Essays

Inside David Lynch’s Dream Worlds

Isabella Rossellini in 'Blue Velvet' (1986) (image courtesy Park Circus/MGM)
Isabella Rossellini in ‘Blue Velvet’ (1986) (image courtesy Park Circus/MGM)

David Lynch has been a stranger to the director’s chair for almost a decade now — since 2006’s Inland Empire, to be exact. In spite of his extended leave, interest in the American filmmaker is unflagging, and one not insignificant reason is Twin Peaks. The last two years alone have witnessed an all-things-Peaks euphoria that would have been difficult to predict in 1991, the year the show was yanked from TV following a fitful 14-month run. The buzz surged two summers ago, when the cult-favorite series (which Lynch co-created with Mark Frost) was given a completist, box-set home video release; that summer also marked the start of its year-plus-and-running hit tenure on Netflix. Then came the blindsiding announcement of the show’s return (which was shortly thereafter cancelled, then revived, and most recently delayed). The reboot is slated to feature much of the original cast and to be directed by Lynch himself.

Still from 'Twin Peaks' (1990–91) (click to enlarge)
Still from ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990–91) (click to enlarge)

Yet even beyond the promised (but still uncertain) return of the infinitely endearing Twin Peaks, Lynch’s abiding appeal seems indebted to something greater and more general. For whatever reasons, Lynch remains perennially relevant. Chalk it up to the unparalleled way in which his dreamy fictions meld quixotic contrasts, generating a wild energetics of fear, malice, and desire. Or maybe it’s the broadness with which his films resonate: from the pothead high-schooler mutely enamored with weird shit to the Slovenian sultan of Lacanian cinema studies, from Film Comment to the Golden Globes. Lynch is an artist whose persona and films have been widely overloaded by caricatures and clichés which somehow still fail to diminish the force and novelty of his work.

As we hold our collective breath for more Twin Peaks 2.0 news, a trio of offerings has arrived to stoke the embers of Lynch fandom: the Criterion Collection’s director-approved, sumptuous digital restoration of Mulholland Dr., arguably Lynch’s best film; the publication of David Lynch: The Man from Another Place (New Harvest), Dennis Lim’s superb critical biography of Lynch; and lastly, coinciding with the release of Lim’s book, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s dual retrospective of Lynch’s films alongside those of the similarly beguiling French filmmaker Jacques Rivette. All screenings in the series, programmed by Lim and Dan Sullivan, are being projected on 35mm film.

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Many regard Mulholland Dr. as a puzzle of a film — maybe pretentious, overly calculating, unruly, or simply misbegotten. In truth, if the film is opaque it’s only because dreams are too. Its 147 minutes are a true journey to the end of the night, with no deference to the rigors, sobriety, and logical cohesion of plot. As such, any conventional synopsis barely begins to communicate the experience of actually watching it. In fact, an artist’s statement would arguably be more appropriate — and Lynch delivered something suggestive of one years prior, in the press notes for Dune, his infamously uneven adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic: “I want to make movies that take place in America and that take people into worlds where they could never go.”

That Mulholland Dr. takes place in America — specifically, Los Angeles — may be the only certainty of the film. And yet even this point is accompanied by a taunting grin. By posing “America” — paragon of familiar signs and associations — alongside the extraterrestrial “worlds where they could never go,” Lynch conjures up one of the many woozy, ironic contrasts that tinge his film with madness and unease.

Laura Harring and Naomi Watts in 'Mulholland Dr.' (image courtesy The Criterion Collection)
Laura Harring and Naomi Watts in ‘Mulholland Dr.’ (image courtesy The Criterion Collection)

In The Man from Another Place, however, Dennis Lim refines the critical refrain that Lynch’s films thrive on contrasts and opposition. According to Lim, in Lynch’s films opposites are not only “pitted against each other, but combined and recombined for their potential for disorientation, as reflections that heighten the overall hall-of-mirrors effect.” So much of Mulholland Dr.’s force derives from just this dynamic. The film’s “protagonists,” Betty and Rita, almost behave like ciphers for the sunniness of an unblemished California and its nocturnal, grimacing inverse. The film syncopates the identities of Betty and Rita as deliriously as it blends the day and night of its Lynchian iteration of Los Angeles. Through foggy narrative dimensions, heavy-hitting snatches of a tortured love between Betty and Rita can be gleaned, as well as an especially jaundiced portrait of Hollywood’s inner machinery. The film moves convulsively, as a veritable legatee of the Surrealist heritage: bugged-out non sequiturs punctuate the crisscrossing encounters of Lynch’s cast of dream creatures — including a mobster movie producer who spits up “the finest espresso in the world” into a cloth napkin and a fainting chanteuse whose traumatic, Spanish-language rendition of Roy Orison’s “Crying” sends tremors through the already frayed nerves of the film.

Though lacking the menacing, vaguely supernatural lunatics that drive primeval fear into Lynch’s earlier endeavors (i.e. Frank, Bobby, and Bob), Mulholland Dr. is frightening nonetheless. Its oozing soundscapes, engineered to perfection by Twin Peaks alum Angelo Badalamenti, impart a grotesque surplus of reality, a calling card of Lynch’s vision. Rumbling low frequencies give even the most mundane imagery a clouded, eerie grimace. A hand picking up the receiver of a dingy telephone, a nameless man narrating a recurring dream, or a tracking shot of breezy California palm trees acquire a lurid dread or a leaden sleepiness. It’s not for nothing that Lim, in his book, notes that “sound is, for Lynch, the most immediate invitation into a world.”

Lynch’s world is first and foremost the world of dreams, and Mulholland Dr. demonstrates his peerless fluency in the logic and forms of it. Like the textbook ideal of the dream, Mulholland Dr. is replete with undetermined roles, equivocal actions, primal scenes, disembodied voices, broken chronologies, and an abundance of violence and erotism. And so the film — and this is equally true for all of Lynch’s work — presents a gaping invitation to theory and interpretation, be it of the communal message-board variety or a flowing discourse couched in academic jargon.

Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto in 'Celine and Julie Go Boating' (image courtesy New Yorker Films)
Dominique Labourier and Juliet Berto in ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating’ (image
courtesy New Yorker Films)

This mania of interpretation is similarly apposite to the films of Jacques Rivette, the other half of the bill, along with Lynch, of a Lincoln Center series highlighting the “tonal kinships” between the two filmmakers. The series draws a canny parallel indeed. Both Lynch and Rivette pursue a cinematic literalism gushing with fantasy and affect, privileging process over destination and fascination over resolution. Both filmmakers rework conventional genres (noir, cloak-and-dagger, road movie, suspense, sci-fi, period piece), exploding their expressive possibilities with poetry and play. But most of all, both unsettle the usual notions of surface and depth, text and subtext, with respect to the meaning and interpretation of their films.

Jacques Rivette, still from 'Le Pont du Nord' (1981) (still by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
Jacques Rivette, still from ‘Le pont du nord’ (1981) (still by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

When, in The Man from Another Place, Lim calls Lynch’s Blue Velvet a “semiotic wonderland of clues, symbols and red herrings,” he could just as easily be talking about any number of Rivette’s films. In the Frenchman’s movies, nothing transpires without the residue of a fundamental ambiguousness — as in an elliptical love story about phantoms and the mysterious network of longing and guilt that bridges the living and the dead (Story of Marie and Julien); a mother and daughter’s tandem role in a gnomic conspiracy with the distinct flavoring of childhood play (Le pont du nord); and, strikingly akin to Mulholland Dr., a scenario revolving around two women who seem to partake of a single dream of their joint authorship (Céline and Julie Go Boating). Lim’s gloss on Blue Velvet — that it is “rife with signs but impervious to decoding” — is especially resonant here. Like Lynch, Rivette creates hieroglyphs of the imagination, yet no Rosetta Stone exists to aid in the translating of their mysteries into workable concepts and verifiable terms. Lim’s commentary equally applies to the films of Rivette when he notes that Lynch’s cinema augured a “new way of understanding narrative art, one that had little to do with traditional identification … or the sifting of symbols and metaphors for deeper meanings.”

On several occasions in The Man from Another Place, Lim makes note of the “collective hunger … to solve, decode, and demystify” that has sprouted up around Lynch, the theoretical enterprise — pop-cultural, academic, and journalistic — dedicated to breaking down his works. But Lim mostly forgoes the heavy lifting of engaging head-on with this glut of theory. The spirit of the book is not far off from Lynch’s own attitude, which, according to Lim, holds that “to decode a film, to proffer interpretations, to divulge the source of an idea — all these simply mean less room and fewer possible dreams.” Though Lim doesn’t go nearly as far as Lynch’s borderline anti-intellectualism, he nonetheless proceeds with a critical tactfulness, never satisfying himself with convenient, reductive theories or easy readings of films derived from a sloppy psychologizing of Lynch’s personal life. The Man from Another Place is attentive to how all these components — meaning and interpretation, work and life — are messily coordinated, and constellates them in a richly interwoven format that doesn’t overdetermine one at the expense of any other.

Dennis Lim, 'The Man from Another Place'
Dennis Lim, ‘The Man from Another Place’

At bottom, Lim’s book is a critical biography, and wastes no time establishing this — its opening line reads “There are four turning points in the creative life of David Lynch,” going on to list them chronologically. Lim charts Lynch’s humble, fairly mundane beginnings (“neither jock nor nerd”), his early excessive reticence (and its consequences in the cagey mysticism of his adult years), his adolescent pyromania, his travails living amid Philadelphian urban blight, his reverence for the painter Francis Bacon, his nights spent sleeping on the set of Eraserhead, and his stint as a semi-official spokesperson for transcendental meditation. Lim likewise maps out Lynch’s films from their inception to their production and reception, while also providing fascinating commentary on topics like the filmmaker’s relation to different media (video, painting, music) as well as the deep significance of his rural, suburban, and urban experiences to his films.

The Lynchpin of the “critical” aspect of this critical biography is a running exposition on the “Lynchian.” Along the way Lim names and invokes Lynchian moods (“inchoate dread, sexual menace, melodramatic panic”), Lynchian perspective (“seeing the world askew”), Lynchian tone (“so famously hard to define”), Lynchian behavior (“what happens on the fringes of polite society”), Lynchian locations (a town on the edge of the woods), Lynchian auditory concepts (to sonically “push clichés to their breaking point and find emotion in artifice”), even claiming Lynchian titles (Reagan’s 1965 autobiography Where’s The Rest of Me? or the American soap operas Another World and The Edge of Night). Although the exercise could seem sloppily deductive — a freight of endless resemblances, all approximately derived from an infinite ideal of “Lynch” — in practice it’s actually quite interesting. That’s because it’s less a schematization of the quirks and particularities of Lynch’s films and life than it is a rambling taxonomy: an open-ended, Borgesian chronicling of everything that even tangentially belongs to the solar system of Lynch, all revolving around a sun-sized enigma, “the defining question of the Lynchian: how are we supposed to feel about this?”

“There’s a lot of bullshit out there about me, in books and all over the internet,” Lynch recently stated, in an announcement that he’ll be undertaking an autobiography, written with journalist Kristine McKenna. It’s safe to say that hadn’t yet read The Man from Another Place when he made that comment. In it, Lim restores to Lynch some of the fullness that the pop-consciousness cartoon image of him has blunted, highlighting the ways in which this outlier, outsized personality also lived a singular life. Stunningly, the book manages to be clarifying without also being disenchanting; its readers will be much better equipped to journey deeper into Lynch’s worlds.

Sheryl Lee and Kyle MacLachlan in 'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me' (1992)
Sheryl Lee and Kyle MacLachlan in ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ (1992)

The Criterion Collection’s digital restoration of Mulholland Dr. and Dennis Lim’s The Man from Another Place are available from Amazon and other online sellers. Lynch/Rivette continues at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (W 65th Street between Broadway & Amsterdam, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through December 22.

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