Indie Heroes: Lynch, David–Jimmy Stewart from Mars

David Lynch may be the only independent filmmaker to bring an avant-garde sensibility to the commercial cinema. A home-grown surrealist, he has traveled the unlikely odyssey from the midnight circuit, where he achieved notoriety with Eraserhead, to arthouse celebrity with Blue Velvet, to a Time magazine cover during his popular TV series Twin Peaks, to an almost inevitable decline in his last pictures.

A peculiar combination of perversity and frivolity informs Lynch’s work, which can be described as a cinema of anguish based on the notion of propriety gone awry. From the very beginning, viewers of a Lynch film expected to be shaken up, to be astonished by the tension, mood and sensation in his work. This may be the reason why the adjective Lynchian has become a catchall phrase for every kind of cinematic deviation.

Like Jost, Lynch is dedicated to obsessive exploration of the violent essence of American life, but, unlike Jost, Lynch has the ability to transform scary nightmares into pleasurable sensations. Lynch folds “Eagle Scout” and “Peter Pan” qualities into his baroque cinema, blending stylistic excess and devious humor with a peculiar earnestness and innocence in the ways of the world. The Lynch touch is marked by painterly style, bizarre camera angles, offbeat composition, and odd rhythm, all refreshing devices after a decade of MTV hyper-kineticism, glitzy imagery, and fast cutting.

Lynch’s best films are coming-of-age stories, reflecting the sexual anxieties of a high-school nerd. Kyle MacLachlan, who has appeared in several of his movies and TV series, is the ideal personification of Lynch’s depraved fantasies. Lynch has shown concern with odd textures, severed body parts, bleeding orifices, and women’s anatomy. His dread of women is reflected in his study of model-actress (and former wife) Isabella Rossellini.

Lynch’s creativity manifests itself through a disconnected series of images and moods. “I believe that ideas come from outside us,” he told Newsday. “It’s as if they are being broadcast in the air and we tune into them like our mind is a receiver.” Lynch’s muse takes him beyond logic and narrative, his art venting personal fantasies that, when placed at the service of general themes, become more resonant.

A provocateur, though not a poseur, Lynch is obsessed with stark images of decaying organic matter. His films suggest that nothing in life is fixed, that everything is relative. It’s a matter of disorienting scale, of emphases out of kilter. The meaning of the same object changes when seen in a long shot or in a close-up: Cockroaches examined at their own level are as big and menacing as jackals.

As a boy delivering newspapers, his route took him through back alleys, where he would sort through the garbage hoping to find something exciting. Later, in art school, Lynch was intrigued by burning the skin off a mouse to study its inner parts. Lynch sees the world as a compost heap with something tumorous lurking beneath the surface. In his movies, the physical world is unstable, mutating, breaking apart. David Denby has labeled Lynch “the high priest of industrial detritus for whom the perversion of the organic becomes a fact of life both feared and admired.”

Lynch was born in Montana in January 1946 to “normal” parents, but lived a fairly uprooted childhood. His nature-loving father, who worked for the Department of Agriculture as a research scientist, moved the family from place to place. Lynch spent his adolescence in placid, all-American towns like Missoula and Spokane. “When I was little,” he recalled, “there were picket fences, beautiful trees, real quiet dreamy afternoons, real good friends, lakes, camping trails, fires. I enjoyed all these things, but there was also something else under the surface.” That something was fear, a primordial sense of dread first felt when his mother took him to New York. “I always had one eye looking somewhere else,” he recalled.

Consumed with an ambition to painting, Lynch attended Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Pennsylvania’s Academy of Fine Arts. Inspired by The Art Spirit, a book written by the painter-educator Robert Henri, he dedicated himself to “Art Life.” “In the ‘Art Life,’ you don’t get married and you don’t have families and you have studios and models and you drink a lot of coffee and you smoke cigarettes and you work mostly at night. You think beneath the surface of things and you live a fantastic life of ideas.”

Deep-seated anxieties goaded Lynch into art, based on his fear of big cities, first New York, then Philadelphia. Like the human ear that Blue Velvet’s hero finds in a littered field, a visit to a Philadelphia morgue impelled Lynch to go beneath the surface of things. “Getting invited to the morgue was a big deal, the turning point,” he said, “seeing a dead person was proof that something can happen.”

Lynch moved to Los Angeles in 1970 to attend the AFl. At AFI, he made a short, The Grandmother (1971), about a lonely, abused boy who grows a loving grandmother from seed. The two are briefly happy, but then she dies and shortly after he does too. In 1972, Lynch began working on Eraserhead, a nightmarish vision of life on the weird fringes of the urban industrial wasteland. The movie took several years, but it was brought to the screen uncensored from Lynch’s unconscious.

Recluse Henry Spencer (played by cult actor Jack Nance) lives in squalor, moving through a creepy, foreboding landscape. Henry’s towering pompadour was the eeriest coiffure to be seen since Elsa Lanchester’s in Bride of Frankenstein and Dean Stockwell’s in The Boy With Green Hair. A spaced-out daydreamer, his fantasy is to have his head used as an eraser. He courts Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), a shy, traumatized girl who lives a cloistered existence with her obnoxious parents. They marry and she gives birth to a “baby,” a hideous thing that seems to have no skin.

Nature goes awry, and Mary gives birth to a series of strange creatures. Domestic tranquility is short-lived: mother leaves her anguished husband alone with the creatures. While Henry drifts off into Lewis Carroll dreams of a theater behind his radiator, the baby cries hysterically. Henry’s dormant paternal instincts are stirred, eventually leading to a climax of unbearable intensity, when he kills the first and most gruesome of his offsprings.

In the final montage, Henry goes from committing infanticide on his mutant, horse-faced love-child, to dancing with a white-haired woman who seems to have huge marshmallows implanted on her cheeks. He is decapitated for his crime, and his head is processed into eraser-topped pencils–the organic defeated by the inorganic realizes his fantasy. Though infused with an atmosphere of intense isolation, Henry’s odyssey is leavened with grim humor. Gross comedy dominates a dinner scene, where John watches his mother-in-law demolish a squab with orgasmic relish, while bloody mini-chickens writhe on the table.

A stream of sub-consciousness, packed with grotesque physical deformities and quest for spiritual purity, Eraserhead is Lynch’s most surreal work. Its brilliance depends on non-narrative elements, particularly imagery: With slight adjustment in lighting, a steam radiator looks like the facade of the Metropolitan Opera. Alan Splet’s weird, eerie sound, and Fred Elmes and Herbert Caldwell’s dense black-and-white photography, reinforce the claustrophobic ambience of the gloomy post-industrial landscape.

Eraserhead was greeted with revulsion when it appeared, but, as J. Hoberman noted, the film was so perversely and coherently articulated that it defied comparison to any other film. Its surreal style and narrative ambiguity recalled the early work of Luis Bunuel (Un Chien Andalou) and Salvador Dali.

A combination of black comedy (grotesquely deformed babies are not subject for jokes), social satire, and special effects informed the film, which created a nightmare, in which successive layers of reality seem to dissolve, with depressing metaphysical overtones. Eraserhead pushed the viewers to a terrifying apocalyptic vortex with effects that were amazing, considering the shoestring budget (a grant from AFI). Lynch shot the movie at night in old stables (part of the AFI’s headquarters), but the inspiration was Philadelphia, which he described as “the sleaziest, most corrupt, decadent, sick, fear-ridden, twisted city on the face of the earth.”

First shown at Filmex 1977, the movie was not widely seen until 1978, when it came to the attention of entrepreneur Ben Barenholtz. Despite mixed to unfavorable reviews, it ran for years as a midnight attraction at Greenwich Village’s Waverly Theatre. The movie’s weirdness developed a cult following in other cities as well. “I wasn’t thinking of a midnight audience when I made it,” Lynch said, “It was a student film.” Eventually, Eraserhead became one of the most successful American avant-garde films, establishing a precedent for other eccentric indies.

After Eraserhead, Lynch wrote the screenplay for Bonnie Rocket, a film about the adventures of a Candide-like scientist who may be an alien from outer space, but couldn’t get a producer interested. Mel Brooks, who saw Eraserhead, came to the rescue with an offer for Lynch to direct a film about John Merrick–a man whose exterior was as hideous as his interior was beautiful. An elegy to freakishness, The Elephant Man was disguised as a Victorian morality play. Exhibited as a carnival freak, Merrick had an abnormally large, disfigured head, a twisted spine, and an otiose right arm, but his physical repulsiveness belied a gentle soul. Before dying in his sleep (of self-strangulation), he was lionized by the high society.

Revisiting a terrain similar to Eraserhead, Lynch exposed undercurrents of metaphysical anguish and absurdist fear, along with an accessible tale of Merrick’s nobility. Freddie Francis’ forceful black-and-white cinematography accentuated a lyrical evocation of the sensitive soul of a physical monstrosity with another unflinching depiction of a grim industrial landscape. For Pauline Kael, Elephant Man had the power of a silent film, with wrenching, pulsating sounds (the hissing of steam suggesting the pounding of the new industrial age).

Winning critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination), Lynch became regarded in Hollywood as a “bankable commodity.” For his next film, he chose Dune, a baroque tapestry based on Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel. With expectations as swollen as its budget, Dune became an expensive fiasco that might have wrecked his career, but Lynch used it as a learning experience. Realizing that his director’s talents are better suited for a personal film, Dune’s producer, Dino De Laurentiis, promised to finance Blue Velvet, provided that Lynch work on a modest $6 million budget. Exercising total artistic control, Lynch made what became the most-talked about film of the decade–and his most accomplished film.

In top form with a film that had touches of Kafka, Bosch, Bunuel, Capra and Hitchcock, Lynch approached the material as if he were “reinventing movies.” He described Blue Velvet as “The Hardy Boys Go to Hell,” because the protagonist stumbles upon an array of social ills: child abduction, drug wars, voyeurism, sexual abuse, corruption–and compulsive need to find truth in a world devoid of meaningful values.

A coming-of-age tale, Blue Velvet centers on Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a student as earnest and innocent as a Hardy Boy. Jeffrey is forced to return to Lumberton, his home town, when his father, a proprietor of the local hardware store, is felled by a cerebral hemorrhage. Returning from a hospital visit, he chances upon a severed ant-infested human ear in the fields. The tantalizing ear resembles a seashell; when the camera enters its dark aperture, it reveals a rare view of the crevices around the hole. Jeffrey launches an investigation that leads him beneath Lumberton’s placid surface into an underworld of sleazy drug-dealers and corrupt cops.

Jeffrey is assisted by Sandy (Laura Dern), a high school senior whose detective father is also investigating the mystery. As a comic-book character, Sandy is the wholesome “Betty” to Jeffrey’s morally ambiguous “Archie.” Jeffrey’s sleuthing leads him to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), a nightclub chanteuse and sexual slave of Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who had kidnapped her son and her husband and cut off the latter’s ear.

The film’s title, a popular 1960s song by crooner Bobby Vinton, which was used in school proms, befits the setting. Lynch’s Lumberton is a sleepy town–Anytown, U.S.A.–where the local radio station, WOOD, marks the beginning of the hour with the sound of falling timber–Lumbertonians know how much wood a wood-chuck chucks.”

In a brilliant opening sequence, the camera pans slowly across whiter-than-white-picket fences and red roses, framed against indigo blue skies and chirping birds. Clean-uniformed policemen smile as they help children cross the street safely. A bright red-fire engine, with its smiling firemen, is moving slowly down the street. The sequence has a dreamy, surrealistic quality, with yellow tulips swaying in a warm afternoon breeze. The camera suddenly cuts to the ground level of grass, and ominous sounds well up as black insects crawl in the darkness. This powerful image sets the film’s tone, announcing the duality of beautiful surfaces and horrible things beneath.

Dressed in khaki trousers, canvas shoes and straw hat, Mr. Beaumont is watering his grass with a hose. At the same time, Mrs. Beaumont is curled up on the couch, smoking a cigarette and enjoying her daytime soaps. But suddenly, Mr. Beaumont is hit with a seizure and falls to the ground–the abrupt eruption of violence in this peaceful setting underlines the precariousness of human life.

Jeffrey lives in a mythic present that feels like the past. Though the setting is contemporary, Lynch fills every frame with signifiers–household furnishings, cars, and even sounds–that bespeak the last 40 years of American pop culture. Blending the real and surreal, Lynch merges melodrama, comedy and noir with both naivete and pulp kinkiness. Indeed, viewers had no idea whether the film was supposed to be funny or malignant, naive or knowing, emphatic or inhuman. The answer, of course, is all of the above.

Lynch’s hypnotic style is achieved not by means of gliding camera or sharp editing, but with painterly vision and composition. So disquieting and artfully composed are Lynch’s images that when Jeffrey discovers two corpses, one still standing, the other bound to a chair, the vision is arresting in the manner of Duane Hanson or Edward Kienholz’s “lifelike” figural sculptures.

Sensuous details blend with a painterly, neo-Gothic style of the bizarre. Almost everything is the opposite of what it seems: Neat, placid surfaces cloak macabre “reality,” and the outwardly horrible is ultimately the most benign. Malignant impulses fester deep within people and things. Lynch creates an hallucinatory atmosphere, unfolding the story with the logic of a nightmare. The surreal texture gives audiences pause, wondering where does the dream end and the temporal world begin.

Sneaking into Dorothy’s apartment, Jeffrey finds an empty child’s room. He observes with fascination how she undresses, slips into a blue velvet robe and begins to entertain Frank. An obscenity-spouting, drug-warped sadomasochist, Frank brutalizes Dorothy in “games” of sexual bondage, then calls her “mommy” in a pathetic whine. Dennis Hopper’s disturbing performance catapults his sleazy drug kingpin into cinema’s most repulsive psychos.

Later, caught watching, Dorothy commands, “Get undressed, I want to see you.” She pulls his underpants down to his knees, holding a knife to his genitals. Rarely in American films does a woman command a man to undress–in an unusual role reversal, Dorothy offers an intense female gaze at Jeffrey’s penis. Initially, Jeffrey’s naivete is juxtaposed with Frank’s raw sexuality. But later, when Dorothy asks Jeffrey to strike her as a prelude to lovemaking, he complies, realizing he is not altogether unlike his nemesis.

Unlike most small-town films, in which the attitude toward sex is hygienic or hypocritical, sex in Blue Velvet is an act of risk and adventurism. Huge flames and roaring sounds highlight the lovemaking; the link of desire with fire is a recurrent motif in Lynch’s work. The rites of passage in this coming-of-age go way beyond Norman and Allison’s innocent kiss in Peyton Place. In Blue Velvet, sexual initiation is intense, carried out by a mature, uninhibited woman in scenes that contain the most eroticized energy displayed in American film.

When Jeffrey decides to spy on Dorothy, he tells Sandy: “There are opportunities in life for gaining knowledge and experience, and in some cases it’s necessary to take a risk.” The world is seen from an adolescent point of view, underlining the allure of the unknown and the horror when it is encountered. “I’m seeing something that was always hidden,” Jeffrey says, acknowledging the dark side of his personality.

Throughout moral and visual ambiguity prevail. Despite a clean, wholesome look, Jeffrey has the curiosity and urge for danger. Early on at the college dance, hiding behind a furnace, he watches a student trying to rape his girlfriend. Jeffrey waits before intervening–voyeurism offers its own pleasure. Visually too, the imagery is ambiguous: When a robin arrives on the kitchen window, it has an insect in its beak.

Sandy recounts a dream in which the world is dark with no robins, but all of a sudden, thousands of robins fly down and bring the blinding light of love. The narrative reaffirms that “love is the only thing that would make any difference, but until the robins come, there is trouble.” Lynch has said that “finding love in hell may be a theme in all my movies.”

Since the narrative deals with subconscious fantasies that are considered “perverse” in mainstream culture, the film’s coda shifts from the subconscious to the conscious, suggesting a tentative return to a normal, ordinary life. In the last scene, Dorothy is seen with her son, but in Lynch’s universe, the restoration of order and legitimate motherhood are at best precarious.

Inspired by Barry Gifford’s novel, Lynch’s next movie, Wild at Heart (1990), was a paean to The Wizard of Oz, with a romantic couple, Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) and Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage), taking their own Yellow Brick Road in search of the Wizard. Ripley has just served 22 months and 18 days in prison for manslaughter in self-defense. Driving from Cape Fear, North Carolina to the end of the line in Big Tuna, Texas, they are followed by Marietta (Diane Ladd), Lula’s monstrous mother. Fearing Sailor’s knowledge of her plot to murder her husband, Marietta mobilizes “black angel” Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) and Perdita Durango (Isabella Rossellini) to track him down.

In outline, Wild at Heart recalls Badlands, though it lacks Terrence Malick’s detached irony. Lynch took a slim work and pumped it up into a pop epic. The dopey Lula and Sailor realize their destiny through intense lovemaking, smoking Kools and Camels, eating burgers and drinking beer. Sailor likes to kick-box in crowded discos to loud guitar music, pick fights (he smashes a man’s skull with his bare hands), then take the mike and croon Elvis songs to his girl. Once they land in Big Tuna and Lula gets pregnant, the film changes gears. In the motel, Lula’s in bed, listening to classic music on the radio, while Sailor goes on a bank robbery that will send him back to jail. In the film’s scariest scene, shown in menacing close-up, Bobby Peru invades Lula’s room and insists that she says, “Please, fuck me.”

Flashbacks reveal Lula’s incestuous Uncle Pooch and Cousin Dell, a man so obsessed with Christmas that he wears a soiled Kris Kringle suit and counts the days all year round. Mother and daughter temporarily unite, though at the end (5 years, 2 months and 21 days later), Lula defies her mother and goes with their son to greet Sailor.

The point of reference is Wizard of Oz: Marietta is the Wicked Witch, whereas the Good Witch Glinda floats down on a large soap bubble and tells Sailor, “Lula loves you, don’t turn away from love.” Sailor goes back and sings Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” as the end credits roll down. Unlike Blue Velvet, here Lynch’s bizarre inventions become an ends in themselves. Not much is made of a fleeting image of a severed head, or a solemn look at a toilet bowl. The shocks have little resonance and the weirdness is trivial: Cousin Dell walks around with cockroaches in his underpants. Once again, fire is the dominant metaphor: In the opening credits, a kitchen match is struck and the screen erupts into intense flames with the roar of a blast furnace.

The picture’s hyperkinetic wildness is mostly on the surface; the images are elaborately conceived but meaningless. The script, basically a series of vignettes, needed more dramatic tension. Lynch infuses the story with menace, but he can’t escape the lurid material. Lynch stylizes Sailor and Lula’s innocence, but their dreams are so infantile that viewers respond with condescension. All the characters, not just the villains, are schematically constructed as cartoons.

In 1990, Lynch ventured into TV with Twin Peaks, a variation on the Blue Velvet texture. His foray into television was unique, uniting viewers into an eccentric community that replicated the community onscreen. After making a disappointing prequel feature to Twin Peaks, Fire Walks with Me (1992), Lynch was back in form with Lost Highway (1997).

The movie begins promisingly, when a young married couple, Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee (Patricia Arquette) get paranoid over intrusions into their privacy, which they realize through videos sent to their home. Renee vanishes and Fred goes to jail. The film then takes up a new set of heroes, Pete (Balthazar Getty), a gas attendant who dumps his girlfriend and takes up with a gangster (Robert Loggia) and his moll (also played by Arquette).

The narrative takes one character to the end of the line, then sets another one on a parallel track. Fred gets a second chance– a new identity as Pete–that noir heroes never get, but it’s not clear whether it’s the same man. The requisite Lynch scare show is in the spooky presence of Robert Blake (with white face, shaved eyebrows and sickly smile, like the dwarf in Twin Peaks). A mystery figure guiding the characters toward their destinies, he is the director’s creation, a manipulator who navigates the film in an arbitrary manner.

An enigmatic thriller with complex formal strategies and intriguing metaphors, Lost Highway lacks a potent narrative. Noir’s perennial issues of paranoia and fatalism are peppered here with touches of the fantastic. As always, Lynch’s technical mastery is impressive: The images and editing rhythms are alarming, but they bear little meaning because they are not conceived in the coherent spirit of Blue Velvet.

Described by Lynch as “a 21st century noir horror,” Lost Highway makes many references to classic noir. But for all the sordid sex and vengeance, the self-reflexive narrative feels tidy and hermetic, an elegant exercise blending supernatural and noir elements. As long as Lynch’s journeys have the visual audacity of Eraserhead, or the playfulness of Blue Velvet, they are satisfying. As Richard Corliss observed, if Lost Highway had preceded Wild at Heart, it might have had some novelty, but the turf, with its obsessions and grotesqueries, is by now familiar and lacks menace. Lynch is poet laureate of harebrained Americana, but his work is not shocking anymore–his motifs have been exploited in nightclubs and gift-shops across the country.

Lynch has always been more interesting when placing issues of order within a framework of deviance. But in his recent work, he has strayed into bizarreness for bizarreness sake–movies that burst into climactic sensations without first establishing logical narrative premises. Too bad, the American cinema needs a visionary filmmaker like Lynch.