FILM-PHILOSOPHY

ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 42, October 1999

 


 

John Bleasdale

Letting Go of David Lynch

 


 

 

 

Martha P. Nochimson

_The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood_

Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998

ISBN 0 292 75565 1

272 pp.

 

David Lynch confesses to being a director who, ninety-percent of the time, does not know what he is doing. This intentional shunning of intention as a methodology can stand as an explanation for a career rich in paradox. His films are at once neat and gory, popular and esoteric, tame and wild, confusing and clear. Martha P. Nochimson approaches her subject in a way which parallels Lynch's own professed method of film making by intuition. Her book presents a comprehensive reading of Lynch's films from his early student short _The Alphabet_ to his most recent Hollywood release, _Lost Highway_. Nochimson describes a cosmic mythology around Lynch, which itself relates to a psychological interiority. Taking her cue from Lynch's reading of her own reading of Jackson Pollock's 'Blue Poles: Number 11' (1952), she begins by analysing her own process. When Nochimson confesses not to understand the painting, Lynch tells her that her eyes were moving and therefore she was understanding it (5). Adopting Merleau-Ponty's conception of the mirror stage as a moment of empathetic bonding rather than Lacanian alienation, Nochimson argues that, despite Lynch's sceptical distrust of (Hollywood) narrative (and to an extent language), in taking his inspiration from painters such as Francis Bacon and Pollock and film makers such as Welles and Hitchcock, he seeks to produce films which stir the collective subconscious (in a non-Jungian sense) and provoke sympathy. This sympathy is Nochimson's own response. As she follows Lynch in 'letting go', there is perhaps the suspicion that letting go constitutes a surrender of critical distance. Even if, ninety percent of the time, he claims not to know what he is doing, Lynch is still directing, and fully aware of himself for a tenth. In fact, is this claim really a valid one to accept? Is it not rather a pose? Nochimson's book champions Lynch enthusiastically, battling hostile critics and disgruntled collaborators along the way. There is the occasional sense that in constructing her explanatory cosmology, Nochimson is playing the evangelist narrating another kind of passion altogether.

 

_The Passion of David Lynch_ is comprised for the most part of a series of close readings. We begin with _Wild at Heart_ and move backwards until we get to his first student films. The final chapter reads _Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me_ as at once a summation and a leap forward. With _Wild at Heart_ we are presented with exemplars of Lynch's heroic ideal. Sailor Ripley is a seeker-protagonist, who drives 'a plot that calls for action that they cannot perform without crossing limits that have been culturally preset' (41). His actions are at odds with the conventional Hollywood hero. His initial act of violence moves instantly from the heroic to the homicidal. His ultimate moment of redemption is preceded by an act of letting go. Other such seeker-protagonists are Frederick Treves, Dale Cooper, and Jeffrey Beaumont. This figure is in part a rebuttal of Lacan's observation: 'The picture is certainly in my eye, but I am not in the picture'. [1] With Sailor we are in the picture. We empathise. His activity is analogous to ours. At key moments we attain his point of view.

 

Lulu represents the other heroic type, namely the secret bearer (or the secret-as-protagonist). Nochimson takes care to distinguish this Lynchian type from illusionist (that is Hollywood-realist) models:

 

'This difficult and challenging Lynchian protagonist is usually passive in the illusionist film, the object of both some sort of attack and some sort of heroic protection. In the Lynch film this position becomes highly active as a voyage of discovery. The Lynchian story of the secret protagonist permits this character to make the painful discovery between his or her suffering and malign elements in purportedly benign social institutions. The ultimate challenge this character must meet is to reconcile his or her radical, but mysteriously covert, exclusion from social systems with survival.' (41)

 

John Merrick and Laura Palmer are two such characters who do not manage this ultimate challenge.

 

Both these hero types must cross, or have crossed boundaries. For Sailor and Lulu this boundary is at first maternal disapproval but soon becomes the state line. For Nochimson the film focuses on the former rather than the latter. I cannot concede to Nochimson that _Wild at Heart_ is not a road movie, precisely because of such scenes as the crossing of the state line. Her alignment of the genre of the road movie to that of the action movie is too exclusive. For Nochimson, the Maternal Melodrama pits a destructively wilful Marietta against her daughter Lulu and Lulu's lover, Sailor. Their attempt to escape her influence is bound to fail, set as it is against a world of will and order which, like Marietta, is also out of control. Their final redemption can only take place after a series of significant failures. The initial murder (is it self-defence? is it racist?); the car accident in the dessert; the attempted robbery and Sailor's stoical insistence that it won't work; are finally succeeded by a moment of unconsciousness (achieved through an unheroically received punch). The appearance of the good Witch Glinda urges Sailor to find a happy ending with Lulu. Sailor's decision to countenance the happy ending rather than the bitter and pyrric victory of conventional male heroism represents a decision to will the loss of the will. His decision is analogous to Lynch's own letting go and the decision the audience are then forced to make about how to accept the meta-fictional Glinda and the grotesque wax nose that Sailor wakes up with.

 

This reading of _Wild at Heart_ provides Nochimson with the critical template and vocabulary through which she can view Lynch's other movies. _Blue Velvet_ runs along a similar narrative line. Jeffrey Beaumont as the seeker-as-protagonist has to overcome Frank's destructive will and, through an increasingly empathic connection with the night-club singer Dorothy Valens, proceed to true manhood. Frank is the bad father to Marietta's bad mother. He is toxic, deluded (and ultimately destroyed) by his compulsion to control and exercise his will. As Nochimson puts it, 'he is, indeed, a Lynchian atrocity -- a dreamless man' (116). Jeffrey's search begins with a severed ear and it is this organ of receptivity which symbolises the direction his search takes. Through his relationship with Sandy (the girl next door) and Dorothy (the femme fatale) he is soon having to reassess such gender categories, as in the process he becomes a man in the way that the other men in the film are not (Ben, his father, Detective Williams, and Frank). The now famous robin which concludes the film tempts our cynicism (like Glinda and Ripley's nose) at the point where empathy is most needed.

 

The television series _Twin Peaks_ is also read in this way. The strong presence of a seeker protagonist in Dale Cooper, and the secret bearers Laura Palmer and the Log Lady, initially provide a Lynchian cosmology as they oppose the toxic will of Bob/Leyland, Laura's father. However, Nochimson must deal with a collaborative production, and a story which turns in directions incompatible with Lynch's personal cosmology. She succeeds in this through a detailed discussion of the differences between Lynch's view and that of Mark Frost, his collaborator. As Frost became the primary creative force in the series, due, it has to be said, to Lynch's leave of absence to make _Wild at Heart_, so Cooper became rationalistic, and transgression became a dangerous, rather than a necessary activity.

 

As with _Wild at Heart_, _Dune_ is adapted from a novel. However, whereas Lynch could use the main narrative line (with some major modifications) of Barry Gifford's novel, the central quest for control of the known universe which dominates the action of Frank Herbert's epic is so incompatible with Lynch's interest in letting go of the known universe to allow us to enter the unknown that the film, despite moments, does not work. The same cannot be said of Lynch's first foray into Hollywood film making, _The Elephant Man_. Nochimson places the film -- with its moment and setting of Victorian London -- on a cosmic scale, as part of a larger continuum. Merrick's tragedy is in his failure, as a secret bearer, to survive. His suicide manifests itself as an attempt to emulate normality (by sleeping horizontally) and thereby erase his essential difference. Victorian society is initially depicted as black and white as the film stock. Amidst the darkness is the brutal night porter, the exploitation of the freak show, and the working class. In the light we have Frederick Treves, the Doctor who rescues Merrick, the medical establishment, and the upper class women who patronise Merrick. However, ultimately _The Elephant Man_ 'shows us a rationally structured culture in which its 'bright' side is even more lethal than its dark side' (145).

 

It is the patronage of the upper class and the poisonous effect of the pantomime, during which Merrick cheers the defeat of the ogre, which leads directly to his suicide. Nochimson argues that the suicide takes Merrick into the 'cosmic maternal' (147) with which the film began. This conclusion does not represent a return to the womb or the constructed and corrupt idealisation of the feminine which characterises so many of the *good* women of the film. Rather, the maternal cosmic represents a feminine bridge to the beyond.

 

Nochimson traces the origins of Lynch's cosmology firstly in his masterpiece _Eraserhead_, and subsequently in his short films _The Grandmother_ and _The Alphabet_. In _Eraserhead_ we have the primary seeker protagonist, Henry Spencer, who, although initially trapped in a loveless marriage, releases himself through the killing of a baby which is self-evidently not a baby, but a monster. For Nochimson, this moment is a liberation.

 

Nochimson concludes the book with a reading of _Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me_ in the light of what has gone before. For Nochimson the film represents a Key to All Mythologies. Here, we find the rejection of rationalistic seekers (the FBI), the insistence on feminine wisdom and receptivity, the plight of the secret bearer, and the violence and danger of the will as well as its ultimate (self-)defeat. The cosmic space of the red room is ultimately transformed by Laura Palmer's presence into a feminine site (a maternal cosmic perhaps). It also represents the movie in which Lynch seems most obviously to have let go. The narrative is wilfully confusing, that is it wills us to lose our wills. The decision of Lynch's protagonist to relinquish (surrender) the will is considered by Nochimson as a triumph. Although she is aware of the danger trivialising the suffering of an abused, raped and murdered daughter, her defence that Lynch's cosmology should not be taken *grindingly* literally is unsatisfactory. Her argument that Laura's final triumph is a poetic centre, and therefore a world away from a platitude such as 'she will meet her reward in heaven', does not take into account that such a platitude can be poetically expressed, and indeed this film might simply be a new age version of it. Lynch's films want happy endings in both sense of the word 'want'. This urge to provide artificial happy endings which have to be willed into sincerity reveals that Lynch may be a latter day Romantic ironist.

 

However, Nochimson offers valuable insights. Her main thesis that Lynch represents a major Hollywood rebel is championed enthusiastically and charges of misogyny are faced head on and convincingly. Stylistic elements such as Lynch's treatment of air and the movements of air (the various shots of mist and fire and trees) are read as vital components of the narrative, symbolising the energetic exterior of a constantly observant natural world. Likewise, there is a detailed discussion of Lynch's use of music. Ultimately, the book is a lucid and invigorating reassessment of Lynch. Despite the ugliness of the book (some of the film-stills appear to be photographs of a television screen showing an ex-rental video which were taken by a fun camera), Nochimson writes beautifully and at times poetically in a manner consistent with her subject.

 

University of Liverpool, England

 

 

Footnote

 

1. Jacques Lacan, 'The Split between the Eye and the Gaze', in _The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis_ (New York: Norton, 1978), p. 96.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

 

John Bleasdale, 'Letting Go of David Lynch',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 42, October 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n42bleasdale>.

 

  

 

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