Deviant obsessions: how David Lynch predicted our fragmented times

Deviant obsessions: how David Lynch predicted our fragmented times

Fragmented … Lynch in 1990.
Fragmented … Lynch at the 1990 Cannes film festival. Photograph: Jean-Christian Bourcart

His work is freaky and frightening, yet today the Twin Peaks director cuts an almost cosy figure. As he turns 77 – a number of significance – we explore how real life caught up with his dark visions

His other line, perhaps the most overtly Lynchian, is his daily lottery in which – for seemingly no other reason than gratuitous delight and enigma – he draws a random numbered ball. A confirmed numerologist, his preferred integer is seven. Dorothy Vallens’s apartment – the nexus of lust, violence and voyeurism in Blue Velvet – was on the seventh floor. So was the Philadelphia office of Gordon Cole, the FBI chief played by the director in Twin Peaks. On 20 January, David Lynch will be 77. So there is no better time to ask: how did this once-cult artist – whose work is filled with seething psychopaths and funky dwarves and who for the past 20 years has reverted solely to his most experimental and challenging work – become such a cosy cultural presence?

This turn of events seems all the more unlikely when you consider his position in the mid-90s. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a harrowing, humour-free sojourn with incest, was booed by the press at Cannes in 1992, and five years later Lost Highway wasn’t much more warmly received. If “Lynchian” – defined by David Foster Wallace in his seminal 1996 essay as “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” – was a quantifiable sensibility, it either remained marginal, or people were already tiring of it, or both.

Weirdly, that is not the case now. Lynchian is the go-to adjective to describe any sniff of the uncanny and esoteric on screen, from Donnie Darko to True Detective. It will never be a mainstream quality, but it exists explicitly in orientation towards the mainstream, often represented by the discordant versions of 50s Americana that appear so often in his work. And so his destabilising vision has become a common lens for discerning the truth about the “normal world”: that white picket fence America paints over deviant and sometimes evil obsessions, as in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, or that Hollywood is in fact a nightmare factory, as in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. Lynch playing John Ford, maybe the most establishment of all golden age directors, in Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is a neat joke about his skewwhiff relationship with the mainstream.

Violence and voyeurism … Isabella Rossellini, in Blue Velvet.
Violence and voyeurism … Isabella Rossellini, in Blue Velvet. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

Maybe the most naturally Lynchian congregation are the hipsters, among whom subversion and irony thrive and where Pabst Blue Ribbon – recommended beverage of Blue Velvet’s resident psychopath Frank Booth – is drunk. Lynch himself has the boho quiff, the retro fetish and a single-minded commitment to his art that the hipster contingent would approve of.

This is the man who toiled for five years to make Eraserhead, breaking off during night shoots to do his paper round delivering the Wall Street Journal. Since the fiasco of Dune, he has been fiercely uncompromising to the point where he managed to persuade a major TV network to effectively fund an 18-hour avant garde drama in the third series of Twin Peaks. He’s a living, nicotine-hoovering paladin of personal creativity, who despite appearing in documentaries and penning books bigging up what he calls “the art life” maintains a hilarious obstinacy in never revealing anything specific about his process, or the meaning of his work.

Flowing out from this single-mindedness is the radiant sincerity filling Lynch’s films, something missing in Foster Wallace’s irony-based classification. This, as much as the trademark freakiness, is what continues to draw people to him in this era of social-media posturing and fakery. He consciously amps up this earnestness in Twin Peaks’ lead character Dale Cooper, and it is most clearly visible in the almost embarrassing levels of romanticism in The Elephant Man and The Straight Story.

But Lynch is sincere about all sorts of other feelings, especially the unbidden and the inadmissible. Wallace calls it a “psychic intimacy” delivered from a primitive part of the director’s psyche. Few could make innocuous childhood learning a source of blackly comic primal dread, as in his 1968 student film The Alphabet. Almost everything he does, no matter how ostensibly offbeat, is underscored by authentic emotion: compare the first 17 episodes of Twin Peaks, when Lynch was fully involved, with the heavy-handed, self-conscious kookiness of much of what followed. Occasionally, this spelunking of his inner self becomes too intense: there’s a one-note quality to both Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway. But it is never less than completely unfiltered.

Dream or reality … Mulholland Drive.
Dream or reality? … Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive. Photograph: Universal/Allstar

He is disturbingly forthcoming with sexual violence, too, often meted out towards a gallery of victimised women that parallels Hitchcock. Post-#MeToo, you would have thought this might render him unpalatable – or at least put him in the crosshairs of some heavy discourse. Dorothy Vallens, Laura Palmer, Lost Highway’s dismembered dame Renee, the bitter Tinseltown washup Diane Selwyn in Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire’s “woman in trouble” Nikki Grace: Lynch definitely has a type.

But he consistently inverts misogyny and flips the male gaze by fully inhabiting these women with a fervour that’s rare for a male director. He plays with the Madonna/whore dichotomy of film noir women, but transmutes it into something higher. After we learn that Twin Peaks’ prom queen Laura Palmer was a doomed classic femme fatale, she is resurrected as a metaphysical symbol of the capacity to withstand cycles of violence.

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