows up without any clothes and in a hallucinatory daze. Dorothy clutches Jeffrey and shouts, “I love you, love me!” The realization that her boyfriend had been cheating on her—with an abused woman who shows up on her front lawn—overloads Sandy’s ability to react and she proceeds to cry in one of cinema’s most memorable close-ups. Dern scrunches her face and opens her maw so violently that you imagine a young Claire Danes must have taken some notes. The toll of a broken heart, plus the impact of witnessing domestic violence for the first time, rushes through her face. It’s no wonder we have so little a clue of how to react to it.

Lynch stages a similar scene in Wild at Heart, except Dern’s character empathizes with the victim instead of casting herself as one. Dern and Nicolas Cage pull over on the side of a highway to inspect a grisly car crash. They find only one survivor, a pretty girl (Sherilyn Fenn, Audrey from Twin Peaks) who stumbles around and literally can be seen pushing part of her ruptured scalp back onto her skull. The girl collapses in front of the couple and dies dramatically, arms spread like Christ and blood pouring from her mouth. Lynch frames this moment with the girl splayed upside-down, so as to capture Cage and Dern in the same shot as they watch her expire. It’s as if we are huddled with them in this awful yet intimate moment and Dern, of course, grieves like no one else. Lynch affords her another dramatic close-up that contains too much emotion to comprehend, though the scene, with its blatant parallels between victim and witness, is too sad to laugh off.

By the time Inland Empire, Lynch’s three-hour video art piece masquerading as a narrative film, came out in 2006, Dern had grown up. She had not landed an acclaimed starring role since Alexander Payne’s 1996 film Citizen Ruth, a low-budget indie outside the Hollywood system. Her age surely had something to do with why Hollywood forgot her, for a woman approaching 40 in the business faces an uphill slog through sexist double standards. Inland Empire is as self-aware as Lynch’s films come, so Dern plays an actress named Nikki who revives her fledging career with a sexy role in a romantic drama about infidelity. The media and her co-star (Justin Theroux) make cruel remarks about her age, one factor amongst many that causes Nikki to lose her mind. About an hour in, the narrative momentum derails and cycles through surreal vignettes.

One of the scariest scenes is also the shortest and most densely packed: it is one shot of Nikki limping along a path in the dead of the night. What starts as an extreme long shot and an extremely noisy (Lynch shot the film on video) one at that, becomes a terrifyingly clear close-up when Nikki runs toward the camera. Her face filling the screen, Lynch throws amber light over her and a piercing shriek on the soundtrack to scare us despite whatever steps we might have taken to brace ourselves. The immediate terror of the shot—and, again, the randomness of it—assures we will talk about it after we leave the theater, and think about it, too.

Through Lynch’s direction, Dern acknowledges the icon that is her face, with all the weird masks she has made of it, and how she has grown into middle age, a time when actresses can no longer land close-ups. This shot, as well as an even weirder one at the climax of the film, indicts the prejudice against female representation in commercial cinema while calling back on all her prior work with Lynch, connoting violence, death, and emotional turmoil. Even after applying an intellectual reading to the shot, as I try to do here, we recognize that its admirable thesis emerges on a visceral level. Lynch engages our feelings—almost all of them—so that we feel injustice before thinking about it, which we must do if we wish to will it away.

telling it straight

David Lynch knows what he wants and gets it. That is not to say he gets what he ultimately gets, for he has admitted time and time again that so much in his movies remains beyond his intellectual intent. But he feels all that he puts on screen, and he filters that feeling, by default, through the world of dreams. The subjective chaos of Lost Highway speaks to us through the same grammar as The Straight Story’s down-to-earth simplicity. Lynch recognizes that there is no such thing as too much, so long as his delirium hits deep and does not scatter. He perpetuates Hollywood’s definition of movies as entertainment, for there is too much humor, color, music, movement, and emotion to leave a Lynch film without that superficial, gut-level thrill. The thing is, that feeling stews around, there in the gut, and circulates through the whole body, reaching the brain last so that it arrives there with profound urgency. Lynch gets us high and makes us sick of cinema, and so we laugh because we don’t know how to deal with it. Ha ha. That was funny, I think.

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