Retrospective: David Lynch Part Two: A Heavy Learning Curve by Donald McCarthy

The term “Lynchian” is thrown around a lot, usually to describe how weird a film is. For instance, Last Year at Marienbad, a famous French surrealist film from 1961 has been called Lynchian more often than once due to its incomprehensible nature and fractured narrative. While Last Year at Marienbad is a great film, it’s not particularly Lynchian. After Twin Peaks, a number of shows were labeled as being Lynchian in nature, The X-Files included. The X-Files is hands down one of my favorite shows but there’s nothing about it that’s Lynchian. Lynchian being misapplied is annoying but gets even more annoying when the film or television show it’s applied to isn’t particularly good. We still see this today when there’s a poor horror film; someone will invariably call it a David Lynch knock off. It’s frustrating because this means the commenter is completely misunderstanding what makes a film Lynchian.

This brings us to the question of what Lynchian means. What is its actual definition? No one seems to be able to agree on it considering how often it’s misused. During the making of Lost Highway, David Foster Wallace wrote an article titled “David Lynch Keeps His Head” and in it he gave his own definition of Lynchian:

“…Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that’s ultimately definable only ostensively – i.e., we know it when we see it… A Rotary luncheon where everybody’s got a comb-over and a polyester sport coat and is eating bland Rotarian chicken and exchanging Republican platitudes with heartfelt sincerity and yet all are either amputees or neurologically damaged or both would be more Lynchian than not. A hideously bloody street fight over an insult would be a Lynchian street fight if and only if the insultee punctuates every kick and blow with an injunction not to say fucking anything if you can’t say something fucking nice.”

It’s a great definition but I’d take it a little further. Lynchian is when the ordinary is pointed out to be both terrifying and absurd. An extreme example of this can be found about halfway through Blue Velvet, when Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth visits Dean Stockwell’s Ben, who is probably the closest person Frank has to a friend. The scene, which is the film’s best, impressively deconstructs so many aspects of life and movie making that it’s amazing the it only goes on for eight minutes.

First, Lynch is obviously having a laugh at the absurdity of product placement. Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey gives a speech to Laura Dern during the first half of the film on why Heineken is so great. The scene feels as if it’s the most grotesque and invasive product placement you could imagine. This is reversed during the scene at Ben’s when Frank asks Jeffrey what he wants to drink. Jeffrey says, “Heineken” to which Frank replies, “Heineken? FUCK THAT SHIT. PABST. BLUE. RIBBON.” It’s a funny moment, but one that also makes the love of a specific beer all of a sudden appear ridiculous. Jeffrey’s earlier speech no longer reads as an endorsement but more something to chuckle at since it’s so silly.

Once Lynch brings us into Ben’s hideout the situations only become more heightened even though, on their own, they’re not necessarily absurd. When taken together, we start to see a clearer picture of just what it is that Lynch is doing. The greetings between Ben and Frank are interestingly scripted. What they say to each other is relatively normal but the way the lines are delivered gives an air of menace to the situation. Oddly, you don’t get the idea that these men are secret enemies but instead that they operate on a different, darker level or, if you’re cynical, a more honest level. If you watch the way Stockwell plays the scene, you’ll see that he’s constantly keeping an eye on Frank, knowing if certain buttons are pushed, Frank will go overboard. This isn’t as strange as it first sounds because whenever we go out with our friends there is always the possibility the day will turn nasty. Someone might take a line the wrong way and blow up while someone else might be already grumpy and simmer throughout the day, always seeming like they’ll burst but never actually bursting, meaning that you’re on edge the whole time. Then there are otherwise rational friends that can become irrational the moment a certain topic is brought up, be it politics, religion, or their dating life. It’s the same between Frank and Ben except Lynch makes it a little more extreme which allows the events to be both funny (“Let’s drink to fucking”) and scary (Frank’s slow meltdown while Ben mimes singing Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”).

Lynch goes even further by making normal activities come across as vulgar. Friends go out for alcohol often but here Lynch plays this up to a terrifying level. Frank wants a drink shortly after entering and loses his temper at even the thought of warm beer (“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s warm fucking beer”). Then they drink to Frank’s “fuck.” Lynch adds a layer of the macabre to a few friends drinking, again bringing out the funny aspects and the scary aspects. Even Ben miming the words to “In Dreams” reminds us of a karaoke night at a bar, albeit one simmering with rage and confusion.

The best part of the scene comes as Frank begins to grow emotional and turns off the recording of “In Dreams.” For a moment we see him as a sad kid, the song bringing out a part of him that he tries to hide by appearing permanently dominant. In order to reassert his alpha male status, he flicks off the recording like it’s nothing, marches to the center of the room, and declares, “All right. Let’s hit the fucking road.” Then, he ups excitement even more by declaring, “Let’s fuck! I’ll fuck anything that moves!”

While (hopefully) most of us haven’t met someone like Frank Booth, we’ve all seen a man attempt to be bigger than he is in front of his friends and suddenly hiding weakness with a faux-confidant attitude is the way it’s often done. Frank is scary as he does this but also pathetic. When he asks if anyone wants to join him on his joyride not only does no one come, no one even bothers to respond which definitely elicits a laugh. He’s a pathetic figure in this moment and he’s aware of this which makes him all the more dangerous.

These are all examples of “Lynchian” moments. In many ways, movie audiences were not quite prepared for this. They didn’t know if they should laugh or cry. Lynch wants them to do both, but it’s an unusual approach.

This Lynchian vibe found throughout Blue Velvet and was a cause of some controversy at the time, a controversy most noticed when Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert argued about the film on television. Siskel thought the movie did a spectacular job while Ebert thought the mix of humor and violence was ineffective and cheapened the more violent scenes. Ebert specifically called out the sequence when Isabella Rossellini’s Dorothy appeared on the lawn in the nude, feeling it was disrespectful for Rossellini to be portrayed in such a way since the film couldn’t figure out if it was a comedy or a thriller.

In the Lynch biography, Beautiful Dark, Greg Olson nicely sums up the various viewpoints that audiences had as they left the theater:

“Some thought Lynch was worshipping Reaganesque good-old-days and small town values, others knew that he was subversively undermining retrograde village pieties and applecheeked wholesomeness. Some feminists deplored the director’s male-gazing portrayal of violence against sex-object women and declared that an exploiter as ‘dangerous’ as Lynch should never be allowed to make another film. Other supporters of women’s rights felt Lynch presented the theme of female victimization with uncommon insight and compassion and looked forward to his future insights into the state of womankind.”

So let’s address this question head on: does Blue Velvet go too far into tonal extremes? Does the film undermine itself with some of the violent content?

I can understand the argument that it does. I’ve watched Blue Velvet with friends and family and I’ve seen people who thought it was stupid because of its cutesy beginning and then rapid descent into violence before becoming cutesy again for a while. Still, even those who found the film lacking became uncomfortable during Frank Booth’s scenes; there’s a power to that character that transcends taste.

On the opposite end, others told me that the sudden shift in tone is what makes the film so scary. When Jeffrey hides in the closet and sees Frank Booth arrive in Dorothy’s apartment you can almost feel the film shifting beneath you. No longer is this some simple mystery story mixed with a coming of age theme. No, we now have a film that’s suddenly very hard to classify. For some, this is clearly too much, but others, myself included, love when a film is challenging and hard to pin down.

Personally, I lean more towards those who like the tonal changes of the film. I do find the scenes between Jeffrey and his girlfriend to be a bit grating and I’m not sure that Jeffrey’s descent into a sadomasochistic relationship with Dorothy was as developed as it should be, making it come across as a beat designed for shock value only. Lynch’s films are filled with shocking moments but he never goes for shock value on its own yet Jeffrey’s step into sadomasochism feels odd and too quick.

I find myself excusing these flaws, though. Blue Velvet is not my favorite Lynch film largely because of those two problems but it’s still a movie I greatly enjoy. I’m able to accept the film’s flaws because it was trying to put forth a number of radical ideas and I don’t mean only the mix of horror and humor. We also have a cynical look at suburbia, a look at sadomasochism, a deconstruction of the cowboy image via Frank Booth, and the questioning of the “morning in America” attitude of the 1980s. That’s a lot for one film to pack in so it’s not surprising that Lynch sometimes lost the thread a little. I even wonder if he realized just what he was doing or if he only discovered as he filmed and edited exactly what kind of project he had. He bit off more than he could chew but came up with a fascinating film anyway. It’s not surprising that his career took a leap forward after this.

And, boy, his career sure needed that leap forward.

We left off in the last article talking about Mel Brooks approaching Lynch to film The Elephant Man. It was this film which launched Lynch onto the stage and we wouldn’t have Blue Velvet and the rest of his output without it. A story about a disfigured man who is a moral, loving person beneath the surface and starts making friends does not sound like a David Lynch film. And, in many ways, it’s not. For one, there’s a sense that we’ve seen this story before and we have; it’s the “ugly duckling” story albeit a little more adult (this was only a PG rated film, however, which is rare for Lynch). Second, this is filmed in black and white and is very evocative of films from the 1950s, especially in its pacing. Knowing of Lynch’s fascination with the 1950s, it’s not surprising the film comes across this way but it still places The Elephant Man outside of the main David Lynch journey. It’s without a doubt the most normal of David Lynch’s films (The Straight Story may be narratively simple but it sure as hell isn’t normal) and therefore isn’t usually the top film David Lynch fans will go to, myself included.

Yet there are a whole lot of Lynch elements in the film. The camera slowly pushing in on someone, the sudden brutality, the dreamlike beginning and end, all of this is right out of the Lynch playbook.

I want to pay special attention to the beginning and the end. Like the beginning of EraserheadThe Elephant Man gives us a strange visual sequence to begin with. Here we have a woman being attacked (it appears- it’s not very clear) by elephants. Just as in Eraserhead, it’s not an effective start and makes the scenes after it feel off-kilter and not in a way that I think Lynch wanted. He’ll master this abstract beginning with Mulholland Drive but here we’re still left adrift.

On the other end, the last ten minutes of The Elephant Man are beautiful. Reminiscent of Eraserhead, this film ends with our protagonist going into the arms of a woman he’s enchanted by. Here John goes to his mother when he dies, while in Eraserhead Henry embraces the woman from the radiator in a white void. The ending of both these films leave the protagonist, and the viewer, with the sense that they are going into a new world. This type of ending comes up again in Lost Highway, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Mulholland Drive. Even though this is his second film we’re already seeing motifs that Lynch will continue to play around with in his career.

Unlike a large number of his films, The Elephant Man was met with instant critical acclaim. Lynch was praised as a director and the performances of John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins were similarly praised. It’s not a huge leap to imagine Lynch making Blue Velvet after this since he now had some clout.

But unfortunately that’s not what happened, not right away. Instead, we were given Dune, which is, hands down, the worst film David Lynch has done. You’ll find very few people who will argue against this.

The film was so bad that Lynch didn’t even want to be credited as director, especially after the studio cut out forty-five minutes of Lynch’s final version of the film. This likely is why the film remains so confusing, but I find it hard to think that even with all of Lynch’s material returned that it’d be much better. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as incomprehensible, I’ll say that. And, damn, this film is amazingly incomprehensible. Reader, I can explain to you the intricacies of the Game of Thronesnovels, I can name episodes of Doctor Who based solely on quotes, I can tell you the history of the Star Wars universe, and I can explain the Lost mythology without missing a beat.

What I cannot tell you is what the fuck went on in Dune.

Now if the forty-five extra minutes were put back into the film it’s entirely possible that I’d understand the storyline much better and not have to look at a Wikipedia summary to figure out what the hell half the terms mean. But I have zero desire to see another forty-five minutes of Dune. The film was pretty interminable as is and even if additional time makes the story flow better, there’s not enough value to what’s already in the film that a clearer storyline will raise Dune above a failed blockbuster.

Some of the blame has to go to Lynch but some of the blame also has to go to producer Dino De Laurentiis for thinking that Lynch was a good choice to helm Dune. Nothing in The Elephant Man and Eraserhead tells me that Lynch would be a great director of special effects, action sequences, and conveying complex science-fiction mythologies in an easily digestible fashion.

Lynch does manage to bring some excellent touches to the film, preventing it from becoming totally unwatchable. The sight of an obese Baron Harkonnen floating around on a jetpack because he’s too fat to walk is simultaneously absurd and brilliant. Making Harkonnen a literal capitalist pig an ingenious idea and Lynch executes it marvelously. The casting is very good outside of Kyle McLachlan. McLachlan is an excellent actor, but was wrong for the part of Paul Atreides. McLachlan has too much youthful optimism in his appearance and performance that doesn’t match the warrior he’s supposed to be playing. When you have Patrick Stewart, Brad Dourif, Linda Hunt, and Dean Stockwell backing you up you can get away with one miscasting. Sadly, the actors are saddled with lines such as “Forgive me, my beloved concubine” and “We have to get to that mountain of rock” so it’s damn near impossible to come off looking well no matter how talented the actor is (as Patrick Stewart no doubt found out).

Once you stop looking at the flaws of Dune you can see a link between this and Blue Velvet, odd as that might sound. When you consider that Dune ends with a western-style cowboys and Indians battle with giant worms standing in for horses, it’s not surprising to see Lynch deconstruct the cowboy image with Frank Booth in Blue Velvet. Whether Lynch did this intentionally or not, it’s interesting to see him go from a very mainstream narrative (and despite its confusing elements, the film is by and large a normal hero’s journey tale) to a film that deconstructs many cinematic tropes.

One telling comparison is the beginning of both films. Dune starts with a monologue by Princess Irulan and she lays out the basic of the Dune political system. It’s not particularly effective world building as we haven’t seen any of the actual world yet and there’s so much information that most of it doesn’t register. Blue Velvet sets out to world build in its opening but in an entirely different, and much more successful, way. In the interview book Lynch on Lynch (pg. 139), Lynch says this about the opening sequence:

“This is the way America is to me. There’s a very innocent, naïve quality to life, and there’s a horror and sickness as well. It’s everything. Blue Velvet is a very American movie.”

What Lynch appears to have learned from the beginning of Dune is that whenever possible, a “show, don’t tell” approach is better. Within the first two minutes of Blue Velvet we’re shown the world the film is taking place in. Lynch shows us Lumberton as a picturesque 1950s type town. The first shot is of a white picket fence with a red rose in front of it. Right away, we know that he’s setting us in a town that, on the surface, is the America that then president Ronald Reagan claimed he would return America back to.

Lynch then deconstructs this environment when we see an elderly man have a heart attack while watering his lawn. As we see him twitch on the ground, Lynch pushes our view downwards, into the ground, and beneath the dirt we see insects clawing and eating each other. The message is clear: this world we’re entering is hollow and there’s viciousness just under the surface.

Like Dune, we once more have Kyle McLachlan as our protagonist, Jeffrey, but in this case he’s the perfect casting choice. Coming across as naïve and optimistic, we can completely buy that this young man believes Lumberton’s surface is a perfect example of how life is. What’s intriguing, is that Jeffrey is somewhat bored by the idealistic life; there’s no excitement and he’s grasping at anything which might give him a thrill. The sight of a severed ear brings Jeffery into the world of Frank Booth but he could’ve avoided arriving in Booth’s world. Instead of leaving the ear to the police, Jeffrey’s excitement for the mystery overtakes him. Lynch is definitely interested in looking at the duality of suburbia, but he’s also critiquing the idealistic life that this town represents. There’s no soul to the town, no identity, nothing that might be at all intellectually rewarding so even something as sickening as a severed ear holds a certain kind of charm.

Dune had a somewhat similar theme, as MacLachlan’s character is similarly intrigued by the world of Dune but due to the confusing narrative and clichéd dialogue, the audience is too removed to appreciate the theme. In Blue Velvet, Lynch not only executes the theme expertly, he also deepens it, raising multiple questions about what suburbia is and how our expectations might be unhealthy.

By the time of Blue Velvet’s release, Lynch is almost the director we know today. He’s rebuilt his reputation and producers are interested in his next project. In typical fashion for him, Lynch decides to experiment and is intrigued in developing a television show for ABC. Partnered with Mark Frost, Lynch began throwing around ideas, testing what might work as an ongoing show. What he came up with changed television forever.

Next: Twin Peaks


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.