The Interpretation of Screams

In 1967, when he was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, David Lynch, the future director of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, made a mixed-media sculpture, a Rube Goldberg device that, as Dennis Lim describes it in his thorough, compact, and illuminating new book on Lynch, “required dropping a ball bearing down a ramp that would, through a daisy chain of switches and triggers, strike a match, light a firecracker, and cause a sculpted female figure’s mouth to open, at which point a red bulb inside would light up, the firecracker would go off, and the sound of a scream would emerge.”

This combination of the board game Operation with a blow-up doll and Samuel Beckett’s Not I (the play featuring only a woman’s mouth), plus the sounds of a gunshot and a scream, anticipated the components of the work Lynch has spent the subsequent fifty years making. In film and television, his distinctive oeuvre has obsessed cinephiles, fans of the outré, and film academics, giving rise to the adjective “Lynchian,” a word, as Lim points out, that many have tried to define but that the culture at large has decided means “weird.” Lim boils the Lynchian down to “abysmal terror, piercing beauty, convulsive sorrow.” Lynch’s movies, he writes, “give form to the submerged traumas and desires of our age.”

A nicotine fiend and a coffee addict who mixes existential dread with sadomasochism in all-American settings, Lynch is that rare director who makes subversive films without a chip on his shoulder, seemingly without any will to provocation. He is at home with his neuroses and obsessions. His secret is that he proceeds as though he is acting from the most impossible condition of all: normalcy. While directors like David Fincher and Lars von Trier explore similar terrain with grim determination, only Lynch enters nightmare worlds like the Eagle Scout he was, as inquisitive about the depths of human psychology as he is about bugs and twigs.

“There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force—a wild pain and decay—also accompanies everything,” Lynch has said. “There’s this beautiful world and you just look a little bit closer, and it’s all red ants.” Like the ones on the severed ear in Blue Velvet. Lim connects Lynch to the dark forces that drive the American psyche, the same ones D. H. Lawrence analyzed in his Studies in Classic American Literature, and there is more than a touch of “Young Goodman Brown” in Lynch’s homespun American surrealism. Like the character in Hawthorne’s story, Lynch is drawn to the woods at night, where ordinary people confront the demonic. The Black Lodge in Twin Peaks houses America’s violent soul.

This view was ingrained in Lynch from the start. His father, a research scientist with the US Forest Service, wrote a doctoral thesis called “Effects of Stocking on Site Measurement and Yield of Second-Growth Ponderosa Pine in the Inland Empire,” a title seeded with Lynchian allusion. When a painter acquaintance gave the teenage Lynch a copy of Robert Henri’s book The Art Spirit, a primer from the Ashcan School that describes art as “our greatest happiness” and encourages its readers (assuming they are male) to “do some great work, Son!,” Lynch’s path was set.

Lynch grew up in Leave It to Beaver–like towns, pinging happily between the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Virginia. While his upbringing implanted half his mental landscape, it did not prepare him for Philadelphia, which completed the picture. Lynch was uneasy in northeastern cities after visiting his grandparents in Brooklyn, where he was worried by a tenant in his grandfather’s kitchenless building frying an egg on an iron, and recoiled at the hellishness of the subway.

When he arrived in Philadelphia for art school, urban blight overtook him. Lynch moved into an industrial district, a grimy anti-Oz of crumbling buildings and smokestacks. He spent his time there in the neighborhood diner, a hangout for morgue attendants who let him visit their slabs. Soon he was married with a child, working as a printer and living in a cheap house in a bad neighborhood.

“There were places there that had been allowed to decay,” Lynch recalls, “where there was so much fear and crime that just for a moment there was an opening to another world.” He does not mean the world of poverty he was ensconced in so much as the interior world of psychological trauma poverty underscores. In Eraserhead, his first feature, Lynch surrealized that world, aestheticizing it across mental galaxies and inside bodies, heads, and planets. Was that only possible in a place that seemed beyond hope and ungentrifiable—a galaxy far away from us now?

David Lynch, Blue Velvet, 1986. MGM

Lynch has called Eraserhead “the real Philadelphia Story.” Completed over a painstaking six years after he was admitted to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, this “Dream of Dark and Troubling Things” (as the poster’s tagline had it) was greeted by Variety when it premiered in 1977 with the headline “Dismal American Film Institute Exercise in Gore; Commercial Prospects Nil.” Handled expertly by an independent distributor on the midnight-movie circuit during what Lim calls “year zero for punk,” Eraserhead proved Variety wrong. Lynch’s ugly baby thrived in a film economy separate from blockbusters like Star Wars, which debuted the same year.

George Lucas, in fact, later asked Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi. Of the roads not taken in film history, that was a highway Lynch was wise to avoid. He worked for hire on The Elephant Man and Dune before he fully abandoned notions of a conventional Hollywood career to make Blue Velvet in 1986. The Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin calls it “the last real earthquake to hit cinema.”

Arriving at the height of the Reagan era, Blue Velvet rattled audiences, almost molesting them. It had the same effect on Film Studies, where it became an object of attraction and repulsion, calling across a void to film theorists of all stripes during the time of Back to the Future and Pretty in Pink, colorful pop films of youthful self-discovery lacking Blue Velvet’s sense of menace. Lynch’s film shared Back to the Future’s Freudian plot and Pretty in Pink’s New Wave veneer, but his style of deadpan terror was, to say the least, different. Fredric Jameson, in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, was notably discombobulated, seeing the film as an insidious form of “postnostalgia,” in which “evil has finally become an image.”

Blue Velvet, in addition to providing material for poststructural analysis, is one of those films in which every line is memorable. Lynch’s work as a screenwriter is often overlooked in writing on him, but Lim, the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, does it justice. Isabella Rossellini was Lynch’s significant other at the time, and as the hostage-chanteuse Dorothy Vallens, her line “You put your disease in me” sums up what the film did to people who saw it when it came out in theaters, or later on VHS tapes. Home viewings, Lim points out, in which Lynch’s dark vision of small-town America could be watched again and again, paved the way for what Lynch did next.

In 1990, Twin Peaks extended the Lynchian into prime-time network television. Lim describes the series as “a mass-culture text that called for communal decoding,” and its debut drew 35 million viewers, a third of the potential TV audience. Connoisseur magazine called it “The Series That Will Change TV Forever,” and it did, albeit very slowly. Quality television and its signature genre, the “dead girl” mystery, owe their existence to the story of Special Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation of Laura Palmer’s murder. Now that Lynch is bringing Twin Peaks back on Showtime, he has come full circle, and it’s fitting to note that what was once OK for broadcast TV is now only acceptable on premium cable.

After a few years in the pop-culture wilderness, Lynch made Lost Highway in 1997, the first movie of his so-called LA Trilogy, which includes 2001’s Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, the 2006 opus starring Laura Dern he shot on pro-am digital video. While Mulholland Dr. began life as another series for ABC, Lynch was by then able to secure financing from European sources. Moving beyond the constraints of Hollywood financing and network notes gave him the freedom he needed to contemplate his experiences in Southern California his own way. In those films, Lynch took Los Angeles, Hollywood, and screen acting as his subjects.

Lim points out that these films emerged from the period “of Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate cults, the televised trials of O. J. Simpson and the Menendez brothers,” which created “a potent incubator for apocalyptic thoughts.” Lynch’s Los Angeles films, in which identity dissolves and congeals into murder, reflect the California sun back on itself. Despite the swimming pools and the modernist houses, he and his characters, living amid palm trees instead of pines, are not out of the woods. By the time of Inland Empire, which was partially shot in Poland and is three hours long, the Lynchian Möbius strip had enfolded a new psychic continent.

Those three films, masterworks of anguish and splintered dreams, may be his last. Before his imminent return to TV, Lynch seemed to have given up feature filmmaking for the self-banishment of the Transcendental Meditation foundation he started to promote world peace. Whether it’s DV, TV, or TM, Lynch has earned the right to do what he wants. If Inland Empire’s closer, an all-female group dance scored to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” is the last scene of his last movie, it will be the semi-happy end to a career in film that began with a man and his hairdo trudging through a wasteland.

A. S. Hamrah is the film critic for n+1 and writes for a variety of publications including Cineaste and The Baffler.