|Parkett No. 28, 1990|
|(Why) Is David Lynch
A PARKETT INQUIRY
The editors wish to thank Jean-Pierre Bordaz and Miriam Wiesel for
their editorial contributions to the inquiry from France and Germany.
JEAN-CHRISTOPHE AMMANN is the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt am Main.
Blue Velvet consists of many disturbing strands, all on one theme, that run counter to each other: Wild at Heart pursues one single strand with prototypical sequences on many different themes. The film is strangely elusive; the densely interwoven dual code makes it both absent and present at once. I think that the loss of innovative language - one of the great challenges of our times - can be more easily parried in film than in the fine arts. The loss of innovative language goes handin-hand with the fade-out of eroticism. Eroticism appears only on a metalevel, if at all, and of course, no longer as a personally defined emotional experience. Even so, films are more receptive, more accessible, to things that have become virtually impossible in art. Operating from a meta-standpoint entails selection on the one hand, and self-observing, agonizing censorship on the other. The flow has been replaced by what Levi-Strauss calls "bricolage". David Lynch's ability to sustain the flow despite bricolage is a great achievement and underscores the potential of film as film. His discourse about eroticism is itself erotic.
David Lynch is undoubtedly an artist, a great artist. I think his objectives in film are similar to Jeff Koons's strategy in the fine arts. This makes me extremely curious about the film Koons is planning to make, Made in Heaven. The few stills I saw of it were explicitly pornographic - a very interesting point, because Jeff Koons certainly had no intention of making a pornographic film. His objective was to explore the parameters that would allow so-called pornographic (hardcore) elements to appear as delightful and self-evident sequences. If he succeeds, he would indeed be the first film-maker to resolve this paradox. I can imagine that his quasi-naivete is capable of producing a kind of ritualized naivete of hair-raising credibility, in which infinite love not only allows but positively fosters the voyeuristic and pornographic act. The film would function like a fairytale.
The success of Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart indicates that we are dealing with a new generation and a very different approach to images, demonstrated, for instance, by the fact that interest in commercials as such has eclipsed the products they advertise. Go to the movies and listen to the boos and laughter when a commercial tries to take the audience for a ride. David Lynch consistently and systematically exploits a duality of code and still manages to make alluring, thrilling films.
I was recently reminded that
not long ago, and probably still under the spell of Twin Peaks, I
commented during a dinner
party at Alex Katz's that his NIGHT PAINTINGS looked "very David
Lynch." That I, or anybody else, would reach for the name of this
unforgettable, eerie movie director in order to describe a painting is a
sure sign that David Lynch has mapped out a personal territory cutting
so deeply into the public experience that we recognize it as existing
far outside the world of his films. It's a tribute that could be paid as
well to his great ancestor, Alfred Hitchcock, who once inspired me to
compare an odd painting by Gustave Caillebotte - a domestic interior of
1880 that shows a standing woman, back to us, peering out the window to
a hotel room across the street while her husband, reading, apparently
ignores her - to a still from a Hitchcock thriller, where the
pinpointing of the most prosaic moment could suddenly be fraught with a
sinister potential. Of course, Hitchcock's unveiling of the dark and
scary side of Americana may now seem quaint and archaic, if still
indelibly powerful, when compared to Lynch's disclosure of the grotesque
underside of grass-roots American surfaces. That may be the one reason
why we begin to reach for his name to update our responses to the
strange vibrations many recent paintings set into motion. So it is that
Katz's NIGHT PAINTINGS may look placid and uneventful on the face of
things, but after our exposure to Lynch's films, the record of one lit
window in the upper storey of an apartment house stared at in the middle
of the night may be enough to set into motion the most stealthy scenario.
And couldn't we find Lynch directing a painting by Eric Fischl in which
the placid, hygienic faces of American teenagers unexpectedly register
subliminal earthquakes of warped sexual appetites? It's clear that apart
from his own achievement as a filmmaker, Lynch has become the most
useful oi household words to describe, among other things, how creepy a
place as American as cherry pie can be.
If David Lynch is important, it is because his work reads the collective social fantasies of our dominant culture. Its premium on the perverse, coupled with its emphasis on style, helps to disguise social anxieties about race and gender as private fantasies, and therefore as something for which no spectator feels responsible. Why, we might ask, does the recent Wild at Heart open with a white man's extraordinarily brutal murder of a black man? And why was the race of this murdered character consistently overlooked in the enormous critical attention the film received? Wild at Heart is composed of effects - shock effects and "weird" effects - and these are taken as the director's personal signature. In the film's spectacular pyrotechnics, every shock of horrific physical violence is cushioned by the explicit obtrusiveness of "style," and by the irony and slightly "sick" jokes so characteristic of Lynch's work. Irony, on one level, and technology, on another, regulate the affective shocks we undergo. Since most of the shock of these violent images has to do with their verisimilitude, we are lured by a structure of disavowal: "I know this isn't real, but nevertheless..." We are seduced by the manufacture of perfect illusions. But in the verisimilitude of brains spilled on the floor in the opening scene is another disavowal. This sequence reminds us of race, racial conflict, and white people's anxiety and rage, but only to deflect our attention through the lure of technical wizardry. The pleasure of such images, then, has to do with our fascination with "real" effects, and their ability to cancel out any reference to the social world from which they nevertheless borrow their charge of danger and anxiety. Lynch's films seduce us not because they stage fantasies, but because they emphasize the technical staging of fantasy, rather than its content or context.
The first five minutes of Blue Velvet have everything l'm drawn to in David Lynch's work. Take something comforting, familiar, essentially American, and turn up the controls, the visual volume. It's overheated technicolor and every frame would make an exquisite still. Every detail is picture-perfect and it reeks of danger and failure.
In each scene of Wild at
Heart, Lynch reintroduces the elements of the American landscape - the
sad grand plains of the mid-West, the minimalist geometry
of endless roads,
frontiers and signs, the sordid motels - in their original,
unadulterated form. In the act of love bodies bend and merge with a
gymnastic suppleness recalling Bellmer's doll. Daily life, with all its
violence and brutality (Genet), is what bonds these marginals. It is as
if present-day America, a land both strong and ailing, had found in
Lynch its exorcist, an exorcist and romantic.
DANIELA SALVIONI is the director of Stein Gladstone, New York.
BEAT STREULI is a Düsseldorf-based artist who presently lives in New York.
Respecting children is important. Violence in America is important. AIDS is important. Walking on the moon is important. The Amazon rainforest is important Japan is important. Civil unrest in the Soviet Union is important. Shelter is important. The Holocaust is important. George Bush is important. The difference between rich and poor nations is important. The atomic bomb is important. Electricity is important. Culture is important. Finding a penny is unimportant. The National Hockey League Quarterfinals is unimportant. The Mensa Society is unimportant. Male baldness is unimportant. A fish-knife is unimportant. Artificial turf is unimportant. The American videocassette recorder industry is unimportant. Anastasia Chaikovsky is unimportant The abdication of King Edward VIII is unimportant. Food coloring is unimportant. Worrying for the sake of worrying is unimportant. Breakfast in bed is unimportant. Canada is important and unimportant. The World Cup of Soccer is important and unimportant. A white lie is important and unimportant. The Group of Seven economic summit is important and unimportant. The Vice-Presidency of the United States is important and unimportant. The deposition of Zhao Ziyang is important and unimportant. Talk radio is important anunimportant. Skipping lunch is important and unimportant. The common cold is important and unimportant. Proper dinner etiquette is important and unimportant. The military coup in Fiji is important and unimportant. The price of coffee is important and unimportant. David Lynch is important and unimportant.
PETER EISENMAN was dubbed "The David Lynch of Architecture" last year in Vanity Fair.
I often hear people say about David Lynch, "I don't get it!"-that is precisely the point. Lynch disturbs the conventional expectations between form and narrative. He blurs time, space, color and sequence so that we can no longer see and hear in the same way. But what is the most disturbing of all, he does this within traditional genres and forms; the soap opera, the road movie, and so on. All our lives are spent learning how to get it: Lynch un-learns us.
As one who actually tries to
have no taste, or what many might call acutely bad taste, it's always
surprising when I happen to find something that truly offends me enough
to hate it. There are so many bad films that I adore, and so much
mediocre art that I find interesting, so why is it then that I cannot
stand Lynch? It's not because his films are bad, but rather because they
are bad art. Lynch's
failures, either as a director of bad movies - "bad" here
connoting not my opinion but his own adoption of cinematic devices and
attitudes historically relegated to low-budget, lowbrow, or
hierarchically B-grade film genres
such as horror, melodrama, exploitation, fantasy, monster, sci-fi, crime,
noir and mondo - or as an artist, are not the issue; howeverhis failure
as a bad artist is. In this way Lynch represents a monumental affront,
as well as a serious threat, to my faith in our own continued ability
and capacity to be socially subversive. My problem with Lynch is not his
mediocrity, which is forgivable, nor his commercialism and mainstream
superficiality, which is acceptable and even to be expected in most
Hollywood corporate employees such as he; it is his co-opting,
capitalizing and colligating of the counter-cultural into his own campy,
counterfeit, cannibalistic confiture. Within his decadent hypermannerism,
horror no longer lurks in the phobic darkness of unknown terror, but
parades vulgarly before us as a self-parody under the over-exposing
lights of media pastiche and soulless spectacle. Lynch perpetrates the
worst, most dangerous kind of fabrication, impersonating neither reality
nor fiction but something far more precious and rare: the subjective
visionary, idiosyncratic and anarchic outsider's fantasies of socially
sanctioned fictional realities. In his fauxpersonal filmmaking,
weirdness is strictly token, while brutality and hysteria are
systematically sapped of their raw power by artsy stylization and kitsch
irony. The intensity and expressiveness of exaggeration, excess and
technical incompetence so brilliantly evident in the best underground
and no-budget masters - such as H. G. Lewis, Coreman and Woods - is
entirely lost on Lynch and his audience. It is a shame that these
extremes have now merely become Lynch's own brand of cheesy, senseless
ultra-violence, where they seem far more indicative of what is shallow,
gratuitous and inane than of what can be scary, grotesque and insane
about this world we live in. Beyond this lamentable fact, however, is
the much more worrisome possibility that Lynch's impact will irrevocably
pervert and tame that once pure and savage realm of cinema.
Eraserhead, Lynch's first film, had a strong cult following; Blue Velvet, a later film, a larger but a weaker one. Given the United States' government's turn toward totalitarianism, the only art that now matters is that which has a cult following and the only culture, that which is provincial.
EANNE SILVERTHORNE is an artist and writer who lives in New York.
ANDREW ROSS teaches English at Princeton University and is the author of the forthcoming Strange Weather: Culturc, Science and Technology.
Eraserhead was something of a cult film, at least for the NewWave generation. It was one of the first films to revert to black-and-white cinema and to simulate the aesthetics of the '20s or the '50s. Wild at Heart basically appeals to the same audience: now an older New Wave generation. It treats of personal myths, of the cultural figures we remember from our own childhood or from our parents'past, like Elvis, rock 'n'roll... Lynch presents us with the accumulated tragedy of love in an American world through the filter of the classical rock'n'roll era, which is, in a sense, the climax of American civilization. But it is the mask that attracts him, the "illusion of reality" - a formal, aesthetic means of speaking about reality, which he uses with unadulterated mastery.
Lynch accedes to myth, thereby formulating and, at the same time, finalizing history. In our age, it is not a matter of reformulating, but of processing the trends of the 20th century, including today's highly impulsive ones. Lynch engages in a kind of cultural disposal and reprocessing; in this sense he is an effective purification plant, rather than an innovator.
BRUCE JENKINS is the film and video curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and a lecturer in art history at the University of Minnesota. His writings on film have appeared in Octoberand Millenium Film Journal.
I think of David Lynch's movies as occasions for the homeless body, the wandering body, the body-on- horseback in the American United States Western. Certain scenes - in Blue Velvet, Dean Stockwell lip- synching Roy Orbison's In Dreams using a light-fixture as a microphone; Isabella Rossellini naked outside the house, everyone else clothed; the Twin Peaks dwarf leaving his chair to dance over the checkerboard floor - are stopping places on a journey. The stops are performances, enacted by some people in the movie in front of other people in the movie, and then in turn for us - the movie-goers - as if we're watching over those other people's shoulders. The American United States Western is combined with the American United States highschool play; the American United States Western is domesticated into the American United States suburb. The performers live up to the rules of performance, whether these are determined by himself/herself (the performer is a torturer) or by others (the performer is a victim); the performers play out the rules to 4the end of the line,_ as Barbara Stanwyck says in Double Indemnity. The Westerner too conscious of himself/herself (the Westerner transformed into the film noir detective), the Westerner aware of himself/herself as a Hollywood version of a Westerner: the juncture of The Searches with Sunset Boulevard.
And then there's the scene - too short to be a scene, really, it's only an "instant" - that I can't get out of my head (more precisely, out of my body): We're back in Blue Velvet , Dennis Hopper's face turns, swings, moves into camera view; his face is close, his voice is close, but this is a bulletin, not an intimation: "I'll fuck anything that moves" - there's a cut, the scene changes, someone's moving, and so are we, and we might be scared, and we might be scary, too.
Taking in hand a handsome red pear the other day, and slicing it down the middle in order to share it with my wife, I found, to my great surprise, that at the core, around the seeds, the fruit had formed a near perfect sphere enveloped in a viscous gel and cleanly separate from the otherwise healthy pulp. In fact that gooey ball had somehow escaped my knife, so that when I parted the two halves of the pear, there it was, sticking out of one half, discrete in its separate reality, like an avocado pit. An odd sight, not only because on the outside the pear was immaculate and quite appetizing, but because usually the core of a ripe pear, unlike that of an apple, is of more or less the same substance and consistency as the pulp, except for those last few fibers and seed casings at the very center.
"Now isn't that the strangest thing you've ever seen?" I said to my wife. "Take it away," she said. "It looks like... David Lynch!"
A comment even more apt and penetrating than may at first appear: for in addition to the strangeness of the mutation itself, the fact that it had occurred beneath a surface so innocuous in appearance (like the "little chicken" in Eraserhead), or even downright beautiful (like Small Town America in Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks), seemed like pure Lynch. A bright cerise-red skin with Qne yellow shades encasing a luxuriant pulp: what better vessel for the perversion lurking within? Might it not be Isabella herself? Or Laura Dern? Or even Kyle McLaughlin? We did end up eating the pear. And it was, of course, delicious.
Violence - sadism, masochism, victims - is a staple theme of American cinema, particularly in the '70s. Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs and the films Scorsese made with de Niro (Mean Streets) are notable examples. These films reflect the urban, social violence resulting from the historic crisis that ensued when Vietnam made the air-conditioned dream a nightmare with its terrible vision of absolute violence: revelations of the carpet bombing of 1968 and the My Lai massacres of 1969 had America in a state of shock. The trauma felt by this Puritan nation when it saw itself in the role of murderer was symbolically transposed into scenes of social violence: the "Messianic" violence of Taxi Driver, whose hero wages his own private war in the urban jungle, and the symbolic violence manifest in Apocalypse Now, in which an attempt is made to redeem warlike violence as tribal or "cathartic" violence. In Lynch's films, however, violence is internalized, its source has been lost. The nightmarish violence of Eraserhead is inspired by a "disturbing strangeness" the baby born to the couple embodies the husband's nightmare. It is he who masochistically experiences the violence of this monstrous nursling. In Elephant Man, social violence is elevated to the level of abnormality, monstrosity. In Blue Velvet, the violence is again interiorized, since the sadistic interplay between Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini is for the latter a source of ambiguous pleasure. This taboo pleasure in violence apparent in Lynch's films reflects the dual nature of the American nation which regularly represents itself in terms of good and evil.
For myself, David Lynch's films are important because they illustrate how aspects of surrealism have infiltrated the daily lives of Americans. Just as Fellini pictured a contemporary Italian realism withJuliet of the Spirits and La Dolce Vita, Lynch's strength is in the fact that much of the weirdness in Wild at Heart is taken from our everyday lives.
What we see in a film is what we need to see. The truth is the truth we saw. What interested me in David Lynch's films, and particularly in Wild at Heart, is the absence of God. Someone mentioned this to Lynch. They said "So, your film has neither a beginning nor an end?" He replied that his film has more of a beginning and an end than life does. It's true that Lynch sees life as a random set of events: take that out-of-theblue car crash scene, with all those tragic events in the middle. And the world always seems to be without order, without either good or evil and, above all, contrary to the believer's view, without God. Wild at Heart articulates a crucial modern problem: the absence of God, and by "God" I mean some supreme belief. This absence is what is responsible for the chaos shown in the film. I loved Blue Velvet because in that film - and this is much the same thing - there isn't really any good or evil. The ending is remarkable, with the young man surrounded by his family, his grandmother and his mother-in-law, and that little bird we see eating some repulsive worm. This little bird, which is quite marvellous, is at the same time a criminal. As for youngJeffrey all he can think of is beating wretched Dorothy. The whole film seems to be summed up in this young man who discovers the darkness inside himself, like a town where nothing happens, that dark place we all have within us. That is the beauty of David Lynch's films, and what makes them so different from other American films where the good guys always overcome the bad and life always prevails. Each character has blackness within. In Blue Velvet, Dorothy is tortured, but she is happy to be, and Lynch himself is involved as a kind of voyeur. He is active there, too. The film does not frighten, it disgusts, because it shows us our own dark side. What makes Pasolini's Sald beautiful is its ending. We see people being tortured and at the same time other people watching through binoculars - voyeurs, just like ourselves, like the voyeurs we become in a film by David Lynch.
I crossed continents to watch Twin Peaks.
RALF-RAINER RYGULLA, former editor,
anthologist, disc jockey, and copywriter, is currently the manager of a
disco in Frankfurt. His publications include Fuck You, Underground
Poemsand Acid, NeueAmerikanische Szene (with R. D. Brinkmann).
The images in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart remind me more of Russ Mayer than, for instance, of Ridley Scott. The Grade-B-movie ambience seems harmless enough, the surface has the usual consumer-friendly gloss, and the weather is good as in the hundreds of cheapies that come off production lines in the dustyvalleys around Hollywood. But the supercilious sneer of the knowit-all insider soon cracks the veneer. The moralist righteously grabs the first stone and the wood lice and worms underneath squirm, excreting slime in an agony of fear. This is a point of departure for a good film, and both films are good in a way that meets the expectations of a cosmopolitan audience; high-class shock, so high class, in fact, that it's just good enough for the feuilletonist treatment of commerce in human horror.
David Lynch is an important mainstream director (after only four movies and a TV series), but not a radical one, by any means. He only bends and tweaks conventions, careful never to disturb their roots. The most compelling Lynch spectacle is the dance between irony and camp, cowardice and oblivion. At his best (Blue VelvetJ, Lynch reminds me of Michael Powell in 1960 but the best of Blue velvet was an accident. Hopper and Lynch were two worlds colliding, and Hopper (with Dean Stockwell) took over the movie. At his worst, Lynch represents a kind of Young Republican postmodernism, perfectly in sync with the Reagan/Bush pejorocracy and the expanding U.S. military/security state. If war is the health of the state, is violence against women the health of the market? The Angriest Dog in the World strains impotently against his leash, and pisses all over himself.
ROB PRUITT and JACK EARLY are artists who live in New York.
David Lynch is important because he sees things very closely like a house fly and hears things only "Chicken," our chihuahua with big pointy ears, could hear.
PHILIP BROPHY is a filmmaker and writer who lives in Melbourne.
Two kids in school, sitting next to each other. One kid is flicking through a Marshall Cavendish Pictorial History of Art. His name is David Lynch. The kid next to him is defacing the Reader 's Digest Book of Great Peopk. His name is Tim Burton. David leaves school and gets money from the American Film Institute to make a movie about a guy who combs his hair like David Thomas and who would faint at the sight of his own sperm, Eraserhead. Tim goes on to try his hand doing animation over at the Disney studio. David leaves Cocteau alone for a moment and catches a few Jacques Tourneur flicks. Even happens across some Hammer & AIP Poe movies. Mixes them up for Elephant Man. Tim's dues at Disney are finally paid off. They let him make Frankenweenie- a short about a kid who revives his dead bull terrier for a science project. David gets back to the high brow and drops the horror of Gothic England for the wonder of serious sci- fi. He also learns about shooting big bucks in the studio crap game. Frank Herbert, H. R. Giger. . . and Sting? They call it Dune. Tim sticks to a low budget and makes a humble pomo masterpiece with the help of a very popular Saturday morning kid's show host - Pee Wee Herman. Jeff Koons sees Pee Wee's front garden and calls it art. Meanwhile, David discovers that the sand worms he spent millions on for Dune were subconscious symbols of the Hollywood movie system. He decides to play from the inside. Comes up with no-can-fail formula of mixing sleazy pulp with neo-surrealist alienation. Blue Velvet is lauded and generally misconceived as postmodern camp, but what the heck. Tim couldn't give two bits for David's arthouse slumming and scoops up huge dollops of David's surrealism, mixes it up with Ed Roth and Mad magazine and splashes Beetlejuice across cinemas. On a roll, David plays it safe by playing at playing David and throws up Wild At Heart. Phantom credits to George Stevens's Niagara, Sidney Lumet's The Fugitive Kind and Douglas Sirk's Written On the Wind. On a roll, Tim goes mega-corporate, gets Jack Nicholson to play Jack playing Jack badly and throws up Batman. Phantom credits to Stan Lee's Iron Man and Frank Miller's Dark Night.
Flying high, David hits TV and performs magic by getting people who never watch TV to watch it - and believe that David invented the medium with Twin Peaks. Flying low, Tim goes back to Pee Wee's front garden and gets Johnny Depp to trim the hedges for Edward Scissorhands. Back in his stately manor, David relaxes by listening to the Cocteau Twins on CD. A Robert Wilson sketch adorns the small wall. Back in his stately manor, Tim relaxes by reading his boxed set of EC reprints. A defaced TV Guide lies crumpled on the sofa.
THE BANALITY OF EVIL
It will perhaps suggest the mood of those years if I tell you that during them I could not visit my mother-in- law without averting my eyes from a framed verse, a "house blessing," which hung in a hallway of her house in West Hartford, Connecticut.
God bless the corners of this house, And be the lintel blestAnd bless the hearth and bless the board
And bless each place of rest -
And bless each door that opens wide, to stranger as to kin.
This verse had on me the effect of a physical chill, so insistently did it seem the kind of "ironic" detail the reporters would seize upon, the morning the bodies were found. In my neighborhood in California we did not bless the door that opened wide to stranger as to kin. Paul and Thommy Scott Ferguson were the strangers at Ramon Novarro's door, up on Laurel Canyon. Charles Mason was the stranger at Rosemary
"I had a dream. In fact it was
the night I There is nothing good or bad, met you. In the dream, there
was our world, And the world was dark because there weren't any robins.
And the robins represented love.162/4 "The ozon layer's burning up.
And for the longest time there was just this darkness.
And all of a sudden, thousands of
robins were set free And
they flew down and brought this blinding light of love.
And it seemed like that love,
Would be the only thing that would
make any difference.
And it did. So I guess it means,
There is trouble til the robins
- Sandy Williams, Blue Velvet
But thinking makes it so.
- Sandy and Jeffrey, Blue Velvet
From The White Album by Joan Didion.
- Lula, Wild at Heart
He did not see any reason why the devil should have all the good tunes.
- Reverend Rowland Hill
"This whole world's wild at heart and weird on top."
The Merchant of Venice
- William Shakespeare,
The Ring and the Book
"I have done that" Says
my memory. "I cannot have done that" Says my pride, and
remains adamant. At last - memory yields.
- Friedrich Nietzsche,
- Lula and Sailor, Wild at Heart
Beyond Good and Evil
Translation from the German:
Translation from the French: