Mystery and Bliss: David Lynch at 75
2021 will be a noteworthy year for David Lynch. Building on his success with the 2017 revival of Twin Peaks, he is scheduled to start production on a new limited series for Netflix this coming May. Not much is known about the project at present, but based on preliminary accounts, it looks to be a thirteen-episode series that will be titled Unrecorded Night. Also of note, not that Lynch is someone especially well known for backward-looking (though feel free to insert your own joke about backward talking), he is marking four significant milestones this year: the 35th anniversary of Blue Velvet, the 20th anniversary of Mulholland Drive, and the 15th anniversaries of both Lynch’s last film to date, Inland Empire, as well as his first book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity.
I’m particularly interested in looking at these four older works of Lynch’s together because of how I think they help reconcile the two radically different, and seemingly incompatible, sides that I see to his work and personality. Taken together, the three films call to mind many of the elements that people tend to associate with Lynch’s work: dark and comic surrealism, violence, sexuality, mystery, and dreams. At the same time, the David Lynch that wrote Catching the Big Fish seems to be coming at the world from a wildly different point of view.
Dedicated to “his holiness Maharishi Mahesh Yogi,” Catching the Big Fish was born from Lynch’s, at that time, the 33-year practice of Transcendental Meditation, and the 2005 formation of his non-profit, The David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace. The book is part biography and part discussion of the life of an artist, but most revelatory to me, in relation to his work, is the discussion of the view of reality that Lynch has come to through his meditation practice.
Now, don’t worry if you’re concerned that this is going to be some lengthy discussion of meditation or new age mysticism. It’s only as a background to one particular idea I want to get at that I raise the subject at all. As Lynch describes it: he believes that through practices like Transcendental Meditation, a person can dive deep within themselves to access a blissful and unified field of consciousness that all life participates in and emerges from. Beyond apparent reality, there is a shared, joyful unity of consciousness. So, with that in mind, how does the person that believes this, also come to write a character like Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth, or depict the nightmarish ordeal that Laura Dern’s characters undergo in Inland Empire? Lynch’s life is running on two parallel paths: one path where his foundation is exploring ways to foster bliss and peace for everyone throughout the world, and the other path where his art seems to largely depict the world antithetical to that idea. Navigating this tension has led me to recast how I think about what Lynch is trying to say with his films.
Looking past more work-for-hire projects like The Elephant Man or The Straight Story, for as shocking it may have been at the time, Blue Velvet may be the most straight-forward of Lynch’s films. It’s largely a noir mystery, that explores a dark, hidden world of crime and sexuality in an otherwise hyper-idyllic suburban Americana setting. Here, we’re still mostly set in the day-to-day world, but one that is more layered than first appearances indicate.
The film's opening sequence begins with an iconic, cheery shot of a white picket fence, with full-bloom roses in the foreground, and a perfect blue sky in the background. The sequence builds to a man watering his lawn and then collapsing to the ground because of a stroke. The camera pushes from the man into the grass he’s laying on, then into the gnashing bustle of insects just underground - making fairly explicit the metaphor of a hidden world beneath suburban life that the film is concerned with.
Our leads are Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and Sandy (Laura Dern), two kids who have taken it upon themselves to investigate a local woman in trouble, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Dorothy’s husband and son are being held hostage by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who is using them as leverage to force Dorothy to perform sexually for him. The choice of the name ‘Dorothy’ is no accident, as themes from The Wizard of Oz pop up frequently in Lynch’s work. Our Dorothy also finds herself unexpectedly in a strange, new world; one that she wants to find a way out of, so that she can be reunited with her family.
The world that Lynch depicts in Blue Velvet is concerned with something more than just the dark underbelly of suburbia. Midway through the film, Sandy tells Jeffrey about a dream she had that is more than just a dream:
In the dream, there was our world. And the world was dark because there weren’t any robins. And the robins represented love. And for the longest time there was just this darkness and all of the sudden, thousands of robins were set free and they flew down and brought this blinding light of love. And it seemed like that love would be the only thing that would make any difference. And it did. So I guess it means, there is trouble til the robins come.
This dream factors into the conclusion of the film. Dorothy has been saved, Frank has been killed, and Jeffrey and Sandy are home. The lighting of the film has returned to the idyllic lighting of the opening, before the pan down into the dirt, as if some kind of order has now been restored. The last we see of Jeffrey and Sandy, a robin has landed on the kitchen window sill with a bug in its mouth. From there, we shift to the final shot of the film where a finally free and happy Dorthy Vallens is reunited with her son. The dream coming true, the darkness of the world being vanquished by love with the return of the Robin, shows a permeability for Lynch between the actual world and the world of dreams.
On rewatching Blue Velvet, I’m regularly surprised by how close to a traditional happy ending the film has, given how grisly the events of its final act are. I don’t think of this as some kind of Hollywood cop-out on Lynch’s part to get the film made, but an actual manifestation of his philosophy. Beneath the artifice and masks, the actual world is a genuinely dark place that can suck you in if you're not careful. But, if we push through the darkness, we can find light and love on the other side.
Looking at Mulholland Drive would initially seem to undermine the case that I’m making with Blue Velvet, but it’s noteworthy that the way Mulholland Drive is structured, I think you’re just seeing something like the same point being made in reverse. We begin with an opening shot of the first-person perspective of a face falling into a pillow, and we discover that the first half of the movie is the happier dream of the troubled real-world person we will go on to meet in the film's second half. We begin in light and move to darkness, but that change comes because we are returning to the actual world from the world of dreams.
Each half of Mulholland Drive is about a woman in trouble, but who the troubled woman is changes between the first and second half. In the first half of the film, Betty (Naomi Watts) is a fresh-faced actress finding her first success in Hollywood, while becoming entangled in a mystery surrounding an amnesiac car crash victim, going by the name Rita (Laura Harring). In this first half, everything is lit with a cheery brightness, as everything in Betty’s life seems to be breaking her way. As Betty’s world begins to destabilize, we fall out of the dream and into the actual world. Throughout, we can now see the real-world pieces from which the dream was constructed. Naomi Watts is now playing a woman named Diane Selwyn, the woman who dreamed the first half of the movie and is now a spurned lover who pays to have the woman who left her murdered, before ultimately also taking her own life. We don’t linger on Diane’s death, though. The image we see after Diane takes her life is the glimmering translucent faces of Betty and Rita from just before the dream unraveled. In this film, we move from the lightness of the dream to the darkness of the real world, but when Diane’s earthly life has ended, what we are still left with is what has survived: Betty and Rita’s love.
Now Inland Empire is a little different again in that it’s hard to pin down any reality in the film at all. The bookends of the film are a woman in crisis, sitting alone and crying in a hotel room after a sexual encounter, and three hours of film later, Laura Dern, whose identity has shifted repeatedly across the intervening story, arriving in that hotel room, and freeing that troubled woman so that she can reunite with her family. To try to explain what happens in Inland Empire is well beyond the scope of this article, but the big picture view of the story is Laura Dern, in a number of guises, trying to navigate a dreamlike world that appears to have been fragmented by infidelity and misogyny. That may just be how I see it. This is not a film that lends itself to a single objective interpretation. Your mileage may vary.
Like Blue Velvet, Inland Empire is also the story of a troubled woman, in unfortunate circumstances, rescued and reunited with her family. But here the story is centered on women, with most of the cast women, and what men there are in the story, largely serving as menacing, manipulative, or passive obstacles. This film is also an even fuller expression of the idea of passing through the ordeal of the real world, and a troubled dreamworld, to reach bliss and happiness. Our un-named troubled woman is reunited with her family, like Dorothy Valens, but Laura Dern’s reward is something else. While the credits roll, we see the final form of Laura Dern’s character in an extended sequence at something like a party in some ambiguous place, with many of the female characters from the story, laughing, dancing, and singing in a free and rambunctious way while the lights strobe. We don’t have any great sense of where we are or why, but what we do have is a vibe of joy and celebration.
Similar to with Inland Empire, I’m not arguing for any of this as some objectively correct interpretation of Lynch’s work. That would be a pointless exercise, most especially for someone like Lynch, but for me, this is now a framework that I can’t help but lean on when I’m looking at his work. No matter how dark the material is with which he engages, I can’t help but look for the cracks underneath everything that hints at the light below. Lynch is a realist about the ugliness of the world and a surrealist about how malleable our experience of the world can be, but I also now can’t help but see him as something of an optimist, as well.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.