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The man behind the glass: The trouble with David Lynch’s brand of weird

By James Rushing Daniel.

The man behind the glass: The trouble with David Lynch's brand of weird

As Sailor and Lula (Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern), the ill-fated protagonists of David Lynch’s gruesome road film Wild at Heart (1990), roll into the dusty outpost of Big Tuna, Texas, they are greeted by the words “fuck you” scrawled across a rusted metal fish. A bald portent of what Big Tuna has in store, the moment also marks the couple’s passage out of the American Southwest and into a mangled dreamworld. That night at the Iguana Motel, a squinting Jack Nance is brought out to menace them with a story about a dog, three obese women on a break from a porno shoot smoke cigarettes in the courtyard, and Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), a war criminal and escaped convict who looks like a libidinous, meth-fuelled Clark Gable, rises out of the gloom. Peru will sexually assault Lula, commit several murders and accidentally decapitate himself with a shotgun before the film is over.

The profane oddity of Big Tuna is standard Lynch—as in nearly all the director’s works, the narrative passes from the world of the everyday into a phantasmagoric fever dream in which actual traumas appear deformed. Such is Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of Lost Highway (1997), a film that, in his reading, first depicts the sexual humiliation of the protagonist, Fred (Bill Pullman), in the banal suburban setting of the real world before shifting to a dreamed revision of events represented as a grim, film-noir fantasy. But Big Tuna’s strangeness also exhibits another Lynchian preoccupation that has aged remarkably poorly: the evocation of the weird by way of “deviance”. In Wild at Heart, Lynch uses an uncomfortably essentialist set of signifiers to evoke Big Tuna’s nightmare bona fides—mental disability, obesity, unorthodox sexual desire and tooth decay. Instead of apprising his audience of the actual evils of the place, he relies on the ostensive malformation of its locals.

Similar deployment of “abnormality” to connote evil, vice or weirdness abounds in Lynch’s work. In Dune (1984), Lynch embellishes the enormously fat, pedophilic Baron Vladimir Harkonnen with discharging facial boils and a penchant for murdering his victims while raping them. In Blue Velvet (1986) Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) knows he’s truly fucked when he’s brought to see the drug dealer Ben (Dean Stockwell), a makeup-wearing gay stereotype. While Lynch is largely regarded as patron saint of the weird, his nearly ecclesiastical approach to the supposed aberrance of bodies, erotic desires, sexual orientations, abilities and races undermines the supposed weirdness he depicts. For these elements to appear exceptional, there must be a presumptive normal against which the weird is measured. For Lynch, such normalcy ultimately looks a lot like conservative, middle-class American life. To his credit, he often suggests that suburban America is not as innocent as it seems, but he nevertheless continually establishes a dichotomy between good, minimally kooky, salt of the earth folks—Alvin (Richard Farnsworth) in The Straight Story, Sheriff Harry Truman in Twin Peaks (1991)—and deviants. The hostility with which Lynch regards nonconformity, then, ultimately suggests a profound resentment of “the weird”.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Twin Peaks universe, a place where alterity is used to establish that the surface world, filled with honest people and good coffee, is threatened by occluded savagery. Set near the Canadian border, nearly all Canadians depicted in the show are villainous interlopers. This is particularly the case for the Renault clan, pimps, dealers, drug runners and sex traffickers, all with extravagant French-Canadian accents. Most grotesque is Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz), a tubby letch who supplies the town, and Laura Palmer, with blow. In Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), while partying with Laura and Donna in a seedy bar, a drunk and coked-up Renault mimes blowing his brains out and reports: “I’m as blank as a fart.” There’s also Harold Smith, a pitiable agoraphobic outsider with a penchant for orchids who is also, predictably, a deranged psychopath. “You are unclean! You have contaminated me!” he screams at Maddy and Donna after clawing his face with a trowel.

Various disabled characters round out the show’s construction of oddness. Mike (Al Strobel), the One Armed Man, a likely allusion to the similarly disfigured villain from The Fugitive (1963), is supposed to evoke otherness through his disability. Other characters from the White Lodge are similarly tokenised—The Man from Another Place (Michael J. Anderson) has osteogenesis imperfecta and The Fireman’s (Carel Struycken) height is the result of acromegaly. In the town of Twin Peaks, Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie) sports an eye-patch and is gifted with superhuman strength. The bellhop at The Great Northern Hotel (Ian Buchanan) is depicted, for laughs, as a senile tottering old man. And Lynch himself appears as Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole, a man with a hearing aid whose frequent misapprehension of words plays like an extended Mr. Magoo parody. Together, these characters present a tapestry of disability-as-oddity to enhance the show’s outlandish underbelly. 

Gordon Cole

In the original series, race is often similarly employed to signify nefariousness or to provide mystical ambience. Josie Packard (Joan Chen), one of only two principal characters of colour, exhibits multiple Asian stereotypes. At first a sexual object, Josie seems to exist to wear provocative nightgowns and fulfil Sheriff Truman’s sexual desires. Later, when her triad connections are disclosed, she shifts into an alternate stereotype of an Asian gangster. Agent Tommy “Hawk” Hill (Michael Horse), a benevolent character, is rendered as a numinous Native American, though his tribal affiliation or anything substantive about this aspect of his identity is never clarified—Michael Horse himself is of Yaqui heritage. He is frequently assigned the role of voicing contrived Native American aphorisms: “You’re on the path. You don’t need to know where it leads. Just follow.” Perhaps most embarrassingly, his name Tommy “Hawk” or tomahawk is an abysmal, racist pun.

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), Lynch’s first outing since 2006’s inscrutable Inland Empire, is far more oblique and challenging than the original series. While generally praised by critics—Laura Miler writing for Slate called it “gloriously trippy”—it returns to Lynch’s tatty grab-bag of freak show tropes, employing difference and disability to achieve its dissociative aesthetic. In addition to trotting out many original characters, the series boasts new ones like Ike “The Spike” Stadtler (Christophe Zajac-Denek), a little person whose role as a shrieking, vicious assassin is either an attempt to equate the character’s height with perversion or simply a limp attempt at irony.  Then there’s Charlie (Clark Middleton), a man who may or may not be the husband of Audrey Horne. Played by an actor afflicted with childhood rheumatoid arthritis, Charlie is presented as a disabled cuckold, a disturbingly wretched character whose disability seems to be employed to cast an eerie pallor over his scenes. Like its predecessor, The Return is also racially homogeneous. Of the few characters of colour, nearly all rest on stereotypes. Jade (Nafessa Williams) is a black prostitute whose existence seems only to suggest that Dougie Jones (Kyle MacLachlan) is a sleaze and Naido (Nae Yuuki) is a mute, eyeless Asian woman.

A crucial exception to these depictions would appear to be Denise Bryson (David Duchovny), a formidable transgender DEA agent who, in the new series, has risen to become the FBI Chief of Staff. With such a progressive depiction of gender, one might assume that there are limits to the show’s support of pious conformity. However, the appearance of the character in the original series is certainly played for laughs. When Denise first walks into the Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department in the show’s second season, Hawk looks on slack-jawed, unable to shake Denise’s hand. After she leaves, Hawk deadpans, “That’s a good colour for him.” In this depiction, Denise is yet another addition to the batshit cavalcade, one whose deviance is intended to be risibly strange. Twenty-five years hence, her treatment is far more sensitive and in keeping with contemporary mores. In one scene, Gordon recounts defending her to transphobic colleagues: “When you became Denise, I told all of your colleagues, those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die.” While a commendable shift in tone, it’s worth remembering that initially Denise was only ever a punchline. Even now, her transsexuality is neither incidental nor explored but a piece of set decoration provided by a cisgender actor.

Denise Bryson

Given these elements of Lynch’s work, it is baffling that more people have not critiqued the filmmaker’s normative sensibilities. Certainly, there have been quite a few complaints over the years regarding Lynch’s gleeful representation of violence against women. Others have analysed Lynch’s problematic depictions of disability and race, yet these critiques have been largely apologetic. As Eric Deggans, writing for NPR, opines, “[Lynch’s] affection for styles swiped from the 1950s and Midwestern flavors seems to preclude featuring many non-white people.” Critics and audiences nevertheless continue to regard Lynch as the elder statesman of the American avant-garde. Yet, unlike director John Waters, whose films like Pink Flamingos (1972) and Cry Baby (1990) strive to recuperate deviance, celebrating markers of social exclusion and ridiculing the pretence of the white American middle-class, much of Lynch’s work seems like a Reagan-era lament of American dissipation. While Lynch has stated in interviews that his work is not intended to be political, it might surprise some that he has expressed personal admiration for Ronald Reagan and libertarianism. Though he tweeted support for Bernie Sanders in 2016, Lynch’s avowed political stance tracks the classic conservative line of individualism and deregulation. As he soberly told LA Weekly interviewer John Powers in 2001, “this country’s in pretty bad shape when human scum can walk across your lawn, and they put you in jail if you shoot ‘em”.

Notwithstanding his aesthetic distinction, Lynch’s depictions of queerness, disability, gender, sexuality and race suggest that any deviation from white, heterosexual, middle-class life is not normal. Consistent with his position on trespassing, the director’s films strictly demarcate a place of normalcy that must be aggressively protected from the deviance and obscenity of the outside. Against Waters, who locates the darkest elements of the American experiment in so-called polite society, for Lynch, evil comes from the place we are always told evil comes from—the periphery. In his work, it’s the killers at cheap motels, drug dealers, prostitutes and back-alley perverts that menace the shining city upon a hill. A position profoundly at odds with critics and audiences increasingly attuned to racism and inequality, Lynch’s worldview is an anachronism and worthy of more serious critique.

An artist who explicitly eschews political engagement in his work, Lynch also points to a broader issue—the fallacy of apolitical art. More socially conscious artists and filmmakers have long understood that any work, regardless of intention, holds some degree of political resonance. For such figures, acknowledging the political, even if obliquely, is a crucial aspect of public engagement. In failing to extend such acknowledgement, Lynch illustrates how purposefully apolitical art tends towards normativity. Without substantive political consideration, elements such as the homophobic depiction of Ben or the recurring sexualisation of women of colour affirm exclusionary biases. While his work continues to hold high standing with a largely progressive and political crowd, Lynch nevertheless supports prevailing conditions by failing to contemplate the social consequences of his aesthetic choices.

 

James Rushing Daniel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Rushing Daniel is a lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Writing Program at the University of Washington. His work focuses on issues of agency and inequality at the intersection of writing studies, rhetorical theory and critical theory. His research has appeared in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Composition Studies and The Los Angeles Review of Books.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 30th, 2017.