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October 21, 2008 11:07 PM   Subscribe

The City of Absurdity - The Mysterious World of David Lynch
posted by Blazecock Pileon (48 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I was in class last week and one of my classmates was describing her pending proposal to the department: to get around the MA requirement of a course on a foreign national cinema, she is petitioning that the "David Lynch's America" course counts.

We were all nodding.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:37 PM on October 21, 2008 [3 favorites]

"Mysterious" is sure the word for Lynch. Jesus, what a maniac. Blue Velvet is incredible, Wild At Heart is more or less insane, and Mulholland Drive is incredibly, bone-fuckingly insane. MH at least provoked me to want to throw rabid dogs at the screen, which is more than I can say for the usual piles of shit that I subject myself to, which mostly make me want to eat my own feet.

At the very least, I can say that the end of Mulholland Drive made me actively want to murder someone--preferably, David Lynch--as opposed to, say, I Heart Huckabees, which in a mere five minutes made me want to exterminate all terrestrial life. So he's got that going on.
posted by Skot at 11:39 PM on October 21, 2008

I once delivered flowers to David Lynch. Seriously I did. And I will never be the same.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 11:49 PM on October 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wait, that wasn't a joke. I did. I did. I did.

Uh, now no one will believe me. Madison, Wisconsin. He was there, look it up. What? I know you don't believe me. He lived there. I delivered the flowers.

Damn you all!!!!
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 11:51 PM on October 21, 2008

If you were REALLY cool, Belle O'Cosity, you'd recall his address/room number!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:07 AM on October 22, 2008

Was it.... 47? or 26?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:07 AM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Mulholland Drive actually makes perfect sense (at least except for a couple of details), if you figure out the premise, which is one of the oldest ones in the book. I was helped along by an article in Salon at some point, I think.

Lost Highway kind of does, although it's a lot less obvious what's going on, and you sort of just have to go with the flow. There's internal consistency, though.

But Inland Empire? That one got me. I haven't been able to make sense of it at all. Granted, I've only seen it once, which is usually way too little to figure out a Lynch movie, but still. Anyone got any clues on that? I doubt that it's as simple as Mulholland Drive, where a two-sentence explanation actually makes pretty much everything come together, but anyone have ideas?
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:25 AM on October 22, 2008

Dear Mr Ziegler,

Lynch discovered that he could shoot a film in HD without having to

1. borrow production money
2. buy film stock
3. hire really expensive cameras and union cameramen
4. write a script
5. even have a shooting schedule

...so he and Laura Dern took to the streets, improvising as they went. It's JAZZ.
posted by chuckdarwin at 1:17 AM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

Lynch is a genius. He makes my head hurt. And that's a great thing.
posted by rokusan at 1:29 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

6. Don't forget that he shoehorned footage from previous projects into Inland Empire, as if it really needed to juggle more themes!

Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway each seemed to deal with only two significant parallel realities, and wove them (for the most part) straightforwardly through to their collisions or conclusions. They were two-part inventions.

Empire was more of a fugue scored for twenty fingers, amputated leg... and lumberjack.
posted by kid ichorous at 1:54 AM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Mulholland Drive actually makes perfect sense (at least except for a couple of details), if you figure out the premise, which is one of the oldest ones in the book.

I'm curious to hear your interpretation. Is it the "it was all a dream" one, where the first part of the movie is what's-her-name's vision of glamourous Hollywood life, and the second part is the depressing reality? (Or maybe the other theory where there's no personality-switching or anything, it's just different parts played by the same actress? But, nah, that one's kind of a cop-out.)

Either way, I don't really see how it makes sense. It's just so obviously cobbled-together; you can tell exactly where the original pilot ends, because everybody suddenly starts swearing and fucking. Not to mention all the random stuff that never goes anywhere, like the inept hit man and the evil presence in the dumpster. I think people give Lynch too much credit for hidden meanings and puzzles; I think the weird stuff in his movies is mostly just intended to resonate emotionally somehow. Mulholland Drive just didn't gel for me, or at least the tacked-on end section didn't--I liked the first part (especially the evil dumpster-presence). I actually thought Lost Highway made more "sense", as far as that goes.

Man, I wish somebody would draft him into doing a more straightforward movie like The Elephant Man again. I love his usual style, but it's cool that even when he's chained to an ordinary plot, he's still got a pretty distinct style; he's just more subtle about it. I wish he'd explore that vein further...
posted by equalpants at 2:06 AM on October 22, 2008

Man, I wish somebody would draft him into doing a more straightforward movie like The Elephant Man again.

They tried that. It was called Dune. It had Sting milking a cat.
posted by kid ichorous at 2:11 AM on October 22, 2008 [9 favorites]

Heh heh, good point. I wish he'd done Return of the Jedi instead; I'll bet that would've been amazing.
posted by equalpants at 2:23 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I thought Dune was a good movie.
posted by geos at 4:15 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mulholland Drive actually makes perfect sense (at least except for a couple of details), if you figure out the premise
Care to share that insight? If it makes "perfect sense" I assume you could explain it here?

Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart were the only movies of his I could make sense of. Don't get me wrong here, I don't demand every movie I watch make sense, but I'm often chagrined by people who claim they understand the other movies and that I'm just missing something. Please explain what I'm missing so I can enjoy Inland Empire, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive as they were meant to be..
posted by cj_ at 5:27 AM on October 22, 2008

I have no problem with Mulholland Drive (yes, it's fantasy-construction first half, then flash-forward to reality, and the intersection that causes her worlds to start collapsing together is the body/box), but I also think equalpants has it right: that movie, like all his work (Twin Peaks?!) fits together and connects emotionally more than A-to-B logically... and I have no problem with that, either. It's not textbook plot that fits in the head, it's human condition plotiness that works in the gut.

Also, Kid Ichorous...

Empire was more of a fugue scored for twenty fingers, amputated leg... and lumberjack.

That's my new inspirational quote for the day. I just wrote it on a sticky note and pasted it on top of my monitor. Kudos, sir!
posted by rokusan at 5:46 AM on October 22, 2008

And because it's in a comment in a post that may soon be deleted, note that my new favorite toy (discovered just this morning), John Hodgman on Lost Time includes a lovely bit in the middle about David Lynch's Dune.

posted by rokusan at 5:57 AM on October 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

David Lynch is like our mascot or something here. Not that I have a problem with that! Thanks Mr. Pileon.
posted by Mister_A at 6:12 AM on October 22, 2008

CJ, the more common (but by no means "correct") interpretation of Mulholland Drive is that Betty represents an escapist, cinematic re-imagination of Diane's circumstances. However, like Lost Highway, flight from identity and reality ultimately brings you back full-circuit; the Mystery Man and his camera are determined to record terrible things 'as they happened,' even if you prefer not to remember. The pantomime of Club Silencio is a reminder that our happiest illusions can and will be stripped bare.

Personally, I take one major exception with all of this. I like to interpret both halves of Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway as equally real, helical timelines, each propelled by their opposition to the other, but tragically linked and resolving in the same fated outcomes.

Either way, if there's one thing I don't see, it's the postmodern idea of total subjectivity having anything to do with these movies. Willing yourself out of the box doesn't work, belief and disbelief don't matter. Even in other universes, you can't escape who you are and what you've done.
posted by kid ichorous at 6:17 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

If I may, I've collected some links to explanations/interpretations of Mulholland Dr. I'd especially recommend this site.

I've also collected INLAND EMPIRE reviews and theories, including my own three or four, and a bit about the Sunset Blvd. allusions. The documentary Lynch is well worth checking out, as well.
posted by muckster at 6:25 AM on October 22, 2008 [6 favorites]

Oh, and I made my own silly homage called OUTLANDISH REPUBLIC.
posted by muckster at 6:27 AM on October 22, 2008

Wow Muckster, that "this site" link is sweet.

Too bad I have to work today. :)
posted by rokusan at 6:30 AM on October 22, 2008

Filmfreak's review of Inland Empire posits that the whole thing was a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche. I don't remember any Japanese prostitutes with pet monkeys in Ovid.
posted by kid ichorous at 6:54 AM on October 22, 2008

Well, my own theory is that Inland Empire is a hermetic symbolic representation of the mechanics of karma and nonduality as philosophically expressed in the Bhagavad Gita, and I had a long drawn-out explanation of this, but I swear I misplaced it...

(I wish I was joking)
posted by naju at 7:45 AM on October 22, 2008

Crazy, he makes furniture? When is he going to have his own line of soups and sauces?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:48 AM on October 22, 2008

The always invaluable Tim Kreider on The Straight Story

Although the film is clearly not comic at its heart, it does, like its predecessor, use one story to mask another, more sinister, one.

The dream-like layering of narratives is one of the things I always loved about Lynch. When most artists go for surrealism or dream-narratives, it falls totally flat. To obvious, to mannered, to fitting to our cultural ideas of what "dream-like" means. Lynch's movies capture that shifting quality, how people can be one person one second and another the next and you don't question it or freak out. It just happens, and then this happens, and then this ...until you wake up in a sweat.

There was a wonderful post somewhere (that now I can't find, of course) contrasting Kubrick, an obsessive director where you can be damned sure every item reflects the themes being set up, vs. Lynch, a more impressionistic director trying a bunch of things at once to hit a particular emotional note.
posted by The Whelk at 8:05 AM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

He may not have his own line of soups and sauces yet, but if you pick up the Inland Empire DVD, he will show you how to prepare a meal of quinoa. Or just settle for his brand of organic coffee.
posted by JBennett at 8:05 AM on October 22, 2008

Oh, here is Lynch in the kitchen…

"Quinoa is something I like to have for dinner every chance I get."
posted by JBennett at 8:07 AM on October 22, 2008

I am sorry to say his organic coffee, like so many organic coffees, is weak and not worth the money.

The tin is nice though.

Any more and my fanboi will start showing.

I liked Dune too.
posted by abulafa at 8:51 AM on October 22, 2008

I tried the David Lynch brand chickens the other night. Strangest damn things. They're man-made. Little damn things, smaller than my fist - but they're new!

Then my radiator started singing to me.

I hope David Lynch becomes the new Paul Newman.
posted by MrVisible at 9:23 AM on October 22, 2008

Abulafa, his coffee has the strength of five coffees. Mine did, anyway.

I've seen Inland Empire 8 times and every time I understand less. It is my favorite thing in the entire universe.
posted by limnrix at 9:41 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

this will sound like i'm not a david lynch fan, but i swear i am.

that said, i think he's the laziest writer in film. he wasn't always, but he seems to have become that. eraserhead is such a carefully constructed and painstakingly deliberate film. but mulholland drive is possibly the laziest thing i've ever seen put on a screen. not only do we know for a fact that it was half made from a rejected tv pilot, but we can see the evidence directly on screen that he flat out refused to rewrite or adjust the original pilot script, choosing instead to simply slap an ending on to a story that was originally designed to be 10 or so hours long, if not longer. it couldn't have been more obvious that he was willing to put in precisely as much work as was absolutely necessary to get something written, shot and released and no more. and it's peculiar, because i don't think he gets that lazy with his direction. maybe he just loves working with the cameras and editing bays, but hates writing. i don't know. but he never used to rely on obfuscation to hide a missing narrative. the obfuscation used to be integral to the narrative. now he literally abandons straightforward narrative once he gets bored in favor of tacking an extra 5 pages at the end of a script that say things like "10 minutes of wacky shit go here. cut to main character looking puzzled."

in other words, i don't think david lynch has felt challenged by his work in years. i don't think he feels the need to try.
posted by shmegegge at 9:41 AM on October 22, 2008

Yeah, my interpretation of Mulholland Drive is like others have pointed out, the "it's all a dream" one. Well, almost all, up until we get sucked into the box.

There are several strong indicators of this, one of the best is that the very first shot in the movie (even before the main credits, I think) is a point-of-view camera diving head first into a pillow.

The main character (whose name escapes me) dream recontextualizes people and events around her, while the reality is that she was in a deep depression after having an unsuccessful attempt at a Hollywood career, then she was left by her lover, who actually found success, so she had her killed. This drives her insane, which makes her see the tiny versions of her parents/grandparents, and then she shoots herself.

The dream has lots of hints to this, especially perhaps the "I am a brilliant actress who would have huge success, but a shadowy cabal of Hollywood/mafia people prevent it, to the point of having the director thrown off the movie and out of his own house". The evil mafia is relentless, impossible to convince ("this is the girl"), and impossible to please (the espresso scene), even though her performance in the casting was brilliant.

And the "no hay banda" Club Silencio scene is basically telling us "What you're seeing is not reality". The blue key was a sign from the real life assassin that the murder was done, but in her dream she imagines it much more special, and also the mysterious box it fits. In real life, the limo ride with the surprise was to take her to the party, in her dream it becomes the attempted murder. And so on.

The only thing I couldn't make too much sense of was the scene in the diner and the evil hobo behind the dumpster.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 2:01 PM on October 22, 2008

The only thing I couldn't make too much sense of was the scene in the diner and the evil hobo behind the dumpster.

Perhaps interesting: my friend's film studies professor showed that scene in his class, remarking off-handedly that it's "the key to understanding the entire movie." Neither of us is sure what he meant.
posted by naju at 2:57 PM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I thought Dune was a good movie.

It is and it isn't. I like it flaws and all. I think I like more because of it's "flaws"
posted by nola at 4:19 PM on October 22, 2008

naju: And he didn't ask? Wow. Of course, that seems like the sort of thing an evil film studies professor would say just to confuse you, if the scene was in reality totally random and not important to understanding the movie.

You know, the sort of film studies professor who is never satisfied with his espresso.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 5:02 PM on October 22, 2008

Dune is kinda great because it's kinda awful. It's the wrong genre, the wrong scope, and the wrong set-up for Lynch. Lynch would have been great in directing a few parts of Dune, the spiritual intimate parts, but when given a whole fucking epic narrative to deal with, he falls back and just works on the odd outside bits he likes. It's a terrible movie with wonderful details.
posted by The Whelk at 6:11 PM on October 22, 2008

And in a better universe, Lynch is the arch TV drama director. You have 24 hours of narrative and film to work with to tell a story. Twin Peaks was a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it shows how wonderful Lynch can be when given time to plot and playaround and improv.
posted by The Whelk at 6:20 PM on October 22, 2008

His best film is Fire Walk With Me. Discuss.
posted by crossoverman at 7:05 PM on October 22, 2008

His best film is Fire Walk With Me. Discuss.

Kind of, yes. So now?
posted by The Whelk at 8:40 PM on October 22, 2008


To my way of thinking, all of this How does Mulholland Dr./INLAND EMPIRE/Lost Highway work as a synthetic whole stuff misses the point, and the way to understand any Lynch film is to watch the short films— he explains that the genesis of his filmmaking was to 'make a painting move': Watch Six Men Getting Sick, The Grandmother, &c. Plot and character are simply more compositional elements that allow him to explore ideas and images and feelings. See also the story in my profile:
One moment of our 1993 conversation made this especially clear, one during which we both looked at the textured surface of Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952, a painting by Jackson Pollock full of patches, slashes, lines, drippings, and blobs, with barely a hint of blue. “I don’t understand this,” I said. “Yes you do,” Lynch said. “Your eyes are moving.” They must have been, but I had not paid any attention. I had automatically experienced a lack of meaning because I could not stand at the prescribed, controlling viewing distance and read the painting as a rationally controlled system of shapes. Lynch had spontaneously identified the painting as a meaningful representation for me because it had released my moving eye from conventional viewer expectations. I saw that I could not contain the painting in some theoretical framework; he saw me performing with the painting. He saw as crucial that part of me that my education had taught me is inconsequential to my grasp of meaning.
—from The Passion of David Lynch by Martha P. Nochimson
The point being that while Blue Velvet and The Elephant Man and even Eraserhead have fairly simply, straightforward stories, that isn't what interests Lynch. This is also why it's not any sort of knock on Mulholland Dr. to observe that it started life as an aborted pilot— it's just another interesting step in a long process of David Lynch exploring and trying to get your eyes to move.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:56 PM on October 22, 2008

shakespeherian: I think both reading modes are equally valid for Lynch's work. I certainly know what you mean about him exploring ideas and images and feelings, and I have very strong emotional responses to some of his films (Lost Highway particularly fills me with dread, and there's quite a bit of that in Fire Walk With Me too).

But I think the plot and character aren't inconsequential, for instance, I think the way Mulholland Dr. fits together is actually quite good plotting, in the terms of mainstream Hollywood, it's quite a tight script, in my opinion, there's narrative economy, (almost) all characters have a purpose (in fact, they have more than one, since they're more than one character each, which is brilliantly tight).

And people tend to fall back on discussing the plot and characters and whatnot simply because that's much easier to talk about than why the shot of the staircase with the ceiling fan in Twin Peaks/Fire Walk With Me fills me with existential terror I can't quite explain.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 10:06 PM on October 22, 2008

shakespeherian: I don't know; I agree with the eyes-moving point, but confounding theoretical frameworks isn't the only way to make a good movie. Breaking the rules challenges the audience, but following the rules challenges the filmmaker--it's hard to make a good "straightforward" movie.

I kind of agree with shmegegge about Lynch getting lazier; sure, Mulholland Drive makes your eyes move, but Blue Velvet and Eraserhead and Fire Walk With Me make your eyes move and come together as a whole, which takes a lot more skill. It's great to challenge the audience, but it's even better to challenge the audience while still managing to communicate something to it.

Actually, now that I take a look at your profile, I guess I'm saying almost the same thing as that Nauman quote: the interesting stuff is near the border. But I would add that it's not just where you position yourself with regards to the existing language; it's also how well you understand the existing language--if you decided to stay on the conservative side of the border, would you be able to hack it there? Do you know how to compose shots? How to edit? How to light scenes? The frustrating thing with Lynch is that he has such a fantastic grasp of the traditional movie-making language, but he's obviously become totally bored with it. He's like a musician who's mastered every nuance of jazz or rock or whatever, only to move on to an incomprehensible style of his own--you can't blame him, but you're still sad that he doesn't enjoy playing with the rest of us.
posted by equalpants at 12:40 AM on October 23, 2008

And the "no hay banda" Club Silencio scene is basically telling us "What you're seeing is not reality".

Someone pointed out to me that the song that is sung in Club Silencio is a warped version of Barry Manilow's "Crying". I totally missed that even after watching the movie three times.
posted by mek at 4:45 AM on October 23, 2008

Mek: It was originally Roy Orbison's Crying [here]. Orbison's In Dreams ("That candy-colored clown...") was the major leitmotif in Blue Velvet.
posted by kid ichorous at 4:53 AM on October 23, 2008

Such is the man's genius that it takes comment #47 in this thread before anyone mentions that Mr. Lynch also does a daily weather report.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:25 AM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

But I think the plot and character aren't inconsequential

Oh I certainly don't mean that plot and character are inconsequential. As equalpants points out, Lynch is extremely good at all of the standard filmmaking craft. My point is that while most movies are about plot and character, Lynch's are not— he has other priorities. Plot and character are extremely useful parts of his arsenal, but they aren't the point, and that I think it's wrong and diminishing to relegate, say, Mulholland Dr. to a typical Freudian it-was-all-a-dream analysis, because it that makes the whole movie far too ordinary and naturalistic.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:15 PM on October 23, 2008

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