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


PAULINE KAEL has a famous epigram to her New Yorker review of BV. She quotes somebody she left the theater behind as saying to a friend, "Maybe I'm sick, but I want to see that again." And Lynch's movies are indeed – in all sorts of ways, some more interesting than others – sick. Some of them are brilliant and unforgettable; others are almost unbelievably jejune and crude and incoherent and bad. It's no wonder that Lynch's critical reputation over the last decade has looked like an EKG: It's hard to tell whether the director's a genius or an idiot. This, for me, is part of his fascination.

If the word sick seems excessive, substitute the word creepy. Lynch's movies are inarguably creepy, and a big part of their creepiness is that they seem so personal. A kind and simple way to put it is that Lynch's movies seem to be expressions of certain anxious, obsessive, fetishistic, oedipally arrested, borderlinish parts of the director's psyche, expressions presented with little inhibition or semiotic layering, i.e., presented with something like a child's ingenuous (and sociopathic) lack of self-consciousness. It's the psychic intimacy of the work that makes it hard to sort out what you feel about one of David Lynch's movies and what you feel about David Lynch. The ad hominem impression one tends to carry away from a Blue Velvet or a Fire Walk With Me is that they're really powerful movies, but David Lynch is the sort of person you really hope you don't get stuck next to on a long flight or in line at the DMV or something. In other words, a creepy person.

Depending on whom you talk to, Lynch's creepiness is either enhanced or diluted by the odd distance that seems to separate his movies from the audience. Lynch's movies tend to be both extremely personal and extremely remote. The absence of linearity and narrative logic, the heavy multivalencc of the symbolism, the glazed opacity of the characters' faces, the weird, ponderous quality of the dialogue, the regular deployment of grotesques as figurants, the precise, painterly way the scenes are staged and lit, and the overlush, possibly voyeuristic way that violence, deviance, and general hideousness are depicted – these all give Lynch's movies a cool, detached quality, one that some cineasts view as more like cold and clinical.

Here's something that's unsettling but true: Lynch's best movies are also the ones that strike people as his sickest. I think this is because his best movies, however surreal, tend to be anchored by well-developed main characters – Blue Velvet's Jeffrey Beaumont, Fire Walk With Me's Laura, The Elephant Man's Merrick and Treves. When characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to break down the carapace of distance and detachment in Lynch, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier – we're way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. For example, there's way more general ickiness in Wild at Heart than there is in Blue Velvet, and yet Blue Velvet is a far creepier/sicker film, simply because Jeffrey Beaumont is a sufficiently 3-D character for us to feet about/for/with. Since the really disturbing stuff in Blue Velvet isn't about Frank Booth or anything Jeffrey discovers about Lumberton, but about the fact that a part of Jeffrey gets off on voyeurism and primal violence and degeneracy, and since Lynch carefully sets up his film both so that we feet a/f/w Jeffrey and so that we find some parts of the sadism and degeneracy he witnesses compelling and somehow erotic, it's little wonder that we (I?) find Blue Velvet "sick" – nothing sickens me like seeing onscreen some of the very parts of myself I've gone to the good old movies to try to forget about.

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