by Brandon Colvin
What truly separates the work of David Lynch from that of other filmmakers is the director’s incredibly apt intuition. Whether through transcendental meditation or his constant diet of cigarettes and coffee, somehow Lynch has acquired an uncanny knack for visually and aurally divining the power and beauty of images and scenarios in a way that defies the reductive task of analysis or explication. It is this particularly intuitive aspect of artistic creation – Lynch’s greatest contribution to cinema – that enables Lynch to find his way through the surreal depths of his works. Many are tempted to throw psychoanalysis or other systematic ideologies at the auteur’s seemingly obscurantist oeuvre, quixotically attempting to rationalize with words a magic that can only be communicated and understood in images: one that is unshakable once experienced. When I watch a Lynch film, I am almost always moved, challenged, and disturbed in unusual ways – often without understanding why or how. I suspect I would find (and have found, in the past) any attempt at an objective critical exploration of Lynch’s canon limited because that sort of examination forgoes the importance of the irrational, the ineffable in Lynch’s work, which serve as the strobe-lit, smoke-machined factories of the moods, textures, and mysteries that characterize the director’s most stunning achievements; not the least of which is his much lauded metaphysical small-screen soap opera, Twin Peaks.
Understanding and appreciating Lynch’s gift for intuitive narratives and images depends on the viewer’s willingness to inhabit and be inhabited – a truth that is most perfectly demonstrated by Twin Peaks, the lengthiest and most geographically-defined project Lynch has ever put his brilliant mind to. Entering into Twin Peaks is the closest I’ve ever come to partaking in a world beyond day-to-day reality. Absorbing the atmosphere, built steadily over episode after episode, I watched the entire series on DVD in a month’s time and felt myself slowly slipping into the intuitive mode of Lynch and his primary collaborator on the series, Mark Frost. Not only was I being sucked into the show, the show was leaking out into me, for reasons I’m still unsure of, as if it were a form of merging inhabitation or irrational possession. There are moments in Twin Peaks, as in nearly all of Lynch’s work, that strike decidedly esoteric chords with different viewers in ways that are absolutely idiosyncratic and utterly ungraspable. Puzzlingly impactful moments like these are the reasons I return to Lynch and, especially, Twin Peaks. And now, I’d like to share one of these abstract, ineffable instances – one that consistently has a strange and powerful effect on me every time I see and hear it.
In Episode 14, entitled “Lonely Souls,” Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) killer is revealed (for those readers who don’t know, the premise of Twin Peaks is the investigation of the brutal murder of a popular, but troubled, Washingtonian high schooler: Laura Palmer). A massively important episode (one of a handful actually directed by David Lynch) and essentially the conclusion of the first half of the series – the latter half abruptly dropped in quality, often attributed to Lynch’s absence while filming Wild at Heart (1990) and his growing disillusionment with the show after production heads at ABC ordered the creators to reveal the mysterious murderer’s identity against Lynch’s will – “Lonely Souls” is breathtaking for many apparent reasons, but my relationship to the episode is defined by a very simple moment of atmospheric perfection.
Two young lovers, Laura Palmer’s best friend, Donna (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Laura’s ex-lover, James (James Marshall), rendezvous at the seedy local biker bar known as “The Roadhouse” – a site of more than one instance of metaphysical oddness. The couple, whose past is emotionally convoluted and hinges on a shared loyalty to the deceased Laura, sits in a booth as Lynch favorite Julee Cruise croons eerily onstage. Amidst their conversation is tucked one of my absolute favorite moments of the entire series, one that is positively seared into my brain. When Cruise ethereally sings, “I want you, rockin’ back inside my heart,” the scene cuts to Donna as she looks James in the eyes and lip-synchs the words to the song, her lips up-turned in a seductive grin and her face sparkling with an innocent sweetness. James’ reaction shot reveals his almost unresponsive countenance, an ambiguous Mona Lisa smile framed by his square jaw. Once the sequence cuts back to Donna, mouthing Cruise’s gentle chorus, her expression has grown considerably more troubled, almost sullen, while James maintains his cool stoicism. The brief exchange oozes with romanticism, sexuality, mystery, longing, distance, anxiety, and an underlying strangeness that manifests itself in James’ lack of engagement, Donna’s resultant worrying, and the pervasive reverberation of Julee Cruise’s melody. But, why? What about this combination of elements sparks my soul? What does it all mean? What is the grander purpose of this elegant scene, swirling with a multitude of unspecified relevance? To me, it doesn’t really matter. Most importantly, it just FEELS right. That’s where the intuition comes in. Similar to a scene that would occur later in Lynch’s career and which has a very similar effect on me – Camilla Rhodes (Melissa George) lip-synching Linda Scott’s “I’ve Told Every Little Star” while performing at the rigged audition for The Sylvia North Story in Mulholland Drive (2001) – the brief moment Donna/James share affects me very strongly (must be something about beautiful lip-synching women that really gets me going).
Moreover, this exemplifies the value of an intuitive approach to understanding the universe of Twin Peaks, which Lynch advocates via the series’ protagonist, Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), in Episode 2 (also directed by Lynch), “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer.” In “Zen,” Agent Cooper instructs the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department on the fine art of intuitive deduction, based on logic he developed in a dream about Tibet. Cooper says to his fellow investigators, “I also awoke from this same dream realizing that I had subconsciously gained knowledge of a certain deductive technique, involving mind-body coordination operating hand-in-hand with the deepest levels of intuition.” The description of Cooper’s bizarre process (which involves hurling rocks at glass bottles in an attempt to discover the identity of Laura’s killer) provides an insight into how events in Twin Peaks should be perceived – a combination of reason (connecting the dots), physical engagement (watching and listening closely), and deep intuition (finding what feels right). The last one is certainly the most slippery, but also the most essential. The rewards of engaging one’s intuition when watching Lynch’s work are different for each viewer, but the potential for an involved, invested experience remains the same. By opening ourselves to the whims of our irrational attachments – whether they be lip-synching women or men with one arm – we are able to align ourselves with a viewing experience that rhymes with Lynch’s highly intuitive creative process, maximizing the value of his surreal masterpieces and unlocking doors to the most opaque regions of our own hearts – one reason why I always greet a Lynch viewing with both excitement and trepidation.
The question is, where will he take us next, and who will be willing to follow his/her own intuition down the rabbit hole?