Art College in the early 1980’s was gloriously anti-academia. It was the type of atmosphere where even a hint of succumbing to systematic, structured, aesthetic thinking could lead to excommunication. You learned what you had to learn, or rather you learned what you were exposed to, and got the hell out to face the mercenary art scene while you worked random piss jobs. This was the calling and nature of your priesthood.
Although nothing, no one, was sacred, we did have artists, those prophetic voices, we intensely identified with. David Lynch was one of the new, exciting, unrelenting voices. He was one of our two Davidic prophets, the other being David Byrne, who ignited our excitement when he appeared in oversized suit, singing to a swaying lamp in front of projected poetry in Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.
When we saw Eraserhead, we had braced ourselves beforehand. Of course, we had heard the rumors even before someone obtained a print for screening at The John Herron School of Art. Naturally, some of the VC students showed up, long enough to tear themselves away from their whipped cream dreams of illustrating X-Men comic books and listening to Duran Duran, to launch their all too predictable assaults. It would have been disappointing if they hadn’t. It only took a few moments for those monotonous, robotic voices belonging to the religious cult of linear thinking to spew their dull bitching. As always, they did it obnoxiously loud when their fragile, conformability zone had been too easily threatened. It was slightly disappointing that there were no punches thrown, but it came threateningly close to that. One female voice whined out, “This is so unrealistic!” That was followed by several calls of “fuck you” and “shut the fuck up”.
Of course, there just had to be one feigning voice that uttered the predictable ‘ Man, I think I’d love this if I just had some acid”. That was followed by several more calls of “fuck you”, and “shut the fuck up, you idiot”. Lynch had done it. The only other screenings that had pulled that off were John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion. The showing of Eraserhead intensely surpassed both of those esteemed screenings. The screening had been unpredictable, dangerous, something akin to a chest-shoving match.
After the conservative VC wimps had departed, we were bristling with conversation and excitement. Sperm, Jack Nance’s hair, grime, industrial waste, animated roast chicken, sperm, seedy banality, smoke, wood, odorous sex, dark intestinal fluid, sperm, mutated fetus flesh, dirt, rusted metal, crackling Fats Waller songs, black humor, sperm, a Radiator Lady, rusted metal, alienation, feverish masturbatory dreams, more sperm, and Jack Nance’s eyebrows, were all sculpted in Lynch’s enigmatic, dangerously perverse, phantasmagoric nightmare. Interpretations were fast and furious, nervously bandied back and forth. Was it post-holocaust, surreal dehumanization? Was it post-modern, second coming allegory? You did not make the mistake of saying that you “got it”, which would have violated the art school biblical code of anti-elitism elitism.
Lynch had been a painter and he made film like a painter. He spoke our language and was a bonafide, artfag antidote to status quo Reaganism. We sought out Elephant Man and yes, he “could” make a straightforward narrative, this one being the needed “fuck you” to the VC crowd who whined out lame defenses for their inability to evolve past their comprehension levels; defenses like “You call that art? My grandmother could do that and she’s 83”, or, the even more predictably common defense, “pretentious bullshit”.
The underrated Dune came next and that was hotly debated. The sci-fi geeks were amusingly offended. Even Lynch himself felt it was a disaster, but the film is replete with flashes of undeniable and unforgettable brilliance. It may yet garner its due recognition.
Blue Velvet turned Lynch into a semi-cult star and was a comeback of sorts for Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell. Hopper’s “You’re so fucking suave” was mimicked for days after. Even some of the mainstream critics and VC students, now fearing to appear “unhip” (like we gave a goddamn anyway) got caught up in the film’s instant popular cult status, soliciting a well deserved “Fuck you. Told you so” when they belatedly, feebly attempted to acknowledge Lynch’s potential validity as a filmmaker. Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, and Kyle MacLachlan were true blue, on the edge sex symbols (an extreme rarity). On reflection, it was probably the film’s pronounced sadomasochism that made it an accidental hit in the first place.
The 1980s overstayed its welcome. Divine and Edith Massey were dead, David Bowie was securely in a blonde pop phase, Pee Wee Herman was banished for something that surprised none of his long term fans, David Byrne was transforming into an egotistical monster, and, while he and John Waters were still clever, they were both losing that fun, obsessive art edge. David Cronenberg and George Romero still counted, but would Lynch?
1990’s Wild at Heart was an indication that he would. It was possibly his best film to date. This 1960’s type sexually charged, surreal Oz road trip actually brought out good acting from Nicolas Cage and featured Laura Dern at her trashiest, sexy best.
Then came the mercifully brief, frenzied phenomenon of Twin Peaks. It was hip, eventful, and jolted television audiences (who forever deserve to be jolted). Twin Peaks was also quite good (well, it started out that way), but its faddish, mass popularity was far more unpredictable and more unsettling that Twin Peaks itself. Less surprising was its amazingly quick fall from grace and there was probably a sigh of relief when it did crash.
While Lynch whittled away time desperately trying to salvage the train wreck of Peaks, the utterly bland 1990s was coming to a close. Lynch broke his long silence with the uneven, compelling Lost Highway, followed by the superbly narrative Straight Story, but he no longer really mattered.
Lynch could and did still produce vital work, but he had settled into a quiet work habit. He no longer, electrified, ignited or excited. Lynch had, of course, developed a considerable fan base, which, in itself, was embarrassing. For those of us that had followed his pre-Twin Peaks work, while it was new and fresh, the very idea of a Lynch fan base was an oxy-moron. Lynch seemed the type to defy ever inspiring a fan base or religious following. With Twin Peaks, Lynch had simply become too symbolic a figure for the trendy “cutting edge”. Most of those hard-line fans denied any flaws in his work, any missteps. For them, Twin Peaks was Lynch’s misunderstood gospel, something akin to Palazzeschi’s accepted, then criminally rejected Man of Smoke.
But, Lynch had flirted with, and been ostracized by, television, of all things. One could accept Spielberg working in television, but Lynch was slumming it, despite whatever intentions he may have had. There could be no greater symbolism of mainstream acceptance than the unimaginative, assembly line production of television. Never mind that, perhaps, Lynch’s goal was to bring to that aesthetically dead medium, a Kovac-like spirit at the edge of the improvisational event. Never mind that he failed.
The post-Twin Peaks Lynch fans were hollow and faddish, preeminently recognizing Lynch’s originality through his, ultimately weaker, work, in television. In the film school circuit it was no longer couth to “study Lynch”. He lacked the feverish introverted obsession of Cronenberg, and was, unforgivably, a rich man’s Bunuel (Bunuel was acclaimed, but never lost touch with his underground, dirt status). Lynch had promised and failed to deliver a new, messianic-like purity in the artistic medium of film (i.e., he wasn’t Tarkovsky).
2001’s Mulholland Drive, excellent as it was in its Kenneth Anger like sodomizing of a decadent Hollywood, insultingly garnered an academy award nomination (Hollywood loves to appear hip by nominating films critical of its industry) and this was a further source of embarrassment for and concerning Lynch.
One could feel Lynch’s pain at the nomination nod and empathize with the subsequent paths he has taken. Lynch followed this with a few chamber-like collections of shorts, which his fans practically wet themselves over in expressing their “alternative adulation”. In reality, the shorts appeared to be Lynch “reaching”.
It was a bit like David Bowie, trying to get back to his roots. Thankfully, he escaped his larger appeal stage, but was unable to re-capture the influential glory of the “artist unplugged”. In the meantime, other voices had emerged from the wilderness. It was perhaps only fitting that Isabella Rossellini was now making the hailed surrealist artwork of the day with Guy Maddin rather than David Lynch. Maddin and Lars Von Trier possess a true, indomitable, quirky auteur quality that could compete with, and eclipse the David Lynch of the 1980s. They could, quite readily, be considered more potent, more vital forces in the art film medium of the near, foreseeable future.
For 2006’s INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch went one step further in proclaiming his “underground status” by shooting the film on video. If he was reaching in the shorts, then he was grasping with EMPIRE.
EMPIRE divided even the most dedicated of Lynchians 50/50. In one camp, there are those who consider it a pale, muddled, repetitive rehash of all the Lynch films that came before. In the other camp, are those who feel EMPIRE is the most crystallized, most evolved example of Lynch’s art. I agree with the later, but regardless of stance, Laura Dern is amazing. She gives the film its organic meat and heart with an indisputably humanist performance, not an easy task to maintain amidst abstract expressionist chaos.
Since 2006, David Lynch has seemed to be on yet another sabbatical and may jolt us again, but in art one must kill one’s father, as Picasso killed his many fathers and as De Kooning killed him.
Try as he might, Lynch is not the equivalent of a wild-eyed, aged Xenakis, or a 101-year-old Elliott Carter still inserting pins underneath our nails. Von Trier and Maddin are among the new prophetic crop that has rendered Lynch’s a hopelessly quaint, comparatively impotent art. The 21st century David Lynch might identify with the 21st century Simon Rattle. Once, he could do no wrong. Now, he can do no right, regardless. David Lynch is dead now and that might just free him.