My good friend TJ Rankin has recently joined the blogging game, and has started a wonderful site and also managed to establish a wonderful and unique voice really quickly. He’s also managed a skill that eludes me, brevity. His site FrameRate Reviews covers any and all films he watches, providing a rating system based on 1-10, and each review is written in just three sentences.
As my regular reader knows I recently published my review of the film Eraserhead by David Lynch, and it was WELL past three sentences. Still, before I sat down to write that essay I spoke with TJ who was kind enough to let me try to write one for his site, and much to my disbelief he actually was gracious enough to post it on FrameRate.
I can’t thank him enough for this, and I also cannot recommend his site enough to my regular reader. TJ writes concise, accurate, and entertaining reviews of the films he watches and I never miss one.
You can read my review of Eraserhead by following the links at the very bottom, and you can go straight to FrameRate and start reading TJ’s reviews by following the link just below this one. Again, if his writing doesn’t sell you my regular reader may appreciate someone who can write about a movie using less that 4000 words.
Thanks again TJ!
I present to you all the first guest review for FrameRate, provided by my good friend and fellow blogger Joshua “Jammer” Smith! I let Jammer be a bit loose with the rules, as the guy laughs in the face of any and all writing restrictions; brevity is still key though, even if he’s gonna need those extra sentences with the movie he’s reviewing. Now, I’ll shut up and let Jammer say the rest—
Eraserhead is a silent movie made entirely of sound. Most reviews of the film say things like “It’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before,” and that’s accurate but it doesn’t give the film the justice that it deserves. The film has a loose narrative: a man named Henry who lives in a ruined post-industrial nightmare world conceives a “child” with a local woman and the rest of the film revolves around him trying to care for it…
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"In Heaven Everything is Fine", action, apathy, avant garde, Baby, Catching the Big Fish, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation Consciousness and Creativity, Charlie Chaplin, Clerks II, David Lynch, Eraserhead, fathers, Film, film review, Girl in the Radiator, horror, Individual Will, Industrial Nightmare, Literature, Nosferatu, Parenthood., Philosophy, Seriously What is Eraserhead Actually About?, sex, Sexual Reproduction, Sexuality, sperm, spirit, What is Eraserhead about, Will Power
I get it. Or at least I get that one scene where the little boy sells Henry’s head to a pencil manufacturer to make pencil eraser’s. I have no idea if the title is a reference to the head of erasers or if David Lynch just put that scene in the film to fuck with the audience, but by the end of the movie Eraserhead there’s so much that one is feeling or thinking about that trying to make quick sense of such a movie is just…well, damn near impossible.
To be honest my first initial reaction to the film is similar to Becky’s reaction to the donkey blowjob scene in Clerk’s II:
Becky: I’m disgusted and repulsed and… and I can’t look away.
Comparing David Lynch’s cinematic masterpiece to a man giving head to a donkey may seem ridiculous to some, but honestly I can’t really find a better summation of the film, and most of my friends who have seen the movie report similar befuddlement. My friend Tom who hosts a blog dedicated to short reviews of films (140 words at the most) recently confessed to me that he wasn’t sure if he even could write a review of Eraserhead because it left him so perplexed and sick. I offered my services and as of this writing he’s putting it under review.
Eraserhead appears in my life and I use that word carefully because I’m writing about a Lynch film after all. I don’t remember any situation in which the movie made some kind of blip on my radar. I don’t remember stumbling upon scenes of the movie on YouTube. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any of my friends discussing the movie. I just remember my friend Michael, who’s also a friend of Tom’s and actually showed him the movie first, always mentioning this strange film called Eraserhead and explaining why it was his favorite film. I trust Michael’s opinion in these matters because after all he introduced me to Twin Peaks and that show left me floored. I began Googling images from the film and sure enough the aesthetic seemed right up my alley, but I held back because I was told, by Michael, that it was a hard film to take. So I put it off for a while seeing Amadeus first.
Fuck you Salieri. Just, fuck you bro.
But I knew that I had to watch Eraserhead at some point, so last month when my family made the trip to Half Price Books in Dallas I tried everywhere until I stumbled upon a DVD copy in the horror section. I had a day off from the library. I sat in my kitchen. Popped in the DVD to my computer. Plugged in my headphones. And I disappeared for two hours.
Finishing the movie there was this wonderful sense of happiness. That statement by itself is probably evidence enough to have me committed, but I stand by it because I loved Eraserhead. The film was intense and dark in a way that wasn’t needlessly, or pornographically, gory. The film is built on this beautiful nightmare landscape from which absolutely everything follows, but what is most important is that Eraserhead is quite possibly the most beautiful cacophonous silent film ever produced.
Once I got past the constant darkness and paranoia about sexual reproduction, birth, and fatherhood I saw the film much like the silent movies my little sister is a fan of. The main character Henry, played by Jack Nance who would become a staple of Lynch films, is bumbly the way Charlie Chaplin tended to be and in fact his outfit seems almost a homage to Chaplin seeing as how it is a simple black and white suit. Chaplin was the first silent film I thought of, but the second was F. W. Murnau’s classic film Nosferatu. I don’t have a solid explanation for this latter film except that the score of Eraserhead constantly reminded me of the pipe organs that typically play during Nosferatu which always manages to contribute to the legitimate creepiness of that film.
But the score I think is what sold Eraserhead for me because every second of the film the viewer is constantly assaulted by a bombast of white industrial noise. Henry after all lives in a post-industrial wasteland devoid of any kind of natural wild-life, and so the various groaning’s of machinery and technology leave him in this constant surrounding hum. At one point during my viewing my dog needed to go outside to pee (or else eat more of the honey-bees who are enjoying my oxalis). I paused the movie and removed my headphones and immediately I became drunk on the silence. This sensation though helped me appreciate the film even more while I was watching because I began to see how important the sounds were to the film. Each time a character speaks, or each time a lightbulb breaks, or each time the chicken wiggles it’s legs, or when Mr. X complains about his knees, or when the “baby” cries the words are not so important as the sounds themselves and the way they contribute the general atmosphere of the film.
At this point though the reader probably has one important question: what is the damn film actually about? And why should I give a shit?
Well, to start, that’s technically two questions. Second, the problem with the first question is, there’s no real clear answer. Whatever plot does exist is so buried beneath abstraction and various frame narratives that trying to argue that there is a plot to Eraserhead feels unintelligible, or else just constricting. The most simplest explanation is this: there is a bumbly loser named Henry who lives in an industrial nightmare. He conceives a child with a young woman named Mary who gives birth to a grotesque creature that is referred to as a baby. Mary briefly lives with Henry to take care of it but she eventually leaves leaving Henry alone to try and care for it as it grows sicker and sicker. Henry eventually cheats on his wife with the beautiful woman across the hall, and in a fit of frustration, madness, or curiosity he murders the baby by cutting its swaddling bands with scissors and then stabbing it in the heart.
This is the simplest explanation for Eraserhead because, as I’ve stated before, the film is odd and has no obvious structure. The film was David Lynch’s first movie and was shot over a period of five years. This was partly because Lynch didn’t have enough money to make the film in one sitting. But despite this the movie manages to feel cohesive even after one realizes that you’re watching a series of pieces and sequences that are connected under one entire whole.
For my part I think about the constant industrialization and the morbidity that actual organic life seems to have. Lynch sets his character Henry in a world that isn’t dying because it’s clear the world is pretty much dead. One only need look at the scene in which Mr. X brings out the dinner:
Mr. X: I thought I heard a stranger. We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they’re new. Hi, I’m Bill.
Henry Spencer: Hello there. I’m Henry.
Mrs. X: Henry works at LaPelle’s Factory.
Mr. X: Oh. Printing’s your business? Plumbing’s mine. For 30 years now. I’ve watched this neighborhood change from pastures to the hell-hole it is now!
Mary X: Dad!
Mrs. X: Bill!
Mr. X: I put every damn pipe in this neighborhood. People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!
This scene isn’t terribly depressing or horrific, but it is Lynchian and weird and only contributes the general atmosphere of hopelessness that pervades the characters and it only grows worse during the actual dinner.
Mr. X: Mary usually does the carving but tonight since you are our guest, you could do it, Henry.
Henry Spencer: Of course. I’d be glad to. So I just, uh… I just cut them up like regular chickens?
Mr. X: Sure, just cut them up like regular chickens.
Henry cuts into the chicken which proceeds to bleed from between the legs which also start to wiggle making little squeaking sounds. This scene would be bad enough if not but a minute later Mary’s mother confronts Henry about the affair and the baby which ends in an ominous line:
Mrs. X: Henry, may I speak to you a minute? Over here. Did you and Mary have sexual intercourse?
Henry Spencer: [stammering] Why?
Mrs. X: Did you?
Henry Spencer: Why are you asking me this question?
Mrs. X: I have a very good reason, and now I want you to tell me.
Henry Spencer: I’m, I’m very… I love Mary!
Mrs. X: [interrupting] Henry, I asked you if you and Mary had sexual intercourse!
Henry Spencer: Well, I don’t… I don’t think that’s any of your business!
Mrs. X: [interrupting] Henry!
Henry Spencer: I’m sorry.
Mrs. X: You’re in very bad trouble if you won’t cooperate…
[nuzzling at his neck]
Henry Spencer: Well, I…
Henry Spencer: Mary!
Mary X: [grabbing her away] Mother! [sobs]
Mrs. X: Answer me!
Henry Spencer: I’m too nervous.
Mrs. X: There’s a baby. It’s at the hospital.
Mary X: Mom!
Mrs. X: And you’re the father.
Henry Spencer: Well, well that’s impossible! It’s only been…
Mary X: Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!
And the baby itself remains for me the most horror inducing aspect of Eraserhead because of one key scene. Henry is constantly watching his radiator and seeing in his mind a young woman with grotesque puffed up cheeks who stands on a quasi-vaudevillian stage. In one shot she is dancing and stepping on small sperm creatures that fall from the ceiling and later she sings a song that, I shit you not, remains one of the most creepy and catchy tunes you will ever hear. And because I’m feeling monstrous, here it is:
Following the blinding light Henry finds himself alone on the stage. A tree begins to emerge from one side and he steps off, holding a small bar before his head literally bursts from his shoulder and the “baby’s head” slowly emerges crying while the tree bleeds over the stage and around Henry’s severed head. The sound of the baby crying gave me chills and I legitimately had to stop the film for a moment to breath. But this small scene seems to illuminate a theme that numerous bloggers and vloggers and writers and critics have touched on which is that Eraserhead is a film about the paranoia of becoming a parent.
David Lynch was about to become a father as he was finishing up Eraserhead and most people have latched onto that idea as the explanation-de-jure of why the film is doing what it’s doing. I think there’s certainly plenty of evidence for this reality, the fact that the film opens with a sperm creature coming out of Henry, and later the grotesque “baby” itself all lends great weight to this argument.
But I’m always cautious when I hear that everyone seems to have the same interpretation of a work of art because then it feels like there’s nothing left to do in terms of personal understanding or interpretation. Something else is bothering me: a small book by David Lynch. I received the book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity as a birthday present last year. It’s not the normal kind of stuff I read because I find spirituality books tedious and usually boring as fucking-fuck, but because it was written by David Lynch I made an exception. Reading the book there was one small passage that stuck out to me:
Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is. (33)
It’s a small quote, but I think it lays a great foundation for a possible argument that Eraserhead is a film about spiritual power, and not necessarily the religious. Spirit as a word and idea is not solely about religion or divine energy. Spirit is also a measure of a person’s individual will. When a child demonstrates initiative, or is really passionate, or acts crazy it’s sometimes said that they have spirit. And this definition is important in our day to day lives because our spirit is our ability to give a shit. If a person is strong spiritually it means that they care and that they’re involved and engaged in their world and reality. If a person has low spirit it usually means they’re apathetic, disengaged, and divorced from their reality.
Looking at Henry I often see a man with little spirit. I’ve referred to Henry twice in this essay as bumbly and that’s purposeful because Henry never seems to be active. He’s always being passive to the world, to his environment, to the people interacting with him, and just letting life happen to him. Returning to the dinner scene for a moment demonstrates this:
Mr. X: Well Henry, what do you know?
Henry Spencer: Oh, I don’t know much of anything.
That’s it. After this Mr. X and Henry stare at each other for several minutes and until it becomes clear that’s going to be the extent of the interaction. Henry is a man who watching his life happen to him, and rather than try to make his life something else, he just goes about receiving and watching until he performs his only real action: killing the “baby.” I won’t get into the implications about fatherhood here because there’s already so many people on the internet offering such analysis.
My final assessment of Eraserhead lies in Lynch’s interpretation. It is a film about the human spirit and how it’s possible for people to become inundated by forces which seem out of their control. Looking back for a moment at Catching the Big Fish David Lynch talks more about his life during the filming of Eraserhead and I think it offers more proof for my assessment:
When I was making Eraserhead, which took five years to complete, I thought I was dead. I thought the world would be so much different before it was over. I told myself, Here I am, locked in this thing. I can’t finish it. The world is leaving me behind. I had stopped listening to music, and I never watched TV anyway. I didn’t want to hear stories about what was going on, because hearing things felt like dying. (35).
Lynch seems remarkably like Henry in this passage, a man who feels like his life is passing in front of him because there are forces which seem out of his control. Henry finds himself in a dead world where industry and technology have left the world buried in ash, and the people who live around him and interact with him seem just as dead, or else decaying. What life does exist is often grotesque and sick. In such a world how does a man find any kind of spirit, or else any incentive to continue living?
Ultimately, Henry finds some kind of redemptive act in action; in actually taking some kind of control in his life. It may be a destructive act, and horrifying one at that, but ultimately it does deliver him from the passive servitude that is his life.
Each person will bring their own self and interpretation to the movie Eraserhead, and so trying to come up with one central interpretation is going to be ridiculous. Instead the best advice I can offer the reader is to watch the film (preferably not at night) and see what your own reaction will be. The impulse at first will probably be depression or horror, but beneath that, at least in my experience, is a beautiful film about how the human spirit can overcome the seemingly endless onslaught of forces that seek to dominate it.
The film is also a wonderful example of why if you’re going to eat chicken, you might consider picking up some Raising Canes. At least the chicken strips won’t wiggle their legs at you.
I’ve included here several links if the reader would like to dig a little deeper into Eraserhead the film. Below is a link to the original trailer:
The following are several online articles either about Eraserhead or David Lynch himself:
And finally here are a few videos by film vloggers who offer up some analysis of the film, and one which is an actual interview with Lynch not long after he made Eraserhead.
It’s easy to be buried underneath the darkness of a film like Eraserhead, that’s why remembering it’s just a movie can be beneficial. Here’s something that will help: a picture of a young David Lynch talking and laughing with Jack Nance between takes during the film. I don’t know why I love this picture so much. Part of it may just be the fact that, in this moment, neither men would probably know how much the film was going to change their lives. That, and it’s fascinating to observe David Lynch’s most straight-forward haircut.
Art, Catching the Big Fish, Comics, David Lynch, graphic novel, honey, Joshua Jammer Smith, Neil Gaiman, original photograph, Philosophy, Reese's, still life, tea, The New Yorker, The Sandman, The Wake, Transcendental Meditation
"Fire Walk With Me", "Once a day everyday give yourself a present", A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Agent Dale Cooper, aliens, American Horror Story, Blue Velvet, Bob, coffee, Corruption, Corruption of Small Town America, Dale Cooper, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, Evil, Evil as a Force, Failed Hero, Film, film review, Forrest, Gay Porn, gif/jif?, Good vs Evil, Hero, horror, I know too many Michaels, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Palmer, Literature, Mark Frost, mythology, Nature of Evil, Novels, Owls, Philosophy, reflection, science fiction, Surreal, television, The Black Lodge, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks
Though I hate personally doing this, I want to warn the reader that this review has information which may “spoil” the ending of Twin Peaks for the reader. If you have not seen the ending, and do not wish to know it, please do not read any further. However, if you do not care, progress slowly. The path is strange and wonderful.
Mysteries precede humankind, envelop us and draw us forward into exploration and wonder. Secrets are the work of humankind, a covert and often insidious way to gather, withhold or impose power. Do not confuse the pursuit of one with the manipulation of the other.
–The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost
It may seem a cliché, but really and truly, I have to drink coffee while I write. Ever since I’ve lost my taste for beer, coffee has stepped in and replaced that precious elixir which supports my spirit after a day, or really evening, of work at the library. And that idea of spirit is everything as I approach the impossible and write about Twin Peaks, because as I leave the town for the first time, I wonder at the experience because, much like wonderful oddities that appear in the show, the appearance of the program seems to come out of nowhere, and nothing of what I remember is what it seems.
To be honest, I can’t even trace my awareness to any solid origin other than my friend Michael. As I’ve mentioned, some might argue too much, I’m part of a bi-weekly Graphic Novel Book Club and it’s through these meetings that I have managed to become exposed to some books, movies, and materials I almost certainly would never have been exposed to on my own. Part of that is simply the diversity of the company of the group, the other is the fact that I’m a fucking social recluse who would probably never leave his house given the option. It was through these meetings though that I first heard the term Twin Peaks, and initially I treated it the way most people treat friend’s pictures of their children: I nodded and smiled understanding that this show meant a great deal to my friends, but I honestly didn’t give a shit about it because it had nothing to do with me.
That, and I was still going through grad school and planning on becoming a teacher. Words like “the black lodge” or “Agent Dale Cooper” or “The owls are not what they seem” were words and nothing but that.
But one day, after a meeting, I asked Michael about Twin peaks. I think part of it was that I had written a review of David Foster Wallace’s essay David Lynch Keeps his Head(which I’ll get to in just a moment). Michael had offered some thoughts about Lynch as a director, informed me that I had to see Twin Peaks to understand why the man was brilliant, and then another friend of mine (also named Michael) shared a gif (jif?) of Kyle MacLachlan drinking coffee.
I stopped drinking beer, and one night, while looking through Netflix I saw the word again. It was like the scene in Muholland Drive when the blue box opens. I was drawn in and found a new world.
That, and I’ve found myself more and more drawn to the taste of damn good coffee.
This essay is a difficult task because I’m not entirely sure how best to approach it. Reacting intellectually to the show is a dubious proposition because how the flippity fuck do you react intellectually to a show that seems to constantly try to avoid any clear explanation. The alternative is to react emotionally and I worry about this because when it comes to the world of Twin Peaks (especially in the aftermath of Fire Walk with Me) there is already a great number of people offering up their emotions. And this also creates a conflict because there are people who have waited 25 years for the conclusion, or at least continuation) of the show, and in that time mountains of fan fiction, fan theories, and fan-based analysis has been generated.
What am I? A mere flea that’s just hopped on the back of a big dog’s ass. Yet here I stand willing to offer up my voice terrified of what I shall wrought. But as a great man so beautifully expressed:
Dale Cooper: Harry, I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.
My own intellectual conclusion after finishing the series is that in its own right it is complete. I hear the objection immediately. You haven’t even seen Fire Walk With Me, and there’s a new season coming out in May, how could you possibly argue that it is complete.
To this objection I simply state that I’m looking at the television show alone. This may be performing some blasphemy on my part, but again this is just reflection, not outright critical declaration.
Now Let’s Rock.
To the reader who’s never watched the show, Twin Peaks takes place in a small logging town in Washington and begins when a young woman named Laura Palmer is found murdered and wrapped in plastic beside the river. From there any and all kind of clear plot narrative is difficult because rather quickly the show becomes a surreal melodrama about the lives of the various characters that inhabit the town of Twin Peaks, and an FBI agent assigned to the town named Agent Dale Cooper.
On one side note there is also a gay porn-star named Dale Cooper who is kind of dreamy. I have no idea if this is his real name or else if he chose that as his porn name because of Twin Peaks, this aside is really just a warning to some Twin Peaks fans who might stumble upon this while googling pictures of Kyle MacLachlan.*
Twin Peaks follows the creative trend of David Lynch which is the corruption found within the supposed innocence of small-town America, and while some would argue that this is a cliché, I would remind that David Lynch helped make this trope in the first place. If you’re the first person to do something it isn’t cliché, it’s simply foundational. Agent Cooper discovers quickly that Twin Peaks is another world, a small community that revitalizes his spirit, and not just because the Double R Diner has the best Cheery Pie in the world. As Cooper works alongside Sherriff Harry Truman, Deputy Andy Brennan, Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill, and receptionist Lucy Moran, he discovers that the small town is hiding more than just local political and economic corruption. There is, as Sherrif Truman states clearly, “Evil in the woods.” And this is where ultimately the show Twin Peaks made its mark.
On the one hand this evil is manifest in the fact that characters have secret lives that sometimes involve crime, over time the supernatural powers that live and exist and manipulate the people of Twin Peaks become more and more apparent. A being known as Bob becomes the figure responsible for the death of Laura Palmer, however it’s revealed eventually that Laura Palmer’s father Leland was possessed by this creature and forced to rape and murder Laura.
Watching the scene when Leland/Bob confesses remains one of the most horrific and dramatic scenes in television, if not cinematic history ,largely because of the way Lynch establishes his universe. The question at first appears, is Leland really crazy or is there actually a creature named Bob controlling him. As this is being discussed Leland bellows out a passage that appeared once before in a dream Agent Cooper’s had not long after arriving in Twin Peaks:
Leland Palmer: Through the darkness of future past / The magician longs to see / One chants out between two worlds / Fire walk with me. I’ll catch you with my death bag. You may think I’ve gone insane, but I promise I will kill again!
At this point I wholly accepted the fact that Bob was real, but part of that conclusion was because of David Foster Wallace. If the reader has never heard that name he’s the author who wrote such books as Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He’s also known for several non-fiction books such as Consider the Lobster, This is Water, Both Flesh and Not, and finally A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again which contains a vital read for Lynch fans called David Lynch Keeps his Head(Told you I’d get to it, and you doubted me).
My reader may wonder what this has to do with Twin Peaks. I promise there’s a message here, just be patient. The essay was an assignment for a magazine in which Wallace received the opportunity to be on set during the filming of Lost Highway. While at first the essay is mostly Wallace talking about the actual filming, as it continues he manages to break-down the creative structure of Lynch’s movies and tries to define the term Lynchian. There are long passages full of insightful commentary but my focus is Twin Peaks and so one passage, in particular, seems terribly important.
Wallace discusses the idea of evil in Lynch films and how it manifests. He writes:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them.
This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of nourish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movie’s world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally possessed. […] And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it’s not because Lynch is “endorsing” or “romanticizing” evil but because he’s diagnosing it—diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it’s hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from.
Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, Love, redemption […]. (204-5).
Reading this passage, especially after finishing Twin Peaks, and taking the time to watch Blue Velvet not long thereafter, I confess I had an “aha!” moment for everything seemed to fall into place. Rather than treat evil as a kind of abstract force that is inherent to the human condition, Lynch’s films seem to attack the viewer in a way so that it’s impossible to escape from evil and the way it can impact the people that suffer from it, and The Black Lodge seems to embody this idea perfectly. As Cooper enters it, trying to save Annie he finds himself at the mercy of the very idea of evil, and ultimately succumbs to it.
Watching the last episode of Twin Peaks, and watching Bob/Coop chuckle I confess that I was grabbing my laptop and screaming “No! No! No fuck no! That can’t be it!” The rage inspired by the idea that that could possibly be the end, that the hero and purely good hero at that, could succumb to the evil’s found in the Black Lodge disturbed me. I felt that there had to be a resolving, or a redemption in which the figure who seemed to embody so much strength could not possibly fall to evil.
But that confession reveals everything.
Again, looking at Wallace’s commentary, I realize that what keeps Lynch so interesting is the fact that he seems to recognize that evil is a force, that even if it is spawned within ourselves, it can still work outwardly as a force which can compel and destroy people. Leland Palmer was a good man, or at least he seemed to be a good man, that outward surface mirrors the reality of true life. When you remember that most rape victims tend to suffer under the hands of people close to them (usually family members) rather than outside strangers, the idea that Leland could do that to his daughter is more plausible, but nonetheless still retains its horror. Likewise, with the character Dale Cooper, who, over the course of the series, becomes some kind of extension of the viewer. As I watched Twin Peaks I identified more and more with Coop. Part of this is simply because I’ve always wanted to be intelligent and charming and charismatic, but also because he was a genuinely good person.
He also gave me the greatest lesson in life:
Dale Cooper: Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.
This man would eventually fall prey and fail against the pure forces of darkness. It’s not fair. It shouldn’t happen. And watching the very end I was angry and sad and terrified after what was surely the most terrifying 20 minutes of television ever recorded. And before anyone tries it, No. American Horror Story is nowhere near as terrifying as the Black Lodge. I don’t care how many clowns or gimps in leather suits they throw at me.
Part of this horror on my end was because of the characters and Wallace notes this in his essay:
When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier—we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. (167).
He also offers one more assessment which I feel is perfectly valid:
This may, in fact, by Lynch’s true and only agenda: just to get inside your head. (171)
If such is the case this certainly works. I know that I’ve offered a lot of extraneous material and haven’t so much dug into an episode by episode analysis but in starting this essay I did some internet research and it appears much of the fan-base has already done that for me. Besides I prefer to step back and observe the general trend and impression something leaves me with. And as I look over my opinions and assessment of Twin Peaks I find more and more that I stand by my original declaration. The first two seasons can stand alone as an art product because ultimately it seems to validate the trend of Lynches’ oeuvre.
Evil is a force that exists and it corrupts absolutely, and when looking at the small community the capacity to fall prey to darkness seems all the more terribly valid. In the case of Twin Peaks the characters are held by their own resolve and personal wills, but ultimately Lynch reminds the viewer that evil can manifest in such ways to break even the strongest people. Sometimes our heroes are not what we need them to be, and sometimes good people are destroyed.
The lingering image then of Twin Peaks for me is Bob slowly crossing the living-room toward Mattie. It’s not a dramatic shot in terms of camera angling. It’s simple and it holds for exactly the right reason. The aliens, inter-dimensional beings, the forces of evil are not what they seem. They can be cackling lunatics, dwarves in red suits dancing to jazz, they can be owls, or they might even be someone close to you, someone who you’re supposed to trust and love.
These is no experience like Twin Peaks. And while it may sound at first as if the show ends on the note of hopelessness, but I would hope that after the reader finishes my essay or finishes the show for themselves they would take care to remember a line from the novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost which offers a far more satisfying sense of closure than I could ever hope to give:
The owls may not be what they seem, but they still serve an important function – they remind us to look into the darkness.
While writing this review I found a picture of the pair of Dale cooper alongside Dale cooper. It led to an article which had confirmed that Dale Cooper named his porn name after Dale cooper the character. While I find this hilarious, it also leaves me curious if anyone has yet proposed a Twin Peaks porn parody and whether or not David Lynch would direct it.
Never-mind. Just Googled it. It doesn’t exist…but it could.
Here’s a brief snippet from the Charlie Rose interview that helped get David Foster Wallace on my radar screen. This snippet is where he discusses how Blue Velvet appealed to him originally:
And here also is the Charlie Rose interview with Lynch himself:
The famous Owl Line has echoed after the show and come to define numerous interpretations of the show and what the owls actually are. For my own part I like this interpretation one random blogger offered, though I am ALWAYS happy to hear other people’s ideas.
And here, because I like offering people more and more resources, are a few sites dedicated to Twin Peaks:
Look at this shot. Look at it. This is the shot that confirms my bias. There are no monsters, or killers, or jump-scares, there’s only a shot of a ceiling fan slowly turning, but this ultimately is David Lynch’s power, because this shot scared me more than four seasons of American Horror Story Combined. Great horror should always attempt to draw a viewer into another world, but while the viewer is being entertained the master of horror tries to get into the viewer’s world. There’s something behind me, there’s nothing and I know it objectively, but if a director can actually create the sensation that there just might be something there, then they have succeeded.
And then there’s Bob.
1408, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Blue Velvet, color, Color in Art, Color in Literature, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, death, Ebony Clock, Edgar Allen Poe, film review, Firehose, Firehouse Shining, horror, Literature, Masque of the Red Death, Novel, Perception, Perception = Reality, Perception of Reality, Pet Cemetrary, Pit and Pendulum, Prospero, Robert Osbourne, Roger Corman, Short Story, Stephen King, Surreal, TCM, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Masque of the Red Death, The Shining, The Tickler, Vanity, Vincent Price
It’s impossible to read Poe and not summon up the image of Vincent Price. Growing up with the parents I did I didn’t just watch Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Friday the 13th movies during the Halloween season. I did watch these films, but I had to wait until my parents went to sleep because Freddy Krueger freaks my mom the fuck out. Along with more contemporary horror movies though my mom and dad would insist that we watch some old school horror movies as well. TCM is a go-to channel in the Smith house, and damn-it when there’s a Vincent Price marathon on you watch it. Somewhere between The Pit and Pendulum, The Tingler, and The Fall of the House of Usher, Robert Osbourne announced The Masque of the Red Death and I managed to find another bit of space to scoot closer to the television because I had read this story in English and I really wanted to see it performed.
Watching the film, it’s obvious someone was on pot, I’m just not sure which one it was. Most assuredly the audience was because the film is crafted so that the dramatic color scheme can appeal to the stoners who decided to get high and watch a movie. And when you remember the film was released in 1964 this statement isn’t just lazy mass classification. Hollywood was pushing more and more towards counter-culture in its film releases and so anything they could do to appeal to baby-boomers helped. You could make the argument that the director and producers might also have been on drugs, but I’d like to think that Vincent Price made sure that Roger Corman managed to get a few good shots in before taking another hit on the blunt.
Reading The Masque of the Red Death in school however was a bit of a surreal experience, more so than the film, and even reading the short story years later while sitting in the soft orange glow of my lamp the story didn’t lose any of its surreal quality. I recognize that the word surreal has been bastardized to mean something weird, strange, and definitively “not real” and so I have to clarify what I’m actually trying to say. Surreal art doesn’t mean impossible; it means super-real. Watching, reading, or experiencing any kind of surreal art is not about observing oddity, it just means experiencing something that, while you recognize it couldn’t happen in mundane reality, it feels as if it is actually real.
A good example of this is in the essay David Lynch Keeps his Head by David Foster Wallace. It’s the fifth essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and it covers Wallace breaking down the aesthetic and craft of Lynch while reporting about being on the set for the filming of Lynch’s movie Lost Highway. At one point he describes first seeing Blue Velvet with some of his fellow Creative Writing student friends from Harvard and the profound effect it had on him:
This was the context in which Blue Velvet made such an impression on us. The Movie’s obvious “themes”—the evil flipside to the picket-fence respectability, the conjunctions of sadism and sexuality and parental authority and voyerurism and cheesy ‘50s pop and Coming of Age, etc.—were for us less revelatory than the way the movie’s surrealism and dream logic felt: they felt true, real. And the couple things just slightly but marvelously off in every shot […] it wasn’t just that these touches seemed eccentrically cool or experimental or arty, but that they communicated things that felt true. (200-1).
Wallace purposefully italicizes the words true and real, but it’s important to note how the word “felt” precedes them all. Surreal art feels real because the elements, often concrete objects like clocks, fruits, trains, or dishware, allow people to observe what they know is real while also observing these objects in odd arrangements. A bowl is something we know is real because we see or use one almost every day. Seeing a bowl filled with ten small elephants is a surreal image because, what we know of elephants, that they are massive in size, distorts reality and makes us feel as if something odd is occurring or else that we’re dreaming. Or, that Skinny Dave laced the stuff with LSD and we need to have a talk with him once the gloves hovering over the coffee table stop arguing in sign language.
It’s import then to remember how real dreams feel when we’re having them, and even, at times, after we have woken up and immediately forgotten them.
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death in my mind is a surreal story because the elements in the plot create the sensation that we’re observing and feeling something real even as we observe a story that, for all its real elements, is really rather abstract. Prince Prospero, an alliterative name that would make even Stan Lee blush, is a mad monarch, now I’m doing it, who has hidden himself away in his castle while a disease known as the Red Death ravages the countryside. The reader is given no other details about the nationality, or even the continent, though it’s generally felt by the reader that the story is about Europe during the Plague. Prospero decides to lock himself, and a thousand “friends” and fellow monarchs up in his castle while outside the common people are dying of this decimating contagion. Prospero arranges his castle into a series of colored rooms and, one one night in question, holds an elaborate masquerade ball. If you don’t know what that is think of Mardi Gras when people wear masks and beads and feather and usually nothing else. The party is fine but for an obnoxious ebony clock which distracts people, until one of the guests appears dressed in a long red robe and a mask that is reminiscent of a victim of the “Red Death.” Prospero is outraged and chases the figure down the halls until he rips off the mask and it’s discovered that the figure is the embodiment of death sent to punish these arrogant nobles for trying to outrun death at the expense of their responsibility.
If this sounds like the start of a fantasy epic, or else a really great episode of the Twilight Zone, that impulse is well founded. Poe’s story is most certainly a warning about the danger of vanity and its ultimate effect upon the individual who entertains this vice. But I’m not here to work in morals, my concern is horror for surrealism can be a marvelous way to explore nightmares.
In one rather long quotes Poe sets up the party by writing of the various rooms in which the participants occupy:
It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade. But first let me tell of the rooms in which it was held. These were seven—an imperial suite. In many palaces, however, such suites form a long and straight vista, while the folding doors slide back nearly to the walls on either hand, so that the view of the whole extent is scarcely impeded. Here the case was very different, as might have been expected from the duke’s love of the bizarre. The apartments were so irregularly disposed that the vision embraced but little more than one at a time. There was a sharp turn at every twenty or thirty yards, and at each turn a novel effect. To the right and left, in the middle of each wall, a tall and narrow Gothic window looked out upon a closed corridor which pursued the windings of the suite. These windows were of stained glass whose color varied in accordance with the prevailing hue of the decorations of the chamber into which it opened. That at the eastern extremity was hung, for example, in blue—and vividly blue were its windows. The second chamber was purple in its ornaments and tapestries, and here the panes were purple. The third was green throughout, and so were the casements. The fourth was furnished and lighted with orange—the fifth with white—the sixth with violet. The seventh apartment was closely shrouded in black velvet tapestries that hung all over the ceiling and down the walls, falling in heavy folds upon a carpet of the same material and hue. But in this chamber only, the color of the windows failed to correspond with the decorations. The panes here were scarlet—a deep blood color. Now in no one of the seven apartments was there any lamp or candelabrum, amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or depended from the roof. There was no light of any kind emanating from lamp or candle within the suite of chambers. But in the corridors that followed the suite, there stood, opposite to each window, a heavy tripod, bearing a brazier of fire, that projected its rays through the tinted glass and so glaringly illumined the room. And thus were produced a multitude of gaudy and fantastic appearances. But in the western or black chamber the effect of the firelight that streamed upon the dark hangings through the blood-tinted panes, was ghastly in the extreme, and produced so wild a look upon the countenances of those who entered, that there were few of the company bold enough to set foot within its precincts at all. (485-6).
The surreal quality of the rooms is proof enough that Poe is a brilliant, but more importantly an efficient writer, because far too often I’ve read writers who believe having a character see a Great Horned Owl wearing a mortarboard qualifies as surreal. Poe’s efficiency though is established because he masters color.
Color is delicate mechanism in prose because writers run the risk of either being too specific or too vague when describing an object’s particular hue. Ultramarine blended with Teal is sure to leave the reader stumbling for that color shade card their wife picked out at LOWES for the baby’s room, while “that shade of blue the color of eyes” will not only leave someone dissatisfied, it will send them to Amazon where their review of the book will be the stuff of nightmares. Color has to be approached carefully in writing, and Poe’s success is that he doesn’t try to pick obscure shades, rather he lets his reader feel the colors by simply noting blue, purple, red, and black and allowing the uniformity of matching windows and furniture create the impression of these rooms. They become surreal spaces because as one would move from the purple room to the yellow room the physiological response would be almost blinding and dream-like. Reading them alone the reader is able to feel that dramatic shift in hues and so these dense color patterns create a sensation that can only accurately be felt rather than described.
My reader may wonder what this talk of surrealism has to do with horror. The room themselves wouldn’t create the horror, it’s the grand ebony clock that finally does it.
Poe describes in Prospero’s castle a grand clock that interrupts the party and the effect of his description still resonates:
It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused revery or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly; the musicians looked at each other and smiled as if at their own nervousness and folly, and made whispering vows, each to the other, that the next chiming of the clock should produce in them no similar emotion; and then, after the lapse of sixty minutes (which embrace three thousand and six hundred seconds of the Time that flies), there came yet another chiming of the clock, and then were the same disconcert and tremulousness and meditation as before. (486-7).
These two opening passages are, by themselves, not terribly frightening. Just about anything taken out of context will not strike the reader or viewer as frightening. As with the case of Blue Velvet, what matters in these passages is their context to the rest of the story and the general feeling that they are real, or at least true.
I read The Masque of the Red Death again, sitting alone in my office by the lamp on the table that sits just under the window. There are two lamps that create a soft amber glow when it is night, and while I have the window-shades shut, there is still always the feeling of a presence just outside the window. Perhaps that’s why, when I finished the story, and placed Poe beside my plastic skull and copy of The Book of Beetles, the super-realness of the clock still reverberated and I felt, just for a moment, that I might have actually heard its distracting echo.
I’ve written recently, about Poe’s exploration of the dark and mysterious realms of reality, often pushing into the space of the “World Without Men,” and while I agree that The Masque of the Red Death certainly continues this aesthetic, I can’t shake off the idea of feeling the super-real. The reason for this is because Halloween is approaching and so most people are preparing for the night when spirits are supposed to be more present or at least more accessible to this realm. And while reason is the defining principle by which I live my life, and while I detest any argument that supports the existence of the supernatural, there is a little joy in putting skeletons in my front yard and enjoying a little fright.
But I’m a writer and making connections is important, so while Poe’s super-realness is observed in his Masque of the Red Death, reading the story was also an excuse to get back to another point in my life, or more accurately, another author.
My regular reader will realize that Stephen King really started it all for me, in terms of realizing that I wanted to be a writer. After reading The Green Mile I began to write, mostly shit, but I started writing because King explored an interesting territory that I wanted to try. I eventually gave up writing horror because, and I need to be honest here, I suck at it. You have to have the right chops to scare people and my weakness is I’m too intellectual. I know that sounds vain as fucking fuck but it’s not meant to be. My only claim here is that I’m in too much of a rush to explore ideas rather than feelings, and when looking at horror all you’re talking about is feelings.
The book that really sealed the death of my career as a horror writer was The Shining because, after reading that, I knew I could never compete with King. Apart from Pet Cemetery, and his short story 1408, there is no King book that scared me so terribly as The Shining. The novel is about a man by the name of Jack Torrance, a former high school English teacher who has been fired for assaulting a student and is looking for a job. He gets hired as a caretaker of The Overlook, a resort hotel in Colorado. Jack has just kicked his alcoholism and is looking for a chance to write and so he takes the job to spend the winter in the Overlook with his wife Wendy and his son Dany until the spring. It becomes clear, once the family moves into the hotel, that supernatural forces are attacking the family in different ways, and Jack in particular, is eventually selected to handle the job of killing Wendy and Danny because Danny is psychokinetic. Jack eventually succumbs to the house, but not before trying to save Danny from himself and destroying the boiler so that the hotel explodes in a mess of fire.
Immediately some might question what relevance the novel has to Poe’s short story, but this question is ended before it begins when they open the book and observe that the clock passage cited before is used as an epigraph to the novel. Not only that, but throughout the text actual references to The Masque of the Red Death are cited to the point that King builds the elements of the story into his actual novel. In one particular instance King doesn’t even try to hide the fact he’s using the story to build his own. In the final 100 pages of the novel, which for the record often feel like a marathon sprint because everything just falls into place and King just attacks his reader, Wendy is fleeing the ghosts which are appearing and there’s a dramatic scene:
The ballroom doors were thrown wide, only blackness spilling out. From within came a steady ticking, like a bomb. She under glass. Jack or Danny must have wound it..or maybe it had wound itself up, like everything else in the Overlook.
She turned toward the reception desk, meaning to go through the gate and the managers office and into the kitchen. Gleaning dull silver, she could see the intended lunch tray.
Then the clock began to strike, like tinkling notes.
Wendy stiffened, her tongue rising to the roof of her mouth. Then she relaxed. It was striking eight, that was all. Eight o’clock.
…five, six, seen…
She counted the strokes. It suddenly seemed wrong to move again until the clock had stilled.
(?? Nine ??)
Suddenly, belatedly, it came to her. She turned back clumsily for the stairs, knowing already she was too late. But how could she have known.
All the lights in the ballroom went on. There was a huge, shrieking flourish of brass. Wendy screamed aloud, the sound of her cry insignificant against the blare issuing from those brazen lungs.
“Unmask!” the cry echoed. “Unmask! Unmask!”
Then they faded, as if down a long corrido of time, leaving her alone again.
No, not alone.
She turned and he was coming for her. (397-8).
Because this scene is a climax the same level of super-real effect isn’t so potent out of context, but when this scene appears I can only speak for myself, I almost put the book down for fear of continuing. The shadows on the wall, which had just been shades created by the lamps and ceiling fans, began to move in ways that disturbed me and so my option was finish the book or attempt to move and leave the room. For obvious reasons I kept reading. King’s ability with structuring his writing, the use of ellipses and parenthesis especially, create this slowly growing sense of terror because they become impressions of thought that the reader, after a while, cannot tell whether it is their own thoughts or the character’s. The only problem with this passage is that, while you have the clock and the lunch tray, this scene completely abandons the surreal for the supernatural. It’s frightening and climactic, but long after reading it the reader will recognize you need the earlier passages to make it unnerving and terrifying.
To see King working this surreal quality I need to take the reader back to an earlier passage.
Before the grand climax and the “unmasking,” there is a moment earlier in the novel where Danny is walking about the hotel and he realizes that he is about to have to walk past an emergency hose if he wants to go back to his Mom and Dad. This scene remains my first real memory of reading The Shining, because the experience and sensation was so reminiscent of my own experience.
Danny looked around the corner.
The extinguisher was there, a flat hose folded back a dozen times on itself, the red tank attached to the wall. Above it was an ax in a glass case like a museum exhibit, with white words printed on a red background: IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, BREAK GLASS. Danny could read the word EMERGENCY, which was also the name of one of his favorite TV shows, but was unsure of the rest. But he didn’t like the way the word was used in connection with that long flat hose. EMERGENCY was fire, explosions, car crashes, hospitals, sometimes death. And he didn’t like the way the hose hung there so blandly on the wall. When he was alone, he always skittered past these extinguishers as fast as he could. No particular reason. It felt better to go fast. It felt safer.
He started towards it, moving closer to the far wall until his right arm was brushing the expensive silk paper. Twenty steps away. Fifteen. A dozen.
When he was ten steps away, the brass nozzle suddenly rolled off the flat loop it had been lying
On and fell to the hall carpet with a dull thump. It lay there, the dark bore of its muzzle pointing at Danny. He stopped immediately, his shoulders twitching forward with the suddenness of his scare. His blood thumped tickly in his ears and temples. His mouth had gone dry and sour, his hands curled into fists. Yet the nozzle of the hose only lay there, its brass casing glowing mellowly, a loop of flat canvas leading back up to the red-painted frame bolted to the wall. (171-2).
Nothing supernatural has occurred. That is much is clear. And yet…
This moment can induce a real sense of panic and unease because of the way King describes the hose so realistically. The “IN CASE OF” summons immediately the images of dozens of fire extinguishers cases either in high school, hospitals, or even at retail establishments. It’s something people see every day. I wrote before the quote that I had experienced moments such as this. I grew up in an Episcopal church, and since Episcopalism is descended from the church of England, Anglicanism, which itself almost an exact copy of Catholicism, the church we attended was designed to be a big beautiful building. There were stained glass windows, old clocks, couches that seemed to belong more in the homes old people, grand pianos, and even a library with a massive council table. It was a beautiful building and remains so to this day, but the great conflict with it was at night the place allowed a child far too much imagination. The echoes of your footsteps seemed to follow you, the old clocks’ ticking became the growling stomach of some patient monster, and the shadows seemed to twist and contort into nightmares which were rather left unexplored. Worst of all was, because there were so many halls and twists and turns, and while you knew rationally there was no one following you through the building, you couldn’t escape the super-real feeling of those halls and the sensation that someone might be there. There moments were surreal, much like the firehose in The Shining, because while there was nothing that was outside the realm of experienced, the sensation of the objects were heightened into a kind of uncomfortable truth.
I haven’t so much explored horror in this essay, or at least the standard of horror many fans of the genre would recognize. For my own part I can only attest to the fact that, while The Masque of the Red Death may not be a jump-scare horror tale that many contemporary readers may be used to, that doesn’t mean it loses any of its potency.
The real concrete images of the colored rooms, and the ebony clock, and the figure in the red robe all build an impression in the reader’s mind. These scenes feel real because Poe writes them in such a way so that, even if the details of the world presented seem outside the realm of experience, they still feel real and so it’s impossible to shrug them off as simply supernatural oddity. The firehose simply falling off of the perch as Danny walks by is so simple in its presentation, and its description is so plain it’s impossible to believe at first that anything could be behind it, and yet, reading that passage when I was thirteen brought back so many sensations I wondered for a moment whether or not I might have been right.
Poe and King both are masters of their craft because they allowed their reader’s imaginations to dream feelings and sensations into being, and ultimately that’s all that matters. Perception really is 99% of reality, for as long as we feel or perceive something it exists in our immediate world. Great horror then, should rely not so much on its ability to gross out its audience, but to leave them with the impression that something feels real.
A firehose falling from its perch can be explained away with all the physics science can muster, and a clock’s chime is just the proof of a great watch-maker. Yet all it takes is a moment’s reflection to wonder at the impression, and feel perhaps that there might be something more pushing us towards some wretched realization.
It’s also a good reminder not to read Stephen King or Edgar Allen Poe before bed, because now I haven’t slept for seven days and those hallucinations of floating hands on my shoulders are starting to get a little grabby.
All quotes from The Masque of the Red Death came from Poe: Poetry and Tales as published by Library of America, however if the reader wishes to read the entire article they can follow the link below to a pdf of the short story. All passages from the novel The Shining were taken from the Doubleday First edition hardback
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Adam Kesher, Betty Elms, Blue Velvet, Charlie Rose, coffee, Corruption, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, Diane Selwyn, E Unibus Pluram, Entertainment, Evil as Force, Friday the 13th, Grotesque, Hollywood, horror, It's truly truly difficult to find good coffee and by good coffee I mean the type that leaves you feeling as if you've actually tasted something beyond human understanding close to the furnace of all , Laura Herring, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Los Angeles, Lynchian, Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts, Narrative Structure, Nightmare on Elm Street, nipple rubbing, Paranormal Activity, psychology, Rita, sex, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Surreal, television, The Cowboy, Winkies
Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A.,
The only way to fix it is to flush it all away.
When I asked my friend Michael, who’s my go-to film buff, about the film Mulholland Drive he posted a gif from a Lynch film with the sentence “Get yourself some damn good coffee.” The best coffee I’ve ever drunk in my entire life has come from my mother’s French press, but I need to get to Wallace and Lynch.
I watched Mullholland Drive for the first time with my father. I’m not entirely sure if that satisfies David Foster Wallace’s criteria of what qualifies as “Lynchian” but it feels like it should. Mom and M were out of the house, I can’t remember the specific cause, and so Dad, who had been taking a film course to satisfy a credit for his bachelor’s degree, brought home the film telling me a friend of his in the class had suggested it. There was also some mention that the film might have a lesbian scene in it, but to be honest that, like most of the actual film, is a bit blurry enigma. What I distinctly remember is the feeling that I had seen this film before in caricatures of typical “independent films” either on Family Guy, The Simpsons, or else one of the numerous television shows I watched at the time. Images would appear that were so surreal or absurd while the music tended either to put me on edge or else push me steadily towards madness, and by the time Naomi Watts and Laura Herring wound up in bed together the scene wasn’t really all that out of place, though my teenage hormones made it a bit of a distraction. The reason I bring up my father is that for a moment there was an event in which a grown man and his teenage son were sitting in the dark, watching two women fuck on the screen, sitting on separate couches unaware of what the other’s expression was.
To be fair I’m not sure you could call the sex scene in Mulholland Drive “fucking” so much as heavy open mouth tongue based kissing coupled with some light nipple rubbing.
This is a rather awkward, yet strangely fitting, introduction to serve my purpose. This essay is not so much a review of Mulholland Drive, but rather a review of an essay that I had no idea would actually leave such a distinct impression upon me. And the odd part is the essay in fact made me remember a film I had seen and so when I began this piece I wondered what would be better approach: write about the film or write about the essay which is writing about another film entirely for the most part but said first film wasn’t made when the essay was written so is there an ethical concern writing about a film and using the essay to support this argument and eventually I just said screw it and went forward.
David Lynch Keeps his Head is the fifth essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a book I bought partly because I had begun Infinite Jest but also because a friend of mine had bought the book before me and raved about it (he was a creative writer but one of the smart ones who tried to push himself creatively in what he read and wrote about) and after he and I lost touch I encountered the book again at a friend’s house while I was watching her dog. The cover strikes you immediately, largely because it’s comically grotesque, with a little boy with an obscenely large head licking his chest while steam pours out from his ears. I wonder at times if I compromise whatever artistic credibility I have when I write things like this, but the book is most certainly worth your time and money if only because you’ll be able to freak out your mother and girlfriend (or boyfriend, we’re open minded here at White Tower Musings) for a month with the cover. Once you get bored with that you can read about watching television or else how David Lynch is a genius, but the movie is Dune is absolute swill.
Reading the essay, I was constantly remembering the general feeling that Mulholland Drive created particular during three specific quotes. Wallace says in section 10 of the essay:
If the word sick seems excessive to you, simply substitute the word creepy. Lynch’s movies are inarguably creepy, and a big part of their creepiness is that they seem so personal. […] It’s the psychic intimacy of the work that makes it hard to sort out what you are feeling about one of David Lynch’s movies and what you are feeling about David Lynch. (166).
Even though it’s been years since I watched the film I can’t disagree with Wallace in this passage because to this day there’s still a miasma of psychic shock and recovery that was watching the film. That’s not hyperbole, just an effort to convey the lingering sensation of watching a Lynch film, a good Lynch film. It’s not so much that the film is grotesque the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Hostel is, nor are his films psychologically terrifying the way The Shining or Psycho were(though I did jump when the grotesque homeless man first appeared). These films are genre based films, specifically horror, and the fundamental aspect of horror is that once the first experience is done it is possible to overcome the experience and, possibly, even laugh at it later. A great example of this is the Paranormal Activity films and just about any Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The films of David Lynch are not horror films however for even after you have processed the experienced there is a discomfort and emotional awareness that doesn’t leave the viewer. David Lynch as a director has probed into the viewer psyche and, if I may use a grotesque metaphor here, effectively licked the inside of their skull leaving a lasting membrane the viewer can still feel decades after the fact.
Grotesqueness is part of the man’s aesthetic however, for unlike the previously established gore-filled horror-genre films, Lynch’s movies are attempting something different creatively.
Wallace offers up a great assessment:
The absence of linearity and narrative logic, the heavy multivalence of the symbolism, the glazed opacity of the character’s faces, the weird ponderous quality of the dialogue, the regular deployment of grotesques as figurants, the precise, painterly way screens are staged and lit and the overlfush, possibly voyeuristic way that violence, deviance, and general hideousness are depicted—these all give Lynch’s movies a cool, detached quality, one that some cineastes view as more like cold and clinical. (167).
He continues this later on by noting:
When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier—we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. (167).
This is most certainly the case for me as I look back again to Mulholland Drive. The main storyline is…damn near impossible to describe, and so I won’t bother to attempt to except to address the character of Betty/Diane. Played by Naomi Watts the narrative, such as it is, follows Betty as she encounters a woman known as Rita who has suffered a terrible car crash and can’t remember who she is. Betty recently moved to Los Angeles and many critics and fan of the film have noted that she comes to embody the standard naïve outsider hoping to make it big in L.A. Most of this is certainly true, for Betty freely helps Rita after her accident and by the end of the film she has seemingly been destroyed as she eventually buys into the grotesque realities of the Hollywood system. She’s an aspiring actress, and when the plot flips, and Rita is revealed to be a successful actress, betty is left a shriveled waste of malevolent intent. It’s not enough that she has failed, she has exploded because of her kind nature.
There are other numerous subplots to the film, such as the director Adam whose life is steadily destroyed by forces controlled by a mysterious and grotesque dwarf in a room with a single light, as well as the man who opens the film suffering a terrible nightmare about seeing a grotesque man behind a “Winkies.” These stories exist and possess a great relevance to the “plot” but because the narrative is disjointed, and because the film is shot in a way that is often dream-like the viewer is left to try and assort the various pieces together hoping that they can find some meaning.
Betty is a sympathetic character however, and by the end of the film it’s painful to see she has fallen from that kindness which once defined her.
Betty Elms: She’s letting me stay here while she’s working on a movie that’s being made in Canada. But I guess you already know that. Well, I couldn’t afford a place like this in a million years… unless, of course, I’m discovered and become a movie star. Of course, I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star. But, you know, sometimes people end up being both. So that is, I guess you’d say, sort of why I came here.
Betty Elms: I’m sorry. I’m just so excited to be here. I mean I just came here from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this dream place. Well, you can imagine how I feel.
By the end of Mulholland Drive Betty’s fall is tragic since it came from such an idealistic high however the narrative delivery makes it difficult at times to really be sure that her end result, the character Diane Selwyn, isn’t the actual reality and that Betty may not be so much a figure of sympathy but really just the imagination of Diane attempting to construct a narrative in which she’s actually the sympathetic character who’s just a victim of abuse and manipulation. What is important to note however is that this structure does not make it difficult to watch Lynch’s film, in fact it only informs it more. Betty is either the victim of evil, or else a perpetrator of it, and at a certain point there isn’t much of a distinction. At least, as Wallace suggests, in a Lynch movie.
Wallace addresses this in his essay:
It’s not just the fact that twisted people do hideous things to one another in Lynch’s films, these critics will argue, but rather the “moral attitude” implied by the way Lynch’s camera atrocities in Lynch movies are never staged to elicit outrage or even disapproval. The directional attitude when hideousness occurs seems to range between cynical neutrality and an almost voyeuristic ogling.
The claim, though, that because Lynch’s movies pass no overt “judgement” on hideousness/evil/sickness and in fact make the stuff riveting to watch, the movies are themselves a- or immoral, even evil—this is bullshit of the rankest vintage, and not just because it’s sloppy logic but because it’s symptomatic of the impoverished moral assumptions we seem now to bring to the movies we watch. (203).
This is an important passage, not just for David Lynch Keeps his Head, but for review writing in general. A few weeks past I wrote a review of Wallace’s essay E Unibus Pluram which was about television’s affects upon culture, creative writing, and Postmodern consciousness. While writing this review I noted how often Wallace had to keep reminding his reader that television was not a cancerous sore on the face of humanity, and one passage in particular says it far better than I could:
I am concerned to avoid anti-TV paranoia here. Though I’m convinced that television today lies, with a potency somewhere between symptom and synecdoche, behind a genuine crisis for U.S. Culture and literature, I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited upon an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes. (36).
Violence is frequently, and accurately, coupled in our society, and those who contribute to media should be conscious of what they are actively placing into the universe. The only problem is that because television and film-watching are both “passive” exercises you “receive” the medium rather that “actively” generating some part of it yourself, there has arisen an “elitism” coupled with bullshit morality in our society and so film makers who explore violence will always suffer the wrath of people who are bothered or disturbed by violent or perverse content. Lynch’s movies freely employ violence, this is a fact, but not to the level that it becomes pornographic or gratuitous. As Wallace wrote, whatever violence exists within his universe the acts performed and recorded do not provided a kind of malignant catharsis, nor are they designed to be employed as black humor. Death, pain, destruction, and murder just are.
This is a problem and I recognize it immediately because human beings don’t like ambiguity, or ambiguity of this caliber. Trying to explain that something just is, doesn’t fit into the narrative structures that human beings live their lives by. In the Judeo-Christian faith that was I surrounded with as a young man, acts of evil or monstrosity were performed because there was an evil supernatural tempter swaying the will of human beings in the form of The Devil. As I got older, and received more education, I learned that human beings’ motivations could also be swayed by economics, there are financial reasons for evil deeds because people are greedy or hungry. Adding a bit more complexity to this sexuality becomes a factor in the compelling of people to violence, for sex inspires passions that blind people to reason and so a lover may be drawn into a fit of violence after he catches his boyfriend in bed with two other men, or a wife may kill her husband’s mistress because she won’t share him. These are examples of causes and effects that fit narratives most people would recognize and be comfortable with, but Wallace brings up an important point when he notes that violence in David Lynch films aren’t about narratives because in Lynch films narratives are contorted, twisted, and may not even be real.
It makes sense that that concept would disturb people, because it’s a narrative structure people are unfamiliar with, or uncomfortable with, because it seems at first to suggest that violence happens for no reason at all.
Human beings since their infancy have needed an individual or location that possesses an “other” quality so that they can justify their existence. This sentiment is probably best expressed in the movie Scarface when Tony Montana drunkenly leaves the restaurant:
Tony Montana: What you lookin’ at? You all a bunch of fuckin’ assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, “That’s the bad guy.” So… what that make you? Good? You’re not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie. Me, I don’t have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth. Even when I lie. So say good night to the bad guy!
As for Wallace himself he manages to find some kind of conclusion, or creative recognition in the violence that occurs in Lynch movies:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them.
This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, frce. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of nourish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movie’s world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villans seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literallt possessed. […] And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it’s not because Lynnch is “endorsing” or “romanticizing” evil but because he’s diagnosing it—diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it’s hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from.
Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, Love, redemption […]. (204-5).
This was a rather long quote, but it was necessary to get to the end of this essay. Technically speaking Wallace’s essay is about him visiting the set of David Lynch’s then upcoming film Lost Highway, which I admit I haven’t seen. The only Lynch films I’ve seen are Mulholland Drive and Dune, which as I as well as Wallace note really isn’t a Lynch film at all, but the first film left a permanent impression on me. Reading Wallace’s essay then made me re-evaluate the experience so that Lynch as a director became not just a man who made weird and unwatchable films, but an important artist whose vision and philosophy towards art wasn’t that much different from my own.
Lynch as an artist seems to be always attempting to understand the forces that compel human beings, either by their own force of will or by outside influence. Looking at Mulholland Drive this last impression of evil seems more and more relevant for ultimately every character falls prey to the evil forces that seem to occupy the city of L.A. Betty and Adam both are human beings trying to fulfill a narrative of their own life until outside forces, evil forces, eventually corrupt their will and force them into paths they don’t desire or can live with in the case of Betty.
Human beings are comfortable fitting into narratives, and so when a director purposefully eschews narrative structure and directs the audience to observe stories in a position that seems outside the traditional structure, the natural response is to be disturbed. This is only proof however that a real aesthetic reaction has taken place.
Rather than simply call Lynch “sick” or “warped” the reader who watches a Lynch films and feels tremendously bothered by it, which for the record Wallace most certainly was and he even describes his experience seeing Blue Velvet with a group of friends in the essay, shouldn’t just say that Lynch is “sick” and leave it at that. There are many films which are designed to simply entertain the viewer and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, a problem with only watching such movies is that one becomes trapped into the standard narrative tropes and so when a film comes around, or a film maker, who violates that norm the reaction becomes to label him as “sick” or “evil” when all he has really done is attempt to question the rhythms of humanity.
One last point should be addressed however and that’s the idea I introduced at the beginning with my little anecdote: what is a Lynchian moment? A teenage boy watching an erotic moment in a movie with his father most likely doesn’t satisfy that idea, but on some level I believe it does. Wallace defines it as best he can for the reader:
An academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” But like postmodern or pornographic, Lynchian is one of those Potter Stewart-type words that’s definable only ostensively—i.e. we know it when we see it. (161).
It’s fair to state the fact that a great number of men have rented, bought, or downloaded Mullholland Drive simply to watch Naomi Watts and Laura Herring kiss and touch boobs. It’s a lamentable fact, largely because a great many of these men have entirely missed what a truly strange scene they’re actually watching. Yes, two beautiful women are engaged in an erotic act, but by the time the viewer gets to this scene it is an act rooted in the Lynchian structure of the film, which is a fancy-pants way of saying it’s fucking weird. Weirder than this is watching this scene with your father, but let me at least save the old man from any embarrassment by noting that the pair of us bonded afterwards by noting at the same time that “that movie was fucking weird man.”
You know it when you see it. It’s like great coffee, you know it when you taste it, and afterward you’ll never forget it.
In case the reader is at all interested I’ve included a link to a few videos related to Mullholland Drive
The opening “Diner” scene which taught us to never pay attention to dreams or to buy cheap coffee:
The “Coffee scene” which reminded us that napkins are important:
The “lesbian” scene, which really isn’t a “lesbian” scene at all and I highly encourage you to avoid reading the comment section because it will make your skin crawl:
And a brief interview with David Lynch where he responds to a question about Mullholland Drive and discusses the idea of “abstractions”:
And finally here’s an interview with David Foster Wallace on Charlie Rose promoting the book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again talking about David Lynch and the epiphany, his words, he experienced after watching the film Blue Velvet with some friends:
I legitimately hope that I haven’t put anyone off see in Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet. I acknowledge that I’ve made the film sound like either a surreal unwatchable film or else a bad porno, so allow me one last moment of your time when I say that Mulholland Drive is most certainly worth your time as a film. If I can’t convince you, please remember that a recent BBC Poll put it at the Number 1 film of the decade and Indie Wire explains this out if you follow the link below: