Friday, January 23, 2009

Lynch Week- Inhabited By Intuition


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?

16 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

A massively important episode (one of a handful actually directed by David Lynch) and essentially the conclusion of the first half of the series...

I wouldn't have been angry if the series ended right here. There was a perfect quality to this first half of the series that immediately dissipated afterwards (even though I loved the town and characters that revealed itself later). And how cruel of an irony would it had been if even the formidable Coop would have ultimately proven ineffectual in solving the mystery of Laura's murder.

...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...

Wild at Heart won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in May of 1990. Lynch had been absent long before the 2nd half of the series started filming which would have presumably been sometime around December '90/January '91. In fact he was absent for most of the first season as well, shooting only the trippy second episode after the Pilot. I think the likely culprit of his disillusionment was what you correctly mentioned as the production heads' decision to force the climax. Lynch had always preferred that the murder never be solved providing an excuse for Coop to be marooned there and allowing us to get to know the town's denizens a bit better. And honestly, Lynch has admitted he wasn't up to the daily grind of mediocrity that was so pervasive in network TV at the time.

...this exemplifies the value of an intuitive approach to understanding the universe of Twin Peaks...

So true. In fact, this can be applied to most of Lynch's work. I've always told people seeking to understand LH, MD, or IE that they shouldn't overthink it. Sleeping on it usually provides more answers, the same way that usually helps one in resolving the coded symbols of a dream. Lynch is the rare artist that seems to connect to something in the dream consciousness and is able to bring it to terrible life.

...one reason why I always greet a Lynch viewing with both excitement and trepidation.


Amen, brother. And its only getting harder now that he's fully tuned into his subconscious with the TM he's practicing. TP:FWWM seems to be a transitional movie into a more abstract surreal style that seems free of the overt symbolism in Eraserhead and Dune, some of his earlier more abstract works. I think if TP:FWWM hadn't been so loaded with expectations at the time of its original release it would have fared better critically. A lot of folks have been revisiting that one of late.

Erich Kuersten said...

Hey I like your insight. On point as usual. Death to those who would tie Lynch's symbols down to one particular meaning, rather than taking them and going the other direction. I didn't know it was Lynch season for you guys. You have grown in number? Can I play too? I tied Lynch into my discussion of THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE over on my acidemic blog. You link?

James Hansen said...

Erich- Sounds good. Glad to see you around the site! We have grown quite a bit...five writers now and hits keep going up. Woo hoo! I still very much enjoy Acidemic and your insights.

Can I just repost your article here? Or would you rather me just do a links page for Lynch week? I can certainly do either, as so many have written on Lynch.

Erich Kuersten said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Hansen said...

Perhaps I'll do a big Lynch links for the end of the week tomorrow. If any of ya'll regulars want me to link, drop a line here or send an email to the Out 1 account. (Address is on the top right of the page, under the poll, as you've probably seen).

Erich Kuersten said...

Yes! Please re-post!

Erich Kuersten said...

or either way... links is good. I also have a David Lynch book review on Bright Lights

Erich Kuersten said...

http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/62/62bookslynch.html... okay, now I'll stop.

James Hansen said...

Haha. Looks great, Erich. Thanks for the links. I love(d) the Bright Lights review. Great stuff, per usual.

Brandon Colvin said...

Tony D. - I too would've been very pleased if the series had ended after episode 14. Alas . . . And yeah, I know Lynch was absent before, but I think WILD AT HEART gave him a really good out and certainly distracted him from the show, particularly at the time that the post-murderer reveal episodes were being conceptualized and scripted.

I'm actually a pretty big fan of TP:FWWM, so I'm certainly with you in asserting that it deserves a massive critical reevaluation - one that is already underway.

Erich - Thanks for the comment! Good to see you getting in on the Lynch-loving action.

Tony Dayoub said...

I didn't express it clearly enough, Brandon. What I meant to say was that Wild at Heart had little impact on the second half of the series. The film was complete and shown in Cannes by May of '90, and he did press for it all summer long culminating in its US release in August of '90. The film maybe played for a month 1/2 in Miami, where I lived at the time.

Now I was wrong about when the second half began production so let me retract that. I didn't realize ep. #15 aired on 11/17. But even with that, and taking into account a typical six week turnaround time from production to air, it would have been filmed in September.

So I think that the only impact Lynch's involvement with Wild at Heart would have had on TP's 2nd half would be due to the tail end of its publicity tour, and perhaps its overseas' releases.

MovieMan0283 said...

It's ironic that psychoanalysis and other "ideologies" or knowledge-systems, originally kind of the wagging tail of experience's dog, created to follow up on and investigate inexplicable emotions and incidents, have so often become barriers to knowledge instead of facilitators of it. (Sort of like with religious ritual, originally - I think - a vessel for mystical experience, eventually a self-defeating end in itself, though that's grist for another comment or even thread entirely.)

As for Lynch, I think editing is a crucial part of his process - that's where, if anywhere, he "makes sense" of what he's dredged up for the unconscious. This is obvious from Fire Walk With Me on - where little hints of other plotlines emerge, wisps of what was cut down from hours and hours of footage, where storylines are sculpted from material which was not conceived within any narrative arc. But apparently it was even true, in its own way, as far back as Blue Velvet - though there the process was more of a streamlining than anything else: originally, the ear was discovered many scenes into the movie, instead of after about 8 minutes and a couple lines from MacLachlan.

Lynch is an artist who primarily works off of impulse - like Godard, another director who gets very rationalistic readings thrust upon his work (though Godard does much more to invite this, I think he is primarily a visceral artist more than an intellectual one - it just so happens that intellectual content, mixed up with romance, nostalgia, and a kind of hyperactively wistful poetry, is his means to the feverishly intoxicating end.)

Erich Kuersten said...

Goddamn it, MM, it's great to hear you say that. Down with rationalism!

I didn't know that about Lynch with editing. That's how I make my movies too! I HATE those damned rationalist Godard "scholars." We should all collaborate on an essay collection that takes a stand against all this fusty drab Godard intepreting that chokes the life out of his hyper-active wistful poetry, as you call it. and instead champions the talking about fire with fire approach.

Wild at Heart though, I still can't into that movie. I can watch it a hundred times, and i have, and yet I still don't like it. That's Lynch for you though. It's gotta be brilliant eventually...with Lynch, everything is.

MovieMan0283 said...

Erich, we are definitely simpatico on Godard. Another thing that irritates me about film-culture discussions of Godard is the focus on his early 60s films which are, to me, by and large the least interesting (my favorite of these may be Le Petit Soldat, which is also the most underrated of them). I think his work really finds its stride in the mid-60s - my favorites being Alphaville, Band of Outsiders, La Chinoise, and especially Masculin Feminin, which also sometimes moonlights as my favorite film of all time (incongrously sitting alongside Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, The Godfather, and - somewhat more fittingly, given the stylistic fireworks - Easy Rider). This is not a controversial opinion among Godard-lovers but with those who are lukewarm on the man but feel they have to throw him a bone, Breathless is always the obligatory mention with inordinate focus on the jump cuts, not one of Godard's typical devices, nor an especially fantastic one as Godard devices go.

And I was not very impressed by Wild at Heart. Among other things, it's too self-satisfied, just like Cage's character (though it's a lot smarter than he is).

Meeg said...

Excellent call on how Agent Cooper's intuitive -- as opposed to rational -- approach to detective work should inform the way we look at all of Lynch's work.

This made me think of Dario Argento because a lot of his movies ascribe to a sort of dream logic. You could draw parallel between Agent Cooper's style of investigation and the course of the detective work done in Deep Red or Tenebrae.

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