Friday, June 2, 2017

David Lynch Explains David Lynch (Sorta)

David Lynch doesn’t want me to write this. He didn’t say so, exactly, and I have no personal relationship with the guy. But over the years, he’s made it clear that he does not want to explain his work — and he’d rather you and I didn’t attempt a single, encompassing explanation for it either.

“When something is abstract, the abstraction is hard to put into words, unless you’re a poet,” he told an audience during a 2007 Q&A that might mark David Lynch at his most self-explanatory. “But these [are] ideas you somehow know, and cinema is a language that can say abstractions. I love stories, but I love stories that hold abstractions. And cinema can say these difficult-to-say-in-words things.” Lynch goes on to say that he often doesn’t understand the meaning of his ideas, and he didn’t even understand the meaning of Eraserhead, perhaps his most abstract work, when he was making it. But it doesn’t matter, because he’d rather you found an “inner knowingness” — a sort of idiosyncratic translation of his own idiosyncratic system of symbols.

All that said, I think Lynch lets on more than some people might guess. Perhaps as a result of him opening up his unconscious mind and letting all that mind goop flow out uninhibited, he’s revealing more substantial, meaty bits than even he may realize. Now, I’m aware of the arrogance involved in taking an artist’s work and claiming to perceive his or her true intent, especially when you haven’t asked about it directly, so I’m simply going to leave this here with the following note: “Hey, isn’t this a neat way to look at David Lynch’s work?”

My thesis is this: In several works, David Lynch would seem to be suggesting a critique on interpretation, and in each of them he does this using the metaphor of a performance or other such viewed entertainment.

Lil the Dancing Girl

My first example of this is a brief scene from Fire Walk With Me, in which regional FBI director Gordon Dole (Lynch himself) greets Agent Desmond (Chris Isaak). Rather than explain the specifics of the case for which Desmond has flown to Oregon to investigate, Lynch introduces Lil (Kimberly Ann Cole), his “mother’s sister’s girl,” who performs a bizarre dance.

Later, Desmond and Agent Stanley (Keifer Sutherland) are driving away, and Stanley asks what was up with Lil. Without hesitation, Desmond explains away each unusual facet of Lil’s appearance and dance as meaning something important to the case.
  • Lil’s sour face = problems with local authorities
  • Lil’s blinking eyes = “trouble higher up”
  • Lil keeping one hand in her pocket = authorities hiding something
  • Lil’s other hand being clenched = authorities would be belligerent
  • Lil walking in place = legwork
  • Cole’s reference to Lil being his “mother’s sister’s girl” and placing four fingers over his face = the sheriff’s uncle is in federal prison
  • Lil’s dress being tailored = a code for drugs
  • Lil wearing a blue rose pinned to her dress = “I can’t tell you about that” (and indeed, in the new series, we are still left wondering exactly what the blue rose might signify)
Even in the world of Twin Peaks, it seems improbable that Desmond was able to interpret all these things so quickly and clearly. I suppose it’s possible that Cole might have instructed him in his own personal language of signs, but I think it’s maybe also true that Lynch is having some fun with the viewer, especially the type of viewer who watched and re-watched the original series and attempted to read meaning into every loose end, every abstract detail. In the absurd world of the show, every aspect of Lil’s dance does mean something — and, in the end, most of what Desmond deduces from the dance turns out to be correct, it should be noted. And while this moves the plot along, I also think Lynch is perhaps making a joke about the way some people might scrutinize every little detail as opposed to taking in the whole of a given work, more like you’d take in a painting, less like you’d take in a traditional narrative.

No Hay Banda

I feel like Lynch could be making a similar comment with the Club Silencio scene in Mulholland Drive. Whereas Lil’s dance comprises only a small part of Fire Walk With Me, the Club Silencio sequence may be the most pivotal in all of Mulholland Drive. And whereas I think the Lil scene is mostly meant as a joke, I think Lynch is talking the idea a bit further and saying, “No, don’t do this. Instead, do this.”

A quick and dirty recap: Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Elena Harring) attend a late-night show at jazz club where they are repeatedly made to watch performances then are reminded that the thing they think they’re seeing is not actually happening. The host (Richard Green, credited as “The Magician”) keeps introducing different instruments and then telling the audience that there is no such instrument, no actual band, no orchestra. Betty and everyone else is only hearing a recording, no matter how real it may seem. Eventually the host vanishes, and Rebekeh Del Rio (credited as herself) steps onstage to sing a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” Midway through the song, she collapses, yet the song continues. It’s implied that she was only lip-syncing.

Again, I’ve always interpreted this as David Lynch’s way of telling the audience not to get hung up on the details. Just as it’s absurdist comedy for Agent Desmond to read such specific details into Lil’s dance, the Club Silencio sequence discourages you from thinking that the bare components of the performance — the one Betty is watching onstage, the movie you are watching in real life — should be taken at anything more than face value. Betty and Rita don’t follow this advice, however; they are both moved to tears by “Llorando,” and at one point Betty starts shaking violently, maybe as a result of intense emotion she’s feeling. In fact, when they arrive back home after the show, both cease to exist, and the movie enters its bizarre, plot-bending final third.

There’s a lot more to consider in this scene. Perhaps most notably is one of the film’s final images: the blue-haired woman watching from the opera box speaking the word “silencio” one last time. It’s been theorized in various analyses that this could either represent “Quiet in the theater,” because you’re about to begin the “real” performance of piecing together your own interpretation of Mulholland Drive, or “Quiet on the set,” because you’re about to begin making the “real” movie of living your life. We don’t know, even all these years later. It’s worth mentioning, I feel, that the DVD printing of Mulholland Drive includes ten clues to unlock the film’s mystery, but I’m not sure they would lead anyone to any singular, concrete understanding. I think Lynch wants us to sit with it, think about it, consider and then re-consider it. This should not be a thing that is quickly processed.

Tracey Has Two Lattes

tracey sam twin peaks glass box scene

And then we have the new Twin Peaks. Probably the most talked-about scene from the four episodes occurred in the first episode. It features two characters, Tracey Barbarato (Madeline Zima) and Sam Colby (Benjamin Rosenfield) in New York, in a strange, living room-like setup situated around a mysterious glass box.

Quick and dirty again: Sam is paid to watch the box and adjust cameras around it. He’s not allowed to bring anyone else in, but when the security guard on duty apparently leaves, Sam agrees to show the contraption to Tracey. They only watch for a few seconds. Very quickly, they begin making out. Tracey takes off her clothes and they begin to have sex, oblivious to the fact that some abstract humanoid shape (possibly female?) materializes in the box. Before they can react, the creature bursts through the glass, killing both in a spectacular and bloody fashion. A lot of people have interpreted the scene as a metaphor for watching TV, watching a film at home or the experience of Twin Peaks in general. (It’s relevant to the last interpretation that episode two features Agent Cooper appearing in the box, getting enlarged and reduced, and then being spat out, which you could take as Agent Cooper and the show in general escaping the confines of traditional network TV.)

I think these are valid interpretations, but my first reaction to the scene was David Lynch’s 2008 condemnation of the way so many people experience movies today: distractedly and on an iPhone or other such handheld device. “You will never in a trillion years experience the film,” he says of watching cinema in this format. “You’ll be cheated.”

Tracey and Sam keep their smart phones in their pockets, but they sure seem like the kind of people who’d be tethered to their iPhones — that is, you know, young people. They also do a very bad job of paying attention to the show in front of them, and you might say that Lynch punishes their inattention with death. (Or maybe he’s punishing sex with death, but come on: This is the guy who had the Mulholland Drive DVD printed as one long chapter. He wants you to sit patiently though his films, start to finish.)

Listening to Jeff Jensen’s Twin Peaks podcast about this episode, I heard another decent theory. Starting around the 35:10 mark, Jensen says, “You kind of wonder if it’s the show talking to us about how to watch the show, or maybe even talking about itself and our relationship to the show and to TV in general and the changing nature of our relationship to TV in the twenty-five years since Twin Peaks has been on the air.”

There’s more at 39:20: “What I got from this almost immediately… is this weird allegory for TV-watching. A couch potato sitting on his couch, staring into this box, waiting for something to materialize, something that might come through that portal window. We have a complicated metaphor for Twin Peaks itself — a vision from outside of the world that’s about to materialize inside this box.

So in that sense, we’re encouraged to identify with Sam, as a viewer who’s unsure what he’s about to see at the same time as we embark on this eighteen-hour odyssey through the new Twin Peaks. So what happens next? They literally get their heads blown off, but this is maybe meant as a metaphor as well as a literal death. Again, from the podcast (and starting at the 48:06 mark): “You get the sense that it’s just whipping their faces, just shredding their faces, just blowing their minds against the wall. And they’re not screaming. They’re almost just passive as their doing it. You can read it in so many ways, including this visceral metaphor for a show that wants to get in your face and get in your face and blow your mind.” And because the lead-up to Tracey and Sam’s violent end is slow drawn out, you can take it a bit further: “If it’s the show talking about itself, it’s instructing us that it’s a show that you’re going to have to be patient with, that you’re going to have to watch, that it’s going to take its time taking shape and form, much like the thing in that box.”

This all seems plausible enough, but if it’s the correct interpretation, then it would mark a break from similar scenes in previous David Lynch works, in that the details do matter. As it turns out, Jensen himself got to ask Lynch about this theory directly in a May 26 interview.
JJ: Were you trying to give the audience an allegory for TV-watching or how to watch the show?

DL: No. But that’s an interesting way to think about it.

JJ: Do you think in terms of allegory or meta?

DL: Not really. Ideas just come, you think about them, and you figure out their meaning. Then, how they fit into the whole is another thing completely. It’s not finished until it’s finished, and you don’t really know until further down the road how one thing relates to another. It’s just like a magical thing. I also always say the whole thing exists in another room as a complete puzzle, all the parts are together, and someone from that other room is sort of a rascal and randomly flips parts over into this room. And then you to have to put the puzzle together, but one is from the end of the story, one is from the middle, and a couple from the beginning, and you won’t know until it’s more formed what it could be.
That’s Lynch being evasive, yet again, but it’s also him not directly pooh-poohing the theory outright. However, let’s step aside for a moment and assume that Lynch wouldn’t change up his running theory of how to watch his work. I think there’s maybe an analysis that incorporates a bit of my gut reaction to the scene as well as the podcast theory.

Tracey and Sam die, and before they do they’re so taken with the vision of this creature in the box that they stand utterly still once it breaks out and kills them. As it’s noted in the podcast, they don’t resist; they just sit there while Mrs. No Face slashes away at them. What if this is David Lynch, consciously or not, giving us the same message as I think he’s giving, in different ways, in Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive? “No one thing you’re seeing is that important. Don’t obsess over the details. Stay for the whole thing and take it all in.” Our ill-fated latte lovers don’t do this. They get rattled by the first scary thing they see — and, really, the people watching these new episodes see — and they literally lose their heads. (There’s a pic of the end result, as we see in the third episode, but be forewarned it’s graphic.) If we’re going to appreciate the new Twin Peaks for what it is, we’ll need to be in for the long haul, and we’re should prepare ourselves for some seriously scary shit. But endure, faithful viewers, because it’s all going to add up to something big: what it means to us as individuals.

I’m trying to think of other scenes of performances in Lynch’s work. There’s the Lady in the Radiator scene in Eraserhead, there’s Julee Cruise singing in the Roadhouse, and there’s even the curious Twin Peaks end credits scene showcasing Gersten Hayward on the piano. I don’t know if there’s a way that these scenes also support my theory, and I don’t even know if my take on David Lynch will even make sense to anyone else. But I do know I can’t stop thinking about this scene, and I’d love to hear what you all have to say about it.

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