David Lynch Keeps His Head
Summary and context
Premiere Magazine, a now-defunct New York based film magazine, sent Wallace to the set of David Lynch‘s movie Lost Highway in 1996. While ostensibly a report about Lynch's Lost Highway, the essay is by no means standard journalism, and is replete with tradition Wallacisms: footnotes, trivia tidbits, and subdivided chapters. At the end of the essay, Wallace concludes that the essay is "basically why David Lynch the filmmaker is important to me” (201). Indeed, the essay has nothing to do with Lynch as a person—Wallace begins chapter “2: what David Lynch is really like” by bluntly admitting “I have absolutely no idea” (147). Rather, it is Wallace’s attempt to show how Lynch’s movies have made him see and think about the world in a new, “Lynchian” light. Wallace also tries to come to terms with and try to explain why Lynch’s film Blue Velvet is “an example of contemporary artistic heroism” (201), something Wallace struggles with in his own work (see especially Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky and Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way).
According to Wallace, “an academic definition of Lynchian might be that the term ‘refers to 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'” (161). “Lynchian” refers specifically to Lynch’s novel approach to filmmaking, which includes surrealism, nightmarish images, and an unrivaled attention to sound design resulting in eerie, otherworldy soundtracks. Lynch focuses on exploring the underbelly of the U.S. His male protagonists have hidden, dark tendencies (which are usually sexual), while female leads have split personalities. Lynch credits Franz Kafka as a key influence, stating "the only artist I felt could be my brother was Kafka." Indeed, Wallace detects the same type of horror that he writes about in “Some Remarks on Kafka's Funniness from Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed.” Lynch’s films often portray violence in a humorous light, as “Lynch knows that an act of violence in American film has, through repetition and desensitization, lost the ability to refer to anything but itself” (165).
Artistic agenda and critical response
Wallace writes that critics object to Lynch's movies because they are "'sick' or 'dirty' or 'infantile,' then proceed to claim that the movies are themselves revelatory of various deficiencies in Lynch's own character" (202). Here, we see Wallace evoking the Intentional Fallacy to dispel those notions. In his own criticism, Wallace takes care to judge Lynch's work in and of itself. He writes that "evil is what David Lynch's movies are essentially about" (203) and that Lynch's artistic explorations of human relationships to evil ("characters are not themselves evil... evil wears them... [evil is an] environment, possibility, force" (204)) are "if idiosyncratic and Expressionistic, nevertheless sensitive and insightful and true" (203). In other words, Lynch's films explore what it means to be human in a world where evil not only exists, but exerts powerful influence.
Wallace writes that Lynch’s “true and only agenda [is] just to get inside your head” (171). Wallace wonders whether this constitutes “good art” and concludes that its “either ingenious or psychopathic” (171). Aesthetics aside, Wallace notes that Lynch is immensely successful at getting inside the viewer’s head (or at least Wallace’s head), noting that “Lynch’s movies’ deconstruction of this weird ‘irony of the banal’ has affected the way I see and organize the world” (162), and spends the rest of the essay describing this new, Lynchian perspective.
For Wallace, Lynch's films are fundamentally different from the passive entertainment he often finds fault with. He writes:
You almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to 'entertain' you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the 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. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch's films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don't. This is why his best films' effects are often so emotional and nightmarish (we're defenseless in our dreams, too). (170-71).
Darkness (evil as a force)
Wallace notes that Lynch "is interested in Darkness... [which] always wears more than one face (203). Wallace is also interested in Darkness. An example particularly relevant to Lynch is in Infinite Jest, when Ortho "The Darkness" Stice's bed moves mysteriously in the night, as if possessed by (or wearing) some evil force. Significantly, Lynch is not "interested in moral judgment of characters. Rather, he's interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil" (203). Throughout Wallace's ouevre, he also refrains from moral judgment. There is no set good/evil binary. Rather, all characters have a Darkness within them; "evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it" (205). Wallace writes that this idea of evil can be called "Gnostic, or Taoist, or neo-Hegelian, but it's also Lynchian" (205), and these four terms could apply just as readily to Wallace's own work. Just as Lynch's movies are "not about monsters" "but about hauntings" (205), Wallace never depicts monsters. Even the most hideous characters (e.g. Randy Lenz) never come across as monsters, for Wallace takes great care to show us the evil haunting their psyches. Just as Lynch shows that horror is hidden beneath the surface, Wallace focuses on the way characters (whether deliberately or not) hide or veil the dark parts of them they don't want to look at, whether through substance use, veils, telephonic add-ons, or a TV addiction. The act of hiding that horror, however, exposes a further, second-order hidden horror, as the act of covering up the horror becomes a horror in and of itself.
In a speech at Maharishi University, Lynch briefly talks about the nature of darkness and suffering in his films.
Some examples Wallace gives of "Lynchian" things
- "Jeffrey Dahmer, with his victim's various anatomies neatly separated and stored in his fridge alongside his chocolate milk and Shedd Spread" (161-2)
- A man murders his wife "over something like the persistent failure to refill the ice-cube tray after taking the last ice cube or an obdurate refusal to buy the particular brand of peanut butter the guy was devoted to" (162)
- In Lost Highway, Fred Madison is accused under mysterious circumstances of murdering his wife Renée. On death row, he inexplicably changes into a young man named Pete Dayton and leads a completely different life. According to Wallace, it's unclear whether we are to take the identity switch "straight (i.e. as literally real within the movie), or as some kind of Kafkaesque metaphor for guilt and denial and psychic evasion" (160) or whether it's all one big hallucination. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek interprets the film's bipartite structure as exploiting "the opposition of two horrors: the fantasmatic horror of the nightmarish noir universe of perverse sex, betrayal, and murder, and the (perhaps much more unsettling) despair of our drab, alienated daily life of impotence and distrust."
Slavoj Žižek's The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch's Lost Highway (University of Washington Press, 2000); quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Highway.