-Susan Sontag in her essay "Against Interpretation"
"A film should stand on its own. It's absurd if a filmmaker needs to say what a film means in words."
The first time I heard of Lynch was when walking through a Circuit City and spying a DVD with the profile of a man on the cover with hair sticking up as if he was just cartoonishly electrocuted. The man was Jack Nance and the film was Eraserhead. Turning the DVD over, I was perplexed to find no synopsis or credit list at the bottom. No reviews. Just a picture of the Lady in the Radiator with the phrase "In Heaven Everything Is Fine" around her. At that point in my exploration into movies, I had gotten into Kubrick and I devoured every interview and scrap of information I could find on the man. I quickly learned that one of his favorite films was Eraserhead. One Circuit City trip later, I would be holding it in my hand.
This wasn't a movie so much as it was an experience. One I would try to impose upon friends. They still talk about the time I showed up with that "extremely depressing film" and how, after being shown it, they knew my tastes had changed. But that was me. Let's focus on the man who created this playground of nightmares.
II. The Art Life
Before moving pictures, Lynch was involved involved in painting still ones. Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper being the two big influences on him. Hopper is all over Blue Velvet and you can trace a few Bacon paintings to some of the images in Twin Peaks: The Return. Every viewer of a piece on Bacon or Pollock or Matisse comes to it in a different way. Some see it as pure dreck while other view it as genius. None of this is new. It's as old as art itself. Lynch said of this process: "the painting or the photograph or the film remains the same, but it's the viewer who is the magic part of the whole process. Every viewer who stands in front of a photograph they are getting a different thing. It's different for each person even though the photograph is exactly the same." The way in which a painting is treated and an abstract piece of film is treated is still strangely different from one another. It's a circular process: the frames of a film are edited in a specific sequence with the same sounds and it comes from the film to the audience and back.
Art offers the escape from interpretation. Even a piece as abstract as the figure shown above, abstract as an attempt to have no content, thus offers no interpretation. What the viewer instead focuses on is the abstraction itself: the undefinable thing emerging from the man's chest, the blood, the open mouth.
Or in figure 2:
The triptych here even spells the content out for us. It also reminds us of Lynch's use of basic ideas-electricity, industry, a woman in trouble or in this case fire- to use as seeds in order to blossom abstract ones.
III. Now It's Dark
When you think about the malevolence of villains in a David Lynch films, the characters of Frank Booth, Bobby Peru and Bob always crop up. The horror they represent is definable. Though when a hit is carried out or a murder takes place, these same people bring along with them this unnerving eeriness you wouldn't find in another movie with one of those types of characters.
Evil as a force is something Lynch's films have taken interest to in several instances. In Eraserhead, the horror of fatherhood was front and center. Fire Walk With Me dealt with rape and incest. All set against backdrops of industrialization or towns heavily industrialized- the Packard Mill, Lumberton, the steam, the cutting of the logs, etc.
The creepiness of his work is so present because it feels so personal. Feelings of anxiety, obsessiveness, and decay produce this psychic intimacy between the artist and the audience. Writing itself is just another form of exploring one's own consciousness and projecting it onto the paper. As with any auteur, Lynch uses the elements of film- light, image, sound, and movement- as an extension of his writing. He just does uses them in more tangible, unique ways. His influences of 50's noir, Wizard of Oz, Sunset Boulevard, Francis Bacon, the use of electricity are all felt throughout his work.
Lynch's best films resist the interpretation process that one would apply to your average movie. They are less about the explanation and more about the experience. David Foster Wallace said in his essay on Lynch "This is one of the most unsettling things about a Lynch movie: you don't feel like you're entering into any of the standard unspoken/unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies." The tether to a safe, moviegoing experience is cut. The absence of such a contract is terrifying because at least with a normal movie we can build certain internal defense mechanisms that determine how much of ourselves we give over to a movie. The defenses are removed because there is no agenda that is easily recognizable. This is a major reason his best films are so emotionally cathartic and nightmarish.
The Elephant Man remains one of the saddest films to this day. Always managing to sweep me up in a wave of tears throughout. While some of his other films are some of the most nightmarish. Then there's the outright hilarious absurdity of DumbLand. In this way, art can be seen as therapeutic. It purges and arouses dangerous emotions.
So to those who wished that the return of Twin Peaks wasn't like "that batshit crazy Inland Empire film" or, even more paradoxically, those who hated Empire and love the new season of Peaks, I must ask: what is it you like about Lynch? Because by the trajectory of his career and the direction he is interested in going, he seems less and less interested about affirming your crackpot Mulholland Dr. theories and whether or not you understand him. At a time where there are entire youtube channels dedicated to explaining the endings of everything from Pulp Fiction to La La Land (yes, really), ambiguity and mystery have become strangled with the need to have everything spelled out for the viewer.
When interviewed about his process the one word that crops up the most is ideas. While writers who have used Lynch-like images in their works have a rigidly secure interpretation connected to them, Lynch's ideas have a fluidity to them that not only lend themselves to wild fan speculation, but the ability to elicit such strong emotions: fear, laughter, tension. Where one artist's images speak, Lynch's images manage to conjure. Inland Empire is a prime example of this. "Making it up as you go along" is exactly what Lynch did with the production; an evolving script that flowed from one idea to the next. Yet it coheres loosely around a time, a place and character. A Hollywood production, time folding in on itself, and "a woman in trouble". Orchestrated chaos of image, light and sound. "I don't know what in the world it may be" Lynch says on a documentary of the making of Inland Empire, "But I'm ready for anything."
Why does Lynch often rely on the mobius strip structure and dopplegangers in his most famous works? The earliest theories of art, those posed by the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was an imitation of reality. What Lynch is doing throughout his filmography harkens back to this very theory.
Perhaps no other work he has done has better exemplified this than Twin Peaks: The Return.
IV. Drink Full and Descend
If this all seems like prologue up until now, then that is good. Because in many ways, the reception of Lynch is a good way to discuss the impact of Twin Peaks: The Return. Every episode since it's premiere has confounded expectations. No promos. No 'previously on Twin Peaks' or 'next on Twin Peaks'. Nada. It manages to deconstruct everything TV has taught us. Much in the same way Lynch took on 90's television in it's 1990-91 run. The original series was very much of its time in the way it spoofed soap operas. There was a whimsical air to it when it wasn't showing us people talking backwards. The coffee and pie, the Black Lodge, Audrey Horne's dance, the Log Lady. Totems on a vast, dream like landscape populated by characters as exuberantly inquisitive as Dale Cooper and as eccentric as Nadine. The Return took these sacred totems and flipped them on their head. A cup of coffee that has a slightly different taste than what we are use too, but it's still damn good coffee.
The new season has more in common with the film Fire Walk With Me than anything from the first two seasons. Which raises the question: Is Twin Peaks: The Return just a great season or something entirely its own? Reboots and retreads are nothing new. Arrested Development and The X-Files got the treatment and both limped to their own finish lines. This was in part to the fan service both respective seasons tried to offer their fans. Not only does The Return dispose of any fan service to please its ardent followers, it throws us a new cast that is as twice as big as the original series.
It's a logical continuation of Lynch's aesthetic from where he last left off. "The world in the film is a created one, and people sometimes love going into that world." Lynch says in his book Catching the Big Fish. "And if people find out certain things about how something was done, or how this means that, the next time they see the film, these things enter into the experience. And then the film is different." This ideology is not unlike the experience of listening to a piece of music. You can argue back and forth with friends as to why Eraserhead is his most spiritual movie or what the ending of Twin Peaks: The Return is or isn't. And while interpretation can be seen as a good thing in some contexts, in other it can be seen as stifling. There is a sensuous immediacy to the images Lynch presents. Something that digs deep into our consciousness. You can't translate it into a definitive answer. They simply pendulum from bittersweet sadness to awestruck terror to laughter and back again.