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Charles Champlin (review date 28 September 1980)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1581

SOURCE: Champlin, Charles. “Portrait of the Monster as a Human Being.” Los Angeles Times (28 September 1980): 34.

[In the following review, Champlin argues that The Elephant Man presents a story of human compassion and avoids the subject's potential for exploitation.]

“There stood revealed,” Sir Frederick Treves wrote later, “the most disgusting specimen of humanity that I have, ever seen … From the brow there projected a huge bony mass like a loaf, while from the back of the head hung a bag of spongy, fungous-looking skin. …”

Another bony mass protruded from his mouth like a half-swallowed stake, making speech almost impossible. His nose was a blob of flesh. He was misshapen, draped in evil-smelling folds of purplish skin. His right arm was gigantic and useless, ending in a finlike deformity.

The skin and the protruding brow gave him his catch-name: the Elephant Man. His real name was John Merrick; he was evidently from Leicester in the English Midlands and he was 21 when Treves, a young London surgeon and anatomist, paid a shilling to see him exhibited as a freak in a London sidestreet in 1884.

A century later, John Merrick has come back to haunt the popular imagination, first in a long-running London and Broadway play, and now in this brilliantly operatic film—directed by David Lynch from the script he adapted from an original by Christopher DeVore and Eric Bergren.

[The Elephant Man] is totally unrelated textually to the play. The film derives from Treves' book, The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences, and Ashley Montagu's The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity.

No film more artistically daring, commercially foolhardy (you'd have thought) and emotionally overwhelming has come along this year and so far as I can tell none is en route. The Elephant Man is an extraordinary exploration of the question, “Who is the monster, who are the monstrous?” The answer is that most of us are the monstrous, unless or until we are confronted by one of nature's true casualties. The monster is least monstrous of all.

“I pray to God he's an idiot,” Anthony Hopkins, as Treves, says on first seeing Merrick. He wasn't, and it is tempting to say that that small kindness was denied him as well. He was sweet-natured and rather childlike, but he could read and write and appreciate. He knew the Book of Common Prayer, and in his last brief years in Treves' keeping, Merrick went, in great delight, to the theater.

Lynch now joins a growing list of AFI graduates who will leave a mark on film history. His only previous feature was the low-budget Eraserhead which by no coincidence is another study of a physical deformity and which has acquired a sort of cult following.

The Elephant Man is in beautifully subtle and versatile black and white—photographed by the excellent British Cameraman Freddie Francis—and it is unthinkable that the dark, stark, murky, smoky atmosphere, both actual and symbolic, of late Victorian England could have been half so well conveyed by color.

Lynch deploys all the resources of image and montage to create a spiritual biography of Merrick, an impressionistic double study of Merrick as he seemed to the world (a thing to be feared and loathed) and the world as it could be perceived by Merrick through a small rectangular aperture in the gray flannel mask with which he concealed his misshapen head.

Lynch could not avoid making The Elephant Man shocking—but was determined that it not be an exploitive shocker. The unveiling of Merrick—of actor John Hurt doing what amounts to a...

(This entire section contains 1581 words.)

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voice-under from beneath the gruesome make up designed by Christopher Tucker—proceeds very gradually. He is a creature in guttering shadows, then shuffling along masked, then silhouetted behind screens during Treves' lecture to the medical society, at length seen unmasked but shadowed from the middle distance. But by now he has begun to emerge as a man—a scared, beaten, intimidated victim—not a monster, and we gasp in sympathy rather than scream in fright.

Merrick's anguished cry, later in the film, “I am a human being!” must bestir the soul as few other lines in the history of the art. How he feels, not how he looks, is what gets to us.

In a year strewn with the wreckage of films that spent millions to be safe, The Elephant Man tosses caution aside. Over a poignantly lovely score by John Morris, the opening sequence makes a kind of allegorical case for the Elephant Man having an elephant in his history. It is part sexual fantasy, part violent fantasy, glimpses of a beautiful woman clenched in horror or ecstasy, and all of it interpretable as the imaginings of the man himself, trying to account for the ghastly prank nature has played on him.

There are impressionist sightings as well of industrial machineries, textile mills, dynamos, black-belching chimneys, soot-darkened skylines, the dismal warrens of 19th-Century England. A later generation may well imagine that what the authors would give us is not only the world as Merrick perceived it but a reminder of a working-class world whose foul airs, undernourishment and exhaustive labors could have accounted for the ravaged child Merrick was.

The film is indeed a symbolic drama and, as such, it takes liberties with some of the facts and known sequences of Merrick's short life (he died at 27). In particular, Lynch & Co. invent one of the nastiest villains ever, the unshaven, gin-soaked Bytes, the entrepreneur who treats and displays Merrick as the monstrous Elephant Man and who, in the film, kidnaps him from the hospital where Merrick has found warm friends and a reborn sense of his own humanity and takes him off on a catastrophic tour of Europe. Bytes is portrayed, in superb style, hateable to the last semaphoring eyebrow, by the fine Shakespearean actor Freddie Jones.

The script also invents a nasty night porter (Michael Elphick) who sells visits to Merrick's room and stages a voyeurs' drunken orgy around the dazed man. It is the most operatic scene in high-intensity film and I found it too manipulative and theatrical even for the context of so bizarre a story. Yet it undoubtedly extended the horror of a horrific life.

It is not, of course, all horror, and The Elephant Man is at last a story of human compassion. Wendy Hiller as the stern-visaged head nurse at the hospital is at first not sure that Merrick ought to be there in the first place; in the end she has come to another kind of anger—not sure but that the kindness of royalty and other strangers toward Merrick is its own brand of voyeurism. Hopkins as Treves wonders about his own motives: is he caring or using? Anne Bancroft as the real-life actress Dame Madge Kendal, who befriended Merrick and had him to the theater, lets him see that beautiful women could look upon him without revulsion.

So deformed was his body that Merrick could sleep only by sitting upright with his arms clasped around his legs and his head resting on his knees. One night, perhaps fired by dreams of being more like normal people, he tried to sleep lying flat, and he died of a dislocated neck. “His tortured journey,” Treves wrote, “had come to an end.”

Having introduced him as very nearly a mythic figure, The Elephant Man grants him a ritual end, with a ghostly voice suggesting that some things never die. It is a last extravagant and surpassingly romantic gesture, the fading echoes of an opera.

In the later silence, we're entitled to nothing quite so simple as a relieving, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

What has become clear is that each of us is a voyeur transfixed by the sight of Merrick, but that there is as well some shadow of Merrick on us, some speck of him within the most secure among us. He is the spur to our compassion, and also a token of our own vulnerabilities, the possibility of our need, now or sometime, for the compassion of others. We weep for John Merrick's tragic life and for the warmth he found at last; we weep for us.

Hurt, revealing no more than an eye of his own beneath the enormous mask, his own speech reduced to the wet croak of a man in the dentist's chair, shuffling and teetering along, gives a performance that was arduous and self-denying, and is unforgettable.

Hopkins as Treves is taut and restrained, understated in his compassion and in his rage at the exploiting of Merrick. Hiller is tart but good-hearted as the nurse and John Gielgud is excellent as Carr Gomm, the hospital director initially dead against Merrick's presence, then deeply sympathetic with him.

Anne Bancroft is almost too grand to be true, yet she avoids any thought that she is voyeuring, and a scene in which she and Merrick read Romeo and Juliet is beautiful in its quietly dramatic way.

If it is impossible to stay unmoved by The Elephant Man there is also a large excitement in seeing a film that from first to last is an act of rebellion against the tame, the customary, the safe, the way it was. It may try too hard here and there, wring the emotions too tightly, but better that than a bland timidity. How restorative to see a film that tries to make you see, make you feel, make you think, make you care. And does.

David Sterritt (review date 9 October 1980)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1577

SOURCE: Sterritt, David. “Undaunted Moral Strength—The Elephant Man's Story.” Christian Science Monitor 72, no. 223 (9 October 1980): 18.

[In the following review, Sterritt praises Lynch for his bold cinematic style in The Elephant Man, observing that the film expresses faith in “the ultimate goodness of mankind.”]

The story of The Elephant Man has become a modern myth. Books have been written about him, he is the subject of a long-running Broadway hit, and now a new movie [The Elephant Man] tells his history.

Does all this interest amount to a positive sign of the times? I think so. Despite the sad underpinnings of the tale, its message is optimistic and charged with faith in the ultimate goodness of mankind. Who was the elephant man, after all, but a person whose moral strength reundaunted no matter how difficult his physical circumstances became?

The actual elephant man was John Merrick, a handicapped English-man born in 1864. As a child, he spent years in the workhouse. Later, unable to function in ordinary society because of his appearance, he eked out an existence being exhibited by showmen (whence came his flamboyant nickname). Just when things seemed most miserable, he was befriended by a London physician named Frederick Treves, who took him in and sheltered him. During the rest of his short life he became a fashionable figure, visited and entertained by members of the highest society.

The inspiring thing about Merrick was his complete lack of bitterness toward the world or his fellowmen. Despite the severity of his handicaps, despite the brutal treatment he received from strangers and acquaintances, he never showed anger or hostility. Rather, he impressed people with his meekness and generosity.

In his book on Merrick, anthropologist Ashley Montague writes at length about the “strength, health, integrity, and gentleness” of his character. In his own memoir about Merrick, referring to the later years of his life, Dr. Treves calls him “one of the most contented creatures I have chanced to meet,” and recalls Merrick saying more than once. “I am happy every hour of the day.”

In the current Broadway play about Merrick, the hero is portrayed without the use of disfiguring makeup. Instead, his appearance is merely suggested, through movements and gestures. Since film is a more “realistic” medium by nature, it's not surprising that the first movie about Merrick takes an opposite approach, depicting him in detail.

It's hard to argue with this on general principles, since Merrick's fortitude was most remarkable by contrast with the hardships he endured. Yet some of the movie's devices lean toward cheapness. The early scenes deal coyly with Merrick's appearance, teasing us with glimpses and silhouettes, then trying to shock us with sudden close-ups. This is the stuff of stale horror pictures, not serious cinema. Also, the film occasionally drags in extraneous medical details which are slimly connected with the business at hand. While such moments are kept within PG limits, they add a tinge of harshness to the tale, as does a subplot about a mean-spirited lout who exploits Merrick after he had thought he was safe from such attacks.

Aside from these lapses, however, The Elephant Man is an uncommonly involving experience. It is a privilege to watch the selfless Dr. Treves, patterned after his real-life counterpart, pour himself into the task of reclaiming the hapless Merrick, who responds with a miraculous torrent of faith and trust in his benefactors. Splendid performances help bring this portion of the film to life—most impressively from John Hurt, who does his acting from beneath a pile of makeup that must set some sort of Hollywood record. Anthony Hopkins is equally convincing as Dr. Treves, with John Gielgud as a high-powered bureaucrat who also joins in the good fight. Anne Bancroft plays a lady of “the theatah” who becomes another Merrick ally.

As the beginning of the film is marred by cheapness, some later scenes sink into a gummy sentimentality. This is partly because the filmmakers have accepted the Montague theory that Merrick's goodness was the result of an early childhood steeped in love and understanding from a devoted mother, and as such was relentlessly naive in nature. As critic Leslie Fiedler has indicated in a more recent book, Victorian “momism” may be an attractive attitude, but it doesn't go deep enough to explain Merrick's extraordinary personality. Surely other forces were at work, as well.

Even when its psychology becomes simplistic, though, The Elephant Man is explosively bold in its audiovisual style. Credit for this goes entirely to the young director, David Lynch. Curiously, he has made only one feature before now, a piece of unprecedented surrealism called Eraserhead about a weird-looking baby born into an equally weird family. Repellent at some moments, darkly compelling at others, the film has gained Lynch a small but solid reputation as an utterly original talent—and it impressed Mel Brooks enough to put his Brookfilms production company behind Lynch's debut in The Elephant Man.

In many of its details The Elephant Man is like a commercial remake of Eraserhead. Lynch told me recently that he was attracted to The Elephant Man by its title alone, even before he knew the story. “It suggested so many things,” he said during a conversation not long ago. “And it seemed right down my alley, though I'm not sure just what that alley is.”

He considers Merrick an “admirable” character. “He had a terrific load in life,” says the filmmaker, “and he carried it so well. He's a lesson to lots of us. And he brings out the good in people—not necessarily when he was living, but now, as a symbol. I like the idea that some good came out of his experience. He overcame so much. The overall feeling of his story is so positive.”

True, both Eraserhead and The Elephant Man have scenes depicting the dark side of human existence. Says Lynch,

I was born in Montana, and I had a very nice childhood. I grew up in Sand Point, Idaho, and Spokane, Wash. I can remember white picket fences and real red flowers and green leaves against beautiful blue skies with little planes droning overhead, and me in my overalls and suspenders and little round shoes.

It was heavenly. But then I found out the world is not like that. It's hard and dark. Maybe for people who grow up in big cities, the big surprise is that there's good in the world. For me it was the other way around. I am fascinated with this dark side.

Appreciating the irony of the idea, Lynch agrees he's like a backward elephant man, since Merrick came from gloomy surroundings and discovered the great glories of life. But Lynch knows that discovering “the dark side” is only a beginning to understanding. “There are good things hidden away in it all,” he says. “It looks like the negative is the most powerful thing, but it isn't. Ultimately, the good is extremely powerful. The trick is to find the good in all this darkness. I'm real interested in that. Both my films have happy endings.”

Indeed, the end of The Elephant Man is downright transcendent, which may startle viewers accustomed to neat plot conclusions. “Nothing is ever locked up tight,” Lynch says. “Life is proving that all the time. The trouble is, if you put a little vagueness in a film, people wonder what's going on. But sometimes it's necessary. I've just touched the tip of the iceberg in exploring this. Done right, it could drive people wild—in a good way, an inspiring way.”

Though Eraserhead is a movie of thoroughgoing visual originality, Lynch feels The Elephant Man took more personal courage to make. “This was a major commercial picture with heavyweight actors,” he says. “And all those considerations are between the idea and the film. You have to cut through the money and the cast and the Hollywood glamour—and remember that the idea, on a little piece of film, is what it's all about. That's what takes courage.”

Lynch recognizes the hazards of being a personal artist in a basically commercial medium. He hopes public tastes are “coming around” to mesh with his own interests. In that case, he'll be able to make his next project, “Ronnie Rocket,” which he describes only as a “strange” film with “some music in it.” He insists he doesn't want to make movies he doesn't believe in. “I'd rather not make films at all,” he says. “I'd do carpentry work instead, which I love. You should really stick to pictures you believe in. Then if you make something and people don't want to see it, at least you have the movie for yourself.”

Discussing his philosophy of film, Lynch says that “feelings, impressions, and moods are the things I really love—things that are a little below the surface. I want to go as deep as I can. Only there's so much between the original, mental idea and what finally comes out in the movie.”

To me, it sounds like Lynch is echoing a cry in T. S. Eliot's “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” yearning for a “magic lantern” that could “throw the nerves in patterns on a screen.” Lynch agrees with this observation, saying, “That's the whole thing. I want to send out my ideas as directly as possible. And cinema can do that so well, with picture and sound barreling along together. That's what film is all about, really.”

John Coleman (review date 10 October 1980)

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SOURCE: Coleman, John. “Monstrous.” New Statesman 100, no. 2586 (10 October 1980): 25-6.

[In the following review, Coleman characterizes The Elephant Man as a sensational film that exploits the “horror film potential” of its subject matter.]

It was David Lynch who made the squalid and diseased fantasy Eraserhead in 1976 and the first difficulty in dealing candidly with his The Elephant Man is exactly that knowledge. Had I seen the new film unascribed would I have felt the same initial unease, verging on queasiness, during its portentous opening sequences, which offer trumpeting pachyderms on the move, a woman's face, a form of mushroom cloud (the birth, or death, of creation?), cutting in to the surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) as he proceeds down canvas corridors towards a freak show?

Freddie Francis's black-and-white photography is generally pretty stunning, but one recalls that he has latterly been associated with horror movies; and there is considerable ambiguity in the way we are kept waiting, hanging on for our first full-frontal look at the grossly deformed head of John (actually Joseph) Merrick, unhappy victim of multiple neurofibromatosis. We see tears in Treves's eyes at the private viewing he has bribed the scoundrelly Bytes (Freddie Jones, camping for evil) to allow him. We see a shambling fellow, with the sack masking his face falling into oddly elephant-like folds, entering the London Hospital. And when Treves delivers his lecture to a tiered assembly of professionals, who somehow appallingly end by applauding, we are allowed an unprivileged glimpse of the Elephant Man from behind, of a silhouette through a curtain. After the press show, someone argued all this was delicately to prepare us. If this generous proposal is true, why then should a timid young nurse be sent on alone with the monster's food and her scream be sounding still in our ears as we see the melancholy misshapenness wrought upon the excellent John Hurt's face by wizards of make-up for the first time?

No, the unfortunate emphasis of Lynch's fictional movie, drawn at a distance from Treves's own published reminiscences and Ashley Montagu's The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity, is on the sensational, as when an unwarrantably dwelt-on scene has the night porter ushering in a mob of drunken cronies at so much a head, shuddering doxies forced by their deviate mentor to embrace the cowering Merrick; or, as a gang of kids pursue the hooded fellow at a station (on his return from France and recapture by Bytes) for all the world like some Phantom of the Opera or Frankenstein's Monster. Throughout there is the cacophony of machinery, blazing furnaces, the apparatus of industrialism, of Victorian England in the 1880s; yet its main purpose seems extra-historical, symbolical rather of some vaguely realised hell. And yet there is a film, within the movie and almost despite it, which is sometimes rather fine.

This is thanks partly to a muted and masterly performance from Anthony Hopkins, fearful that he has become little better than Bytes in his exploitation of Merrick; but substantially to the magnificent John Hurt, softly spooning out little ecstasies of gratitude, paying a guest's compliments, with the hesitant well-spoken tentativeness of a curate among the tea things, gradually inducing one to forget he is physically an anomaly. His small flarings or darings of vanity are beautifully suggested. His expectations are so few. At his social sponsor, the actress Mrs Kendal's instigation, a glittering house rises to applaud him in his box at his first visit to a theatre, unaware they are clapping themselves. Had David Lynch's The Elephant Man been a hundred times better, it would still have raised disquiet. Just what is our role in this devious enterprise?

Henry Baker (review date spring 1981)

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SOURCE: Baker, Henry. Review of The Elephant Man, by David Lynch. Cineaste 11, no. 2 (spring 1981): 28-9.

[In the following review, Baker praises The Elephant Man as “a grim fairy tale,” applauding the film's black-and-white cinematography and the visual depth of its subject matter.]

David Lynch's extraordinary film, The Elephant Man, begins with a dream vision of a beautiful woman, and then plunges us into a nightmare—the loud, steady beats of elephant feet, the approach of the herd, and the woman, struck down by one of them, writhing in pain. The sequence ends with a rising cloud of vapor and the sound of a baby crying. Lynch conjures up a world of imagination; he is bringing the Elephant Man to us through the combination of primal feelings and cinematic sorcery.

The flash of a magician's fire ends the dream and introduces the more recognizable world of a Victorian London side show. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), a doctor at the London Hospital, follows policemen into the Freak Show exhibit, only to find one of its attractions, “The Elephant Man,” being closed down by local councilmen and police. “Freaks are one thing, but this is monstrous!” the huffy official says to the owner of the exhibit, Bytes (Freddie Jones). Intrigued, Treves later finds his way through the slums of London's Whitechapel district to Bytes, and requests a private showing. What Treves sees so grips him that he is moved to tears.

Lynch reveals the identity of the title character very slowly. Treves has the creature, enshrouded by a cloak and a burlap hood with one slit for his left eye, come to the hospital for an examination but his deformity and his identity remain a mystery. It is only during his exhibition before the scientific community that we find out that he is an Englishman named David Merrick, and even then we only see Merrick's body silhouetted against a curtain lighted by an old projector lamp. After the exhibition, Merrick is returned to Bytes, and only after he is badly beaten by the drunken mugger and rushed back to the hospital does the audience finally see his horrible disfiguration—just as he begins his journey toward a kind of emotional redemption.

The Elephant Man is basically a tale of generosity and human possibility, although there is more to the story than this. Through his revisions of the original screenplay (by Christopher DeVore and Eric Bergen) and with the help of cinematographer Freddie Francis, Lynch has fashioned a grim fairy tale. The Elephant Man is as much about pain, both individual and social, as about human kindness, and the entire film is presented through an entraced visage. Lynch revitalizes Expressionist techniques through the subjective use of cinema. While the London we see is certainly more “realistic” than the dream, it seems part of a semi-magical creation. The vision of Merrick's mother at the film's beginning is both seductive and throbbing. From here, Lynch moves to another vision—that of industrial Victorian England. The superbly evocative black-and-white photography is beautiful and hellish at once—chimneys pour black smoke into the air, filth lines the streets of Whitechapel near London Hospital.

By providing a doleful, yet strangely fanciful counterpart to a story of inspiration, Lynch deepens the material and makes it even more poignant and eerie. In an early scene, Dr. Treves operates on a victim of a gruesome machine accident. “Damnable things, these machines. You can't reason with them,” he mutters. Industrial London's workers are mangled, literally, by the machine age, and Treves tells one of his students, “We'll be seeing more of these.” But, while there will be more industrial accidents, there will only be rare cases like John Merrick. This most unfortunate of “England's sons” (as Queen Victoria puts it in a message) is the most horribly deformed man of his time due, we now know, to the effects of neurofibromatosis, a nerve disease. The relationship between his disease and the disfigurements caused by the Industrial Revolution is that both Merrick and those workers crippled by machinery are victims of one, of an organic disease, the others, of technological innovation and socio-political and economic change—two very different maladies. In one dream sequence, the camera moves toward Merrick's hood and through the eye-slit. The Elephant Man dreams of dark, piped corridors, of the deadening, monotonous rhythms of factory workers, of his mother's “attack,” and of an attack on himself that will happen in the future. The booming sounds of the elephant herd become the clanking noises of the machines, and Merrick's suffering joins that of others. Yet, unlike the mangled worker, Merrick escapes his oppressive atmosphere for a period of relative safety and warmth.

Lynch achieves much of his purpose in The Elephant Man through the power of understatement. The atmosphere is bleak, but not overdone, because the fairy tale tone works beside it. The Elephant Man is a tale of compassion amid a grim period. Lynch does something that few directors manage successfully—he creates a purely visual motif that is not inherent in the script, yet peacefully exists with it. There is not civil war going on between form and content because Lynch, Freddie Francis, sound engineer Alan Splet, and the actors all contribute to the feelings of compassion and sadness that are the mainstays of the film. Merrick, a disfigured creature, the hero, and Lynch (with the scriptwriters) tempers his vision with a surprising gentleness. The scenes between Merrick and Treves are most effective, particularly when the doctor tries to communicate with the apparently obtuse Merrick. What emerges from this horrible outer shell is an incredibly good-natured man who becomes filled with a childlike sense of wonder at his good fortune. Playing Merrick under pounds of make-up and physical constraints that would make Lon Chaney jealous, John Hurt uses his superb voice and graceful body movements to give us the refined, sweet personality underneath the surface. Anthony Hopkins plays Treves with a somewhat dotty, low-keyed professionalism that provides the perfect foil to Hurt's portrayal. If the role of Treves lacks anything it is the obvious frustration the man must have felt while helplessly watching the health of his patient and friend decline.

Some of Lynch's morbid eroticism is present, however. The dream attack on Merrick's mother not only suggests a brutal accident, but also implies both rape and the pains of a difficult childbirth. Thus, subconsciously, one can associate the monotonous boom of the elephant feet with a queasy feeling of sexuality. The soundtrack reverberates with similar noises in the factories and in the hospital's clock tower, and the submerged erotic/repellent feelings in The Elephant Man struggle toward the surface. Treves points out during Merrick's medical exhibit that, despite the effects of the disease, his genitals are normal. Though the film doesn't make much more of this, its meaning becomes more dramatically apparent during a harrowing scene in which Merrick is forcibly displayed to paying customers of the hospital night watchman. Three of the gawking crowd—a man and two young women—become sexually aroused by the thrill of revulsion.

Merrick's own romantic sensibility is less successfully demonstrated. Deprived of the company of women all of his life due to his deformity, Merrick cultivated a poetic, worshipful view of the female sex. When he is greeted courteously by Treve's wife (Hannah Gordon), Merrick is overwhelmed by both her kindness and beauty, and he breaks down in tears, saying, “I'm not used to being treated so well by a beautiful woman.” This scene is effective and touching, but when the actress, Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft), visits Merrick, and the two read a passage from Romeo and Juliet, awkwardness and bathos takes over. As Mrs. Kendal mews, “You're not an elephant man at all; you're Romeo,” the point is crudely driven home. The poor writing in this scene leaves the actors, particularly Anne Bancroft, silhouetted against gooey smiles and unsure direction. Mrs. Kendal isn't even a character—she's just some nice rich lady who descends upon Merrick and recites Shakespeare with him, her interest in the man seemingly arbitrary and unmotivated.

Many moments in the script could lend themselves to gross sentimentality, but Lynch manipulates the dual nature of most of the film so gracefully that the sentiment is muted and distilled through an original sensibility. Only one other time does false pathos rear its ugly head. As Merrick nears the end of his life, he goes to the theater for the first time to see a pantomime performance. The play is Puss 'N Boots, and we see it as Merrick does—as a magical display of flashing light, dream-like movement, and theatrical sorcery. This is the glorious antithesis to his nightmare, and it is a mesmerizing display of subjectivity in film. After the performance is done, Mrs. Kendal comes out and dedicates the performance to Merrick. In response, the audience gives the Elephant Man a standing ovation, herewith inviting the criticism it has received from some for a pandering worship of an upper class that has taken pity on Merrick (the ovation scene being their best evidence) in contradistinction to the two “villains” in the film, Bytes and the night-watchman.

What is most problematical with the film is its approval of Merrick's unswerving desire to “be like other people,” and, by extension, not so much to conform as to belong—but, in Merrick's case, to belong to the upper class. The political connotations to this are not explored in The Elephant Man; David Lynch is far more interested in humanity than politics. After all, Lynch makes clear the sort of horror that Merrick constantly tries to escape—his confrontation with a society that is both terrified of and taunting toward him—might be possible, but that he can never control his nightmares. Nevertheless, when Merrick tells Treves that he is “happy every minute of the day,” and feels “fulfilled,” we believe him. Yet, he is haunted. His attempt to sleep lying down, like others, kills him, because the size of his head weighs against his windpipe, resulting in suffocation. That Lynch treats this not as biting irony, but as the inevitable release from this world, indicates that The Elephant Man has found a small earthly paradise for a short while from which he can now be freed by leaving behind his outer shell.

Michael Wilmington (review date 14 December 1984)

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SOURCE: Wilmington, Michael. “Dune Is Slow Going but Apt to Stick in the Mind.” Los Angeles Times (14 December 1984): section 6, p. 8.

[In the following review, Wilmington assesses Lynch's use of dark, obsessive, and bizarre visual imagery in Dune, noting that the film as a whole is not necessarily successful.]

The multimillion-dollar adaptation of Frank Herbert's best-selling science-fiction novel, Dune with its evocative and densely detailed vision of a desert planet where mammoth worms capable of swallowing whole express trains burrow through the sand, is one of the year's most peculiar films. It's cold, strange and remote. It's lit in such dark tones that, watching it, we often seem to be wandering through some vast, echoing mausoleum. It unfolds at a measured, lugubrious, almost maddening pace. And Herbert's byzantine plot is ruthlessly condensed and shoe-horned into a 140-minute running time that seems barely adequate.

Yet [Dune], opening citywide today, is also packed with sometimes spellbinding, sometimes splendiferous, always bizarre imagery. If it fails—and certainly it fails as the Star Wars-style comic-book extravaganza those only vaguely familiar with the novel may expect—it's at least one of those memorable, spectacular failures that stick in your mind obsessively.

Dune, or Arrakis, is a planet composed almost entirely of a Sahara-like desert. It is also the arena where a charismatic teenager, ducal heir Paul Atreides, is cast out of the haven of his family's influence and power into a hell of exile and tormented wandering. He has been plunged there by the perfidy, treachery and unbelievable sadism of the Harkonnen clan, his father's sworn enemies (and the puppets of a vast imperial conspiracy). Herbert's plot is essentially a revenge saga—Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo imagined on far more grandiloquent, planetary terms.

It's also a tale of coming-of-age and a rumination on ecology, warfare, politics and religion. The density of Dune's imagined universe is probably what most attracts its legion of fans, what makes it such a pop milestone (at the end of the novel there's a map, four appendixes and a 20-page glossary of words and phrases indigenous to his special terrain).

Herbert is an ex-journalist, and it's partially the concrete quality of Dune's imaginative rambles that makes it such fun to read. But David Lynch, the movie's writer-director, is a bit more of a visionary, a bit darker-hued, more obsessive. His Dune is superficially faithful to the novel, but it has an entirely different effect. Where Herbert's writing begins to soar is when he gets his hero, Paul, into the desert, into the open spaces. Lynch is more comfortable in the shadowy confines of the various castles, where plots are hatched and dark deeds unfold. He's always been something of a claustrophobic director—his masterpiece, Eraserhead takes place almost entirely in a bare little room, with a hero who spends much of his time staring into the radiator.

Derring-do and heroism in general seem slightly foreign to Lynch. The movie's weakest performance is Kyle MacLachlan's as Paul (or Muad'Dib). MacLachlan, making his movie debut, seems at times almost paralyzed by reverence. His eyes have a dead, flat look, and he rolls over his words as if they were Holy Writ.

The villains, on the other hand, have a field day. As Feyd Rautha, Paul's heinously magnetic opposite number, Sting has all the charisma MacLachlan often lacks; Sian Phillips makes a delectably sinister Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. And, as the arch-heavy Baron Harkonnen, Kenneth McMilan—bulbously fat, his face a rotting mass of diseased eruptions, his eyes darting with outrageous lewdness, his entire body encased in an outlandish flying suit as he commits act after act of unrestrained degeneracy and vileness—all but blows every other actor off the screen. (It's here, in fact, that Lynch's imagination seems most unfettered, where his black, weird, incandescent humor bubbles over.)

Dune's cinematic trappings—the art direction, the costume design, Freddie Francis' cinematography, the refreshingly non-cliched score by Toto and Brian Eno—are rich, occasionally splendid. But the movie has that same weird, hermetic feel that infused the cul-de-sac of Eraserhead, something slightly inappropriate to its epic intentions, something which its sporadic outbursts of crazed grandeur can't quite erase. Perhaps it's a spectacular case of directorial miscasting. Perhaps it was simply a huge tactical error to try to encompass the whole novel in one movie—where two, or even three, might have suited it best. Brilliant as Lynch and his collaborators often are, one has to mine out the cinematic gems and moments of wonder and awe here—like the precious water concealed below Arrakis' sandy surface.

Tom O'Brien (review date 11 January 1985)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Tom. Review of Dune, by David Lynch. Commonweal 112, no. 1 (11 January 1985): 18.

[In the following excerpt, O'Brien criticizes Dune, describing the film as unoriginal and meaningless.]

Dune and Starman—two … big budget sci-fi films—provide major disappointments. Dune is pseudo-inventive; despite all its arcana it is basically nothing more than an old shoot-'em-up-plus-adolescent-rite-of-passage in outer space. Of course I must confess a prejudice: Dune is faithful to its source, Frank Herbert's 1965 “classic” novel that became a big hit in some quarters, a book I detested for its freakish gobbledygook and spurious spirituality. Basically, Herbert's strategy, imitated by Dune's director David Lynch, is to hide a paucity of real invention behind a multiplicity of mumbo jumbo. Lynch formerly made Elephant Man and Eraserhead; in Dune he pursues the monstrous with a ghoulish revamping of Star Wars. The shoot-'em-up, for example, pits a hero named Paul Atreides (for epic's sake), in the “Luke Skywalker” role, against some boil-covered villains and their punk rock henchman. The two sides contest ownership of a desert planet whose arid soil contains “mélange,” a super potent spice containing the secrets of life and that sort of thing. Mining the spice provokes the appearance of Dune's only intriguing novelty: giant worms the size and appearance of Moby Dick.

On one level, there's just too much in Dune; but on a deeper level, not enough. The villains live in the city of Harakonnen, a seamy futuristic Pittsburgh; in other locales we get Moorish architecture, Venetian interiors, Victorian wood paneling, officials in Czarist Russian uniforms, punk sadists in gold plated briefs, some outer space guerrillas like rubberized Michelin men. The ads for Dune tell us it presents “a world beyond experience, beyond imagination”: what Dune really gives us are bad dreams blended in a cuisinart. No wonder the secret spice was called mélange. Unfortunately the conglomeration of effects is created simply to tell us that pure-hearted young men and damsels will save the universe from evil meanies. The disproportion between machinery and moral content is cosmic.

Lynda K. Bundtzen (essay date autumn 1988)

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SOURCE: Bundtzen, Lynda K. “‘Don't Look at Me!’: Woman's Body, Woman's Voice in Blue Velvet.Western Humanities Review 42, no. 3 (autumn 1988): 187-203.

[In the following essay, Bundtzen examines Blue Velvet from a feminist and psychoanalytic perspective, challenging some of the methodologies’ assumptions.]

… woman as representation signifies castration, inducing voyeuristic or fetishistic mechanisms to circumvent her threat. None of these interacting layers is intrinsic to film, but it is only in the film form that they can reach a perfect and beautiful contradiction, thanks to the possibility in the cinema of shifting the emphasis of the look. It is the place of the look that defines cinema, the possibility of varying it and exposing it.

—Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”

David Lynch's Blue Velvet provides a feminist and psychoanalytic film criticism with a rare opportunity to test many of its assumptions. The character of Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) bears the burden of male desire in Blue Velvet, whether coerced by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) to enact his sadistic fantasies, or soliciting from Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) a violence that comes to represent male sexuality. She is quite literally the object of the male gaze, warned repeatedly by Frank, “Don't look at me!” even as he glares at her and barks orders, and spied on by Jeffrey while she undresses and dons the blue velvet robe assigned her as a costume in Frank's Freudian psychodramas. She is entirely a male possession, an object of exchange held in Frank's sexual thralldom as ransom for the lives of her kidnapped husband and son; a much abused plaything persona but never a person in Frank's violent scenarios; and a mediating figure for Jeffrey's desire to gain “hidden” knowledge about himself, about sex.

In her one opportunity to assert power, wielding a knife over the discovered voyeur Jeffrey and commanding him to undress, she can only mime Frank's menace, repeat his prescribed dialogue for victimizers, “Don't look at me!,” and threaten her captive male with castration, holding the knife poised above his exposed (to Dorothy, not to us) genitals. The fact that Dorothy fondles Jeffrey instead, perhaps stimulating him orally, asking him whether he likes “that,” only marks her as feminine “lack.” In Laura Mulvey's terms, Dorothy's “desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child [here Jeffrey] into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis (the condition, she imagines, of entry into the symbolic)” (199). In the scene, only Dorothy “sees” Jeffrey's penis for the audience, enforcing an identification with her imaginary effort to enter the symbolic order ruled by “Daddy” Frank. Only with the help of Jeffrey, whom she turns to as a savior, can Dorothy enter into the film's diegesis as more than a victim. Later this meaning for Jeffrey's phallus—as a necessary possession for survival—is stressed by Dorothy herself. After they make love, she tells him, “You're my special friend. I still have you inside me,” implying that his seminal fluid, the evidence of his penis inside her, will protect her.

Despite her momentary sense of power, then, Dorothy's fate remains very much in the control of the male characters, and she appears to recognize this bondage in her submission to Jeffrey's phallic imperative. In Mulvey's terms, she remains “tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (199). Instead of realizing autonomy, inventing a persona and action outside the games devised by Frank and Jeffrey, Dorothy embraces an identity with the “castration anxiety the female image evokes” and gracefully succumbs to the agency of male characters. They, in turn, are permitted what Mulvey calls “two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety.” Jeffrey's sexual curiosity and eventual redemption of Dorothy typify Mulvey's first form of escape: “preoccupation with the reenactment of the original trauma [that initiated the castration complex] (investigating the woman; demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment, or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir)” (205). As Jeffrey explains his motives for investigating Dorothy to the admiring virgin Sandy, “There are opportunities in life for gaining experience and knowledge”; and later, when the danger of continued pursuit of knowledge is known, he cannot restrain his desire: “I'm seeing something that was always hidden”—“secrets,” “mysteries.” Frank, on the other hand, follows Mulvey's second “avenue”: “complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous. …” (205). Ostensibly, then, Dorothy as “female image” is entirely engrossed in a male economy of desire, an enclosed circle where she has no part to play, no persona beyond that of tormented chanteuse in the shadowy Slow Club, singing of herself in past tense, third person, a faded memory of male desire: “She wore Blue Velvet / Bluer than velvet were her eyes. …”

From a feminist critical perspective, therefore, one might easily condemn Blue Velvet in its emphatic portrait of a woman molded by male fantasy, her difference ritualistically erased by male rage, and deplore its effect on audiences, who are further conditioned to adopt a male view of women as desiring or at least passively complicitous in male violence.1 Yet the style of Blue Velvet, I believe, prevents audiences from dismissing Dorothy as controlled by the male gaze or Blue Velvet as another film where “the fetishistic image [of woman] portrayed relates only to male narcissism” (Johnston 26).2 The campy veneer of Blue Velvet, coupled with dialogue that oscillates wildly between Frank's aggressive obscenity (almost every other word is “fuck” or a variant thereof) and syrupy sentimentality (e.g., Sandy's dream about the robins) provokes nervous laughter, because we do not know whether the terrors of the film are to be viewed as real or pleasurable, even farcical, artifice, the characters as serious representations or cartoons from small-town American life. As David Ansen astutely describes Blue Velvet's “startling mixture of naivete and kinkiness,” “it unfolds like a boys' adventure tale of the 40s or 50s, but it's as if a Hardy Boy had wandered into a scenario devised by the Marquis de Sade”; and further, “Blue Velvet is a guilty parable of sin and redemption and true love, in which Betty and Archie and Veronica archetypes are set loose in a hallucinatory world of the id.” We don't know, in Sandy's words, whether Jeffrey, an inquisitive boy on the verge of manhood, is “a detective or a pervert,”3 whether Lynch wishes his audience to assume an innocent or sophisticated view toward his characters and narrative.

As a result of such stylistic perculiarities, an audience is persistently distanced—alienated—from the visual pleasure inherent in the classic and conventional cinematic situation of the feature story film. The story refuses to make complete sense as “a boys' adventure tale” or even as Lynch describes it, “a sophisticated coming-of-age movie about Jeffrey, who becomes a man through experience, albeit violent experience”: “‘Jeffrey enters this danger, the danger of knowledge, and he gains insight because of it. He also does some good in the world that he enters; he helps Dorothy” (Winer).4 It may, of course, be possible for some viewers to lose themselves in the story by adopting this traditional perspective and its implicit generic expectations, but too much of the film remains outside this closed circle.5

The film's ending, for example, is ideologically recuperative, but also provokes laughter. The law, led by Sandy's good father, a police detective, intervenes to help Jeffrey rid the world of Frank, a vicious “Daddy” who deploys language only as a castrating weapon; Jeffrey's father is restored to his suburban lawn-tending after a stroke that has left him speechless for the duration of the film (we see him chatting with Sandy's father at the end of the film); Dorothy's son is returned to her and she is redeemed from whoredom into a blissful maternal state; and Sandy's robins arrive to fill her world with song and love. Lynch's world, however, remains determinedly “strange” (The film's bewildered teenagers, Sandy and Jeffrey, thrice repeat, “It's a strange world.”), and Lynch underscores both its strangeness and the superficial nature of his resolution with a blatantly mechanical robin's chirp and an old woman's disgust at the bug wiggling in its beak.

The audience's sense of a stereotypical world gone awry creates a resistance to the classic cinema's pleasure in viewing an “hermetically sealed world which unwinds magically, indifferent to the presence of the audience, producing for them a sense of separation and playing on their voyeuristic fantasy” (Mulvey 201). This resistance is most evident, I believe, in the counterpoint of two sequences where Dorothy is presented as nude. The first, where Jeffrey spies on Dorothy as she disrobes, is “traditional” in the sense that it (1) permits the audience to adopt a pleasurable, voyeuristic point-of-view of the woman, to identify erotically with Jeffrey in his opportune discovery of “the naked truth” embodied in the unclothed female image; and (2) implants the “presence” of the woman's body on the screen with a “fetish response.” As “image-producer,” Lynch classically first offers Dorothy in a pretty striptease that firmly establishes her as possessed by the male gaze.6 When Jeffrey, in turn, is discovered by Dorothy, he is as firmly established as a pervert, unable to explain his presence except as a peeping Tom:

D: Why are you here?

J: I wanted to see you.

D: What did you see?

J: I saw you undress.

D: Are you the sort of boy who steals into girls' apartments to watch them undress?

J: No—this is the only time.

D: What do you want?

J: I don't know.

Our pleasure at spying on Dorothy dissolves with his into severe anxiety at the impending knife over his genitals. As I have already noted, the castration threat is disavowed in Dorothy's eventually submissive behavior, but Lynch does not let Jeffrey, or the audience, so easily off the hook. What happens to the pleasure-in-looking is at least a partial transformation into shame, embarrassment, even impotence, when Jeffrey is forced back into Dorothy's closet and witnesses the physical abuse she endures from Frank. Partial, because it is likely that shame irrupts in conflict or even as a result of our enjoyment at viewing Frank's “scene”: like Jeffrey, we are curious, desiring knowledge of what this wild man does to Dorothy sexually and what it means. Being made privy to what is illicit is one of the classic cinema's primary pleasures and Dorothy might remain as a fetishized object for both the “image-producer” Lynch and a scopophilic audience, whose desire to see and know overrides any sense of guilt attached to the image.

Lynch's second sequence of the nude Dorothy, however, is distinctly unpleasurable, devoid, in Isabella Rossellini's words, of any “prettification”: “‘I didn't want to lose weight or be lit in a protective way or do three weeks of intensive exercise. That would have made me so embarrassed, to try to look better, to try to titillate. Then I could never have done the scene” (Winer). Dorothy stands completely exposed on Jeffrey's front porch when Jeffrey returns with Sandy from a date played like an episode from “Father Knows Best.” This revery is broken by the intrusion of Sandy's jealous boyfriend Mike and the glare of his headlights on Dorothy's bruised and cigarette-burned body. Her image is so far from arousing erotic titillation that she stops a street fight when Mike exclaims, “Is that your mother?” In the ensuing action, Dorothy remains naked in the car with Jeffrey and Sandy and at Sandy's home, where her prolonged exposure provokes Sandy's tears of humiliation.7 Throughout this sequence, Dorothy's body is an affront to Jeffrey, Sandy, and her mother's sense of decency, of rightness, and an audience waits nervously for someone to cover her and so allay the acute discomfort of seeing her thus exposed.

Christian Metz describes the “cinema fetishist” as “the person who is enchanted at what the machine is capable of, at the theatre of shadows as such. For the establishment of his full potency for cinematic enjoyment [jouissance] he must think at every moment (and above all simultaneously) of the force of presence the film has and of the absence on which this force is constructed” (74). As feminist film critics have noted, the female image is the principal “absence” on which such fetishism inherent in the “cinephile's” gaze is constructed, and Isabella Rossellini would be an ideal figure for such a series of effects. Lynch employs a star with an exotic film heritage and recognized as the glamorous face (her body is never shown) for Lancome cosmetics ads, and presents her undressed and in degradation. This in itself is enough to arouse the curiosity of an audience. But the image is de-fetishized by the explicit nature of her naked body. Fetishism is, after all, dependent on partial sight, on occluded vision, and Lynch thrusts Dorothy's—Rossellini's—body on an audience with such gross display that any playfulness, any fetishistic teasing of the eye is impossible.8 We feel ashamed, perhaps even apologetic, like Mike, who shuffles away from his fight with Jeffrey, saying, “I'm sorry.”

What I am suggesting about Lynch's contradictory handling of Dorothy's nude female image, then, is what Mulvey notes as “the possibility in the cinema of shifting the emphasis of the look … the possibility of varying it and exposing it” (208), and thwarting visual pleasure precisely where it is most expected. Such exposure is a critical and self-critical potentiality that Lynch makes available to his audience in his mise-en-scene, which persistently frames scenes within scenes, offering multiple perspectives and identifications for the spectator.9 A spectator is first tempted “to take” Dorothy as a voyeuristic and fetishistic object of visual pleasure, and then suffers the unpleasurable consequences. Jeffrey and Sandy's date is especially lulling to an audience's responses: romantic evenings with high school sweethearts do not conventionally end with nude femmes fatales waiting on the doorstep to prevent an innocent good night kiss. Lynch interrupts our pleasure-in-looking, our visual possession of Dorothy, even to the extent of our feeling her naked and injured body as an excessive moral burden.

This is the most extreme instance of how Lynch's style throughout Blue Velvet intervenes to prevent pleasurable stock responses and an audience's confident, even over-confident possession and comprehension of character and event. Overconfidence is raised by Lynch's campy humor, dependent as it is on audience recognition of its own sophistication. An audience faced with technicolor red roses, impossibly yellow jonquils against a flat white picket fence and a painted blue sky, is invited to laugh at Lumberton's kitschiness—a “candy-colored” technicolor world peopled with sitcom simpletons. In this respect, it is noteworthy that Dorothy is the only character who escapes Lynch's devastating humor, and this remains so despite his delineation of her, which depends on a fetishistic packaging of Dorothy in B-movie cliches.

An audience's recognition of her heavy impersonations—the femme fatale of film noir; the woman with a guilty secret; the torchy and exotic blues singer—may well be the direct cause of how much depth we give her in contrast to the two-dimensional flatness of the other characters, who belong to Leave It to Beaver, not The Maltese Falcon. After an adventure that briefly exposes a brutal and “strange world” that is Lumberton's “dark side,” Jeffrey, Sandy, and their families blend harmoniously again with an exaggeratedly banal background, restored to its original simplicity. With Dorothy, however, the film's final images of her playing in the park with her son are elusive. We feel that we have come neither to know her or comprehend her mystery, even though her exposure has the appearance of being explicit.

Dorothy's unplumbed mystery is, then, an excess that undermines an audience's confidence in Lynch's images and frustrates its desire to know and understand his world. Further, Lynch persistently puts to shame, embarrasses, both the characters in the film who degrade Dorothy or participate in her degradation, and the spectator who might also wish to possess Dorothy in one or all of her impersonations: Frank's victim and plaything; Jeffrey's fatal mistress; or, in her throaty cabaret act, the charismatic female movie star, whose image is more precious for its aura of unattainability. Lynch insists that Dorothy's excess is unrelated to these various images of her. Underneath, Dorothy is maternal plenitude, the good mother, a figure of love and care, and all of her representations are fantasies imposed on the maternal to enact childish aggressions toward her. In this, Lynch as director plays a role for his audience like the one Frank claims in relation to Jeffrey: he is “A candy-colored clown they call the Sandman” and Blue Velvet is his dream of total possession of the mother: “In dreams you're mine, all of the time.” Lynch presents a waking dream, however, forcing us to see the cloying “candy-colored” nature of his illusion, and the result is a nightmare like Jeffrey's where the mother is shamefully cannibalized: Frank's mouth in Jeffrey's nightmare is a roaring maw and visually analogous to the strange icon above Jeffrey's bed—the mouth of a shrunken head, teeth bared in an eternal grimace.

Dorothy's violation by Frank is the most exaggerated playing out of this aggressive desire to possess the mother completely. The title of the film, Blue Velvet, alludes simultaneously to Frank's fetishistic manipulation of a torn scrap from Dorothy's robe and the sappy Bobby Vinton ballad. In Frank's scene with her, Dorothy confusedly addresses Frank as “Daddy” and “Baby” and tenderly coos, “Mommy loves you.” Her confusion is, of course, the meaning of the scene for both Frank, the “baby” who desires to play “Daddy” with “Mommy,” and for the voyeur Jeffrey, a child satiating his sexual curiosity in this perverse primal scene. The room is darkened and the mother's eyes averted from the imperious “baby” Frank (“Don't look at me!”) who may then shamelessly violate Dorothy, free of the maternal gaze that endows both of them with identity. Frank's desire is thereby displaced into a “pure,” depersonalized, generalized aggression against the mother: Frank whines, “Mommy, mommy, Baby wants to fuck,” as Dorothy offers herself to him, putting her fingers in his mouth, “nursing” his desire for her. Frank's “fucking” is not with a penis, but with a fist forced into Dorothy's body, after which he acts out intercourse by thrusting his body up and down over her, impersonating male orgasm. His violence is therefore also the persistent frustration of the infant who can never re-enter the mother's body. This desire is symbolized in the blue velvet scrap Frank inserts in their mouths—an umbilical cord tying him to the mother's body.

This piece of blue velvet, scissored from Dorothy's robe, is, of course, a fetish, defined by Freud as a “penis-substitute” and standing very specifically for an imaginary penis: “for the woman's (mother's) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego. …” (Freud, 1927 215). Freud is especially helpful for understanding Frank's ambivalent behavior toward this penis-substitute and its synecdochic relation to Lynch's manipulation of visual pleasure in the film as a whole. Fur or velvet is, Freud says, a common fetish, reproducing “the sight of the pubic hair which ought to have revealed the longed-for penis,” as is the woman's “underlinen” because it “reproduces the scene of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could still be regarded as phallic” (Freud, 1927 219).

I have already discussed the way Lynch involves the audience in Jeffrey watching Dorothy undress and the way he supports an initial fetishism of the female body in his audience. Throughout Blue Velvet, Lynch revels in games of visual substitution—what Metz would call a “‘fetishism of technique’” (74-5) for the benefit of cinephiles trained to respond to visual cues and clues. Often, these cues are playful distortions, functional only at the level of masquerade, hence teasing an audience to surmise their meaning as signs. Why, for example, Ben the drug dealer (Dean Stockwell) wears rouge and mascara is never established, though a viewer is cued to suspect homosexuality. Similarly, Frank's disguise as “the well-dressed man” remains a mystery—as does Jeffrey's description of this disguise, since Frank's props are a bushy wig, eyebrows, and moustache. Why not “the hirsute man”? Sexual masquerade is, however, the fetishist's delight—penis-props supporting an atmosphere of visual perversity. As Metz notes, “The fetish is also the point of departure for specialised practices, and as is well known, desire in its modalities is all the more ‘technical’ the more perverse it is” (74-5). Lynch circulates props and disguises around the female image to support his central fetish, Dorothy, a provocative ‘Venus in furs.’

Before Frank arrives, we see Dorothy remove and replace her wig, a seemingly extraneous detail, but one with significance for the fetishist, who simultaneously denies and recognizes woman's castration. Freud describes “the behavior of people who cut off women's plaits of hair; in them the impulse to execute the castration which they deny is what comes to the fore. The action contains within it two incompatible propositions: the woman has still got a penis and the father has castrated the women” (Freud, 1927 219). Lynch cinematically plays with such a double significance for the audience in Dorothy's fondling of Jeffrey's penis, as it is her wigged head and its position in the frame that hides his groin from view—a visual substitution that teases the audience with what it cannot see. In psychoanalytic terms, Dorothy “has still got a penis,” yet it is quite evident in her kneeling submission to Jeffrey that “the father has castrated the woman.”

The scene with Frank confirms the second part of this fetishistic formula. As an overture to his rape, Frank asks Dorothy to darken the room, to sit opposite him, to open her robe and spread her legs, in a precise reproduction of “the last moment” before traumatic disclosure of her castration. A fetish, Freud insists, is enduring evidence for two contradictory ideas:

It is not true that the child emerges from his experience of seeing the female parts with an unchanged belief in the woman having a phallus. He retains this belief but he also gives it up; during the conflict between the deadweight of the unwelcome perception and the force of the opposite wish, a compromise is constructed. … In the world of psychical reality the woman still has a penis in spite of all, but this penis is no longer the same as it once was. Something else has taken its place, has been appointed its successor, so to speak, and now absorbs all the interest which formerly belonged to the penis. But this interest undergoes yet another very strong reinforcement, because the horror of castration sets up a sort of permanent memorial to itself by creating this substitute. A version from the real female genitals, which is never lacking in any fetishist, also remains as an indelible stigma of the repression that has taken place. One can now see what the fetish achieves and how it is enabled to persist. It remains a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a safeguard against it; it also saves the fetishist from being a homosexual by endowing women with the attribute which makes them acceptable as sexual objects.

(Freud, 1927 216)

Frank's aversion for the female genitals is quite clear in his remaining fully clothed, never actually having sexual intercourse with Dorothy. When he raises himself up after his mimed orgasm, he shakes his hand in disgust, showing his revulsion for the wounded maternal body, the site and sight for impotence, castration, a body that might deprive him of autonomy and manhood if left unmastered by aggression.

As Frank plays with his blue velvet scrap later, rubbing it between his hands in the Slow Club, covering his phallic gun before firing, it is a bit of good maternal substance that connects him with her, that countenances his aggression as legitimately infantile: “Mommy loves you.” A fetish is ultimately created to protect the little boy from fear of the father: “if a woman can be castrated then his own penis is in danger; and against that there rebels part of his narcissism which Nature has providentially attached to this particular organ” (Freud, 1927 215). Frank is most pleased with outsmarting the police, with his ability to defy and destroy the patriarchal power embodied in characters like Sandy's detective father. His fetish is a way of continually reassuring him that he has his own phallus and will remain outside the father's castrating authority.

Frank's explosive rage, evident in his “fucking” language and gunslinging, is ultimately a rage directed at the mother, “guilty” of not always being protective and open to him, “guilty,” too, for threatening to swallow up his manhood. Like Freud's Little Hans, throwing away and retrieving his toy to “practice” his mother's traumatic absence and return (Fort-Da) (Freud, 1920 32-6), Frank has created a “game” for himself that enacts his fear of maternal desertion, his desire for complete mastery of her, and deftly situates Dorothy as the guilty party—guilty for not protecting her son from being kidnapped, guilty if she does not comply with Frank's demands, since her husband and son depend on this submission for their lives, and guilty as well for her infidelity. With so much guilt inherent in her sexual situation, it is no wonder that Dorothy solicits pain from Jeffrey (“I want you to hurt me.”) as a necessary condition for sexual pleasure, or that she is suicidal (Jeffrey tells Sandy, “I think she wants to die,” and Frank warns her, “Stay alive—do it for Van Gogh.”), assuming the only control she has over her victim-persona. Sliding immutably between “Mommy” to Frank's “Baby” or erotic plaything to Frank and Jeffrey's desire to impersonate “Daddy” in sexual intercourse, she is either “the bearer of guilt” or “the perfect product” for male desire, existing “only in relation to castration” (Mulvey 206).

Yet Lynch also exposes through mockery this seemingly immutable fixture of Dorothy within male fantasy. The Bobby Vinton ballad forces us to laugh at Frank's fetish as a “corny” menace. While I do not wish to minimize the terrors Frank provokes or the agonies Dorothy endures, at one level his scrap of blue velvet is perceived by the audience as no more threatening than Linus's blanket, and his arousal while listening to Dorothy sing Blue Velvet is an adolescent's self-pity, its narcissism emphasized by his perpetual rubbing of a nappy rag. Furthermore, while noting his sentimental frustration listening to Dorothy sing, an audience is likely to be struck by the ballad's final phrase—“And I still can see blue velvet through my tears”—as applying to Dorothy and the recurrent nightmare of Frank's visitations. This awareness of the ballad's meaning and Frank's behavior is punctuated by Jeffrey's presence in the Slow Club, his “looks” at both Dorothy and Frank registered for the audience to insure a critical alienation from the scene and an awareness of hidden meanings.

Although Frank's violence and sadism appear bizarre, extraordinary, Lynch invites us to see his behavior as symptomatic and pervasive. This is most clear in Frank's role as double to the innocent Jeffrey. Frank tells Jeffrey, “We're alike,” and recites the Roy Orbison lyric, “In dreams I walk with you; in dreams I talk to you,” suggesting that he is Jeffrey's unconscious, another version of Jeffrey's self, repressed from waking life. Frank even seems to know that Jeffrey shares his pleasure in abusing Dorothy. In sexual intercourse, Dorothy begs Jeffrey, “Hit me!” In a close-up of Dorothy's heavily lipsticked mouth (a cinematic ‘scissoring’ of her image by Lynch), we hear her repeat the plea. Dorothy is no longer a woman, but lips, vaginal lips, speaking her castration, her difference, and asking for bloody confirmation of her wound. When Jeffrey complies, passionate lovemaking follows, unrestrained by tenderness. In this, Jeffrey identifies himself with Frank and Frank's fist forcing entry into Dorothy. When Frank later applies Dorothy's lipstick around his mouth after Jeffrey punches him, the image mocks Jeffrey's pretense as Dorothy's protector. Frank kisses Jeffrey, smearing lipstick around both their mouths, and then wipes Jeffrey's mouth with the blue velvet, exclaiming, “Pretty, pretty,” in mockery of Jeffrey's feminized visage. For the moment Jeffrey is unmanned, “castrated” to look like Dorothy, and as male child to “Daddy” Frank, Jeffrey must submit to Frank's superior power, although Frank's actions suggest a kinship in desire.

Together Jeffrey and Frank totalize the film's—and Lynch's—conception of the woman as fetish. As Freud remarks, “Tender and hostile treatment of fetishes is mixed in unequal degrees—like the denial and the recognition of castration—in different cases, so that the one or the other is more evident” (Freud, 1927 219). A fetishist is as prone to mutilation as to worship of his substitute-penis in alternate rage and thankfulness that the mother, not he, is castrated. Hence, Jeffrey, as Dorothy's “special friend” or possessor of a penis she does not have, wants to protect, save Dorothy, thereby “thanking” her for submitting to castration. For both Jeffrey and Frank, however, Dorothy's meaning is sexual difference, lack of a penis always threatening to evoke the anxiety associated with castration. Their opposed actions in relation to her meaning—Frank's fetishism or Jeffrey's voyeurism and desire to save her—finally converge in violence and sadism, a disavowal of this anxiety.

In addition, Frank functions as a “bad” father to Jeffrey, whose real father can provide no guidance, no identification for Jeffrey's entrance into the symbolic order, the nom-de-pere and non-de-pere, the prohibition against incest with the mother. The stroke Jeffrey's father suffers at the beginning of the film is compared to a strangulated garden hose, a visual trope standing both for phallic injury and twisted vocal cords. When the hose bursts simultaneously with the toppling father, we see the family dog jumping up and down on the father's groin, barking furiously at the geyser of water, a preposterous but apt metaphor for the father's wounding. Jeffrey returns from college to take his father's place, watching over the family hardware store and his mother and grandmother at home. In the hospital, his father can utter only choked-out sounds to his son. Thus, the linguistically orphaned Jeffrey will discover a dismembered ear from Dorothy's husband, leading him inevitably to “Mommy” Dorothy and “Daddy” Frank, and to hear the one word this perverse substitute “Daddy” knows so well: “fuck.”

The dismembered ear may seem like a farfetched metaphor for Jeffrey's being “cut off” from the symbolic order, yet Lumberton is depicted as a small town with plenty of suppressed information. Indeed, its placid veneer seems to be preserved by secrets. Detective Williams alludes mysteriously to the burden of ugly knowledge that goes with his profession and warns Jeffrey to defer to his elders in wisdom and authority rather than pursuing an independent investigation of the ear. Gossip, eavesdropping, and hush-hush conversations are a mode of repression, a way of keeping innocents like Sandy and Jeffrey from discovering the knowledge they need to grow up. Lynch's camera contributes to this sense of digging out secrets by its boring activities. In the opening sequence his camera discovers an army of insects gnawing voraciously at the Beaumonts' well-manicured lawn and shows us Jeffrey's mother intently watching a crime story on television—the screen filled with a hand-held gun. The camera suggests a violence in nature and human nature barely disguised by domestic serenity. Lumberton's townspeople are also shown eagerly scissoring through police lines to search for more dismembered body parts in the area where Jeffrey had found the ear, everyone seemingly eager to uncover more ugly evidence of an unknown crime. Even Jeffrey's “nice” girlfriend likes to eavesdrop on her detective father's telephone conversations and secretively watches the arrivals and departures at Dorothy's apartment, where she knows there is a police stake-out. What Lynch creates is an atmosphere of thwarted sexual curiosity and repressed violence always ready to rupture Lumberton's peaceful surface.

Most important, Lynch visually structures Jeffrey's investigation with the image of the ear. His camera pretends to enter the ear when “curious” Jeffrey arrives at Detective Williams' house for the first time, as if inviting the audience with Jeffrey into a spiralling vortex, a labyrinth. The image strangely resembles the whirlpools of old films, signalling temporal and spatial lapses in the diegesis. Indeed, Jeffrey's detective work ‘inside the ear’ will lead us into a surreal world of overheard secrets and events that unfold like a bad dream. At the end of the film, Lynch pulls his camera and audience out of this dream, once again via the ear. After Jeffrey kills Frank, Lynch cuts sharply to a lamp shorting out, signalling an end of some kind to Jeffrey's dream, and we then see him standing in the hall outside Dorothy's apartment kissing Sandy, with Sandy's father in the background. Lynch then cuts to a close-up of Jeffrey's ear and the camera dollies out as he wakes to a sunlit scene from family life—what looks like a celebration of Jeffrey and Sandy's engagement. As a final withdrawal, Lynch reverses his opening Lumberton Montage (jonquils, waving fireman, roses). This visual shaping connotes an entrance and exit both from film noir and unconscious terrain that is Lumberton's uncanny dark side.

I invoke Freud's essay on “The Uncanny” here as a context for understanding Lynch's peculiar blend of naiveté and kinkiness, Lumberton's daytime facade as all-American town and its de Sadean nightscape. As Freud notes, the word heimlich denotes homelike, familiar, friendly, congenial, but it is “a word which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite unheimlich”—the uncanny, connoting that which “is concealed, kept from sight … withheld from others,” and the “notion of something hidden and dangerous” (Freud 1919 123-31). Lumberton is similarly an all-too-familiar slice of Americana that Lynch increasingly forces a spectator to recognize as unheimlich—as “withdrawn from knowledge, unconscious … obscure, inaccessible to knowledge” (Freud, 1919 129).

The most “uncanny” or least accessible episode of Blue Velvet is the night when Frank takes Dorothy and Jeffrey out for a wild joy-ride and visits Ben (Dean Stockwell), a drug dealer who also runs what appears to be a corner bar and brothel. Dorothy has introduced Jeffrey to Frank as her friend “Fred” from “the neighborhood”—a wonderfully egregious allusion to the children's show “Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.” Like the trolley that arrives to take Fred Rogers to the Land of Make Believe, Frank sweeps Jeffrey and Dorothy off to a place he calls “Pussy Heaven.” He orders Dorothy to wear a blue velvet gown, making of her a fetish-doll, and his invitation to Jeffrey suggests initiation into the mysterious origin of his fantasies. “Pussy Heaven,” though a brothel, uncannily resembles a nursery governed by plump, aging maternal figures. In this, it evokes an atmosphere Freud regards as essential to the uncanny: “An uncanny experience occurs either when repressed infantile complexes have been revived by some impression, or when the primitive beliefs we have surmounted seem once more to be confirmed” (Freud, 1920 157). Brothel/nursery constitutes the feminine ambivalently as harlot/mother and corresponds to the crucial moment in a young boy's development:

… when he cannot any longer maintain the doubt that claims exception for his own parents from the ugly sexual behaviour of the rest of the world, he says to himself with cynical logic that the difference between his mother and a whore is after all not so very great, since at bottom they both do the same thing. What he has been told has in fact revived the memory-traces of his early infantile impressions and desires, and thus re-activated certain feelings in his mind. … he begins to desire the mother herself and to hate the father for standing in his way; he comes, as we say, under the sway of the Oedipus complex. He does not forget that the mother has given the privilege of sexual intercourse with her to the father instead of to him, and he regards it as an act of infidelity on her part.

(Freud, 1910 168-9)

For Jeffrey, then, the episode at “Pussy Heaven” may be seen as a reactivation of Oedipal trauma, dramatizing his desire to save the mother from the father, from whoredom imposed by the father's brutality. Simultaneously, of course, it also invokes the young boy's fear of castration at the hands of the father.

The image of the father is split to show aspects of patriarchal mastery over “Pussy Heaven.” Ben presides over the brothel with effeminate “suavity” (Twice Frank exclaims, “You're so fucking suave!”), addressing his whores as “darling” and serving beer as if it were high tea. His simpering sweetness clashes with the perversity around him and his own relish in punching Jeffrey after Frank's toast, “Let's drink to fuck!” While Ben wears the exaggeratedly genteel mask of civilized patriarchy, Frank is his bestial alter ego. Before Ben lip-syncs the Roy Orbison ballad, “In Dreams,” Frank gleefully pops a pill Ben gives him and, anticipating the Orbison lyric, calls himself “the candy-colored clown they call the sandman”—a creator of sleep-induced, or in Frank's case, drug-induced hallucinations. Frank is the master artificer of violent spectacles for patriarchal power. Like Freud's delineation of Hoffman's blinding Sand-Man, whose “uncanny effect” is connected “to the child's dread in relation to its castration-complex” (Freud, 1919 139), Frank brings Jeffrey to the place where Dorothy's child and ‘castrated’ (his ear cut off) husband are held captive, deprived of Dorothy's maternal care. What Frank seems eager to show, then, is an absolute control over “Pussy Heaven,” over the female body and the pleasures it affords.

Consistent with Lynch's displacement from the eyes to the ear, from sexual secrets spied in the dark to those which are overheard, we hear with Jeffrey Dorothy's voice-off exclaiming, “Oh, no, Donnie, Mommy loves you!” In “The Voice in the Cinema,” Mary Ann Doane argues that “The voice-off deepens the diegesis, gives it an extent which exceeds that of the image, and thus supports the claim that there is a space in the fictional world which the camera does not register,” and “As soon as the sound is detached from its source, no longer anchored by a represented body, its potential work as a signifier is revealed” (340); italics mine). Since we do not see Dorothy as Frank's blue velvet fetish-doll, “a represented body,” we are permitted to respond to Dorothy's voice and words “as a signifier,” and they are, in fact, loaded with a maternal excess “which the camera does not register.” Like Lynch's de-fetishization through complete exposure of Dorothy's body (her lack cannot be disavowed, played with visually), here Lynch subverts specular fantasy (Sand-Man Frank's) by introducing a new meaning and space to the feminine via the ear. Her words are those she is assigned as dialogue by Frank in his “scene,” so that we associate them with his perverse desire to impersonate Dorothy's “baby.” Overheard, directed at her real baby, they are a helpless protest against a child's accusation of maternal desertion.

With Luce Irigaray and Pascal Bonitzer, who “speaks of returning the voice to women,” Doane argues that the maternal voice is an older—preoedipal—pleasure than the sight of her body (346), that “the imaginary fusion of the child with the mother” is supported by a hallucinated maternal presence—a “phantasmatic body” (342-3) responsive to the child's demands: “Over and against the theorization of the look as phallic, as the support of voyeurism and fetishism (a drive and a defense which, in Freud, are linked explicitly with the male), the voice appears to lend itself readily as an alternative to the image, as a potentially viable means whereby the woman can ‘make herself heard’” (346). Although Doane as feminist is not fully persuaded by the political possibilities of a cinema “which relies on images of an ‘extended’ sensory body” implicit in the voice (346), her analysis is extremely suggestive of how we understand Dorothy's voice in this scene—as an alternative to the meaning Frank has assigned to her words. In addition, we “see” Dorothy momentarily as a maternal body apart from Frank's fetishism and Jeffrey's voyeurism.

Doane's feminist skepticism is based on the observation that “the voice, in psychoanalysis, is also the instrument of interdiction, of the patriarchal order” (346), and in Lynch's “Pussy Heaven,” this “interdiction” seems especially evident. Dorothy's voice is only barely heard above the din and her voice's powerlessness is contrasted with the lip-sync control of “voice-off” by Ben and Frank, a mastery that Lynch extends significantly in Frank's possession of a police radio. Frank also interrupts Ben's singing immediately after “In dreams you're mine, all of the time,” an assertion of total mastery, proprietary control, over the woman. Jeffrey's ride with the Sandman finally leads, then, to patriarchal interdiction, the non-de-pere, and an audience wonders whether Jeffrey will be castrated, sodomized, and/or killed. Dorothy's efforts to intercede and protect Jeffrey (reminding us again of her meaning in “Mommy loves you”), only provoke “Daddy” Frank to a murderous violence. He warns Jeffrey to leave Dorothy alone, or he will receive a “love letter” from Frank—a bullet. Jeffrey seems lucky to escape with a beating.

Despite this predictably Oedipal conclusion to Jeffrey's odyssey, Lynch has, if only for a fleeting moment, de-fetishized Dorothy through her voice, and Jeffrey is deeply shamed by his experience. The next morning he remembers bloodying Dorothy's mouth with guilty tears and in nightmare images, mingles his own violence with Frank's, acknowledging the shame of maternal abuse. Frank's voice in this nightmare is that of a ravening beast, an unintelligible growl. What Jeffrey overhears, then, in his investigative journey into the ear, is more important for his growth into manhood than what he sees. In his final confrontation with Frank, this is confirmed. He defeats Frank by throwing his own voice—misleading Frank with a police radio into believing he is in Dorothy's bedroom—and then hiding in Dorothy's closet—quite literally seeking refuge behind, under the mother's skirts. Such a trick derides the fetishism on which Frank's power is based.

At the level of narrative structure, then, Lynch assuredly gives primacy to an Oedipal, “coming-of-age” drama for Jeffrey, the climax formulaically depending on a fight to the death between a youthful hero and depraved villain over the woman's body to determine her redemption or continued thralldom. The concluding images of Dorothy, however, appear outside Lynch's narrative frame: only after the reverse Lumberton montage, which announces “We have come full circle, the story is complete,” Lynch cuts to Dorothy playing with her son in the park, a ‘wild’ image of maternal joy. The Bobby Vinton ballad rises on the soundtrack as the camera pans up from Dorothy to the sky and then cuts to a frame filled with crushed blue velvet, swaying as if alive. These final images, coupled with the blue velvet fetish and lyric, are haunting and subvert the neatness of Lynch's closure.

From a feminist and psychoanalytic perspective, then, Lynch has created a film that ultimately privileges the maternal over the paternal, at key moments venturing into pre-oedipal pleasures associated with the mother's voice and giving her suasive power over desire in excess to the oedipal pleasures associated with sight. He manages at several places in Blue Velvet to isolate “the look,” to shift the gaze, thereby forcing an audience to question its own voyeurism and complicity in fetishizing the female body. These stylistic interventions effectively redeem Dorothy from a cinematic convention that reduces “‘real women’ to images and tokens functioning in a circuit of signs the values of which have been determined by and for men.”10 In brief, Blue Velvet recognizes that “the body has always been the site of woman's oppression, posited as the final and undeniable guarantee of a difference and a lack,” and in this recognition there is the implicit corollary “that perhaps it must be the site of the battle to be waged” (Doane 346).


  1. For psychoanalytic and feminist film critics, the cinema, like other signifying systems, belongs to the patriarchal order. Hence, there is only a ‘male’ viewer of woman's image in film, only a ‘male’ view expressed in cinema's conventions. As Stephen Heath summarizes this view in Questions of Cinema:

    From genre to genre, film to film, the same economy: the woman in image, the totalizing of the body, her, into unity, the sum of the gaze, the imaginary of her then as that perfect match, perfect image (and hence the violence, the aggression against women as bad, a disturbance of sexuality, as the narrative moves to establish the image, to set out its law); the man as the action of that image, the point of its rightness, the position of the film's imaginary (for women as for men, the complementarity of this double binding; she knows her self as her through him; he knows himself through his action of her). Psychoanalysis stresses that ‘every identification is an identification ‘with a signifier,’ with the phallus being the ultimate signifier. Cinema, in its institution of the image of the woman, agrees: identification is with the phallus, the place given to occupy for men and women, the masquerade of cinema itself.


  2. Claire Johnston argues that “Within a sexist ideology and a male-dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for men. … woman represents not herself, but by a process of displacement, the male phallus. It is probably true to say that despite the enormous emphasis placed on woman as spectacle in the cinema, woman as woman is largely absent” (26).

  3. Like Hitchcock's heroes, whose “erotic drives lead them into compromised situations,” Jeffrey is “backed by a certainty of legal right and the established guilt of the woman (evoking castration, psychoanalytically speaking). True perversion is barely concealed under a mask of ideological correctness” (Mulvey 206; italics mine).

  4. The first part of this quote is Laurie Winer's paraphrase of Lynch.

  5. I do not believe that I am imposing a ‘subversive’ feminist reading on a ‘conventional’ film. Christine Gledhill describes this strategy: “… the generic conventions and stereotypes of classic Hollywood offer highly formalized and foregrounded sets of codes which can be set into play one against another or against the grain of the film's thematic material to expose such contradictions in a kind of aesthetic subversion. Thus a criticism operating according to a perspective at odds with the ideology privileged in the film's ‘message’ or ‘world-view’ may be able to animate these effects to produce a progressive reading of an apparently reactionary film, or an ideological reading of an apparently progressive film” (485). Instead, I am arguing that Lynch himself engages in this kind of “aesthetic subversion.”

  6. My analysis at this point follows Linda Williams. Analyzing Eadweard Muybridge's photographic studies of the human body and Melies's early films, Williams argues that this fetishization of the female body occurred simultaneously with the invention of the cinema:

    So if, as Baudry suggests, the cinematic apparatus in general affords the simulation of a lost unity with the body of the mother, then we find that some of the earliest representations of the female body within this apparatus aim at a more specific restoration of unity in the fetishistic disavowal of castration. But if the woman's body generates a surplus aestheticism designed to disavow difference, this surplus also severely limits the meaning of this body to the two contradictory poles of the assertion and denial of sexual difference. Like the fetish which it in some way becomes, the woman's body arrests the male's gaze just short of the site of difference. Caught between these two poles of the fetish structure of disavowal, the woman's body is perversely trapped with the contradictory assertion and denial of the fear of castration. Thus the cinema became, even before its full ‘invention,’ one more discourse of sexuality, one more form of the ‘implantation of perversions’ extending power over the body.


    A good example of the classic cinema's fetishization of the female image is Garance's first appearance in Children of Paradise as a sideshow spectacle entitled “The Naked Truth.” The static, self-engrossed nature of her characterization is emphasized by the mirror she holds to her face.

  7. Dorothy's dialogue in Sandy's home is significant as well, but I have been unable to determine precisely what Dorothy says to Sandy. Most viewers I have polled have little difficulty with her first statement: “He doesn't love you, he loves me,” referring to Jeffrey as she clings to him. She then says—and this is where there is considerable disagreement among viewers—“He put his ‘poison’ or ‘penis’ or ‘disease’ or ‘zee-zee’ [French slang for penis] in me.” At this declaration, Lynch cuts to Sandy's reaction, which is an exaggerated grimace of reproach directed at Jeffrey. Sandy is—whatever word Dorothy uses here—outraged at an intimacy, perhaps a possession of what Sandy believes to be rightfully hers Dorothy claims in her relationship to Jeffrey. If Dorothy boldly confronts a jealous Sandy with her ‘right’ to Jeffrey's penis, then the dialogue is as explicit as Dorothy's visual image in asserting woman's lack and her need to fill this lack with the males' penis. Fetishistic disavowal is impossible. The three women also seem to share this shame even as they rely on Jeffrey to redeem them from it. In the car, Sandy feebly tries to cover Dorothy with a shawl, and Sandy's mother finally dresses her in a coat.

  8. I am indebted to Emily Apter, Professor of French at Williams College, for the term, “occluded vision.”

  9. Mulvey arges that the voyeuristic-scopophilic look that is a crucial part of traditional filmic pleasure can itself be broken down. There are three different looks associated with cinema: that of the camera as it records the profilmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences (the material existence of the recording process, the critical reading of the spectator) fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness, and truth. Nevertheless … the structure of looking in narrative fiction film contains a contradiction in its own premises: the female image as a castration threat constantly endangers the unity of the diegesis and bursts through the world of illusion as an intrusive, static, one-dimensional fetish. Thus the two looks materially present in time and space are obsessively subordinated to the neurotic needs of the male ego (208-9). Lynch is so bold in his exposure of this contradiction that “the neurotic needs of the male ego” are revealed as such.

  10. Pam Cook and Claire Johnston, “The Place of Women in the Cinema of Raoul Walsh,” quoted in Gledhill, p. 459.

Works Cited

Ansen, David. “Stranger Than Paradise: Lynch's Nightmare Tour of Homespun America.” Rev. of Blue Velvet.Newsweek 15 Sept. 1986: 69.

Doane, Mary Ann. “The Voice in the Cinema.” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. Ed. Philip Rosen, New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 335-48.

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1920. Trans. James Strachey. New York: Bantam, 1959.

———. “Fetishism.” 1927. Trans. James Strachey. Sexuality and the Psychology of Love Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier, 1963. 214-19.

———. “A Special Type of Object Choice Made by Men.” 1910. Trans. Joan Riviere. On Creativity and the Unconscious. Ed. Benjamin Nelson. New York: Harper and Row, 1958. 162-72.

———. “The Uncanny.” 1919. Trans. Joan Riviere. Nelson 122-61.

Gledhill, Christine. “Recent Developments in Feminist Criticism.” Quarterly Review of Film Studies. 3 (1978): 457-93.

Heath, Stephen. Questions of Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.

Johnston, Claire. “Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema.” Notes on Women's Cinema. Ed. Claire Johnston. Screen, Pamphlet 2. London: Society for Education in Film and Television: 1973; rpt. 1975.

Metz, Christian. “Disavowal, Fetishism.” The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster, Alfred Guzzetti. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982. 69-88.

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema.” Rosen 198-211.

Williams, Linda. “Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions.” Rosen 507-34.

Winer, Laurie. “Isabella Rossellini Assesses the Role That Haunted Her.” New York Times. 23 Nov. 1986, Sunday ed: sec. 2: 21.

Devin McKinney (essay date winter 1991-1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3433

SOURCE: McKinney, Devin. Review of Wild at Heart, by David Lynch. Film Quarterly 45, no. 2 (winter 1991-1992): 41-6.

[In the following essay, McKinney discusses the excesses and graphic violence of Wild at Heart, contending that Lynch intentionally subordinated conventional narrative expectations to the power of recurring visual motifs.]

Apparently, no one ever instructed David Lynch in the rules that govern what a work of art should be—the forms it should take, the boundaries it should honor—let alone the accepted truisms on what a modern audience expects in return for its admission. But through a serendipitous (and fairly mystifying) configuration of the Zeitgeist, Lynch has emerged as one of the few American directors with the popular sanction to do what he pleases. Despite his sudden celebrity, though, he remains oblivious to both critical and commercial commonplaces. We should be grateful for such intractability. For without it no filmmaker would have had the nerve to put something as unremittingly sordid and black and plain messy as Wild at Heart on the screen, and that would be a loss. Lynch's latest production is an ugly/beautiful epic of conspicuous excess, a work whose excitement—like that of Picasso's Guernica or the Beatles' White Album—is tied in with its inability to control itself. The film pops the seams of a threadbare plot with the kind of overheated invention that art's traditional prosceniums cannot always comfortably contain and that pays no obeisance to the internal limits we carry with us always, not least when we walk into a theater.

This is a road movie, supposedly. That wouldn't be worth noting except that the road traveled by Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) is ultimately left littered with bodies, or parts of bodies. The violence is engendered by the evil machinations of Lula's mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd), a blonde gorgon with an unholy hatred of Sailor, who once spurned her advances; she vows his death and her daughter's rescue. Among those she enlists in their pursuit is a detective, Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton); a mobster, Marcello Santos (J. E. Freeman); his boss, Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard); a band of roving assassins with a voodoo fetish (David Patrick Kelly, Calvin Lockhart, Grace Zabriskie); and finally a black-shirted, brown-toothed ex-Marine named Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). People die along this road, and at the side of the road; people die even in the flashbacks illustrating the postcoital confabs of Sailor and Lula. There is a rape, and a near rape. Vomit rots on the floor, and flies gather to it. A dog trundles off with a man's hand gripped lovingly in its maw. Demolished heads and flaming bodies are leitmotifs.

For blood and curses, brutalities and abnormalities of every stripe, no film in recent memory can touch Wild at Heart—Lynch has fashioned one enormous alienation effect. But as sometimes happens (GoodFellas is another recent example), a surfeit of pure energy has resulted in a work that, although excessive and often repellent, actually succeeds in awakening the senses rather than smothering them. In indulging his taste for violence and depravity, Lynch intensifies one's feel for what they cost, and what it means for these characters to survive them. It is the cinematic equivalent of hard-core punk rock, of what Greil Marcus (in his book Lipstick Traces) writes of hearing in the animal screech of Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten: “A voice that denied all social facts, and in that denial affirmed that everything was possible.” Of course, the other side of Lynch's polymorphous perversities or the Sex Pistols' rants about death camps and abortions is that eventually we feel like asking the artist: Now that the old restraints (but also structures, guidelines) are smashed, what do you have to replace them? (This may be what David Ansen meant when he complained that Wild at Heart lacked the “still, watchful center” common to Lynch's previous work: without self-censorship, there are no rules.) But this lack of restraint is precisely what is radical and thrilling about the movie, particularly as it relates to the mainstream of American commercial film: that still, watchful center—the focus of narrative control—is not merely absent, but cruelly, significantly absent. Lynch wants to find the point at which a viewer of reasonable intelligence and sensitivity will say, “No more”—and then go past it.

His methods of offending the audience come, in various measures, out of Dada, the Theatre of Cruelty, Abstract Expressionism (form subsuming content), and “the poetic cinema of shock,” in Susan Sontag's phrase. Each of these schools and movements sought to defy the dominant artistic impulse of the ages—namely, to contrive a highly formalized, highly conscious art—in favor of another art, one whose key determinants were not Aristotle's Poetics but the encoded play of a dreaming mind and the subterranean demands of the human body. In film, the progenitors of the poetic cinema of shock (which include such works as Un Chien Andalou,Freaks, and Scorpio Rising, and among whose descendants are Lynch's own Eraserhead and Blue Velvet) took the ideals of beauty and truth, of poetry itself, crossed them with images of mutilation, deformity, and decadence, and found that beauty and truth could not only survive but thrive on them, triggering new associations and responses. That is what Lynch—like Luis Buñuel, Tod Browning, and Kenneth Anger—wants to replace those smashed restraints with: the power of art to shock and poeticize, and the capacity of an audience to respond to both.

None of this means anything if the horrors Lynch conceives aren't compelling, erotic, bottomless in their imagistic strength, like Anger's Walpurgis party or Browning's nightcrawling freaks with knives in their mouths. But in fact most of them are, starting with the flames that back the opening credits: it's not often that we see fire on-screen that carries such hellish sensuality. (Here the morbid portents are goosed along by the music of Richard Strauss; elsewhere this function is served by the hothouse melodrama of Angelo Badalamenti.) The heat coming off those flames—so apparently meaningless, yet so fully, intensely observed—cues an understanding of the direction the film will take. Nearly as much as Eraserhead,Wild at Heart relies on its visuals, rather than on dialogue or the mechanics of narrative, to define the contours of a nightmare that is both inside of and external to the characters. The first sequence spells this out in the most emphatic manner imaginable, treating the audience to an out-break of violence as scabrous and disturbing—and as bracing—as anything in the collected works of Scorsese or Peckinpah, and all before the characters or their relationships have been defined.

The young lovers descend a staircase in some gilded ballroom. Sailor is accosted by a thug, Bobby Ray Lemon (Gregg Dandridge), who, it transpires, is the first of Marietta's hired assassins. The henchman makes salacious references to Lula's sexuality, and as the insults spiral Sailor glowers from underneath hedgerow eyebrows like a Kubrick psycho. Bobby Ray pulls a knife. Lula screams in warning. Sailor throws the provocateur against a wall, then the floor, and proceeds to introduce his head to the marble until blood and brains speck the surfaces. His fury spent, Sailor lights a cigarette and points a finger/pistol at Marietta.

What makes this brief sequence so terribly alive—both on the screen and in the memory—is not merely the ferocity of the physical action (you tense yourself against the bullet that will surely exit Sailor's finger), but that of the filmmaking, which thunders past the sort of action-movie pyrotechnics it superficially resembles. The violence is both painfully realistic and obviously hyperrealistic, at once stark and exaggerated. Sailor's murderous outburst—hands grabbing lapels, limbs flying—is punctuated by a torrent of slashing electric guitar (those Sex Pistols again) and a quick zoom of the camera (which achieves a striking reverse 3-D effect, pulling the viewer into the action rather than pouring the action from the screen). The immediate excitement may manifest itself in a heady blood rush, or even in a measured, entirely aesthetic response: the sequence is beautifully shot, brilliantly edited. But at the same time, something deeper and more unsettling is at work: a notion we can't evade, an implicit promise Lynch is making about how death will come in this story, a threat that will infuse and haunt the remainder of the film. In this world, death is either sudden and unspeakable or protracted and unspeakable, but it is always free of metaphorical baggage, always stripped to the primal essentials of blood, meat, and bone. The pitiless shots of Bobby Ray Lemon's dented skull take us to the point at which, to quote founding Dadaist Richard Huelsenbeck, “Death ceases to be an escape of the soul from earthly misery and becomes a vomiting, screaming, and choking.” Already the world is revealed as a charnel house, and the doors have been locked behind us.

There are three other, more extensive sequences in which Lynch mounts, with equal imaginative power, his vision of hell on earth. Riding through the midnight black of a Southwestern highway, Sailor and Lula encounter a roadside wreck and its lone survivor (Sherilyn Fenn). The young woman expresses an exquisite panic over having lost her personal effects, all the time scratching absently at the hole in her head. The absence of sense, of control, is accentuated by the handheld camera (a device Lynch seldom uses), which tracks her as she stumbles in and out of the wreckage, screaming at her mother so that she might retain some connection with the life she is on the verge of leaving. Here again, death is removed from the realm of the romantic and the sensical and transported to that of the purely physical, the unreasonable, the arbitrary. But for all of the scene's eerie detachment (Peter Travers refers to Lynch's “nonjudgmental wonder”), the director's art is a transforming presence: it crouches like Grendel in the contemptuous darkness, the dust twisting in the headlight beams.

The execution of Johnny Farragut is a truly horrific sequence; although it threatens to cross the border into hysterical comedy (and some feel that it makes good on the threat), Lynch shoots it too tight and loud and immediate to allow such easy distanciation. As Johnny sits bound and gagged, the three killers sent by Santos to dispatch the inconvenient detective flail and shriek in the throes of a sexual ecstasy, clearly enacting a well-rehearsed ritual. By far the most exotically dangerous of the trio is Grace Zabriskie's Juana: when she first materializes from the shadows of Mr. Reindeer's whorehouse—wearing a short blond wig and a death's-head cosmetic job, a twisted cane supporting a clubfoot and mangled leg—she is recognizable as the lusus naturae of David Lynch's worst nightmare. She becomes ours as well: screaming full into the camera—at us—she represents as directly as anything in film history one artist's imagined face of death. A sickening sort of climax is reached, and the gun is leveled at hapless Johnny's head. The trigger is pulled; the blast issues. Cut to a road sign full of buckshot holes.

(This edit recalls the meanest trick Buñuel ever played: setting up the mutilation of an eye, cutting to a shot of the moon bisected by a passing cloud—allowing us to accept this, with relief, as a “metaphor”—and then going back to the eye and the carnage. This is the one time Lynch doesn't go as far as his predecessor.)

The decimated highway sign heralds Big Tuna, Texas, and the end of the road for Sailor and Lula. This hole-in-the-wall hamlet proves to be a grimy, corrosive inferno where the demonic spirit that has inspired and overseen the previous deaths springs to life for the last time, in the form of Bobby Peru. He is certainly not as exotic as Zabriskie's supernatural Other—grease, cowboy boots, bolo tie, the grin of a malicious child—but he makes a forcefully repugnant sensualist. His defining moment—and another of the film's grotesquely transcendent images—comes when he plays a cat-and-mouse game in which he assumes both roles. Caressing the frightened Lula in a shabby motel room, Peru promises to leave if she will ask him to fuck her; she refuses. Moving closer, he performs what amounts to a soliloquy that is made up of two words: “Fuck me.” He says it again and again and again, in tones that vary subtly but perceptibly—threatening, cajoling, pleading, promising—and each reiteration tightens the grip of this confusing, unfamiliar mood. It is held for an unbearable stretch, and for its duration we have nothing to hear but those two words (“… fuck me, ffffuck me, fuck me …”), nothing to see but close shots of hands, thighs, quivering mouths, all bathed in honey-colored afternoon sunlight. Of course it's perverse, of course it makes a viewer feel dirty; this is a rape scene. But I wasn't being rhetorical in calling it transcendent. It literally takes you beyond yourself, beyond anything resembling an assumed, thoughtless response. Here is the terror of moral anarchy: that this evil seduction should not be merely repulsive (which it is), but also, perhaps, a little … erotic? The ugliness is undeniable, but the style provokes feelings beyond automatic, encroaching on the realm of fantasy, prying into unknown corners of the brain, combining revulsion and attraction in uncommon permutations. Lynch goes past merely showing the effects of moral anarchy on his characters; in this scene particularly, he visits it upon us as well, and the implications can be frightening.

Art that actually reaches beneath the conscious level—as against that which merely feels around its fringes—is rare, and it may be for this reason that many have difficulty adopting new criteria to deal with it. It seems to me unfortunate that Wild at Heart, which clearly doesn't pretend to the formalism and immaculate conception of, say, Woody Allen's objects d'art, has yet been judged by essentially the same standards, and inevitably has been found wanting. Example: Kathleen Murphy, writing in Film Comment, decries Lynch's apparent refusal to bestow his people with “character evolution,” “dramatic will,” “spontaneity.” Forget it: Lynch has always favored the sensual over the sensical. Each of his personal films lacks the conventional narrative emphases, and the components Murphy misses are merely cogs in the machinery of dramaturgy that Lynch eschews. In Wild at Heart, the narrative is deliberately “unacceptable,” if not nonexistent. In another film, more grounded in the traditions of classical story craft, the logical omissions of Lynch's script would be glaring and unforgivable. Once his scenes are over, what happens to Marcello Santos? What about Mr. Reindeer? Bobby Peru's girlfriend? What is Lula up to during the five years of Sailor's second jail term, aside from having a baby? So damn many loose ends! But if the film reaches you, the loose ends and departures from common narrative wisdom feel like textural necessities more than aesthetic liabilities. Were they to disappear, the film would be cleaner, more routinely satisfying, less threatening, and all but useless. Most of the film's strongest moments are, in a formal respect, utterly tangential to the requirements of story logic; they operate as particularizations of Lynch's vision rather than the succeeding steps on fiction's staircase. Thus, at its best, the picture stands in radical opposition to the most basic assumptions of what constitutes a feature-length piece of commercial cinema, and functions as a critique of meaning over impact, of cause over effect. Even to label it a “road movie” is to link it, as if by fiat, to a false and arbitrary heritage; to require “character evolution” of Sailor and Lula, as if they were figures in Strindberg or people existing in some reasonable facsimile of the real world, is at best impertinent. Wild at Heart divorces itself from the conventions of psychological realism by its unconventional method—anti-narrative, anti-metaphor—and overpowers them by its impact. Surely this is what Manny Farber had in mind when he wrote of how “Criticism can subjugate the bestiality of the screen image by breaking it down into arbitrary but easily managed elements … that bring the movie within the doctoring talents of the critic.” Except that in the case of Wild at Heart it is the bestiality of the screen image that subjugates criticism.

Many viewers have felt that Lynch's brand of bestiality, like Buñuel's, is essentially indefensible because the shock effects and furious technique aren't put at the service of any obvious external “statement”—whether political, philosophical, or moral—but seem to exist merely “for their own sake.” This isn't enough for those critics who, when it comes to graphic visual matter, prefer the clockwork-orange humanism of Oliver Stone or the dot-to-dot symbolics of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, in which each gratuitous act is accompanied by a price tag announcing the value of its political correctness. When Buñuel took a razor and split an eye, did he justify the act? No, he left that to his critics, who have never succeeded in penetrating it—in subjugating its bestiality. The violent purity of the image (and of the countless personal associations experienced by its viewers over the years) has long outlived whatever political or social significance might at one time have been attached to it. If one needs to take away something in the form of instruction, I can say this: a value of Lynch's explicitness is that—like Buñuel's eye/moon/eye gimmick—it demonstrates how safe and insensate metaphors for violence allow us to feel; they insulate us from, and therefore denigrate, the reality of violence. By alternately heightening and fantasizing that reality with such fecund imagination and fearlessness about what will or will not offend, Lynch brings us as close to it as any filmmaker before him. He has, in the oft-quoted words of Pauline Kael on Bonnie and Clyde, put the sting back into death, and it's a sting that feels painful, scary, and exhilarating.

Admittedly, Wild at Heart doesn't always exceed in the right directions. It goes on too long to fully sustain the nightmare world it inhabits, the way the short films of Buñuel and Anger do, and it yawns whenever the poor materials of the story fail to inspire Lynch's eye. The scenes involving Marietta lose their novelty fast, owing to both Lynch's staging of them in the style of a lesser Twin Peaks installment and the tame, Ridiculous Theatre brio of Diane Ladd's acting. (Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, though, are never less than amazing. Cage in particular seems an ideal Lynchian actor: his is the face Kyle MacLachlan tried to mask in Blue Velvet.) The movie takes a header in the wrap-up scenes following the botched bank job that leaves Bobby Peru dead and Sailor in jail, especially in those depicting the melting of Marietta and Sailor's epiphany of the Good Witch. These two scenes crash because they lack a visual skew—toward either the savage or the sentimental—strong enough to align them with the film's overriding spirit. But Lynch dances us out on a higher-than-high note with Sailor's Presleyesque serenade to Lula atop a car stuck in Skid Row traffic: as he croons an Elvis tune, the camera encircles the lovers in an erotic 360-degree embrace, delirious with the romance of a hard-won (and, on the film's own terms, honest) happy ending. Two hours and many miles of hell have earned these few moments of heaven.

With Wild at Heart, David Lynch has once again created something truly anomalous. Of course, it's always an anomaly when a movie that exalts the methods and values of the small, experimental film plays on the screens of shopping-mall cineplexes. But the film's main rewards are aesthetic, not sociological. It breaks the monopoly of cinematic narrative in two; it frees the image from the constraints of the word, frees action from deliberation and reality from comfortable metaphor. It hasn't replaced the missing controls with mere dumb, motorized movement and mayhem but with deep, horrible tableaux that roil the unconscious even as they churn the stomach. Because the film so clearly stakes itself on the supremacy of its images—rather than on the conventional narrative apparatus of most fictions—it either lives or dies according to the power of those images to shock and move, to embed themselves in some other, less accessible or explicable plane of memory. From its infernal prologue to its final, swirling reverie, Wild at Heart lives.

Jonathan Romney (review date 20 November 1992)

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SOURCE: Romney, Jonathan. “Nothing to Declare.” New Statesman & Society 5, no. 229 (20 November 1992): 33-4.

[In the following excerpt, Romney criticizes Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me as having nothing new or original to offer its audience.]

David Lynch's long-awaited Twin Peaks film would have provided the ideal opportunity to mull over, for one last time, cinema's obsession with America's dark underbelly. The Twin Peaks TV series was the last word in the suburban surreal, which had already received its definitive expression in Blue Velvet. But that once-disturbing genre has become so thoroughly domesticated that it now provides the premise for American prime-time fodder like Eerie Indiana, in which two boys discover their hometown is the centre for all earthly weirdness, and a new series knowingly entitled Picket Fences.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me exudes the strangeness of exhaustion. Exhaustion dictates its pace and its imagination. Its business is filling in gaps once everything has been said, milking something new from a series even devotees felt had run its course.

This is a prequel, explaining the fate of Laura Palmer, whose murder by her demonic daddy we already know about. It's a mystery story in which there's neither mystery nor solution: a total dead end. And the film's fascination lies in the conviction with which Lynch leads us nowhere, regardless.

The meandering narrative parodies the TV soap structure in which threads are dropped on the understanding that they might get picked up later. Here, nothing ever is picked up. Lynch doesn't rely on our familiarity with characters; instead he crowds the narrative with people we've never met. Some things make no sense unless you know the series; many more make none even if you do.

The played-out feel is central to Lynch's current status. Eraserhead was one from the heart, or at least the psyche. Since then, what's been apparent in his obsessive dwelling on shiny surfaces and the nastiness beneath is a chronic incapacity to get down there and inhabit the murk; he can only dip into it like a tourist with a scuba. If Cronenberg and Tsukamoto dream of embracing the Other, merging with it, Lynch contemplates it only to reject it in disgust.

But Lynch, mired in the inconsequential, has made out of inconsequentiality his most compelling film since Eraserhead. [Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me] is eloquent in its tongue-tiedness, like a story blurted out by an idiot. Hard-core Peakies are confounded as Lynch jettisons the jokey tone of the series, with its reassuring running gags. Trusty hero Kyle McLachlan is dropped in as a mere side-order, as are Harry Dean Stanton and David Bowie.

We start off following FBI man Chris Isaak on a murder trail that leads nowhere. Then he's off the scene; in a detective story, what could be more unsettling than the detective's disappearance? But the breaking of narrative rules breathes no fresh air into the genre; in fact, the atmosphere gets more stifling. Lynch keeps leading us up blind alleys, and dumping us in places that bespeak decrepitude—trailer parks, sheriffs' offices, and a Hell that's just a pokey waiting room.

This neurotic blockage of meaning paradoxically allows the film to transcend the banality of Lynch's more familiar ideas—his visions of good and evil, and the mean-minded sleaziness of his sexual imagination. So what is revealed? With characters speaking backwards, and key dialogue muffled by belting rock music, the film insinuates that it is withholding its secrets, even though we know there are no secrets to unhold.

The whole film functions as a desperate tease—a tease in bad faith. Critics have called it commercial suicide, but it's also an act of artistic suicide, a rather eloquent declaration that Lynch has nothing to declare. It is enthralling, but still suggests that what seemed the richest vein in the American left-field imagination is quite used up.

Martha Nochimson (essay date winter 1992-1993)

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SOURCE: Nochimson, Martha. “Desire under the Douglas Firs: Entering the Body of Reality in Twin Peaks.Film Quarterly 46, no. 2 (winter 1992-1993): 22-34.

[In the following essay, Nochimson discusses the character of Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks, asserting that Cooper represents a new kind of movie and television detective.]

The dazzled affection that Dale Cooper, hero of Twin Peaks, inspired in a large television spectatorship can only partly be explained by the appeal of actor Kyle MacLachlan. Nor can it be ascribed merely to the time-tested popularity of the detective figure; on the contrary, Cooper lays waste to a multitude of film and television detective clichés. Since his creators came to the series with distinguished careers in each of the major media, David Lynch and MacLachlan himself in film and Mark Frost in television, some inventive synthesis between the traditions was expected, but Dale Cooper is more than a little juggling of two formulas. “Coop” wears the regulation suit and trench coat but sets a fresh and compelling standard for media detectives and opens a new chapter in the relationship between mystery and desire.

Cooper's eager desire to enter the labyrinths of mystery ties knots in the venerable Hollywood Mystery Tradition (HMT), although the overall narrative line of the series initially suggests that Lynch has brought that tradition with him in his first foray into television. In the HMT, the life of a male protagonist is disrupted by an encounter with his darker side when desire meets the body of a deadly (or dead) woman. In Twin Peaks, FBI Agent Cooper solves the mystery of who murdered the desirable Homecoming Queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), and ends up staring into a mirror at an image of himself so monstrous that none can doubt that his stint on the case has plunged him into darkness. But when I asked David Lynch why Cooper's bridge to self-knowledge is a dead woman, I was greeted with silence. Then: “It isn't her.”1

Lynch asserts that Laura, Twin Peaks' femme fatale, is not the point of initiation. As Lynch goes on to point out, his detective's fascination with mystery precedes the particularity of the case. Dale Cooper comes to Twin Peaks already filled with a passion for mystery, and Laura's death offers him a major occasion to indulge it. Readiness by itself, however, does not go to the heart of Twin Peaks' innovation. What kind of readiness is the question.

There is a kind of readiness that is standard in the Television Mystery Tradition (TMT). The basic model for the TMT is not the erotically stunned investigator but ever-ready Sherlock Holmes. Like Holmes, the standard television detective is not seduced into his narratives; he enters them with a passion to dispel any illegibility represented by any body of crime—which is not a disruption in his life but rather its raison d'être. For the Holmesian television detective, lack of clarity is the desirable aspect of mystery, an intellectually aphrodisiac opportunity for orgasmic restoration of clarity. If this seems a contradiction in terms, let doubters observe the quivering of Jeremy Brett as Holmes contemplates a jumble of clues. But again the fit is incomplete. Cooper is Holmesian only in his predisposition for mystery; he is far too sensually stimulated by Douglas firs, among other Twin Peaks delights, to qualify as a man of cerebral lust.

Ironically, Cooper's striking originality is best understood in contrast to what his seemingly different filmic and home-box colleagues share: the disavowal of vulnerability or illegibility in the body of the detective (the fear of castration?).2 In the movies, the disavowal is accomplished through a displacement of anxiety about the body onto a woman. When the detective's body is brought into play, all frailty is transferred to the body of a femme fatale. For example, the obligatory assaults all Hollywood detectives endure are inevitably contextualized as either directly or indirectly brought about through the unreliability or treachery of a desirable woman's body—not theirs. Once attacked, the detective's body demonstrates an eerie dependability under pressure—the cinema sleuth is second only to Bugs Bunny in ignoring torn limbs or bullet holes as he struggles to solve the mystery. The shifts and changes associated with the body, so risky in the world of the film detective, are totally feminized. Television's asexual, cerebral Holmesian is even more drastically disembodied. Here, the detective's otherness to body is created by displacing all the vagaries of physicality onto the miasmic body of the world. Involvement causes contamination (crime); by contrast, the detective postures as a detached, virtually fleshless site of cleansing. Accustomed as we are to this contempt for the body in the detective genre, we are slow to question it or its effectiveness. Familiarity makes it seem right.

However, it isn't truly right for television, a medium that by nature deflates the dualism of the orthodox detective through its unorthodox normalization of shifts and slippage—and thus its normalization of the vicissitudes of the flesh.3 The popularity of Dale Cooper is a tacit admission that on a visceral level the television audience knows how wrong the traditional detective is in that medium. As we shall see, Cooper made us gasp with delight precisely because he identifies with the vulnerability of his body. Uniting precision of mind with flow of body in his pursuit of mystery, Cooper emerges as the first detective truly appropriate to the medium of television.

David Lynch and Mark Frost point the way toward a televisual aesthetic through the incorporation of the detective genre into the serial format. Within the serial context, with its mini-closures which suggest partial distinctions rather than absolute divisions, Cooper invites us to see how desire for mystery can produce in the detective an interpenetration of mind and body in an ever widening gyre of wonder. Can. The erotically anxious, shadow-haunted milieu of the Hollywood detective is not absent from Twin Peaks. Nor is the antiseptic Holmesian stance. But Cooper's mystery involves a heretofore unthinkable freedom from the masculine fear of the body that obsessive disavowals traditional to the detective genre suggest.


In Twin Peaks, Cooper detects through immersion—physical indeterminacy, obliqueness, and ambiguity are his primary modes of discovery. Once Cooper has used standard FBI procedures to assemble his suspects, he turns to his preferred means of inquiry, a modus operandi that initiates the town and the television spectator into the sleuthing approach of a mind-body detective. In the third episode, he introduces his unorthodox procedures to the audience and the Twin Peaks constabulary as he sets himself up in a local forest, incongruously situated in front of a blackboard, to expound upon the Tibetan Method.

This Method is not grounded in the pragmatic “realities” of most police dramas: police academy, laboratory, or mean streets. Instead it issues from the most powerful plane of reality in Twin Peaks: the dream. Cooper narrates a dream about a longing to end the political repression of Tibet that is identified with what amounts to a longing to free the body from the repressiveness of logic. “I awoke from the same dream realizing that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a deductive technique involving mind-body coordination operating hand in hand with the deepest level of intuition.” The mixed, seriocomic tone of Cooper's presentation under the Douglas firs itself challenges us to use Cooper's method, an exercise that pointedly avoids the routine detective apparati of logic, clues, or muscle. Instead, Cooper designs a unique heuristic process which calls for him to throw rocks at a bottle situated on a tree stump—at a precisely measured distance—as the name of each suspect is read from the blackboard.

As we accustom ourselves to meditating on crime through the sensory experience of natural textures and sounds, the illegibility of the body loses its accustomed code as a site of fear; instead it emerges as the locus of knowledge through play as it was when we were young. However, the result is not a regressive infantilism but a renewal of human desire for a miraculous world.

Lynch/Frost's choice of an FBI agent as the hero of Twin Peaks draws attention to the transformation of normal coding. A mass-media FBI agent character ordinarily depends on our understanding of the literal job of the FBI: to intervene in criminal investigations when state or national boundaries are crossed. Television government agents are the sine qua non of television's endless and obsessive restoration of limits, barriers that authorize only the most domesticated form of desire. In Twin Peaks, the traditions are honored in that, literally, a state boundary is crossed during the murder of Laura Palmer, and that is the conventional reason why Special Agent Cooper is the man for the job. However, as a boundary specialist, Cooper is not the disavower of the body, the purger of bodily fluctuation through the rigid limits of convention, but a specialist in crossing boundaries, a quester capable of moving confidently and productively between the mental clarity of law and the intelligent fluidity of the body.

Such talents are immediately in demand when Laura Palmer is found brutally murdered—naked, pallid, blue-lipped, and wrapped in plastic—within the first three minutes of the series. This crime is a form of reality testing for Twin Peaks (and television tradition), revealing a town layered into slick, flat planes of cliché (mental limits) and rivers of wild energies (body). Solving the murder means going beyond cliché through a mind capable of negotiating many layers. Local law (and television tradition) is by nature merely part of the plane of cliché, and thus only capable of partial vision. Local law—read common sense—is affectionately personified by Sheriff Harry S. Truman (Michael Ontkean), but his traditional search for “just the facts” has limited application because Twin Peaks challenges the constitution of a “fact.”

The traditional fact loses its hard edge when the crucial clues are discovered in dreams and visions. Cooper's dreams reveal what pragmatic detection will never find: BOB (Frank Silva) and MIKE (Al Strobel), two male energies from another dimension who have crossed the limits of the natural world to inhabit it as parasites of human hosts, as they term their local habitations. BOB, a male Medusa complete with snaky locks and bone-chilling smile, is the young male energy that has used smiling Leland Palmer, Laura's father (Ray Wise), as his host and that impels him to horrifying atrocities against his daughter (and others). MIKE is BOB's former companion in crime, one-armed from ripping off the offending, guilty arm, who now hunts BOB to terminate his reign of terror. The absurdly banal names adopted by these devastating powers once they have crossed into the plane of “ordinary” reality are, according to Frost and Robert Engels, a writer-producer on the series, a primary example of the Twin Peaks tone: here, banalities tragicomically mask strange forces.4

Cooper first meets BOB and MIKE in a dream at the end of the third episode of the series. The meeting between detective and crime within the dream context expands the conventional role of the detective's eye (which traditionally is restricted to controlling through looking), emphasizing the otherness of body. Cooper's eye within the dream is, by contrast, enraptured.

The heart of MIKE's message to Cooper is couched in five rhymed lines:

Through the darkness
The future past
The magician longs to see.
One chance out between two worlds
Fire walk with me.

The magician is Cooper. The heart of detection is the magic of boundary crossing. Cooper's “chance out” will enable him to cross the limits of the ordinary world into the darkness where future and past conflate.

The set design, the refrain elements in the series, as well as the visual and narrative texture of Twin Peaks, implicate the spectator in both kinds of perception: the more conventional use of the controlling camera eye is disrupted by visual elements compatible with Cooper's Tibetan Method, by an alternate camera eye enraptured by indeterminate visual distinctions. Richard Hoover, the production designer of all the series episodes except the pilot, created a look for the show in which, he says, the concepts of inside and outside were conflated. A massive use of wood gives an outside feeling to the interiors. The interiors burgeon with dead animals and their parts—horns, shells—and nature drawings that are often photographed as if they were theatrical backdrops for the action.5

The opening signature montage (my terminology) of Twin Peaks, designed by David Lynch, prepares us for both visual styles. Its lap dissolves among sharp images to the strains of the slow, mournful, but somewhat romantic theme music (composed by Angelo Badalamenti) suggest, according to Lynch, an enigmatic interpenetration of opposites as robins and cascading waterfalls dissolve into the artifacts of an industrialized logging industry which spews thick smoke from its smokestacks and generates spearlike golden sparks with its gears. The series is coded to create a rich “cultural compost heap,” as Mark Frost calls the unorthodox yoking of elements in Twin Peaks. With its suggestion of the blending of once discrete entities until they fuse with each other, this phrase suggests the organic reality that calls forth Cooper's mind-body approach.

In this context, the purely Holmesian sleuth seems alarmingly invasive. A synecdoche of the reductive aggressiveness of the Holmesian mind is provided by the redoubtable Albert Rosenfeld (Miguel Ferrar), Cooper's favorite FBI forensics specialist, who can virtually reconstruct in his laboratory the molecules of Laura's last minutes. Called into the investigation by Cooper to perform an autopsy, Rosenfeld positions himself over Laura's corpse, sounding a prefatory whir with the handheld drill with which, in the name of science, he intends to bore a hole in her head. He is surprised (and furious) when his state-of-the-art methods are opposed by the Twin Peaks doctor, Doc Hayward (Warren Frost), and Sheriff Harry S. Truman, both of whom knew and loved Laura. Truman is so infuriated by Albert's unfeeling detachment that he punches him, indeed so hard that Rosenfeld lands grotesquely on top of Laura in a position that suggests the perverse necrophilia inherent in the Holmesian passion. Cooper underlines the negative image by supporting Hayward and Truman against Albert's scientific enthusiasm. The body of the crime, the body of flesh, is not to be erased or commodified by logic. Cooper's expression of a belief in mind-body connection is not just theory. In his compassion for body, he is mind-body connection.

Twin Peaks redefines the detective sensibility as being as much of the body as is the corpse, not to frighten the spectator but instead to encourage him/her to play with the instability of Cooper's physicality during intensely dramatic moments. For example, when Cooper wakes up in the middle of the night with a sudden insight, he presents a ludicrous figure, with his slicked-back hair still neatly plastered together but standing straight up, at a 90-degree angle to his head. Frequently, while sifting evidence, Cooper takes time out to breathe in the aroma of the ubiquitous local Douglas firs, or to savor black coffee (see photos, p. 22), sugar doughnuts, or pie in a way that has the effect of a police car chase coming to a screeching halt to make way for a family of ducks. In Twin Peaks, the illegibility and orneriness of the body is everywhere “in our face,” minus the anxiety with which Hollywood detective films code such occurrences. Cooper's persistent sidetrips into sensuality are comic, but not frivolous. They forge a new sensibility, one in which the sensuous loses its conventional coding as a distraction to be scrupulously avoided by the hero.

In Twin Peaks, mystery conventions that depend on the suspect nature of the sensuous world—inevitably tied up in gender issues—are transformed. For example, in suspense films the tracking shot down a corridor paralyzes us with anxiety as it suggests an awful crisis of illegibility in the physical world, which is inevitably bound up with a fear of the feminine.6 The long corridor is conventionally shot as if its depths, secrets, and illegibility were completely other to a masculine seeker, stimulating a positivist need for definitive control of a physicality which now seems female, fearful, and illegible. By contrast, on Twin Peaks, the prevalence of an alternate treatment of this shot weakens both its usual gender implications and its usual definition of the relationship between the detective and the body. Sometimes a stationary camera may look down a long corridor while figures appearing in the distance come toward us as a form of energizing discovery. When Cooper and Truman meet for the first time, they are tiny figures shaking hands at the end of a very long hospital corridor. As they move toward the spectator, the long hallway is no longer claustrophobic but rather a place from which good things emerge. The friendliness of the corridor is a part of a text in which the ideal subject position is Cooper's Tibetan Method.


Unlike most detective screen fiction, Twin Peaks does not represent the hidden, the fearful, the illegible, the body, and the feminine as interchangeable concepts. Certainly the discovery of Laura's body seems to signal the otherness of woman as a terrifying disturbance for men, one familiar from Hollywood narratives and even from television, since the concept of Body is so super-saturated with feminine associations that femininity permeates even the seemingly neutral television presentation of an unreliable physical world. Yet, on Twin Peaks, otherness rather quickly loses its gendered aspects. Physical disruption may alert us to difference, but here the difference is not predicated on a binary opposition between male and female, and when a female expresses difference, it is not always either frightening or unfortunate. Similarly, masculinity pointedly does not guarantee reliability, as the murderer turns out to be Laura's father, Leland Palmer. Possessed by BOB, Leland's body is unreliable, veiled, and secretive; at moments he is murderous, at other times compulsively racked by dancing and singing. His ominous difference defies ordinary gender construction. Conversely, Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), daughter of Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), the richest man in town, who also dances compulsively, is defined as Special Agent Dale Cooper's special agent.

A young girl struggling with inner longings, Audrey is, like Cooper, a seeker who has her own very special mind-body connection. Audrey's off-beat, disruptive presence as body cannot be identified in terms of the conventional distrust of the female body in a text in which Leland Palmer also exists. Moreover, it is worked into the narrative as part of her legitimate desire to participate in a world from which her father's ruthless domination of the town threatens to exclude her. When Audrey uses her body to compel a group of Norwegian businessmen to interrupt their work, she disrupts a fraud her father is perpetrating on them. When she surprises the madam of a brothel owned by her father with her ability to twist a cherry stem into a three-ring pretzel shape using only her tongue, she wins a job and the opportunity to find out more about both Laura's death and what Ben Horne has hidden from her.

Nowhere is difference more fully demystified than in Cooper's heuristic dreams. Indeed, Cooper's dream at the end of the third episode suggests that in order to deal with mystery the detective must move between masculinity and femininity in a way that obviates the whole issue of castration fears. Cooper's dream shows him “a place between two worlds”: the Red Room. It is a large enclosure surrounded on all sides by billowing red drapes. Aside from these, it contains only three black art deco upholstered chairs, a torch lamp, and a Grecian white marble statue of a female nude, the floor beneath tiled in an Escher-like geometric pattern. In the dream, an aging Cooper is seated in one of the chairs. Another is occupied by a Little Man (Michael Anderson)—about three feet in height—wearing a red suit. The other chair is soon filled by Laura, as she was in life, but dressed strangely in an evening gown much like a costume from a 1940s B Picture: low-cut, black velvet, deeply slit. Laura and the Little Man speak as though a 78-rpm record were playing at 33 1/3 rpm. Their gestures are enigmatic. This is particularly true of the Little Man, who undulates as he talks, “speaking” a body language at least as meaning-laden as his dialogue, and equally hard to decipher.

Cooper looks attentive during the dream, never rises from the chair, and barely speaks. He watches the Little Man dance to repetitive, rhythmic music with a cool blues melodic line played on a saxophone. Cooper is fascinated (and ultimately tutored) by the Little Man, even though there is a lack of logic to what he says or what he does: dancing, rubbing his hands, or simply turning his back to Cooper and shaking. Similarly, Cooper's eye (and ear) is overwhelmed by a Laura who is barely understandable because of the manipulation of the sound track. She too makes illegible gestures.

At the end of the dream, Laura kisses the aged Cooper sensually and whispers in his ear, unheard by the audience. When Cooper wakes—his hair standing on end—he can only remember that Laura has solved the mystery for him. Until the middle of the second season, Cooper seeks to retrieve what he now knows. The important moment when Cooper “hears” Laura with his conscious mind will be fully discussed below. Here, we must ponder the significance of Cooper's dream for his coding as a man, and as a detective hero.

The Red Room is a place where everything that has always been true of onscreen murder mysteries—whether in the movies or on television—is inverted. Cooper's site of discovery resembles the site of crime in ordinary detective stories: a place where no action can be identified in terms of pragmatic or logical purpose. Unlike other detectives, however, Cooper discovers more from body than from mind. Rational language and action barely exist in the Red Room. Here body speaks, as it were; Laura, nothing but inert body in the “real world” of Twin Peaks, possesses the solution to her own murder and is willing and able to share it with Cooper in his dream. Unlike the femme fatale, Laura is neither sexualized nor desexualized object. She is another subject. There is pleasure when Cooper gains knowledge through merging with her—she tells him the name of her murderer when she kisses him—but the desire satisfied in this kiss is a compound of his desire to understand and her desire to communicate. Similarly, the merging of two subjects is suggested later, when we learn through a diary entry that Laura and Cooper have had identical dreams of the Red Room. As Laura is not object, she is not the detective's impediment. Cooper is hampered by his own limits. Her illegibility is not the displacement of his own, but the corollary of his need to understand his body.

In Hollywood, the secrets of femininity are conventionally distinguished from the clarity of masculinity. But, in Twin Peaks, Laura's secrets identify her with Cooper. Her secrets are presented in tandem with those of the Little Man, whose illegibility creates intimations of masculine murkiness. This small, wiggling, dancing, rosy figure has clear phallic associations, even in being called “the Little Man.” To make the association clearer, the Little Man of Cooper's dream frequently undulates in front of a Greek marble female nude such that he is often framed with the statue's crotch behind his head. (Her genital identity is emphasized by her hand, which both covers and points to it.) The existence of such a Little Man as Cooper's guide suggests that readiness to seek Laura's killer is identified with Cooper's receptivity both to her (and her ambiguity) and to the complexities of an almost illegible phallic reality.

In the Holmesian detective, the scrutinizing eye and the phallus become one, suggesting that the detective's potency transcends the unreliability of the body. In Twin Peaks, the phallic energy of Cooper's body is readily distinguished from the logical scrutiny of his detective's eye. As in the Dream of the Red Room, insight is a product of a magic partnership between the eye and the oblique meaning of the phallic image. Cooper's logic must be put on hold in order for him to explore phallic magic. Cooper's magic phallic helpers take two forms which reflect the anatomical changeability of the male member. After the Little Man, a second phallic helper appears, a Giant (Carel Struycken).

The Giant, identified as a phallic presence in an angle-up shot foregrounding his crotch, appears to Cooper in a vision as the FBI agent lies on the floor of his hotel room, apparently bleeding to death. At the end of the first season, Cooper is shot by an unknown assassin when he opens the door to what he thinks is room service. As the second season begins, the open doorway becomes a frame highly charged with expectation while we wait for someone to enter it and come to the aid of our hero. When at last someone arrives, it is the senile Old Waiter (Hank Worden). For an agonizing but comic eternity, the doddering old man makes irrelevant small talk while Cooper asks him to get a doctor. Surprisingly, the badly wounded Cooper is not annoyed by the old man's senility and politely indulges his caprices. Cooper even returns the old fellow “a thumbs-up” as he leaves and what looks like Cooper's last chance goes out the door. Cooper lies there for a long screen minute, after which a brilliant light floods him and the Giant pays his first call. The Giant's speech is distorted in a way reminiscent of the Red Room. Giving Cooper several oblique clues to the mystery, he takes Cooper's ring, saying that it will be returned when Cooper finds the “things the Giant has told him to be true.” We do not understand the significance of the ring until much later.

The phallic incapacity of the waiter in the “real world” plays against the stereotypes in the detective genre. A hiatus in the ordinary male potency—and logic—seems to be necessary in order for Cooper to cross a boundary and gain access to a part of himself that is impeded by the limitations of the G-Man's organizational code. Being shot, says Cooper to himself as he lies on the floor, is not as bad as people think, as long as “you can keep the fear from your mind.” Indeed, he muses, “that's pretty much what life is like. O.K., as long as you can keep the fear from your mind.” The vulnerability of the body is here portrayed as an advantage for Coop—not one that we would care to see pressed beyond the point of no return, but an opportunity to look at reality from an altered perspective.

Cooper's productive vacations from logic are a significant departure from the oppressive literality of American television (and films) that obsessively emphasizes phallic power to foreclose any such “lapses in virility.”7 The two forms of phallic power in conventional screen fiction are the thrusting mind/eye and the thrusting fist or gun. The idiosyncrasy of Twin Peaks in this respect is the deferral of that forward thrust, visually emphasized by the literal emptiness of frame left by the open door to Cooper's room. We wait and wait for it to be filled by that male strike force we have been trained to expect. Only after a long hiatus do Harry and his deputies burst in, guns drawn, filling the empty door frame with the usual rescuers. In comparison with the phallic power of the Giant there is something diminished, foolish, and loveable in this conventional rescue.

But phallic onslaught is not always so benign. Indeed, on Twin Peaks, unlimited by a commitment to law, it is the source of evil. Just before Cooper's path leads him to correctly identify Leland as Laura's murderer, MIKE tells Cooper about the rejected but not forgotten joys of his days as BOB's partner, speaks in a kind of frenzy of his experience with BOB of the Golden Circle of Appetite and Satisfaction. BOB devours life as he closes the Golden Circle to satisfy his boundless appetites. The cannibalistic aspect of this energy is all too clear to us—not from Laura's murder, which we never see, but from the death of her cousin, Maddy, which recreates the original atrocity. When we see Leland kill his niece, BOB and Leland dissolve in and out of one another during the act; the bright light common to both BOB's appearances and Cooper's waking visions reveals BOB/Leland both kissing and killing the girl, kissing her as if he were devouring her face. Phallic energy is a continuum with BOB on one end and Cooper on the other.

The Golden Circle of Appetite and Satisfaction described by MIKE to Cooper is an unusual address (possibly unheard-of on American prime-time television) to the phallocentrism that is the unacknowledged motivator of Hollywood fictions. The Golden Circle is an energy that, in returning to itself, seeks the obliteration of the feminine, whose existence threatens the closing of the masculine self-referential circle. When the Giant returns the ring to Cooper as he finally hears Laura's dream voice, the gesture celebrates Cooper's major achievement in solving the murder. Securely on his finger, the small ring indicates that the Golden Circle of Appetite is under control. In solving the mystery, Cooper restrains the energy of phallic onslaught. His reward for doing so is to hear and see once again his dream of Laura, the desirable woman whom phallocentrism has suppressed from the narrative, and to bring back her voice and her body, even though this means crossing the boundary between life and death.


Cooper is at his zenith when he regains the ring, identifies Leland as the murderer, and effects his capture. Working far beyond the shallows of the conscious mind, Cooper has no knowledge, in the ordinary sense, of what he is doing. But as Hawk (Michael Horse), Sheriff Truman's American-Indian deputy, tells him, he doesn't need to “know.” Even ultra-scientific Albert is moved by Cooper and defers to the power of Cooper's alogical ways. Cooper gives himself mind, body, and soul to the magic of his process, assembling a group of suspects, though unable to explain to anyone what he is doing. Finally, the Old Waiter speaks, echoing one of the unfathomable pronouncements of the Little Man in the Dream of the Red Room: “That gum you like is going to come back into style.” The words illogically move Coop outside of time and space, Laura kisses him again, and he hears her voice identify Leland as her murderer. The Giant appears to Cooper and returns the ring, a transaction that justifies spectator faith in Cooper, creating the kind of delight that audiences take in the logic of Holmes, but without the attendant diminution of the mystery

Like BOB's Circle of Appetite and Satisfaction, Holmes' method devours mystery. Solution means termination. In contrast, Cooper's Tibetan Method moves through the mystery to open the world for the detective and his cohorts. When Cooper and Truman trick Leland into a jail cell and BOB destroys the tormented Leland in preparation for deserting his host body, the awful wonder of the riddle at the heart of Laura's death is augmented, not diminished, by knowledge. After BOB is clearly gone, Cooper and the other “Peaksers” (my coinage) are sobered by their new knowledge of evil, but the world is not restored to its pre-mystery neatness; it is infinitely larger. This taste of infinity derives from the preceding moment, Cooper's finest, when BOB casts off Leland as his human host.

As BOB dissolves his connection with Leland, nothing remains but the broken body left behind by the crime. In Leland's final moments, as he tells the story of how BOB possessed him as a young boy, Cooper as usual sticks by the body, cradling Leland's head in his lap. The two form a Pietà, as Cooper urges Leland to move “into the light,” helping the distraught man to the afterlife. This scene, created by Mark Frost, is a crystalline visual, emotional, and narrative realization of Cooper's Tibetan Method. If up until now Cooper has been alternately a stereotypical federal agent and a comic subversion of that stock character, against all logic suggesting the possibility of a new hero, at this moment he is that new hero incarnate. Cooper's ability to keep “fear from the mind” (read resistance to castration anxieties) redefines the detective as an adversary of repression and reconfigures his desire as a liberated commitment to the wholeness of life.

This moment of radiance renders excruciatingly painful Cooper's ultimate possession by BOB. In the last episode of Twin Peaks, Cooper becomes the monster he once defeated, inverting the conventional narrative progress in which initial defeat leads to ultimate victory. Why? To explore this mystery, we must speak not only of the incidents in the Twin Peaks narrative, but also of the production context in which the series was created. The production elements most germane to this discussion are the long period during which Lynch neither directed nor wrote for Twin Peaks and the premature cancellation of the series.

After the death of Leland Palmer, the series struggled on with two handicaps: David Lynch took time out to film Wild at Heart and, according to Frost, Kyle MacLachlan, a co-creator of Cooper with a say in the production unusual for an actor, refused to play out the projected story of a relationship with the quirky, illegible Audrey. As a result, Twin Peaks turned toward a love affair for Cooper with a new, more stereotypical character in the series, Annie Blackburne (Heather Graham), and a father-son vendetta between Cooper and Wyndham Earle (Kenneth Welsh), Cooper's former FBI mentor, gone suddenly insane.

When Lynch returned, he was surprised by and unhappy with the introduction of Earle into the series—and with justice. Unlike the conflict with BOB, Cooper's struggle with his post-Leland adversary draws the emphasis of the central story into a binary context in which outdated Holmesian logic marginalizes Cooper's unique Tibetan Method. At the same time, in these later episodes Coop is also afflicted by a kind of femme fatale, as Earle wages war on Cooper in retribution for Cooper's brief, tender love affair with Earle's wife, Caroline. Earle uses Annie, a look-alike of Caroline, as the bait in the traps he sets for Cooper to lure him onto another plane of reality where he believes he has the power to finish Cooper off. Thus, Annie Blackburne is also a step backward, a conventional female other with a body through which Cooper can be made vulnerable.

However, Lynch's return meant the reestablishment of the centrality of the mind-body connection. Lynch directed (and rewrote) the last episode, rejecting most of the script that was written for the Twin Peaks finale.8 Understanding these changes may help to focus the prevalent sense that Twin Peaks went wrong after the death of Leland Palmer, and to focus the painful impact of the last episode.

In both the rejected script and the taped episode, the large narrative outlines are the same: Earle dies at BOB's hands on an alternate plane of reality, and Cooper and Annie return to Twin Peaks. Cooper, though no one knows it, is possessed by BOB. However, in the unused written script, the place into which Cooper is lured by Earle is less the Red Room and more a binary landscape in which Cooper is tested in a series of surreal divisions between mind and body. With the changes made by Lynch, the taped episode returns to the early emphasis in the series on productive disruptiveness of the body. To bring the series back on track, Lynch returned Cooper, Earle, and Annie to the Red Room. However, unlike Cooper's dream of the Red Room, which was an interlude of meetings that produced power and justice in the best sense, Cooper's visit to the Red Room is an interlude of failed and disastrous meetings. The problem is a “power failure” in Dale Cooper, as we immediately see.

When Cooper enters the Red Room looking for Earle and Annie, the dancing Little Man indicates the presence of a blues singer (Jimmy Scott). He sings to Cooper about this place as a place of vision. But the power failure in Cooper is evident as the lights flicker on and off, deepest black alternating with brilliant light that cannot illuminate anything. Dale Cooper strains his eyes in the blinking dark.

The Old Waiter appears and serves Cooper a cup of coffee that turns rock hard, back to liquid, and then to oil sludge. The Giant appears and informs Cooper that he and the Little Man are “one and the same.” Laura appears, telling him that she will see him in 25 years, a reference to his original dream in which he was an older man—in this final Red Room encounter he is younger than he was in the dram—and she was the source of his knowledge. The apparitions still speak to Cooper, but he is not receptive.

Is it because the visit is initiated by Earle, bringing Cooper into the Red Room as other to Annie's body, that Cooper is more vulnerable to the devouring circle and less unified and ready to move across boundaries in an integrated way? Is this why Mark Frost says Cooper is not ready for the final confrontation in the Red Room and so fails?9 Properly, neither Lynch nor Frost answers interpretive questions. If it is not on the screen, then … And what we see on the screen in the final episode is that long hallways have taken on the stock anxiety of the suspense film. As Cooper walks through the convoluted corridors of the Red Room, the Little Man says, “Wrong way.” Cooper takes this literally and walks in another direction. But Cooper is approaching the Red Room in the wrong way. The apparitions become correspondingly negative: eyeless, they suggest castration. Laura appears to him now as violent, hostile, and dangerous—her eyes, lacking an iris, are ominously all white. She attacks him. When Cooper runs from her, he discovers he is bleeding. Even the Little Man appears as a snarling figure. The iconography of vacant eyes and growling phallus suggests an experience of emptiness where once there was fullness. The benign meeting of subjects has turned into the hostile encounter of subject and object. The bleeding contrasts with Cooper's previous wound, when there was no fear and there was vision.

Appropriately, when Cooper finally finds Earle, he suffers almost nothing at this opponent's hands. Earle is almost immediately dispatched by a laughing BOB in a puff of flame and smoke. Earle's stereotypical scenarios are properly subordinate problems in the world of Twin Peaks; the real problem is that Earle has brought forth in Cooper a part of himself that is literal rather than visionary, divorced from rather than in league with the body. Thus Cooper's real nemesis in the Red Room is a demented white-eyed double of himself, who, in collaboration with BOB and a white-eyed Leland, forces Cooper into a Sartrean game of tag through the red-curtained corridors. Cooper is losing his power to cross boundaries; his mind has succumbed to fear. As we discover in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, the “good Dale” remains trapped in the Red Room, unable to leave. The man who returns to Twin Peaks is the lesser aspect of Dale Cooper.

Abruptly expelled from the Red Room, the Cooper double, at first unconscious and bleeding, seems himself again as, reviving in his own room, he voices concern for the similarly wounded Annie. But then, assured by Truman that she is going to be fine, Cooper incongruously announces that he wants to brush his teeth. This comic dislocation of a tense moment seems to herald Cooper's return to mind-body connection. But nothing could be further from the truth. Once behind the closed bathroom door, Cooper squeezes the toothpaste tube into the sink until it is empty, and, at the very moment of this image—an image suggesting castration in a moment of impotence—the spectator sees Cooper look into the mirror and discover not his own heroic face but the monstrous, leering image of BOB. Bloodying his forehead against the mirror image (see photo, p. 23), the Cooper double burlesques his earlier concern: “How's Annie? How's Annie? How's Annie?” Each rendition is more a parody of human connection than the one before.

When Cooper loses his former grasp of connection, chaos ensues. “Things get kind of slippery” in the Red Room, as Lynch says.10 The continuum of phallic energy folds over easily, and phallocentric perversion is an ever-present danger for even the best and brightest of detectives. Cooper's readiness for mystery is finally about avoiding phallocentrism, which is here identified with alienation from the world's body and with castration. When Cooper loses that readiness, no femme fatale is responsible. Neither too much closeness with women nor too much involvement in the world is the primary threat to masculinity. Instead, the image of castration attends both the division of the hero from his body and his fall into masculine contempt for the feminine. In Cooper's triumphs and defeat, Lynch and Frost dramatically re-vision the classical case for the difficulties of human encounter with reality.11 Oh, the pity and fear of that final glance in the mirror!


  1. Interview with David Lynch, January 31, 1992. All subsequent references to Lynch in this article are drawn from this interview.

  2. Mary Ann Doane gives an excellent overview of the castration anxiety with which Hollywood saturates the body of the femme fatale: “an articulation of the fears surrounding the loss of stability and centrality of the self, the ‘I,’ the ego. …” Mary Ann Doane, Femme Fatales (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 2.

  3. Jim Collins has made a brief and useful foray into applying the concept of televisual flow to Twin Peaks in his essay “Postmodernism and Television,” in Robert C. Allen, ed., Channels of Discourse, Reassembled (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), pp. 341-49. For an extended consideration of the concept see E. Ann Kaplan, “Feminism/Oedipus/Postmodernism: The Case of MTV,” in E. Ann Kaplan, ed., Postmodernism and Its Discontents: Theories, Practices (New York: Verso, 1988), pp. 30-44.

  4. Interview with Robert Engels, October 18, 1991; interview with Mark Frost, November 22, 1991. All subsequent references to Engels and Frost in this article are drawn from these interviews.

  5. Interview with Richard Hoover, September 3, 1991.

  6. See Pascal Bonitzer for a treatment of the psychological implications of the tracking shot in “Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth,” translated by Fabrice Siolkowski, Wide Angle, vol. 4, no. 4 (1981), pp. 58-59.

  7. Tania Modleski is especially helpful on the subject of the repressive construction of male identity through literality in “Lethal Bodies: Thoughts on Sex, Gender, and Representation from the Mainstream to the Margins,” in Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a “Postfeminist” Age (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 135-64.

  8. David Lynch graciously granted me a copy of the projected last script of the series, Twin Peaks #29. According to Lynch, there is no written version of the last episode as taped.

  9. Frost's suggestion that Cooper is “not ready” for his forced entrance into the Red Room at the end of the series is even more interesting in light of Linda Williams' classification of body genres in film. With reference to one of these body genres, the horror film, Williams explores its address to a male adolescent castration anxiety: “body too early!,” as she says. Williams comments on how typically the physical terror of horror films is coded onto feminine bodies in “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4 (Summer 1991), pp. 5-9. Twin Peaks' unconventionality is demonstrated by the way the horror of “body too early!” is Cooper's perceptual, not sexual failure, and it is directly coded onto his body. The issue of “body too early!” is reexamined from Laura's perspective in the film Fire Walk with Me, where, once again, it is made clear that she is not the horror but her father's displacement of his self-loathing onto her. In the movie, the “good” Cooper who remains in the Red Room is presented in terms of the relation to body I explore here as a cosmic consoling presence for her.

  10. Lynch is willing to say that the Red Room has its own rules. But he did not say much more to me than that bodies are not the same there as they are in the “real” world. He did, however, respond to my question, “Are those who appear in the Red Room sequence projections?” saying, “I think they're real.” Enlarging on this, he added that those places in the Red Room segment where split-second images of various characters appear to emerge from one another should be construed as lots of people running around the same room as the lights are blinking on and off. To me, this suggests that, in the Red Room, more than one body may occupy the same space at the same time and supports my reading of Lynch's detective as one who can only function if he is not fearful of physical indeterminacy.

  11. Frost is eloquent on the subject of the equation between the self-referential and evil, an equation clearly evident in Twin Peaks. The villainy of BOB and Wyndham Earle are both rooted in self-reference. So too the disastrous fall of Dale Cooper. Images of sinister, sterile, circular self-reference, which seem to be metaphors for the “Golden Circle of Appetite and Satisfaction,” include a whirring ceiling fan that dominates scenes in which Laura's mother remembers learning of Laura's death and a record player revolving meaninglessly after the record has finished, just before Maddy is killed by Leland/BOB.

Greg Olson (essay date May-June 1993)

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SOURCE: “Heaven Knows, Mr. Lynch: Beatitudes from the Deacon of Distress.” Film Comment 29, no. 3 (May-June 1993): 43-6.

[In the following essay, Olson discusses Lynch's spiritual vision in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.]

A few minutes into David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, loud-talking, dual hearing aid-wearing FBI chief Gordon Cole, played by the director himself, gives Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his assistant Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) a briefing on their new case. Cole doesn't verbalize information to Desmond—he has him stare at Lil, a gawky, pinch-faced woman in a red dress who makes odd, dancelike motions. Without explanation, Cole then bids his men a hearty “GOOD LUCK!” and sends them out to investigate the brutal murder of a young woman in Washington state.

The less experienced Stanley is puzzled by Lil's performance, but the seasoned Desmond helps him read her messages. Lil's sour face means there'll be trouble with the local authorities; her fist shows they'll be belligerent. Lil's other hand in her pocket says the authorities are hiding something; her walking in place means the case will entail lots of legwork; her altered dress shows that the investigation involves drugs. But, Stanley wonders, what about the blue rose pinned to Lil's lapel? Desmond replies, “I can't tell you about that.”

The director, and his character, presents Lil to his FBI men and to us. After a couple of jolts of midnight-black coffee, we see Lil as a metaphor for this film and Lynch's poetic sense of metaphysical proportion—his eternal return to “the mysterious door” where the familiar gives way to the unknown. Lynch has said that “detectives are the most magical characters, because mysteries are the greatest thing.” The hypnotic pull of the director's style prompts us to—as Lynch's alter ego, Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), once admonished—“pay close attention” to what we see and hear. The air is murky with secrets and clues, but as we make connections the glimmers of meaning advance us toward enlightenment. We can learn to read many of Lil's, Fire Walk's, and the universe's coded messages, but that ineffable blue rose (a botanical impossibility) will forever float on a field of red.

Most of the electronic media-linked world knows that Lynch's and co-creator Mark Frost's 30-hour, 1990-91 TV sensation Twin Peaks was set in motion by the discovery of high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer's (Sheryl Lee) plastic-shrouded corpse. And that Laura's killer was revealed to be her own father, Leland (Ray Wise), who was possessed by the evil entity Bob (Frank Silva). So, since Fire Walk details Laura's last seven days and inevitably culminates in her death, where's the mystery? What makes this one of Gordon Cole-David Lynch's “blue rose cases”?

Without using flashbacks, the TV Twin Peaks presented bits of evidence that portrayed Laura as a beloved member of her family and small community who had led a dark, secret life tangled with rough, promiscuous sex, cocaine, and “that mystery man in the woods.” Far from being a conventionally rebellious good-girl-gone-wrong, the Laura we directly observe in Fire Walk is a complex, emotionally tortured young woman who is equally a childlike innocent, power-wielding eroticist, and tragic victim. In a wondrously rapt moment of late-night contemplation she can look at her bedroom picture of a pearlescent-winged female angel protecting young children and whisper, “Is it true?” Or she can show up on the doorstep of her pal Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly, assuming the role taken by Lara Flynn Boyle in the TV series) sobbing for breath and sanity, her next minute of life depending on her best friend's mothering embrace. And, in the night forest, she can giggle uncontrollably over the steaming, brain-spattered corpse of a man whom Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), one of her lover-drug suppliers, has just blasted.

The intense emotional extremes that Sheryl Lee so compellingly expresses are a measure of Laura's fear, pain, and psychosexual confusion. Since she was 12, a lean, leering man with a mane of gray hair has climbed through her second-story bedroom window, crept bent over like an animal to her bed, and thrust himself between her legs. Now the 17-year-old Laura pauses transfixed beneath the wing-beating sound of the ceiling fan outside her and her parents' bedrooms, and hears a disembodied voice whisper, “I want to taste with your mouth.” Bob isn't the fantasized partner of a woman awakening to her erotic nature; he's a palpable force who already has Laura sexually whenever he wants to and increasingly hungers for her very personhood: “He wants to be me or he'll kill me.”

Throughout his career, Lynch has been fascinated by primal human fears, and here he links the terror of depersonalization and the concept of “Bob” in an exploration of the nature of evil. On the surface: the serene Palmer household wracked by incest and child-murder, the two most universally abhorred of crimes. Behind the mask: perpetrator Leland is as much a victim as Laura, unconsciously being directed by a malignant spirit. The sadistic Bob tortures Leland by flitting in and out of his host so that Leland can momentarily realize the emotional pain he has just caused his “Princess,” as when he weeps after having reduced Laura to tears for not washing her hands before dinner. There's a sense of homosexual rape in Bob's psychic penetration of Leland that recalls a stunning moment in Lynch's Blue Velvet ('86). Having pummeled, then lipsticked and kissed the mouth of young Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), the ferocious Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper)—his mouth also lipstick-smeared—hisses along with Roy Orbison's record, “In dreams, you're mine.” Leland, unlike Laura, is too weak to keep Bob from taking up residence behind his feverish eyes.

For five years Laura has seen Bob as her night-creeping sex partner. Now, feeling his hunger to inhabit and steer her soul to his bidding, she defiantly demands, “Who are you?” And during an act of intercourse as she questions Bob's face grunting above hers, it momentarily takes on the familiar contours of her father's visage. In a split-second transition Lynch rides Laura's heartrending scream-to-black into a repugnant closeup of her yellowish cereal-and-milk at the family breakfast table next morning. She answers Leland's good-morning grin with a shudder of ultimate revulsion.

Lynch has said that “all my films are about trying to find love in hell.” Knowing that her home is a horrifically poisonous place, Laura numbs her consciousness with drugs and uses her body to seize moments of intimacy and control from the men in her community. The soulful James Hurley (James Marshall) offers her “everlasting love” but, feeling besmirched and lost-to-the-world in her dark Bob/Leland kinship, she turns away. Her talisman is a golden half-heart necklace with a jagged broken edge. When Leland silently breaks up Laura and James's front-yard meeting simply by standing on his porch, father's shoulder obscures half of the heart wreath adorning the Palmer front door.

No one loves and wants to help Laura more than her less worldly friend Donna. Early in the film, as Lynch looks down on the Hayward living room from a cosmic height, the two chums lounge looking ceilingward and dreamily muse into the languid twilight. Donna wonders, “If you were falling in space, would you slow down, or go faster and faster?” Lynch subliminally adds the sound of a chilling wind under Laura's reply of conviction: “Faster and faster. You wouldn't feel anything at first, and then you'd burst into fire. And the angels wouldn't help you 'cause they've all gone away.”

We're getting close to home here, Blue Rose Street where the real David Lynch lives. Over the years, hundreds of column inches have been devoted to Lynch's preoccupation with sexually aroused, wounded, and deformed flesh, and twisted minds obsessed with every deadly sin. But precious little has been said about the spiritual nature of his vision, the beatitudes that balance and transcend the universal anxiety and entropy he so viscerally conveys.

Like William Blake, who could “stare at a piece of wood until I am afraid of it,” Lynch can invest a mundane, ramshackle house trailer that Agent Desmond slowly approaches in the dusk with an aura of infernal menace. Thirty seconds into Fire Walk, the world seems already to have slipped beyond the secure bounds of rational control. In an amazing image that lasts only a few seconds, FBI men point guns at a golden rural school bus as kids scream, two whores and the bus driver are spreadeagled against the vehicle's side, and two goats, ancient symbols of lust and damnation, graze frame-right. Lynch has always had the intuitive ability to flood our senses with material that can only prompt a “What is going on here?” response. And often, on a sub-literal level, we know.

In Blue Velvet, Isabella Rossellini's victimized character devastatingly condenses a world of emotional and sexual violence into the unexplained sentence “He put his disease in me.” Laura gets a panicky taste of Bob's potential in-dwelling spirit when the words “Fire, walk with me” hiss unbidden from her lips. Like wild flames that burn hotter as they spread, devouring tender lives, Bob would swallow the world. Recently, Lynch said that he feels “between 6 and reenage.” His artistic sensibility retains a child's sense of awe at the humming charge of power barely contained within the shapes of people and things. Lynch's untitled first film ('68) was an animated loop featuring six floating heads that burst into flame. In his movies, wall sockets, lightbulbs, and neon signs spark and snap with danger. And lightninglike strobe flashes illuminate and fragment images of chaotic disorientation, torture, and violent death. But a pure white light of love and goodness bathes many of Lynch's survivors.

And Lynch, who has often been characterized personally as a demonic “danger to women,” presents females as the radiant angels of saving grace. In a light-saturated, almost overexposed image, Henry (Jack Nance) in the 1976 Eraserhead chastely embraces his heavenly Radiator Lady, who has delivered him from the troubling realm of messy sex and procreation. In Blue Velvet the long dark night of a small town's soul ends as a light whites-out above a kissing couple (MacLachlan and Laura Dern), and the girl's dream of robins blissfully returning to the earth comes true. Sailor (Nicolas Cage) in Wild at Heart ('90), having walked away from his dream of love, is wised up by a glittering vision of The Wizard of Oz's Good Witch (Sheryl Lee), and jumps back into the arms of Lula, one of the screen's seriously lusty ladies (another face of Laura Dern). The monstrously deformed title character (John Hurt) of Elephant Man ('80), returned from triumphantly watching a theatrical-stage fairy shimmer, chooses death-in-sleep and merges with the white clouds of a starry night and his lost mother, as her words resound: “Never, oh never, nothing will die. The stream flows, the wind blows, the cloud fleets, the heart beats. Nothing dies.” In Lynch's stage piece Industrial Symphony No. 1 ('89), the Dream Self (Julee Cruise) of a tortuously grieving woman in white floats free of the phantasms of her pain and sings in a shower of twinkling space dust: “The sun comes up and down each day, the river flows out to the sea; for ever and ever, the world spins.”

In Fire Walk Laura doffs her high school plaids and dresses in black to prowl the night, needing to earn drug money the only way she can. Pausing on the doorstep of a rough-trade bar, she stares at her darker self mirrored in the door's glass. As the opening notes of a sad, achingly beautiful song flood the soundtrack, Lynch dissolves through her reflection into his second cosmic-perspective down-shot, of platinum-haired singer Julee Cruise glowing in a white prom dress against the ruddy dark. The director intercuts huge slow-motion closeups of the women's faces as Cruise asks, “Why did you turn away from me?” and Laura, who's entered the bar, bows her head in tears.

Laura has turned her back on the angels, but she's clearly been pushed to her lonely, lost state by forces she can't control. And aside from Bob, there are further mysterious elements that confound her. Lynch has said that “when you're a child something as simple as a tree doesn't make sense.” Throughout the film he has matter-of-factly established a cosmology that defies waking logic. Roaring TV-set snow and eerily twittering telephone wires are a kind of interdimensional conduit, galvanizing the air with murderous, soul-snatching impulses. And a motley crew of beings (a wiry grandmother, her masked grandson, a bopping red-suited dwarf—Michael J. Anderson—with a strangely stilted fluidity) invade Laura's dreams and sunny afternoons as easily as they stole Agent Desmond from the film's extended prologue. It's wonderful the way Lynch mixes the otherworldly and the everyday: in a place you can't locate with an earthly compass, the red dwarf thrives on creamed corn and Bob sports a leather “Levis” patch on his jeans.

The ground zero of dreamsville is the room with the deep-red, backlit curtains where the dwarf and stalwart Agent Cooper, the man who tracked Laura's killer on TV, reside. Cooper was left here at the end of the series when his shadowy double, possessed by Bob, dropped back into an unsuspecting world. The red room's omnipresent nature allows the latter-day Cooper to witness some of the supernatural machinations that stalk Laura. When she dreams of the room, he calls out for her to save herself, but she's overwhelmed by the uncanny information engulfing her. Her head wafting on coke, booze, and nicotine, Laura shivers as the angel vanishes from her bedroom picture, and then embarks on the last night of her life.

Clutching James, tears welling in her eyes, Laura poignantly wonders if there's some safe place they can run away to; but she knows Bob is everywhere. Pushing away the man she loves, she once again tries to lose herself in a session of chemical and sexual excess with two men and her old thrill-mate Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine). Leland/Bob intrudes, binds the women's hands, and runs them screaming to a black abandoned railway car. The bluish, crackling air inside the car is charged with imminent death. Laura sees her face become Bob's in a mirror, and adds her scream to his and Leland's. In the din, Ronette haltingly prays (“Father … I'm not ready … Save me, save me”) and casts her eyes upwards—and there's a clap of utter silence. A wingless white angel is attending Ronette. In a single shot, Lynch pans down the divine form to Ronette's upturned face, her matted hair stirred by an unheard, unearthly wind. The cacophony cuts in again as Lynch returns to Laura, who hasn't witnessed the phenomenon Ronette and we have. Ronette's arms are now free, and she escapes the death car; she has asked for spiritual help and received it.

Laura feels she's beyond saving; she can only extinguish the self Bob lusts for. On the surface, she has committed “immoral” acts, but she has kept her soul inviolate and, in her lonely, iconic suffering, she has heroically contained Bob's contagion and kept it from infecting those she loves. As Cherubini's Requiem in C minor soars on the soundtrack, Lynch respectfully desensationalizes Laura's murder in abstract, almost subliminal white-hot flashes of pale flesh, bright blood, the golden half-heart necklace.

Where do we come from? Where are we going? Laura plunges into the biggest mystery of all and, as though suspended inside a heartbeat, finds herself sitting enclosed within the dream room's red, membranous walls. Cooper stands protectively at her side. Lynch watches her slow motion-closeup face as a pop of light rivets her attention and a smile starts to form. Laura's own angel, the one from her childhood picture with its motionless, resplendent wings and hands pressed together in prayer, is floating in the air. Held close in slow motion, Laura smiles broadly now, weeps tears of joy, and nods and nods in affirmation as a blue-white light plays on her face. How long will she laugh? How long will Cooper stand vigil? Maybe until the next heartbeat, or as long as the world spins. These are blue rose questions.

Randi Davenport (essay date October 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2363

SOURCE: Davenport, Randi. “The Knowing Spectator of Twin Peaks: Culture, Feminism, and Family Violence.” Literature Film Quarterly 21, no. 4 (October 1993): 255-59.

[In the following essay, Davenport discusses the representations of sexual abuse and violence against women in the television series Twin Peaks, arguing that Lynch's portrayal of family violence reflects a feminist bias.]

Twin Peaks is unusual in that it participates in recent public conversations about the effects of child sexual abuse, the victimization of the daughter, and the culpability of the adult male aggressor. I would like to suggest that in its exploration of the behavior of abusive men and the damage suffered by their victims, Twin Peaks is informed by, rather than at odds with, recent feminist discussions about sexual violence. Indeed, the series exposes the regularity with which women find themselves victimized by men.

By sympathetically focusing its audience's attention on the sexual victimization of women, Twin Peaks demands that its audience understand not just that sexual violence occurs, but that our culture tolerates a range of practices that serve to authorize violence against women.

Those who turned the series off because they were made uneasy by the incest, the wife battering and the pornographic pages of Flesh World have said they turned it off because it was “pandering” (Goldstein 742). Some have made the ludicrous suggestion that Twin Peaks was somehow aberrant in that it portrayed sexual violence against women on television. This is too disingenuous. Anyone who watches television gets a regular dose of pleasure from watching women sexually objectified, kidnapped, threatened, beaten, stripped, killed. In its familiar form, such violence is not hard to watch. Indeed, most of the time, the audience simply accepts as natural that such activities should cohere around the female characters of the plot. What made Twin Peaks hard to watch was its powerful suggestion that sexual violence is not pleasurable or natural but is common and is practiced by lots of seemingly average men. Twin Peaks horrified us because it held a mirror up to the American family and what we saw when we gazed upon it was a brutality that made many of us sick.

Twin Peaks is thus unsettling because it disruptively implicates its audience in the family violence that it simultaneously suggests is a customary, even banal, feature of the average, middle-class American family. In the process, the spectator is constituted as sympathetic to the victim of incest and compelled to regard as unacceptable those behaviors that permit men to victimize women.

But Twin Peaks is also radical in that it provides an extended challenge to traditional understandings of the incest experience by displacing the pornographic trope of the Seductive Daughter. Some feminist critics have professed shock that the central female figure of a television series is a victimized teenage girl and have questioned the morality of David Lynch and Mark Frost in their focus on Laura Palmer.1 But it's important to remember that an understanding of father-daughter incest in terms of aggressor and victim is a relatively new cultural phenomenon, one that arises from feminist discourse about child abuse and one that has been given wide support both in scholarly accounts of incest and the mass media. True crime texts sympathetic to real-life victims of incest, like the Cheryl Pierson and Shelley Sessions stories, have proliferated even as some fictional accounts of incest have recounted the evil powers of the incest victim, as in Mary McGarry Morris's Vanished (1988) and Anne Rice's The Witching Hour (1990).2 Unlike other fictions of incest and like the feminist texts, Twin Peaks lays no blame for the incestuous assault on the victim. Instead of viewing the daughter as a child with nearly supernatural powers of sexual attraction and seduction, both Twin Peaks and the feminist texts disrupt more traditional beliefs about incest by proposing that the daughter is a victim of sexual assault, that her father is her rapist, and that particularly complex power problems within the family make it difficult for her to escape the horrors of her existence.

As a temptress who corrupts men by forcing them to be sexual with their children, the Seductive Daughter is a well-established part of literary and religious tradition. In the Bible, Lot's daughters intoxicate him with wine and have sex with him when he is unconscious of the act; though they are both impregnated, in this narrative of incest, Lot remains “innocent” of any wrong doing. Similarly, perhaps the best-known and most celebrated literary example of the Seductive Daughter is Nabokov's Lolita, who seduces Humbert Humboldt and is artfully rendered entirely responsible for his obsession and downfall. In the texts of male sexual fantasy, the nymphet who draws her father into a sexual relationship provides an apologia for incestuous assault. She is, in the words of Judith Lewis Herman, an “active inhabitant of the fantasy lives of the millions of ordinary citizens who constitute the readership of Chic,Hustler,Playboy,Penthouse, and the like” (39). The nymphet is hopelessly sexually depraved, unredeemable. Her father is her victim and she wields power as the bestower of intense forbidden pleasure. In one “true” account of a sexual encounter between father and daughter published in Chic, the father places the responsibility for his corruption on his daughter. He writes:

If you could have seen her at 13—her young body in the first bloom of womanhood, her soft blond hair cascading in ringlet curls down to her shoulders, her face as sweet and pretty as could be—you would understand how it happened. I couldn't help but get aroused as I explained sexual intercourse to her. …

(“Ball in the Family,” Oct. 1978)

In this quite representative account, sex education ends in sexual intercourse, and the father reports an “orgasm that made all my other climaxes seem like empty rituals.” Compelled by his bewitching child to violate the incest taboo, the father arrives at man's greatest erotic pleasure: the defloration of his daughter by her own desire. Even the language the father uses to describe this act takes on the resonance of the mythic. Consummation of incest is the one true “ritual,” while all other sexual encounters are now “empty,” divested of the meanings associated with sexual coupling.

The image of the daughter who colludes in her own rape is found in traditional psychiatric texts no less often than on the pages of skin magazines. One early authority on incest, D. James Henderson, wrote: “The daughters collude in the incestuous liaison and play an active and even initiating role in establishing the pattern” (1536). Writing in the late thirties and in the forties, child psychiatrist Lauretta Bender argued that children involved in sexual relations with adults are culpable because they are “unusually charming and attractive” (514) and because they fail to report the abuse. Thus, she claims, it is “not remarkable that frequently we consider the possibility that the child might have been the actual seducer rather than the one innocently seduced” (514). The image of the Seductive Daughter that Henderson and Bender similarly present echoes the pages of pornography, projecting blame for the crime onto the victim and exonerating the aggressor.

Since the early 1980s, however, texts produced by feminists and survivors of childhood sexual abuse have contested the trope of the Seductive Daughter. Important works like Judith Lewis Herman's important Father-Daughter Incest (1981) and Sandra Butler's Conspiracy of Silence (1985) have argued that the daughters in these families have not seduced their fathers—rather, they have been victimized by them. “Women who were sexually abused as children endured a range of assaults. Some were ‘just’ fondled. Some were penetrated by fingers or objects. Some were raped. Some were tortured. For some children the abuse occurred as isolated incidents. For others it was a daily fact of life for years. It all had consequences” (Women's Research Centre 13). Such accounts also point out that the rage and pain suffered by these victims is expressed in a variety of behaviors, some of which are self-destructive—in feeling or acting crazy, in lacking a sense of mastery, in addictions to alcohol and drugs, in eating disorders, in problems with sexuality and self-image, in involvement in sadomasochistic sexual practices including bondage and beating, in attempted suicide, in hopelessness, depression and emotional paralysis.3 Published collections of the memoirs of incest survivors argue that rather than having experienced her own sexual power as she seduces a man, the child is left acutely aware of her own violation and rape—of her powerlessness.4

The typical victim's fear of abandonment and murder is fully realized in Twin Peaks, as is the need to see a devil in the place of her father. By holding the incestuous father responsible for activities that it explicitly defines as criminal, Twin Peaks actively displaces the image of the Seductive Daughter. The series therefore cannot be classified as a male erotic fantasy whose pornographic central romance, the father-daughter incest narrative, relies on the trope of the Seductive Daughter to appeal to and titillate its audience. By radically disrupting the cultural narrative which the Seductive Daughter signifies, the series fails to either excuse or glamorize sexual violence against women, though it has been misread by some critics as doing both.

By tracing the consequences of the abuse of Leland by BOB when Leland was a child at his grandfather's house on Pearl Lakes, Twin Peaks also points out that child sexual abuse is an inescapable legacy in some families. Fire, with its attendant association of injury, sexual longing, and power to re-forge both psyche and material self, becomes the central image of the incest inheritance. Indeed, Laura and Leland each use the language of fire to describe their experiences with BOB. Leland says, “He used to flick matches at me. He'd say, you want to play with fire little boy?” And James Hurley reports that Laura once said: “‘Would you like to play with fire, little boy? Would you like to play with BOB?’” Leland, through his identification with his abuser, both becomes BOB and represses his memory of his own abuse, so that, in a sense, when Laura sees her incestuous father, she sees his abuser. And the nature of the abuse, signified by the fire metaphor, is passed along intact. The struggle between recognition and denial of the abusive father's culpability culminates in a scene that closely resembles the incest survivor's utopian fantasy of the father's confession of guilt. When Leland cries, “Oh God—Laura—I killed her—I killed my daughter—forgive me,” and experiences full responsibility for his horrific actions, which entail the daughter's loss of subjecthood, the desire of the incest victim to be freed of her own distorted sense of responsibility for the abuse is given powerful voice. Indeed, the death of Leland is the moment when the trope of the Seductive Daughter is perhaps most explicitly resisted.

If Twin Peaks is “about” the horrors of incest, it is equally about the horror of the secret life of the American family. James Hurley says it best when he confesses to Donna that his mother is an alcoholic: “It's the secrets people keep that destroy any chance they have of happiness and I don't want us to be like that.” Agent Cooper echoes this sentiment when he tells Audrey that “Secrets are dangerous.” The worst secrets of all, Twin Peaks suggests, are the secret connections between culture and self that allow men to brutalize women. Laura Palmer in this context thus becomes a tormented female body emblematic of the post-modern age.


  1. See Diana Hume George's “Lynching Women: A Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks.

  2. There are at least two true-crime accounts of incest victims that are strikingly unsympathetic to victims of incest: the tale of Lois Jurgens, who beat her three-year-old son to death in Minnesota (A Death in White Bear Lake [1990]) and the story of Diane Downs, who murdered her daughter in an attempt to kill all three of her children (Small Sacrifices [1987]). But these tales are more interested in the lurid details of infanticide and neither traces the aftereffects of incestuous assault to understand how the murderous mother might have been created by the damage done to her by her father.

  3. See Herman, especially 108.

  4. See Ellen Bass's I Never Told Anyone (1987), the Women's Research Centre's Recollecting Our Lives: Women's Experience of Childhood Sexual Abuse (1989) and Catherine Bronson's Growing Through the Pain: The Incest Survivor's Companion (1989). Other accounts include Sylvia Fraser's My Father's House, Charlotte Vale Allen's Daddy's Girl, and Louise Armstrong's Kiss Daddy Goodnight.

Works Cited

Allen, Charlotte Vale. Daddy's Girl. New York: Berkley Books, 1982.

Armstrong, Louise. Kiss Daddy Goodnight: Ten Years Later. New York: Pocket Books, 1986.

“Ball in the Family.” No author. Chic Oct. 1978: 33

Bass, Ellen, and Laura Davis. The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Bass, Ellen, and Louise Thorton, eds. I Never Told Anyone: Writings by Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

Bender, Lauretta, and Abram Blau. “The Reaction of Children to Sexual Relations with Adults.” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 7 (1937): 514.

Bronson, Catherine. Growing Through the Pain: The Incest Survivor Companion. New York: Prentice Hali, 1989.

Butler, Sandra. Conspiracy of Silence: The Trauma of Incest. Volcano, CA: Volcano P, 1985.

Fraser, Sylvia. My Father's House. A Memoir of Incest and Healing. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.

George, Diana Hume. “Lynching Women: A Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks.Ms. Nov./Dec. 1990: 58-60.

Goldstein, Warren. “Incest for the Millions: Saying No to David Lynch.” Commonweal Dec. 1990: 741-42.

Henderson, D. James. “Incest.” Eds. A. M. Freedman, H. I. Kaplan, and B. J. Sadock. Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1975. 1497-1543.

Herman, Judith Lewis. Father-Daughter Incest. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1981.

Morris, Mary McGarry. Vanished. New York: Washington Square P, 1988.

Rice, Anne. The Witching Hour. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Rule, Anne. Small Sacrifices: A True Story of Passion and Murder. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Seigel, Barry. A Death in White Bear Lake: The True Chronicle of an All American Town. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.

Sessions, Shelly, with Peter Mcyer. Dark Obsession: The True Story of a Father's Crime and a Daughter's Terror. New York: Berkley Books, 1990.

Women's Research Centre. Recollecting our Lives: Women's Experience of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers, 1989.

Lenora Ledwon (essay date October 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6646

SOURCE: Ledwon, Lenora. “Twin Peaks and the Television Gothic.” Literature Film Quarterly 21, no. 4 (October 1993): 260-70.

[In the following essay, Ledwon examines Lynch's use of and innovations on conventional Gothic themes and motifs in Twin Peaks.]

I am inhabited by a cry.
Nightly it flaps out
Looking, with its hooks, for something to love.

Sylvia Plath, “Elm”

The twentieth century has proven congenial to the Gothic. Gothic literature and film attest to the continuing vitality of the genre. Examples of today's popular Gothic include such works as Stephen King's The Shining with its Gothicized haunted hotel, modern Gothic romances and Harlequin clones whose covers feature persecuted maidens in the shadow of gloomy mansions, and horror films as diverse as Psycho,Night of the Living Dead, and the perennial remake of Dracula. However, while many scholars and critics have addressed the use of Gothic elements in literature and film, the field of the Television Gothic has yet to be explored in any detail.1 This is despite the fact that television would seem an ideal medium for Gothic inquiry. It is, after all, a mysterious box simultaneously inhabited by spirit images of ourselves and inhabiting our living rooms.

In fact, television has aired its fair share of programs with Gothic elements. (“Aired” itself is a good Gothic concept—ghostly messages traveling through the air.) Thriller,The Outer Limits,The Twilight Zone,Night Gallery,The Night Stalker,Friday the 13th: The Series, the original Dark Shadows and its stupendously dull 1991 remake (a sort of Dynasty with fangs) are but a few examples of series that utilized Gothic devices. However, David Lynch's Twin Peaks is the first series to tap the full potential of the “Television Gothic.”

This new Television Gothic utilizes familiar Gothic themes and devices such as incest, the grotesque, repetition, interpolated narration, haunted settings, mirrors, doubles, and supernatural occurrences. But these elements undergo a sea change once they are immersed in the “currents” of television. What could have been a soothing repetition of formula instead becomes a disturbing process of transgression and uncertainty.

Twin Peaks as a Television Gothic is a distinctly post-modern form, Gothic as process rather than product. The basic methodology of this process involves the combination and exploitation of two highly domestic forms—television and the Gothic novel. The result of this process is a series in which the domestic is the Gothic and television becomes the ghost in the home. In exploring this new Television Gothic, it is useful to: (1) start with a working definition of “Gothic,” then (2) present an overview of typical Gothic devices operating in Twin Peaks, and finally, (3) analyze two fundamental Gothic elements that are transmuted through the medium of television—incest and the family romance, and the fragmented and multi-formed narrative.


“I perceive,” said Emily, smiling, “that all old houses are haunted. …”

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolfo (1794)

Definitions, like old mansions, are inclined to be haunted—haunted by past definitions. “Television Gothic” is a haunted phrase, testifying to the intrusion of the past into the present. In order to appreciate the nature of this haunting, we must begin with a definition of the Gothic and with an acknowledgment of the limits of such a definition.

Any definition of a genre is at best incomplete. There will always be exceptions, overlaps, and grey areas. Further, such definitions all too often reduce and trivialize a complex subject. Those of us interested in genre criticism console ourselves by the hope that well thought out models will be recognized as just that—models. As such, they should serve as aids to understanding, not as prescriptive chains on thinking.

Even among other genres, the Gothic seems particularly difficult to define. Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that, rather than speaking of one monolithic category of “Gothic,” it is more appropriate to recognize that there are many Gothics.2 But a larger part of this difficulty lies in the fact that the Gothic itself is an unstable genre, one that is characterized more by its process than by its individual products. The Gothic is easy to recognize, but hard to define.

Although difficult to define, its very fluidity and resistance to boundaries make the Gothic a particularly apt genre for television. As will become evident, Twin Peaks taps into this Gothic resistance, creating a Television Gothic characterized by a polysemous mingling of “authentic” representations which constantly forces the viewer into an uneasy oscillation between ways of understanding.

Given all the above caveats, we will, for the sake of convenience, focus our definition on three commonly accepted fundamental characteristics of the Gothic. Our working definition of “Gothic” will include the following primary elements: (1) the use of standard Gothic devices which generally are recognized as capable of producing fear or dread, (2) the central enigma of the family, and (3) a difficult narrative structure (one that frustrates attempts at understanding). The transformation of these Gothic elements into “Television Gothic” in Twin Peaks is the subject of the rest of this essay.


“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest. Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (1818)

Something “horrid” is the first recognizable hallmark of the Gothic. Commentators note that the Gothic is “a literature of nightmare” (MacAndrew 3), “literature where fear is the motivating and sustaining emotion” (Gross 1). In fact, fear is one of the engines that drives the plot of Twin Peaks. Windom Earle would have agreed with Austen's two young friends concerning their interest in the horrid. Discovering the secret of what draws BOB to humans, Earle comments, “It's fear! My favorite emotional state!”

Those particular Gothic devices used to promote fear are fairly well identified. In her study of Gothic conventions, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick notes that one knows generally what to expect in the way of Gothic paraphernalia:

You know the important features of its mise en scène: an oppressive ruin, a wild landscape, a Catholic or feudal society. You know about the trembling sensibility of the heroine and the impetuosity of her lover. You know about the tyrannical older man with the piercing glance who is going to imprison and try to rape or murder them. You know something about the novel's form: it is likely to be discontinuous and involuted, perhaps incorporating tales within tales, changes of narrators, and such framing devices as found manuscripts or interpolated histories. You also know that, whether with more or less relevance to the main plot, certain characteristic preoccupations will be aired. These include the priesthood and monastic institutions; sleeplike and deathlike states; subterranean spaces and live burial; doubles; the discovery of obscured family ties; affinities between narrative and pictorial art; possibilities of incest; unnatural echoes or silences, unintelligible writings, and the unspeakable; garrulous retainers; the poisonous effects of guilt and shame; nocturnal landscapes and dreams; apparitions from the past; Faust- and Wandering Jew-like figures; civil insurrections and fires; the charnel house and the madhouse.

(Sedgwick 9-10)

All these devices are recognizably Gothic, and many of them occur in Twin Peaks. For example, the woods around Twin Peaks are a wild and mysterious landscape. (“There's a sort of evil out there. Something very, very strange in these old woods,” muses Sheriff Truman.) The Book House Boys form a secret, quasi-mystical institution. Subterranean spaces exist (Owl Cave), as do resonant silences, guilt and shame, nocturnal landscapes and dreams. Strange fires occur (the fire at the Packard Mill and the mysterious command, “Fire, walk with me”). The flickering torches of the charnel house are replaced with the cold glare and strobe effect of fluorescent lights in the morgue. Discovered manuscripts (Laura Palmer's diary) and mediated narratives (Cooper's tapes) abound. Cooper's quest for knowledge and his decision to sell his soul qualify him as a Faust-like figure. And, of course, the unspeakable occurs; rape, incest, and murder. The most antisocial of crimes intrude into the sanctuary of domesticity.


The stranger youth and I approached each other in silence. … What was my astonishment on perceiving that he was the same being as myself!

James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)

Exploring all the Gothic devices in Twin Peaks at any great length would be impractical here, but the device of the Double can exemplify how rich the series is in Gothic terms. It should not be surprising that a series titled Twin Peaks should be filled with doubles. In fact, there are several dozen examples of doubles in Twin Peaks, typically serving as mirror images of good and evil, original and imitation, appearance and reality. A few examples follow.

Laura and Maddy are identical cousins (reminiscent of a warped version of The Patty Duke Show). There are two sets of BOBs and Mikes—the teenagers (Bobby and Mike) and the spirit presences of the demonic BOB and the mysterious Mike. There is an enigmatic White Lodge and its counterpart Black Lodge, one representing good and one evil. Laura has led a double life as good-girl Prom Queen and as a wanton bad girl. There are two sets of books for the Packard Sawmill (one the original, one a fake). There are two diaries of Laura Palmer (one a “cover” story and one a secret diary). The series Twin Peaks is doubled by the series Invitation to Love. Love and fear double as mirror images, as engines which attract spirits from another plane of existence. Dream beings have counterparts in the town of Twin Peaks (BOB/Leland, the giant/the old bellhop, Mike/the one-armed man). The same actress, Sheryl Lee, plays both Laura Palmer and Maddy Ferguson. The same actress, Piper Laurie, plays both Catherine Martell and the mysterious Japanese businessman. The dwarf warns Cooper of the existence of a “dopplegänger” (German for “double”). There are two Dale Coopers in the final episode, one good and one evil.

The sheer exuberance behind the use of such Gothic devices is extraordinary. Lynch exploits the television potential of Gothic devices to the hilt. While a literary text can only create doubles through written representations, television permits such visual doubling devices as the same actor or actress playing two characters, or a giant suddenly appearing where an old bellhop stood a moment before. The visualization of Gothic images heightens and intensifies the standard function of the double—to problematize the distinction between appearance and reality. Equally significant for the Television Gothic is how Twin Peaks uses Gothic devices such as the double to challenge the distinction between the normal and the abnormal, the domestic and the uncanny.

Lynch transforms standard Gothic devices into Television Gothic by domesticating them. He brings the horrid and the normal into juxtaposition until the viewer is unsure what is normal anymore. By using television to do this, Lynch challenges the most deep-seated expectations of the aim of television. As David Marc notes, “the aim of television is to be normal. The industry is obsessed with the problems of norms, and this manifests itself in both process and product” (327). When the boundary between the normal and the Gothic begins to crack, it becomes clear that for Twin Peaks the normal is the Gothic.


Heaven directed my bloody hand to the heart of my child.

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1764)

Television, the most domestic of all mediums, is a natural venue for the Gothic, the most disturbed of domestic fictions. As John Ellis observes in Visible Fictions, “broadcast TV is a profoundly domestic phenomenon” (113). A television set is an everyday item within the home, it is “another domestic object” (Ellis 113). Like that other strangely domestic item, the Gothic novel, television can create a sense of the uncanny precisely by drawing on the unfamiliarity of the familiar. In fact, the Television Gothic is the uncanny/unheimlich contained within the familiar/heimlich of the home.

In his essay, “The Uncanny,” Freud traces the development of the German terms, “unheimlich” and “heimlich.” Initially, heimlich meant homely, plain, familiar, comfortable. Unheimlich, or uncanny, meant everything that was not home-like. Over time, the meaning of “heimlich” changed, so that which had been familiar and domestic came to mean that which was guarded, furtive, withdrawn, and hidden. The key point here is that unheimlich and heimlich are not two antithetical states. Rather, one thing is contained within the other. The uncanny is that which ought to remain hidden and secret, but which has become visible. What strikes us as uncanny is not something new, but something familiar.

Just as the heimlich contains within it the unheimlich, so does the familiar domestic home contain within it the Gothic potential of Television.

The home contains the uncanny. The uncanny is familiar and terrible in its familiarity. Television is the ghost in the home, a barely perceptible presence that can be at once familiar and strangely disturbing. Neil Postman notes that:

television has achieved the status of “myth,” as Roland Barthes uses the word. He means by myth a way of understanding the world that is not problematic, that we are not fully conscious of, that seems, in a word, natural. A myth is a way of thinking so deeply embedded in our consciousness that it is invisible. This is now the way of television. We are no longer fascinated or perplexed by its machinery. We do not tell stories of its wonders. We do not confine our television sets to special rooms. We do not doubt the reality of what we see on television, are largely unaware of the special angle of vision it affords.


Television's Gothic potential stems in large part from its reassuring domesticity (its “natural” presence and acceptance in the home) combined with its under-utilized ability to disrupt viewers' comfortable notions of domesticity.

What is so frightening about the Television Gothic? The fact that it returns to the domestic sphere something repressed yet familiar—the specters of incest and family violence. Like the early Germanic invaders after whom it takes its name, the Gothic brings with it the threat of the destruction of culture. The Television Gothic, even more so, makes such threats strikingly visible and manifest. There it is, on your television screen, in your own living room—a father assaulting and killing a “daughter” in his living room.3 Sarah Palmer voices the complaint of the Television Gothic when she cries, “What is going on in this house?” The domestic gone horribly wrong is the essence of the Television Gothic. Lynch taps into our need to turn common life into the stuff of nightmare so that we can call it unreal. Better the Gothic, than the horror of everyday domestic life.

As James B. Twitchell astutely points out in Dreadful Pleasures, “the early gothic usually tells the story of a single and specific family romance run amok: ‘father’ has become monstrous to ‘daughter.’” (“Father” includes any role of paternal dominance [Twitchell 42].) The dysfunctional family lies at the heart of the Gothic, and thus the Gothic is profoundly domestic. In what is generally known as the earliest Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, Prince Manfred of Otranto desires to marry his prospective daughter-in-law (a barely concealed incestuous desire), and eventually kills his real daughter by stabbing her with his phallic dagger. In Twin Peaks, fathers are repeatedly monstrous to daughters. Leland Palmer compulsively kills daughters. He rapes and kills his real daughter, Laura, as well as killing her double, Maddy, and another young girl. Ben Horne sleeps with one daughter-figure, Laura, and narrowly avoids sleeping with his own daughter, Audrey. Facing a masked Audrey in the brothel, One-Eyed Jack's, Ben suggestively comments, “You know how to interest a man.” Father/daughter incest marks the Gothic plot.

Both Castle of Otranto and Twin Peaks feature the most anti-domestic (that is, destructive of domesticity) of crimes, but a crime that is ineluctably tied to the domestic. Early Gothics distance this crime by placing it in the past (the Middle Ages were a popular time period) or in a foreign locale (Italy was a favorite spot for dark deeds). In contrast, Twin Peaks affirms the closeness of the Gothic. Where Twin Peaks modifies the Gothic genre, causing a shifting in the Gothic process, is in its insistence on the quotidian, the common, the ordinary as the essence of Gothic. The prom queen, the town diner, the local sheriff, the high school football star, the motorcycle-riding rebel, the family dinner table—all these are familiar television fare. Even that most ubiquitous of all twentieth-century artifacts—plastic—assumes the mantle of the uncanny. “She's dead. Wrapped in plastic,” says Pete in the pilot episode after finding the body of Laura Palmer, prom queen.

Common plastic appropriates the heady status of the Gothic veil. Layers of translucent plastic tease the viewer's eye with the suggestion of a female body. When a hand removes the plastic, revealing Laura Palmer's face, the lingering camera shot is as resonant as the moment Emily lifts the black veil in Mysteries of Udolfo, but for different reasons. Udolfo resonates with the strangeness of the Gothic. Twin Peaks with the ordinariness of the Gothic. The terrible object behind the veil is a gruesome wax figure of a body in the last stages of decay. The figure beneath the plastic is a much more common object—a dead body. Where the wax figure creates distance between viewer and text because of its exotic, unusual, and bizarre qualities, the body creates closeness because of its ordinariness.

The Television Gothic reveals what is behind the veil in the first episode, while readers of Udolfo had to wade through several hundred additional pages before learning the mystery of the veil. What is the difference? By postponing revelation, Radcliffe makes the Gothic moment remote, attenuated and rarefied. By beginning with the unveiling, David Lynch makes the Gothic immediate.

It may be objected that with this early unveiling, Lynch is in fact destroying the Gothic. “How obvious,” we think. “We recognize this. Here is that most ordinary of objects in any mystery—a body.” But our moment of certainty is short-lived. It is precisely Lynch's point (and a point that characterizes Twin Peaks as a Television Gothic) that the ordinary is the Gothic. Consider, for example, the bizarre image of blood dripping on a donut. A commonplace, ubiquitous object such as a donut can be uncanny when it is juxtaposed with another common item—blood. And this point, the ordinariness of the Gothic, is reinforced through the series emphasis on the enigma of the family.

Incest and child murder are not the only family enigmas in the series. Gothics fairly bristle with family mysteries, and Twin Peaks is no exception. In fact, Lynch uses physical and mental deformity metonymically to suggest the extent of the distorted and dysfunctional family. The strained family dinners at the Horne's are silent except for the monotonous humming of the teenaged autistic son, dressed in full Indian war bonnet. Donna's mother is in a wheelchair. Nadine has only one eye and limits her discussions with her husband to her obsession with silent drape runners. The Log Lady talks to her log in lieu of a husband. Sarah Palmer is subject to visions and fits of (demonic?) possession and her husband, Leland, goes insane.

In addition to the above examples of dysfunctional families, examples of spouse abusers are plentiful in Twin Peaks. Leo routinely beats his wife, Shelley, and leaves her to die in a fire he sets. Nadine emotionally abuses Ed. Windom Earle kills his wife, Caroline. Earle approves of Leo's abusive behavior (“domestic violence—now I'm partial to that!”) and in turn keeps Leo imprisoned as a slave/pet/torture object in a cabin in the woods. Earle as the manic ex-husband plots to destroy a King and Queen (Cooper and Annie), as if no symbols of wedded power can be allowed to exist. In his glee over his plotting, Earle comments, “I haven't been this excited since I punctured Caroline's aorta!” Domestic violence and dysfunctional families are the norm in the series.

In fact, it is difficult to find any “normal” nuclear family within the world of Twin Peaks. This is particularly telling, in light of comments such as John Ellis's that “home” and “family” are part of “a powerful cultural construct … broadcast TV assumes that this is the basis and heart of its audience” (Ellis 113). If this is the case, Lynch's construction of anti-nuclear families, a construction meant to be projected into the homes of other families, must be powerfully unsettling. In fact, it must be Gothic.


The explanation occupied several pages, which, to the torture of young Melmoth, were wholly illegible.

Charles Maturin, Melmoth the Wanderer (1820)

In addition to the enigma of the family, another key aspect of the Gothic is its narrative ambiguity. Gothic novels are characterized by problematic structures. One much-commented-upon characteristic of the Gothic is “the difficulty the story has in getting itself told” (Sedgwick 13), a problem in structure which means that Gothics “cannot be efficiently told” and are criticized for being “unaesthetic, anti-artistic, preserving only the unities of the subconscious” (Twitchell 41).

The Gothic structure is complex and convoluted. In the Gothic, stories are interrupted by other stories, fragments of lost manuscripts give tantalizing hints at meaning, poetry is interspersed throughout prose, and baroque, overly-detailed explanations and descriptions contribute to a general hemorrhaging of language.

Similarly, the Television Gothic as exemplified by Twin Peaks is filled with multiple story lines (love stories, a murder mystery, international business deals, a paternity mystery, a beauty contest, etc.), fragments of interpolated narratives (such as Laura Palmer's diary or Cooper's dictation, and perhaps even the commodified products of the series including books, tapes, newspapers, and even collectible trading cards), poetry and cryptic messages (“Fire, walk with me,” “I will tell you three things”) and puzzles within puzzles. If, as Raymond Williams suggests, “flow” is “the characteristic organization and therefore the characteristic experience” of television, then what is one to make of a series that resists such organization (Williams 86)? An important aspect of the workings of flow, according to Williams, is the creation of “a sense of the world,” that is, of some meaning (Williams 116-18). Twin Peaks frustrates flow by its constant fracturing, restructuring and undercutting of meaning. Catherine Martell, waiting to discover the secret of Eckhardt's black puzzle box, sums up the frustrating process, saying, “I can't take any more of this. Boxes inside boxes. Whatever is in that better be worth a fortune.”

In fact, inside the box within the box within the box is a key—suggesting only the existence of yet another box. Twin Peaks takes our desire for meaning and aggravates it. Explanations are baroque and overly complicated, like Gothic architecture. In place of highly detailed decorations (which distract and bewilder), or elaborate stained glass (glass which is opaque rather than transparent), the Television Gothic gives us too many clues and too many messages. For example, Cooper's explanation (in episode seventeen) of the solution to the murder of Laura Palmer is spoken very rapidly, overwhelms the viewer with a profusion of explanation, and is not based on scientific rationality but on allegory and the language of dreams. (Cooper explains that the dwarf in his dream danced and that Leland danced; he says that BOB had gray hair, and Leland's hair turned gray; and he says that the letters under the fingernails of the victims were spelling out BOB's name.) Such a baroque explanation is closer to a parody of meaning than to a real explanation. (In fact, Saturday Night Live successfully parodied Twin Peaks in a skit starring Kyle MacLachlan as Dale Cooper.)

Even more significantly, the narrative process of Twin Peaks frustrates our very expectations of genre itself. This Television Gothic never comes to rest at any one point. There is no moment of complete ease or comfort, no point at which the series settles into one easy mode. Rather, there is a constant slippage of meaning. The series never settles into a familiar groove for any significant length of time. The Television Gothic frustrates attempts to pin it down to any one particular narrative form.

It is a commonplace of genre criticism to assume that viewers are attuned to those semiotic cues that forecast the type of genre, and hence the type of narrative to follow. As Jane Feuer notes in her discussion of the sitcom, television genre “assures the interpretability of the text” for the audience (119). Genre makes a series comfortable and understandable (or perhaps boring and predictable). For example, the various semiotic cues of the conventional Gothic are part of our cultural furniture. We understand that mysterious wounds in the heroine's throat signal a vampire story. However, unlike the run-of-the-mill television Gothic, a characteristic of the “new” Television Gothic (as exemplified by Twin Peaks) is that the genre does not assure the interpretability of the text. Rather, the genre assures a multiplicity of possible interpretations. (In this respect, Twin Peaks is not so much a “newer” Gothic than series such as Dark Shadows, as it is “true-er” to its Gothic origins. It is the first television series to fully explore the potential of the Television Gothic, and hence the first “pure” Television Gothic.) Signs which ordinarily would determine a set pattern, when proliferated in the Television Gothic, create an opening in time and space (like the opening to the Black Lodge) which allows for an excess or superabundance of meaning.

Where Television Gothic breaks the bounds of genre is in its resistance to a single, discrete form of narrative. This resistance is carried out through obsessive, exuberant multiplicity. Twin Peaks not only offers multiple story lines (Cooper's investigation of the murder, business intrigues between Catherine and Ben, adulterous affairs carried on by Bobby and Shelley and by Ed and Norma, etc.), and multiple narratives, but also multiple shifts between conventional or more “settled” Gothic genres. In contrast, a viewer of the 1991 remake of Dark Shadows knows what to expect from the very first episode, if not from the very first scene. All the symbols and apparatus of the vampire story are familiar and predictable territory. Twin Peaks teases the viewer by focusing on not one, but a multitude of potential narratives, each of which itself is open to multiple interpretations. To grasp the extent of this multiplicity, it is helpful to contrast the operation of narrative drive in Twin Peaks with the operation of narrative drive in the horror film genre.

In American Film Genres, Stuart M. Kaminsky charts out seven main branches of the horror film, noting a separate “source of horror” in each branch: (1) “Animal drives which threaten man”; (2) “Immortal parasite”; (3) “Witches, corrupt humans who worship evil”; (4) “Resurrected dead, or possessed beings who are figuratively dead”; (5) “Unpredictable madmen”; (6) “Mad scientist and created monster”; and (7) “Creatures from outer space, inside the Earth, or from the id” (152-53). Typically, we expect one primary source of horror per film. Twin Peaks, as a Television Gothic, manages to fit into each of these categories at various points in the series, while resisting allegiance to any one. For example, (1) Animal drives of sexuality, fear, and rage fuel the crimes in the series; (2) BOB is called a “parasite”; (3) Lana may be a witch, and Windom Earle has studied a tribe of Indians who worship evil; (4) Leland is possessed by BOB; (5) Earle is a madman; (6) Earle also is a mad scientist, and his creature is Leo (called “Leo-stein” by Bobby, in a reference to Frankenstein's monster); and (7) Project Bluebook references in the show suggest the possibility of alien creatures from outer space, while “the evil in the woods” suggests the presence of evil within Nature itself, and Albert suggests that BOB may simply be “the evil that men do.”

Part of the contrast, of course, lies in the nature of the two media. Film does not have the same Gothic potential as television, precisely because of the finite time period for a film. A film must end, while a television series has a seemingly infinite potential to continue telling the story and to continue multiplying meanings. However, other television shows with Gothic elements have failed to fully utilize the Gothic potential of television. Each Night Stalker episode, for example, simply introduced a new monster which reporter Carl Kolchak would destroy. (Interestingly, Kolchak narrates his story into a tape recorder, like Cooper.) There never was any real doubt or uncertainty about the outcome. The clues pointing to the existence and type of the monster in each series proceeded in a logical, linear fashion. In Twin Peaks, on the other hand, logic and meaning are confounded. Each semiotic cue which ordinarily would narrow the range of narrative meaning combines with other cues to expand the possible meanings. (Are there aliens at work in Twin Peaks? Is BOB a demonic spirit or a parasite from another planet? What do the Indians have to do with this? Is it all something in the coffee or the cherry pie?) A proliferation and superabundance of meaning is the result.

In addition to Twin Peaks' multiple narrative drives and resistance to any one form, the series demonstrates a second narrative technique unique to the Television Gothic—the use of a domestic technological device to explore the ways technology transmits emotional extremes. Repeatedly, the viewer experiences moments in which emotionally-charged voices and images are mediated through technological devices such as telephones, microphones, tape recorders, video cameras and even television. Such technological reproductions, because they are reproductions and not “originals,” are themselves ghostly. And the final device transmitting these extremes of fear and love is the television set. Television becomes the ghost in the home.

Examples of technology as a mediating narrative tool are plentiful. In the pilot episode, Sarah Palmer's anguished cries at first learning of her daughter's death are mediated through a telephone receiver. As Leland drops the phone, Sarah's pain registers through the lingering sound of her voice on the dangling receiver. In another example from the pilot episode, the school principal announces the death of Laura Palmer over the school P.A. system. He is overcome by grief during his announcement. We see the effect of the announcement on the students, followed by a lingering shot of the empty school hallway with the principal's disembodied voice echoing through the hall.

Such moments of technological mediation re-occur throughout the series. For example, in several episodes we hear the tape-recorded voice of Laura Palmer discussing things that frighten her and excite her. We see a videotape of a highly distraught Windom Earle discussing his obsession with an Indian tribe devoted to evil for its own sake. Microphones squeak and buzz, preventing important announcements (“Is this thing on?”). A tape recording of Waldo the mynah bird transmits the final painful words of Laura Palmer, “hurting me, hurting me.” On several occasions, individuals are wired for eavesdropping purposes under circumstances fraught with danger. Radio transmissions from outer space (or perhaps from the woods) warn Cooper of danger. Audrey is tied up and videotaped for purposes of extortion. And, in perhaps the most blatant example, Windom Earle uses an electronic device to administer painful shocks to Leo.

Lucy, the dippy secretary, pinpoints the problem of all this mediation in one of her deceptively naive remarks, saying, “I'm going to transfer him—well, not him, but his call.” What you get with an electronic transfer is not the individual, and not even the original message, but the re-creation of a message. Whether the message must travel along miles of television wire, be transferred to audiotape, or be split up into signals that are sent into space and bounced off a satellite before re-emerging in the images on your television, there exists the haunting possibility that something is lost in the mediating process. Such images are not the original. They are ghostly.

The fact that so many important communications in Twin Peaks are mediated through technological devices highlights two standard Gothic complaints—the difficulty of communication and the impossibility of ever really knowing another human being. Additionally, there is one final explanation for this narrative device, an explanation highly significant for the Television Gothic. Twin Peaks' emphasis on mediated messages—messages that are transmitted through technological devices—underscores the limits of the medium, and suggests that television itself is the ghost in the home.


O! what an infinite difference between this moment and the next!

Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolfo (1794)

The more things change, the more they stay the same. When Horace Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel in 1764, he was attempting something new. In his Preface to the Second Edition of The Castle of Otranto, he comments on his intent to create a new form:

It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of romances, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability; in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with great success. Invention has not been wanting, but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life.


Castle of Otranto was Walpole's attempt to “reconcile the two kinds” of writing (19).

Similarly, television's heavy reliance on “reality programming” would seem to tip the scales in favor of common life, drying up television's potential for “fancy.” Lynch's Twin Peaks can be seen as a twentieth-century reconciliation of common and uncommon, home-like and uncanny, domestic and Gothic. The result of this new Television Gothic is a format in which the domestic itself operates as the Gothic.


  1. Analysis of the Gothic in literature is extensive, and what follows is a very selective list. Standard background reading should include Montague Summers's The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel (London: Fortune P, 1938). Two particularly useful bibliographies are Robert Donald Spector's The English Gothic: A Bibliographic Guide to Writers from Horace Walpole to Mary Shelley (Westport: Greenwood P, 1984) and Frederick S. Frank's Gothic Fiction: A Master List of Twentieth Century Criticism and Research (Westport: Meckler, 1988). Recent works focusing on the American Gothic include: Louis S. Gross, Redefining the American Gothic: From Wieland to Day of the Dead (Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1989) and Gary Hoppenstand and Ray B. Browne, eds., The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State U, Popular P, 1987). Finally, of particular interest for those interested in Gothic narrative structure is Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's excellent analysis, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Arno P, 1980).

    Turning to film, a selective sampling of work on Gothic and horror (the two terms, though deserving separate definitions, are often used interchangeably) includes the following: Gregory A. Waller, ed., American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film (Urbana, U of Illinois P, 1987); Stuart M. Kaminsky, American Film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory of Popular Film (New York: Dell P, 1974); Barry Keith Grant, ed., Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow P, 1984); James Donald, ed., Fantasy and the Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 1989); Emily D. Edwards, “The Ecstasy of Horrible Expectations: Morbid Curiosity, Sensation Seeking, and Interest in Horror Movies,” Current Research in Film 5. ed. Bruce A. Austin (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1991): 19-38; and Ruth Perlmutter. “The Cinema of the Grotesque,” Georgia Review 33.1 (Spring 1979): 168-93. A useful analysis of the “boom and bust” cycle of horror films for the period of 1978 to 1983 can be found in Robert E. Kapsis's “Hollywood Genres and the Production of Culture Perspective,” Current Researches in Film 5 (1991): 68-85. Particularly interesting for students of the Gothic are Charlene Burnell's “The Gothic: a Literary Genre's Transition to Film,” Planks of Reason: 79-100 and Roger Dadoun's “Fetishism in the Horror Film,” Fantasy and the Cinema: 39-61. Finally, mandatory readings are Robin Wood's two articles on American horror films of the '60s and '70s—“Return of the Repressed,” Film Comment 14.4 (1978): 25-32 and “Gods and Monsters,” Film Comment 14.5 (1978): 19-25.

    The pickings are lean as far as finding essays on television and the Gothic, but Gregory A. Waller's “Made-for-Television Horror Films,” American Horrors: 145-61, is an insightful work which explores the technical limitations of made-for-television horror films. Additionally, while not a scholarly work, Stephen King's Danse Macabre (New York: Berkley Books, 1981) contains an interesting and entertaining chapter on the limits of television horror, titled, “The Glass Teat, or, This Monster Was Brought to You by Gainesburgers.”

  2. While most commentators trace the origins of the Gothic to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1764), there is less agreement on how to categorize the branches of the Gothic. It is possible to discuss the Sentimental Gothic, the Schauer-Romantik Gothic, the Explained Supernatural Gothic, the Unexplained Supernatural Gothic, the Historical Gothic, etc.

  3. What makes such moments significantly different from scenes of family violence in soap operas is the series' insistence on the uncanny moment, an insistence that is purely Gothic in origin.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. 1818. Ed. Anne Henry Ehrenpreis. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Burnell, Charlene. “The Gothic: A Literary Genre's Transition to Film.” Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1984.

Dadoun, Roger. “Fetishism in the Horror Film.” Fantasy and Cinema. Ed. James Donald. London: British Film Institute, 1989. 39-61.

Donald, James, ed. Fantasy and the Cinema. London: British Film Institute, 1989.

Edwards, Emily D. “The Ecstasy of Horrible Expectations: Morbid Curiosity, Sensation Seeking, and Interest in Horror Movies.” Current Research in Film 5. Ed. Bruce A. Austin. Norwood: Ablex. 1991. 19-38.

Ellis, John. Visible Fictions—Cinema: Television: Video. London: Routledge, 1982.

Feuer, Jane. “Genre Study and Television.” Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism. Ed. Robert C. Allen. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987. 113-33.

Frank, Frederick S. Gothic Fiction: A Master List of Twentieth Century Criticism and Research. Westport: Meckler, 1988.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Uncanny.” Studies in Parapsychology. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier Books, 1963. 19-60.

Grant, Barry Keith, ed. Planks of Reason: Essays on the Horror Film. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1984.

Gross, Louis S. Redefining the American Gothic: From Wieland to Day of the Dead. Ann Arbor: UMI Research P, 1989.

Hogg, James. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. 1824. London: Cresset, 1947.

Hoppenstand, Gary, and Ray B. Browne, eds. The Gothic World of Stephen King: Landscape of Nightmares. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State U, Popular P, 1987.

Kaminsky, Stuart M. American Film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory of Popular Film. New York: Dell, 1974.

Kapsis, Robert E. “Hollywood Genres and the Production of Culture Perspective.” Current Researches in Film 5. Ed. Bruce A. Austin. Norwood: Ablex, 1991. 68-85.

King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. New York: Berkley Books, 1981.

MacAndrew, Elizabeth. The Gothic Tradition in Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1979.

Marc, David. “Beginning to Begin Again.” Television: The Critical View. Ed. Horace Newcomb. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. 323-60.

Maturin, Charles Robert. Melmoth the Wanderer. 1820. Intro. William F. Axton. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1961.

Perlmutter, Ruth. “The Cinema of the Grotesque.” Georgia Review 33:1 (1979): 168-93.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin, 1985.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolfo. 1794. Ed. Bonamy Dobree. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. The Coherence of Gothic Conventions. New York: Arno, 1980.

Spector, Robert Donald. The English Gothic: A Bibliographic Guide to Writers from Horace Walpole to Mary Shelley. Westport: Greenwood, 1984.

Summers, Montague. The Gothic Quest: A History of the Gothic Novel. London: Fortune, 1938.

Twitchell, James B. Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985.

Waller, Gregory A. “Made-for-Television Horror Films.” American Horrors. Ed. Gregory A. Waller. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. 1764. Intro. Marvin Mudrick. New York: Macmillan, 1963.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.

Wood, Robin. “Gods and Monsters.” Film Comment 14.5 (1978): 19-25.

———. “Return of the Repressed.” Film Comment 14.4 (1978): 25-32.

Nicholas Birns (essay date October 1993)

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SOURCE: Birns, Nicholas. “Telling Inside from Outside, or, Who Really Killed Laura Palmer.” Literature Film Quarterly 21, no. 4 (October 1993): 277-86.

[In the following essay, Birns asserts that the television series Twin Peaks combines postmodern elements of self-referentiality with Romantic elements of heightened emotional affect.]

The question of “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” received its determinate answer on November 10, 1990. But this does not mean that the question has been fully decided. Indeed, much of the force and interest of the mystery in the first place proceeded from the inherently undecidable fashion in which the series posed the question.

There was a primary, very dramatic ambiguity in the way the question was overtly answered. In the classic style of the romantic doppelgänger, Laura's killer, although utilizing the form of Leland Palmer, seemed to in fact have had an entirely separate identity, the psychotic “BOB.”1 The show maintained interest in what is basically a received convention by the rigor with which it held out the possibility of both a natural and supernatural solution. As the appropriately initialed Thomas Pynchon put it at the close of The Crying of Lot 49, “Either you have stumbled indeed … onto a secret richness and density of dream … or you are hallucinating it.” Twin Peaks explored the allure of the supernatural without ever privileging or mystifying it. By focusing on the indecisiveness of the uncanny rather than its possession of an occulted truth, Twin Peaks explored both levels without ever firmly adhering to either of them.

This was an aspect of the show's general achievement, which was to combine high romantic pathos with post-modern pastiche. The emotional power of the show was not ironized by the pervasive aura of satiric appropriation and self-reference. Rather, it was vouchsafed by it. We were moved all the more because the show renounced any restrictive and manipulative claims to a mimetic meaning that would have an unmediated, originative import. In fact, the central drama of Twin Peaks is inseparable from its various modes of self-reference. A key instance of this occurs in episode eight, where, in a way that allegorically tropes the series' reticence about ultimate questions, we are brought close to but are not shown the identity of the murderer. This occurs in both formal and thematic registers.

The show's ever-present formal self-awareness had previously been ramified by the Invitation to Love show, which is watched by the characters in Twin Peaks much as Twin Peaks is watched by viewers in the outside world. When Invitation to Love is first introduced in episode three, when it is watched by Shelley Johnson, we recognize its fictionality by the way in which the names of the actors are verbally spoken by a voice-over during the theme song, for example. “Selina Swift as Jade and Emerald, Evan St. Vincent as Jared Lancaster.” Before they are presented as personalities, the mimetic trope by which they are to be represented is explicitly announced. There is no possibility we will take the characters in Invitation to Love as Bradleyan autonomous personalities independent of a fictive frame. Thus, by implication, we are not to regard those in Twin Peaks in this fashion either. By its ironic stance toward the internal drama, Twin Peaks undercuts any claims to an excessive or exclusive veracity or numinosity.

Invitation to Love seems at times to frame and mirror the larger action outside of it. In episode eight, when Leo Johnson is shot by the offhandedly affectless Hank Jennings. Invitation to Love displays Montana, the young, angry, archetypical 1960s rogue male who is obviously Leo's surrogate, being shot by Chet, who is old enough to be Montana's father despite being married to one of the twins (Jade and Emerald), who are the sisters of Montana's significant other. The twins earlier have been seen as surrogates for Laura and her cousin, double, and eventual fellow victim, Madeleine. Leo is not only likened in role and character to Montana, but he has earlier been associated with Montana (the state) when he is said to be driving a truck there in part seven. Thus both Leo and the father-surrogate, as mimed by Chet and Montana, are linked romantically to Laura. The internal metaphorics of this episode point to the local mogul Ben Horne, who subsidizes and sanctions Hank's shooting of Leo.

Horne is indicated because he is at the top of the social pyramid of Twin Peaks. He is a sort of civic father figure, who could function doubly as the pillar of the community by day, and by night as the master hand behind the indefinable evil that circulates around Twin Peaks just as he is the guiding force behind the various ordinary crimes of prostitution, fraud, drug dealing, and arson attempts that characterize the town's quotidian level of maleficence. In the first year's episodes, Ben Horne is the nodal figure in the surface plot-action, since much of the action is either orchestrated by him or (as in Audrey's and Agent Cooper's investigations at One-Eyed Jack's) directed at him. A figure who is at once an established, mature adult yet also an active, erotic agent, capable of wooing a young girl, he clearly operates as the reflection for Chet in the intornal drama. Therefore, if we are to accept the apparent mandate of that drama, Horne must by this logic be the killer.

It took a long time for Horne to emerge this clearly. Our suspicion was initially directed by the narrative to Laura's immediate romantic interests, Bobby Briggs and James Hurley, and other of Laura's friends and contemporaries. But after the first few episodes, the viewer was aware that the extent of the mystery needed a figure of power and complexity to stand behind it; and that figure, given the nature of American society, would necessarily have to be a mature male. Even Leo, who is sufficiently violent and disturbed to have committed the crime, cannot provide a solution that would truly satisfy the viewer. Leo's viciousness does not automatically connote power. His abusive rage, which he regards as an unmediated expression of his own personality, is in fact underwritten by a larger social mechanism manipulated by Horne, who can choose to put him out of action on a whim. The charismatic immaturity that made Leo both fascinating and repellent also made him unable to embody the specter of a larger, more conceptual question to which the Laura Palmer solution would be a clue rather than the end in itself.

In the case of Ben Horne, the contours of this larger question are primarily political ones. As Mark Frost has stated, Horne and his brother Jerry were intended to be modeled on Jack and Bobby Kennedy (this was overtly mentioned in episode twenty-six). It is not far-fetched to suppose that the senior Horne brother represents the disillusionment with the Kennedy legend of the David Lynch who was an Eagle Scout at Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Horne embodies a superficially charismatic vitality barely concealing a borderline-criminal subversiveness which lent the surface its constitutive dynamism, a combination that seems more and more to have been characteristic of the late 35th President.

The minatory contours of Ben Horne's dark charisma are not only evident in his various connivings, but in his choice of associates in these exploits. Horne seems to have a peculiar predilection for cohorts of Northern European descent. Examples abound: his involvement with the Norwegians whose departure is prompted by Laura's murder; the carousing Icelanders who replace them; and, tacitly, his dealings with Josie Packard's all-too-precipitously dispatched mentor, the South African Thomas Eckhardt. These various intrigues are indicative of an intuitive proto-Aryan bonding, an alliance only with those sufficiently lily-white to be part of Horne's echt American coalition. (Admittedly, Horne is very ready to accept Japanese investment in the second season. However, this is after we are reasonably sure that he is not the murderer, and the Japanese investor is in fact someone far closer to home.)

Much has been written about Lynch's conservative politics and his admiration of Ronald Reagan, but there is a political critique to Twin Peaks beyond simply exposing the dark secrets beneath American middle-class life. At the party he throws for the prospective Icelandic investors in episode six, Ben Horne takes the time to mention his admiration of the Nobel-Prize winning Norwegian novelist Kurt Hamsun. Hamsun is principally known for his collaboration with the Nazis late in life; the viewer is thus invited to place Horne in Hamsun's political company.2

Horne-as-murderer, that ever-hypothetical construct, would represent the probity of American society undermined by being taken itself to an extreme. This would resemble the real-life attempt of the ultra-right vigilante groups to be found in places near the region where Twin Peaks is set to subvert the American government by an excess of so-called Americanism. The murder of Laura Palmer is here a cult sacrifice required by Horne's political regimen. To satisfy Horne's perverted kernel of Aryan essence, that which is most beautiful in America would have to be killed because it somehow marred the impossible and ultimately ugly absolutes exalted by far-right dogma. If Horne is the murderer, the secrets to be found in Twin Peaks are not supernatural, but all too natural. Horne's particular psychosis would connote not the purely mystical, but the pragmatically mystified. Thus the entire motif of schizophrenia would have been more or less eliminated. If Ben Horne's physical form had been the “host” for BOB, the evil spirit would have been less a negation of Ben's everyday persona than a violent exaggeration of a potential that was already there. Ben Horne as a criminal would represent a reification of this-worldly power, rather than an irruption of supernatural evil onto an innocent world.

By the last episode of the first season, Ben's daughter Audrey is hardly the only person who tends to suspect that he is the culprit. Too many formal devices point in this direction, one of which is the similarities of Ben's boon-companion relationship with his brother Jerry to the fraternal kinship of “Mike” and “Bob” in Cooper's dream (and as we are to find out in the second season, in “reality” as well).3 Yet the thematic direction to this episode is quite otherwise, because, in the spree of murder attempts that take place here, only one person is actually and unqualifiedly killed: the sleazy and obese Jacques Renault, who is strangled by Laura Palmer's father, Leland. In diegetic rather than strictly formal terms, Leland is by far a more “satisfying” solution than Ben Horne. Part of this satisfaction simply comes from its more shocking content. The thematic import of incestuous, schizophrenic mania appeals far more to the viewer's sense of already whetted desire for revelation of a great secret than of what is dramatically powerful. Leland's double identity filled the metaphysical plenum that we have been urged to believe is behind the murder.

This satisfaction, ironically, comes from the fact that Leland's culpability is much harder for the viewer to accept. Twin Peaks, like the Trauerspiel or German tragic drama described by Walter Benjamin, is a spectacle of mourning that does not offer its audience any pleasing consolation in the face of irremediable loss.4 As the episodes go on, the mystery thickens, and no solution is in sight; the outlets for the audience's vicarious mourning are stifled, leading them to become necessarily more intense. In this way, Leland, whose response to his loss is clearly the most agonized and tormented of Laura's mourners, becomes the surrogate for the audience, just as much as the more formally obvious surrogate roles assumed by Lucy Moran by her voice-over during commercials or, of course, by Agent Cooper, who is investigating the solution to the murder just as we are.

Viewer identification with Leland's frustrated and inameliorable mourning makes us empathize with Leland so much that he is the last person we would wish to have committed the crime, even as the external evidence mounts against him. The revelation of Leland's guilt makes us feel almost responsible for the crime as well. Leland as murderer satisfies entirely different emotional demands than Ben as murderer. Ben is the kernel of malice in our outer world; Leland is a similar kernel grafted by the show onto our own psyches. We wanted Ben to have done it; Leland's complicity is the truth that we find we “unconsciously” knew all the time, however much we were loath to face it.

The Leland solution, in its intensely personal nature and implications, operates to privatize the entire mystery, stripping it of much of its public dimension. Leland's role as Ben Horne's attorney does not seem to contribute to or fortify his violent acts, but rather serves, in a predictable way, to conceal them under the mantle of propriety. This was one of the advantages of the Leland solution to the show's continuing rationale; with the Laura Palmer murder not quite serving to reveal all the buried secrets of the community, there could be further plot developments and thus more to the series (an outcome which seems, sadly, to have alienated many of the show's initial viewers). The Leland solution was not just “appealing” in an inverse psychological way, but it also seemed more profound because less overt, because it ran against the grain of many of the show's formal suggestions and thus seemed to testify to a hidden truth which we at first could not see. But the Leland solution is not simply a product of consistent internal dynamics within Twin Peaks. That the Leland solution was convincing was also enabled by external evidence, not only that brought to bear by the detectives within the show but by larger resonances between Twin Peaks and other works of art, what we might call intertextualities.

The links between Twin Peaks and certain literary themes and traditions, such as the Gothic and the American “romance,” have been noted since the very first reviews of the show. The Gothic resemblances were obvious from the beginning, the “romance” ones emerged concomitantly with the sense we began to have of the importance of the place of Twin Peaks, the uncanniness of its natural flora and fauna and the way in which their human counterparts seemed to mingle or even conflate their identities with them (for example, the Log Lady), and the much-remarked-upon concealing of dark secrets beneath a serene pastoral tableau.

The name Agent Dale “Cooper” immediately suggests the author of the Leatherstocking novels, which portray characters determined to subdue the very wilderness from which the novels derived their appeal. Similarly, when Audrey “goes undercover” at One-Eyed Jack's in episode seven, she claims to be named Hester Prynne not just out of a sense of sophomoric transgression but to fortify the show's intertextual linkage with works in this romance tradition such as The Scarlet Letter (which one doubts Blackie read in high school if she was educated on the Canadian side of the border). In the second year of Twin Peaks, more specific intertexual suggestions abound. These suggestions themselves comment on an interesting aspect of the way in which Twin Peaks was initially televised in 1990.

By having the first eight episodes televised in the late spring, ending the first season without the murderer being revealed, and filling the summer with anticipation and suspense on the part of viewers of the show, not only was a great drama set up about the identity of the murderer, but the second season inevitably became a separate phenomenon from the first. The first eight shows were closely scrutinized, subjected to much concerted interpretation. This scrutiny was so great that any attempt to unravel their enigma inevitably took on the aura of supplementary commentary rather than primary text. This is obvious in the case of the many wild speculations on the dream sequence thought up by obsessed amateurs. What is more paradoxical is the succeeding episodes of the show themselves as also partaking of this kind of supplementary speculation. The long (in television terms) temporal separation between the posing of the enigma and its putative solution made the second season not completely privileged as a holder of the solution of the first. Lynch and Frost commented on their initial creation in the second season as much, if necessarily more authoritatively, as would anyone else.

As commentary as well as continuation, the interpolation of American romance motifs in the second season is striking. The key staging point in this interpolation occurs in episode thirteen. Here, Judge Sternwood, on determining bail for Leland in the murder of Jacques Renault, refers to the prominence of the Palmer family in the region since the arrival of Leland's grandfather, Joshua Palmer. Leland's grandfather had previously been in the minds of the audience because of Leland's revelation that as a boy he had seen BOB on the vacant lot next to his grandfather's house at Pearl Lake. The name “Joshua” connotes the Biblical conqueror of Canaan, the pioneer determined to establish himself in a new land.5 This patriarchal theme, of a frontier founder-figure giving rise to a family that eventually is cursed by misfortune and insanity, is familiar in American literature from novels such as Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables and Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! The predecessor novel it most immediately brings to mind, though, is Charles Brockden Brown's 1798 novel Wieland, said to be a “genuine precursor” of more famous novels such as The Scarlet Letter.6 There are several intriguing similarities between Wieland and Twin Peaks.7Wieland is the story of an immigrant family from Germany which establishes a country residence in a bucolic area outside Philadelphia. The patriarch of the family is sitting in his summerhouse one day when he suddenly decomposes, apparently as a result of spontaneous combustion. As his daughter Clara, who tells the story, says, “It had the brightness of flame, but was without its upward motion.”8 This recalls the frequent imagery of flame in Twin Peaks, most strikingly in BOB's wildly scrawled slogan, “Fire—walk with me.”

The spontaneous combustion also connotes symbolically the idea of the stable patriarch becoming somehow unhinged, succumbing to disordering tendencies within himself. The resonances become stronger when we come to the second generation of Wielands: where the son, Theodore Wieland, hears voices in his mind commanding him to murder his wife and daughters, voices whose mandate he dutifully obeys. At this point, the resemblances become forceful enough that it does not take a linguistic (anti-) genius of the order of Jacques Derrida to hear the phonic similarity between “Wieland” and “Leland,” who is also taken over by an evil presence and commanded to perform vile deeds. The correspondence between the two works is not one-to-one. Wieland's daughters, far from being the captivating figure that Laura is even after her death, are basically faceless ciphers.

On the other hand, Wieland's sister Clara, who represents the principles of civilization and sanity in the book, has no obvious counterpart in Twin Peaks, Donna Hayward would perhaps be the closest equivalent, but she is much too young and is kept at too peripheral a remove from the core of the mystery. Rather than being simply a transposed Wieland,Twin Peaks merely takes up appropriate Wielandian themes and images and moves them three thousand miles west to Washington State in a kind of translation psychopathii. A prime example of this is the summerhouse in which Wieland senior spontaneously combusts, which bears a notable architectural similarity to the gazebo in Easter Park where Laura for a brief time is “resurrected.” This example shows that the appropriation is in no way direct or mechanical. It is far more a matter of the overlap of images and semiotic fragments that makes it cognitively enriching to read the later text by light of the earlier.

For instance, there is much discussion in Wieland of extreme Protestant or proto-Protestant sects, groups like the Camisards or the Albigensians, whose radical enthusiasm may have generated Wieland's susceptibility to inner voices. The contemporary equivalents of these are prominent in Twin Peaks in the many references to Tibetan religion and other Oriental or pseudo-Oriental vehicles of the occult. The territorial setting is another bond shared by the two works: not only its prominence in both, but its nature, a wilderness superficially tamed by civilization but still eligible as the metaphorical vehicle for human violence and disorder. Material suggestions fortify this kinship, such as the eventual disclosure that Agent Cooper was raised in the Philadelphia area, where Wieland is set, and thus has been in both locales.9 On a more conceptual level, the settings of the two works have a similar sense of the relatively recent dispossession of the Native American population; the haunting residues left by their memory, albeit dialectically “displaced” into the psyches of the current occupants of European descent. Of course, there are many differences as well. The major one being that the voices which prompt Wieland to murder his family do not come only from the delusions of his own mind, but from the uncanny and malevolent ability of the visitor Carwin to throw his own voice. Carwin thus projects into Wieland's mind commands which were not there at all.

The methods of BOB/Leland in Twin Peaks differ totally. BOB's internal pathology is palliated by no such auxiliary, external agent. Yet “agent” is a key word here, which shows that even disjunctions between intertexts can show new ways of reading them, because there is no one in the book whom Carwin, if his personality was suitably lightened, would resemble as much as Agent Cooper. They are both primarily ratiocinative minds who have to operate within the realm of the intuitive to fully display, in a Poe-esque way, their intellectual brilliance. We need to remember that Cooper has an unusual access into Leland's/BOB's mind, as well as the revelation in episode seventeen that in the dream he shared with Laura the aged version of Cooper was, in Laura's view, possibly BOB's former ally “Mike.”10 In this light, elements of collaboration between detective and criminal enter the picture subtending the more prominent and ultimately more important themes of opposition; and Carwin and Cooper have more in common than their names both having six letters and beginning with “C.” These sorts of parallels get gratuitous after a point, and should not be relentlessly executed. Twin Peaks, if not organically greater than the sum of its parts or sources, is considerably more elusive than any one of them.

But it is not gratuitous at all to insist on an intertextual aspect to the Leland solution. The inseparability of this solution from questions of authorship is indicated by the on-screen presence of David Lynch himself shortly before the murder was solved, as if he were providing a kind of “signature.”11 Lynch's authorial presence reminds us that Twin Peaks is a fiction, and thus can resonate off other fictions. The Wieland solution is not the only possible intertextual one, but it is the strongest candidate, just as the “Leland” solution, six shows into the second season, was not authoritatively established but nonetheless seemed inevitable.12 Thus the solution itself goes outside the strictly defined perimeters of the show and solicits readings of the other texts in order to achieve its most ample ramifications. Twin Peaks is implicated in an order of literary and cultural history not entirely its own. This allusiveness cannot be simply dismissed as a post-modern sympathy with the simulacrum or a desire to collapse meaning into received images. Many negative comments that the series received after the initial burst of enthusiasm among the intelligentsia had been made on this basis, that Twin Peaks is nothing but a frivolous encyclopedia of popular-culture cliché's. The rigorous intertextual focus demanded by the Leland Palmer solution, the way it demanded knowledge not just of films but of books, echoed the series' over claim to profundity as well as to parody, to resonance as well as enigma.

Orthodox left-wing criticisms of Twin Peaks tended to see the series' attention to the powers as well as the dangers of imagination, along with its inability to take itself too seriously, as both evading social necessities and, in addition, refraining from making the proper obeisance to the oppositional pieties of high culture, which these perspectives tend to see as threatened in themselves by the medium of television. This is not to preclude serious political discussion and critique of Twin Peaks; clearly, its depictions of women, Native Americans, and other minorities (Canadians, for instance) share a stereotypical bent with its many television counterparts, and are rightly liable to criticism. Far from delegitimizing the series as an aesthetic object, though, these critiques served a worthy purpose by preventing an enthusiastic over-identification with the show on the part of the academic critic, a “slumming” celebration of popular culture which would be the equally bad obverse of a left-Tory rejection of it.

It would be a mistake to say that because the “solution” to the mystery of Twin Peaks is not a simple and transparent one, that there is no solution at all, and to thus simply blanket the series under a veil of post-modern indeterminacy. Nonetheless, to privilege the Wieland solution would be to neglect to notice the way in which even this solution is problematized. First of all, it is only available through external evidence, through looking at sources outside the show. To make the key to the mystery a quantity external to the object in which the mystery is lodged is to sever almost automatically the bonds of organic plausibility which make a solution convincing. The series does not simply continue “Romance tradition” itself, which, after all, has been sharply questioned by revisionary Americanist scholarship.13

Secondly, even the more internally available “Leland solution” did not immediately leap into the viewer's mind from the evidence at hand, but was assisted by outside commentary. The release of Jennifer Lynch's Secret Diary of Laura Palmer shortly before the beginning of the second season in September 1990 was not just a promotional epiphenomenon of the series, but a crucial interpretive intervention upon it. (This intervention was not necessarily Jennifer Lynch's; most likely the co-creators themselves determined the thrust of the diary. But as far as the reading/viewing public was concerned, the diary was the primary avatar of this knowledge.) The diary strongly implied that Leland was the murderer, far more than anything in the show had previously led us to believe; no other viable suspects emerge from a close reading of the diary.

Thus the diary already pre-structured our willingness to accept Leland as the murderer. The intertextuality between the diary and the show operates in much the same way as that between Wieland and Twin Peaks, where our reading of the written text indicates our interpretive framing of the televised one. Notice, though, that not only are the traditional roles of the verbal and the visual reversed (in that the visual or televisual is not an illustration of the verbal, but is the illustration of it) but that in both cases the verbal item is little more than an implement. The diary is not “the truth” about Twin Peaks, but a promotional tool designed to tie in with the denouement of the Laura Palmer mystery. Similarly, whatever Wieland is in itself, in relation to Twin Peaks it is not “the truth,” a confirming origin, an enriching source. Whether the intertextuality was intended by the show's creators or is only accidental, the book functions only to help us read the television show, not to discipline it within some sort of American literary continuum. It is after all hardly the only other literary or cinematic source alluded to, overtly or covertly, in the show. It is merely one piece in the puzzle, not the whole puzzle at all.

Similarly, Lynch and Frost do not try to stage fetishistic darkness that would constrain the definition of American expression by merely showing Laura's murder as the inevitable harvest of the latent dark side of American life. As Richard Beymer, the actor who played Ben Horne, has said of Lynch, “Even if David takes you to a really dark place, he will lead you back to the light.”14Twin Peaks thus emerges as something very different from the mainstream of the American romance tradition, defined by its critical creator (and this is a phenomenon of criticism as much as it is of literature) Richard Chase, as one of “radical forms of alienation, contradiction, and disorder.”15 Lynch (and Frost, and the others who work with them) appears uninterested in alienation and disorder, which if overly emphasized tend to suggest that whatever predicaments are thematized in these negative states will be healed by an accommodating social order. Lynch's work suggests more a formal organization of material which achieves interest by using its forms interrogatively rather than in a closed, autotelic fashion. The aura of darkness and evil that emanates from Twin Peaks is one whose terror achieves its fear and its thrill not through a palpable darkness, but through an impalpable uncertainty.

Twin Peaks does not simply register some anterior evil lurking in the American landscape or psyche, but constructs this evil (and its antithesis) through a fruitful imbalance of its formal operations. Far from simply fitting into a pre-established “romance” tradition, Twin Peaks challenges the basic assumption of that tradition, that pessimism is somehow more real or true than optimism. The show performs this challenge by making the evil catalytic and maneuverable rather than dogmatic and manipulative, by making the sinister hooting of “BOB” as much of a received image as the reassuring presences of people like Dr. Hayward. Twin Peaks is not just a new bottle for the old wine of American psychological catastrophe, but occupies a previously unfilled place in the history of American cultural production.

This place is that of a “vestigial” (as Major Briggs might say) hint of a phase of American literary history that never was, of an American romanticism that would be neither transcendental in the manner of Emerson, nature-oriented in the manner of Thoreau, or moralistic and symbolic in the manner of Hawthorne. Twin Peaks has limned a combination of nature, spirit, fear, and tropological density more characteristic of British High Romantics such as Keats and Shelley than anyone in the American tradition.

Yet, just as these appreciative effusions have their limit, so does any attempt to found an interpretive apparatus for Twin Peaks simply on the revelations consequent to the discovery of the murderer's identity. It must be remembered that the show's formal self-awareness, as manifested by Invitation to Love, does not indicate Leland as the murderer. (The equivalent of Leland's role in the internal drama, in fact, would be the character of Jared Lancaster, the forlorn father of the twin girls, who seems desolated by the aggression of the more virile males involved with his daughters, much as Leland does when he pretends to believe Ben Horne and/or Jacques Renault are the killers.) This is indicated by the fact that, when Twin Peaks begins to overtly suggest the nature of the solution from the beginning of the second year, Invitation to Love vanishes after appearing faithfully in the last six episodes of the first year.

This disappearance is partially due to the fact that the solution within the internal drama has been already played out, and it is at variance with the one highlighted by the show. This has the benefit of not succumbing to the banal and fruitless idea of the relationship between the internal and external dramas being one between macrocosm and microcosm, with Twin Peaks naively reflecting the closely wrought truths lodged in Invitation to Love. For all the surface post-modernity of this notion, adhering to it does not produce a self-fragmenting mise en abyme but a too-orderly Platonic system of resemblance. The disjunction between Invitation to Love and Twin Peaks ultimately overshadows the more meretricious conjunctions.

Yet in opting for the more narrationally satisfying and emotionally ambitious solution (which also has the “advantage” of making the show's obsession with violence against women as metaphorical as possible), Twin Peaks does not forget the formal level either. This is shown in episode fifteen. Here, Ben Horne, the formal culprit, is arrested as a result of a deductive evidentiary process on Cooper's part, even as the narrative reveals Leland to be the “actual” culprit, an actuality revealed to Cooper only on an intuitional or “magical” level. To privilege narration over form is perhaps an inevitable move on the part of both show and viewer. But it is not an unproblematic one. In fact, the division between form and narration is not in itself unproblematic, because the figure formally designated to be the murderer incarnates the more thematically congenial political theme.

Conversely, in order to fully realize the resonance of the narrational solution one has to go, as we have seen, outside the “story” itself. The question of “Who Killed Laura Palmer” has not only two aspects to one answer, as the Leland-BOB answer would propose. Rather, it has two different answers entirely. Each of these is in turn riven by its own division into mutually irreconcilable aspects. With regard to the goings-on in Twin Peaks, bridging the gap between form and narrative may be as difficult a dilemma as telling the inside from the outside of a doughnut.


  1. The doppelgänger motif is, of course, stated explicitly by the revenant dwarf in Agent Cooper's climactic and personality-transforming visit to the “Black Lodge” in episode thirty.

  2. Given that Twin Peaks is as much a pastiche in terms of composition as it is in terms of content, and is not merely the product of a towering individual genius, the Hamsun allusion would possess maximum impact if it appeared in an episode written by someone close to the ultimate intentions of the show. This is fortunately true, as episode six was written by Mark Frost, the show's co-creator. The Hamsun reference seems to definitely fit into a political pattern deliberately established for Horne and augmented by his other associations.

  3. This is not to say that there are no formal clues to Leland as the culprit. The chief of these, of course, would be the fact that he is the last person pictured (in episode three) before the onset of Cooper's crucial dream.

  4. See Benjamin.

  5. Lynch, Frost and Wurman has many references to familial patriarchs, among them those of the Martell, Renault, and Packard families. Strangely enough, though, Joshua Palmer, who actually is mentioned in the show, is not cited. The Palmer family is said to be Lutheran in religious orientation (100) which is presumably what the ancestral Wielands, coming from North Germany, would have been as well.

  6. See Chase 29.

  7. Wieland is not Twin Peaks' only American precursor. Several similarities to Poe's tale “The Mystery of Marie Roget” are sure to receive notice, such as Marie's and Laura's bodies being both discovered by a body of water, and Marie, like Laura, working in a perfumery (“perfume counter”). The show's main debt to Poe though, lies in the personality of Cooper.

  8. See Brown 37.

  9. Cooper's territorial origins are revealed in Frost, especially 3-4.

  10. I have to see Beelzebub (BOB) and his angelic archenemy Michael in this pair, which would introduce a Biblical Miltonic layer of allusion that perhaps should not be taken as seriously as some of the other levels.

  11. Leland/BOB exclaiming in episode fifteen that he is going to send the brutalized Maddy back to “Missoula, Montana” is another fingering of author as culprit, since Missoula is Lynch's birthplace.

  12. Among the many intertextualities that inhabit Twin Peaks, one of the most amusing is the connection with the Babylonian story of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest known works of literature in the history of the world. Gilgamesh and his sidekick Enkidu (who in some ways is “Truman” to his “Cooper”) were exploring through the forests and mountains on their way to their ultimate confrontation with the bounds of life and death when they “came to the mountains whose name is Mashu / approached the twin peaks / which guard each day the coming and going of Shamash, the vault of heaven: / below, their feet touch the underworld. / Scorpion-people guard the gate / whose terror is awesome and whose glance is death.” Had BOB been sighted in Mesopotamia four millennia ago? See Gilgamesh 198.

  13. Some of the many examples of this scholarship are Carton, Budick, and Levine. The thrust of the criticism of the original romance paradigm has to do with its repression of the varied local referents to be found in American life, then and now, and its tendency to take itself too seriously in its postulating of the Romance as the invariable form of American imagination. Lynch and Frost are no doubt susceptible to some of these criticisms, but their self-referential tactics often operate to break down any sense of excessive pretensions to either imaginative or cultural truths.

  14. See Knight.

  15. Chase 2.

Works Cited

Benjamin. Walter. The Origins of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: Verso, 1977.

Brown. Charles Brockden. Wieland. 1798. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1963. 37.

Budick, Emily Miller. Fiction and the Historical Consciousness: The American Romance. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Carton. Evan. The Rhetoric of American Romance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985.

Chase. Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. Garden City: Doubleday, 1953.

Frost. Scott. The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper. New York: Pocket Books, 1991. Especially 3-4.

Gilgamesh. Trans. John Gardner, and John Maier. New York: Knopf. 1984. 198.

Knight, Martha. Interview with Richard Beymer. Twin Peaks Gazette Feb. 1991.

Levine. Robert S. Conspiracy and Romance: Studies in Brockden Brown, Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville. Cambridge. NY: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Lynch, David, and Mark Frost and Richard Saul Wurman. Twin Peaks: Access Guide to the Town. New York: Pocket Books, 1991.

Kenneth C. Kaleta (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11944

SOURCE: Kaleta, Kenneth C. “Early Lynch—Eraserhead.” In David Lynch, pp. 1-30. New York: Twayne, 1993.

[In the following essay, Kaleta discusses the themes, style, and main metaphors of Lynch's early short films that culminate with his first feature-length film Eraserhead.]

Suppose yourself in a large cinema, sitting at first in the back row, and gradually moving up … until your nose is almost pressed against the screen. Gradually the stars' faces dissolve into dancing grain; tiny details assume grotesque proportions … it becomes clear that the illusion itself is reality.

—Salman Rushdie

David Keith Lynch seems to have been the all-American Boy. He was born in Missoula, Montana, 20 January 1946. Lynch remembers a rural childhood: “My father was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture in Washington. We were in the woods all the time. I'd sorta had enough of the woods by the time I left, but still, lumber and lumberjacks, all this kinda thing, that's America to me.”1 Lynch grew up in the Pacific Northwest, in small towns in Montana, Idaho, and Washington and lived for a time in North Carolina. The first of three children, he was a Boy Scout and an usher at John F. Kennedy's presidential inauguration.

During his high-school years “he ran for class treasurer; his slogan was Save with Dave. He lost.”2 Lynch attended Hammond High School in Alexandria, Virginia. “‘As a teenager, I was really trying to have fun 24 hours a day,’ says Lynch. ‘I didn't start thinking until I was 20 or 21. I was doing regular goofball stuff.’ According to the director Jack Fisk, who went to high school with him, Lynch and his girlfriend were voted ‘cutest couple’ and are pictured in the yearbook aboard a bicycle built for two” (Woodward, 30).

Lynch shares the maturation process of the U.S. baby boomers' first wave. A child of the affluent, promising fifties, he grew up in the turbulent sixties. He was a member of a youth culture that sought a world of mind-expanding experimentation and uninhibited exuberance; he witnessed the national idealism assassinated with JFK in Dallas. “In the official biography prepared for Wild at Heart, Mr. Lynch divulges only two pieces of information: that he is a native of Missoula, Mont., and that he is an Eagle Scout. ‘Those two things are not a joke; they are there because they are the most important,’ he said earnestly, explaining factors that have formed his values and his outlook in life.”3

From his childhood years, Lynch recalls having had fantasies and dark thoughts. Neither stereotypically all-American nor always resulting in artistic issue, Lynch's adolescent brooding is, nonetheless, identifiable to most of his audience. Heightened by his fascination with the forbidden, a sensitivity to hypocrisy tinged with melancholy pervades his films. “Lynch brings this canny naivete, this promiscuous curiosity, to every aspect of his life and work.”4

Lynch attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., from 1963 to 1964. He studied at the Boston Museum School in that city from 1964 to 1965, where he was attracted to works by artists ranging from Francis Bacon to James Hopper. He was drawn to the expressionists, who seek an objective representation of inner feelings. Enthusiastically, the student artist abandoned the confines of the dusty classroom and “set off for Europe to study with the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka” (Woodward, 30).

Kokoschka (1869-1980) generated his style in central Europe at the beginning of the century. The artist was influenced by Hodler, Klimt, Munch, and his own graphic works, particularly illustrations from his story “The Dreaming Boys.” Kokoschka further related his painting to architecture. The canvas of The Tempest, for example, is more than seven feet long, dominating the largest rooms in museums; his composition enhances the relationship. His influence is felt in early silent German mood films, including Wiene's expressionistic masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919). Obviously, the larger-than-life movie screen is an idealized province for making bold, expressionistic statements.

Dismissed from art school because of his works' exoticism, Kokoschka joined the avant-garde. Kokoschka developed a multifaceted career; his interests spread far beyond painting to include writing, lecturing, and some dabbling as an art theorist. Kokoschka's larger-than-life history epitomizes that of the classic “artist.” His flamboyant convictions about art often made his personal life a drama. Incidents in his biography exemplify the confrontation of the artist with conventional authority. Like this multimedia master before him, Lynch is a dynamic personality, a recognizable figure in art. “Like Kokoschka—who out of his profound obsession with the woman who rejected him, made a clumsy life-size replica of her, complete with genitals—Lynch has cultivated an unusual fondness for dolls. In art school Lynch made a pinball machine in the figure of a woman—lights flashed and the figure screamed if the ball went in its mouth.”5

Lynch's first trip to Europe in 1965 was made with boyhood friend Jack Fisk. His experience as an expatriate fell apart after only 15 days. Lynch returned to the U.S. to continue his study of painting, and in January 1966, entered the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia (PAFA). The young student painter studied, acquired urban experiences, and experimented in filmmaking. “After two short years there, he started making short films, ‘but only because I wanted my paintings to move,’ he said.”6

Lynch's monumental nightmare world on screen cell-by-cell suggests moving studies for an idealized cinematic canvas. A painterly point of view is fundamental to Lynch's filmmaking. Like Theodore Géricault's studies of corpses for his massive painting The Raft of the Medusa, Lynch experiments with mice and other animals to investigate tones and textures. This connection to training in the plastic arts is also a conduit in the work of other avant-garde filmmakers of our time. The evolving painter's perspective in contemporary cinema makes the influence of the plastic arts formative for Lynch and for an emerging film aesthetic.

In his art study, Lynch read theorists and “discovered a book called The Art Spirit,” written by American turn-of-the-century artist and teacher Robert Henri.”7 Like Lynch, Henri (1865-1929) moved from rural America (Ohio) to an urban, cultural center (New York City). A distinctively American artist, Henri was an urban realist painter and a leader of the Ash Can School. He legitimized everyday city life as a subject of painting. Henri, like Lynch, studied at PAFA in Philadelphia. Henri too bridges changing centuries, crossing over with America from the agricultural nineteenth into the industrial twentieth century.

Henri's aesthetics recognize the beautiful and the ugly as Art's province. The artist too is seen to have a double perspective. “A work of art in itself is a gesture and it may be warm or cold, inviting or repellent.”8 Henri teaches that the dual intention of the artist is to evoke pleasure or abhorrence of his work. Both responses to art are desirable, as long as response is achieved.

Consequently, an artist must turn his eye toward everything and find his subject in all things. He must recognize that his world encompasses everything everywhere. “Nature is sometimes seen through very obscure evidences,” he wrote, suggesting that the truth is often found by unconventional methods and in unusual places as well as in the most obvious (Henri, 186). The mundane and the extraordinary are presented without moralizing. Henri's theory seems to have claimed a niche in Lynch's developing artistic philosophy. Lynch encompasses vomiting, maiming, and violence in his world of giants, children, and cockroaches.

“If you look past the model at the background,” Henri wrote more than once, “it responds to your appeal and comes forward. It is no longer a background” (Henri, 58). Lynch seems to have adopted this theory as well. Eraserhead is overtly a film in which background is indiscernible from foreground; subconscious and fantasy are indistinguishable, nightmare ebbs into reality. Lynch is a filmmaker who sees each shot as a composition, not as a step in a narrative process. He refuses to define; he creates pattern. And throughout all of Lynch's works, his details, nuances, complicated minor characters, dense texture, elliptical structure, and fluidity of thoughts and actions illustrate the evolution of the philosophy Lynch determined in art school.

Lynch's passionate style is the constant in a plethora of seemingly contradictory interests he pursues from the most esoteric to the most shamelessly commercial. It is impossible to miss Lynch's connection as artist and celebrity to Henri's exhortation: “Do whatever you do intensely” (Henri, 262). David Lynch becomes increasingly difficult to separate from his art. Lynch is the pop icon, “The Wizard of Weird” of a Time cover story (Corliss 1990, 84-86). From filmmaking to furniture design, David Lynch is an artist continuing to explore. Lynch today is his own creation, in part the incarnation of the artistic philosophy of Robert Henri.

While an art student Lynch also assimilated urban life in the old East Coast city of Philadelphia. This city has been a target of abuse in American films ever since it was the butt of W. C. Fields's comic epitaph in Vanity Fair: “Here Lies W. C. Fields. I Would Rather Be in Philadelphia.”9 Later, in the golden decade of the 1930s, Ginger Rogers and Una Merkel play musical-comedy actresses who loathe trying out 42nd Street's “Pretty Lady” at the Arch Street Theater in Philadelphia and change the postal abbreviation of the Keystone State to a state of mind: “Philadelphia, PA, and on Sunday it's PU.” But perhaps the city's greatest motion-picture notoriety to date—second only to the Rocky films—is its effect on the young David Lynch. Lynch's traumatic experiences in Philadelphia are ironically credited by him with igniting his artistic philosophy.

Lynch lived in Philadelphia from 1966 through 1970, collecting “dead things including mice, weeds, bugs, and even a moldy sandwich. They were arranged on a window sill.”10 While studying at PAFA and beginning his painting career, “he lived for much of that time in an industrial district at 13th and Wood Streets, across from the old city morgue.”11 Violence and danger lurked around every corner. Renting catercorner from Philadelphia's city morgue exposed Lynch to urban brutality. He knew firsthand the fear of decaying urban order. Yet he studied art daily—true and beautiful representations of truth and beauty. His perception became dual: he saw both the surface and its rotten underbelly. Philadelphia sparks the artist's epiphany.

Lynch's center-city resume also includes residing near a murder scene and being home on several occasions during burglaries. “Lynch told writer Gary Indiana in 1978, ‘… There was racial tension and just … violence and fear. I said to someone, all that separated me from the outside world was this brick wall, and they started laughing, like, “What more do you want?” you know? But that brick wall was like paper.’”12 David Lynch acknowledges Philadelphia as the impetus that fascinated and frightened him into his philosophy. Almost fifteen years later, Lynch appraised his response to the city: “I've said many, many, many unkind things about Philadelphia, and I meant every one” (Gary Thompson, 33).

This connection to Philadelphia suggests Lynch's artistic development outside of the studio classroom. Assimilating new places is part of the youthful experience, but Philadelphia's impact on Lynch is quite dramatic. The seediness of the city repels and ignites a fuse: Philadelphia coerces Lynch into an artistic catharsis. “In an interview with the Inquirer in September 1986, Lynch called Philadelphia ‘the sickest, most corrupt, decaying city filled with fear I ever set foot in in my life. I saw horrible things, horrible, horrible things while I lived there.’ He said, ‘It was a strange life. For the first time I really lived beneath the surface. I was never aware of anything normal. I was only aware of this world of fear and art. I lived inside this cocoon of fear.’ He has said, ‘I never had an original idea until I came to Philadelphia.’”13

Lynch began making films while in art school in Philadelphia, where his talent was immediately recognized. Already given honorable mention in the faculty prize selection the first year for his sculpture, David Lynch was awarded the second annual Dr. William S. Biddle Cadwalader Memorial Prize from PAFA in May 1967. The prize awarded the sum of $250, according to its description in the school catalogue, and the award-winning work was exhibited. “The prize was divided this year, and the two winners were David Lynch, who did an experimental motion picture combined with sculpture; and Nikolai Sibiriakoff, who did a painting. Honorable mentions were awarded to Bruce Samuelson and Nicolas Feher.”14

Memory of the reaction to the film project's exhibition still surfaces more than twenty years later in Philadelphia. Stylistically and thematically forerunner of Eraserhead and later works of Lynch, his first film also attests to Lynch's ability to shock and cause audience sensation. “His PAFA file shows a rectangular screen with three gape-mouthed face fragments staring out while a fuller bust, jaw pressed to palm, leers disapprovingly. Onto the three-dimensional screen, Lynch projected a short film that, as then fellow student Bruce Samuelson recalls, was wound around long arms extended on each side of his secondhand 8mm camera, so the film literally ran in a loop on the squeaking, rattling contraption. Samuelson remembers images of burning canvases and, prominently, vomiting heads; the crowd loved it, he says. Lynch, never one to describe his work literally, characterizes Six Men Getting Sick as ‘57 minutes of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit.’”15

The animated color painting runs only one minute. It was produced at a cost of $200. As a continuous loop, it ran over and over again. Lynch described it: “It started off with six heads and then arms and stomachs grew in. The heads caught fire and then all of the heads got violently sick and then it started all over again” (Robertson, 1). Lynch's sculpture screen for the project suggests his later style in both plastic and cinematic art. The use of a projector and the inclusion of the operating machine as part of the sculpture introduces an industrial element present in many subsequent Lynch works. The project also initiates Lynch's interest in vomiting, which will be graphically and frequently represented in his paintings as well as in his full-length films from Eraserhead to Wild at Heart.

Most important, Six Men Getting Sick involves the young student painter in making film. The first film minute also triggers several significant events of Lynch's next years. H. Barton Wasserman and Rodger La Pelle, painter and center-city gallery owner, hire Lynch after seeing his prize-winning exhibition at PAFA. After leaving the academy, David Lynch works at the La Pelle Printers in Philadelphia's Germantown. He learns printing at La Pelle's while working on his second film, a project commissioned by H. Barton Wasserman. Wasserman asks Lynch to make another moving painting like Six Men Getting Sick for his home. The film Lynch creates is something quite different.

The Alphabet, four times the length of Lynch's previous film, is a 16-millimeter color film without a conventional storyline. It includes animation. The animation is infectious. Celluloid kinesis, the film generates and assimilates letters of the alphabet. The cells are boldly colored. Movement is unexpected and fascinating.

The drawings are accompanied by the Alphabet Song, changing from the rote children's jingle to the operatic to the ominous. The letters appear as characters, designs, and decorations, even animated into shapes suggesting moving symbols. These include life-cycle symbols: phallic symbols, tubes, and a birth-canal of the letter A giving life to a litter of a's, letters in full bloom, and letters submerged back into the screen. A woman (Peggy Lynch), in white kabuki-like makeup and large, dark sunglasses is cut live into the animation. The live action of the film includes shots of an exaggerated rendering of sultry lips, a prominent iron bed, and assorted body parts. “Remember you are dealing with the human form” is enunciated by the woman in a tight close-up, breaking into the repetition of the alphabet. Tension in the film is heightened by the dual structure of black-and-white photography with color animation. As animated figures decay, wither, and die, the black-and-white reality of the stylized dreamer is increasingly disturbed by the animation's darkening tone. Finally, live action becomes as disturbing. Red dots from the animation become blood spots splattering onto the sheets of the writhing woman in the bed. The pelting from the animation results in her vomiting blood.

By the time The Alphabet is completed, Lynch has moved from a rental near 24th and Aspen streets to his own center-city home at Ringold and Poplar streets, near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, with first wife, Peggy Lynch (nee Lentz) and their infant daughter. He is a working man, no longer an art student. Moreover, with this second film David Lynch has begun to get his film footing. Lynch's first film project was a motion-picture sculpture. The Alphabet is already a film. His cinematic work earns Lynch an American Film Institute grant to continue filmmaking.

Printing small animals, including owls, with Christine McGinnis, Lynch continues his work for La Pelle, sometimes “diverting himself watching the TV soap opera, Another World. He expresses an environmentally sound interest—with heavy commercial overtones—in painting “the inside of candy-wrappers like leaves so that when discarded, they would still be visually acceptable.”16 His time is also spent creating his own black paintings with names like Pollution Man. But his interest also continues in filmmaking, and so he next writes, animates, and films The Grandmother, about a disturbed boy nurturing a grandmother he plants from a seed bag.

This film starred Lynch's coworker, La Pelle's mother-in-law, Dorothy McGinnis. First financed by a production grant from the American Film Institute, the film would be another 16-millimeter color, combination live action-animation. Its intense nine-week shoot paired Lynch for the first time with Alan Splet for sound work. As Lynch experienced money delays with his film, it became a more complicated and demanding project.

In the film a young boy escapes his abusive parental environment by planting a loving grandmother of his own. The black-and-white live action has the look of early silent films: grainy shots, stylized makeup, exaggerated acting techniques, erratic pacing, diversity of lighting, and unassuming costumes. This similarity in look reinforces the feel in Lynch's early experimental films of Luis Buñuel's surrealistic film work with Salvador Dali.

The film already has the look, and more particularly the sound, of Lynch's later works. For example, a growing yellow spot on the boy's sheets mirrors the animated yellow orb of the sun and flows into a yellow shot of the boy's idealized grandmother. Lynch spins the webs of his visual fabric. The boy's elongated, pathetic screams of both ecstasy and misery, the thunderous downpour, and the parents' exaggerated enunciation and ominous clipped dialogue aurally reinforce the film's disquieting mood.

The misery of the boy's colorless existence is pathetic in dark, static shots. The seed bag, boldly labeled “seeds,” stands out in the murky setting of the boy's home, as do the vivid colors of the boy's animated dreams. The grandmother dies choking in her own chirping sounds, fluttering madly around the room like a captured bird smashing itself against the confines of its cage. Generated and undone by a birdsong heard throughout the film, the grandmother is only a momentary flight of fancy in the little boy's painful existence. As the figures and colors of the animation become darker and more portentous, black-and-white shots look softer, grayer, and more muted. Therefore, the look and sound of the film technically mirror what they represent, and techniques describe and overlap as do the incidents of the story they relate.

For example, the grandmother's appearance and disappearance mesh. The young boy's pressed tuxedo suggests a tiny maestro, a magician, and an apprentice undertaker. His masturbatory spill on the bed is simultaneously his shame and the fertilization of his illusion of salvation. This is a dual world of sex and death, love and pain, reality and wish, that Lynch will continue to explore. His exploration is of particular importance in his next and first full-length film, Eraserhead.

The combination of cartoon animation and live-action fantasy, the not-so-happy resolution and its setting in the local Knights of Pithius cemetery, ties the film to Lynch's previous work. So too does the film's feeling of bittersweet. The Grandmother blends romantic strokes, heightened by bizarre fantasies, with realistic tones anchored in the inescapable cruelty of naturalism. Thus the film hints at Lynch's emerging dual perspective not only in narrative content, but also in the cinematic context of merging techniques: black and white, color, animation, images, and sounds.

The Grandmother illustrates a geometric progression from The Alphabet in technical sophistication of filming and animation. The whimsical mood of the animation and its assimilation into the film are excellent. Lynch's early admiration of comic genius Jacques Tati is evident in his lyric, comic touch in the film. Running over thirty minutes, nine times the length of its predecessor, Lynch's film is a further evolution of his technique. Visually, the film is cohesive and provocative. The soundtrack, which cost Lynch and Alan Splet weeks of work, is first rate. Distinctive to Lynch films, sight and sound images not only carry but also create the film. Aesthetically, Lynch's sense of uninhibited fun blends with a hard-hitting depiction of the darker side.

Only three years after his art-school film project, Lynch's film work already includes moving sculpture, animation, animation/live action mix, color and black-and-white photography, and running times ranging from a minute to over half an hour. And by his third film, student experimentation has evolved into the confident work of a filmmaker. “In 1970, a 35-minute live-action-animated feature called The Grandmother about a lonely, abused boy whose deceased grandmother sprouts back to life from a seed planted in his bed—earned Lynch a place at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies in LA. He spent the next five years making Eraserhead.17The Grandmother's awards, international showings, and a Boston TV airing moved Lynch from the City of Brotherly Love to Hollywood.

He spent a great deal of his first year in LA working on an unproduced screenplay, “Gardenback.” Lynch had difficulty padding the film to great-enough length. He also studied for a time with Czech filmmaker Frank Daniel. He even worked delivering the Wall Street Journal for extra income.

David Lynch spent most of the next five years realizing his first full-length film, Eraserhead. Lynch began shooting Eraserhead on 29 May 1972. The black-and-white, live-action film runs 100 minutes according to its original credits, but as later edited by Lynch (now running 89 minutes) is still more than twice the length of its predecessor, The Grandmother. In fact, Eraserhead is more than double the length of all of Lynch's previous films run together.

Several of Lynch's inner circle were involved in the project. Jack Fisk, Lynch's longtime friend, who later married actress Sissy Spacek, plays the man in the planet who handles the cosmic throttle. Jack (John) Nance, at one time Lynch's brother-in-law, portrays Henry Spencer on the screen in the first of many performances for Lynch. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes first works on a Lynch film crew with cinematography, while Alan Splet continues his sound work with Lynch. These men will have continuing screen credits in Lynch's film productions. Eraserhead premiered 19 March 1977 at Filmex in LA, and opened at the Cinema Village in New York that fall, after Lynch had spent months in New York to get a good 35-millimeter print.

There is something defiant and excellent about a first work. It hints at a glimpse of the precious metal veined under its gritty surface. It implies entry into a new canon of works. It insinuates an emerging style. Grandest perhaps is its very existence. Such a work is one of potential—of raw energy. At first the audience abandons itself to the film without expectation; in retrospect, they forgive it in the context of later works.

Eraserhead is such a motion picture. Viewing it, the audience enters irrevocably into Lynch's world. Viewing the film again, they recognize the world's convolutions. Next they appreciate that world's conventions. In repeated viewings, they become complacent and familiar with the images. Familiarity diminishes, even tarnishes, some of the charge of the film; Eraserhead's power is in its initial impact. But familiarity also prompts an awareness of the strength of the film's techniques.

This film is the work of an American visionary. It positioned Lynch in the first echelon of avant-garde filmmakers. The screenplay introduces several themes that haunt his scenarios. The film is permeated by the galvanic flashes of humor that will become emblematic of Lynch's style. Henry's character is forerunner of Lynch's distinctive, dark figures. In the first of Lynch's two full-length films shot in black and white, Lynch and Frederick Elmes hint boldly at their later cinematography style.

Eraserhead introduces the images that will continue to appear and evolve in Lynch's visual universe. It also reveals the sounds that will define his auditory world. His idiosyncratic pacing is here. Most significant, this first film both separates Lynch's efforts as writer and director from motion-picture history and surely guarantees him a place in it. Here, in the grainy, brute use of the camera, the force of the Hollywood B movie unfolds: cheap sets, cardboard acting, deadpan delivery of clipped dialogue, slashes of black comedy, a lack of glamour caused by the stark reality of the budget—and, of course, a suggestion that this independent film is poised to take flight unencumbered by the commercial conventions of bigger budgets.

What the frames of the film lose in subsequent viewings of Eraserhead may be balanced by a knowledge of the context of Lynch's next ten years of work. Eraserhead introduces many of the same qualities that the later, larger Lynch films create. It presents Lynch's themes and techniques overtly. Lynch's growing distance from a film, as his films become necessarily more collaborative, lessens his self-consciousness. More sophisticated production values make Lynch's ties to future films less personal than his ties to Eraserhead. In later films Lynch delegates some of the hands-on intensity that makes Eraserhead so personal a project. But Lynch's mastery of multiple themes and contexts evolves. Lynch has more production know-how and better funding. Allusions in both form and content increase ambiguity in later works, making them less self-indulgent. Artistically and technically, if later films lose intensity, Lynch's growing mastery of filmmaking enhances their ability to suggest.

A first for Lynch, the universe explored in Eraserhead is certainly not new to motion pictures. Georges Méliès had already taken the camera out of the mirror world of physical replication and into the fantastic in the 1890s, the motion picture's first decade, before the turn to the twentieth century. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari expanded film's entry into neurotic delusions and madness with its artificial sets, dream frame, exaggerated lighting, fades and shadows, and expressionistic style. Wiene visually compelled the viewer into the inner world of feelings and ambiguous symbols and meanings. Luis Buñuel's first silent film, Un Chien Andalou (1926), best described as symbolically surreal, completely released the camera from the constraints of picturing slice-of-life reality. In collaboration with Salvador Dali, Buñuel opened the audience's eyes to nether reality as dreamily as the moon and as brutally as the eye sliced in the opening shots.

Lynch films express no dedication to Méliès's or Wiene's work. He makes no claim to Buñuel as an influence—in fact, he denies the bond. “I never saw, I still haven't seen a lot of Buñuel. I saw An Andalusian Dog a lot later. I don't even know that much about surrealism—I guess it's just my take on what's floating by” (Breskin, 62). But these filmmakers are the first explorers of this dark world in cinema's earliest history. Their masterpieces define, as exceptions often will, the “classic” film tradition. They were the cinematic forerunners of Lynch.

A later forerunner of Lynch's aesthetics was director Billy Wilder. Several of Wilder's directorial characteristics come to mind, including his sly sense of humor. Sunset Boulevard (1950) smoothed the way for Lynch's work. Lynch knows his movie history, and his Twin Peaks casting of himself as Gordon Cole, a Wilder character name, suggests the tie. A more obvious connection is the decay and wreckage of the Wilder film, as seen in the rooms of Desmond's mausoleum/mansion, her flamboyant costumes and exaggerated makeup, the props, like her stately car with telephone and her mechanical, almost medical-looking cigarette holder. Throughout the film, in settings, props, and costumes, Wilder too crosses between reality and illusion; he blurs distinctions between the characters and the role of “the movies” in the characters' real lives: Wilder casts real directors, silent-comedy stars, and a silent-film beauty to play his butlers and card players and faded legends. Wilder overlaps comedy and the macabre. He beautifully shoots the ugliness, as in the death of Norma's pet: the lying in state, and a midnight, murky 1930s movie sequence of the chimp's funeral—or the New Year's party: the ancient orchestra, the fabulous catering, and gloriously romantic dancing of Joe in formal attire, and Norma in the deserted caverns of her resplendent, cryptlike ballroom.

The film is one of excess in story and technique. The extreme close-ups of murderess Desmond, sensuously tingling before the newsreel cameras, mix her hideousness and her delight at returning to the spotlight. Lynch will use this same mixture of reality and illusion throughout his career. Norma Desmond is pathetic, ridiculous, and repulsive as she descends step by step right into the lens in the conclusion of Wilder's film. Henry Spencer's overlighted extreme close-up concludes Lynch's Eraserhead.Eraserhead evokes Wilder's severe black-and-white composition. Moreover, Sunset Boulevard is “hard boiled” in its feel and tone in a way Lynch duplicates in both black-and-white and color cinematography. Most important, Wilder, like Lynch, creates a film point of view. The lurid, surreal shot that opens Sunset Boulevard, of Joe Ginnis floating dead above the camera, is oddly narrated by the corpse. This breaks a literary convention as surely as it creates a cinematic point of view.

Along with John Waters—whose “work was so outrageous,” says David Lynch, who credits Waters with creating a new bizarre genre, “that I think he carved out a lot of space for other film makers to go into”18—Lynch becomes one of a group of filmmakers with a strong, personal style. Lynch's placement in this group may not be intentional, but it is certainly undeniable. Today, however, these unconventional scenarist/directors do not operate in a splinter genre. Sometimes trained in painting, or working in fiction, poetry, or music, or involved commercially in advertising and video, filmmakers like Waters, Lynch, Peter Greenaway, Tim Burton, Peter Medak, Stephen Frears, and Philip Ridley have become a powerful force in contemporary cinema.

These filmmakers define a direction of film in our times. They are not merely a tangent to it. Their influences, like the influences upon them, are multi-media, multi-genre, and multi-art form. Their films must be reckoned with, not as exceptions to a Hollywood system, but as quintessential works of cinematic art. These new filmmakers generate aesthetics for film's second century. In Eraserhead, Lynch's contribution to the emerging renaissance of modern cinema begins its own evolution.

It is far easier in this film than in any other Lynch motion picture to see the hand of the man himself. During the production of the film, Lynch was a young father, and reading his apprehension into the film is irresistible. Eraserhead was a film that took years of his life and more than all of his money. Living for some time in the Doheny Mansion—AFI headquarters and the LA location on which he filmed Eraserhead—Lynch was at this time neither supported nor burdened by the reputation he was soon to achieve.

Lynch not only had to be—he was free to be—more unguardedly himself. First efforts are often more obviously attached to their creators' biographies. This is true in painting, music, and literature. Eraserhead reflects its truth in film as well. Lynch's involvement in every aspect of the film is underscored in the credits, including lists of friends and family to whom Lynch is personally grateful.

Of course, more sophisticated filmmaking expands the need for collaboration. Lynch began to select other artists and technicians with whom to work. As film is a collaborative art and an industry, one man's stamp is inevitably and increasingly filtered through the extended filmmaking process.

However, if Lynch's stamp in more collaborative films is filtered, it never becomes cloudy. David Lynch is multi-talented and multi-involved in each of his films as director and writer, sometimes in additional roles as producer, composer, technician, and actor. Nonetheless, prior to Eraserhead, Lynch's three films were short, almost single-handed outlets of his artistic effort. Obviously, the early film must more overtly evidence Lynch than can his later, larger, more commercial works. The years spent on Eraserhead and Lynch's daily, hands-on, almost exclusive involvement with it remain unique in his filmmaking experience. In that way, the film is another kind of first for Lynch: Eraserhead simultaneously begins Lynch's full-length feature work and culminates his experimental, independent work.

Lynch's personal rendering, however, should not be confused with a rendering of person. Personal ties do affect Eraserhead. But no matter how biographically instigated or personally wrought, film is not merely biographical record—film is artistic creation. Analysis and criticism, like appreciation of film, should seek not only to identify source facts but to evaluate their function as artistic elements of film. Therefore, analysis of Eraserhead lies not in isolating replication of biography but rather in criticizing the creation as art. Critics already recognize the power of Lynch's artistic perspective in this small-budgeted first film. “What's amazing is how Lynch transmuted such painful autobiographical material into such pure traumatic poetry, utterly free of self-pity” (Ansen, April 1990, 71).

It is of particular significance to note Lynch's objective rather than subjective use of his material. He shows without editorializing, prioritizing, or moralizing. It is his mastery of the presentation—not the evaluation—of a shot that underlies the richness of his images. The aesthetic philosophy to organize the images—sounds, incidents, characters, plot, and words—not into a scripted virtual reality, but into a cohesive world of film, is fundamental to Lynch's artistic process. Even in Eraserhead, his most personal film, he achieves distance from memory; Lynch creates a film vision of artistic intensity.

“David Lynch presents Eraserhead” reads the lettering across the screen as a prone man with an orb attached to his head stares over the cavernous whistling of the soundtrack. So the cult classic opens. “Lynch has created with Eraserhead an insane comedy adventure of the subconscious mind in a hostile environment. The film's nightmare logic is a total experience of densely-layered morbid images and sound that took Lynch five years to finish with his meager funds … Filmed in black and white. A man's head. Dreaming with eyes open? A globe. Pimpled and pockmarked. Vibrating sound track. Camera glides over globe. The man's face again, a silent scream. He wears a suit, shirt, tie. Another man, in tatters, flesh decaying, watching through a cobwebby window. A roaring sound. Deep blacks and whites, ominous. A snakelike thing, a huge spermatozoa, or an umbilical cord, issues from the dreamer's mouth. The other man, the watcher at the window, pulls one of several levers. Like a cosmic switchman. The snake-like thing goes hurtling off to splash into water. Giving birth to Eraserhead?”19

The film's opening shots immediately fill the screen with a menagerie of Freudian symbols—female and male, disgusting and disquieting, horrific and hilarious. No patina from a second, more literal level of narrative burnishes the picture of this symbolic world. Personal symbols are almost too obviously trotted before the camera to perform their tricks. Thus the seams in the fashioning of Lynch's subconscious nightmare world are exposed.

Eraserhead is a trek into the subconscious. A detailed summary of plot actions neither replicates nor illuminates the film. Images from the subconscious are not merely tied to the plot; in Eraserhead, images from the subconscious are the plot. The images fall into distinct if related areas, and an investigation into the film's image network reveals a visual cohesion.

The film illustrates Henry's state of mind, and Lynch uses personal as well as universal symbols. Eraserhead gains its force from presenting images that somehow affect the viewers. Appropriately, they are affected by the sometimes unknown and often unexplained images on a subconscious level. They need not understand or analyze the images.

How does Lynch get the audience to respond to his nightmare vision? What are the types of cinematic images Lynch uses to give Eraserhead its impact? Lynch's images are categorized in a criticism of the film. “It's effect stems from three sources: questions without answers being given (as so often in life), unreasonable horror, and images of extraordinary impact.”20 These three sources are a key to the appreciation of the film.

Eraserhead asks a number of questions; reducing Eraserhead to its ultimate question is self-defeating. The film's basic question translates into phrases like “Why was I born?” or “Why am I living?” This is at best a rhetorical question. Attempts to answer it resound in the teachings of Jesus Christ in the New Testament and the lyrics of Jerome Kern in musical comedy, from William Shakespeare's soliloquies in iambic pentameter to the scrawling of a desperate suicide note as accounted in a local newspaper.

Henry is trying to put his life into order, trying to gain control of fantasy and reality, trying to master his own destiny—Henry questions existence. Human experience suggests both that his pursuit will be a lifelong query and that in human context, because death is inevitable, the question is a vain one. Thus, within all human experience, Eraserhead asks the unanswerable question.

Therefore, images that visualize the question are often left unresolved and unfinished. The question “Who's in charge?” translates visually into the abrupt, unexplained appearance of the man at the controls in the film's opening shots. He is just there. But it is more important—and more maddening—that the image in the film fades just as easily as it has come, without exposition, without development, without context. Lynch asks the visual question, then dismisses it without rationale and without an answer. The question thus finds its true cinematic equivalent; a rhetorical question becomes an unfinished image. And the image is just as disquieting.

The audience wants to make the man a symbol. They know he is a symbol; they've seen Renoir, they've read Cahiers du cinéma—in French. But the image is not developed on the screen to permit the viewers—whatever personal experiences they contribute—to resolve with any satisfaction what the symbol means in the film. They only see, as does Henry, what the symbol is. The audience strains, determined to make sense of it.

In this way, Lynch's audience must actively involve itself in Henry's process of wondering, frantically wondering. They are forced by Lynch to join in Henry's futile pursuit. As with images in poetry, Lynch's visual and auditory images and their interaction do not merely allow, they demand that his audience take an active role. Lynch presents Eraserhead with a visual, aural, and narrative context. The audience is sent a message in none of these contexts, but rather must image all of them through personal experience. Lynch remains, like the movie camera, the presenter: he shows, he sounds, he focuses, he looks and eavesdrops—but Lynch does not construct the message. He leaves that part of the film experience—interpretation—to the audience. Thus his viewer/listener, Lynch's audience, is a cinematic respondent.

In Eraserhead, images drawn from the subconscious assault the audience into becoming actively involved. But the film cushions nothing with a narrative resolve. Like Henry, the viewers seek explanations which they may already know do not exist. Eraserhead selects and arranges questions, but takes no steps toward answering them, or even toward understanding them. Eraserhead illustrates human confusion. The film does not answer. The film asks. The film shows. The film refuses to explain. Eraserhead is.

The audience is buried by Lynch's avalanche of repugnant images. A blonde Kewpie with cheeks swollen like hamster pouches dances on an astral plane, an assembly line fashions human heads into erasers, a radiator opens into a nether world. Images and incidents challenge the film's depiction of any obvious place in a virtual reality.

“A place, in this non-geographical sense, is a created thing, an ethnic domain made visible, tangible, sensible. As such it is, of course, an illusion. Like any other plastic symbol, it is primarily an illusion of self-contained, self-sufficient, perceptual space. But the principle of organization is its own: for it is organized as a functional realm made visible—the center of a virtual world, the ‘ethnic domain’ and itself a geographical semblance.”21 If, as Langer sees it, sculpture makes actual three-dimensional material into virtual kinetic volume, and architecture articulates virtual place by treating actual place, virtual reality is the world created by the motion picture, the artistic universe that exists on film.

Lynch forgoes constructing a world that merely reflects slice-of-life reality to be viewed in the time elapsed between the beginning and end of a film. His virtual reality is intense. It is film-conscious, aware of conventions and history. It presents and varies visual, aural, and narrative contexts and their relationship. It demands the audience's response, a contribution of personal experiences, to enter the virtual reality on the screen. Lynch immerses the audience in his film world, a cinematically generated virtual reality not unlike the computer-generated artificial worlds of scientific experimentation in its powerful creation of a new dimension.22 Without need of the hat or gloves of the computer-generated experience, Eraserhead forces the audience to become part of its world, to enter its virtual reality.

The world is frightening: Eraserhead exists in images from the subconscious. This is unfamiliar terrain. But even when later films make audiences more accepting of Lynch innovations, Eraserhead's world remains an unsettling reality. Without answering who, why, or where, a blonde dances away over the radiator while squashing spermlike creatures under her feet. The image neither answers nor continues an interest in the question of the previous frame; the shot shrieks a new one. The image annihilates the search for answers to any previous question. And frame by frame Eraserhead asks questions, assaults with images, then jumps to the next question, next uncomfortable shot, next disquieting image.

Unanswered questions might find resolution in plot actions. Henry finds out that Mary gives premature birth, ostensibly to a child. Henry and Mary attempt to rear what may very well be his illegitimate and deformed offspring. Mary walks out and Henry has a liaison with the sultry woman across the hall. Henry destroys the baby after unwrapping its swaddling clothes and then loses his head. After being run through a pencil-making assembly line, the recapitated Henry finds solace in the arms of a singing and dancing blonde on the other side of his radiator.

There is no conventional storyline. Like Henry, the audience is zapped into the world without a clue as to how they got there. They go through radiators awash in song, steam, and sperm. They see dinners bleed and some kind of infant creature's bloody obliteration by its peculiar father. And the audience is sure they are traveling, if flabbergasted by the distance.

This feeling, of course, reaffirms the existence of artistic organization in the surreal representation of the film's world. Random and dreamlike as the sequence of these images feel, erratic as the plot actions seem, Lynch has determined order and sequence. Somehow the subconscious world of the film is cohesive. But how?

The organization of Eraserhead's subconscious world revolves around Lynch's musings on conception and decay, through imagery depicting the beginning and end of life. The film's realm extends both before life in some cosmic control room and after death to the galaxy behind Henry's radiator. Although Eraserhead's images hint at the spiritual, they are mired in a sexual quagmire of inseparable pleasure and pain. Intercourse and death are welded, as are conception and guilt. Thus the unanswered question is imaged both physically and spiritually. The film asks: Why?

Contradictions run parallel and crash into each other, drowning the viewer in the maelstrom of Henry's subconscious. The power to compel further ingress into the film is generated image-to-image, not by an artificial superimposition of narrative order. Here is Eraserhead's force, coherence, and cohesion. “The inexorable, skewed logic of ‘Eraserhead,’ [Blue Velvet and the new Wild at Heart also] seems to be derived from conscious access to what are properly unconscious states of mind. The imagery alone bespeaks the sheer ingenuity of dream reality, in which several psychological imperatives are satisfied in single gestures.”23

The subconscious world is where Lynch's film operates. And Eraserhead suggests the powerful pairing of the filmmaker's subject and techniques. What the film asks and how it asks are synonymous. The audience is responding not to questions on film but to film questions in Eraserhead. The filmmaker employs the viewers' collective point of view as the focus for his camera. “We aren't swept along by Lynch's camera; we're caught by his images, our memory of his works is likely to be a series of mysterious, iconographic compositions—as if we had been looking at an exhibition of paintings rather than a film.”24

Interviewer David Breskin quotes Lynch to Lynch to confirm meanings in Lynch's films. “One of the confusions seems to be over whether art has to mean anything. Let me quote you: ‘I don't know why people expect art to make sense when they accept the fact that life doesn't make sense.’ First off, I don't think people accept the fact that life doesn't make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable. It seems like religion and myth were invented against that, trying to make some sense out of it. Don't you think that's where art comes from, too?”

Lynch responds to his own question, “Maybe some of it does. But for me, I'm of the Western Union school. If you want to send a message, go to Western Union. It's even a problem with responsibility. You have to be free to think up things. They come along, these ideas, and they hook themselves together, and the unifying thing is the euphoria they give you or the repulsion they give you—and you throw those ideas away. You have to just trust yourself.”

“So you don't resist the idea that your films mean something?” Breskin continues. “Not a bit,” clarifies Lynch. “But they mean different things to different people. Some mean more or less the same things to a large number of people. It's okay. Just as long as there's not one message, spoon-fed. That's what films by committee end up being, and it's a real bummer to me … Life is very, very complicated, and so films should be allowed to be, too” (Breskin, 63).

Pigeonholing art is a futile endeavor. And pigeonholing Lynch looks like the stuff lifetime pursuits are made of. But an awareness, or perhaps an understanding, of elements composing a film is a useful analytical tool. Lynch's condemning a single, correct reading of any film as tremendously restrictive to the myriad interpretations of art is well taken. More important, information about the artist never explains the artist's intentions. Even if, and this is a big if, the artist knows some single message that he intends in a work, the art work still will and must be addressed as “it speaks for itself.” Again, members of the audience play a role in creating the film's meaning for themselves.

Seeing not a film, but Film as cultural evidence is a possible investigation; however interesting, film in and as a context of its time is not the subject here. Works of art, creators, and audiences of an era are related. This is the case with film noir, a genre of interest in looking at Lynch's films. The definite techniques, attitudes, and themes of the genre reflect culture, just as collected interpretations, criticisms, and responses to them illuminate the culture. “Meaning in film is perhaps best left to observers, and much of what we learn about our collective contemporary consciousness comes from an analysis of groups of films rather than individual masterworks. This is the coral theory of mythopoeia. The mythic reef builds up slowly but inexorably through the accretion of thousands of mythogenic bits and mini-mythic pieces.”25 Film both reflects and influences twentieth-century culture.

More to the point, and without attempting to categorize films with any sweeping generalization, as Lynch's films are “very complicated” and “allowed to be, too,” investigation and careful analysis of his aesthetics in a film develop the ability of viewers to approach each film as informed critics. The capability of realizing more of the possibilities of the art work is thereby increased. The viewers can appreciate more than a single line carrying some ordained celluloid message; they better understand the faceted universe of the filmmaker. Active investigation shouldn't dull the work of art by filing it under some preordained formula, but rather intensify an awareness of the changing dynamics of the film-and-audience continuum.

Eraserhead is a film pervaded by a feeling of unreasonable horror. The unanswered questions that are the film and the look and tone of the shots create the feeling of foreboding and apprehension. The setting is not only ugly, it is ominous. The lighting is dark and erratic; the viewers are suspicious and anxious about what may be shown. Sounds too are grating and surprising—coming and going with their own sense of rhythm—intruding, dominating, even overpowering scenes.

Throughout the film the audience never knows what to expect next. There is no sense of surety in narrative conventions. The technical setup of the scenes is suspenseful. Hideous sights occur frequently and abruptly. The frames' composition and tone are disquieting. The audience is in constant fear of what atrocity is around the corner.

Lynch's experiments with animals to better understand textures and patterns are seen here. Eraserhead has a feel of the laboratory and clinical experimentation. More than in any other Lynch film, his interest in biology surfaces here, as fetal deformity is graphically added to a visual mix already rife with allusions to phallic symbols and ejaculation, female genitalia and menstruation.

Eraserhead poses a quantitative imagery question. And it is characteristically a question of excess. Who would have thought that a world could have so many bodily fluids in it? Even when Henry crosses from his sexually suggestive world of machinery, pipelines, tubing, and churning appliances into the astral plane of his flamenco placenta-dancer, the spermatozoa abound. No wonder the audience fears the long, dark walk down the theater aisle. No wonder they dread that sticky feeling in the theater under their feet.

In a sequence of bright daylight—practically overlighted daylight—Lynch's gnawing film style begins to take root. Henry, his coiffure suggesting a state of constant arousal or surprise, stands before gigantic warehouse doors. The color, or lack of color, and the composition of the shot remind the audience, as is so often the case in Lynch, of Lynch's training as a painter. Here Lynch achieves a spellbinding, monochromatic mise-en-scène in his shot. The shot's visual charge telegraphs frustration, futility, loneliness, and paranoia.

Among Lynch's network of images of unfounded terror are factory shots, massive machinery, and industrial mechanisms. Eraserhead's first shot of the factory doors boldly reinforces the audience's awareness of the lack of control over modern inventions, progress run wild, twentieth-century paranoia. Unable to program contemporary machinery, the audience doesn't even pretend to comprehend how it operates. The audience who realized only yesterday it could not survive without the personal computer is in panic today without a car phone and is doomed to dread a tomorrow without a home fax machine. In the industrial age the inclusion of the factory landscape and the film's cruel, blatant photography of machines plays on the audience's constant irritation and shame that they live as the captives of the very world they have created: computers go down, paralyzing offices; vast phone-line systems fail, holding whole cities captive; machines mute rows of clerks unable to count change without digital instructions.

It is the terrifying universe of Kafka. In fact Lynch proclaims an interest in reading/adapting Kafka (Campbell, 34). The audience sees the large, blank doors to unknown industrial caverns and mechanical fears. The shot triggers the nightmare of being lost in the state's Motor Vehicles Department. The audience remembers drop-and-add snafus in labyrinthine college-registration lines. The machinery evokes numbers: warranty numbers, insurance-policy numbers, health-plan identification numbers, phone numbers with area codes, expanded zip codes, touch-tone numbers demanded by electronic voices in order to talk endlessly to other computer voices about account numbers. Henry is living life on the edge of the mechanical abyss that the audience fears every time they can't remember their Social Security number or produce two photo IDs on demand before facing number upon number of standard duplicate forms.

Film played in this arena of dehumanizing technology as early as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926), with its industrial-production design. Henry's world has evolved from Bauhaus to urban decay. Cinematically, opening shots of Eraserhead's doors decry, as did opening shots of Fritz Lang's doors, the cannibalistic mouths of futuristic industry swallowing workers into the machinery. The viewers see themselves, like Henry, being devoured by industry, somehow dragged through senseless situations without the power to extricate themselves.

Strong industrial images continue to be used in Eraserhead and throughout Lynch's film work. These mechanically conscious shots not only evoke the film's mood, but also gain in context as the audience remembers previous film associations. They not only suggest aversion to the sterile modern wasteland depicted in this film—in which the audience also lives—but they also awaken the collective imaging of the wasteland depicted by other motion pictures. Shots evoke shots, ironically supported by the movies, the technological art form of our electronic century.

The factory images are dense and frequent. Beyond the plants and industrial parks that are the setting of Henry's mechanical world is a factory assembly line that turns heads into pencils. The production stages move along briskly, unencumbered and at a modern industrial clip. The machines here buzz with a tone no more ominous than that of any other recycling process. Modern technology finds a use for everything and finds everything for which it has a use. Detached heads gain pragmatic value as pencils. Here too the film intensifies the viewers' underlying anxiety about what more-horrific violence may be the product of the next-depicted factory.

On the everyday side of the radiator, Lynch envisions a mechanical world. There are recognizable elements, like the record player, lamp, and other household appliances in Henry's apartment, to add to the gruesome and the whimsical outside his door. The machinery is also sometimes used as a visual and auditory element of the film. For example, Lynch uses the record player to rationalize music in the film. The soundtrack is more often noise, sound effects, or silence than either music or dialogue. So the record player first serves a technical use. It is how Henry and the audience hear the soundtrack music.

The record player, an antiquated machine, also is an image as an appliance: it evokes the past. The image works ironically. Music, almost classical at times, ranges to the strange pop ditty of Henry's radiator tune. Music is Henry's escape from industrial routine. And music carries Henry from the squalor of his everyday room. Real beauty, like real chickens, is a thing of the past. But Henry's music is provided by a machine: music is not real, but is actually technological reproduction.

A torcher lamp stands sentinel in Henry's room, almost a spindly character in its distinctive styling. The room becomes an abstraction of frightening shapes and shadows in its irregular lighting. It lights the blank wall in some shots, while it casts the rest of the room in darkness. The nomenclature of Henry's room has no consistency or familiarity. The room suddenly looks threatening and bizarre in the crackling lamp light, then institutional and barren. Thus neither Henry nor the audience feels any security in the setting. The shorting out of the lamp redefines reality with a speed and random brutality that extinguishes any sense of comfortable familiarity in the scenes. The audience constantly fears that something is going to happen with the light, with the lighting, perhaps even with the torcher lamp itself. The apprehension is about mechanics: Henry's lamp and Lynch's technology.

The viewer is also apprehensive attempting to decipher the meaning of the transports or lack of transports from Henry's room. For example, the camera passes without penalty through the bars of Henry's iron headboard and back again. The bed's iron bars are more translucent than the room's window. The dirty windowpanes look outside, but straight into brick walls. Cabinet doors and drawers open into all sorts of other worlds and unknown chambers. There is no bottom or end when expected; there is infinite extension of other areas.

Confusion is relentlessly evoked in the banal, both outside and inside Henry's room. Henry drowns in his own bed during a promiscuous sexual encounter with the woman across the hall. Henry makes guilty examination of microscopic collectibles secreted in a cabinet in his room. Shots offer other realities. The mundane heating appliance is also illusion's gate, and there is an entire world, the other component of his dual reality, somewhere over Henry's radiator. He uses the radiator's metal bars, like the music, as a door from the industrial landscape to an astral one. The vista is the itinerary of a trip through the radiator.

The blonde sings and stamps on spermlike, umbilical-cord creatures. She dances to a song promising other realities, suggesting the solace of a world beyond the cycle of sex-conception-decay. The singing woman finally welcomes Henry to her breast. Her abrupt appearances are disquieting. Another unsolicited cut to her stage show heightens the feeling of unrest engendered in the viewers. Thus every reality in the film, both in what it depicts and in how it depicts, compels the audience's anxiety.

Another pivotal element of Eraserhead is a woven network of provocative images. Henry's dinner at his prospective in-laws' provides an example of the dynamics of Lynch's extraordinary imagery throughout the film. The depressing neighborhood, the house's decor, cooking preparations, and the oppressive conversation of the horrific visit are themselves quite disquieting. Perhaps the most celebrated, repellent, and disturbing image in Eraserhead is the chicken dinner. Throughout the sequence Lynch creates tone and tempo, setting up the fowl on the plate as a grotesque climax to the crescendo of jarring atonal notes.

Summoned by a repeated telephone message, Henry seeks an address in an industrial neighborhood filled with ominous noises. His quest takes him beyond the warehouse through desolate fields. He rounds urban crevices, passing streets tucked under shadows of bridges and factories. Windows look onto trash and trash containers, parking lots, and brick walls. The viewer feels as claustrophobic as Henry looks on his stealthy walk. Henry walks into smoke and steam until he is spotted by Mary through the filthy windowpanes of the Xs' back door. He enters the house.

Mary's father, Mr. X, is responsible for the pipes running through his home—for the whole neighborhood, he suggests—and the viewer fears for the whole pipe-infested world. The house is magnificently lighted. Prominent lamps, looking like industrial refuse, illuminate blank walls in eerie and disconcerting shots of ugly, dark rooms suddenly sparked into ominous brightness. And the X household resembles the shots; nearly comatose, mute, and moaning in static small talk, they abruptly launch into shouting tirades.

The mother makes a mockery of parental concern in her stilted conversation. She ferrets out that Henry is gainfully employed, if currently “on vacation” from his printing job at La Pelle's. The inquisition prompts Mary's seizure, but Mrs. X continues her interrogation of Henry. Mary becomes hysterical when her mother insinuates that Henry is having sexual relations with her daughter. Mrs. X calms Mary's spasm with some motherly hair brushing, transporting Mary from her anxiety and guilt at being exposed to the security of her innocent childhood.

Mary's father, Bill, is at his most convivial when in his zombic trance. His more verbose if equally lethargic description of tonight's dinner fare is harder to endure. So too is his lackluster shop talk about his damaged knees and his melodramatic demonstration of his crippled arm earlier in the evening. His first workman's soliloquy, nostalgically recalling his moment of glory when he piped the neighborhood, is only silenced by Mrs. X's taking him to the kitchen. His tale of physical maiming is upstaged by a chicken's hemorrhage.

Bill takes an active interest in describing the dinner menu. He even assists in its cooking, by basting the chickens in one of the two ovens in the kitchen. The rationale he uses to get Henry to carve the meat includes a circular verbal history of the affliction, cure, and decay of his arm, with emphatic arm slapping to demonstrate. Bill continues to cat, even as the other characters become embroiled in accusation and suspicion. He is oblivious to the sexual intrigue around him and is concerned only about the dinner getting cold.

Mrs. X's fit brings her near to poultry orgasm as she watches the chicken bleeding on Henry's plate. She calms herself by leaving the dinner table with Mary. She returns to accuse Henry of seducing her daughter, going after him and making him the victim of her sexual aggression. Her earlier fit at the dinner table is introductory to her smothering Henry with a burst of kisses during their altercation. Her hunting Henry as prey and attempting to mount him after dinner make the pathetic bird he carved a more offensive foreshadowing.

Granny (that is Granny, isn't it?) doesn't join the dinner party. She sits either in the final stages of very quiet or in the first stages of rather dead in the kitchen. She sits with the other appliances near the two stoves side by side by side. A cigarette is dangled from her mouth, and her arms are guided to mix the salad. She is not the most inviting prep chef. Her presence is felt at the table, but she is not allowed to join the meal.

Bill labels dinner a faux chicken, a synthetic just like the real thing in every way. Except it is minute, a pygmy bird, crunching pathetically under what appears to be a gigantic carving blade. Because Mr. X is injured, Henry is asked to stand in as host and do the carving for Mary's father. Tentatively, Henry obliges.

Once on his plate the diminutive bird begins to spread its legs. Then it bleeds—a stream of blood first, then deep, rich, turgid dollops of blood—finally expelling its bloody issue. It evokes the pose of sexual intercourse, the blood of the menstrual cycle interrupted by Henry's copulation, the resultant conception of Henry's passion, as it lies spread-legged before Henry, chicken legs flailing. Among other things, one wonders, like guilty Lady Macbeth fresh from Duncan's bedchamber, that so frail a bird could have so much blood in it. And guilt and eroticism are coupled here as in Henry's mind.

Mrs. X gasps as Henry carves with the sharp blade Mr. X has given him, and the surreal experience drives Henry from the table to terror. Bad as those nights with a lover's family can be, this one goes more than usually haywire. But what is confusing in plot is clear in meaning. And the incidents of the night are understandable as Henry's subconscious.

Regardless of the actions, images mesh into a texture. The violent upheavals and eclectic sights of the scene have rhythm and composition. The cuckoo's spasms are timed to shatter the silence of the room on the hour, every hour, and to be still—like clockwork. The flashes of the lamps dim and fade, erratic, but in measured sequence. Loud machine sounds erupt and quiet again to silence. Actions intrude and pass into the still, lifeless frame. As does the passing passion of sex; the several seconds of Henry's ejaculation now tie him to Mary and the Xs for a lifetime. The audience is given a cohesive film scene balanced in optical and aural elements, if not a developed narrative episode.

This is the strength of Eraserhead. As in later Lynch films, not everything in his first film works. Lynch's techniques are more hard sell than in later films. Eraserhead has a greater tendency to the glib, and it certainly lacks subtlety. The whole movie world has changed, so Eraserhead no longer seems as revolutionary and shocking. But the extent of the film's reach is impressive. Eraserhead succeeds in freeing itself of a story line. It often soars as film. And whenever Eraserhead falters as a story, it manages to keep struggling as a film. If it doesn't always work, it never sells out. It already has the cinematic veracity of Lynch's evolving film style. And Eraserhead is one of the reasons the whole movie world has changed: it is the quintessential midnight movie.

Even if on a subconscious level, everything the viewer sees has a visual context on the movie screen. Departing from so many of film's conventions, Lynch is amazingly fluid in his style. Lynch exhibits a painter's talent to create compelling images shot by shot. The screenplay indicates a writer's mastery of how films operate. The director's unique ability to evoke audience input into understanding his films is already present. This bravura makes Lynch a powerful filmmaker.

Eraserhead is cinema that includes illusion as a part of its reality. Entering subconscious reality is a tenet of Eraserhead. The meshing of subconscious and conscious images as elements of film galvanizes Lynch's style. He flaunts the ambiguity of reality and illusion, blurring the lines between them throughout his film. Lynch in the movies, like the youthful King Arthur in legend, frees the double-edged blade from cons of captivity in granite and boldly thrusts forward his new film style.

The images in Eraserhead are important because Lynch expands the filmmaker's options of figurative representation. His film extends the world explored by Luis Buñuel and film surrealists. Lynch's style is personal; it isn't yet evolved or defined. The film's visual and auditory contexts aren't refined, because Lynch still operates solely in the subconscious. Thus the images operate as representations or as symbols. The images do not yet function as metaphors. The further duality develops when Lynch runs several realities simultaneously, as in his later films. Later films retain Eraserhead's mental terrain, but add another film reality to Lynch's film texture.

Nonetheless, in this film Lynch makes clear that texture—the tactile, sensual feel—of filmmaking will be significant to his style. “Lynch thinks like a painter, not like a writer: he never talks about themes and messages; what interests him are textures, moods, contrasts, silences” (Ansen, April 1990, 71). Eraserhead is a film that defines the fabric of Lynch's film world. Lynch's presentation of this world will be developed, but the world will remain intact.

As he promises in Eraserhead, Lynch will not adapt his aesthetic to viewer expectations. He will develop his style so that viewer demands and expectations will change. Lynch's first film reveals the world the filmmaker intends to pursue. “I like things that go into hidden, mysterious places, places I want to explore that are very disturbing,” the filmmaker says. “In that disturbing thing, there is sometimes tremendous poetry and truth” (Jerome, 82).

He will change modes to suit the aesthetic. Lynch satiates, sardonically even titillates, the growing audience that appreciates the complexity of his films as an art form. Moreover, his later works challenge a growing film audience to develop that appreciation. Thus his films achieve a commercial release without pandering to conventional mainstream expectations. Lynch's vision of the Eraserhead world remains clear.

Even after Lynch becomes a recognizable film director, he attempts to sustain Eraserhead's independent spirit. Everything about the trappings of the filmmaker has changed since Eraserhead—but not the filmmaker's philosophy. Lynch remains himself in work from cartoons to commercials. He makes himself the constant in the world he enters. Wild at Heart, far from a midnight show, is a summer release in 1990. General release makes different demands and reveals different critical expectations. The sequels, action stories, and teen movies that customarily abound in the summer are a different kind of box-office competition. Lynch has changed the movie conventions, the business, and the audience. Wild at Heart is Eraserhead's kin.

Eraserhead suggests that Lynch's philosophy includes the extension of his brand of aesthetics into the mainstream. Lynch continues to redefine film's province as he continues to assess that his audience is to be approached without a bias as to their limitations. His demands on a general-release audience mirror his expectations of a response to Eraserhead.

A reliance on metaphor and simile to describe Lynch's accomplishments is appropriate because he forces film into a new vocabulary and a new century. Like Luther's bold nailing of his philosophy on the doors of Wittenberg, Lynch has in Eraserhead remolded the cinematic conventions: blasting, redirecting, reforming, glorifying, and inventing. In this rough, bold film, the cinematic innovations of Lynch surface. He defines the province of contemporary film as the creation of images and metaphor.

Eraserhead is a tentative, soaring early step in that direction.


  1. David Chute, “Out to Lynch,” Film Comment, October 1986, 22:32; hereafter cited in text.

  2. David Breskin, “The Rolling Stone Interview with David Lynch,” Rolling Stone Magazine, 6 September 1990, 60; hereafter cited in text.

  3. Larry Rohter, “David Lynch Pushes America to the Edge,” New York Times, 12 August 1990, II: 19.

  4. Richard Corliss, “Czar of Bizarre,” Time, 1 October 1990, 136:86; hereafter cited in text.

  5. Makoto Takimoto, “A Rough Sketch for Lynch,” trans. Charles Worthen, exhibit program, Touku Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, Japan, January 1991, 28.

  6. Nan Robertson, “The All-American Guy behind Blue Velvet,New York Times, 11 October 1986, 11:1; hereafter cited in text.

  7. David Ansen, “The Kid from Mars,” Newsweek, 9 April 1990, 115:68; hereafter cited in text.

  8. Robert Henri, The Art Spirit (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 90; hereafter cited in text.

  9. John Francis Marion, Famous and Curious Cemeteries (New York: Crown Publishers, 1977), 71.

  10. Rodger La Pelle, interview with author, Philadelphia, 14 July 1990.

  11. Gary Thompson, “Philly Was the Lynch-Pin for His Creativity,” Philadelphia Daily News, 15 August 1990, 33; hereafter cited in text.

  12. J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 223-24; hereafter cited in text.

  13. Katherine Heller, “To Lynch, This Is Sick City,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 August 1990, 7D.

  14. Winthrop Neilson, letter to Mr. and Mrs. R. Barclay Scull, son-in-law and daughter of Dr. William S. Biddle Cadwalader, who founded the Cadwalader Memorial Prize, 25 May 1967, Archives of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, with PAFA permission.

  15. Eileen Fisher, “Classics in His Closet,” Applause, May 1989, 15:10.

  16. Rodger La Pelle, interview with author, Philadelphia, 23 June 1990.

  17. Jim Jerome, “Bio,” People, 3 September 1990, 34:82; hereafter cited in text.

  18. Paul Mandelbaum, “Kinkmeister,” New York Times Magazine, 7 April 1991, 34.

  19. Joseph Gelmis, “One of the Most Original American Films,” Newsday, 17 October 1980, 2:7.

  20. Archer Winsten, “Review of Elephant Man,New York Post, 18 October 1980, 15, in Film Review Annual, ed. Jerome Ozer (Englewood, New Jersey: Film Review Publications), 28.

  21. Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Scribner's, 1953). 95.

  22. Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality (New York: Summit Books, 1991).

  23. Virginia Campbell, “Something Really Wild,” Movieline, September 1990, 35; hereafter cited in text.

  24. Lloyd Rose, “Tumoresque: The Films of David Lynch,” Atlantic, October 1984, 254:108.

  25. James Monaco, American Film Now (New York: Oxford Press, 1979), 280.

Cyndy Hendershot (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5727

SOURCE: Hendershot, Cyndy. “Postmodern Allegory and David Lynch's Wild at Heart.Critical Arts 9, no. 1 (1995): 5-20.

[In the following essay, Hendershot defines postmodern allegory within the context of Wild at Heart.]

In Postmodernist Fiction Brian McHale discusses the resurgence of the allegorical mode in the postmodern era, a resurgence in both critical analysis of the mode and artistic practice of it1. Maureen Quilligan sees the postmodern and allegorical linked so closely as to assert that “we seem in the last quarter of the twentieth century to have reentered an allegorical age”2. Many critics see postmodern allegory as revealing our historical situation and subjectivities to us. Bainard Cowan asserts that allegory “discloses the truth of the world” by presenting our world and our subjectivities as systems of signs rather than as systems motivated by a transcendental signified3. A dark cloud, as it were, hovers over postmodernism's appropriation of the allegorical mode. Fredric Jameson and Jamesonian critics read postmodernism's appropriation of allegory as one of its means of averting history, of burying the past under the sign. This debate between those who view postmodern allegory as revealing the systems which make up our cultural world and those who view postmodern allegory as concealing those same systems is one of the major problematics presented by postmodern allegory. In this essay I will discuss the debate over postmodernism's appropriation of allegory and read this debate through a work of postmodern allegory, David Lynch's film Wild at Heart (1990).

Allegory as a valid mode of artistic expression was brought into disrepute during the Romantic movement. Coleridgean notions which have pervaded post-romantic criticism view allegory as a mechanistic, moralistic mode. Stephen Barney notes that Coleridgean thought maintains that allegory “mechanically lays down the whole system of reference, provides no room for play of the imagination, kills the object in favor of the concept”4. Many re-evaluations of the allegorical mode have argued for a more complex understanding of allegory. Although Romantic and post-Romantic thought has viewed allegory as limiting interpretation by imposing on the reader a rigid, moralistic scenario, many theorists refute this view by arguing that the allegorical mode is polysystemic and overdetermined. Barney states that allegory leads ultimately to indeterminacy: allegory “is at once arbitrary and autonomous, affirming nothing, connected and referential. Allegory, like intelligence itself, respects both the different and the same”5. Gay Clifford supports this view of the allegorical mode by arguing that “the narrative form of many allegories appears to display incompatible tendencies”6. Thus, as Edwin Honig suggests, allegory works through a process of “constant layering of meaning”7.

Allegory is conducive to the postmodern because it, too, foregrounds signification rather than being. Walter Benjamin argues that the Romantics dismissed allegory because it was antithetical to their search for absolute unity, a search which led them to the symbol8. Benjamin argues that allegory undermines the search for any absolute truth or being: “the intention that underlies allegory is so opposed to that which is concerned with the discovery of truth that it reveals more clearly than anything else the identity of the pure curiosity which is aimed at mere knowledge”9. Benjamin further emphasizes that allegory has its origin in a fall from any knowledge of the absolute. Thus allegory, as the mode of the fallen world, examines “an arbitrary rule”10, the rule of the signifier.

In his discussion of Benjamin's theory of allegory Cowan emphasizes allegory's compatibility with the poststructuralist/postmodernist view of the world and subjectivity as based in an endless chain of signifiers. Cowan argues that in allegory “the world ceases to be purely physical and becomes an aggregation of signs”11. From the postmodern perspective allegory reveals the “truth” of our world by positing it as a system of signs. Cowan states that allegory “discloses the truth of the world far more than the fleeting glimpses of wholeness attained in the Romantic symbol”12. Conceived in Benjamin's terms, the symbol represents nostalgia for a prelapsarian world, a world of wholeness, a world of the transcendental signified, while allegory represents a recognition of our fallen world, a world where the signified is absent, a world where “reality” and “truth” are found in the free play of signifiers. Paul De Man emphasizes the way in which allegory refutes the being posited by the symbol. He states “whereas the symbol postulates the possibility of an identity or identification, allegory designates primarily a distance in relation to its origin”13. Thus the compatibility of allegory and the postmodern is strong partly because they share the same view of the world, the world as “an aggregation of signs.”

Postmodernism's appropriation of allegory, however, alters the traditional allegorical mode in several ways. Deborah Madsen outlines a way in which postmodern allegory alters traditional allegorical structure. Madsen argues that traditional allegory, while expressing the world as a system of signs, also expresses a desire for the signified one, a desire similar to the one Benjamin reads expressed in the symbol. Madsen suggests that the desire for unity in traditional allegory may be found in the reliance upon a single, authoritative pretext. Quilligan emphasizes the importance of the pretext for allegory, arguing that the bible has served as the primary pretext for Western allegory: it has been motivated by the signified of Christianity. Quilligan states that “the status,” of the Bible in any given period can provide the gauge to the ironic possibilities of allegory, in those moments when the Bible itself is doubted, interpreting allegory if it does not become more difficult, becomes, at least, less conclusive”14. Postmodern allegory shatters the unity represented by the pretext, by positing a multiplicity of pretexts and by undermining the “truth” of any of these pretexts. In postmodern allegory the pretext is just another text, not the text, as a site of ontological truth. Madsen states that “by questioning the ontological claims of all signs, postmodernist allegory problematizes the relation between the narrative and pretext, in postmodernist allegory the pretext shares the self-consciously fictive nature of the entire allegorical construct—text and commentary”15.

As a result of destabilizing the pretext, postmodern allegory undermines the authority of any single text to represent “reality.” Madsen extends the significance of this beyond any fictional text like the bible to encompass cultural texts—political, economic, social, psychological texts which posit themselves as the unitary truth of existence. In Madsen's view postmodern allegory subverts cultural and fictional attempts to reduce “reality” to a single text. Within postmodern allegory “each signified becomes another signifier, ad infinitum; the play of linguistic difference is not ended by recourse to a singular founding presence ‘behind’ narrative signs”16. By shattering the illusion of a transcendental signified, postmodern allegory posits a truly fallen world where systems of signs refer only to themselves and to other systems and where any reaching for a signified is naive nostalgia.

Another characteristic which distinguishes postmodern allegory from traditional allegory is its emphasis on irony. Using Kafka as his symptomatic author, Angus Fletcher views twentieth-century allegory as ruled by an “ambivalent cosmos” because there is no longer any single truth ruling that cosmos. Fletcher links Kafka's ambivalent cosmos to irony.17 Fletcher sees irony and allegory as compatible because they both involve “an otherness of meaning”18. For Fletcher ironic allegory is “collapsed allegory” because it shows “a confusion, of the semantic and the syntactic processes of double or multiple-level polysemy”19. For Fletcher postmodern allegory, devoid of any authoritative pretext, tends toward the ironic.

De Man links the allegorical and the ironic, arguing that both irony and allegory emphasize the distance between language and meaning. In both modes “the sign points to something that differs from its literal meaning”20. By emphasizing the discontinuity between language and meaning, irony and allegory subvert the unity of meaning and language found in the Romantics' concept of the symbol. Further, irony, as De Man conceives it, undermines any notion of unitary being in the individual subject. Irony “splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity”21. Irony posits a subject similar to the Lacanian model, a subject forever cut off from being (authenticity) and spoken by a linguistic system which reveals his or her inauthenticity. For the subject, irony provides the awareness of the signifiers which make up what is perceived as present being, yet, as De Man persists, this awareness does not make the subject authentic. He states “for to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic”22. De Man sees irony and allegory as conducive because “they are linked in their common de-mystification of an organic world, postulated in a symbolic mode of analogical correspondences or in a mimetic mode of representation in which fiction and reality could coincide”23. Thus irony is especially relevant for postmodern allegory because it denies the truth of any discourse: irony posits that the subject like the allegorical pretext, is a fiction, is a set of signs which have no transcendental authority to validate them. Thus, for instance, an ironic postmodern allegory like Wild at Heart foregrounds the inauthenticity of the world and subjectivity. In Lynch's film there is no transcendental truth for the fictional world or the fictional subject: they are caught in the play of various fictional discourses, each one equally inauthentic, and equally valid.

Fredric Jameson's discussion also emphasizes allegory as a mode which illustrates postmodernist/poststructuralist views of subjectivity and the world. Jameson, however, adopts a negative view of postmodern allegory, viewing it as indicative of postmodernism's tendency to be ahistorical. Jameson argues that postmodernism's refusal of any transcendental signified leads to a superficial pastiche of various pretexts. Jameson contrasts postmodern pastiche to neoclassical parody, arguing that whereas parody displays “a vocation” by asserting an authoritative norm, pastiche “is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction”24. For Jameson postmodern allegory, lacking any authoritative pretext, is a pastiche of fictions which makes history into another set of signs. Jameson sees this as symptomatic of a late-capitalist tendency to avoid history by forming it into a fictional text where the past is presented as “stylistic connotation”25, rather than lived experience.

Hal Foster, a Jamesonian critic, views the allegorical mode as especially adept at achieving the stylization of history. Foster argues that allegory reifies the past: because of its melancholic tendency, a tendency outlined by Benjamin, allegory assumes “a posture of political passivity before a social world so reified as to appear inert, the history of which is then resigned almost posthistorically as so many ruinous tableaux vivants for aesthetic contemplation”26. For Foster allegory supports the dominant cultural discourse of late capitalism by reifying historical “reality” into allegorical emblems.

Both Foster and Jameson criticize postmodern allegory primarily for its lack of an authoritative pretext. In their view, the lack of a moral signified for allegory makes it complicitous with late capitalism. Their Marxist discourses rely upon the acceptance and valorization of an authoritative Marxist discourse, one which views postmodernism as a symptom, i.e., an allegory, of late capitalism. For the Jamesonian, all postmodern art thus allegorizes the reification and commodification of the late capitalist phase. Jameson's Marxist discourse depends upon a traditional allegorical reading of culture: all the signifiers of postmodernism ultimately refer to the signified of Marxist theory. The Jamesonian view sees postmodern allegory as ahistorical because it does not validate the Marxist pretext; other critics, however, emphasize the manner in which allegory foregrounds history.

Craig Owens argues that allegory emerged as a mode designed to record the past. Owens argues that allegory functions “in the gap between a present and a past, which, without allegorical reinterpretation, might have remained foreclosed”27. Owens suggests that through its appropriation of past texts and images allegory does not reinterpret or stylize history, but supplements it. Through its bricolage of the past, allegory foregrounds history while denying any ultimate interpretation of its meaning. Discussing Benjamin's troping of the past in allegory as ruins,28 Owens states that in allegory “the works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape, ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay; a progressive distancing from origin.” By refusing to submit history to an authoritative pretext postmodern allegory eludes the nostalgia inherent in any search for an origin, for a single causality for historical events.

De Man's concept of allegory as temporal also examines allegory's relation to history. Whereas Jameson criticizes postmodernism's privileging of the spatial, a privileging which denies historical temporality, De Man argues that allegory reintroduces temporality into the spatial world created by the Romantic symbol. For De Man allegory is a process of “renouncing the nostalgia”29. Allegory, coupled with irony, recognizes the impossibility of knowing the “truth” of the past. De Man states that “irony divides the flow of temporal experience into a past that is pure mystification and future that remains harassed forever by a relapse within the inauthentic. It can know this inauthenticity but can never overcome it.” Ironic allegory thus reintroduces temporal history while denying an ultimate interpretation of it.

Postmodern ironic allegory refuses any authoritative pretext for interpreting history, yet foregrounds history through its emphasis on the temporal. For the postmodern, history cannot be interpreted absolutely because that would demand acceptance of a transcendental signified. Jamesonian criticism of postmodern allegory as ahistorical is criticism of postmodernism's refusal to accept any definitive interpretation of historical events. In the postmodern the past is inscribed, but inscribed as various cultural versions of history. The ruins of the past are read in multiplicitous ways. History isn't avoided; the reading of history is problematized.

David Lynch's film Wild at Heart may be read as a symptomatic example of postmodern allegory. The work itself and the critical debate surrounding it foreground the problematic of history's relationship to postmodern allegory.

The allegorical modality of Wild at Heart may be viewed in several ways. Barney classifies the major features of allegory as personification, reification, and typology. For Barney, one type of personification involves a merging of the abstract and concrete within a single name. Allegory mingles abstract concepts with proper, concrete names. Barney notes that this produces a destabilizing process: this merging “unstabilizes the reader's mind as his apprehension is drawn in two directions at once”30. Wild displays just such a destabilization through its use of allegorical names which mix the abstract and the concrete. The main characters in the film, Sailor Ripley and Lula Pace Fortune, may be read as personifications due to their names and actions. “Sailor” connotes a sexualized drifter, a role that Sailor Ripley personifies: yet because he is given a last name, “Ripley,” the abstract notion of “Sailor” is particularized. Similarly, “Fortune” casts Lula as a rich girl, a role which her spoiled, out-of-touch behavior illustrates. “Lula Pace,” however, particularizes her role as an abstract personification. Other characters display a similar pattern. The name Johnny Farragut allegorizes the character as an American civil war hero, David Glasgow Farragut, while also particularizing him through the use of a different first name. Bobby Peru is foregrounded as a foreign threat, as seen through xenophobic eyes, with “Peru,” but particularized through “Bobby.” The only character in the film given a completely abstract name is Mr. Reindeer, a character whose allegorical status is made explicit, yet the meaning of it, as is typical in the postmodern, remains elusive.

Wild further exemplifies the allegorical mode through its use of reification allegory31. Barney defines reification allegory as allegory which gives concrete form to abstract clichés. In reification allegory metaphorical language is made literal. Within this feature of allegory “the literal level is not only dominated by, but composed of, reified metaphors.” Wild exhibits many instances of the literalisation of clichés. Although he does not link the film to allegory, Kenneth Kaleta discusses the manner in which the film makes linguistic expressions visually “real.” Kaleta states that “literal epigrams become screen images. Like ‘don't play with matches’ or ‘lighting up the screen,’ ‘beating someone's brains out’ becomes a visualized cliché”32. Other examples of reification are present in the film. One example involves Lula's mother Marietta: her status as metaphorical demon tormenting the lovers becomes literalized when she paints her face with red lipstick and thus visually appears as a stereotypical image of the devil. Rock lyrics become literalized when the film introduces the song “Be-Bop-A-Lu-La” onto the soundtrack during a series of sex scenes between Sailor and Lula. Sailor is literally “bopping” Lula: an ostensibly meaningless rock cliché thus becomes literalized.

Wild perhaps displays its strongest affinity with the allegorical mode through its use of typological allegory. Barney defines typological allegory as allegory which uses a pretext for its allegorical framework. Typological allegory involves a story reading another story. Thus the pretext acts as “the implied frame, so to speak, of the allegory which we read”33. Wild's use of typological allegory is overdetermined: there are multiplicitous pretexts for the film. The most obvious pretext is The Wizard of Oz, a text which is foregrounded throughout the film from the crystal ball which frames the characters' actions to the stuffed lion Sailor brings as gift to his son, Pace. Jailhouse Rock is another pretext for Wild. The opening and closing of the film place Sailor as Elvis impersonator specifically within the context of that Elvis film. Mr. Reindeer's physical appearance and association with a secret organization foregrounds the pretext of The Godfather. Kaleta notes the importance of the road film for Wild, with specific reference to It Happened One Night34. While most of the pretexts for Wild are cinematic ones, Lynch himself suggests a more traditional pretext, the Old Testament. Lynch states “Lula and Sailor have the perfect take on sex in the middle of a solid relationship. They are, like, so innocent and yet completely wild at the same time. It's like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad”35.

Wild's use of multiple pretexts and refusal to establish any one pretext as the authoritative one makes its typological allegory specifically postmodern. Unlike traditional allegory, Wild does not posit any one text as “truth.” This is accomplished through its use of fictional cinematic texts as pretexts and also through its emphasis on popular culture as pretext for the film's social “reality.” Madsen argues that “the traditional exploration of metaphoric ‘depth’ becomes an investigation of the ontology of verbal surface or visibilia, in postmodernist modifications of allegory”36. By using what is considered “surface” culture, the popular, rather than “depth” culture, the avant-garde, Wild foregrounds the various popular discourses which make up late twentieth-century society, but presents no one of these discourses as authoritative. Kaleta notes that “the film is not a tribute to pop society, nor, from Lynch's perspective, is it a condemnation of it”37. Refigured through Owens' model, Wild's allegory is a recording of late twentieth-century society, a supplement to it, not a moralistic condemnation of it nor a neo-conservative celebration of it.

Although Wild's typological allegory denies any one text authority for interpreting it, and thus problemitizes any hermeneutic reading of it, I will focus on two pretexts, Jailhouse Rock and Oz, in order to explore the way in which the film presents subjectivity and the world as a system of fictional signs. The two central characters, Lula and Sailor, read their experiences through the framework of fictional texts, that, they allegorize experience according to an authoritative pretext. Thus although the film denies the centrality of any one text, the characters do not.

The film presents Sailor as allegorizing his experiences based upon Jailhouse Rock. At the opening of the film Sailor kills Bob Ray Lemon in order to protect Lula. Similarly, at the opening of Jailhouse Rock, Vince (Elvis Presley) kills a man in a bar fight in order to protect a woman. Later in Wild Marietta tells Johnny that Sailor “killed a man with his bare hands,” a line repeated several times in Jailhouse in reference to Vince. Sailor's status as Elvis impersonator demonstrates that he reads his life through the fictional text of Elvis as cultural phenomenon, a text of which Jailhouse forms an important part. Near the beginning of the film, in a nightclub Sailor humiliates a man who has attempted to dance with Lula. Like the gentlemanly Vince who goes to prison to protect a woman, Sailor, even after he is released from prison, continues to play the gentleman, using violence to defend Lula's “honor.” After humiliating the man Sailor turns to the band and says “you fellas have a lot of the same power he had,” then sings “Love Me,” while imitating Elvis' movements and gestures. Sailor reads his experiences though the framework of the Elvis phenomenon, a phenomenon which Greil Marcus has argued forms an important part of American cultural discourse38. Sailor casts himself in the role of the fictional Elvis, most notably the Elvis of Jailhouse, the pre-army, pre-tamed Elvis of 1950s culture. The end of Wild reaffirms Sailor's role as Elvis impersonator. Singing “Love Me Tender” to Lula on the hood of her Bonneville, Sailor mimics Vince in Jailhouse who sings “Young and Beautiful” to his girlfriend at the close of the film. The film reveals that, for Sailor, subjectivity has no basis in being, but rather in a fictional pretext which serves as the guide for interpreting and shaping his experiences.

Barry Gifford's novel, on which the film is based, portrays Lula as reading her life through the framework of various 1930s and 1940s films. Lula says “people are better off in black-and-white”39, and constantly alludes to various 1930s and 1940s cinematic texts in order to interpret her experiences. The Lula of Lynch's film, however, reads her experiences through one authoritative text, The Wizard of Oz. Lula relies upon the film as a hermeneutic guide. As the bible has served as the guide for interpreting experience for Western society until the modern age, Oz serves as Lula's guide to the world. At the beginning of the film Lula's use of Oz as pretext is presented as her reading alone. In a motel room with Sailor, Lula hears a woman laughing and says the voice “sound [sic] like the wicked witch.” Sailor replies to her by saying “just sound [sic] like an old gal having a good time to me,” demonstrating that her allegorizing of experience through the authority of Oz is specific to her. As the film progresses, however, Sailor begins to adopt Lula's view of Oz as the “truth” of existence. After Lula tells Sailor about her “confused” cousin Dell, Sailor states “too bad he couldn't visit that old wizard of Oz an' get some good advice”40. The ending of the film, with the good witch Glinda reuniting the lovers, demonstrates how Lula's personal pretext has assumed a larger social significance. Moreover, the crystal ball which appears twice in the film links the Oz pretext to a larger cultural discourse. Hence subjectivity in general is portrayed as emanating from popular culture rather than from any internal source. The film plays on Oz's status as one of the systems of signs which makes up postmodern subjectivity.

It is significant that Lula's allegorization of her life based on the pretext of Oz is based upon a misreading of the film. Lula associates the laugh of the wicked witch with the wicked witch of the East, a figure who is absent within the film, except for her brief appearance as a corpse under Dorothy's house. Lula thus means the witch of the West, who exemplifies evil in the film. Lula's mistake suggests that she is constructing her version of Oz not from the film itself but from a more general cultural consciousness of Oz. Further, Lula's reading of Oz misses the “message” of the film, the assertion that there is no supernatural force which will solve one's problems. The wizard in the film is a dream figure, and a fake even in the dream. In the black and white “reality” of the film he is a con artist. Lula, however, believes in the fantasy of the film, clicking her red heels together in order to escape from Big Tuna, pursuing the yellow brick road to California in order to find a happy resolution to all her problems. In the film, Lula's misreading of Oz, however, is presented as the cultural “truth” of the cinematic text. The resolution of the film's conflict through the magic of Glinda suggests that what American culture values and canonizes as cultural text is the fantasy of Oz. Kaleta notes that Lynch's happy ending “beckons to a disillusioned film audience that no longer sees the possibility that the nineties road leads to a resolution. This brutal indictment of the aimless society of turn-of-the-century U.S.A. fuels Lynch's flamboyant conclusion as the only kind of romantic closure his audience can buy”41. Lula's misreading of Oz represents a cultural tendency to elude postmodern uncertainty by finding resolution in the fantasy of popular culture. Although the film adopts Lula's misreading it does so, as I will discuss, only ironically, thus revealing, not supporting, the “surface” fictions which make up late twentieth-century subjectivity.

Much of the critical debate surrounding Wild focuses on a Jamesonian question: does the film stylize history into fashion or does it reveal the late-twentieth-century tendency to elude history by reifying it into a manageable set of images? Jameson views Lynch's work as examples of the postmodern nostalgia film, films which reify historical “reality” into stylized, romanticized myth42. Jameson reads Lynch's films as symptomatic of postmodern culture: he states “these [nostalgia] films can be read as dual symptoms: they show a collective unconscious in the process of trying to identify its own present at the same time that they illuminate the failure of this attempt, which seems to reduce itself to the recombination of various stereotypes of the past”43. For Jameson, Lynch's films' attempt to represent history ultimately lapse into clichéd images of the past viewed “through nostalgia-tinted spectacles”44.

Sharon Willis provides a Jamesonian analysis of Wild which views the film as complicitous with a consumer culture which reduces the past to reified images and texts. Willis argues that Wild encourages its viewers to escape history and political struggle through its construction of the fifties and sixties as periods “whose central conflicts and crises were familial, whose struggles were rebellions against parental authority, waged by white middle class sons and daughters”45. In Willis' view the film reduces history to a highly stylized family romance scenario. Further, Willis links Wild's reification and reduction of history specifically to allegory. Willis states that “completely consistent with this allegory, Wild at Heart projects social conflict onto the ultimately more manageable terrain of a family”46. For Willis the allegorical structure of Wild facilitates its eluding of social struggle. Willis thus adopts the Jamesonian view of allegory as one tool used by the postmodern to distance itself from historical struggles.

Both Jameson's and Willis' criticisms of Lynch, however, make the a priori assumption that Lynch's view is the view presented by the characters and the “happy” endings of his films. Wild, however, does not endorse Lula's and Sailor's views of the world but rather distances itself from these views through irony. Critics like Kaleta who read Wild ironically, read it as revealing late twentieth-century society's tendency to reify and stylize history and political struggle. Kaleta states that “there are no passports for Lynch's odyssey. The audience is not transported into a future devastated by environment changes from which they can still save themselves as they watch. The audience is accosted instead with the banality of their own environment … It is today's brutal road that Sailor and Lula must navigate”47. Thus in Kaleta's view Wild does not avoid the social “reality” of late twentieth-century American society but, rather, underlines it.

De Man's concept of irony will help demonstrate how Wild's ostensibly happy ending does not foreclose on the political and social uncertainty presented in the film, but further emphasizes it by distancing the viewer from Sailor and Lula's romantic resolution. Although Wild's status as postmodern allegory on the surface is threatened by the film's closed ending, its use of irony coupled with allegory reemphasizes its status as an example of postmodern art. De Man notes that the ironic work avoids any return to a notion of being “by reasserting the purely fictional nature of its own universe and by carefully maintaining the radical difference that separates fiction from the world of empirical reality”48.

Thus Wild's ending must be read ironically because it reasserts its fictionality on a grand scale. Sailor, after leaving Lula and his son behind, is beat up by a gang. Following this he sees Glinda floating in a bubble similar to the one she appears in in Oz. Glinda tells Sailor “don't turn away from love.” The irony of Glinda instigating the closure of the film, of one fictional text intruding on another to provide a resolution, is further compounded by the fact that Glinda is played by Sheryl Lee, the actress who played Laura Palmer in Lynch's Twin Peaks. Through its intertextuality, the film links the good, supernatural Glinda with the victimized, tainted, worldly Laura, thus undercutting Glinda's status as divine messenger. Further, the excess of the film's ending emphasizes its ironic status. De Man notes that irony's assertion of its fictionality is linked to “an inherent tendency to gain momentum and not to stop until it has run its full course,” that is, a tendency toward excess49. Sailor rises after his vision of Glinda with an injured nose, swollen to cartoon-size proportions. He goes to find Lula, leaping on the tops of the cars in a traffic jam she is caught in, pulls her onto the hood of the car and sings “Love Me Tender” to her in Hollywood musical style, invisible instruments backing up his singing. Read through De Man's scheme, Wild's ironic ending “allows for no end, for no totality”50. Could we accept the ending as “realistic,” the film would have closure, but because it asserts its fictionality so strongly, it reaffirms the play of the signifier. Wild demonstrates to the viewer that its ending is merely another signifier in the Hollywood tradition of closed endings.

Rather than asserting Sailor and Lula's views as the stable truth of the film, Wild emphasizes the fictionality of their subjectivities and of their perceptions of the world. Its irony exposes the absurdity of people who base their lives on Hollywood fantasies, who reduce social and historical experience to popular cinematic texts. Wild affirms no author-“dissolves in the narrowing spiral of a linguistic sign that becomes more and more remote from its meaning”51. From this perspective then the film does not support Lula and Sailor's stylization of history into cinematic texts and rock-and-roll-lyrics but rather inscribes the stylization of history as a tendency within late twentieth-century America. The film views Lula and Sailor through an ironic allegorical framework rather than a framework of identification and endorsement.


  1. McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. New York and London: Methuen, 1987, p. 40.

  2. Quilligan, Maureen. The Language of Allegory: Defining the Genre. Ithaca and London: Cornell, 1979, p. 155.

  3. Cowan, Bainard. “Walter Benjamin's Theory of Allegory.” New German Critique 22 (Winter 1981): p. 109-22.

  4. Barney, Stephen. Allegories of History, Allegories of Love. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978 p. 26.

  5. Barney, p. 49.

  6. Clifford, Gay. The Transformations of Allegory. London: Routledge, 1974, p. 33-34.

  7. Honig, Edwin. Dark Conceit: The Making of Allegory. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University, 1959, p. 53.

  8. Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: NLB, 1975, p. 159-166. Benjamin discusses the allegory of the German Trauerspiel: his comments on allegory have been adopted as general ones describing the mode (e.g. Bainard Cowan and Craig Owens).

  9. Benjamin, p. 229.

  10. Benjamin, p. 233.

  11. Benjamin, p. 110.

  12. Benjamin, p. 122.

  13. De Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Temporality.” Interpretation: Theory and Practice. Ed. Charles S. Singleton. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1969, p. 191.

  14. Quilligan, p. 99.

  15. Madsen, Deborah L. The Postmodernist Allegories of Thomas Pynchon. New York: St. Martin's, 1991, p. 13.

  16. Madsen, p. 20.

  17. Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca and London: Cornell, 1964, p. 145. Although Kafka, in terms of historical placing, is a modernist, many critics link him to the beginnings of the postmodern (e.g. Brian Hale).

  18. Fletcher, p. 230.

  19. Fletcher, p. 230.

  20. De Man, p. 192.

  21. De Man, p. 197.

  22. De Man, p. 197.

  23. De Man, p. 203-204.

  24. Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke, 1991, p. 17.

  25. Jameson, p. 19.

  26. Foster, Hal. “Wild Signs: The Breakup of the Sign in Seventies' Art.” Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism. Ed. Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988, p. 251-68.

  27. Owens, Craig. “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of the Postmodern.” October 12 (Spring 1980), p. 68.

  28. Benjamin states that in the allegorical Trauerspiel “everything about history that, from the very beginning, has been untimely, sorrowful, unsuccessful, is expressed in a face—or rather in a death's head. And although such a thing lacks all ‘symbolic’ freedom of expression, all classical proportion, all humanity—nevertheless this is the form in which man's subjection to nature is most obvious and it significantly gives rise not only to the enigmatic question of the nature of human existence as such, but also of biographical historicity of the individual” p. 166.

  29. De Man, p. 191-203.

  30. Barney, p. 24-34.

  31. Barney makes no reference to the Marxist definition of reification, a definition used by Jamesonian critics. Barney confines his discussion of reification to a purely aesthetic realm.

  32. Kaleta, Kenneth C. David Lynch. New York: Twayne, 1993, p. 175.

  33. Barney, p. 32.

  34. Other road films mentioned by Kaleta as possible pretexts include Two For the Road,Bonnie and Clyde,Easy Rider,Badlands, and Mad Max.

  35. Campbell, Virginia. “Something Really Wild.” Movieline Sept. 1990, p. 36.

  36. Madsen, p. 12.

  37. Kaleta, p. 184.

  38. Marcus' Dead Elvis explores the Elvis obsession in late-twentieth-century American society. Marcus, Greil. Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession. New York: Doubleday, 1991.

  39. Gifford, Barry. Wild at Heart. New York: Vintage, 1990, p. 20.

  40. Kaleta notes that Sailor and Lula view Oz “as a media guidebook, a celluloid 900 telephone number spouting guidance for how to deal with problems” p. 182.

  41. Kaleta, p. 166-167.

  42. In Postmodernism Jameson reads Lynch's Blue Velvet as an example of the nostalgia film.

  43. Jameson, p. 296.

  44. Jameson, p. 290.

  45. Willis, Sharon. “Special Effects: Sexual and Social Difference in Wild at Heart.Camera Obscura 25-26 (Jan.-May 1991): p. 275-95.

  46. Willis, p. 292-293.

  47. Kaleta, p. 167.

  48. De Man, p. 199.

  49. De Man, p. 197.

  50. De Man, p. 203-204.

  51. De Man, p. 203.

Diana Hume George (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5168

SOURCE: George, Diana Hume. “Lynching Women: A Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks.” In Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks, edited by David Lavery, pp. 109-19. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, George provides a feminist analysis of the representation of violence against women in the television series Twin Peaks.]

Should I call this a double-breasted approach? Laura Palmer had a double, so that's at least four breasts, but the show fairly crawled with creepy sex and grand tetons. They didn't eat with forks—the brothers with the yuppie ice cream names were devotees of primary process. Everything longer than it was wide was phallic in the surreal Lynchscape. Who but Lynch could give saddle shoes the impact of spiked heels? And father-daughter incest was definitely in. Should we really have eaten all that luscious Frosting on the cake baked by the Lynchmob?

My reading doesn't come from outside the circle of aficionados. I was instantly hooked on Twin Peaks. I lived for Thursday night, taped the episodes for repeated frissons. I must have listened to the sound the dwarf makes with his body at the start of the dream sequence at least a dozen times, trying to figure out if it was the flap of bird wings. I had a Twin Peaks dinner for the last segment and a repeat marathon party. I dissected each episode on Friday morning, divided the world into people who were watching it and people who weren't, and among those who were watching it, how they watched it. The people who said “Twin what?” weren't worth my time. I gazed beyond them to the horizon, helplessly bored. I was seriously addicted.

Even before the pilot ended, the questions were as legion as the viewers. Laura herself asked a few. “I think a couple of times he's tried to kill me, but guess what? I sure got off on it. Isn't sex weird?” I have a question: What, in the phrasing of Laura's postmodern/postmortem tape, were Peaks freaks getting off on when we watched it? I came out of my stupor of admiration for the wacko combination of irony, parody, and skillful manipulation long enough to wonder if I was being Lynched again, as I was with Blue Velvet. In the middle of a giggle, the question: What am I laughing at?

Certainly I was enjoying directorial moves from Mars, scripts that seemed to have dropped through holes in the ozone layer, nonstop non sequiturs, Lucy's fine whine, Nadine's noiseless drape runners, Ben and Jerry's arrested development at the oral stage, Jocelyn's stampede of mangled colloquialisms, allusion upon homage, all of what New York's John Leonard called the series’” quirky allure.” But something more fundamental got by me when I left it at that.

I, we, the twenty-thirty-and-forty-something audience, got off on the sexually tortured, brutally murdered, mutilated body of an adolescent girl. And what's new about that? What's new about television exploiting our love affair with the interfaces of sex and death, or our hunger for seeing women dead or maimed or mutilated or suicidal or raped or helpless, especially if they're sexually active? Prime time business as usual, only a little worse because even feminists let it go by, behaving like charmed backsliders involved with a man so charismatic that we just couldn't think straight. I like irony. But there are survival issues more important than the saving enjoyment, the catharsis offered by irony. It has more to do with real women in bondage and body bags than with actresses playing their parts.

My expectations of Twin Peaks were fueled by Blue Velvet more than Eraserhead or The Elephant Man, Challenging Blue Velvet's morality is about as fruitful as interrogating the human unconscious, for David Lynch seemed to have found a mainline straight into his own, and perhaps into the collective unconscious of the modern American psyche. What I felt was the film's powerful ambiguity, ample enough to qualify as an eighth type in Empson's literary scheme. The passionate polarities of response experienced by thinking people were, I believe, evidence of the film's near-greatness, which transcends the confusion of its ethical dimensions.

Blue Velvet is about the horrors of the unconscious hauled screaming into articulation, anyone's worst nightmare made real. That the large-scale representation of a dream-screen could be experienced as renewal means it's doubly powerful, for it had to push its way back through the layers of our perception by means of a patently artificial technology. More specifically, the film is about growing up male in America, about a young man's introduction to sex and to gender, represented by the impossibly narrow range of his choices for how to become a man. The men who saw the film were implicitly asked to relive and examine their own imitations. Even if this was primarily a man's vision, it also reflects women's nightmarish inversions: here women are reduced to dark ladies or angels of light, asked to question their own masochism or sadism. All of Blue Velvet's action took place in a time and space primarily and fundamentally mental, literally within the (severed) ear that cannot, will not, hear. The film shows us that unspeakable violence and horror is always just beyond our conscious reach, breaking out without warning, reaching a horrible hand from the ground in the form of a stroke, a death, a beaten and naked woman on a porch, a man in the next apartment as monstrous as anything we might imagine invading us from alien space, the night sky, the closet, the basement, the ocean floor. The horror is more real than the movie by far, just out of sight, behind that window, inside the ear, within the dream of ordinary life in which we daily express our fear of it, and our damnable wish for it, in front of our televisions. Sweetness and light cannot quite maintain their power in the face of this other reality below the garden, the flowers, the picket fence—or “out there” in “these old woods” of Twin Peaks.

Lynch is flipping us the mechanical bird again in Twin Peaks, just as he did at the end of Blue Velvet, but this time I cannot buy it. Or if I will, if I am compelled by this nightmare (by the way he puts his sickness into me, as Dorothy Vallens says in Blue Velvet, both justifying and rationalizing her own neurosis), at least I will own it as mine. “The thing is about secrets,” says Lynch. But what were they? If he did not know, then my knowing, your knowing, becomes still more important—then we, the viewers, need to take responsibility for what we saw and how we saw it. If Twin Peaks was Dallas with an IQ, as the Dallas Morning News put it, then perhaps its consumers were obliged to use more of their own when they watched it.

I can read Lynch in three ways. He might be cynically exploiting his large, gullible, now prime time audience with those secrets he said it was all about. Or I can see him as the wise visionary showing us our darkest depths. Or perhaps he's the gifted innocent in touch, though incompletely aware of, his own unconscious, and tapping ours in ways he can't articulate. If he is the latter, was the result in the case of Twin Peaks profound or trivial? Viewers widely agreed that it was at least beautiful. John Leonard concluded, regarding the first season: “Twin Peaks has nothing at all in its pretty little head except the desire to please. In this, and only in this, it resembles almost everything else on television. But beautiful is better. Must we, like Deconstructionists, moisten everything with meaning?” (“Quirky Allure” 39). Questioned in a Rolling Stone interview about the “disease” of both Blue Velvet's Dorothy and of Laura Palmer, Lynch replied, “It's so beautiful just to leave it abstract” (Breskin 63). I think we must indeed moisten this with meaning. And beautiful, if that's applicable to the blue-lipped corpses of young women in body bags, is not necessarily better.


Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, killed thirteen women and maimed seven others in England between 1975 and 1981. He hammered his victims, exposed several parts of their bodies, arranged their clothes ritualistically. Then he stabbed them repeatedly with a screwdriver or a knife. Some of his victims were stabbed so many times that their insides came out. They called him “The Streetcleaner” because he felt a mission to clean the streets of sexual women, who came to include not only prostitutes, but also “respectable” women—students, clerks, secretaries.

Dozens of men wrote to confess proudly to the crimes, and even while the region was terrorized, jokes about the murders were common. Everyone assumed the murderer must be a social outcast, but when the police finally caught him, he turned out to be an ostensibly happily married man with a solid job and a mortgage as well as a soft voice. Nicole Ward Jouve asked: “How is it that so many men, the thousands of hoaxers who phoned the West Yorkshire police, could believe that killing was a job—or a joke?”1

Nicole Ward Jouve's remarkable study of the Yorkshire Ripper case, published in England in 1986, argues by subtly persuasive steps that one reason it took years of manhunting to catch the Ripper was that, despite all appearance to the contrary, the authorities were looking in the wrong places and following the wrong leads. In 1977 alone over three hundred full-time detectives were assigned to the case. 175,000 people had been interviewed, and ten thousand vehicles had been checked. Yet Peter Sutcliffe was not apprehended until 1981, and then largely by accident. He did not live on the margins of society, was not a psychopathic outcast, but was rather a respectable member of the mainstream community, with severe imbalances that Jouve links directly to family violence and to a disturbed process of gender identification that is normative in Yorkshire (17-35).

Jouve's scenario of gender identification has long been familiar to American readers of feminist psychoanalytic theory.2 Normal male gender acquisition takes place in opposition to females, and is structured around identification with the father by means of rejecting the humanity of the mother, and then all women, especially those who are sexually active. Women and children, and especially their bodies, become property in the system of exchange between males. Judeo-Christian cultures consequently express profound ambiguity at the least toward female sexuality. In the developmental progression outlined by psychoanalytic feminism, which is both classically Freudian and revisionist at the same time, misogyny is fundamental to the acquisition of gender identification for males, and a partially repressed obsession with sexuality is at the basis of cultural malaise. Twin Peaks enters this scenario not only because a sexual murder is the initial mystery, but also because the series treats neurotic sexuality as the malaise of culture. As Dr. Jacoby puts it to Agent Cooper, “The problems of our entire society are of a sexual nature.”

Jouve's argument, Marxist as well as feminist and psychoanalytic, presses the theoretical frame to the edge. She maintains that in a society in which violence and aggression toward women are implicitly accepted, the murder of women perceived as sexually active is not only tolerated but unconsciously encouraged. The continuum of violence toward women, beginning with sexual and physical abuse in a domestic context, suggests in Jouve's view that the end product of cultural misogyny is sexualized murder.

Peter Sutcliffe thought he had been ordered by God to kill women. To appease the voice that demanded he despise women he could not sexually own, and to maintain his belief that he could acquire the denied power of manhood by being that God's chosen one, Sutcliffe murdered and mutilated women. All that he saw and heard around him, on the job, at home, in bars, told him that women were untrustworthy and must be controlled. One's wife, even one's mother, might be harboring sexual secrets. In Jouve's analysis, all of Sutcliffe's mangled thinking is a predictable, if extreme, outcome of normal, masculine enculturation (15-29).


In the light of this kind of argument, violence toward women in the media takes on deeper implications, ones that are no news to feminists who have long argued about the harmful effects not only of hardcore pornography, but even of softsell advertisements. Jouve's thesis literalizes the title of Jean Kilbourne's Still Killing Us Softly, taught in women's studies and media courses and used by women's services organization all over the nation.3 The sexual fetishizing of the female body on television, in film, in advertising, is potentially a lethal matter.

Here are some of the killing numbers of violent crimes against women in contemporary America. In the United States a woman is battered every fifteen seconds. A rape is committed every six minutes. Three to four million women are beaten in their homes each year by their husbands or boyfriends. Over half of the men in a survey of college students said they would rape a woman if they were certain they could get away with it. One out of eight Hollywood movies depicts a rape theme. By age eighteen, the average American youth has watched 250,000 acts of violence on television. At current rates, one out of four women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime (“Violence Against Women” 38-58). Such statistics are numbing, impossible to absorb. I list them here exactly because that is the case. The analysis of violence in the media is a minor industry whose findings are still embryonic. I cannot take a final position on the ever-changing terms of the debate on cause and effect. I do not condone censorship (except of images produced by violating the civil rights of children or adults, as would be the case in actual snuff films or child pornography), but I do know that the subliminal, suggestive power of mass-produced images is real, probably at this point incalculable.

Twin Peaks can be situated along a continuum that makes useful the evidence employed by sociologists (as opposed to “moral majority,” fundamentalist, or even some feminist arguments) to analyze the effects of violent sexualized images. Edward Donnerstein's research finds lowered sensitivity and attitude change after exposure to violent sexual images, providing a solid basis for concern about influences as distinct from causality.4 The jury is still out on causality, and I suspect the jurors will die of old age before they deliver a verdict. But we do know that media violence reflects and helps to reshape social attitudes, that it feeds on our desperations and insecurities. We are as a culture more than half in love with easeful death combined with kinky sex.

Given the dulling of sensitivities toward violence of all kind, Twin Peaks was powerful material to introduce into the American living room. Both Lynch and Frost avoided comment on either their intent or the effect of the series on the American psyche. Certainly Twin Peaks fed America's collective hunger for wounded, maimed, tortured, dead women. It began with the ritualistically fetishized sexual death of a child-woman, killed off several others to keep up our pulse rate when the going got slow, and ended with the possible murder of an ex-nun, implicating the male character we trusted most.

The crucial difference between Twin Peaks and simple trash was not beauty. Rather, it had to do with parody, irony, laughter. We laughed at the punchline, forgetting the premise. Ironic humor was sufficiently imbedded in the text that the whole country treated the matter of sexual murder with light, airy, morbid fascination and with openly misogynistic humor. Answering objections to Esquire's August, 1990 cover, featuring a shrouded Laura Palmer (“She's cold! A little stiff at parties, but then so are we!”), editor Lee Eisenberg told us to “chill out. Having a corpse was, after all, sort of a joke, right?” (Eisenberg 25). The joke builds on unspeakable violence toward women, even toward children in the form of adolescent girls trussed up as sexually cynical adults.

But perhaps we were laughing in the wrong place? Or perhaps we were supposed to be only deeply moved by the plight of the victims, who, after all, were presented in a sympathetic light? Perhaps the show's women were well-balanced characters who just happened to be the victims of whacked out psychopaths? Against the possibility of a reading that would point to subversive purposes (such as deconstructing sexist responses on the part of viewers), I will take a close look at the men and women of Twin Peaks, confining myself to the first season's ensemble.

Among the male characters are surely many bad guys (Ben and Jerry, Leo, Jacques, sometimes Bobby, et al.). But the series is chock full of good guys, who even when they are comic or relatively powerless are trustworthy (Pete, Dr. Jacoby, Andy, James). The good guys who are sympathetic, acted decently, and command viewer respect as well as affection include chiefly Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman, but also Big Ed, Hawk, and Dr. Hayward. These men have most of their wits about them.

Now the women. First we have the victims of murder and/or rape and mutilation, Laura and Ronette, high school kids on crack with jaded perspectives and promiscuous sex lives. Laura actively participates in her own corruption, and is the cause of fall in others. Leading the bordello is Blackie, a creature of smoothly amoral collarbones if ever there was one. Catherine is a grasping bitch about to go bad in the teeth. Audrey is sexually advanced, eighteen going on forty.

Among the girls in white hats one could include the dubious Audrey, but only to a limited extent. Two of the women are physically maimed or handicapped, Nadine and Donna's mother. Nadine is bonkers as well as missing an eye, and Mrs. Hayward has no first name that I know of. Margaret, the Log Lady, is a gifted prophetess, but she is also out to lunch. We are treated to vividly suggestive scenes of Shelley's beatings and bondage. All Laura's mother does is cry. Audrey's mother begins cold and hysterical and then disappears. Lucy is wonderful, but she is confined to comic relief. Who does this leave among the women. Is anyone out there vaguely in charge of herself, not a victim, not crazy, and not corrupt?

There is Maddie, Laura's cousin/double, the parodical innocent who helps the series up the sexual ante by becoming another murder victim. At first there is Josie, who could do double duty for affirmative action as a minority, but she becomes involved in murder and blackmail, and later shoots Coop, the crazy bitch. So who does this leave? Donna? Sweet but hardly in charge, and underdeveloped as a character. It is Peggy Lipton's Norma who finally bears the burden of being the only adult woman in the series who remains strong, nobody's fool, and maybe only one man's victim.

It's the Blue Velvet ambience exponentially increased, littered with Lynch's fetish for victimized women. In a society as riddled with domestic violence as ours, it's risky business to feed a mass audience the idea that the girl next door might be a whore, that the seductive adolescent perhaps wants a real man to hurt her. The end of the first season tightens the noose with necrophilia and incest. Two men mount Laura's corpse in the missionary position: Albert Rosenfeld is thrown onto her body on the autopsy table; and at the funeral her father hurls himself onto her coffin as it is lowered and raised in a not very subtle screw joke. Later we would find it was he who had raped and killed her. The first season's cliffhanger features Audrey waiting for her first prostitution customer, her father.

It was Audrey's father, big bad Ben, who had the last word in the first season—or rather Shakespeare had it through Ben: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” Did Lynch and Frost intend to suggest we should see all of this tempest as a midsummer night's dream? Dreams are exempt from ethical dimensions, governed as they are by libidinal forces that make no distinction between wish and fear, right and wrong. Our dreams are full of ungovernable primary forces, primary urges, unspeakable desires.

Those desires push their way into action when they are repressed and unexamined. If Twin Peaks helps us to identify those urges, name them, see them for what they are, even if distorted in the funhouse mirror, then it might be said to have something in its pretty head after all. If it exposes us to just how deeply our urges are misshaped by repression, aggression, and misogyny, then it had value in a domain I would unabashedly call ethical. But after the first season, I was very suspicious, Would the series finally offer something more than beautiful surfaces and disturbing, provocative flirtations with darkness and depth? Would the second season live up to reasonable hopes that the series could transcend its major flaw by refraining from predictable dichotomizing of women into splits of the most unimaginable variety? A male friend, growing wary of the show's seeming misogyny, still believed something of worth would emerge, some subversive intent would clarify itself. I waited too.

Between seasons, Lynch answered questions about his suspect portrayals of women. “People have an idea that Dorothy was Everywoman, instead of just being Dorothy. … If Dorothy is Everywoman. … It's completely false and they'd be right to be upset” (Breskin 63; my emphasis). As Dorothy multiplied herself in Lynch's bad dreams, she became the dark whore half of Everywoman, whose Other is the innocent madonna. This is the major source of doubling in Twin Peaks: it breaks women in half. Wild at Heart, which came to the screen shortly before the second season of Twin Peaks, did nothing to change the pattern, except to exaggerate it to the point of parody. Here we have the ravaged innocent, the whore, the wicked, crazy mother, just more of the same. And the second season of Twin Peaks engaged in such splitting in nearly a farcical hurry: Donna switches from ingenue to seductress overnight, befuddling both us and sweet baby James.

When parody parodies itself, its subversive value is probably negated. Many viewers were willing to keep giving the show a break on this matter as long as the scripts and images remained marvels. But by the time it was cancelled, Twin Peaks had become a bag of increasingly cheap tricks. Only the final episode sustained its power with consistency. What did it all add up to? Lynch's major defensive strategy was to say it was all a mystery even to him, all a dream. Claiming the special status of visionaries who receive them, he told Rolling Stone “It's better not to know so much about what things mean” (Breskin 64). Whatever the series' creators did or did not know, could or could not articulate about their intentions, is finally irrelevant; surely Lynch and Frost know that we are all affected by our unconscious mental lives, to which we often have little direct access. We reach into the unconscious through dream images, and Twin Peaks reached into ours with larger than life, expensive, slick replications of our most monstrous dreams. The series employed at least, and exploited at worst, our lethal links between sexuality and death, whether those links are forged by nature or by culture.

Isn't there another reading? Might this have been, if not a moral tale, which no one over the age of consent could possibly wish, then at least one with an identifiable ethos? Did it help us see how destructive our love affair with sex and death is, and how silly as well? Were the clips of Twin Peaks' favorite soap opera, Invitation to Love, an invitation that we look at what we're doing when we watch them? Are we both privy to the joke and its butt? Did the series use the medium not cynically, but with highly subversive intent, whose end was to interrogate our collective mental mutilation?

While I am cynically disposed to question the show's portrayals of women, Randi Davenport's “The Knowing Spectator of Twin Peaks: Culture, Feminism, and Family Violence” claims on behalf of Twin Peaks a feminist stance whose primary purpose and effect is to point to the sexual victimization of women, and particularly childhood abuse of daughters by fathers. Her argument clears the show of charges of intent to titillate. Her most radical suggestion is that Twin Peaks displaces, even dismantles, the “pornographic trope of the Seductive Daughter.”5 The daughter figure in Twin Peaks is presented entirely as victim in Davenport's reading. Exploring the grounds of our difference illuminates Twin Peaks' portrayal of women.

Let us suppose, for the moment, that Davenport is right. What would that mean? If I, a feminist, well-informed about these issues, so severely misread, if I miss the point and the boat, then what chance is there that the mass viewership, with a high stake in repressing truths about family life, and massive unconscious misogyny, will understand what Davenport takes to be the series' feminist intent? It must be mammothly subtle. The abuse survivor counselor who watched the series with me found no such saving reading available to her either.

Davenport's reading of Leland/BOB's murder of Laura is original and persuasive. Leland was himself the victim of childhood sexual abuse by a man named Bob. He both becomes BOB—the character who signifies the split between good father and abusive father within himself—and represses his memory of abuse. When Laura sees her father, she sees his abuser. It works. But here is my reading of BOB. I find that far from holding responsible for their actions the men who abuse and kill under BOB's influence, Twin Peaks lets them off the hook by reverting to a simplistic displacement to the supernatural. At first confined more or less to BOB, the connection to the super-natural becomes the show's transparent and disappointing way of resolving impossible plot complexities as well as copping out on thorny issues regarding the psyche. Peaks participates in excusing male violence toward women, mythologizing their behavior as possession by evil forces that originate outside of the self. Safely relegated to supernatural and irresistible status—even Coop cannot, in the end, resist the cosmic force represented and embodied by BOB—the “evil” does not reside in normal, troubled, tragic human lives, but in helplessly possessed male victims who do not know what they are doing and cannot be held responsible. Leland is a compelling character in his mental breakdown, and our hearts go out to him; his confession and death are among the series' most powerful moments. He is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an agent who can be held responsible.

The supernatural agency of BOB effectively exculpates the “real” men involved, offering an excuse not even as close to home as testosterone. When BOB first appeared, I found him extraordinarily convincing as an embodiment of the “evil that men do,” whether those “men” are male or female. (One male Peaks watcher felt that the gender identification of BOB originally was, and should probably have remained, specifically attached to males, since he represents the kind of internal violence that is enacted, in a patriarchy, almost exclusively by males.)6 When he became representative of a force beyond an extrapolation of tragic human tendencies, I found him less interesting—and the show less valuable as a commentary on human nature under the pressure of culture. The bad guys do get theirs in the end. Thus we are instructed regarding how to situate our sympathies and experience our sense of justice. But this is just another clever use of the simplistic formula by which lascivious misogyny is presented in loving detail, punished by an equally thinly disguised notion of patriarchal law and order, scapegoating offenders whose punishment casts off the guilt that belongs to an entire cultural ethos. And that ethos, both pornographic and thanatopic, not only goes free. It gets validated.

Is it a coincidence that in the show's second and fall-off season viewer polls revealed that the majority of loyal watchers were young males? I talked to many such viewers and found few with any recognition at all of the complexities involved—from either point of view. I teach the same population—college students—that supplied the appalling statistics on male attitudes toward rape noted above. I'd like to see a feminist stance at work in Twin Peaks. Randi Davenport's distance from my reading, mine from hers, reminds me of the quarrel of so many intelligent viewers regarding Blue Velvet, but I cannot give Twin Peaks the same benefit of the doubt I extended to Blue Velvet. I agree with Davenport's sense of the deep harm done by perpetuating the myth of the Seductive Daughter. But that perpetuation is in the images before me on the screen, reinforcing rather than refuting the myth's cultural inscription in the show's viewers. From Audrey's shoes to Donna's smoldering smoking, the blatantly destructive compromise of legitimate adolescent sexuality is clear. If Twin Peaks does finally stake any claim to the high ground on this issue, it's at the level of television exposés masquerading as serious documentaries. (“Ain't it awful, Mabel. Press that rewind and let's see those guts again.”) It's got all the intellectual depth of an artichoke.

On this issue, Lynch and Frost are just upmarket Brian De Palmas for the educated cynic: talented, clever, allusive, derivative boys playing with f-i-r-e. I'd rather have seen Twin Peaks come out on top than assign it to the trash heap with other gripping, accomplished, slick films such as Body Double. (Note the parallels in titles—Dressed to Kill/Blue Velvet and Body Double/Twin Peaks.) That doesn't mean I don't think Lynch and Frost are onto some secrets. Whatever they are, however, they remain secrets to me, illuminated but not accounted for by own reading, or any other that I've seen. Something irreducible happened in Twin Peaks, and I'm glad of that. I've handled only one aspect of it here, and I'm not so monolithic that I felt it necessary to boycott the show because it didn't match my politics. I still found Twin Peaks powerful enough that my pleasure in viewing it transcended my objections to its sexual ethic, which I regard as reptilian.


  1. Jouve's study, The Streetcleaner, was published in England in hard and soft cover editions and is still listed in British Books in Print, but it is not available in America.

  2. Dorothy Dinnerstein, Nancy Chodorow, and Juliet Mitchell all published influential studies of psychoanalytic feminism in the 1970s.

  3. Jean Kilbourne wrote and narrated the film Still Killing Us Softly, distributed by Cambridge Documentaries.

  4. See Hawkins and Zimring, Pornography in a Free Society.

  5. Davenport's essay can be found in the Twin Peaks special issue of Literature/Film Quarterly. 21.4 (1993).

  6. Personal conversation with Kurt Steiner, Erie, Pennsylvania.

David Lynch and Psychology Today (interview date March-April 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2419

SOURCE: Lynch, David, and Psychology Today. “Naked Lynch.” Psychology Today 30, no. 2 (March-April 1997): 29-33, 74.

[In the following interview, Lynch discusses Lost Highway and his creative process.]

Famous for evoking the eerie undertow of everyday life, David Lynch—the director whose films include Eraserhead,Blue Velvet,Wild at Heart and who created the television show Twin Peaks—fearlessly projects his own psyche onto the screen. But the man with the eccentric sensibility says we shouldn't read anything into the fact that in his latest effort, Lost Highway, he takes on the meaning of identity.

[Psychology Today]:Do you think there's a dividing line between the people who get what you do, and the people who have a harder time?

[Lynch]: I think people think they have a hard time, but it's because—and this is a very general statement—most films are pretty easily understood. So [our] mechanism for interpretation is dulled a bit. But life is filled with mysteries, and symbols, and clues, and we all seem to get it in one way or another, one level or another. So films that allow you to dream or to have different interpretations are, for me, what it's about. The power of cinema is that it can show abstractions and things that exist down inside of us.

You say there aren't answers for everything. Yet science struggles to find answers for everything. Is your feeling a response to having a father who's a scientist [Lynch's father worked for the Forest Service]? There are names for trees, bugs can be identified. Everything is precise.

Well, it's precise, but it's always changing. Scientists are like detectives. They go deeper and deeper into things.

So you're a scientist of human behavior?

Well, if we're all kind of detectives, that's sort of what it's like. Either the science of trees or the science of human behavior.

Your films portray the heights and depths of human experience. And you personally have led a very varied life: growing up in a small town, becoming very well-known. Are there any conclusions you draw about human nature from your experiences?

Well, human nature is a huge spectrum. I think through this darkness and confusion eventually comes a prize that is worth the struggle. I think that's why it's happening, I don't know. But I believe there is a beautiful ending in store for people.

Do you believe in reincarnation?


So you think we're here to learn lessons, and that's our struggle. We have our particular lessons to learn and we either succeed and move on or …

Yeah, it's more complicated, because once you take a first step, you're on a certain road and you start acting and reacting and through that, learning. I think it's a very long process, but it's tough going.

Mark Frost [Lynch's producing partner on Twin Peaks] has been quoted as saying you like to make people uncomfortable.

That's not true. Sometimes people do things that end up making other people uncomfortable. But sometimes they do things that make people feel wonderful. There are many different textures in a film, many contrasts, but the ideas guide you to everything. If you just set out to make a film that makes people uncomfortable, the cart would definitely be in front of the horse.

But you won't avoid making people uncomfortable; if it happens, it happens?

Well, since everybody is different.

You don't even know when it happens?

You're true to the ideas for yourself, and you can't control what happens after a film is finished. Some people react one way, others another.

You were recently quoted as saying that in the disturbing thing there is sometimes tremendous poetry and truth.

Life sometimes makes us uncomfortable, but we learn things from it. And people always say that very good things come out of very rough situations. That's sort of the same with film.

You've talked about needing to fall in love with a subject before you can really work on it for any length of time. Was it the film noir genre, was it the characters—what did you fall in love with in Lost Highway?

Sort of the whole thing. The ideas come in fragments, but they come with the character and the mood, and all the parts, most of the time. Only when a large portion of the story is in front of you do you start seeing what it really is. It's the ideas stringing themselves together and feeling correct. You start to fall in love. It becomes a complete world to you.

Is there something about identity that compelled you to explore the characters? [In Lost Highway, jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) inexplicably turns into car mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty).] Have you had the sense of feeling like a stranger in your own life?

No. There's feeling the sort of group consciousness in the ether, there's feeling things inside yourself, and then there's catching ideas from the ocean of ideas. All those things seem to play a part in the process.

And you don't worry what the response will be?

It's an intuitive feel. And the ideas come along, and if you're true to them and you feel that you're bringing them up as close to a hundred percent as you can, the ideas—because we are all human beings—will be correct for others. It's not that [everyone will] see them exactly the same as you do, because each machine of seeing is different.

You hope there'll be resonance.

Exactly right.

And it was only after you finished the script that you discovered the concept of psychogenic fugue [a dissociative disorder in which a person has difficulty remembering their past and assumes a partial or completely new identity]?


Despite this, do you worry people may be confused because the story has no literal explanation?

There are very literal people and people that seem to feel the thing. I think a lot of truthful things are abstract, and whether you can articulate them with words or not, you feel it inside, and you know it.

So what some audiences will know is that they don't know.

You have to kind of enter into a world like a dream and let it happen on another level.

What do you hope filmgoers take away from Lost Highway, and all of your other movies?

I love being in that world and floating through it. And that's what I hope others would feel. I've learned enough to know that it isn't going to happen for everybody, but it can happen.

You seem unafraid to expose yourself; people are always looking for clues as to why.

A lot of things that we do don't really have anything to do with us, except we're the ones that happen to fall in love with the ideas, right? So if I fall in love with a certain thing, it says something about me. It must. But I see the ideas coming from outside of myself, and I see the way they could be translated using this beautiful medium of film.

Is it your idyllic childhood, as it's been described, that allows you to expose your innermost thoughts?

I have a foundation that gave me security, and it freed me to experiment. Whereas if you were basically insecure, you would be looking for security. And I could see how that could work against going into unknown areas where these ideas exist. So, yeah, I think that helped me a lot.

What do your parents think of your work? Was it a shock to them when they saw your first films?

Yeah, they probably worried about me. [Eraserhead, Lynch's first film, was about a miserable couple and their mutant baby.]

Yet your father was very supportive, even financially. [He helped finance the film.]

Yes. [My parents] have a very good philosophy—see which direction the child is going and be supportive.

Would you say that the struggle between good and evil, light and dark is the underlying theme of all of your films?

I don't really like the idea of themes, because that kind of restricts thinking, because there are many things going on. It's like, is struggling the underlying theme of life? The underlying theme of life could be summed up, but it would really have to hold all of the things that we know about. And it's real simple but super-complicated at the same time.

Does transcendental meditation help you figure it all out?

What they say about meditation is that it expands the container of consciousness. So if you're looking for ideas with a certain size fishing rig, and if ideas are like fish, you'll only catch the surface fish, or just [the ones] 20 or 30 feet down. But if your consciousness can expand, then you could catch the bigger fish. And then one day, if it's fully expanded, you see the whole picture.

How did you start meditating?

I was working on Eraserhead, and I felt like I had everything in the world I wanted. I should have been extremely happy, and one day I just thought, I'm just not completely happy. People were saying happiness is from within. And I heard about [meditation].

What's a typical day like for you? Do you paint? Do you write?

I don't write every day. I paint a lot, and it goes in spurts. Sometimes I paint every day. I like to take photographs, and I like to build furniture. A person gets many different types of ideas and some are funneled into furniture, some into a film, and some are waiting for a way to be expressed. So I guess it's trying to catch ideas each day.

Do you keep a notebook by your side to jot things down?

Yeah, sometimes I have to write them down. Sometimes they're so—I wouldn't forget them.

All of what might be called your eccentric behavior …

What would that be?

Well, things like not having much furniture in your house.

I've gotten more now.

Is it totally furnished?

Things add up. I like a traditional Japanese house, like in Kyoto, where things are very pure and austere. It just induces a sort of peace of mind, and you can think. When things get too busy, it's really upsetting.

You've said you like to be orderly so you can be wild within.

Exactly right.

Has there been any cooking in the house lately? Or is that still a no-no? [Lynch had said he doesn't like the smell.]

There has been cooking in the house. The stove has an exhaust fan.

So you discovered that, huh? Have you become domesticated?

Yeah, I have a four-and-a-half-year-old son at home. And he needs to eat. [Lynch lives with Mary Sweeney, the boy's mother.]

You also have two older children.

Right. I've got a son 14 and a daughter 27 or 28 [Jennifer Lynch, who wrote and directed Boxing Helena].

Are you a different kind of parent now than you were with your older kids?

Well, probably, but I'm not sure exactly why. I think that when you're younger, it can be pretty unsettling to have a child in the mix.

If I were Jennifer, I don't know what I would think of Eraserhead.

Well, it's about more than that.

She had a great quote: “My father makes films about what he knows with certainty. he knows feeling lost, he knows the white picket fence with strange things behind the front door, he knows passion, and he knows extremes of light and dark. Not Amityville horror, satanic dark. Just darkness in the purest sense.” It sounds like you two have had a meeting of the minds.

Yes, we have. Jennifer is a round, shiny rock.

What about the uterus in the bottle? [Lynch was given it as a gift by a friend who had a hysterectomy.] Has it been put away?

It's not out, but I have it.


Well, it's very interesting to have. I like medical things. They're inspiring. They make you dream. It's like seeing something that you haven't seen before. It's on the inside, and we don't see those things.

So you're one of those people who likes to know how things work.

Very much.

Did you ever want to be a doctor?

Well, I would love to be a doctor.

Your artistic bent was stronger?


And the bee board is still up?

Well, the original bee board was real bees. They were mounted in order to be photographed, so the bee board is now a photo of the bee board. The original has apparently been set upon by microorganisms, and the bees are dissolving. I didn't fix them with varnish or anything to preserve them.

Do you ever have nightmares?


Do you think that's because it all comes out in your work?

I have no idea why I don't.

You once said you went to therapy for a minute, but the therapist said you'd lose your creativity …

No, no, he didn't say that. I went to a psychiatrist and on my first visit I asked him if he thought [therapy] could affect my creativity. And he said, “I have to be honest with you, David, it could.”

How so?

You asked me if I like to know how things work. Some things. But how a process works is magical to me, and I don't really want to fiddle with it. I like not knowing about certain things, because it stays magical and it has infinite possibilities.

So you're not analytical?

Not really. Maybe in some ways. You sort of have to be a little bit, but it's more [that I] feel things.

How do you feel about all the people you seem to have influenced: Quentin Tarantino, John Dahl [the director of Red Rock West and The Last Seduction], and television shows like Picket Fences and The X-Files?

I don't really like to think about it. That's the part of the analysis that …

… you like to leave to others?

Leave it to other people and not even consider it, because it's getting into the magical area. One of my favorite painters is Francis Bacon—he's probably a favorite of lots of painters. I may be influenced by certain things in his painting, and someone else may be influenced by something else. It's so subjective. It's important to do your own work. There's a hundred years of cinema, so it's hard to do something that people can't compare to something that's come before it.

Marina Warner (review date August 1997)

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SOURCE: Warner, Marina. “Voodoo Road.” Sight and Sound 7, no. 8 (August 1997): 6, 8, 10.

[In the following review, Warner examines the doppelgänger motif of Lost Highway as a metaphor for identity crisis in the modern world, but concludes that Lynch's treatment of this theme is ultimately lacking in substance.]

The plot of Lost Highway binds time's arrow into time's loop, forcing Euclidian space into Einsteinian curves where events lapse and pulse at different rates and everything might return eternally. Its first and last shots are the same—the yellow markings of a straight desert road familiar from a thousand movies scrolling down as the camera speeds along low on the ground to the pounding soundtrack. But this linearity is all illusion, almost buoyantly ironic, for you can enter the story at any point and the straight road you're travelling down will unaccountably turn back on itself and bring you back to where you started. That emblem of pioneer America, the road ahead, that track to the future, collapses here into a changeling tale, in which contemporary phantasms about identity loss and multiple personality, about recovered memory, spirit doubles, even alien abduction, all unseat the guy in the driver's seat and lay bare his illusion of control. The film is made like a Moebius strip, with only one surface but two edges: the narrative goes round and round meeting itself, but the several stories it tells run parallel and never join up.

Two plots are braided together: Free Jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his elusive wife Renée (Patricia Arquette) double expert mechanic Peter Dayton (Balthazar Getty) and the dangerous blonde dollymop and gangster's moll Alice (Arquette again); somewhere in the middle, Fred is spirited away from a prison cell and Pete substituted and the film changes from an ominous Hitchcockian psycho-thriller to a semi-parodic gruesome gangster pic. Scraps of dialogue overlap; the male characters are pierced with excruciating flashes of memory from one another's lives; a puzzle seems to be forming, only to shatter again into an impossible theorem without issue.

The script, by David Lynch and Barry Gifford, mixes register and pitch, swerving between bizarre, semi-occult incidents, and a lowlife peopled by assorted high-tone pimps and heavies. The luscious—and affectless—blonde broad lures Pete into a life of crime, while her protector ‘Mr Eddy’ doubles as both porno racketeer and one of Lynch's trademark arch-conspirators, his shadow round every corner, his fingerprint on every surface, wiped. During a mountain drive in the Californian sunshine in his vintage Mercedes, Mr Eddy savages a tailgater: a kind of Tarantino vignette of unfettered random violence. This occult/mobster splice recalls Twin Peaks, of course, but it also looks back in style as well as narrative to the abrupt convergence of gangsters and initiates, of crime and magic, of external and internal world in Performance; Lost Highway gives a late millennial twist to Donald Cammell's fascination with switched identities, with dislocation and disorientation of the self. It also shares Performance's Pinteresque manner of italicising such dialogue as does take place, though Lost Highway takes laconicism to aphasic extremes. But whereas for Cammell's cast the agents of disintegration are drugs and fame, Lynch's model of consciousness is a haunted house, invested by external, enigmatic forces, over which his protagonists can exercise no choice. “This is some spooky stuff,” says one of the prison guards after Fred has been spirited from his cell.

American horror—Stephen King, the Alien movies—has long been interested in changing ideas about personality; Lost Highway similarly shifts its characters away from the humanist and Freudian unitary ego, safely mapped on a unique genetic blueprint and enriched with a lifetime of exclusive personal experiences. Instead Lynch and Gifford play here with a model of personality that far more closely resembles the beliefs of spirit religions as practised in Haiti, or elsewhere, among the Buissi people of the Southern Congo (as recorded this decade by the anthropologist Anita Jacobson-Widding). In such schema of identity, the dream self can wander and perform independent acts or become possessed by the spirit and identity of a local stranger over whom the self has no authority. In Voodoo, as is well known, an animal spirit takes possession of the priestess or medium, and invites participants to ‘ride’ her, to Tell My Horse, as Zora Neale Hurston entitled her pioneering work of ethnography from the 30s; the spirit can also evacuate personhood from a person, creating the walking shadow or ‘zombie’ so loved by the horror movie tradition. The Buissi, on the other hand, express a more tranquil acceptance of the plurality of the self. “In the personal discourse,” writes Mary Douglas, “metaphors for the person refer to body liquids and shadows. They evoke elusiveness, uncertainty, fluidity, ephemerality, ambiguity.” The Salem witch trials reveal how profoundly at risk Christians can feel when they think those shadows are closing in and that they are losing their grip on their sense of self.


David Lynch's characteristic flux of bizarre, lurid flashes and glimpses swims around the intrinsic instability of personality; his brooding images float and swivel in darkened rooms and mirror reflections from skewed vantage points—high above the action, crawling below it, until the camera itself becomes a plural narrator, a prowler as unpredictable and as knowing as the ghostly intruder who made the videotape that Fred Madison and his wife receive anonymously at the start of the film. There they find their house filmed, then themselves asleep in bed, and finally, in the sequence that brings the first story and Fred's life to a crisis, the savage murder of Renée in the same bedroom. Fred sees himself doing the butchery. But was it him, or was he swapped?

David Lynch does not say so in so many words—Lost Highway depends on its insolubility—but his plot assumes a form of shadow stealing or spirit doubling. For example, a ‘Mystery Man’ turns up at a party and hands Fred a cellular phone; he says that he's at Fred's house at that moment, and tells Fred to call him there. Fred does so, and the Mystery Man's voice, remote but unmistakable, replies. The Mystery Man, played with sinister conspiratorial effectiveness by Robert Blake, grins. He has a satyr's pointed ears and eyebrows, and in whiteface and crimson lipstick looks Mephistophelian: he's a trickster figure, gifted with divine ubiquity and omniscience; he lives, we see later, in a desert hideout that spontaneously combusts only to reassemble perfectly, and it is he who is the source and master of the video camera that has anticipated—or perhaps prompted—the murder of Renée.

David Lynch is too committed to the principles of surrealism to pitch for true thriller suspense; he'd rather catch its shadow after it's passed. He has often invoked André Breton as a mentor and quoted Breton's axiom about le merveilleux banal (the mundane and its wondrousness) and le hasard objectif (daily coincidence). His films' eeriness grows from the everyday look of his characters, their suburban milieux and their inconspicuous lives; but Lost Highway does not gleam with hygienic and wholesome ordinariness to quite the same hallucinatory degree as Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. This new film wears its strangeness with more baroque emphasis. But it does stage an anonymous Los Angeles of well-heeled houses and domestic values (Fred Madison is elegantly set up in a marital home, his doppelgänger Pete lives at home with Mom and Dad). It deploys a range of superfamiliar Californian-American paraphernalia along two axes: designer chic for Fred Madison, whose house is furnished in subdued and sparse Philippe Starck style (some of this being Lynch's own designs), and by contrast in Pete's life, a parodic LA of metallic light, big cars, lock-up cells, canyon roads, polished gold guns, underlit swimming pools, square suits—so that the spooky undependability of the film's storyline erupts more violently. One by one the rules of film noir and conventional narrative are laid down, only to be enigmatically set aside. Mr Eddy viciously threatens Pete for interfering with his girl, but thereafter the mobster's pursuit and revenge lose heat and energy. Patricia Arquette plays both Fred's wife and Pete's lover, changing wigs from an Uma Thurman heavy short fringe to a tousled fall of tinsel blonde. The plot confuses her identity beyond solution: she has already been murdered by Fred when she reappears in the bodywork repair shop where Pete works as a mechanic and thereafter vamps him into surrender and of course self-destruction. Or could the events be switched around, and her murder take place after their passionate affair? No, because in one photograph that Pete finds, as he's burgling her pimp's house at her order, she appears twice—side by side with herself.


As usual where women are concerned in a David Lynch film, her mystery is as deep as the spectacle of her body and her face: that is, both impenetrable and yet as spectral and thin as the celluloid of which it's made. Peter Deming, the cinematographer, has been directed by Lynch to linger on her in fragments: Arquette's sturdy legs emphasised by shots of her from the back, stalking like some wader on stacked heels, her full mouth fetishistically incarnadined in close-up on a pink telephone, her hands fringed with black lacquered nails on her lovers' backs; she performs a striptease at gunpoint for Mr Eddy and the camera exposes her bit by bit to us, too, the whole manner of image-making effectively translating her substance into a thousand coloured shadows. Arquette sleepwalks with lazy lust through the role, a convincing phantom of desire within a circumscribed convention, whereas the male doppelgängers whom she enthrals inspire an entirely different brand of scopophilia. Pullman as Fred and Getty as Pete frown, twitch, grow pale and sweaty, screw up lips and eyes in an orgy of expressive anguish that grants them an interiority the modern siren has been denied. Their dream selves have taken up multiple occupancy in their two bodies—and they pour all those recovered memories and unbidden desires into the mesmerising vacancy of Arquette's femme fatale, their fall underlined by such languorous standards as ‘I Put a Spell on You,’ covered here by Marilyn Manson.

Robert Loggia as Mr Eddy brings a charge of cold evil to the part, but he doesn't suffuse the whole film with pent-up menace as Dennis Hopper did in Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway beats at a slower rate; its mysteries are schematic rather than visceral, those of a clever brainteaser rather than a spinechiller. The general verbal emptiness now and then erupts into a line of dialogue that seems to come from another movie (“That fucker's getting more pussy than a toilet seat”). But throughout, Lynch's interest seems to grasp at another kind of silence, another kind of vacancy: the gaps between sounds. Lost Highway has a soundtrack as quick and quivering as a newly shucked oyster or peeling sunburn: noise slashes and slices and shivers, thrums, hums, thrashes and explodes in cascades that suddenly come to a stop, leaving a hole where terror can only collect and deepen. He accompanies this clangour with flaring light—sudden white-outs on screen, foxfire flashes and ghostly shinings, and a climactic sex scene in the desert filmed in burned-out overexposure. In voice-over, such gothic bands as Nine Inch Nails and Smashing Pumpkins come to haunt the action, pacing its slow unfolding to a rhythm that is faster and hotter than the film's; sound effects that have been dubbed in later and have no explicable grounding in the action move in and out of the scenes, in and around the audience, coming and going in a dazzling aural equivalent of the prying and ubiquitous camera. Lynch's way of foregrounding his soundtrack calls attention to his filmmaking presence; significantly, it creates a faceless but insistent double who is masterminding the audience response. The conspicuous camerawork and flaring noise of Lost Highway don't enhance the story in a traditional thriller manner, but interrupt and disturb its flow, compelling the audience to see how film can take possession of your mind and estrange you from yourself, just as the characters in Lost Highway are estranged from themselves.


As in Dziga Vertov's classic study of the cinema's way of looking, Man with a Movie Camera,Lost Highway is telling a story about the medium. But unlike Vertov's witty self-reflexive celebration, it expresses disquiet, distrust, even repudiation. Lynch may not be strongly invested in sincerity as a quality, but this latest movie certainly mounts an attack on film narrative's mendacity, showing deep alarm at its hallucinatory powers of creating alternative realities. Simultaneously, it also calls into question film's capacities to document and record: everything filmed is fabrication, but that fabrication has the disturbing power to supplant reality.

Fred's initial ferocious revulsion against the medium pulses through the whole film, dispersed among different characters: photography is totalising and invasive and distorting, its record of ‘the way things happened’ arbitrary and capricious and coercive; it replaces personal images and inhabits your head and takes it over. Fred's head bursts in agony with the pictures inside it; later Pete suffers a blow to his head and afterwards is crushed by migraines, as the memory of who he is crashes into phantasms of something other crowding his eyes. When Pete is breaking and entering the pimp's house, a huge video screen hangs above the gilt and crystal living room, where a grimacing but mute Alice is being taken from behind (or perhaps buggered) in lumpy black and white. At first, it seems that she is in a room in the house somewhere at that moment, being forced; but then she comes down the marble flight upstairs, imperturbable. Lynch seems to want to clear space between his own kind of filmmaking and the porn industry: when Mr Eddy dies, his throat slit by Pete/Fred and a collar of gore seeping into his shirt, a pocket video monitor is thrust into his hand where the shooting of the porn film flickers; his murder is revenge for his debauch.

Yet Mr Eddy and his sidekick, the Mystery Man, may also embody Lynch's own alter egos, his shadow side. For their methods in Lost Highway replicate Lynch's process as a filmmaker: he is the invisible eye that enters the bedrooms of his characters, who stages their sex acts, their crimes, their disintegration, who takes possession of their inner imaginary lives and moves them to his desire. And the plot of Lost Highway adapts narrative devices that film—and only film—can make actually visible, mines that potential to represent the uncanny that the medium had delightedly played with from its earliest years. Der Student von Prag (1913) first explored the theme of the doppelgänger, when its protagonist sells his shadow to the devil in return for a bottomless purse of gold, and then in a wonderfully shivery moment watches his identical double slide out of the door, smiling. Reversing action, slowing down time, replicating two different people in the same body (The Double Life of Veronique was a recent example of the genre) have almost become jaded cinema tricks, but still, prose storytelling can only assert they happen; film, in comic or eerie mode, can make them seem real. Lynch here has take this further: his changelings imply the phantasmagoric but practical world of moviemaking, in which actors alter appearance and behaviour from film to film, and stand-ins have to be indistinguishable from their ‘originals.’ Above all, though, his use of recovered memories extends the notion of flashback, as does indeed therapists' faith in them during analysis of previously forgotten abuse. Also, Lynch's handling of looped time mimics the fastforward/reverse stasis of the editing booth, while his exploration of disassociated lives intermingling at random, and of switched identities, comments from one point of view on the relation between stars and audience and the projection the modern enterprise of fame overwhelmingly encourages in America—introducing a new aberration in iconoclasm, John Lennon's murder, Valerie Solanas' attempt on Andy Warhol.


When Fred Madison declares, disclaiming the truth of the video record, “I want to remember things my way—which is not necessarily the way they happened,” David Lynch is fingering a contemporary anguish about identity. Such contemporary artists as Sophie Calle have explored the autistic realm of the surveillance camera and its hosts of anonymous, zombie-like inhabitants; Tatsuo Miyajima's current show at the Hayward Gallery aestheticises digital signifiers in a poetic reverie that rescues ideas of symbolic time for metaphysics, reanimating automatically generated computerised data. Contemporary video installations, such as Tall Ships by Gary Hills or The Messenger by Bill Viola, conjure revenants and angels from the looped dreams of the camcorder. Those who fear to lose their souls to the image are desperately seeking to capture its unique mystery, somewhere stable and permanent amid the spate of duplicates and faked images and reflections. The modern Narcissus looks into the pool, and there are two of him there, maybe more; and he does not know which is which. Lost Highway touches on these concerns, but its handling remains oddly bland, ultimately hollow. The film asserts an all American, suburban-Puritan belief in the idiosyncratic eyewitness and the visionary, the truth of an individual viewpoint and even of messianic derangement, while all the while conveying almost wearily that such subjectivity as idealised elsewhere has entered terminal decline.

Kim Newman (review date September 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1437

SOURCE: Newman, Kim. Review of Lost Highway, by David Lynch. Sight and Sound 7, no. 9 (September 1997): 48-9.

[In the following review, Newman assesses Lost Highway as a “noir horror film.”]

Los Angeles. Saxophonist Fred Madison discovers on his doorstep a videocassette of his house, shot from the outside. The next day, another videocassette includes footage of a track through his home, showing Fred asleep with his brunette wife Renee. The Madisons call the police, who have no explanation. Renee takes Fred to a party thrown by Andy, a shady character, and Fred is accosted by a mystery man, whose face he has glimpsed in the shadows. The mystery man claims to have met Fred at his house, and that he is there right now. He produces a mobile phone so that Fred can confirm this, by phoning home and talking to him. The next videotape shows Fred with the dismembered corpse of Renee. Convicted of his wife's murder, Fred suffers strange headaches and in prison transforms into another person entirely—a young mechanic named Pete Dayton.

The authorities return Pete to the charge of his parents, and Pete picks up his life, doing work for his gangster patron, Mr Eddy. Mr Eddy's mistress, Alice Wakefield—a blonde incarnation of Renee—begins an affair with Pete. Alice talks him into robbing Andy, an associate of Mr Eddy's who lured her into prostitution and working in pornographic films. During the robbery, Andy is killed and Pete notices a photograph of Andy and Mr Eddy with Alice and Renee. Pete drives into the desert, where Alice has arranged to meet a fence. She disappears into a shack—and, as it turns out, from the photograph at Andy's—and Pete transforms back into Fred. Mr Eddy appears on the scene, and is executed by the mystery man. Fred returns to the city to deliver a message to his own home that Mr Eddy also known as Dick Laurent, is dead, and drives again into the desert, with the police in hot pursuit.

The legend of Luis Buñuel's collaboration with Salvador Dali is that if either included an image or incident open to rational explanation or interpretation, it would be dropped. Yet Un chien andalou and L'Age d'or afford many meaningful readings. It may well be that with Lost Highway, director David Lynch and co-screenwriter Barry Gifford—author of the novel Wild at Heart—have succeeded where Buñuel and Dali failed, creating an almost entirely meaningless, or perhaps senseless, film.

A synopsis can only be tentative, since the film delights in contradictory or unexplained events, fracturing narrative logic at every turn. At a party, the film's first protagonist Fred asks the host who the mystery man is. Fred is told that he is a friend of the recently deceased Dick Laurent. But later it emerges that the gangster Mr Eddy is also called Dick Laurent—and when Eddy dies in the course of the film, Fred drives to deliver the news of his death, apparently to his own house. While in Lynch's Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks the noir plots are surprisingly worked through and explained, Lost Highway goes out of its way to be inexplicable. The twinning of Fred's wife Renee and Mr Eddy's moll Alice is impossible to rationalise as a Vertigo (1958) imposture, a High Plains Drifter (1972) resurrection or a Mirror Images twin-sister exchange. As a photograph at one point demonstrates, Renee and Alice are sometimes separate and sometimes one. If this bothers you, then there is no way into or out of Lost Highway for you.

The opening ‘Fred Madison’ section of the film, climaxing with Fred's transformation, is so powerful that the ‘Pete Dayton’ sequence inevitably disappoints. Fred and Renee receive the videocassettes, each showing more as the camera gets closer to them. Then Fred encounters the mystery man—Robert Blake in Bela Lugosi make-up, delivering arguably the most frightening performance in 90s cinema—and by this point Lynch fulfils his declared intention to fashion “a twenty-first-century noir horror film.” He invests the Madisons' house with shadows that, in Raymond Chandler's phrase, betoken “something more than the night.” Lynch has always excelled at sidesteps into pocket-sized universes—behind the radiator in Eraserhead, within the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks—but here he makes the simple shadowed corner into which Fred fades the most dreadful place his cinema has ever taken us.

Though the film slackens off when Balthazar Getty takes over the lead, Bill Pullman, an older version of the characters previously played by Kyle MacLachlan, represents Lynchian Man at his most susceptible to the forces of darkness, as demonstrated in the astonishing first encounter with the mystery man. More significant, perhaps, is Fred's explanation to the cops that he hates video cameras because “I like to remember things my own way … how I remember them, not necessarily the way they happened.” This whole film is not necessarily the way things happened. The Fred/Pete transformation just about makes emotional sense in terms of the entrapment of the noir hero within the narrative and the wiles of an eternally reborn femme fatale; while the twinning and melding of Alice and Renee play perfectly, thanks to Patricia Arquette's mastery of the art of holding back. But the ‘Pete Dayton’ section of Lost Highway founders a little on its lack of specificity. Have Fred and Pete exchanged bodies, with Pete coming out of some limbo to usurp Fred's place in the world (as Bob did with Agent Cooper in the last episode of Twin Peaks?) Or has Fred transformed only into a physical likeness of Pete, retaining his own memories and personality? On the one hand, Pete has his own skills at intuitive engine tuning—“The best goddamn ears in town,” Mr Eddy comments, patting the film on the back for its consistently superb soundtrack, designed by Lynch himself—but on the other, he seems disturbed by Alice's resemblance to Renee.

Fred Madison lives in a horror story where an ordinary life can be pulled apart because of a stray thought and none of the trappings of American success can offer more than illusory comfort. But Pete Dayton's world is culled from the noirs Gifford extemporises on in his distinctive book of movie reviews, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Other Unforgettable Films. Robert Loggia's Mr Eddy, like Frank of Blue Velvet and Bobby Peru of Wild at Heart, is a parody crime boss, brutally pistol-whipping an obnoxious motorist who has tailgated him, forcing him to promise to learn his highway code, and repeatedly emphasising the punishment he would inflict on anyone who slept with his mistress.

The Pete scenes trot out noir motifs—fleeing lovers, double crosses, a fall-guy protagonist—as landmarks rather than events, but the potency of the Fred scenes is never entirely dissipated. Among the most disturbing moments in the film are a terrifying phonecall from Mr Eddy and the mystery man (lying together in suggestive darkness) to Pete, and later Alice's reminiscence of being forced at gunpoint to strip for Mr Eddy (with Marilyn Manson proving against the odds that it is possible to outdo Screamin' Jay Hawkins with a more demented rendition of ‘I Put a Spell on You’). Fred returns at a desert site where time has run backwards, so that the mystery man's shack is first seen in flames and then de-explodes to wholeness. The last section of the film, which jumbles elements from all that has gone before, is all momentum where most movies would be all explanation, fading out with the lost highway of the title (a stray phrase from Gifford's novel Night People, not a reference to Hank Williams) and a high-speed car chase into a desert darkness.

As always with Lynch, it is hard to distinguish between a fictional universe created to force a reassessment of your relationship with the real one, and a personal world that suggests an unsympathetic interpretation of its creator's feelings. The abused and murdered women of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are again featured, though there is more eroticising here of living bodies than of dead ones. However, when it comes to genuine film fear—as opposed to Wes Craven's rollercoaster scariness with pop-culture footnotes—Lynch's is the only game in town. This is post-genre horror: playing down explicit shock (even Andy's head-impaling on the corner of a glass table is not given set-piece treatment), it works on the evocation of unease through subtle sounds and blaring doom metal, offering blurred moments that resolve briefly into dreadful clarity. After 100 years of cinema, it is still possible to make a truly terrifying picture.

Eric Bryant Rhodes (review date spring 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3250

SOURCE: Rhodes, Eric Bryant. Review of Lost Highway, by David Lynch. Film Quarterly 51, no. 3 (spring 1998): 57-61.

[In the following review, Rhodes asserts that Lost Highway's narrative is based on a theme-and-variation structure in which recurrent visual and thematic motifs take precedence over conventional narrative coherence.]

The ever quotable pop artist and underground filmmaker Andy Warhol reportedly stated that films are “better talked about than seen.” With his latest film adventure, Lost Highway, David Lynch has given audiences a complex and perplexing story to ponder and some astonishingly brilliant images to enjoy. Yet the majority of critical responses to Lynch's new horror noir have denounced the film's narrative as being interesting but impenetrably chaotic at best, and some have even gone as far as to call the film unwatchable. Even the cinephiles who have recognized the significant aesthetic achievements of Lynch's film have announced that he is unconcerned with narrative logic in Lost Highway Perhaps part of this critical response is due to a reluctance to embrace the robust eroticism and taste for violence displayed in Lynch's works. Lynch has ventured beyond linear film narratives and left incredulous critics and puzzled onlookers muttering that either his picture is obscure by accident or that he is engaged in some frivolous form of cinematic gamesmanship. Some reviewers have expressed their opinions in a tone of righteous indignation and used the supposed “mess” of this film to exact some type of petty revenge upon those who acclaimed Lynch upon the triumph of Blue Velvet.

Lost Highway may be destined to baffle devotees of traditional narrative forms in cinema, but should filmgoers be discharged from recognizing the structure and formal mastery of Lynch's film? Although many have suggested that Lynch has gone too far in yielding free reign to his eccentric set of visual obsessions, the film is contained within a formally rigorous and well-defined thematic structure. The difficulties with Lost Highway lie with the movie's unremitting dream-like images and Lynch's uncompromising determination to sustain an eternal sense of mystery and wonder throughout the film. He has designed a film with an open architecture in which equally plausible interpretations of the film can be constructed, and which enables the audience to use its imagination to fill in the blanks. The strategy of posing open questions is reminiscent of Antonioni in films like L'Avventura. A large part of what has confounded spectators in Lynch's enterprise is how to distinguish between scenes that reflect the characters' fantasies, and those that belong to the narrative “reality.” Lost Highway is a film that would appear to have a complete disregard for differences in ontological levels. Only a recognition that its visual language communicates a descent deeper and deeper into madness can reveal Lost Highway's intricate conceptual meaning. Lynch has given notice that his film takes its structure from the circular form of the Mobius strip, and herein lies the constraint against which he weaves his thematic concerns.

Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is living a nightmare: his mind is racked by suspicion, paranoia, and anxieties about the fidelity of his sensuous but emotionally cold wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), a dark-haired sex kitten decked out in Betty Page-styled fetish attire. Although Fred, a darkly handsome, thirtyish alto saxman in a neo-bop jazz band, would appear on the surface to be evenly matched with his mysterious and sexually powerful wife, he is incapable of arousing in her any enthusiastic sexual response. Events quickly take a sinister bend when the Madisons begin receiving unmarked videotapes on the front steps of their ominously underdecorated modernist house. When the tapes reveal that an intruder has invaded the Madisons' home and taped them while they were asleep, the terrorized couple call for police help, which arrives in the form of a comical detective duo who find no evidence of forced entry. Unsettled by the violation of their private space, Fred falls into a twitchy, zombie-like state. A third videotape arrives and he sits down to view it. He screams out in horror when the picture reveals Fred looking into the camera's eye beside Renee's savagely bloodied corpse. Although we see nothing of the crime on screen, Fred is summarily sentenced to execution for his wife's murder, and swiftly ensconced in a cell on death row. Isolated in a primitive 19th-century-styled prison cage, Fred has no memory of what happened to Renee on the fatal night, and his mind is shattered by excruciating headaches, unrelenting insomnia, and strange hallucinations (all marvelously captured in the film's mesmerizing visual effects).

Suddenly, in Lost Highway's Kafkaesque center sequence, a prison guard discovers a bewildered and bruised stranger in Fred Madison's cell. A brief investigation by prison authorities determines the identity of the stranger: Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who lives in Van Nuys with his parents, and has absolutely no recollection of how he mysteriously materialized to replace Fred Madison in prison. Pete is enthusiastically welcomed back to normal life and his job at Arnie's auto garage. Delighted with Pete's return, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a notorious gangster prone to comically capricious outbursts of violence, provides Pete with work on his vintage luxury motor cars. When Mr. Eddy brings in his 50s model Cadillac for a routine tune-up, Pete fatally falls for Alice Wakefield (also Patricia Arquette), Mr. Eddy's seductively carnivorous platinum blonde bombshell, and they embark on a furtive and—for Pete at least—obsessive affair. When the menacing Mr. Eddy's suspicions are aroused, Alice's risky and hastily devised plan of escape takes full advantage of Pete's obsession. She manipulates him into a classic film noir plot—reminiscent of Double Indemnity and Body Heat—to rob one of Mr. Eddy's associates in the pornographic underworld. As the plot unfolds and inevitably spirals down into disaster, Pete is horrified when he discovers that the object of his desire is an unscrupulously mercenary and debauched queen of porn.

As the film progresses, Pete descends deeper into darkness and confusion. At an isolated desert cabin the lovers await the arrival of one of Alice's acquaintances who is to help them escape. But at this point the two tracks of the narrative intersect. Fred Madison reemerges from Pete, and the Mystery Man (Robert Blake)—a kind of dark angel of vengeance—urges him to kill Mr. Eddy. Flames engulf the cabin—or do they?

It should be acknowledged straightaway that Lost Highway is, by design, extremely resistant to reduction into a definitive narrative account; by the film's end, it is evident that Lynch has intentionally withheld the answers to questions inevitably provoked by the narrative's elusive and elliptical plot. It is virtually impossible to reconstruct a definitive and rational account of what happens in Lost Highway.

According to the majority of its detractors, what happens in the film's prison sequence is that Fred is transformed (think Metamorphosis) into Pete Dayton via some type of supernatural intervention. Throughout the second half of the film, Pete's parents and girlfriend, Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), allude cryptically to the mysterious and ominous circumstances of the fateful night that something strange happened to Pete. Although Pete has no recollection of that night, we repeatedly see Pete's parents and Sheila in front of the Dayton's house under a threatening evening sky, crying out to avert some impending catastrophic event. Lost Highway, features several visual images that give some weight to a metamorphosis thesis. After all, for the most part, the film proceeds as if the central narrative has shifted from Fred's “story” to Pete's “story.” While Fred agonizes in his prison cell, images of lightning flashes and horrific distortion fill the screen with overtones of extraworldly visitation. Nevertheless, the idea that Fred is literally morphed into a man with a new identity obscures more than it clarifies the subject of Lost Highway.

Lynch has publicly called his film a “psychogenic fugue,” a term that in this context refers to a mental state in which a person is delusional although seemingly fully aware, a state from which he emerges with no memory of his actions. It also involves losing oneself and taking on an entirely new identity. Most of what occurs during the second movement of Lost Highway can be best understood as an elaborate journey into the hallucinations of such a state. The early sequences of the film demonstrate that Fred's consciousness is disturbed by suspicion, paranoia, and nightmares. He also has a pronounced tendency to daydream. This is made most evident when he tells the police detectives, “I like to remember things my own way. … How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” Fred's tenuous grip on reality is undermined by his voluntary flights into fantasy.

Lynch provides few signals that equal degrees of reality should not be attributed to all the actions of the film. By contrast, in Bunuel's Belle de jour, the viewer is given cues, like the jingling of bells on the sound track, to distinguish fantasy from reality. The most persuasive evidence for an interpretation of Lost Highway as a subjective film understood primarily as Fred's hallucination occurs during the prison sequences. During his time in jail, Fred is plagued by unrelenting insomnia. Hints of his delusional state of mind can be gleaned from the sound of seagulls on the sound track as he slumps in the prison exercise yard overwhelmed by a combination of excruciating headaches and exhaustion. Hallucinations also occur in his prison cell: Fred sees the flames of an exploding desert cabin run backwards—an image that occurs again at the end of the film when Fred “returns” to replace Pete. However, the key image that provides evidence for the hallucination thesis is a distorted close up of Fred's face shaking violently back and forth before he screams out in horror. This image occurs twice: in prison before we are introduced to Pete, and just prior to the film's conclusion. The flashes of lightning and out-of-focus visuals are all evidence that Fred's mind is spinning wildly out of control. Between the parentheses, Fred creates a parallel universe in his mind that takes on a will of its own.

The two parallel stories of Lost Highway are two manifestations of one essential story: a man obsessed with possessing the wrong woman. Although Fred and Pete are played by different actors and have distinct identities, they can be understood as representing the same self. Lynch's casting of the same actress in the roles of both Renee Madison and Alice Wakefield adds further credence to the notion that Lost Highway contains two mythic representations of the same couple. In Fred's tormented mind, Alice embodies his obsession with the now dead (and maybe murdered by him) Renee. (The use of one actress in twin roles recalls Bunuel's playful use of two actresses for the role of the tormenting Conchita in That Obscure Object of Desire, or, perhaps, Hitchcock's use of Kim Novak as one woman impersonating another in Vertigo.) Fred's hallucination is partly an escape into fantasy and partly a terrifying ride into a nightmare beyond his will. By envisioning Pete's story, Fred creates a new incarnation of the object of his obsession, but in the end his hallucinated encounter with a seductive and compliant temptress is no less catastrophic than his earlier attempts to control the remote and withheld body and soul of his wife.

The structure of Lost Highway is modeled on the form of the Mobius strip: a strip twisted 180 degrees and then looped by connecting the opposing ends. In the first image of Lost Highway we are speeding down the center of a desolate two-lane flattop along the dashed canary-yellow center line; we hear the industrial beat and the haunting baritone of David Bowie's “I'm Deranged” flowing over the credits on the sound track. This image opens and closes the film. It forms a frame, provides symmetry, and evokes both the closing of a circle and a sense of the infinite (as if this dream or nightmare could go on forever). The circular structure also enables Lynch to construct a world where conventional notions of time are obliterated. In the film's first scene, a disheveled-looking Fred is at home and roused into action when he hears a voice giving an enigmatic and unnerving message over the intercom: “Dick Laurent is dead.” When he goes to the window, the speaker has vanished. In the closing scene of the film it is Fred outside his own-house who delivers the same message: “Dick Laurent is dead.” In the end, we find out who Dick Laurent is and the two parallel stories are linked together, but many of the film's mysteries remain.

Despite the accusation that the film is chaos, or that Lynch is unconcerned with narrative logic, Lost Highway is contained within what Sontag terms (in Bergman's “Persona”: Styles of Radical Will, (p. 135) a theme-and-variation narrative. Instead of a conventional story, chronology or plot line, a theme-and-variation form of narration is nonlinear and uses the subject material as a thematic resource to develop variations on the central theme of the film: here, mirroring. The theme, which implies both duplication and opposition, manifests itself on many levels. The primary example of mirroring is captured in Arquette's characterization of two sides of the same woman: Renee (who appears passive and elusive) and Alice (who determines the action). On the superficial level of appearances, Arquette's Renee has dark hair and favors long dark silhouettes, while Arquette's Alice is a bleached blonde with a taste for revealing necklines and short skirts. However, they are the same in that each evokes a luxurious sense of carnal potency—one withheld, the other flaunted—and each wears fetishist-friendly platform high heels. The theme-and-variation narrative form enables Lynch to use devices of duplication, opposition, repetition, deviation, and inversion. Arquette's characters have opposing temperaments: Renee is quiet, removed, and cool; Alice is white-hot. The notion of duplication is explored when both Renee and Alice appear in the same photograph; of repetition when Alice and Renee repeat the same dialogue, and when the film's Mystery Man repeats dialogue in the two separate parallel stories of the movie.

Variations on the mirroring theme are worked throughout the film. Early on we see Fred fervently playing his saxophone, and later Pete listens to the same piece of music over the radio as he works on a car at Arnie's garage. However, Pete's reaction constitutes the emotional inverse of Fred's sensibility: in a fit of annoyance, as if he was subconsciously disturbed by the music's manic intensity, he shuts the radio off. Lynch also employs doubling when characters are introduced in pairs at various points of the film: the odd pair of police detectives, the two prison guards, and the two surveillance cops who follow Pete after his release from prison. Several of Lost Highway's key images—like the two-lane highway, shots of long corridors, the exploding cabin shown in reverse, the frantic scene in front of the Dayton home—are also repeated, emphasizing the film's self-referential character and clear intention to pursue a theme-and-variation form of narration. Together, the complex combination of the circular structure and elliptical story line invites repeated journeys along the twisted strip of the film's narrative in search of its closely guarded secrets.

Lost Highway's greatest success is that it deftly subsumes its experiments in structure and form under the aesthetics of hallucination and the iconography of horror. The primary attraction of a Lynch film' lies in his virtuosity as a visualist and his ability to conjure up moods with disturbingly visceral impact. Although Lost Highway starts out looking like the “real” world, it quickly becomes a “constructed” world: an extravagant phantasmagoria with twilight-zone metaphysics. The structure, form, and visuals all conspire to construct a self-contained allegorical nightmare where the sense of time is eviscerated.

The first clear indication that we are within some kind of alternate universe is the appearance of the Mystery Man. When a mysterious stranger with a mask-like face and pancake-white makeup approaches Fred during a festive party, all the background sounds magically recede away. The Mystery Man claims that he is presently at the Madisons' house and challenges Fred to call him there right now. Confused by the absurdity of the claim, Fred reluctantly dials his own number … to find the Mystery Man's voice answering at the other end of the line. Frightened, bewildered, and angry over yet another invasion of his private space, Fred asks for an explanation, but the Mystery Man only lets out a Vincent Price-style cackle and walks away.

The establishment of a constructed world permits Lynch and cinematographer Peter Deming to develop the film's aesthetics of hallucination. One of the film's most visually effective scenes occurs when slow-motion photography captures the electricity and longing in the initial gaze between Pete and Alice Wakefield. The mythic mood of the image derives part of its considerable emotional power from the perfect congruence between sight and sound. The slow burn of Arquette's sultry blonde bombshell is heightened by the languid sound of roaring electric guitars. Perhaps the aesthetic highpoint of Lost Highway is the love scene in the desert. When Pete and Alice begin their impromptu sexual encounter in the middle of a windswept desert night, their incandescent naked bodies are brightly illuminated by automobile headlights, creating a mood of intoxicating ecstasy and reverie. In the desert, the windblown golden sand and Arquette's radiant hair and torso explain Pete's total surrender to her overpowering sexual energy. The emotional mood shifts from dream to nightmare with disorienting suddenness when the headlights dissolve into darkness and the music's floating lyricism creeps into a brooding drone of synthesizers. Throughout the film, Lynch keeps the emotional tone of the movie within a dream-like register, and he changes keys between images that appear idyllic and icons of the horror genre.

Lost Highway is a decidedly dark work. In the majority of the film's interior scenes, Lynch favors murky shading and low lighting to elicit the fear of the unknown: long, dark corridors used in a variety of ways to evoke feelings of disorientation: a hallway where Fred is completely swallowed by darkness. Later in the film, Pete's walk along a corridor is accompanied by flashes of lightening and special effects that are the standard fair of the horror genre; his walk down a hallway to find the bathroom is a frightening hallucination: lightning flashes illuminate numbered doors, one of which Pete opens to find a woman, apparently Alice, taunting him. Pulsating music and red filters add to the disorienting effect. The images fittingly project Pete's turmoil in the moments just after discovering the profoundly sordid elements of Alice's life.

Lost Highway's labyrinthine construction enables Lynch to subordinate traditional cinematic concerns with dialogue and plot to a visual language that communicates moods and emotions. Although the dialogue in the film is spare, the drama of a man driven mad by his obsession with the woman he loves has an extraordinary emotional vividness. Lost Highway is a mystery, a fable, an allegorical nightmare. Although it can in some moments resemble our notion of reality, Lynch has basically jettisoned the tyranny of logic to take the viewer on an enigmatic journey beyond the limits of reason and reality—down some lost highway. Despite denunciations of the movie as irredeemably chaotic, it actually—with its haunting circularity and endless narrative loop—adheres to a disciplined aesthetic formality. Like Eraserhead the film evokes the interior world of one man's bad dream, the mystery and confusion of a consciousness afflicted by obsession, suspicion, and passion.

David Sterritt (review date 15 October 1999)

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SOURCE: Sterritt, David. “David Lynch Plays It Straight.Christian Science Monitor (15 October 1999): 15.

[In the following review, Sterritt comments on the dark undertones beneath the superficial sweetness of The Straight Story.]

Starting today, the biggest surprise of this year's Cannes film festival will be stirring up talk in theaters. David Lynch, known for ultraviolent movies like Blue Velvet and surreal TV fare like Twin Peaks, has found still another way to give audiences a jolt of astonishment: He's made a G-rated picture for the Walt Disney Company, spinning a tale so kind and gentle that it makes his previous career seem like a brilliantly filmed nightmare from which he's finally awakened.

In short, The Straight Story is a major turnaround from a filmmaker who has earned international acclaim as a chronicler of dark, disturbing dreams. But has this hugely original artist really changed course as abruptly as it appears? Or has he simply found a new vocabulary to express his longtime taste for extremes—directing a picture that's radically sweet, daringly goodhearted, humane, and compassionate to the point of extravagance?

Based on real events, The Straight Story centers on an ornery old man named Alvin Straight, played by Richard Farnsworth in a performance that should loom very large when Oscar time rolls around. Alvin lives with his daughter in rural Iowa, where their uneventful routine is interrupted by news that his brother, Lyle, has become ill.

The brothers haven't spoken since a quarrel 10 years earlier, and Alvin feels a flood of regret when he hears of Lyle's misfortune. His first impulse is to pay Lyle an overdue visit. While Alvin is no longer able to drive a car, he wants to make the trip on his own. The solution: Hitching a supply wagon to the tractor of his rider-style lawnmower, he sets off for his brother's Wisconsin home at a speed so slow that the 300-mile-plus journey will take several weeks of solitary travel—if the aging engine manages to get him there at all.

The speed of Alvin's lawnmower sets the tone for the movie. In some ways, this is the flip side of Lynch's last picture, Lost Highway, which was as fast and hallucinatory as The Straight Story is slow and lucid. Don't think the movie lacks humor or drama, though. Alvin's gradual voyage brings him into temporary contact with all sorts of people, most of them amazed at the audacity of his journey yet eager to help him reach the finish line. Few films have been more eloquent about the kindness of strangers and the redeeming power we tap into when we recognize our shared humanity.

Lynch has often said he turned to the shadowy side of moviemaking—starting with Eraserhead, his boldly inventive debut film—because of the shock he experienced as a young man when he moved to an East Coast city and learned that life seems to have an evil side he'd never dreamed of during his Midwestern upbringing. Seen in this light, The Straight Story isn't so much a new departure for Lynch as a long-awaited return to the peaceful, easygoing territory that has always lain beneath the surface of his gloomier visions.

It's also important to note that The Straight Story has a dark side of its own, contradicting some critics who claim it views the world through a sappy, rose-colored lens. Alvin is an adorable figure in many ways, but he's also a deeply stubborn man whose self-willed insistence on doing things his way—why doesn't he simply take a bus or train?—could sabotage the whole purpose of his journey if Lyle doesn't survive until he arrives. Lynch has long regarded human ego as a stumbling block to intuition and creativity, so this aspect of the film bears thinking about.

The movie's view of family values is also remarkably complex. We hear a lot about the importance of family life, but we never see an intact family on the screen, and the dialogue paints a subtly disturbing picture of the gap between rhetoric and reality in this all-important area.

Although it's largely a one-character show, The Straight Story benefits from strong performances by Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton, artful cinematography by the great Freddie Francis (Glory, the 1991 version of Cape Fear), and sometimes overdone music by Angelo Badalamenti, whose Twin Peaks theme was almost a national anthem a few years ago.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 15 November 1999)

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SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Character as Destiny.” New Republic (15 November 1999): 28.

[In the following review, Kauffmann praises The Straight Story as “a small epic” that embodies the American ideal of rugged individualism.]

The viewer need not know David Lynch's reputation before seeing The Straight Story, but it helps. Here is a writer-director celebrated for his eccentricities, his disregard for convention, in such works as Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, who has done a picture released by Disney, a picture based on the true story of an old man making a sentimental journey. Anyone ignorant of Lynch who sees The Straight Story will need an extra mite of patience to allow its beauty to unfold; others will be curious from the start about why this unconventional filmmaker chose this material, and that curiosity will speed up the unfolding.

The title is not really a pun: it simply uses a fact with a smile. This is a story about a man named Straight. In 1994 Alvin Straight, a seventy-four-year-old resident of Laurens, Iowa, traveled eastward across the state to visit his brother, Lyle, in Mount Zion, Minnesota. Lyle had suffered a stroke. Alvin wanted to see him before both of them passed on. He wanted to patch up relations with Lyle, whom he loved but with whom he had quarreled badly. Alvin was too infirm to drive a car, so he made the long trip on the only vehicle he could still manage, a lawn mower, to which he hitched a small trailer. It took Alvin many weeks to reach Mount Zion (this name is another useful coincidence), camping along the way and occasionally receiving hospitality from people he met. But he accomplished both his aims. (Alvin died in 1996.)

The story itself is Reader's Digest material. But with a concise screenplay by John Roach and Mary Sweeney, distilled in its dialogue and committed to verity of character, Lynch has made a small epic that echoes and enlarges in memory. He begins by insisting on the usual tempo of a Lynch film, an unapologetic adagio, implying that anything worth looking at is worth more than a hurried glance, unafraid of the latter-day shrunken attention span. Lynch's measured, attentive gaze assures us that he takes his story very seriously, and, unlike some other Lynch material, this story is so plain, so devoid of grotesquerie, that we soon see why he cannot be anything but serious about it. The subject is homespun, folksy; but to follow it with Lynch is to see Norman Rockwell become Thomas Eakins.

This is a resonant journey through a troubled life, encased in a grand deployment of the American heartland. We move through Alvin's past, including boyhood memories, memories of service in World War II, and the story of the seemingly impaired daughter who lives with him; but it is also a gallery of today's heartland people, including a runaway teenager whom he befriends and a Roman Catholic priest who befriends him (a Baptist, as he tells the priest). It is also, through the camera of the accomplished Freddie Francis, a poignant sprawl in the wide Midwest.

Soon we see that Alvin intends more than a brotherly visit. He refuses proffered transportation along the way because he wants to suffer the hardships of this journey; it is a penance, an expiation of past misjudgments. This journey is a gift that he is fashioning for his brother, as a craftsman might finish a fine object, which he wants to present to Lyle by the very fact of his arrival on this snail-paced lawn-mower; so he must make this trip alone, this trip that at first looks ludicrous and cranky but that soon seems a spiritual pilgrimage.

Every detail in the film is perfect. Something that is often overlooked in pictures about rural America is carefully tended here: the people's accents. I'm not able to say that they all speak like Midwesterners, but they all sound credible as country people, and every role, no matter how small, from the dealer who sells Alvin the new lawn mower he needs (Everett McGill) to another old man with whom he exchanges grim war memories (Wiley Harker)—every role is put in place like a small gem in a crown. Harry Dean Stanton, who has perhaps two minutes on-screen at the end as Lyle, is, in a grateful word, fulfilling. Sissy Spacek gives Alvin's daughter warmth and the requisite secret scars.

But all these excellences would come to little without Richard Farnsworth. Born in the same year as Alvin, wrinkled and skinny and white-bearded, quiet yet dogged, Farnsworth performs a miracle. He has been knocking around in films for at least forty years, has been everything from a stunt man to an extra to a minor supporting player, and has sometimes had prominent parts in the Wilford Brimley vein, the by-cracky likable old hick. Here, no doubt aided by Lynch, Farnsworth understands his role as the one toward which his whole life has been winding, as if he were stepping into a better reincarnation of himself. It won't suffice to say that he never makes a false move: the highest compliment I can pay is that he made me think of the great Victor Sjostrom in his last role, in Bergman's Wild Strawberries. Sjostrom played an old professor journeying to a university town to receive an honorary degree, revisiting his life along the way—a valedictory performance by an important figure in film history. Farnsworth, arriving from a quite different past, places Alvin in the same company as Sjostrom's professor, an archetypal portrayal of an old man near the end. Farnsworth's voice lingers in the mind. At one point a young man asks Alvin, in a friendly way, what the worst part is about getting old. Alvin says: “The worst part is rememberin' when you was young.”

But The Straight Story goes past honesty. Without satire, with calm admiration, it presents a national self-image. Every country of which I have any knowledge has such a self-image. America likes to think of its ideal personification as a self-reliant, stubborn, humane yet taciturn, courageous loner—or at least someone who is willing to be alone if the situation demands it. (John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart.) Lynch's film is bifocal: it treats Alvin with complete authenticity, yet it also sees his story as an ideal—senescent this time, yet essentially the cherished romance.

Congratulations to Lynch and Farnsworth and everyone who contributed to this extraordinary film.

Kevin Jackson (review date December 1999)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Kevin. Review of Straight Story, by David Lynch. Sight and Sound 9, no. 12 (December 1999): 57-8.

[In the following review, Jackson characterizes The Straight Story as blandly sweet.]

Laurens, Iowa, 1994. [In The Straight Story,] Alvin Straight, a stubborn 73-year-old widower who lives with his adult daughter Rose, suffers a bad fall and is sent to the local clinic. The doctor warns him he is in dangerously poor health and needs to take better care of himself, but Alvin shows little sign of mending his ways. Rose takes a phone call and learns Alvin's estranged older brother Lyle has had a stroke. Despite Rose's warnings and the incredulity of his fellow townspeople, Alvin is determined to travel to Lyle's home in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, and try to patch up their ancient quarrel—by an idiosyncratic means of transport: a motor-driven lawnmower.

On his slow and often interrupted chug to Wisconsin, Alvin meets and befriends a variety of people, including coach tourists heading for a grotto; a pregnant teenage runaway; a woman whose daily commute to work usually involves crashing into and killing deer; volunteer firefighters; a generous family who allow him to live in their garden while his lawnmower is being repaired by identical-twin mechanics who constantly bicker with each other; a World War II veteran with whom Alvin shares anguished memories of combat; and a hospitable priest. At long last, Alvin reaches the ramshackle wooden house where Lyle lives. The two old men sit together on the porch, largely wordless though seemingly deeply moved by their long-deferred reunion.

All the usual elements are present and correct at the start: the mock-innocent lilt of an Angelo Badalamenti score; a threateningly bland vista of one-storey clapboard houses and trimmed gardens; the mildly grotesque figure of a plump, recumbent woman sunning herself with a reflector while gobbling unappetising foodstuffs; a chillingly slow, predatory camera move in towards the house on the left; a sudden thumping noise from deep within. Any minute now, you expect David Lynch to bring on the severed genitals, the dwarves who talk Atlantean, the psychopath who injects himself in the pineal gland while crooning hits from Broadway shows of the 20s. Something like that, anyway.

Well, forget it. Behind the eerily normal and wholesome facade of Laurens, Iowa, are eerily normal and wholesome folks living ordinary lives. If you sit through The Straight Story waiting for Lynch to cut the cornpone and turn weird and ugly, then you will pass III minutes in vain, for the film is pretty much as good as its punning title promises. Its narrative has digressions, but not a single kink.

To be sure, there are a few sequences showing Lynch in a more familiar vein, such as Alvin's encounter with a woman who has inadvertently become a serial ‘bambicide’ (“Every week I plough into at least one deer—and I love deer!”), or his dispute with the identical-twin mechanics who spend more time sniping at each other than tinkering with engines. And the film sometimes sounds as well as looks like a typical Lynch product: when Alvin and another old-timer sit at a quiet bar recalling the guilty horror of their war service, the air gradually becomes filled with the crash and wail of heavy artillery. On the whole, though, this is a film made by David Lynch the sometime Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana, not David Lynch the inspired sicko behind Blue Velvet and Eraserhead.

Grant this disconcerting limitation, and there's a lot to admire about the film, from Freddie Francis' cinematography (it's hard to do much new with sweeping fields of Iowan corn, but Francis manages it: some of the aerial shots render these growths as burnished tweed) to the impeccable and moving tact of the final reunion between the two brothers. Harry Dean Stanton's appearance as Lyle is as haunting as it is brief, though the film's richest performance belongs to Sissy Spacek as Alvin's “simple” daughter Rose who, with her speech impediment and habit of building bird-houses, initially seems like a refugee from the Lynch carnival but gains in gravity with every scene. The Straight Story also has the best crane-shot joke in years: the camera catches Alvin's puttering progress from behind, rises into the sky with epic majesty, then gracefully sweeps down again—to reveal Alvin, about four feet further down the highway.

But to enumerate redeeming features is to confess a need for redemption. Lynch's film risks being nothing more than sweet-natured, and its habit of treating ornery old Alvin like a kindly wizard who sets people's lives to rights with a twinkle and a yarn can be more than a trifle sickly. In its least beguiling moment, Alvin tells a sad runaway a little homily about binding sticks together into a bunch so they won't break. “That's family,” he sums up; at which point, ill-natured viewers will snarl that the Romans used to call such wooden bundles fasces and look where that homely symbol ended up.

Chris Tayler (review date 17 December 1999)

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SOURCE: Tayler, Chris. “Life in the Slow Lane.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5046 (17 December 1999): 17.

[In the following review, Tayler praises Lynch's restrained cinematic style in The Straight Story.]

David Lynch's new film, The Straight Story, is about a stubborn, laconic old widower who chooses to drive 300 miles on a lawnmower to visit his estranged and ailing brother. Sometimes charming and sometimes sentimental, it is an uncharacteristically restrained piece of filmmaking: quiet, autumnal and, above all, slow. Not that it is unclear whose work we are watching; during The Straight Story, we are shown such Lynch-film staples as wood being sawn, machinery hulking and humming, an obese woman, and a house on fire. The director has famously made a career out of unsettling his audiences' expectations, and these references emphasize and make strange the determinedly “straight” mode of storytelling, as well as indicating that, as Walter Benjamin believed of Kafka, Lynch's “entire work constitutes a code of gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from the outset. …” The opening scene of The Straight Story, with the camera craning gently over small-town lawns to home in on a domestic accident, even reprises that of Lynch's masterpiece, Blue Velvet. But this serves only to announce the change of tone; here, water-sprinklers decorate poignant moonlit scenes, rather than twitching in slow motion to the sound of menacing roars.

The accident in question happens to Alvin Straight, who has fallen over and has trouble getting up. A visit to the doctor emphasizes his frailty; his smoking a cigar afterwards stands in for his stubborn vitality and independence (like Buena Vista Social Club, the recent documentary by Wim Wenders, The Straight Story gets a lot of mileage out of old men defiantly smoking cigars). Then Rose, Alvin's slightly damaged daughter, has to tell him that his brother Lyle has had a stroke. Alvin's eyesight is poor, which means he cannot drive; he has little money (uniquely, for the protagonist of a contemporary American movie, he is not only old but on welfare); and, as a rugged individualist, he needs to make the journey alone and is therefore unwilling to take the bus or accept a lift. So, after some preliminary misadventures, and against the advice of Rose and his neighbours, he sets out for Wisconsin on a '66 model John Deere lawnmower, towing a homemade trailer stocked with petrol and hot-dogs (“my rollin' home”), to make peace with his brother. Between his various encounters on the way, the camera swoops ecstatically over the cornfields of Iowa which, as Alvin approaches his goal, are replaced by hills and autumn colours. As in The Elephant Man, his next-gentlest film, Lynch shows a fine, tactful sense of when to cut from an emotional scene. At the start of many encounters, the camera keeps a respectful distance, framing beautifully composed tableaux; Freddie Francis's photography is uniformly excellent, the performances are understated, and Richard Farnsworth is persuasive and extremely watchable as Alvin Straight.

Death haunts the film; indeed, it is based on a true story, and Straight himself died before it was made. There are some extraordinary moments (especially towards the end, where Lynch somehow squeezes intimations of immortality out of a drink in a bar and an encounter with a tractor on the final stretch); and there are some good visual jokes and a gentle sense of situational humour. Sometimes, though, it starts to cloy, especially when Alvin dispenses kindness and homilies to a pregnant teenage runaway (who, after a late-night, fireside confession, leaves him a bundle of sticks as a token of gratitude). Midwesterners, it seems, can either be louring, psychotic rednecks from the American heart of darkness, or pastoral repositories of innocence and pluck, but rarely people like us. Irony has certainly been a concept much abused in recent years, but, despite his endearingly faux-naïf persona, it seems something of a shame to see David Lynch, of all people, indulging in such sometimes saccharine earnestness. So that, while The Straight Story indeed demonstrates that Lynch can make a fine film without leaning on his customary bizarreries, it also raises a secret hope that the rapturous critical reception this slice of upbeat “humanism” has received might encourage someone to sanction a return to wide-screen Surrealism.

John Simon (review date 21 February 2000)

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SOURCE: Simon, John. “Life in the Slow Lane.” National Review 52, no. 3 (21 February 2000): 59.

[In the following review, Simon praises The Straight Story for its gentle tone and refreshing simplicity, noting that despite its sentimentality, the film avoids becoming sappy.]

Alvin Straight is a nice old man living—we don't quite know off what—in Laurens, Iowa, with his daughter Rose, who talks haltingly and whose four children have been taken away from her because she is slightly retarded and because one of them was badly burned in a fire. Alvin says, “She is a little bit slow, but her mind is like a bear trap.” Laurens is a small town, and on the sunny day when The Straight Story begins, Main Street is deserted but for four dogs (not together) who bound across it in canine bliss.

Alvin has to be helped up from the floor of his shack by Rose, who finally manages to drag him off to a doctor. He is henceforth to use a walker, eat more judiciously, and stop smoking cigars. For the walker, he substitutes two canes; the rest he ignores. As he and Rose are watching a lightning storm, a phone call from someone informs Rose that Alvin's brother, Lyle, has had a stroke. Although they haven't spoken in ten years, Alvin resolves to visit Lyle in Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, a goodly distance away. His eyes do not permit him to drive a car, so he decides to travel by his lawn mower, to which he attaches a flimsy trailer. The townsfolk think him crazy, his mission impossible. But this is a true story.

The lawn mower conks out fairly promptly, and he returns to buy another model, used but newer. Off he goes again, unperturbed by the fact that whatever moves on the road lets him eat its dust. He carries victuals with him, and doesn't even mind that he rides on a backless seat. Modest adventures befall him. Thus, a surly girl hitchhiker, pregnant and running away from her family, comes upon his supper: roasting wieners on a campfire. He shares his meal and some good advice with her. Another time, he encounters a hysterical woman who has just run over a deer. Its antlers end up on his trailer, its meat lands in his stomach.

When a group of young touring cyclists swarm around him and eventually share a bivouac with him, one of them asks what is worst about getting old. He tells them: Remembering that one was once young. But he is content anyway, driving by day and sleeping by night, and dispensing bits of philosophy here and there, even if the wisdom is often derivative.

People, at least in the Midwest, are wonderfully kind. When his drive belt breaks on a steep incline, he nearly comes to grief. But some good folks from nearby come to his aid. One of them puts him up on his land, and summons a pair of comic repairmen to restore his vehicle. Alvin haggles with them pawkily. At times, the dialogue is very slow, but it always hits home.

It is refreshing, for one thing, to see a film about an old person, many of whose encounters are with other old-timers. For another, the characters have a simple, earthy reality. Pathos is never milked, except perhaps in a barroom episode where Alvin and another geezer reminisce about terrible wartime memories, but even this scene does not go overboard. And the kindness of strangers never turns sappy. The rest is taken care of by the acting, directing, and cinematography.

David Lynch is known for having directed some of the meanest, ugliest films on record; here, suddenly, he goes antithetical, and gives us one of the gentlest movies of recent times. And it works. Even when the pacing dawdles, the camera will be on the face of Richard Farnsworth, that superb 79-year-old actor, equally fascinating in quirkiness and in quietude. And the scenes on the road, amid typical uneventfully flat landscapes, are shot with unfailing eloquence by Freddie Francis, the marvelous 82-year-old British cinematographer (and sometimes director), who manages to wrest a rich palette from wheat, asphalt, and some greenery. Also, the night sky with stars, a poetic leitmotif.

The screenplay by John Roach and the film's editor, Mary Sweeney, is humane and only occasionally a bit weirdly Lynchian, and the usually overwrought composer Angelo Badalamenti remains decently restrained. With Sissy Spacek (Rose) and Harry Dean Stanton (Lyle) leading an utterly believable supporting cast, The Straight Story gets it pretty much right.

Bert Cardullo (essay date summer 2000)

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SOURCE: Cardullo, Bert. “Getting Straight.” Hudson Review 53, no. 2 (summer 2000): 299-307.

[In the following essay, Cardullo praises The Straight Story for its restraint and serenity, asserting that it is one of the greatest films ever made.]

David Lynch, best known for exploring the darker recesses of the human psyche as well as the darker corners of the American landscape in such cult films as Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and Twin Peaks (1992), has created an eloquently simple, representatively American, straightforwardly emotional, and extraordinarily moving picture titled The Straight Story (G-rated and released by Disney, no less). As for why he has turned to more “serene” material, Lynch's explanation rings as true as his latest film: “Sex, drugs, violence, and obscene language have been pushed to an absurd extreme, to the point where you don't feel anything anymore.” In other words, less is more, or restraint can produce its own form of artistic freedom. Lynch isn't sure that he will undertake another “experiment in purity” like The Straight Story, however. As he himself put it, “My sensibility was probably too warped at a young age for me to do more than dabble in the serene.” Nonetheless, he has so dabbled in this instance and in the process made not only his best film, but also the best American film since Sling Blade (1996).

The idea for the picture came from the New York Times, where Mary Sweeney (the co-author of The Straight Story's script along with John Roach) read a report in 1994 about a seventy-three-year-old resident of Laurens, Iowa, named Alvin Straight. It so happened that Alvin had traveled three hundred miles eastward to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, to visit his stroke-afflicted, dying brother Lyle, whom he had not seen for ten years on account of a terrible quarrel. Naturally, these facts in and of themselves would not have constituted a “story”; what made them one was Alvin's mode of transportation: a 1966 John Deere tractor-style lawn mower, with a trailer attached, which he used because his deteriorating eyesight had cost him his driver's license and he couldn't stand buses, and despite the fact that he could walk only with the support of two canes. It took Alvin all of September and a fair portion of October of 1994 to reach his older brother, camping along the way and occasionally receiving hospitality from people he met. But reconcile with Lyle he did before dying of emphysema in 1996. And it is to Alvin Straight that David Lynch has dedicated his new film.

Aside from its “sereneness” (more on which later), what did Lynch see in this Reader's Digest material, the very kind that might once have inspired the cover art of a Saturday Evening Post? He saw, I think—especially as a result of Sweeney and Roach's verbally distilled yet veristically precise screenplay—that Alvin Straight's sentimental journey need not lapse into narrative sentimentality. He also sensed that the usual tempo of one of his pictures—in our era of the shrunken attention span, an unapologetic adagio that can accommodate this director's measured, attentive gaze—would unobtrusively serve Straight's simple, unadorned tale just as well as it self-consciously heightened the eccentricity-cum-grotesquerie of such Lynch movies as The Elephant Man (1980) and Wild at Heart (1990). The title of The Straight Story thus names not only the film's human subject, but also its artistic style, as if that title were playfully attempting to tell us this will be a factual tale or journalistic account filtered through the consciousness of a cinematic Thomas Eakins rather than a moviemade Norman Rockwell.

Still, the David Lynch of old obtrudes teasingly into the rarefied, almost abstractly tender world of The Straight Story, like Edward Hopper trying to put his signature on an Eakins canvas, or Diane Arbus attempting to make a Walker Evans photograph in her own image. We see, or think we see, that Lynch at the start of the picture, where all the usual Lynchian elements seem to be in place: the mock-innocent, faux-resonant score by Angelo Badalamenti; a threateningly bland, overhead shot of Midwestern fields in early autumn, followed by an eerily sunny vista of one-story clapboard houses, neatly trimmed lawns, and a main street that is vacant save for its resident running dogs; the first human being in the form of a mildly grotesque, supinely plump woman sunning herself before her house with a reflector as she gobbles junk food, and as the camera swoops down on, then moves in toward, her; finally, the window of the house next door on the left, to which the same chillingly slow, predatory camera has traveled and where we hear a sudden thumping noise deep from within, after which this first sequence ends, without a word, on a fade-out.

In fact, there is nothing ominous, threatening, mocking, removed, eerie, bizarre, chilling, or predatory about the movie that follows; Alvin Straight's odyssey never intersects with the Twilight Zone, and the normal, wholesome façade of his hometown is no façade at all: it's the essence of Laurens, Iowa. To be sure, Alvin is something of a small-town eccentric, like many a figure in the Lynch gallery, but here the character's eccentricity or intense individualism is hitched to a genuine theme and not made a voyeuristic subject in its own right. That theme has to do not only with our national self-image or ideal personification—deliberately, almost perversely conveyed through the figure of the senescent Alvin—as a self-reliant, stubborn, taciturn, yet humane and courageous, loner. It has also to do with transcendentalism, American-as well as cinematic-style.

For American transcendentalism, as sponsored by Ralph Waldo Emerson, emphasized the practice of self-trust and self-reliance at all times, at the same time as it preached the importance of spiritual, or spiritually expansive, living, by which it meant living close to nature rather than submitting to religious dogma—a nature where God's moral law could be intuited by divinely receptive man. And transcendental style in the cinema, as sponsored by Paul Schrader, similarly unites the spiritual style of religious cinema with realism's redemption of the physical world. That is, transcendental style seeks to express the universal holiness or organic wholeness of reality itself—of people, nature, and things. It does this not only through a realistic shooting style consisting of (1) limited cutting within a scene or the frequent use of long takes; (2) the deployment of a camera that seeks out natural light while eschewing the heat of the close-up for the repose of the full shot indoors as well as the long shot outdoors; and (3) the repeated interjection of “dead time,” or shots of the material world that are devoid of the film's human characters, for the purpose of calling attention to the mystery, inviolability, and primacy of that world. Transcendental style also attempts to fulfill its mission by reveling in the temporality or mundaneness of quotidian living—of working, eating, washing, drinking, talking, shopping, walking, sitting, traveling, playing, smoking, sleeping—at the expense of more dramatic activity such as murder, mayhem, rape, robbery, even simple altercation (or its opposite, jejune romance).

So we get almost none of the latter “action” in The Straight Story, which is the reason the film hasn't gotten—nor will it get—much attention from the press and consequently will not receive any awards. The very nature of Alvin's transportation (which moves at approximately five miles per hour) means that the pace of his journey, and thus of the picture, will be slow, unlike that of an action movie. Lynch is interested in this man's mental journey into his past via the people he meets on the road in the present; mental journeys take a long time, for they are arduous; and, although Alvin has chosen to travel by lawn mower for physical reasons, one senses the suitability of his choice to the purpose at hand—his own as well as David Lynch's. That purpose is not merely a brotherly visit, or else Alvin would not refuse proffered transportation along the way (which he does do). He wants to suffer the hardships of his inner as well as outer journey, since it is a penance for, or expiation of, past misdeeds, including years lost to drinking and nastiness (toward his wife, now deceased, and seven children) as well as to his falling out with Lyle (whom Alvin calls the Abel to his Cain). This journey, then, is a gift that he is fashioning both for his brother and his family, just as a craftsman might finish a fine object; and it is a gift that he presents by the very fact of his arrival in Mt. Zion on the snail-paced lawn mower. Therefore Alvin must make this trip alone and in his own way—this trip that at first looks so ludicrous, even cranky, but that soon becomes a spiritual pilgrimage (not least because of the serendipitous name of his final destination).

So determined is Lynch to get us used to his cinematic pace, as opposed to the fast, factory kind we've become conditioned to expect, that he has Alvin's journey begin with a false start: the septuagenarian's first mower blows its engine a few miles from Laurens, so he must hitchhike home to purchase another, used one at what is still a considerable cost ($325) for this pensioner. As for the old lawn mower, Alvin sets it on fire in his backyard with two rifle shots to the gas tank in the film's one ironic nod to the cinema of spectacle. Yet even this bizarrely comic moment resonates with unforced seriousness in a movie whose overarching seriousness of intent is an article of faith. For Alvin's adult daughter Rose, with whom he lives, witnesses with trepidation the incineration of the broken-down mower, and we only later learn why. This “slow,” speech-impeded woman, you see, is the single mother of four children who have been removed from her custody forever on account of a house fire in which one of them was badly burned—a fire apparently caused by Rose's “incompetence” or neglect. Rose lives in mourning for, and memory of, those children who were once her family; and now her present family, consisting only of her elderly father, is about to embark on a perilous journey conceived, as it were, in flames yet dedicated to reuniting him with his familial past in the form of his estranged older brother.

Hardly by accident, Alvin's mower-breakdown occurs near a sign announcing that the Grotto of the Redemption (in West Bend, Iowa) is five miles away. And, once back on the road, Alvin duly passes by the Grotto on the road to his own redemption. Prior to his meeting with Lyle, that road consists of a series of stations (about seven to Christ's fourteen Stations of the Cross), each of them marked or punctuated by (aerial) traveling shots of corn crops and grain fields at harvest time; long takes on the sun as it rises, the rain as it falls, or a fire as it burns; by passing glimpses of woods, rivers, vehicles, and barns; and, above all, by crane shots that begin by catching Alvin's puttering progress from behind, rise into the sky with epic majesty, then gracefully sweep down to reveal the man and his mower-cum-trailer about ten feet farther down the highway. Some commentators have taken these crane shots to be an elaborate visual joke on Alvin and his pilgrim's progress, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Along with the other “travelogue” footage as well as the recurrent, companionate shots of a starry nighttime sky—the very first as well as the very last image in The Straight Story—they are designed sublimely to suggest the spiritual nature of the protagonist's quest, serenely to unite Alvin, as it were, with natural elements in space as a way of creating for him a supernal warp in time.

To be sure, the skyward or heavenly shots additionally suggest the benign oversight of a supreme being, but Lynch is far more concerned with Alvin's watchful gaze here on earth. Indeed, it is from his inspired point of view that the camera frequently looks up at the firmament, for such a vista reminds him of his boyhood in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he and Lyle spent summers sleeping outdoors under the stars. And it is from Alvin's point of view, or from the omniscient point of view of the camera as it also watches him, that we watch mundane occurrences like rainstorms and sunsets. He seems beatifically moved by such simple, natural events, and we are left to wonder why: to imagine, that is, the inner journey which Alvin takes, even as we witness his outward one; to have our own spirits thus awakened at the same time as we observe the material stages of Alvin's trek in the most material artistic medium yet known to man.

After his false start, those stages include an encounter with a pregnant, teenaged runaway, who spends the night by his campfire and with whom Alvin shares information about his family as well as wisdom about the concept of family in general. Although probably the scene in The Straight Story that comes closest to sentimentalism, this one works so well because of the irony at its heart: for the two conversationalists are a teenaged runaway, who says her family hates her yet who is about to start a family of her own, and a wizened old fellow who is a latter-day version of Robert Warshow's archetypal Westerner. The melancholy, intensely individualistic loner, this figure is a man of repose and self-containment, who seeks not to extend his dominion but only to assert his personal value as well as comport himself with honor, and who above all else resists the need for others upon which the modern world insists, which Europeans accept as a perennial fact of life, yet which Americans see as the lapse of Rousseau's natural man into the compromise and frustration of social life as we know it. Alvin Straight is the (mid) Westerner in contemporary, socialized form, if you will, the outsider who nonetheless dwells within the family circle.

Menaced on the highway the next day by enormous, rumbling eighteen-wheelers, lone Alvin is also lapped by a herd of bicycle marathoners, who invite him into their camping area when they retire for the evening. Why bicycle racers? Because each is the very image and essence of what Alvin is not or is no longer: a young, physically adept young man rushing headlong through life, obsessed with the finish line instead of being attentive to the road that will get him there, preoccupied with the ultimate destination rather than being mindful of the incremental journey to that end. One of these bicyclists asks Alvin, in a friendly but telling way, what the worst part is about getting old. Alvin thoughtfully replies that “The worst part is rememberin' when you was young”—an ambiguous statement that sentimentalists will take as an exaltation of youth in all its vitality or freshness, but that a catholic realist like myself reads as a denigration of youthful impetuosity as well as immaturity.

We get an instance of such impetuosity in the very next scene, when Alvin comes upon a distraught driver who, in the process of her frantic daily commute to work, has just killed her thirteenth deer in seven weeks—deer that she tearfully says she loves. “Where do they come from?” she wails. Alvin can do little to comfort this woman, and at first we think she's just a sideshow exhibit from David Lynch's gallery of freaks. But then something almost magical happens: we watch as, that evening, Alvin eats a portion of the deer for supper (the last supper or food we will see him eat in The Straight Story), surrounded by twelve living (or resurrected) deer who observe him. And the following morning we find the buck's antlers attached to Alvin's trailer, right above the seat on his lawn mower (where they remain for the rest of the film), in a humble transfiguration of Christ's crown of thorns into Straight's crown of horns.

Like Christ and his human counterparts in the episodic mystery plays (as well as moralities) of the Middle Ages, Alvin is traveling his own via dolorosa; and, like Christ, he stumbles three times along the way. The first “stumble” occurred when Alvin's first mower broke down; the second occurs when, sixty miles from Lyle's place in Wisconsin, the second mower picks up so much speed going down a hill that its drive belt snaps. Miraculously unhurt, Alvin is assisted by a group of volunteer firemen, who had been putting out a practice fire on a nearby barn. Just as miraculously, one of his helpers is a former John Deere salesman, Danny Riordan, who arranges to have the mower repaired and allows Alvin to camp on his property in the meantime. Alvin camps in Danny and his wife Darla's backyard: he doesn't bother to ask if he can sleep on their sofa, he won't even enter their house to call Rose (he takes the Riordans' cordless phone outside), and he politely but stubbornly refuses the ride that the kind, tactful, and empathetic Danny offers him to Mt. Zion. Again, this is a man on a mission, and part of that mission is self-mortification as well as self-purgation, as we see in what may be The Straight Story's most moving scene.

It occurs toward the end of Alvin's stay at the Riordans' when an elderly neighbor named Verlyn Heller stops by and invites him to a quiet bar for a drink. Alvin goes but, having long ago been cured of his alcoholism by a preacher, he drinks only milk while his companion sips a Miller Lite. Both Alvin and Verlyn are World War II veterans, so their conversation in alternating medium close-up naturally drifts to each man's anguished memory of combat—a conversation we feel so privileged to hear in part because Lynch had his cinematographer, Freddie Francis, discreetly photograph the men's initial meeting, on Danny Riordan's lawn, in a medium long shot with under-miked sound. A crack shot of a hunter before the war, Alvin was used as a sniper during his service in France, where most of the Germans he killed subsequent to the Normandy invasion were “moon-faced boys.” But Alvin also killed one of his own men by accident; no one ever discovered this, nor has he ever admitted it to anyone; and now, with tears in his eyes, he admits it to Verlyn. We see no images of fighting, no flashbacks. We hear only some popular music from the 1940s in the background—a tune that slowly turns into the muffled sounds of heavy artillery. The focus here is obviously not on the Spielbergian saving of a Private Ryan, on spectacular action and heroic adventure, but on saving Alvin Straight's soul. For this we must hear his confession, we must see his face, and through his eyes we must look into his heart. Only then can we leave the scene in more or less the same way that we entered it: in medium long shot, with Alvin's and Verlyn's backs to us, and not a word to be heard as the two men sit on stools while the lone bartender nearly dozes as he stands off to their left.

Alvin moves on the next morning and becomes exultant as he approaches, then crosses the Mississippi River into Wisconsin—the Promised Land, as far as he's concerned, and, like the Biblical Canaan, a state bordered on both the east and the west by a body of water. That night, the one before his reunion with Lyle, Alvin camps in one of the oldest cemeteries in the Midwest, and there is visited by the priest whose rectory abuts the graveyard. No formal confession occurs here, since Alvin is a Baptist by birth, yet the facts that this scene occurs in a graveyard, that the priest had ministered to Alvin's equally Baptist (but nonetheless dying) brother in the hospital, and that Alvin refuses the priest's offer of bodily sustenance, speak for themselves. Loneliness and longing are the subjects of the two men's conversation—not religions or their prescribed rituals—and brotherly love or communion is its object. The priest as celibate brother seems to need to talk to the widowed Alvin as much as the latter needs to talk to him, and the only “amen” this priestly father utters is in response to Alvin's earthly desire to swallow his pride and ask for Lyle's forgiveness.

Before he swallows that pride, Alvin first swallows a beer in a bar a few miles from Lyle's ramshackle wooden home. It's his first alcoholic drink in years; he stops after one Miller Lite, his thirst quenched; then, with directions to his brother's place provided by the bartender, he climbs back onto his load of a lawn mower in order to finish his journey. But before he can, Alvin “stumbles” for the third time when his mower appears to “die” just short of its final destination. Appearing lost, he simply sits there—for so long that Lynch must punctuate the passing time with fades, until another old man on a big tractor passes by and (in another reverentially inaudible medium long shot) reveals exactly where, off the beaten path, Lyle's house sits. After this encounter, Alvin wondrously restarts the inert mower and rides it to a point where the road ends, so that he must hobble down to his brother's porch-in-the-woods on his two trusty canes.

Once there, Alvin calls out Lyle's name, Lyle responds by calling out Alvin's as he emerges with support from a walker (something his younger brother has consistently refused to use), and the two men sit down together in twilight on the porch, largely silent but deeply moved by their long-deferred reunion. When Lyle asks his brother, “Did you ride that thing all the way here to see me?,” Alvin's response is the last, reticently reaffirming line of the film: “I did, Lyle.” As I've indicated, The Straight Story's final shot is of the leitmotif-like starry night, into which the camera continues majestically to travel as the credits roll. Alvin had told the Catholic priest that this was all he wanted to do: sit with his older brother in peace and look up at the stars, just as they did as youngsters. And this is all we see them do—with sentiment but without sentimentality, with words yet without wordiness, with fraternal psychology but without paternalistic psychologizing—as their point of view merges with that of the celestial-bound camera. The Straight Story ends, then, precisely when it has fulfilled its artistic design, and such design is intimately connected to Alvin Straight's place in his own mind, in his family, and in the family of man; in Laurens, Iowa, America, the natural world, the cosmic universe, and in the mindful eyes of God. Alvin found his place in the end, and this film has indelibly etched that noble place in human memory.

One of the reasons The Straight Story succeeds to such a degree is its stellar acting. Let's begin with the small roles, each of which features an actor (in some cases doubtless a nonprofessional one) who both looks and sounds credible as a rural person from the Midwest. These people breathe authenticity, commitment, and understanding, down to the way their clothes fit and their bodies move; they are never what they would be in standard Hollywood fare: condescending country caricatures, on the one hand, or miscast as well as underdirected urbanites, on the other. The very best of the “small” performances is delivered by James Cada as Danny Riordan, who may spend more on-screen time with Alvin than anyone else in The Straight Story. Watch the concentrated Cada's restless eyes, and you'll see an actor who fully comprehends his character's interest in Alvin Straight. As an early retiree with too much free time on his hands, the cigarette-smoking Riordan is the type who's always nervously looking forward to the next project, trip, event, visit, or holiday, and who finds that, for a few days at least, he need look no further than Alvin for the absorption of his attention.

Two other small parts feature well-known actors who have either worked with David Lynch in the past (Harry Dean Stanton) or have enjoyed a longtime friendship with him (Sissy Spacek). Stanton is on screen for perhaps two minutes at the end as Lyle, yet his gratifying presence—consisting of a halting voice, feeble walk, and tired look belied by a compassionate core—continues to haunt my memory. Spacek, as the “simple” Rose, with her speech impediment and habit of building birdhouses, initially seems like a refugee from the Lynch carnival of grotesques, but she gains in gravity with each scene in part because she undercuts her secret scars with unaffected warmth. Spacek's excellence, like that of everyone else associated with the making of this film, would come to little, however, without Richard Farnsworth in the titular role.

Born in the same year as Alvin Straight, Farnsworth has worked in movies since 1937 and has been everything from a stunt man, in Westerns and Biblical epics, to a minor supporting player in The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox (1976), to a prominent performer in Comes a Horseman (1978) and The Grey Fox (1982). Tall, skinny, white-bearded, and weak-hipped (like Alvin), quiet yet dogged, Farnsworth ended a two-year retirement to act in The Straight Story, and the result is a valedictory performance of the highest order. This aged actor understands the part of Alvin as the one toward which his whole career has been moving, and that is the primary reason he can lend such immense dignity to so otherwise unassuming an old man approaching the end of his days. Farnsworth also understands that playing a character Alvin's (and his own) age is more about being than doing, and therefore more about allowing the camera to penetrate into the essence of that being than presenting to the camera a reality framed by architectonic language. When Farnsworth speaks, his gravelly voice lingers in the mind; as we look at his wizened face, we read beneath it layer upon layer of meaning, experience, consequence, resolve.

He's helped—yet could have easily been hindered—by Badalamenti's music and Francis' cinematography. Alvin is in the autumn of his years, even as The Straight Story takes place in September and October, but Francis doesn't make the mistake of prettifying the autumnal Midwest, on the one hand, or of tarnishing it, on the other. He works here as he has in the past, in such a color picture as Glory (1989) and in a black-and-white film like Sons and Lovers (1960): by filling the world with color in its infinite variety (or, mutatis mutandis, black and white in their multiplicity of shades), yet with hues that are photographed in autumnal or otherwise diminished light and therefore appear understated. The result is the visual equivalent of combining poignance with exhilaration, pathos with wonder, passion with anguish—precisely the mixed emotional tone Lynch's movie is trying to sound. And we get a similar mixture in Badalamenti's plaintive yet lilting score, which is rooted in the spirited tradition of bluegrass but propelled by its elegiac incorporation of strings. (Badalamenti, like Francis, has collaborated with David Lynch before.)

So masterful and unified is every aspect of The Straight Story that in the end I can do no more than thank God, man, and country for its transcendent union of human redemption with the phenomenal redemption of physical reality. Not even Bergman's celebrated Wild Strawberries (1957)—The Straight Story's closest cinematic relative in its archetypal portrayal of an old man taking a long car trip that turns into a life's journey—was able to achieve so organic a dual focus (partly because the Swedish director's films prior to this one had led progressively to the rejection of religious belief). And this places David Lynch's picture very high, indeed, on my list of the greatest movies ever made—American or otherwise.

Tim Kreider (review date fall 2000)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5536

SOURCE: Kreider, Tim. Review of The Straight Story, by David Lynch. Film Quarterly 54, no. 1 (fall 2000): 26-33.

[In the following review, Kreider asserts that, despite its superficial sweetness and light tone, The Straight Story reveals a dark undercurrent of alcoholism and family abuse.]

The Straight Story begins a lot like a David Lynch film, specifically like Blue Velvet: first we see a dreamy montage of slow-motion scenes from a small-town, middle-American Eden (cinematographer Freddie Francis filling in for Norman Rockwell and composer Angelo Badalamenti for Aaron Copland), and then the camera drifts down to a neatly mown suburban yard. A fat woman with goggles and a tanning reflector is sunning herself on a lawn chair, blindly groping for Hostess Sno-balls on a nearby plate—a characteristically Lynchian figure, the Felliniesque grotesque next door. Nothing happens for a Lynchianly long time. The woman runs out of Sno-balls and gets up to go in for more. Because we know we are watching a David Lynch film, there is a certain expectant air—that ominous, low-register thrum of imminent catastrophe. Then we hear a cry and thud from inside—recalling the stroke that felled Jeffrey Beaumont's father and began Blue Velvet's dark adventure. And then, this being a David Lynch film, we await our inevitable descent into the black and crawly underbelly of this overbright world.

Which, as everyone by now knows, never happens. The most famous thing about The Straight Story is that it is rated G. (Who could have imagined, after seeing Blue Velvet in 1986, that we would ever see the credit “Walt Disney Pictures Presents a Film by David Lynch”?) It's been described by critics as sweet, simple, and sentimental; authentic, bucolic, and unironic. Its hero, Alvin Straight, is a genuinely good man, honest and direct, dispensing advice and helping folks when he can—a guy we can admire. And, even more incredibly, almost every character he encounters on his odyssey is also honest and friendly and helpful and just basically decent. There is none of the ugly sex and violence, the lurid, nightmarish surrealism, that lie at the heart of other David Lynch films. It appears, however amazingly, to be a film devoid of darkness or duplicity, without so much as a single cuss word.

Anthony Lane of The New Yorker dismissed The Straight Story as a “comic coda to Lost Highway.” Although the film is clearly not comic at its heart, it does, like its predecessor, use one story to mask another, more sinister, one. Lost Highway's protagonist Fred represses all memory of having murdered his wife in a jealous rage; he only glimpses himself howling over her dismembered corpse on grainy videotape, and, in the film's second half, re-imagines his story as a pulpy film noir with himself as the unwitting dupe of his wife (reincarnated as a femme fatale)—instead of as the villain he truly is. (As he tells two detectives in the film's first half, “I like to remember things my own way.”) Similarly, Alvin Straight never brings himself to tell the straight story of his own past; he tells, instead, incomplete and disguised versions of it to the strangers he meets, hears echoes of it in the stories they tell him, and sees distorted reenactments of it in one scene after another.

The real story of The Straight Story turns out not to be very straightforward at all, but involuted and hidden—buried, as in Lost Highway, within the ostensible narrative like a repressed memory. This movie is about how a mean drunk named Alvin Straight lost his daughter's children to the state because he let one of them get burned in a fire. This is the only way the film makes sense as a unified whole, as anything other than the meandering picaresque most reviewers thought it was. Alvin Straight is riding his mower with its wagon all those hundreds of miles along highway shoulders not on an errand of forgiveness, but as an ordeal of atonement. There is darkness here beneath the bright autumn colors, and evil concealed in Alvin's heart. There is the history of a family destroyed by alcoholism and abuse. There is fire and death.

Is this all really unexpected? The Straight Story is a David Lynch film, after all.

That a story is seldom truly “straight” is one of the defining insights of literary modernism; writers like James Joyce and Henry James took the unreliability of first-person narrators to new heights of self-consciousness and, sometimes, new depths of self-deception. And yet this mistrust of the ostensible “story,” by now instinctive in reading literature, seems not to have penetrated criticism of the superficially more transparent medium of film. The title of David Lynch's latest is not just an obvious pun but a warning and a test; it warns us not to be deceived by appearances—in this case, by an ingenuous claim of forthrightness, a frank demeanor, or an honest face.

The story that Alvin tells of his own past, piece by piece, to the various people he meets is full of conspicuous gaps and contradictions. Take his story about his hard drinking: that he'd developed “a mournful taste for alcohol” during the war in France and became a mean drunk, but was helped to give up drinking by a preacher after he got home. Or his story about his daughter Rose: that she had four children, but that the state, misinterpreting her speech (or neurological) impediment as evidence that she was an unfit mother, took them away when one of them was burned in a fire. Or Alvin's account of his falling out with his brother Lyle: the one time he's directly asked what was at issue, he vaguely waves the question off (“anger … vanity …”). Or even his answering “I did” when Lyle, at the film's end, asks if he drove his mower “just to see” him. None of these stories is quite straight. In fact, none of them stands up to much scrutiny at all.

If Alvin gave up drinking shortly after his return from World War II, why did drink figure in the fight that estranged him from Lyle ten years ago? Why doesn't Rose at least get to visit her children, or talk to them? And why do we learn so little about Alvin's breach with his brother? The fact that the details of what is ostensibly the central conflict in the film are left so conspicuously blank suggests that we ought to ask what else the conflict might involve. What is the real reason Alvin's making this trip?

Alvin first tells a small part of his story to the pregnant runaway who shares his campfire. It's the story of what happened to Rose's children: “Someone else was supposed to be watchin' them, and there was a fire, and her second boy got burned real bad.” Note the vague references—“someone else”—and passive constructions—“there was a fire” and “got burned.” As he speaks, we see a series of dissolves from one allusive image of abandonment and emptiness to another: the bare yellow wall of Alvin and Rose's house with a fly-swatter hanging from a nail; a child's ball rolling slowly down the sidewalk; Rose's wistful face reflected in the window glass; cigarette smoke curling in the air. Alvin shares this piece of his past to impress upon the girl how much her own family must miss her: “There's not a day goes by that she doesn't pine for those kids.” But Alvin's story is only tangentially relevant to the girl's predicament. He's leaving something out.

Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times calls Alvin “the Ann Landers of the Open Road,” who “seems to know just how to solve the problems of the people, young and old, he meets by the side of the road.” But the advice he gives the runaway has more to do with his own regrets and wishes than with her dilemma. Here's Richard Corliss's account, from Time, of the parable he offers her:

The old man tells her that he used to give each of his kids a stick and say. “You break that.” Of course they could. Then he'd tell them to tie some sticks in a bundle and try to break that. And they couldn't. “Then I'd say, ‘That bundle—that's a family.’” The next morning, the old man wakes up to find the girl gone, with the hint that she'll be returning home. On the ground is a bundle of sticks with a bow tied around it.

Well, this is nice. But it should be pointed out that Alvin's quaint metaphor for strength through unity, the bundle of sticks tied together, is not his own invention. The “fasces,” a bound bundle of rods containing an ax with the blade protruding forward, was an object borne ceremonially before Roman magistrates as an emblem of imperial power. The term “fascism” is derived from this emblem, a symbol of invincible strength through monolithic solidarity and submission to a single will—typically that of a tyrannical patriarch who ends up getting people killed. Even if you tie a pretty bow around that, it's still ugly.

But, more explicitly, this scene is also an allusion to Ran, Akira Kurosawa's adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy of a senescent patriarch and warrior. Hidetora, the Great Lord of the Ichimonji clan, uses exactly the same demonstration to instruct his three sons in the value of filial unity: he gives them each an arrow to break, which they do easily, and then challenges them to try to break a bundle of three arrows. Except that Hidetora's youngest son angrily smashes the bundle across his knee and calls his father on his blatant hypocrisy. “You've spilled an ocean of blood,” he cries. “You showed no mercy, no pity. We, too, are children of this age, weaned on strife and blood. We are your sons, yet you count on our fidelity—in our eyes, that makes you a fool, a senile old fool.” Alvin Straight, unlike Hidetora, goes unchallenged when he mouths platitudes about loyalty and peace that are utterly at odds with his own history of violence and betrayal.

Alvin's performance as patriarch of his own clan doesn't seem to have malched his rhetoric about the unbreakability of the family bond. His own family has been sundered. He hasn't spoken to his brother for ten years. His daughter Rose's children have been taken from her. The rest of his children, like Hidetora's, don't seem to have taken the lesson of the stick-breaking game straight to heart; there's no evidence of any contact between Alvin and any of Rose's six surviving siblings. (We overhear Rose on the phone discussing Alvin and Lyle's feud with someone, possibly a family member, but Alvin himself stays off the line.) Where has all his family gone? Dispersed across the country, like so many American families—or driven apart, like the Ichimonji brothers, by the divisive example of their father's cruelty?

It does not seem like too broad a generalization to say that families in David Lynch films are not happy families. They are more likely to be incestuous and violent, twisted or torn apart by repressed memories and unspeakable secrets: Fred in Last Highway murders his wife; Marietta Pace in Wild at Heart is complicit in her husband's death and tries to seduce her daughter's boyfriend; Leland Palmer molests and kills his daughter Laura in Twin Peaks in Blue Velvet Frank Booth obviously (and Jeffrey Beaumont, less obviously) has basic Oedipal issues to work through. And let it suffice to say of Eraserhead that Henry Spencer's dinner with his girlfriend Mary's family, the Xes, is among the least pleasant of all the strained and unpleasant family dinner scenes ever filmed (possibly excepting the one in [Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me]), and that the nuclear family unit formed by Henry and Mary and their infant is also less than traditionally strong and nurturing. Given all that, we would be willing marks if we weren't skeptical about any family-values platitudes uttered by one of Lynch's characters, or suspicious of a Lynchian family that didn't conceal an internecine crime at its heart.

David Lynch tells the ugly truth in The Straight Story not in words but in images, powerfully suggestive visual metaphors. In the film's only scene of genuine action or suspense, Alvin Straight almost loses control of his makeshift mower/wagon coming downhill into a small town where the local fire department is conducting a training exercise on a burning abandoned house. As the old man desperately brakes and grapples with the wheel, hurtling faster and faster downhill, out of control, the camera cuts back and forth in a blur between his frantic face and the blazing house nearby. The high scream of the mower's overstrained engine and the engulfing roar of the fire become one terrifying noise. Anthony Lane shrugs this scene off as one of Lynch's “bursts of calculated strangeness”—those irrepressibly wacky trademark idiosyncrasies popping up again in a film where they're only distracting. But this burning house is not just a surreal non sequitur; it's one of the central images in the film. This scene functions as a flashback to the earlier fire, the one in which Alvin's grandchildren were burned. Alvin's face, bathed in sweat and flickering orange with firelight, and his eyes, bulging and rolling in his head like a frightened animal's, express a terror that transcends his immediate situation. When intercut with those quick, jarring shots of the blazing house, the real object of that terror is unmistakable. Alvin is the unnamed “someone” who was supposed to be watching Rose's kids. He let his grandson get burned. He caused his daughter's children to be taken away by the state. After he manages to stop his tractor, he sits panting and shaking in terror, staring at nothing, the burning house clearly framed in the background. He is trembling not just in reaction to his near-accident, but in an abreaction to that original trauma—another time when Alvin Straight lost control and events look on their own scary, unstoppable momentum.

This underlying, untold story makes sense of his whole journey, uniting episodes that have no other narrative connection and nothing else in common: the burning house, a woman hitting a deer on a highway, war stories told in a bar. These seemingly random meetings and tangential tales—Lynch's “bursts of calculated strangeness”—are all integral, each one another clue to the straight story. The situations Alvin encounters are reiterations of his own crimes and failures, confrontations with his own denial.

The driver hitting the deer is no self-indulgent directorial digression but a crucial episode. Again, as in the scene of the burning house, the camera focuses on Alvin's reaction, zooming in on his face in an almost subliminally rapid, staccato succession of increasingly close shots as he witnesses the offscreen accident that we only hear. Again, his horror is not just reaction but abreaction; he's hearing an echo of his own accident. Alvin pulls out his canes and hobbles up to a car that has slaughtered a deer in the road, and finds the driver hysterical, weeping and shrieking. She's tried everything, she explains—honking the horn, rolling down the window and banging her hand on the door, even playing Public Enemy real loud. That's thirteen deer she's hit in the last seven weeks. “And I love deer!” she blurts out before getting disgustedly back into her car and peeling out.

This is a strange episode, its absurdist comedy seeming false and hollow in contrast to the bleakness of the surrounding landscape and the ceaseless sound of the wind ruffling through the dry grass. This driver isn't telling a straight story, either. Although she rails against the perverse luck that keeps throwing sacrificial victims at her, her killing streak is her own fault. Sure, deer do have a regrettable way of jumping in front of cars on country back roads—but thirteen in seven weeks? During the daytime? That's more than bad luck. The fact is, she was driving way too fast; her car veered around Alvin's rig just as he was riding by a NO PASSING ZONE sign. The reason she keeps hitting deer is that she's a reckless driver. “Where do they come from?” she demands, looking helplessly out at the few sparse, bare trees in the landscape. But these deaths aren't being visited upon her by any cruel, arbitrary fate. She is Alvin's counterpart in her continuing inability to take responsibility for the terrible (and not unpredictable) consequences of a heedless urgency. After she screeches out of sight, there is a long, mournful shot of Alvin standing there in the road, thoughtfully nudging the deer's limp head with the toe of his boot.

In the very next shot we see him that evening cooking venison over his fire, glancing uneasily over his shoulder at an inexplicable herd of statues of deer who seem to be watching him. This is not just a cheap sight gag; these stolidly haunting presences represent the accusing memory of his human victims. Although there are about a dozen statues in the field, the shot when Alvin looks back at them is framed so that we see four of them “staring” at him; Rose, we'll remember, had four children. In the next scene, the deer's antlers have been mounted like a hood ornament on the front of his rig, where they remain visible for the rest of the film. They're particularly prominent in the frame after he's almost lost control near the burning house.

Animal trophies figure prominently in Lynch's work as symbols of casual human violence. Scarcely an interior in Twin Peaks is without a stuffed carcass; the whole town is densely populated by the hunted and mounted. The series' preoccupation with the fierce passions that possess parents and claim their children as victims leaves little doubt as to the meaning of so much taxidermy: it symbolizes human hungers, both carnivorous and carnal. Alvin Straight, from what we can see, is exclusively carnivorous, subsisting solely on processed meat products. And as for carnality, he did father fourteen children about as many deer as that woman's killed in the last few weeks. Most likely, it was another of Alvin's appetites—his “taste for liquor”—that got his grandson burned. The antlers are a token of his past sins and a symbol of his new penitence. (It's not incidental, either, that the lawnmower he needs to make his journey is a John Deere, its logo the silhouette of a rampant buck.) Alvin's trophy alludes to that same central disaster—an innocent creature harmed by the carelessness of someone who claimed to love it, who couldn't understand why this sort of thing kept happening to him.

Yes, kept happening—because, as we learn later, that fire wasn't the first time Alvin was at fault in a tragedy. Sitting in a bar with another old veteran, Alvin reveals that as a sniper in the war he accidentally shot and killed one of his own men, a Polish kid from Milwaukee named Kotz, Artists have often used pastoral settings to disguise commentaries on the corruption and betrayals of civil life (sometimes, most famously in Virgil's Eclogues, on the troubled fates of aged soldiers). In a pre-millennial year that saw more than its share of triumphalist rhetoric about the “painful but necessary job well done,” David Lynch shows us memories of the Second World War which refuse to paper over the disillusionments of the postwar period. For Alvin, “homed” to rural Laurens, Iowa, what followed was a lifetime of secret remorse that expressed itself in drunkenness and cruelty, eventually estranging him from his family. The original trauma, an honest but fatal mistake, brought on the hard drinking that led to later, less forgivable, lapses of judgment.

Even the war stories these two old vets swap refer back to the unspoken story of the film—the fire. The tale the other vet tells is about all his buddies being killed, burned alive, by an incendiary bomb. We actually hear the explosion as he remembers, faint with the distance of decades—another echo of Alvin's own catastrophe. It is significant that the story Alvin does bring himself to share in response is a confession of long-repressed guilt, especially that he describes the man he killed as “a little fella.” Groping to find a way to begin, he awkwardly repeats the phrase, emphasizing it—“He was a little fella,”—as though it explains what he's really trying to convey. (We shouldn't forget Alvin's horrified memory of the German adolescents—“moon-faced boys”—it was his job to kill.) Though harrowing enough, even this story is an evasion, another disguised allusion to his own grandchild, “a little fella” whose side Alvin was supposed to be on, someone else he was supposed to be watching out for, another one of his own whom he hurt without meaning to.

In this same scene, Alvin admits that he came back from the war an alcoholic. “I was mean,” he says. But, he says, a minister helped him “put some distance between [him]self and the bottle,” as though he had gone on the wagon a long time ago. Later, however, talking to a priest in a cemetery, he acknowledges that liquor was a catalyst in his falling out with Lyle. The apparent inconsistency between these two stories makes us wonder what really occasioned Alvin's reform. The clearest glimpse we ever get of the man Alvin Straight has been all his life quick tempered, impulsive, and violent—is after he's been brought back from his first, failed attempt to leave town. He deliberately fetches his shotgun, takes it out in back of his house, aims, and executes his old, broken-down mower—which explodes into flames.

Images of fire recur throughout Lynch's films: a desert cabin implodes in a fiery cloud in Lost Highway: in Blue Velvet the monstrous image of Jeffrey smacking Dorothy Vallens dissolves in a sheet of fire; billowing flames fill the credits and gigantic flaring match heads punctuate the scenes of Wild at Heart. Also in Wild at Heart, Lula is never quite told the straight story about the fire that killed her father, the memory of which still makes her shudder: It was deliberately set by her mother's lover, Santos. It's already been intimated that there was more to the fire in The Straight Story than Alvin lets on. We see fire again and again in the film, not only in the conflagrations of the house and mower but in domesticated forms—in the campfires he builds every night, in the bonfire at the bikers' camp, and, of course, in the glowing ends of his cherished cigars. Isn't it implied that Alvin may have set the fire, passing out with a lighted Swisher Sweet, that burned his daughter's child?

The straight story of Alvin's life would seem to have gone more like this: World War II turned the strengths of his rural upbringing—his patience as a hunter, his skill as a marksman, his commitment to protecting his brothers-in-arms—into the makings of a tragedy and a source of shame. The psychological damage to him was permanent, only fermented and made more potent by his alcoholism and denial. Traumatized far beyond his own awareness of the damage. Alvin Straight lived out the next 40 years—his entire adult lifetime—as an abusive drunk who impregnated his wife fourteen times, injured one of his grandchildren through his negligence and caused four of them to be taken into the custody of the state, alienated his brother, and ended up living in near-isolation with his damaged, now childless daughter in a small, lonely, too-quiet house. This reconstruction, if even close to correct, makes new, more somber sense of Alvin's signature line (singled out by some critics as mawkish screen-writing): “The worst part of bein' old is remembering when you was young.”

Seeing Alvin's journey as one of atonement rather than of forgiveness is the only way to make sense of its strange, self-imposed restrictions. Alvin won't accept an offered ride when his mower breaks down, and politely but obstinately refuses not once but three times to enter his benefactors' house even just to use their phone. (Like another old cowboy who almost killed one of his own, John Wayne's Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, Alvin only stands in the doorway, denying himself the comforts of domestic civilization.) At night, camped out in their back yard, he watches wistfully as the lights go out in their windows. His trip is not just the necessary means of getting to his brother's house; it's an ordeal ritual, its rigors and privations rigidly maintained as a form of self-flagellation.

Alvin has undertaken this journey not just because his brother has had a stroke and may not live much longer, but because he knows he's not going to live much longer himself. He tells his daughter the doctor said he was “gonna live to be a hundred,” but this is far from the straight story. What the doctor told him was that his hips were going, he was in the early stages of emphysema, his circulation was failing, and his diet was bad. “If you don't make some changes quickly,” he concluded, “there'll be some serious consequences.” But it's pretty clear that Alvin Straight isn't going to be making any changes; he's petrified just looking at the medical equipment in the clinic, and insists that he's not going to pay for an operation, or have X-rays taken, or even use a walker. And for the rest of the film he keeps right on smoking his Swisher Sweets and eating raw wieners and Braunschweiger. He's a stubborn man, as he admits, stubborn even in self-destruction. Our glimpse of Alvin's unclothed body in the clinic wrinkled, swollen, and sagging, speckled with prominent moles is, finally, the thing itself, unveiled, that David Lynch has portrayed before in so many nightmarish versions, from the “baby” in Eraserhead to the piteously malformed Elephant Man to the spectacularly obese and pustulant Baron Harkonnen in Dune: all the horror and glory of imprisonment in flesh—the inevitability of age, disease, and dissolution.

Significantly, Alvin makes his pilgrimage in the autumn. He and his daughter listen to the far-off roar of a grain elevator the night he announces his intention to make the trip. “It's … harvest time,” she says. The agricultural machines we see in those sweeping aerial views are threshers and harvesters. Harvest is when the world begins to die around us, and it is also when we reap what we have sown. Alvin knows this trip will be his last long haul; his quest is not for his brother's redemption but for his own. On the last night of his journey, before finally rejoining Lyle, he sets his camp in a cemetery.

Pilgrimages are not fashioned as gifts to our earthly siblings; they are abasements of the soul before the almighty. (Maybe Alvin's chosen to make this offering to Lyle because, as he tells the bickering twins who repair his mower, “Your brother knows better than anyone else who you are and what you are.”) And, although often prompted by premonitions of mortality and fired by sincere repentance, pilgrimages are not guaranteed success. The Straight Story begins and ends with an elegiac image of the starry sky—the same image that attends John Merrick's last sleep in The Elephant Man. But the stars are not an unambiguous image of serenity, of making peace with the past and coming to rest, as Alvin hopes to do. There's no divine grace or forgiveness in evidence for him, not even the vision of maternal tenderness granted the suffocating Merrick. Alvin's endlessly expanding starscape could just as easily signify vast emptiness and indifference, or the absurdity of human striving in the face of unsurpassable sublimity, or the profound gulf between human yearnings and any answering assurance. The point here is not to supply an answer to the open-ended question posed by this image, but to explicitly acknowledge that it remains open-ended.

When has there ever been an unambiguously happy ending in a Lynch film, anyway? When John Merrick is urged to stand up and acknowledge the applause of London society at the theater, how different is that from his being prodded with a stick and ordered to stand and exhibit himself for gawkers at the freak show? The image of his mother in the stars, “the face of an angel” assuring him that “nothing dies,” is a beatific deathbed dream. Is normalcy really restored, and corruption fully exposed, in the idyllic denouement of Blue Velvet, when we see Jeffrey's father returned to good health and the two young lovers' families lunching together? And are we really supposed to accept at face value the intervention of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and the last-minute reconciliation of Sailor and Lula at the end of Wild at Heart? Lyle is obviously moved beyond words by Alvin's effort, but The Straight Story deliberately leaves uncertain whether he forgives his brother. Alvin's journey itself, and whatever hard-earned glimpses of earthly grace it may have given him—a replenishing thunderstorm over an Iowa cornfield, children waving from the back of a pickup truck, late afternoon sunlight flickering through autumn leaves—will have to have been enough.

Questions of forgiveness—whether it is possible and what it really means—are also raised by Alvin's relationship with Rose. At first the two seem naïve and sweet—an eccentric, aging father-and-daughter couple living together and looking after each other. But in the light of the buried backstory, the history of betrayal and hurt between them, we might see instead a stunted and bereaved Cordelia alongside a middle-American Lear. Rose is spending her middle age caring for a father who lost her children to the state. Their life together does seem tender and innocent, but it's also lonely and terribly sad. Rose, her speech interrupted by abrupt glottal stops, seems just as withholding and unable to speak about the truth as Alvin. She occupies herself building bird houses, protective shelters for helpless creatures, and painting them with the same brightly colored trim we see on her own house. How are we to judge this household? Does it display heartwarming familial loyalty and forgiveness—an example of the sort of solidarity Alvin preaches—or pathetic codependency and denial? Lynch isn't saying.

In his essay on Lost Highway, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace argues that Lynch has alienated both critics and audiences because he confounds the conventional, reassuring dichotomy between good and evil that most American films foist on us. Lynch's protagonists, he insists, are never just good or evil but always, discomfitingly, both. Just look back at them: the naïve mechanic Pete in Lost Highway, menaced by his mistress's gangster boyfriend, is actually a jealous husband who's killed his wife; the angelic Laura Palmer in [Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me] is also a coke whore: the youthful rebels Lula and Sailor in Wild at Heart are in danger of becoming the corrupt elders they're trying to flee: the college-boy detective Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet is secretly as perverted and sadistic as the “sick” Frank Booth. When Doctor Treves in The Elephant Man, who both helps and exploits poor deformed John Merrick, finally asks himself, “Am I a good man? Or a bad man?” there is, in answer, only a fade to black.

Alvin Straight, like Treves, is in the end one of Lynch's more self-aware protagonists—having come through the flames of his own anger and guilt, he knows what he is capable of. But in his heart he is no different from the rest of them. Yes, as we can see from everything he does and says, Alvin is at last what we like to think of as a “good” man, offering kindness and wisdom to the people he meets. But we also know, from what he has done before and cannot quite bring himself to say, that he's a son of a bitch. His “goodness” is not exactly a delusion, like Fred's, or naïvete, like Jeffrey's, or hypocrisy, like Treves's; it's harder, more complicated, maybe more authentic—the kindness of a man who knows he is capable of great meanness, the wisdom that comes only from remorse over past recklessness, the knowledge that light is inseparable from shadow.

The Straight Story is genuinely poignant and moving, in a way that, say, Lost Highway certainly isn't. But to call the film “sentimental,” or discontinuous with Lynch's previous work, is simply to misunderstand it. Far from abandoning grotesques and eerie atmospherics for a fantasy of some middle America where folks are just as honest and decent as they seem, David Lynch's portrait of crooked Alvin Straight, and of the many crooked miles he's traveled, reveals the deep psychological complexity—that “vanity and vexation of spirit”—in any human life, and the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of attaining any sure atonement in it.

Kent Jones (review date October 2001)

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SOURCE: Jones, Kent. “Trading Faces.” Artforum International 40, no. 2 (October 2001): 36.

[In the following review, Jones praises Mulholland Drive for thematic focus on sexual abuse.]

That David Lynch is a genuine visionary may be indisputable, but he has often seemed like an artist with a set of primal obsessions in lieu of a subject. Compelled to plunge headlong into his darkest fears, Lynch has conjured up some of the most mesmerizing passages in American cinema. But the imbalance between the hallucinatory and the desultory has been a constant in Lynch's work—and a nagging source of frustration. It's easy to understand his artistic dilemma, though: Creating sequences of such uncanny power necessarily upsets the very idea of narrative or thematic resolution; those spellbinding intervals overwhelm not just the characters but the film itself.

With the unjustly maligned Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), Lynch made a movie that was at once mind-bending and thematically focused. There was, at the core of that film, a sense of moral outrage over the reality of sexual abuse. In Mulholland Drive (which makes its US debut at the New York Film Festival this month), Lynch explores the same subject, with even greater force—only this time there are (perhaps) two women, and the abusive father is that pitiless dream machine called Hollywood.

Mulholland Drive—which by now everyone knows began as a TV pilot and ended up a feature—opens with a car crash. A gorgeous young brunette (Laura Elena Harring) is about to take a hit man's bullet when a carful of drunken teenagers collides with her limo. Unable to remember even her own name, she stumbles out of the wreckage and into the glittering night carrying a strange, triangular key in her purse and a bag stuffed with cash. Soon she will meet Betty (Naomi Watts), a corn-fed blond newly arrived in LA to pursue her show-biz dreams. Betty and mystery girl, who has christened herself Rita before a poster of Gilda, embark on a Nancy Drew-style search for Rita's identity. Thrown together by chance, they are drawn to each other. The desire for adventure, to be famous on the big screen (Betty hooks up with a putter-wielding David Fincher—type hotshot director), to know the truth, to become one with another, all merge into a single, overwhelming current of feeling. Betty and Rita make love, then attend a dread-inducing performance in a mysterious cabaret. Betty finds a lockbox in her bag, which Rita later opens with her key, prompting identities and personalities to shift and events to replay, with different players and outcomes. At which point we realize that Lynch is giving us a tour of the ugly works concealed at the heart of the dream machine, fueled by a steady supply of innocent young … Betties.

In Mulholland Drive, Lynch's dual obsessions with film noir and hot babes take on new meaning (it helps that he has an actress as subtle as Naomi Watts to handle all the twists and turns in Betty's violently zigzagging trajectory), and Hollywood's terrible logic is exposed with mordant clarity. Never before has Lynch made a film that arcs this exquisitely, from bewitching start to ineffably sad finish.

Wendy Lesser (review date 19 November 2001)

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SOURCE: Lesser, Wendy. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.” American Prospect 12, no. 20 (19 November 2001): 36-7.

[In the following review, Lesser argues that the lack of narrative closure in Mulholland Drive leaves the viewer disappointed.]

Many people will love Mulholland Drive, I am sure; and the fact that my admiration is mingled with profound annoyance perhaps says more about me than about the movie. It is David Lynch's best film since The Elephant Man (which remains, for me, the pinnacle of his achievement). It is better than the goofy Eraserhead and the creepy Blue Velvet, and far, far better than Lynch's terminally confused TV show Twin Peaks. It is so good that it raises unbelievably high expectations, which it then dashes to the ground in a display of bravura narcissism. “What? Me fulfill expectations? Who do you think I am?” it seems to say. Such behavior may be acceptable in a Quentin Tarantino or a Curtis Hanson or a Joel Coen; but in David Lynch, who is more talented than most of his peers combined, it is disappointing.

The movie is nearly two and a half hours long, and it is often deliberately slow, in the manner we have come to expect from Lynch (the unzipping of a purse, for instance, may take an agonizing five seconds—complete with an overly loud zipping noise set against suspenseful silence). But it is never dull. From the smashing credit sequence, which consists of jitterbugging dancers shadowed by cloudy white faces, to the final moments of the film, when a fatal shot is fired, you will find yourself gripped by the unfolding narrative. The problem is, it unfolds more like a vast, unwieldy tarp—the sort of ragged plastic sheet you keep in your basement and never get all the kinds or crinkles out of—than it does like a neat map or a carefully drawn puzzle. David Lynch has a fine disregard for plot: He thinks of it as a mere springboard for emotionally rich images. This is all very well if you are making Last Year at Marienbad or some other piece of modernist tripe; but if you are aspiring to the level of the great films noirs, as Lynch's movie explicitly does, then the approach has serious shortcomings.

For most of its length, Mulholland Drive seems to be a fascinating mystery centered on two women, Betty and Rita. Betty, played by the astonishingly versatile Naomi Watts, is an aspiring actress fresh from Ontario, Canada; she has come to Los Angeles to live in her aunt's temporarily vacant Hollywood apartment and break into the movies. But when she reaches the apartment, it is already occupied by a beautiful woman (played by the sultry Laura Elena Harring) who calls herself Rita, after Rita Hayworth; she can't remember her real name because she's just been in a terrible car accident that rendered her completely amnesiac. We saw the accident, and we saw Rita nearly get killed by men with guns just before that, but we have no idea why this is happening to her. In her purse she finds a wad of cash and a strange blue key that doesn't seem to unlock anything obvious; gradually, she recalls a few things, like the name Diane Selwyn and the street Mulholland Drive. Piecing these elements together, Betty and Rita jointly try to solve the mystery (which also includes demonically powerful gangsters, a smart-ass movie director, an untalented starlet named Camilla Rose, an odd young man who sees visions of death, a cowboy who makes poetically worded threats, a Spanish-flavored nightclub featuring lip-synch acts and weird magicians, and a host of other clues too numerous and bizarre to list). In the course of their quest, the two women fall in love, and the scene in which they initially go to bed with each other is one of the most delicate, remarkable love scenes I've ever encountered in a film.

Betty is too cheerful and naive to be believed, yet we accept the premise because it is, after all, a David Lynch movie, so we expect reality to be slightly distorted. Ditto for the fact that Rita seems to have a new outfit for every scene (though she arrived at her aunt's apartment with only the dress she had on) and that Betty seems to know her way around Los Angeles awfully well for a newcomer (“Take us around the back,” she says to a cabbie about a watched apartment complex—but you have to be pretty familiar with Los Angeles to know that just about every apartment building has a back, for car access). You may catch these discrepancies as they fly by, but you write them off to the general Lynchness.

As it turns out, however, there is a more mundane explanation: It was all a dream. Or rather, it was something taking place in the mind of Betty (who is really named Diane Selwyn) during the minutes or hours or weeks or months between the death of her lover, Rita (who is really named Camilla Rose), and her own death. Diane/Betty, we learn, has hired a killer to murder the betraying Camilla/Rita, who ran off with Alan, the smart-ass director; and the success of the execution has made Diane so miserable, guilty, or crazed that she ends up killing herself. But this explanation comes so suddenly and perfunctorily into the movie—taking up only the last 15 minutes or so and leaving most of the “clues” completely unaddressed—that I would not expect most viewers to grasp it. When I saw the film, many audience members sat dumbly staring at the long list of final credits, as if waiting for the real solution to appear in writing on the screen. And even if you can piece together this “real” story, it is a terrible disappointment—not only because it fails to tie up most of the rich plot strands lovingly drawn out during the rest of the movie, but also because it is so much more pat and boring than the powerfully attractive fantasy story.

It is possible for a great movie to give us a fantasy and then take it away from us, as Hitchcock notoriously does in Vertigo or as The Wizard of Oz does in a different way. But if this technique is to work, we must get something in exchange for giving up the fantasy; we must have something to carry away with us that is at least as valuable, so that we don't feel cheated by the exchange. David Lynch has yet to learn this. The feeling of loss at the end of Mulholland Drive is not the same as the loss we feel at the end of Vertigo. The latter is a rich emotional experience that matches the movie that preceded it, while the former is the result of our very reasonable sense of having been unfairly deprived. Lynch clearly knows how to proffer extravagant gifts in great profusion. What he still needs to master is how to take them back.

Graham Fuller (review date December 2001)

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SOURCE: Fuller, Graham. “Babes in Babylon.” Sight and Sound 11, no. 12 (December 2001): 14, 16-17.

[In the following review, Fuller asserts that the narrative structure of Mulholland Drive follows “dream logic,” rather than the Hollywood narrative conventions.]

Mulholland Dr. unwinds in a benighted LA dream-scape where two girl detectives fall into lipstick-lesbian embraces, a Mafia power play is sublimated in a menacing Pinteresque discussion of an espresso's drinkability, smug studio types commingle with doo-wop-singing starlets, Sunset Boulevard riff-raff and the ghosts of Hollywood past, and shattered identities are mosaicked back together in an oneiromantic fable about Hollywood's conspiracy-riddled dream factory.

On its release in America in October, David Lynch's film, which is as perversely sadomasochistic as Josef von Sternberg's Dietrich farragoes and as lushly surreal as Raul Ruíz's early work, lured critics into oxymorons. The Village Voice's J. Hoberman described it as “thrilling and ludicrous,” the New York Times' Stephen Holden dubbed it “the grandest and silliest cinematic carnival to come along in some time.” And as if inspired by the moral reactionaries who savaged Michael Powell's masterpiece Peeping Tom, the New York Observer's Rex Reed unintentionally vindicated Lynch's film with the sheer uncomprehending viciousness of his attack.

But Mulholland Dr., in which nothing is as it seems, is something of an oxymoron itself. Never intended as a movie, it became one when Lynch pulled it from the wreckage of an open-ended television series he had planned to make for ABC (the sponsors of Twin Peaks) in 1999. It consists of most of the $7 million pilot for the show, which had been rejected by the network as too slow, weird and offensive, and approximately 45 minutes of new material financed by Studio Canal Plus, which reportedly doubled the original budget. Lynch has admitted that even after the French company's intervention he didn't know how to reconfigure the narrative, which peters out on an optimistic note in the pilot after the female sleuths have discovered a woman's decomposing corpse, but that the ideas eventually came to him in the space of half an hour (presumably over several cups of java). The resulting movie may be the most audacious salvage job in recent Hollywood history.

Given its unpromising beginnings, this lethally perfumed neo-noir may be even more remarkable as a successful marriage of form and subject. That is, if one is prepared to see it as a cinematic equivalent of pathetic fallacy, which, even as it recasts its amnesiac love object as a femme fatale who sexually taunts the woman she has discarded, takes on the aura of a siren song luring the viewer into a magnificent deception. Although Lynch comes across in interviews as the least manipulative of showmen, he has a marked predilection for demonic conundrums—think of Bill Pullman's sax player Fred phoning home in Lost Highway (1996) and getting Robert Blake's gnomic Mephistopheles on the line, even though he is standing in front of him—that cannot be solved, or squared away with such forays into folksy pastoralism as The Straight Story (1999).

Alternately blithe and threatening, Mulholland Dr. is one schizoid fantasy. After a stylised opening credits sequence that depicts a partially silhouetted jitterbug contest and a bleached-out shot of the smiling girl who wins it with her proud parents, we see and hear a woman murmuring in her sleep hidden under pink and green bedclothes—and we need only recall the unconscious plunge into the severed ear of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) in Blue Velvet (1986) to recognise this brief scene as a portal to a dream. What this as yet unknown dreamer dreams is a tale of a sheeny brunette escaping her nocturnal murder when a car full of joy-riding kids smashes into the sleek limo her would-be killers have driven up on to Mulholland Drive, the iconic hilltop artery that snakes west from Cahuenga above the bejewelled black velvet necropolis of Los Angeles. She dreams, too, of two slate-eyed cops, the kind that always harass Philip Marlowe, investigating the crash site, of the concussed brunette taking refuge in an apartment on Havenhurst, and of a bug-eyed Hollywood insider telling a colleague about the dream he's had of a terrifying man lurking behind the coffee shop on Sunset where they're having breakfast; they actually head out back to confront the monstrous vagrant. The scene is crucial because in the anxiety dream we're witnessing it signifies the release of the dreamer's id.

We don't know it yet, but the next scene introduces her alter ego—a naive, relentlessly cheerful blonde called Betty Elms, the jitterbug champ, who has flown into LAX from the Ontario city of Deep River (also the name of Dorothy Vallens' apartment block in Blue Velvet). She disembarks from her plane in the company of a friendly elderly couple who tell her to be careful as she sets out to become a movie actress, but cackle malevolently through discoloured teeth when she leaves them. Arriving at her absentee aunt's flat, Betty finds the brunette there. She has lost her memory but takes the name Rita from a Gilda poster; her amnesiacal solipsism may convey Rita Hayworth, but with her crimson lips and black cocktail dress she evokes the Ava Gardner of The Killers.

Betty persuades Rita to find out who she really is, and they coyly embark on their adventure like a cross between Rivette's Céline and Julie and a pair of Nancy Drews. (Nancy is the ever polite teen supersleuth who began her fictional career in 1930; coincidentally, perhaps, she is from a place called River Heights and favours blue, the occult colour in Lynch's palette from Blue Velvet on.) Their trail leads them to the corpse of a woman called Diane Selway, after which they make rapturous love and Betty twice tells Rita, at the peak of her ecstasy, that she is in love with her. Significantly, as will be revealed, Rita does not reciprocate.

There then follows what could well be a dream within the dream as Betty and Rita repair in the early hours to a dank nightclub called Silencio where the revels are overseen by a barking aural prestidigitator. Here Rebekah Del Rio's rendition in Spanish of Roy Orbison's ‘Crying’ reduces the new lovers to tears, as the fetish-stroking version of ‘Blue Velvet’ sung by Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) did Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). This post-coital flight into Swinburnian lachrimosity and Magritteian surrealism has an erotic morbidity that only an appreciator of the limits of decadence such as Lynch could pull off, though it might be argued that the sequence is no closer to most people's experiences of dreams than those Salvador Dalí designed for Hitchcock's Spellbound.

It does, however, offer a jarring comment on the betrayal that can take place when cinematic illusionism—in this case, sound-picture synchronisation—is exposed as a trick. When Del Rio swoons unconscious to the floor, her theatrical croon continues unchecked, and Betty—perhaps because this act of violence threatens her romantic epiphany and her ability to suspend disbelief—is deeply disturbed. Lynch had originally intended to use ‘Crying’ in Blue Velvet, but opted instead for Orbison's ‘In Dreams.’ Dean Stockwell's Ben lipsynchs the song with the same baroque affectedness demonstrated by Del Rio, but he too is cut short when Frank rips the cassette of the song from the tape recorder. On both occasions Lynch is breaking through the dream fabric of the film, reminding us of the fragility of cinema's hallucinatory power.

These stabs of consciousness also puncture the dream-protected sleep of the dreamers. In Blue Velvet Jeffrey, bruised and bloody after his beating by Frank, wakes up on a vacant lot, though he still has another dream to get through. Back in the apartment in Mulholland Dr., Betty disappears and Rita opens a small blue box—one of several Pandora's boxes in the film that literalise its Chinese-box structure—and we tumble Alice-like (or like Jeffrey) into Diane's living hell as an unwashed, bitter prostitute and drug addict. Diane is in love with a self-satisfied star called Camilla Rhodes and has been having sex with her in her dingy flat. But she learns at a party to which Camilla has invited her that Camilla is not only to be married to the arrogant director Adam (Justin Theroux) of the 50s doo-wop movie they're both acting in but appears to be having a fling with another blonde on the side. Camilla's flagrantly voluptuous kisses with both the director and the blonde hit the paranoid Diane like Oedipal hammer blows and prompt her to arrange Camilla's murder.

That Rita and Camilla are both played by Laura Elena Harring and Betty and Diane by Naomi Watts is the audience's key to understanding that the film has jack-knifed from Diane's wishful dream of herself as a confident, happening starlet with a passive lover she can control to an ugly reality in which neither Betty nor Rita exists. This disarming scenario also weaves in Adam's perilous provocation of a couple of Mob lieutenants, who insist that he hire a talentless moll, prompting him to take his golf club to their limo. In his Mulholland Drive home he then finds his wife in bed with the pool-boy, takes a beating from him, and flees to a seedy hotel.

Mulholland Dr. is the Lynch film most rooted in a specific milieu, deploying a Chandlerian use of LA's iconic topography and its potential for terrifying rendezvous in the dark. When Adam is summoned to a corral at the end of Beechwood Canyon, his night drive there is reminiscent of Marlowe's drive to Purissima Canyon off the Pacific Coast Highway in Farewell, My Lovely. Under a Lynchian sputtering light bulb, an unsmiling, homily-drawling Poverty Row cowboy suggests, in a scene as chilling as it is absurd, that the hotshot director should overcome his artistic reservations and hire the moll.

“If you do good, you will see me once. If you do bad, you will see me twice,” he warns, and Adam takes the hint, deciding to hire the moll even as Betty turns up on the act on the company of a casting agent. Their eyes meet across the crowded studio floor—either a falling-in-love moment the film does not pursue but the planned series might have done, or a hint that Adam, again in the series, might have further endangered his life by casting Betty anyway, despite her running Cinderella-like from the set to meet up with Rita on the afternoon they discover the body. This twist in Diane's dream thus carries Betty from what would have been her Hollywood breakthrough to a confrontation with her dead self.

The cowboy is a more specific presence than Robert Blake's pointy-eared bogeyman in Lost Highway. He is one of several breathing waxworks of old industry folk, whose role it is to twist the knife in Betty/Diane for having had the temerity to come to Hollywood in the first place. The others include Coco Lenoix, the elegant dowager (Hollywood legend Ann Miller) who welcomes Betty to her aunt's apartment only to scold Diane repeatedly at the engagement party where it transpires she is Adam's mother; Louise Bonner, the mad, leonine old movie actress turned seer who casts an imperious eye on Betty when told by Coco she is an actress; and the cadaverous, blue-rinsed phantom lady who presides over the Silencio club and is the movie's eerie figurehead. The cowboy turns out to be Diane's pimp, his words “Get up, pretty girl!” interrupting her long sleep. Then there are ghosts in Diane's life who predate her Hollywood demise—the old couple Betty met on the plane are presumably Diane's parents, who return as tiny hobgoblins at the end of the film to drive her over the edge.

Adding to this notion of Hollywood as the locus of moral squalor is the suspicion that Diane's story borrows from the tragedy of the actress Marie Prevost, just as Lost Highway loosely inscribed the 1947 murder and mutilation of Elizabeth Short, ‘the Black Dahlia,’ in the butchering of Renee Madison. From Toronto, like Diane, Prevost was a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty who became a star in Lubitsch comedies in the mid 20s. She made a successful transition to sound, but went on a crash diet when she put on weight, and eventually died of malnutrition. In his conflicting account in Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger reported that Prevost drank herself to death because she failed in talkies. “Marie dragged on until 1937 when her half-eaten corpse was discovered in her seedy apartment on Cahuenga Boulevard,” he sneered. “Her dachshund had survived by making mincemeat of his mistress.” The accompanying photograph is startlingly similar to the images of the putrefying Diane in Mulholland Dr., Lynch's fascination with decay, of course, going back to Eraserhead (1976).

Whatever noisome Tinseltown lore Lynch drew on as he cross-fertilised film noir and 50s pop flicks into Mulholland Dr.'s ambient postmodern Hollywood gothic, everything in the movie is subservient to its structure, specifically its spectacular dive into apparent illogic—not quite what script gurus have in mind when they speak of stories taking a hairpin bend as they enter their third acts. Actually, this kind of structural about-face isn't new for Lynch, who abandoned the first half of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me involving FBI man Chester Desmond to tell the story of Laura Palmer's orgiastic disintegration before dissolving the entire edifice in the arch surrealism of the ‘Red Room’ scenes. Nor is it illogic that characterises Mulholland Dr., but dream logic, which permits a stream of non sequiturs and cul de sacs, though many of the characters glimpsed once in the film are ‘explained’ through their presence in the party sequence, in which Diane describes how she came to Hollywood in the first place. Mulholland Dr. not only echoes the bifurcated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, but its particular dream logic also echoes Lost Highway's in the way it shows a dream miscarrying from wish-fulfilment to anxiety to wakefulness.

In Lost Highway impotent Fred (Pullman) is imprisoned for killing his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) whom he believed had cuckolded him. In his cell he metamorphoses into the virile mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) who embarks on an affair with a gangster's moll and porn actress called Alice (also played by Arquette). In other words, Fred dreams of being the top dog in an Oedipal triangle involving a sexually idealised Renee. But this wish-fulfilment dream spins into an emasculation fantasy when Alice's ferocious lover Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia) pursues him, and Alice informs Pete, “You will never have me,” whereupon Pete turns back into Fred, who, waking up in the desert, remains psychically if not literally in prison.

Diane's reverie similarly curdles. In the wish-fulfilment part of her dream she sees herself as a winning amalgam of Doris Day and Grace Kelly who, on arrival in Hollywood, meets the brunette of her dreams (so to speak) and proves she is a brilliant, seductive actress in her first audition. Anxiety takes over when she runs out of the film studio, and her sense of selfhood begins to crack when Betty and Rita stumble on the body.

Though Lynch denies any interest in psychoanalytic theory, Mulholland Dr., especially in its reconstituted form, offers a field day for amateur analysts in the audience. Whatever he originally intended as the ‘conscious’ action of the television series, the first two-thirds of the movie—up to where the body is found (and where the pilot more or less ended)—now comprise the dream elements that are ‘analysed’ by the action of the grim third act that culminates in Diane's suicide. Where Lynch makes most effective use of dreaming in Mulholland Dr. is in exploiting, consciously or not, its capacity for over-determination and the notion that a dreamer is all the characters in his or her dream. Nothing here is as over-determined or as downright kinky, though, as the scene in Blue Velvet when Frank, his mouth smeared with Dorothy's lipstick (or, if you like, his mother's menstrual blood), kisses Jeffrey and leaves him similarly anointed.

Rueful Diane's limo ride up Mulholland to the engagement party exactly replicates her dream of the as yet unnamed Rita being driven to her (botched) murder as Angelo Badalamenti's synth score infuses the scene with ominousness. When Adam finds himself cuckolded, he dispassionately pours pink paint into his wife's jewelry box. His acting out on his sexual jealousy in the very house where Diane's humiliation takes place symbolises her desire both to violate and to possess Camilla, Adam's wife-to-be—pink is the colour with which Betty is most identified, through her clothing, lipstick and nail polish, and the Freudian symbolism of soiling a woman's jewel box is all too obvious.

And there is more. The vapid moll who wins the lead role in Adam's film in Diane's dream, and whose headshot names her as ‘Camilla Rhodes,’ turns out to be the ‘real’ Camilla's other girlfriend—her role as a sexual rival to Diane is sublimated in the dream to that of a professional rival to Betty. Meanwhile a beautiful blonde waitress in the coffee shop is called Diane and a junkie hooker hanging out with the lowlife whom Diane will hire to kill Camilla is such a dead ringer for Betty that you have to look twice to make sure it's not Naomi Watts.

More pregnant in meaning, however, is Rita's hacking off her locks and donning a platinum-blonde wig that makes her look like a brassier version of Betty, shortly after which they make love. Talk about over-determination: the revelatory moment suggests that, as well as being a fully paid-up member of the Oedipus complex, Diane is pathologically narcissistic. The scene ushers Mulholland Dr. into the company of Hitchcock's Vertigo, Bergman's Persona and Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire. Twinning, of course, has been a consistent theme in Lynch's later work, as witness the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ Dale Coopers in Twin Peaks and the two Arquette characters in Lost Highway.

In 1992 David Lynch met Dennis Potter, and there was subsequent talk of Lynch directing Potter's adaptation of D. M. Thomas' novel The White Hotel. Lynch and Potter would have made uneasy bedfellows, though there are several points of comparison between their works, including the interest in using lipsynched songs to convey emotions mere naturalism cannot adequately express. Then there is their dubious fascination with sexy amnesiac women who inspire homicidal thoughts (also shared by Martin Amis, whose novel Other People works as a sequel to his later London Fields).

The best analogue to Mulholland Dr., in fact, is Potter's ill-fated Blackeyes, with its twinning of the jaded blonde ex-model and the fictional passive brunette—herself an amnesiac by the story's end—whom she bequeaths to her novelist uncle. Potter's writing frequently dealt with characters who fail (Cream in My Coffee) or succeed (The Singing Detective) in gathering up the shards of what he called their “sovereign” selves. This is especially instructive when contemplating a drama of deconstruction like Mulholland Dr. with its lost angel Diane, whose sovereignty has been fractured long before we enter her dream.

Philip Kerr (review date 14 January 2002)

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SOURCE: Kerr, Philip. “LA Confident.” New Statesman 131, no. 4570 (14 January 2002): 44-5.

[In the following review, Kerr recommends Mulholland Drive as Lynch's “best and most erotic film since Blue Velvet.]

Mulholland Drive is a road in Los Angeles that twists and turns for ten miles along the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, and connects the Encino Reservoir, made famous in Roman Polanski's Chinatown, with the Hollywood Hills, made famous by that eponymous, cliched and ultimately irrelevant hillside sign. Mulholland is quite a drive, especially at night, and between Coldwater and Laurel Canyon there are lots of places to pull over, enjoy spectacular views of night-time LA, and reflect on how this land-based empyrean of myriad coruscating lights seems well named as “the City of Angels”—or at least it did until David Lynch, that modern Lucifer of cinema, decided to make a film about it.

And yet his is only a film by default. Mulholland Drive was originally developed by Lynch as a two-hour pilot for a television series in 1999, but it was rejected by ABC. That TV network's cock-eyed decision only lends inverse credence to what Woody Allen said about LA in Annie Hall: “They don't throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.” ABC's loss is cinema's gain, because Lynch's movie is the most atmospheric and enjoyable film about LA since Pulp Fiction. Quite simply, Mulholland Drive was too good for television.

A beautiful woman in evening dress (Laura Harring) staggers away from a car accident on Mulholland. She Jimmy Choos it as far as Sunset Boulevard; in real life, this really would be a hell of a walk, but as soon as you see that near-iconic road sign, with its echoes of Billy Wilder's screen classic (surely the best film about Hollywood ever made), you know that this, too, is going to be a film about Hollywood and the movies.

Our beautiful crashee (Harring is a former Miss America), stunned and amnesiac, takes refuge in a dilapidated, ivy-clad building that looks as if it might once have housed a Gloria Swanson; instead, it is home to the next best thing, in the 78-year-old shape of Ann Miller, who in real life was once one of MGM's biggest stars. The building, which comprises a number of apartments, managed by the Miller character, Coco Lenoix, is also occupied by an apparently ingenuous Hollywood hopeful in the wide-eyed, corn-fed person of Betty Elms (played by Naomi Watts).

Waiting for her big break in the movies, Betty decides to help “Rita” (a name borrowed from what else but a poster for Gilda about the ultimate femme fatale) find out who she really is—an ur-plot line that could have come from any one of a dozen Hollywood movies about amnesia, from As You Desire Me (Greta Garbo) to While I Live (Carol Raye). I've forgotten the rest. Meanwhile, in a sub-plot borrowed from The Godfather, no less, the movie director Adam Kesher (played by Justin Theroux, cousin of Louis) resists the menacing demands of a Tom Hagen-like lawyer that he cast a mob-choice starlet in his new film—a role for which Betty is also being considered. Gradually, the strands of this ensemble, David Altmanish story—most of them—come together in what is Lynch's best and most erotic film since Blue Velvet.

Lynch's deliberate and laid-back pacing, combined with Angelo Badalamenti's haunting score, suggests a drug-induced dream state. This is, after all, the city of dreams, and nothing in this film is ever quite what it seems. But then, what is reality in the capital city of make-believe? And where does fantasy end and reality begin? In a David Lynch film, reality is a feast that moves, discreetly, almost in proportion to “a mist,” as D. H. Lawrence has it, “of atoms, electrons and energies, quantums and relativities.”

My own experiences of life in Los Angeles have taught me that it is a place where everyone acts, all the time. Even when you are attending to the mundane necessities of life in Los Angeles—driving around, going to a midnight liquor store, eating breakfast at a Denny's—it is hard not to be possessed of the idea that you are already in a movie, if rather a dull one. It may be, as Raymond Chandler once said, that LA ought to consider itself damn lucky to have Hollywood; even so, the idea of Hollywood and the movies corrupts almost every aspect of everyday life in LA, so that it is almost impossible to meet a waitress who is not an actress, a personal trainer who is not a stuntman, or a clerk in a bookstore who is not a screenwriter. With so much real life on hold, dreams and fantasy control LA, rather like the Mormons run Salt Lake City. No wonder, as David Puttnam remarked when he quit the place, that leaving the city is like giving up heroin.

Mulholland Drive evokes these feelings in spades, and in a way I have not seen since Ella Kazan's screen version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon. Watching this film, I found I was possessed by the spirit of Los Angeles and the emotional Detroit that is Hollywood, so that I could almost taste the margaritas at the Bar Marmont, or hear the meretricious movie-chatter in Le Dome.

If Lynch's film does have faults, they are the faults of Mulholland Drive itself: it meanders a little too much, and it is easy to feel lost, perplexed, even a little vexed that you're being taken for such a long ride, ultimately to nowhere in particular. But it's a wonderful, unforgettable drive while it lasts. Highly recommended.


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