David Lynch: What's in a Name? - Steven Bode

‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain’ goes the line towards the end of the ‘Wizard of Oz’, when Dorothy and her entourage discover that the Wizard of legend is not an omnipotent icon and towering genius, a fearsome name that carries all before it and is known across the globe, but simply an illusion, a trick of smoke and mirrors, powered by a man, just like any other man, who happens to know how to work the controls…

There are curtains everywhere in David Lynch’s films, usually red, plush, highly theatrical ones. Curtains that conceal, and curtains that reveal; curtains that open to divulge fantastical secrets, and curtains that lift to disclose unforgettable scenes populated with extraordinary characters. Curtains behind which, should we ever pass through them, would tell us, as Dorothy might put it, that we are definitely not in Kansas anymore. Or for that matter any of the Mid West, or North West American towns where David Lynch’s stories are frequently set.

‘Pay no attention to the man behind the movie’, I get the feeling that David Lynch would prefer it that way. He’s not publicity shy, far from it. He appears in his own films, and in bigger walk-on parts than Hitchcock ever gave himself. He goes on chat shows and makes himself available for interviews. He doesn’t shirk the limelight and certainly isn’t a recluse. But he really doesn’t like to talk about his films, and rarely, if ever, will be found getting himself drawn into discussions on their meaning. Instead he straight bats with that half amusing, half infuriating persona he has adopted for many years now, part regular guy from Montana, part endlessly deflecting joker. Maybe there is a similar fear that the magic will disappear if he says too much, and gives too many secrets away.

We can’t fail to want to look for the man behind the films, though, primarily because the films have so thoroughly and powerfully captured our attention. Lynch may not want to speak about them too much, but his films speak to us, and continue to do so in extraordinary ways. And so we are gathered together here today, to join in conversation about them (although not necessarily with the man himself…) It’s a conversation that will encompass Lynch the film-maker (a subject that people have myriad views and opinions about) but which has been prompted by an exhibition here at MIMA, of Lynch the painter and photographer, ‘David Lynch Naming’. If it’s the films, certainly the films post ‘Eraserhead’, that made Lynch’s name, then painting is a part of his creative life that predates them, and runs in parallel to them. To talk about both of those aspects, and the interrelationship between them, we have two speakers, Brett Littman, the curator of the exhibition and Allister MacTaggert, film theorist and writer, and one of this country’s foremost students of Lynch. Although both of them will touch upon the matter of Lynch’s own influences, and the extent to which traces of his own distinctive trademark signature have rippled across cinematic and popular culture during the last thirty years, we will explore that question further this afternoon in the company of Georgina Starr and Shezad Dawood, two artists who have found and acknowledged a considerable source of inspiration in Lynch’s work, and in whose practice film is also accompanied and extended, in ways we see often these days, not just with painting, but across multiple media.

To start the day off, though, I want to set out some preparatory remarks, which we may or may not want to return to as punctuation points or recurring motifs of the day.

The first of these, taking its cue from the exhibition title itself, is around the idea of naming. The act of naming and the act of identification are important in Lynch’s work, as Brett will no doubt elaborate shortly. Lynch’s first film, a 4-minute short, on show here, was appropriately called ‘The Alphabet’. Over a fractured, disconcerting soundtrack which features children reciting their ABCs, letters of the alphabet appear in a kind of disordered inventory, taking animated form, emerging out of nowhere and insinuating themselves everywhere. Lynch described the film later as ‘a little nightmare about the fear associated with learning’. This struggle with and preoccupation with names and with the act of attaching names to things appears not to have left him, and we can see this fascination with it elsewhere in his films, scattered like letters from the book of Babel (I’m thinking here of the individual typewritten letters that are buried under the fingernails of the dead girls in ‘Twin Peaks’). 

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As well as this interest in textual scraps and fragmentary phonemes, Lynch chooses many of his protagonists’ names equally carefully. There is, as we’ll see later, an Alice who appears in the looking glass world of what may be entirely someone’s fantasy universe. And, at the centre of the fantastical netherworld of the town of Lumberton in ‘Blue Velvet’, the Isabella Rossellini character, as ‘Wizard of Oz’ fans will note, is also called ‘Dorothy’. These instances of ostentatiously name-dropping names that are loaded with history or symbolism have seen Lynch being bracketed by some critics as a cold manipulator of the language and iconography of cinema, either as a calculating post-modern stylist dealing in ciphers, or, contrastingly, and it is a very big contrast, as a kind of Jungian mystic romantic, summoning up fairy tale angelic or demonic archetypes.

It goes without saying that there is a huge psychoanalytic resonance to Lynch’s films, either in ‘classic’ Freudian terms, or given a Lacanian twist. Lynch’s interest in fantasy, his penchant for hidden codes, and his fascination for the sudden irruptions of primal forces or phenomena that Lacanians might describe as glimpses of ‘the Real’, that dimension beyond the symbolic order that exists and insists outside everyday life, are all a gift to Lacanian interpretation. As is, on a seemingly trivial note, Lynch’s name itself. I have lost count of how many times a Lacanian influenced film theorist has been unable to resist calling a pivotal leitmotif in the Lynchian lexicon, a lynch pin…

I have also lost track of quite how much has been written about Lynch from a psychoanalytic perspective. Casting my eye over what has been generated on Lynch and his films, in print and via the internet, after quite a few years away, I was slightly shocked at just how much secondary material there now is. I wouldn’t want to lapse into the same bad habits as the Lynch Pin brigade and term all these followers and fellow travellers a Lynch Mob, but I do think, having read a fair few academic texts about him recently, that there may be a tendency, in certain academics writing about his work, towards what we might call a Lynch Law – a propensity to rush to hasty interpretative judgments on superficial but apparently compelling evidence. Writers dusting Lynch’s films for convincing, implicating clues who are all too ready to find a prop to hang an idea on. A Lynch Pin, indeed.

And now, of course, having criticised that tendency, I’m going to have a little go myself, and subject Lynch’s name itself (if he doesn’t mind) itself to a further bit of Agent Cooper style close forensic analysis.

Lynch – the first thing you notice is that the name is all consonants. Which is ironic when his films are so full of dissonance. Emotional dissonance, cognitive dissonance, phenomenological dissonance, dissonant images or dissonant sounds, all clashing and contrasting to create a tension and a disconnect between surface reality, and larger underlying forces, or a deeper, underlying truth.

‘Lynch’s entire ontology,’ says Slavoj Zizek, ‘is based upon the discordance between reality, observed from a safe distance, and the absolute proximity of the Real. His elementary procedure involves moving forward from the establishing shot of reality to a disturbing proximity that renders visible the disgusting substance of enjoyment, the crawling and glistening of indestructible life.’

Lynch – the second thing you notice is that while the name is all consonants (all dissonant consonants) it is nevertheless easily comprehensible. We can hear the vowel even though no vowel is actually visible. Or perhaps we could say, in an echo of a famous saying from Twin Peaks, that the vowels are not what they seem. 

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Lynch – the third thing you notice is that the name is only one letter away from this word – Synch. A word that describes how various disparate and dissonant elements converge and come together, harmoniously, logically, sometimes magically, implying how in the midst of all life’s teeming multiplicity there are moments (and perhaps more than moments) of synchronicity.

Lynch – the fourth thing you notice is that if Synch is pronounced Synch and not cinch, then Lynch could, equally logically, also be pronounced Link. Link, meaning a point of connection, even a portal, or jumping off point to some of those other, parallel places that are out there.

Lynch – I’m obviously deep into Agent Cooper mumbo-jumbo here, but I’m starting to think there may be something in this consonants/dissonance/ convergence thing: an original signifier (maybe even a Lynch pin) in a Lynchian alphabet, lexicon, labyrinth or signifying chain that’s always inherently in a state of flux, coming together just as it is continually flying apart.

Although I’m not being serious (or not entirely serious), it does make for a nice segue into the final part of this introduction, which consists of a very brief discussion of Lynch’s film ‘Lost Highway’, and two ways of reading this significant, maybe transitional work.

In ‘Lost Highway’, Fred (Bill Pullman) is in the midst of an unhappy, unfulfilled marriage to his beautiful wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). He is haunted by premonitions, and by the actual appearance of video tapes left outside their door, showing scenes of them asleep in their bedroom and hinting at even more ominous threats and intrusions. At a party thrown by one of Renee’s friends. Fred is confronted by a Mystery Man who tells him he has met him before, in his house, and who tells him also that he is there again right now, even though he is also talking to him where he stands. After this meeting, a further videotape arrives outside the house, showing the aftermath of a killing, and following Renee’s disappearance, this footage of a bloody body is used as evidence to prosecute Fred for her murder (something he cannot remember but which, we are given to believe, may have taken place during a moment of psychosis, or act of possession.)

Fred is sentenced to life imprisonment, and held in solitary confinement but during one night, after blinding headaches and in a mysterious burst of light and energy, he metamorphoses into a completely different person, a young car mechanic called Pete. Baffled and spooked by the transformation, the authorities have no option but to let Pete go. The next section of the film follows Pete in his life in LA, at the garage where he works, in his dealings with a local mobster, and the mobster’s girlfriend Alice, a blond doppelganger of Renee, who appears to lust after him, and seduces him behind the mobster’s back, with all the moves of a femme fatale from a classic Film Noir. After discovering Alice’s identity as a prostitute and pornographic actress, and the impossibility of any lasting relationship with her, Pete, as if backing away from this fantasy, equally abruptly turns back into Fred, in time for further encounters with his Mystery Man, and a degree of realisation that he, i.e. Fred, has been complicit in his own fate, and with nowhere to go but the road to nowhere that is the Lost Highway.

On the one hand, the middle section of the film, where Fred transforms into Pete, can be read as a delirious fantasy, played out in Fred’s mind, from the confines of his prison cell, in which he casts himself as a sexually desirable and sexually successful younger man, and where his murdered wife lives on as a surrogate creature of his imagination. But there is an alternative reading, in keeping with much of Lynch’s later output, that supplements this notion of a unstable psyche giving rise to demons and delusions, with a reflection on the unstable nature of matter itself, in the way that our understanding of the physical universe around us has been influenced by insights from quantum mechanics and other aspects of what might broadly be called the new physics. Uncertainty, parallelism, non-linearity: these are the signposts and shifting landmarks of this new phenomenological landscape, which while inherently mysterious and indeterminate is also a place of infinite possibility. A number of critics have pointed out how this worldview chimes with Lynch’s longstanding immersion in transcendental meditation, and his fascination with Indian mysticism, as well his interests in the omniverses and multiverses implied by the ‘new physics’.

In ‘Lost Highway’, that world of boundless possibility is out there, a world of possibility that advocates of TM call pure consciousness and what quantum physicists term the unified field where everything is connected, and there is always a sense throughout this deeply fatalistic film that events could have taken another turn. Instead the film opens and closes with the image of car headlights hurtling down an empty highway at night; not as a symbol of freedom, of the open road, but of a man who is a prisoner of his drives.

I spoke earlier about how names reverberate in Lynch’s films, and I just want to play a short clip now from ‘Lost Highway’ to demonstrate that… Excuse the language. I also think it’s rather rude of the Mystery Man (played by Robert Blake) to insist on asking other people’s names when he’s not particularly forthcoming with his. But he is a quintessential Man with No Name, like the Man from Another Place in the Red Room of ‘Twin Peaks’, a figure we know but cannot give a name to, an inkling, a shadow of the unrepresentable nature of the Real, or the unnamable force of the unconscious, of the id. I suppose the only other question one might want to ask oneself at this point is why is he also such a dead ringer for Francis Bacon? A painter that Lynch acknowledges as a major influence on his work.

I want to end with one more very short clip. I’ve come up with a number of theories in and around David Lynch’s name, some playful and fanciful, some hopefully less so, without him having an opportunity to contradict, or say something else. But as I hinted before, he isn’t always that forthcoming himself. This is a clip of Lynch in an onstage interview with the film critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode. On the one hand, it’s an example of Lynch’s usual method when faced with a direct or probing question. But it’s also an illustration perhaps of that underlying irony that is an inescapable feature of a quantum universe, in which the act of observation not only fixes in its sights the object it is observing (and attempting to name), but how that very fact of observation often causes its object to change state, to become uncertain, maybe even to disappear.


Steven Bode is the Director of Film and Video Umbrella, a London-based agency who are Britain’s main commissioners of artists’ film and video work.


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