There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?
Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief—but very brilliant—scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).
Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?
First—and this may well elucidate my dilemma—the only Lynch film that has spoken to me, post Elephant Man, is Wild at Heart, which generally seems to be ranked amongst his weaker efforts. For my money, this one could practically be validated by Willem Dafoe alone: Bobby Peru is not only indelibly sinister, sick and hilariously oleaginous, he represents what is best about David Lynch: extreme weirdness in adept (and mercifully brief) quantities. But the movie abounds with minor tour de force performances by all involved, with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern doing some career-best work, even when their clothes are on. Wonderful supporting work is delivered by a wickedly over-the-top Diane Ladd and a typically sullen (here bordering on docile) Harry Dean Stanton.
But, of course, Blue Velvet is the one that, in order to assert one’s pointy-headed credibility, you have to sanction. I call bullshit. To be sure, I don’t fall in with the camp who loves it, but I also don’t loathe it; I just think it’s…okay. More bad than good, but containing enough intriguing scenes (“Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”) to make it memorable. But still. I saw it in the ‘80s, saw it in the ‘90s and have seen it during this decade, and it’s simply impossible to look past the (typically) improbable—bordering on intelligence-insulting—story line, the (typically) maudlin, fifth-rate dialogue, and the ostensibly bold assessment of American sadomasochism that quickly unravels like so much stylized soft porn. Granted, an authentic sense of surreal tension is nailed—then hammered into submission, and Dennis Hopper’s (overboard, over-praised) Frank Booth is scary enough, kind of the like the boogeyman is frightening, despite being fake. In terms of peeling back the layers of plastic conformity of an older (or even contemporary) America, captured in the notable but not revelatory opening scene, it works. That it is considered one of the seminal films of the ‘80s strikes me as disconcerting, akin to the way I’d concede that New Kids on the Block were one of the most successful bands of that decade. Mobs are mobs, even when they are different sizes.
But the mystery train truly goes off the tracks with Lost Highway, the ultimate “you’re with us or against us” entry in the Lynch catalog. For me, it really boils down to two pretty straightforward questions. One, can anyone claim to know what the movie is about? Two, can anyone claim to have actually enjoyed it? Hearing ten different people offer ten different interpretations of a movie is, in one regard, evidence of a successfully engaging work of art. But that sure seems to be setting the bar embarrassingly low for a director with Lynch’s obvious talent. (My personal favorite bent-over-backwards attempt to put lipstick on this pig is the claim that Lost Highway is a highly illusory homage of Ambrose Bierce’s masterful short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”. Even making the exceedingly generous indulgence that this is the case, an adaptation of any classic work of literature should actually be good, shouldn’t it?)
Listen: weirdness for the sake of weirdness is fine, and in shrewdly doled out doses, it can be instructive and enjoyable—like eating fish eyes, for instance. And I don’t begrudge Lynch one bit for being that one-in-a-billion artist whom remarkable numbers of critics and fans have designated as their go-to guy. My issue lies with the same fans and critics who lazily defend his work by asserting that anyone who doesn’t like it simply doesn’t get it. Remember Gary Larson’s The Far Side cartoons? It was true that if you had to explain one to someone, it was hopeless. However, if you had to explain it, you could; it would lose most of its humor and punch, but virtually every one of them was explicable. In other words, it’s a much more impressive—and worthwhile—piece of entertainment if it provokes or even befuddles, but is still, on some level, intelligible.
Granted, all willfully difficult artists will attract ardent (I won’t say fanatical) proponents—to a certain extent, that’s the point of their excessively abstruse vision. Too often, a self-indulgent, or unpersuasive (I won’t say incapable) effort is credited for being authentic because it is impenetrable, and that is where the fans and critics come into play with Lynch. Analysis is unnecessary, it’s already understood that the work is brilliant, and it’s a given that, with Lynch, you are about to see something that confronts your puny, preconceived notions of reality. The less sense it makes, the more adeptly he is revealing how ensnared you are in the linear charade of conventional storytelling. Or the system. Or something. Where this becomes insufferable is when esoteric artistes inherit a priori acquiescence in a fashion too similar to the ideological blank slate politicians count on from their compliant bases. We know how this works: an already-accepted conclusion is invoked, or promoted, and the appraisal (of the product, of the candidate) is liberated from subjective analysis, it’s already understood. Discourse is discarded for absolution in ways that say more about how the viewers view themselves than the film. And perhaps that is, if unconsciously, the entire point?
In the final analysis, I’ll admit that David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble. Beauty, not to mention intelligent design, is always in the brain of the beholder. The question remains: is that enough?
Frank Booth, Bobby Peru and the Mystery Man:
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