Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch, Blue Velvet, Candace R. Craig, David Lynch, Eraserhead, Film Noir, Inland Empire, James D. Reid, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Neo-Noir, Philosophy, The Straight Story, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart
A beautiful, dark-haired woman flees from a car wreck and wakes up in a stranger’s apartment, suffering from amnesia. When asked her name, she looks at an old movie poster on the wall, and focuses on its star: “Rita.” This pivotal moment from Mulholland Dr. (2001) adorns the cover of a new book about director David Lynch, as it was that film which sparked the interest of its two authors.
James D. Reid is a professor of philosophy, while Candace R. Craig teaches English. They have previously collaborated on study guides for Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch is published by Lexington Books, as part of a series bringing philosophical perspectives to cine-aesthetics. They credit among their forebears in this field the philosophers Stanley Cavell, whose Pursuit of Happiness (1981) looked at Hollywood comedies of remarriage; and Robert B. Pippin, author of Fatalism in American Film Noir (2012), The Philosophical Hitchcock (2018), and Filmed Thought: Cinema as Reflective Form (2020.)
Filmmaker Terence Malick, a contemporary of David Lynch, studied philosophy with Cavell in the 1960s. But Lynch, who began his career in painting before experimenting with the moving image, is famously reluctant to explain what his films might mean; and if he has a philosophy at all, it is probably Transcendental Meditation (as outlined in Catching the Big Fish, his 2007 book on creativity), which as Reid and Craig suggest, is more a matter of faith or intuition. His frequent depiction of perverse sexuality and extreme violence have made Lynch a controversial figure who raises moral questions. But it is his portrayal of human agency – the capacity to be responsible for one’s actions, and the conditions that enable or prohibit this – that the authors find especially provocative in his cinematic work.
In the films of David Lynch, agency is never taken for granted. Seemingly thrown into circumstances not of their own choosing, his characters struggle to gain control over their lives. Throughout his cinematic oeuvre, Lynch uses the uncanny to evoke the troubling possibility of invisible forces manipulating the entire scene, in the form of chance or fate, as his protagonists find themselves unable to account for their own actions, and connect with others. If agency is elusive, imagination – the other main theme of this book – is a process by which his characters are able to reclaim their identity, or perhaps to escape into fantasy.
Alongside ten feature films made over half a century – including a handful of commercial successes, although Lynch resides more comfortably outside the mainstream – he has also worked in television, most notably with the ground-breaking Twin Peaks. Omitted from this book is his sprawling adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic, Dune (1984), a film the director himself has disowned, although it may be due a renaissance as Dennis Villeneuve prepares his more technologically advanced remake for the big screen in 2021. Notoriously booed at Cannes in 1991, the spin-off prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is also sidelined, although as the authors have noted, it is now gaining recognition from feminist critics and was a major influence on the recent television revival.
For a filmmaker who appears to shun analysis, Lynch’s work has spawned a diverse body of literature, ranging from critical studies to fan-led appreciation (more specifically for Twin Peaks.) Among their precursors, Reid and Craig cite two anthologies, The Philosophy of David Lynch, and a volume of essays about Mulholland Dr.; and The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime, a monograph on Lynch’s Lost Highway by philosopher Slavoj Zizek.
Making a Beginning
For the most part, the book explores Lynch’s output in chronological order, except for the first chapter which cites The Straight Story (1999) as a paradigm of strong agency. Produced for Disney, it is based on real events involving Alvin Straight, an elderly man from Iowa who made a 240-mile round trip on a John Deere riding lawnmower to visit his dying brother in Wisconsin. Alvin is played by Richard Farnsworth, a character actor and former stuntman who had appeared in numerous Westerns before earning an Oscar nomination for The Gray Fox in 1982.
While Lynch is usually more interested in exploring detail, The Straight Story includes panoramic views of the Midwestern plains. This is no bucolic wilderness though, but an environment cultivated by man: Alvin’s journey proceeds along well-travelled roads, and as our hero crosses the Mississippi River, Lynch focuses on the manmade, lattice-like bridgework. Alvin does not live off the fruit of the land, but eats wieners out of a can. In one striking episode, he meets a distressed commuter who has hit a deer with her car for the thirteenth time in seven weeks. In contrast to the Deer Woman’s despairing fatalism, Alvin turns the accident to his advantage and cooks roast venison that night.
But Alvin is not just a stereotypical rugged individualist. We first see him collapsed in his home and as his doctor warns, he has serious health issues. His determination to make the journey initially seems more like stubbornness than the sign of a resolute character. Nonetheless, Alvin has spent much of his life travelling, and seems to feel at home on the road. Although he is a man of few words, we learn that he is a recovering alcoholic, estranged from his brother for many years. Alvin’s daughter Rose, with whom he lives, has lost her children in a fire, and we suspect Alvin may have been to blame. He confronts his troubled past in a moving scene when he shares traumatic wartime memories with a fellow veteran.
It is not only personal fortitude that allows Alvin to accomplish his goal, but the acceptance and support of others. While Rose is initially alarmed by his plans, when she realises how much it means to Alvin to reconcile with his brother, she gives him her blessing. Early on in the journey, Alvin’s mower breaks down and he seeks assistance from a busload of sympathetic elderly tourists, and arranges for the mower to be transported back home before purchasing another from the John Deere dealership. He later meets a teenage runaway and makes her a campfire dinner and talks about the strength of family, as demonstrated by tying a bunch of sticks together. (The girl disappears by morning, so the question whether his advice was useful remains unanswered.)
When Alvin’s brakes fail, a man named Danny helps to get his mower and trailer off the road. He is grateful for the help, but when Danny offers to drive him to his brother’s home, Alvin replies, “I still want to finish this the way I started it.” Alvin’s nurtured autonomy seems to parallel Lynch’s own idiosyncratic vision, which is nonetheless embedded in the collaborative art of filmmaking. In the final frame, where Alvin gazes silently up at the stars with his brother, we contemplate their willingness to face an uncertain future together.
Five years in the making, David Lynch’s feature film debut, Eraserhead, was released in 1977 to general bemusement – revulsion, even – before gaining cult status as a ‘midnight movie,’ hailing the birth of a surrealist auteur. Noting that Lynch often speaks about his films in terms of worlds to be entered into, the authors suggest this may be a more fertile way to approach Eraserhead than as a set of symbols to be deciphered. Partly inspired by Lynch’s hungry years in a squalid corner of Philadelphia during the 1960s, torn between his idealistic pursuit of the ‘art life’ and the more pressing needs of his wife and child, Eraserhead presents a seemingly post-apocalyptic world in which organic life cannot thrive; and yet it is depicted in the style of an industrial city from the 1930s or 40s, an impression enhanced by the film’s black and white photography.
In a prologue, we view this greyed-out world from above, as an uninhabitable planet floating in an otherwise blank cosmos, controlled by a fate-like creature, the Man in the Planet, through the operation of mechanised levers. We then meet Henry Spencer (played by Jack Nance), a young man on leave from his job at a pencil factory, summoned to the home of his pregnant girlfriend, whom he reluctantly agrees to marry. In an atypical dialogue-heavy scene, Henry’s future father-in-law attempts to cook man-made chicken, and dismisses their environment as a ‘hellhole.’ The arrival of a monstrous baby (Lynch refuses to reveal how the model was crafted) is quickly followed by the departure of Henry’s ill-prepared young wife. Unable to care for his ailing mutant progeny, Henry retreats into a world of fantasy, centred on an otherworldly figure known as Lady in the Radiator.
It is generally accepted by critics that Henry finally kills his child, but the authors argue that even this horrific sequence may be a manifestation of his suicidal dream logic. In a world where all meaningful action is rendered abortive, Henry’s story exemplifies weak agency, except in the realm of illusion.
Among the early admirers of Eraserhead was comedian and producer Mel Brooks, who memorably described David Lynch as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars,” and asked him to direct a project he was developing. One of Lynch’s most commercially successful films, The Elephant Man (1980) earned eight Oscar nominations. It is based on the true story of Joseph ‘John’ Merrick, a severely deformed man who first gained notoriety as a carnival attraction in late 19th century London before his cause was taken up by a distinguished physician. John Hurt was cast as Merrick, with Anthony Hopkins playing Dr. Frederick Treves. The screenplay was based on Treves’ own memoir which lends a certain bias to the story, most notably in the depiction of ‘Mr. Bytes’, the loathsome showman who exploits and abuses Merrick. Tom Norman, on whom Bytes was based, pointed out in his own memoir that he had, in fact, saved Merrick from the workhouse, enabling him to earn his own living. He also argued that under Treves’ care, Merrick was still on display as a medical curiosity.
Like Eraserhead, The Elephant Man was filmed in black and white and includes fantasy sequences, in which Merrick’s pregnant mother is trampled by an elephant (a popular theory for his disfigurement at the time.) However, the film’s narrative is otherwise more traditional. Lynch delays Merrick’s appearance so that we are forced to witness his helplessness, and the lack of empathy afforded to him. When a colleague enquires about Merrick’s mental capacity, Treves responds, “Oh, he’s an imbecile, probably from birth … Pray to God he’s an idiot.” This assumption is disproved when, for the first time, Merrick speaks his name. He also gains the friendship of a famous actress, Mrs. Kendal (played by Anne Bancroft), who recites a love scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with him. And yet even in this warm encounter, there is a lingering sense of condescension.
In The Elephant Man, the characters who recognise Merrick’s humanity enable him to express himself more fully, as in the railway station scene after he escapes abduction, and cries out to a crowd of gawkers: “I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!” Now living more securely in a furnished apartment, Merrick is able to complete the model cathedral he dreamed of building, and Lynch allows the camera to linger on his creation. It is through imaginative engagement, the film seems to say, that we can surmount personal barriers and finally live with dignity.
However, the film’s conclusion is more ambiguous, as Merrick retires to bed after a joyous evening at the theatre, and dreams of his mother whispering to him, “Nothing can die.” As he is unable to lie on his back without suffocating, Merrick will soon stop breathing. Whether, in his imaginative reverie, Merrick has forgotten this vital fact, or whether he has chosen to end his life remains unclear. And so the limits of our imaginative powers are exposed. In an earlier scene, hospital director Philip Carr-Gomm (John Gielgud) asks Treves if he can imagine what Merrick’s life has been. Treves believes he can, but Carr-Gomm is not persuaded: “No one could possibly imagine it! I don’t believe any of us can!”
After the high-stakes disappointment of Dune (1984), David Lynch returned to independent filmmaking with his first original script since Eraserhead, and made one of the most daring and controversial movies of the decade. Set in the fictional town of Lumberton, Blue Velvet (1986) draws on Lynch’s own upbringing in America’s heartlands, thereby paving the way for Twin Peaks. In the opening frames, we see a white-picket fence surrounding a middle-class suburban house, its wholesomeness quickly undercut by a low shot of bugs crawling in the grass. “Blue Velvet is a neighbourhood picture in a way,” Lynch has remarked.
When his father is strangled by a mower cord on the front lawn and taken into hospital, college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) returns home to manage the family hardware store. His discovery of a severed ear while wandering through a backlot leads to an encounter with the stagnant local police force, and after meeting the chief detective’s pretty daughter Sandy (Laura Dern), Jeffrey begins his own investigation which leads him to the seedy apartment of lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini.) While hiding in her closet, Jeffrey witnesses a ‘primal scene’ in which she is sexually violated by local thug Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper.) As the film progresses, he is drawn into their dangerous world.
The full flowering of a ‘Lynchian’ aesthetic is complemented by his first collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti, showcased in a nocturnal scene where an uneasy Jeffrey and Sandy park their car by a church on the wrong side of town. Sandy tells Jeffrey about her dream of a world without love, where even the robins have flown away. As she speaks, the church lights up and we hear Julee Cruise sing ‘Mysteries of Love,’ leaving the viewer to decide whether the scene denotes the possibility of redemption, or just false hope.
As the authors observe, Blue Velvet is a coming-of-age story in which the naïve protagonist seeks knowledge of a crime and finds more than he bargained for. The later incident in which Jeffrey discovers a naked, hysterical Dorothy on Sandy’s front lawn is modelled on a formative memory from Lynch’s childhood. But while we may be rooting for Jeffrey, the action hinges on his resisting the temptation posed by Frank. “The film belongs to Dennis Hopper,” they write. While Frank initially appears as an exemplar of strong agency (if used for nefarious purposes), his need to control others reveals a hidden insecurity, and he frequently behaves like a bad actor on a poorly imagined stage.
Blue Velvet employs certain aspects of film noir, with important differences: Jeffrey, for example, is young and idealistic, not a jaded anti-hero. His spontaneous approach to life contrasts markedly with Frank’s rigid insularity. And while Dorothy initially seems to fit the ‘femme fatale’ archetype (leading to charges of misogyny), violent masculinity, and not unbridled female sexuality, is the evil to be confronted. In the final scenes – with Frank vanquished, Dorothy saved, and Jeffrey reconciled with Sandy – order is tentatively restored, and it may appear that Lynch is endorsing conservative family values at their most simplistic. But the mechanical robin seen outside Jeffrey’s window (recalling Sandy’s prophecy) hints that such a conclusion would be erroneous. Dorothy and her young son lovingly embrace in a public park, together again but still vulnerable: and as we look into her eyes, we hear an echo of the titular song’s last line – ‘And I still can see blue velvet in my tears’ – evoking the persistence of her trauma.
Building on the creative triumph (and controversy) of Blue Velvet, Lynch’s next big-screen venture, Wild at Heart (1990), was released in the wake of Twin Peaks’ enormous success on television and won the Palme D’Or at Cannes before receiving a very mixed reception from critics worldwide, anticipating the critical backlash to come. Adapted from the novels of Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart preceded Ridley Scott’s True Romance, Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, and even Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction with its miasma of sex and violence, and a preoccupation with popular culture. As the star-crossed lovers Sailor and Lula, Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern resemble a postmodern Elvis and Marilyn. Like The Straight Story it’s a road movie of sorts (with a dash of family melodrama), chasing an elusive freedom – both literally, as the beleaguered couple flee a motley crew of gangsters and Lula’s murderous mother, Marietta (Diane Ladd); and more profoundly, as the lovers try desperately to take control of their chaotic lives.
The film begins with a brutal incident in which Sailor kills a man who threatens him with a knife. Although he was acting in self-defence, the ferocity of his attack horrifies Lula. We later learn that the man was hired by Marietta to kill Sailor because he spurned her sexual advances. Nearly two years into his prison sentence for manslaughter, Sailor is released on parole, which he immediately breaks by crossing the border between North and South Carolina with Lula. Their journey is motivated by a mutual desire to escape Marietta’s clutches, and a vague notion of building a new life in California. For all their rebellious spirit, there is little sense of agency in their quest, which is chiefly motivated by the need for escape, and thwarted at every turn by the various henchmen Marietta dispatches in their wake.
The burden of the past – whether through the controlling influence of Lula’s mother, or the dearth of ‘parental guidance’ during Sailor’s formative years – is another formidable barrier to their relationship. When Sailor boasts that his snakeskin jacket is “a symbol of my individuality and my belief in personal freedom,” he sounds like an impressionable youth playing at being a man. The news of Lula’s unplanned pregnancy leaves Sailor torn between settling down and running away from commitment. While hiding out in a motel, they meet a psychotic gangster, Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), who asks Sailor to help him rob a feed store. As Sailor broods on this proposal, it seems that he may be ready to reject the offer and walk away from a life of crime. But when his money runs out, Bobby returns and Sailor reluctantly agrees, and the botched heist sends him back to prison. Meanwhile, Lula’s own disturbing encounter with Bobby Peru leads her to recognise that sex is not the liberating force she thought it to be. As he molests her, she clicks her red shoes together like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (one of Lynch’s many nods to the 1939 movie, although Lula’s shoes cannot protect her from harm.)
Wild at Heart is Lynch’s most postmodern film, with its pop culture motifs not merely referential but central to the difficulties faced by the young heroes. Without the foundation of a supportive community, Sailor in particular turns to movies and rock music for inspiration. Even his snakeskin jacket recalls Marlon Brando’s performance in The Fugitive Kind (1960.) While dancing with Lula at a speed metal concert, he becomes unnecessarily jealous of a young man in the crowd and assaults him without provocation. To further prove his superior virility, Sailor then stops the band and sings ‘Love Me’, an Elvis Presley song, directly to Lula. This sequence has a sense of unreality, of fantasy and wish-fulfilment. In another haunting scene, the couple witness a car accident and unsuccessfully attempt to help a dying girl, to the melancholy strains of Chris Isaak’s ballad, ‘Wicked Game.’
Five years later, Sailor leaves prison and is met by an ever-loyal Lula and their young son. Unable to face up to the demands of family life, he tells Lula their relationship is over. In a deviation from the novel’s original ending, Lynch inserts another figure from The Wizard of Oz, as Glinda the Good Witch urges a dazed Sailor, “Don’t turn away from love.” Some critics have derided this sequence as kitsch, and the star-crossed couple’s reconciliation as embracing conformity. But Reid and Craig argue that when Sailor sings ‘Love Me Tender’ to Lula – a realistic performance, with no imagined accompaniment – he finally turns away from the dark past that imprisoned him, finding true freedom in the acceptance of responsibility.
The definitive Neo-Noir, Lost Highway (1997) – co-written with Barry Gifford, and described by Reid and Craig as Lynch’s Othello – marks a shift towards non-linear narrative and fractured protagonists that will characterise his later career. Bill Pullman stars as Fred Madison, a jazz musician married to Renee (Patricia Arquette.) In the opening scene, Fred receives a cryptic message on the intercom outside his house: “Dick Laurent is dead.” Renee later discovers a package on their front steps, containing a videotape filmed inside their house. Some time later a second cassette appears, showing them asleep in bed. When Renee tells police detectives they don’t own a video camera, Fred explains, “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.”
Even in those early scenes, when the couple are mostly seen together in their gloomy, minimalist abode, there is little communication between them. When Fred performs in a nightclub, Renee stays at home. They later have sex, but Fred is unable to satisfy his wife. He then relates a dream in which he saw Renee being viciously attacked, her face replaced by that of a ghoulish old man. Tensions build when they go to a party, and Renee meets up with an old acquaintance, Andy (Michael Massee), while Fred has a strange encounter with the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), the figure from his dream. Andy tells Fred that the man is a friend of the mysterious Dick Laurent. This only confirms Fred’s suspicions of Andy and the nature of his prior association with Renee. The next morning, Fred is charged with his wife’s brutal murder, although he has no recollection of killing her. While awaiting execution, he suffers agonising headaches until one morning, the prison guards find a different man, Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) in his cell, and are forced to release him.
Pete is a younger man, who lives with his parents and has a close circle of friends, including girlfriend Sheila (Natasha Gregson Wagner), who may have witnessed his strange transformation on the family’s suburban front lawn. He returns to his job as a mechanic, fixing the car of a local gangster, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia.) Pete then seduces Mr. Eddy’s girlfriend, Alice (also played by Patricia Arquette), who reveals that Mr. Eddy is actually Dick Laurent. A typical ‘femme fatale,’ Alice persuades a besotted Pete to rob Andy so that they can run away together. At Andy’s home, Pete discovers compromising footage of Alice, and unintentionally kills Andy. Unfazed, Alice drives him to meet their fence in the desert. After having sex with Pete, Alice tells him, “You’ll never have me,” and walks away. Pete then vanishes, and is replaced by Fred, who conspires with the Mystery Man to slay the erstwhile Mr. Eddy. Fred returns home, and repeats the film’s opening line (“Dick Laurent is dead”) before driving off with police in his wake.
Critics have generally read Lost Highway as a film in two parts, with the reality of Fred Madison’s existence giving away to the dreamed life of Pete Dayton, which ultimately fails as well. But Reid and Craig suggest that Fred’s re-emergence towards the end merits consideration as a distinct, third chapter. From the outset, Fred uses his imagination not to broaden the scope of his world, but as a hermetic seal. His marriage threatens this isolation because he cannot possess his wife completely, and perhaps he is never more himself than in solitary confinement, where his transformation is achieved. Whereas Renee seems nervous and evasive (and a more typical victim), the brazen, duplicitious Alice is almost entirely an ‘erotic spectacle.’ Lynch uses This Mortal Coil’s ‘Song to the Siren’ as a soundtrack in their sex scenes. During Fred’s unfulfilling bedroom encounter with Renee, the song can only be heard faintly; but when Pete and Alice make passionate love in the desert, the volume is overpowering.
In Fred’s second dream the ignoble act of killing his sleeping wife is erased, leaving him free to pursue a more worthy antagonist, Dick Laurent. Only in the final frames does Lynch suggest that this dream may soon collapse. As Fred drives along the ‘lost highway,’ he clutches his head and screams in agony, as we hear the same track which opened the film: David Bowie’s ‘I’m Deranged.’
The Blue Box
“You could call it fate – if it doesn’t smile on you, there’s nothing you can do. You can have the greatest talent and the greatest ideas, but if that door doesn’t open, you’re fresh out of luck.” The second film in what is sometimes referred to as Lynch’s ‘Hollywood trilogy,’ Mulholland Dr. (2001) was a critical landmark in his career, and has been cited as a cinematic masterpiece for the 21st century. The film begins with a brief prologue, showing a shadowy group including actress Naomi Watts and an elderly couple dancing the jitterbug. This seemingly anachronistic sequence features Lynch’s first use of computer-generated imagery.
We are then thrown into a bedroom scene, with the camera moving in on a red pillow amid sounds of deep breathing, before the story begins in earnest with a beautiful woman (Laura Harring) held at gunpoint in the back of a limousine, which then collides with a carload of teenagers on the winding road. The sole survivor, she crawls out of the wreckage and makes her way down the Hollywood Hills. After collapsing by a parked car in a Los Angeles street, she regains consciousness and wanders into an apartment complex, sneaking through an open door into an empty apartment where she finally falls asleep. Meanwhile, Betty Elms (played by Watts), an aspiring actress just flown in from Canada, shares a cab from the airport with a friendly retired couple, and discovers the sleeping woman upon entering her Aunt Ruth’s vacant apartment. Hoping to identify the bewildered intruder, who calls herself Rita, Betty looks inside her purse and finds a large amount of cash alongside a mysterious blue key.
What follows is a kind of dark fairytale, as the two women try to solve the mystery of how Rita came to be there, while Betty prepares for an important audition. While their blossoming romance dominates much of the next hour, we are also introduced to other characters and more disturbing situations. Most significant among these is Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), an up-and-coming director facing multiple challenges as he learns of his wife’s infidelity, and tries to retain control of his latest film which is being funded by a criminal gang, headed by the sinister Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson), and a strange man known only as The Cowboy. After a successful first audition, Betty arrives at a casting for The Sylvia North Story, but Adam is forced to cast a vapid blonde starlet, Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George), instead.
Elsewhere, an inept hitman kills three people accidentally while trying to steal a phonebook; and at Winkie’s Diner, a nervous man speaks of seeing a monstrous vagrant behind the dumpster. Soon afterwards, Betty and Rita visit the same diner, where a waitress named Diane reminds Rita of a name from her past: Diane Selwyn. Their search leads them to another apartment in a different complex, where they find a woman’s rotting corpse. That night, Betty declares her love for Rita, who falls silent. Later on, a sleeping Rita opens her eyes and utters one word: “Silencio.” Betty wakes her, and Rita insists on going to an obscure theatre named Club Silencio, where the Master of Ceremonies tells the audience in several languages that “all is illusion,” and a woman sings Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’ in Spanish. The singer falls to the ground, and yet her vocals continue, as Betty and Rita look on in tears. Betty opens her purse to find a blue box matching Rita’s blue key. Back at their apartment, Rita opens the box and calls for Betty, but she has vanished.
As Reid and Craig remark, the film’s first major narrative arc is “an instance of exquisite storytelling on the director’s part.” By contrast, what follows in the second arc feels random and disorientating, as Betty’s dream begins to unravel. Diane Selwyn (Watts) is woken from her sleep by The Cowboy. Diane’s girlfriend, Camilla Rhodes (Harring), whom she met at the casting, has ended their affair. In a reverse replay of the opening scene, Camilla leads Diane to a dinner party at Adam’s home on Mulholland Drive, where Diane learns that Adam and Camilla are now engaged. She meets a hitman at Winkie’s Diner and arranges for him to murder Camilla. After returning to Aunt Ruth’s apartment in a deeply depressed state, Diane shoots herself in the head. We then return to the theatre, where a blue-wigged woman in the audience whispers, “Silencio.”
Mulholland Dr. is consummate Neo-Noir, but also a Lynchian tragedy. While Diane’s journey is ultimately more pitiable than heroic, it also speaks to anxieties about life’s unfairness and cruelty (embodied in the Hollywood ‘Dream Factory’) and also draws upon more general human frailties. If Betty’s story hinged upon remarkably good fortune – finding the woman of her dreams alone in her apartment, performing wonderfully at her audition after an uninspired first reading with Rita – Diane’s downfall is defined by the pessimistic concept of an overarching, malign fate crushing her aspirations. Unlike Diane/Betty, Rita/Camilla (in all her incarnations) has no obvious talent and succeeds merely through physical beauty and ‘sheer dumb luck’. This second arc is often read as a realistic counterpart to Diane’s fantasy, but Reid and Craig suggest that the film’s seeming fatalism is also illusory. Neither Camilla’s betrayal nor the machinations of Hollywood’s elite can justify Diane’s murderous actions, and so she is finally driven to self-annihilation.
Lynch’s last feature film to date, INLAND EMPIRE (2006) is only tangentially connected to the Southern California region for which it is named. Unlike some of his peers, Lynch has fully embraced the digital era, shooting the entire project with a Sony PD150 camera. He began with an idea for Laura Dern that sparked another idea, added an unrelated idea, “and then a fourth idea that united everything, and that started it all.” Lynch, of course, did not explain what that unifying idea was, but one of the strands derived from a pre-existing web series (Rabbits, 2002.) Co-editor Noriko Miyakawa has revealed that even after filming wrapped, there was no script – “but David had a map.”
The film’s prologue presents a dizzying array of narrative threads: a Polish prostitute cowers before her pimp: a captive ‘lost girl’ is transfixed by a TV show; and a radio announcer introduces a long-running drama. These disparate scenarios will reappear frequently over the next 180 minutes, but the bulk of the film focuses on Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a fading soap opera star who hopes to revive her career in On High in Blue Tomorrows, itself a remake of an unfinished, and supposedly cursed German movie. In an early scene, a Polish neighbour (Grace Zabriskie) appears in Nikki’s mansion, predicting – accurately – that she will soon win the part, and warning that “brutal fucking murder” will follow. Nikki soon falls for her co-star, Devon Berk (Justin Theroux), although both are already married. Their burgeoning affair attracts the interest of a talk-show host (Diane Ladd), and deepens the tensions between Nikki and her husband, who warns Devon, “My wife is not a free agent.”
In one of the film’s pivotal moments, Nikki hears a stranger’s footsteps on the closed set of On High In Blue Tomorrows. As she goes to investigate, Lynch cuts to another scene in which a dark-haired, ‘battered woman’ is interrogated by a homicide detective. As the main story resumes, it becomes increasingly unclear where Nikki’s life ends and that of her character, Sue Blue, begins. Nikki/Sue opens her Inland Empire bungalow to a clan of prostitutes, while in turn-of-the-century Poland, we follow another group of streetwalkers (played by the same women.) As the adulterous affair reaches its climax, Sue is frenziedly attacked with a screwdriver by Doris Side, the wronged wife of Billy (Devon’s character), who claims she was commanded to do so by an entity known as the Phantom. In another brilliant scene, a dying Nikki/Sue is watched over by a group of sympathetic derelicts – only for the camera to pan away, and the director (Jeremy Isaacs) to call cut.
This moment would seem to indicate a return to reality, until a confused Nikki flees the applause of cast and crew, and wanders into a cinema where she sees herself onscreen, and finally shoots the Phantom with a ray-gun – whereupon, the ‘Lost Girl’ walks free. The film’s epilogue is set in Nikki’s mansion, where she celebrates with various figures from Lynch’s earlier works (including the leading ladies from Mulholland Dr., and a lumberjack, evoking the world of Twin Peaks); while a group of black women sing and dance to Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman.’ Whether this ending signifies Nikki reclaiming her agency through a series of imaginative tests, or merely another retreat into fantasy, is left for the viewer to decide. Designating INLAND EMPIRE as ‘metaphysical cinema,’ Reid and Craig conclude that Lynch has crafted a world where agency itself is moot, with no one perspective privileged over another. Other critics have echoed this thought, arguing that this ‘story of a woman in trouble’ may belong to the Battered Woman, or the Lost Girl, as much as Nikki/Sue.
Darkness and Light
Described by producer Sabrina Sutherland as an “eighteen-hour film,” Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) is the only one of Lynch’s small-screen ventures examined in this book. It offers an opportunity to reflect on his fifty years of film-making, as key aspects of nearly all his cinematic efforts are revisited here. As Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) leaves the ‘Red Room’ where he has been trapped for twenty-five years, he passes through the ‘post-apocalyptic world of atomic collapse’ first seen in Eraserhead. Characters from the original series return and new figures are introduced, notably Laura Dern as Diane Evans, Cooper’s secretary who has never been seen before. Towards the end of the season, FBI Agent Gordon Cole (played by Lynch himself) recalls a dream featuring actress Monica Bellucci, who quotes directly from the Upanishads, a sacred Hindu text – “We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream” – with an added question, “But who is the dreamer?”
Lynch’s works often feature a central, tragic figure – usually, though not always female. At the heart of Twin Peaks is Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), the teenage girl whose murder Agent Cooper investigated in the original series. In the opening double-episode of The Return, a spectral Laura tells Cooper, “I am dead, yet I live.” Although preceded by Blue Velvet’s Dorothy Vallens, and followed by Mulholland Dr.’s Diane Selwyn and INLAND EMPIRE’s Nikki Grace, Laura Palmer is arguably Lynch’s ultimate ‘woman in trouble.’ Cooper’s mission to alter reality by erasing her death is enacted in the final double-episode, an ambiguous fulfilment of what Reid and Craig consider to be The Return’s major theme: the transgression of natural and moral limits. “What some might be inclined to fault – that Lynch has obsessively recycled a small body of material – we take to be evidence of the artist’s enduring philosophic and aesthetic concerns,” Reid and Craig state here.
For much of The Return, Cooper inhabits the body of Dougie Jones, an insurance agent in Las Vegas, one of several new locations featured in this season. During his long absence, Cooper has forgotten how to be human and must learn afresh, which leads to many comic situations. Aspects of his former personality resurface slowly, as in the scenes where his childish doodles on insurance papers expose a colleague’s wrongdoing, and when he instinctively protects himself against an assassin. His criminal doppelganger, Mr. C (also played by McLachlan) remains at large, attempting to elude banishment to the Black Lodge by harnessing the powers of an obscure entity known as ‘Judy’. Although Cooper (and, to a degree, Laura) are the main protagonists, The Return is played out on a grand scale, with seemingly disconnected storylines, such as the oblique travails of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), also contributing to the thematic whole.
If Twin Peaks is, as Reid and Craig suggest, a mythological representation of the struggle between forces of darkness and light, then this season’s eighth episode (‘Got a Light’) provides us with a myth of its transgressive origins. This is not a tale of original sin, however, but “a creation story in reverse.” Lynch places us at a specific event in modern history (the atomic bomb tests conducted in July 1945 at White Sands, New Mexico.) He doesn’t use archive footage but recreates the explosions with CGI, with an emphasis on its destructive consequences. The woodsman who heedlessly crushes a radio DJ’s head, and the ‘frog-moth’ that crawls inside a sleeping girl’s mouth become mythic symbols of hubris and the violation of boundaries.
After hearing Gordon Cole’s name on television, a shocked Cooper electrocutes himself by sticking a fork in a socket, and then wakes from a short-lived coma having recovered his wits. He leaves Las Vegas, leaving behind his boss and bewildered family, and heads back to Twin Peaks, followed by Cole and his Blue Rose Task Force. However, Mr. C arrives at the Sheriff’s station before Cooper, and is shot dead by receptionist Lucy. It is therefore through a combination of Cooper’s regained agency, a supportive community, and supernatural guidance that his doppelganger is defeated. But as the penultimate episode draws to a close, Cooper leaves this world behind and returns to the past, rescuing Laura on the night of her death.
In the final episode, he and Diane travel to a motel in Odessa, Texas, where after a night of anguished lovemaking, she disappears. Cooper then tracks down a local woman named Carrie Page (Sheryl Lee), whom he believes is Laura Palmer. Despite having no recollection of this former life, Carrie agrees to travel back to the Palmer home in Twin Peaks. But the occupant is a stranger. As Cooper and Carrie walk away, he asks “What year is this?” Hearing the echo of her mother’s voice calling her name, Carrie/Laura screams and the house goes dark. Lynch then cuts to a shot of Cooper and Laura in the Red Room, as she whispers in his ear.
While some commentators have interpreted this seemingly bleak finale as evidence that the entire series may be a fantasy (perhaps to absolve Cooper of past misdeeds), Reid and Craig do not agree. The purity and goodness of Cooper’s intentions remain mostly intact, but in Lynch’s cinema, the line between dream and reality is never as distinct as it may appear. Cooper’s failure lies in his own act of hubris, and erasing Laura’s murder does not ease her pain. However, I do see the possibility of a more optimistic reading, in that Laura’s remembrance of past trauma may yet empower them both to face the unmoored future – and so, perhaps, we were placing our bets on the wrong ‘agent’ all along. During the previous episode, Gordon Cole revealed that the “extreme negative force” named ‘Judy’ was formerly known as ‘Jiao Dei’, a Chinese term meaning to explain, clarify, make clear. As Reid and Craig perceive it, The Return explores the danger of applying rigid, pre-determined logic to an uncertain world in hope of a greater outcome.
If conclusions are meant to offer a set of ‘tidy propositions’ that their arguments can be said to demonstrate, the authors can provide no absolute conclusions. “Lynch’s work is better equipped to reveal problems and to evoke questions,” they reflect, adding that in all his films, “possibilities are brought into shape … and interrogated in a thoroughly inquisitive spirit.” Admitting that Lynch seems “mistrustful of agency” – which they consider “essential to having a world at all, or being ourselves in it” – they concede that their own conclusions “should be taken as suggestions for further investigation.”
In Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch, Reid and Craig engage with a broad scope of Western philosophers and arguments posed by other Lynchian scholars, including Martha P. Nochimson (author of The Passion of David Lynch and David Lynch Swerves), Todd McGowan (The Impossible David Lynch), Michel Chion (David Lynch), Greg Olson (Beautiful Dark), and Richard Martin (The Architecture of David Lynch.) This book belongs to that academic canon, and comes with a hefty cover price. With several new titles published this year on Twin Peaks alone, the field of Lynch studies, whether highbrow or fan-led, is becoming crowded; and at the time of writing, the director is reportedly preparing a new film project, with the tantalising working title of ‘Wisteria.’ Nonetheless, Reid and Craig’s Agency and Imagination still merits close attention, advancing their debate with consistently readable style.
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