The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
David Lynch Keeps His Head  by David Foster Wallace


HOWEVER OBSESSED with fluxes in identity his movies are, Lynch has remained remarkably himself throughout his filmmaking career. You could probably argue it either way – that Lynch hasn't compromised or sold out, or that he hasn't grown all that much in twenty years of making movies – but the fact remains that Lynch has held fast to his own intensely personal vision and approach to filmmaking, and that he's made significant sacrifices in order to do so. "I mean, come on, David could make movies for anybody," says Tom Sternberg, one of Lost Highway's producers. "But David's not part of the Hollywood Process. He makes his own choices about what he wants. He's an artist." This is essentially true, though like most artists Lynch has not been without patrons. It was on the strength of Eraserhead that Mel Brooks's production company allowed Lynch to direct The Elephant Man in 1980, and that movie earned Lynch an Oscar nomination and was in turn the reason that no less an ur-Hollywood Process figure than Dino De Laurentiis picked Lynch to make the film adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune, offering Lynch not only big money but a development deal for future projects with De Laurentiis's production company.

1984's Dune is unquestionably the worst movie of Lynch's career, and it's pretty darn bad. In some ways it seems that Lynch was miscast as its director: Eraserhead had been one of those sell-your-own-plasma-to-buy-the-film-stock masterpieces, with a tiny and largely unpaid cast and crew. Dune, on the other hand, had one of the biggest budgets in Hollywood history, and its production staff was the size of a Caribbean nation, and the movie involved lavish and cuttingedge special effects. Plus, Herbert's novel itself was incredibly long and complex and besides all the headaches of a major commercial production financed by men in Ray-Bans, Lynch also had trouble making cinematic sense of the plot, which even in the novel is convoluted to the point of pain. In short, Dune's direction called for a combination technician and administrator, and Lynch, though technically as good as anyone, is more like the type of bright child you sometimes see who's ingenious at structuring fantasies and gets totally immersed in them and will let other kids take part in them only if he retains complete imaginative control.

Watching Dune again on video,9 you can see that some of its defects are clearly Lynch's responsibility: casting the nerdy and potatofaced young Kyle MacLachlan as an epic hero and the Police's unthespian Sting as a psycho villain for example, or – worse – trying to provide plot exposition by having characters' thoughts audibilized on the soundtrack while the camera zooms in on the character making a thinking face. The overall result is a movie that's funny while it's trying to be deadly serious, which is as good a definition of a flop there is, and Dune was indeed a huge, pretentious, incoherent flop. But a good part of the incoherence is the responsibility of the De Laurentiis producers, who cut thousands of feet of film out of Lynch's final print right before the movie's release. Even on video, it's not hard to see where these cuts were made; the movie looks gutted, unintentionally surreal.

In a strange way, though, Dune actually ended up being Lynch's Big Break as a filmmaker. The Dune that finally appeared in the theaters was by all reliable reports heartbreaking for Lynch, the kind of debacle that in myths about Innocent, Idealistic Artists in the Maw of the Hollywood Process signals the violent end of the artist's Innocence-seduced, overwhelmed, fucked over, left to take the public heat and the mogul's wrath. The experience could easily have turned Lynch into an embittered hack, doing effects-intensive gorefests for commercial studios. Or it could have sent him scurrying to the safety of academe, making obscure, plotless 16mm's for the pipe-and-beret crowd. The experience did neither. Lynch both hung in and, on some level probably, gave up. Dune convinced him of something that all the really interesting independent filmmakers – the Coen brothers, Jane Campion, Jim Jarmusch – seem to steer by. "The experience taught me a valuable lesson," he said years later. "I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don't have final cut." And this, in an almost Lynchianly weird way, is what led to Blue Velvet. BV's development had been one part of the deal under which Lynch had agreed to do Dune, and the latter's huge splat caused two years of rather chilly relations between Dino and Dave while the former clutched his head and the latter wrote BV's script and the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group's accountants did the postmortem on a $40 million stillbirth. Then De Laurentiis offered Lynch a deal for making BV, a very unusual sort of arrangement. For Blue Velvet, De Laurentiis offered Lynch a tiny budget and an absurdly low directorial fee, but 100 percent control over the film. It seems to me that the offer was a kind of punitive bluff on the mogul's part – a kind of be-carefulwhat-you-publicly-pray-for thing. History unfortunately hasn't recorded what De Laurentiis's reaction was when Lynch jumped at the deal. It seems that Lynch's Innocent Idealism had survived Dune, and that he cared less about money and production budgets than about regaining control of the fantasy and toys. Lynch not only wrote and directed Blue Velvet, he had a huge hand in almost every aspect of the film, even coauthoring songs on the soundtrack with Badalamenti. Blue Velvet was, again, in its visual intimacy and sure touch, a distinctively homemade film (the home being, again, D. Lynch's skull), and it was a surprise hit, and it remains one of the '80s' great U.S. films. And its greatness is a direct result of Lynch's decision to stay in the Process but to rule in small personal films rather than to serve in large corporate ones. Whether you believe he's a good auteur or a bad one, his career makes it clear that he is indeed, in the literal Cahiers du Cinema sense, an auteur, willing to make the sorts of sacrifices for creative control that real auteurs have to make – choices that indicate either raging egotism or passionate dedication or a childlike desire to run the sandbox, or all three.

Like Jim Jarmusch's, Lynch's films are immensely popular overseas, especially in France and Japan. It's not an accident that the financing for Lost Highway is French. It's because of foreign sales that no Lynch movie has ever lost money (although I imagine Dune came close). 5(A) WHAT 'LOST HIGHWAY' IS APPARENTLY ABOUT

BILL PULLMAN is a jazz saxophonist whose relationship with his wife, a brunet Patricia Arquette, is creepy and occluded and full of unspoken tensions. They start getting incredibly disturbing videotapes in the mail that are of them sleeping or of Bill Pullman's face looking at the camera with a grotesquely horrified expression, etc.; and they're wigging out, understandably. While the creepy-video thing is under way, there are also some scenes of Bill Pullman looking very natty and East Village in all black and jamming on his tenor sax in front of a packed dance floor (only in a David Lynch movie would people dance ecstatically to abstract jazz), and some scenes of Patricia Arquette seeming restless and unhappy in a kind of narcotized, disassociated way, and generally being creepy and mysterious and making it clear that she has a kind of double life involving decadent, lounge-lizardy men. One of the creepier scenes in the movie's first act takes place at a decadent Hollywood party held by one of Atquette's mysterious lizardy friends. At the party Pullman is approached by somebody the script identifies only as "The Mystery Man" (Robert Blake), who claims not only that he's been in Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette's house but that he's actually there at their house right now.

But then so driving home from the party, Bill Pullman criticizes Patricia Arquette's friends but doesn't say anything specific about the creepy and metaphysically impossible conversation with one guy in two places he just had, which I think is supposed to reinforce our impression that Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette are not exactly confiding intimately in each other at this stage in their marriage. This impression is further reinforced by a creepy sex scene in which Bill Pullman has frantic wheezing sex with a Patricia Arquette who just lies there inert and all but looking at her watch.10

But then so the thrust of Lost Highway's first act is that the final mysterious video shows Bill Pullman standing over the mutilated corpse of Patricia Arquette – we see it only on the video – and he's arrested and convicted and put on death row. Then there's a scene in which Bill Pullman's head turns into Balthazar Getty's head. I won't even try to describe the scene except to say that it's ghastly and riveting. The administration of the prison is understandably nonplussed when they see Balthazar Getty in Bill Pullman's cell instead of Bill Pullman. Balthazar Getty is no help in explaining how he got there, because he's got a huge hematoma on his forehead and his eyes are wobbling around and he's basically in the sort of dazed state you can imagine somebody being in when somebody else's head has just changed painfully into his own head. No one's ever escaped from this prison's death row before, apparently, and the penal authorities and cops, being unable to figure out how Bill Pullman escaped and getting little more than dazed winces from Balthazar Getty, decide (in a move whose judicial realism may be a bit shaky) simply to let Balthazar Getty go home.

It turns out that Balthazar Getty is an incredibly gifted professional mechanic who's been sorely missed at the auto shop where he works – his mother has apparently told Balthazar Getty's employer, who's played by Richard Pryor, that Balthazar Getty's absence has been due to a "fever." Balthazar Getty has a loyal clientele at Richard Pryor's auto shop, one of whom, Mr. Eddy, played by Robert Loggia, is a menacing crime boss-type figure with a thuggish entourage and a black Mercedes 6.9, and who has esoteric troubles that hell trust only Balthazar Getty to diagnose and fix. Robert Loggia clearly has a history with Balthazar Getty and treats Balthazar Getty11 with a creepy blend of avuncular affection and patronizing ferocity. When Robert Loggia pulls into Richard Pryor's auto shop with his troubled Mercedes 6.9, one day, in the car, alongside his thugs, is an unbelievably gorgeous gun moll-type girl, played by Patricia Arquette and clearly recognizable as same, i.e., Bill Pullman's wife, except now she's a platinum blond. (If you're thinking Vertigo here, you're not far astray, though Lynch has a track record of making allusions and homages to Hitchcock – e.g. BV's first shot of Kyle MacLachian spying on Isabella Rossellini through the louvered slots of her closet door is identical in every technical particular to the first shot of Anthony Perkins spying on Vivian Leigh's ablutions in Psycho – that are more like intertextual touchstones than outright allusions, and anyway are always taken in weird and creepy and uniquely Lynchian directions.)

And but so when Balthazar Getty's new blue-collar incarnation of Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette's apparent blond incarnation of Bill Pullman's wife make eye contact, sparks are generated on a scale that gives the hackneyed I-feel-l-know-you-from-somewhere component of erotic attraction new layers of creepy literality.

It's probably better not to give away much of Lost Highway's final act, though you probably ought to be apprised: that the blond Patricia Arquette's intentions toward Balthazar Getty turn out to be less than honorable; that Balthazar Getty's ghastly forehead hematoma all but completely heals up; that Bill Pullman does reappear in the movie; that the brunet Patricia Arquette also reappears but not in the (so to speak) flesh; that both the blond and the brunet P. Arquette turn out to be involved (via lizardy friends) in the world of porn, as in hardcore, an involvement whose video fruits are shown (at least in the rough cut) in NC-17-worthy detail; and that Lost Highway's ending is by no means an "upbeat" or "feel-good" ending. Also that Robert Blake, while a good deal more restrained than Dennis Hopper was in Blue Velvet, is at least as riveting and creepy and unforgettable as Hopper's Frank Booth was, and is pretty clearly the devil, or at least somebody's very troubling idea of the devil, a kind of pure floating spirit of malevolence like Twin Peaks' Bob/Leland/Scary Owl.

At this point it's probably impossible to tell whether Lost Highway is going to be a Dune-level turkey or a Blue Velvet-caliber masterpiece or something in between or what. The one thing I feel I can say with total confidence is that the movie will be . . . Lynchian.

9 Easy to do-it rarely leaves its spot on Blockbuster's shelf.

10 A sex scene that is creepy partly because it's exactly what I imagine having sex with Patricia Arquette would be like

11 I know Balthazar Getty's name is getting repeated an awful lot, but I think it's one of the most gorgeous and absurd real-person names I've ever heard, and I found myself on the set taking all kinds of notes about Balthazar Getty that weren't really necessary or useful (since the actual Balthazar Getty turned out to be uninteresting and puerile and narcissistic as only an oil heir who's a movie star just out of puberty can be), purely for the pleasure of repeating his name as often as possible

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