The City of Absurdity Interviews & Articles
related to the works of David Lynch
Jack Nance Donut Death

Text by Doug Jackson
24 Frames Per Second, December 30, 1996

Part I. David Lynch's Do's and Do-nuts

A man walks into a South Pasadena donut shop, across the street from his house. He is struck on the head during an ensuing altercation with two young Latino men. The following day he is found dead in his home as a result of the physical trauma received the previous evening. So what, right? Well, when one learns that the victim was a friend of the director David Lynch and had also acted in many of his films, this rather unsensational occurrence takes on an entirely different character. First of all, given Lynch's relative celebrity, one's curiosity might become piqued where it might not otherwise have been. More importantly, however, the addition of Lynch into the equation prompts one to graph onto the events described a certain sur-reality, to recast the event through what one might understand to be Lynch's sensibilities, to give more consideration to the latent irony of the situation as Lynch might choose to represent it (donut-good/death-bad). In other words, there is a compulsion to view the event described above in abstract, non-literal terms.

After all, the world that Lynch puts forth on screen is not an alternate reality-it's just an abstract representation of everyday reality. Rather than abstractions of Form, however, the abstractions imparted are ones of Essence. Under his direction the camera, serving by convention as our proxy within the film's milieu, is free to dwell protractedly on selected items or scenarios culled from real, mundane existence. The premiation and unusual consideration of these otherwise unremarkable objects, however, imparts to them a bias and scale disproportionate to our conventional understanding. Thus, these bloated abstracts introduce what might be described as "gravitational anomalies" within the fabric of our consensual understanding of Reality (which is the film's fundamental context), disturbing, to varying degrees, the remaining contents within the system and helping Lynch to establish his desired mood.

The role that the donut has occupied within this schema is likewise that of a cinematic ballast. And yet, for Lynch, it imparts, as well, certain useful connotations. An aficionado of donuts himself, Lynch never employs them as anything other than positive agents, carriers of grooviness and good-feeling ("Man, they are so good!" he pronounced in a Twin Peaks era Rolling Stone interview). They act as a cultural referent, injecting into the mix a sense of times-gone-by-the postwar era when coffee shops and "doughnuts" were cultural institutions, an era of good times and gentility that Lynch uses to great effect as a foil for whatever sinister aberration he might choose to uncover. As well, their toroid form and fanciful decoration must represent to Lynch a sense of beautiful, platonic perfection. When arrayed in full splendor upon a draped table in one episode of Twin Peaks, they presented a spectacle that transcended the sheer decadence represented-a formally beautiful image, undeniably awesome and wondrous.

This abstraction that Lynch would promote, however, necessarily strays from accepted truth. For all practical purposes, a donut is nothing other than its physical reality: a fried cake-it's "perfect" shape a product of pragmatic engineering, allowing the greatest surface area to be exposed to the frying fat in a compact manner; it's venue no longer the polite coffee shop, but the somewhat more perfunctory, aggressive donut shop. The latter, especially in urban areas, is generally a 24-hour establishment, and, as a rule, plays host to a wide variety of thugs and vagrants, as well as the officers of the law assigned to protect us from them. It offers a sort of sterile, brightly-lit neutral turf where each side (really two sides of the same socially-maladjusted coin) can consort with each other free from fear of reprisal, a complex locus of late-night activity with ill-defined social boundaries-a dangerous brew of guns, latent aggression, caffeine, and polysaccharides.

Part II. Starvin' Marvin's Inscrutable Existence

So, on the one hand, the fact that Jack Nance, a 53 year old character actor living in South Pasadena, would meet his untimely demise as a result of a donut-shop brawl is, in and of itself, completely unremarkable. Those familiar with his career, however, or more specifically, his friendship with David Lynch which fueled his later career, will certainly not fail to note the amazingly weird congruence of events and contexts that this unfortunate occurrence represents. That this man, culturally inseparable from David Lynch (who is, himself, an ardent donut-devotee) would die a donut-related death is an irony so pronounced that it cannot fail to go unnoticed. And unfortunately, since the majority of people who will ever hear of his death will, most likely, be fans of David Lynch, it is a virtual given that news of his tragic death will only ever be communicated as an ironic anecdote.

As mentioned, Nance's career as an actor is inextricably tied to David Lynch's rise as a director. As far as I'm aware, his first role of any note was as Henry Spencer, the beleaguered subject of David Lynch's first feature film, Eraserhead (1976). Nance was cast in the role partially out of convenience: he was married, at the time, to Lynch's AFI friend, Catherine Coulson, who was Eraserhead's assistant camera operator, and would later portray The Log Lady in Twin Peaks. And yet, it is obvious that the grueling, four-year production of Eraserhead allowed an independent bond to grow directly between Jack Nance and David Lynch. Coulson remembers that they all "became like a family," that "Jack's and my home life became 'Eraserhead,' and oftentimes, after we were through shooting, David would come over and we would eat pancakes at our house."

Jack Nance would go on to have small roles in Blue Velvet (1984) as Paul, and Dune (1986) as a Harkonnen guard, and then later appear briefly in Wild at Heart (1990) as 00-Spool. In 1987 he acted in a movie Lynch directed for French television called The Cowboy and the Frenchman. And four years later, Lynch's only realized American television project would see Nance's only regular television role, as Pete Martell in Twin Peaks. In David Lynch's forthcoming film, Lost Highway, Jack Nance is slated to appear as a police officer. (One wonders if donuts will figure prominently in that role).

Outside of Lynch projects, unfortunately, Nance's work has been intermittent and meager in scope. Apart from a small role in Barfly as a private detective (acquired through the influence of David Lynch), Nance's appearances have been difficult to note. In one episode of the television drama Crime Story, for instance, his character (another private investigator) is killed off even before the opening title sequence rolls. His brief appearances have also graced such hard-to-catch films as Motorama, The Demolitionist, and The Secret Agent Club (starring Hulk Hogan).

Given his relative invisibility within the industry, it is difficult to gain a real sense about the man, himself, aside from a few basic facts (he was born Marvin John Nance in 1943 and raised in Dallas, where he received theatrical training before moving to California). And yet his relatively meager acting skills have ensured, throughout his intermittent work, a certain, palpable consistency of character-a simple, plain-spoken ordinariness-which one can suppose to be a glimpse of the real Jack Nance.

Those individuals whom I know who followed the career of Jack Nance were always hoping that, at some point in the future, Nance would, once again, take center stage in a Lynch endeavor. Perhaps there was just such a project, gestating slowly in Lynch's mind, which will now never come to be. Perhaps having Nance's character deliver the opening lines in the Twin Peaks pilot was, to Lynch, just such a reprise. And yet, it is also possible that Nance never felt or expressed the need for such exposure, that he was, perhaps, perfectly content to take the small, obscure parts as they occurred along the way. He was, after all, reported to have been attracted to the role of Henry in Eraserhead not because it was the lead, but because Henry's experiences reminded him of feverish visions he once had during an illness. So, perhaps he found the crazier, more absurd roles particularly appealing, in spite of their small size. Perhaps they liberated him, however briefly, from a perceived plainness.

Perhaps, as well, such a disposition finally did him in. What could it be that would cause a 53 year old man to enter into a brawl with two young men in their twenties? Did Nance say something to them? Did he behave in a strange or unexpected fashion? Was he seeking to deny their perception of him? I suppose we may never know. The only thing we know for sure is that he's a goner. Deceased. No more. And that, regrettably, the abstractable circumstances of his demise might be considered to be more interesting than the reality of his life and career.

But we can also infer that at least, before he died, he had time to enjoy his donuts. Man, they are so good.

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