How the Pieces Don’t Fit Together: Following David Lynch’s America

David Lynch’s work as explored through Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock Top 10

(Oct ’86)

7. Julee Cruise: “Mysteries of Love,” from Blue Velvet: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Varese Sarabande)
Sort of like Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” as composed by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, and performed by Rosie and the Originals. (Feb ’87)

8. Julee Cruise, Floating Into the Night (Warner )
Ten variations on Blue Velvet’s “Mysteries of Love,” all composed and produced by David Lynch, who would have known how to direct Louise Brooks (1906-85): a bore in the daytime, visionary at 3 a.m. (Sep ’89)

9. David Lynch, director, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (New Line Home Video)
Though nobody needed the subtitled dwarf, this much-maligned film is a lot tougher than Wild at Heart, and also probably the greatest teen-jeopardy flick ever made. It opens on the corpse of Teresa Banks, the fiend’s first victim, then focuses on the surprise and despair around her mouth, frozen by rigor mortis; the movie sheds its conceits when Laura Palmer, in a heedlessly extremist performance by Sheryl Lee, finds the same expression in life. Now the most ordinary situation is the worst: Laura’s father taunting her at the dinner table because she hasn’t washed her hands. You know he’ll get rid of the dirt by the end, and in this sudden moment so does Laura. The disbelief in her face as he rails at her is awful, but not as bad as the belief that replaces it.
     The composition of many shots is arty, the efficient production of effects that mostly call attention to themselves; the composition of others is so fine they all but leave the picture. Near the beginning, the FBI agent played by Chris Isaak stands in a trailer park, his feet on wet ground, a trench coat on his shoulders, mountains in the background: a last moment of contemplation and puzzlement before he disappears from the film like Bulkington from Moby-Dick. I rewound the tape, hit the pause button, and stared into a perfect picture of the loneliness, the possibility of abandonment, implicit in American open spaces—where, as Lynch says here, anything can happen, and will. (Mar ’93)

9. David Lynch, Lost Highway (October Rims)
This movie has its flaws. Hank Williams’ shadow title song is not acknowledged, the appearance of the “Lost Highway Hotel” is cheesy, as if the film is mining its own ad, and the product placement is sloppy (Full Sail Ale makes sense at the fancy party, not for Gary Busey’s biker). But the self-loathing that never really leaves Bill Pullman’s face—the look he perfected playing chump husbands in Malice and The Last Seduction—never leaves the picture, either. It’s a grimace that somehow sums up American nihilism at the end of the American century, a sneer that contains knowledge of all the secrets that aren’t worth telling. (May ’97)

9. David Lynch, director, The Straight Story (Disney)
In a bar where they’re the only patrons, two old men who have just met have told their awful stories of fighting Nazis in the Second World War—stories of what they saw, what they did, stories about their own guilt. Jo Stafford’s “Happy Times” plays in the air; the young bartender stands in the half-light, trying to fade into the woodwork, trying not to hear, not to invade the privacy of the men speaking in this public place, shamed by his own youth. (Sep ’99)

7. David Lynch, director, The Straight Story (Disney)
In Lynch’s version of the adventure of the late Alvin Straight, who at 73 drove a lawn mower and a trail across Iowa and into Wisconsin to visit a brother he hadn’t seen in 10 years, people sometimes assume stiff, theatrical, or comfortable postures; they occupy themselves with unique, seemingly obsessive, unexplained gestures. These incidents—Straight’s next-door-neighbor fitting a pink SnoBall into her mouth; the fright in his daughter’s eyes when she tries to push words through whatever it is that blocks them; man at the end of a bar moving his hand (or is it a knife?) in a circular motion, making a distant, discomforting scratching sound—is no different from the way the Log Lady in Twin Peaks tries to get people to listen her, or the way Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey says almost anything he says in Blue Velvet. As they are composed in Lynch’s films, such events carry a displacing sense of the unnatural, yet once you’ve watched them, it’s impossible to imagine the actors act in any other way.“I want to make films that occur in America, but that take people into worlds where they may never go,” Lynch has said, and America emerges not as a place, a history of deeds or a set of ideas. Instead it’s a story people tell each other: a fable about how people can be expected to act, about how events can be expected to unfold. With The Straight Story this is a story about determination sliding into obsession—craziness, one could call it—and the persistence of the pioneer spirit, the faith that in America anything is possible, with the whole enveloped by decency on the part of every character present, a decency that seems brought forth by one man’s expectation that he will find it. In Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and Lost Highway, the story is about determination sliding into obsession—sociopathology, you could call it—and the persistence of the pioneer spirit, the dead certainty that in America anything can happen and probably will, with the whole wrapped in a storm of derangement, which some survive and some don’t.
     The language spoken to tell either story, though, is the same. People move and speak as if they are performing, for others and for themselves. They make gestures that are in some profound and casual way absolutely self-legitimating: gestures that say that those who wave their hands, stutter or proffer strange talismans have as much a right to speak, to tell the story, as anyone else. Sort of like the people on an old Randy Newman album. (Oct ’99)

4. Mulholland Dr., directed by David Lynch, written by Joyce Eliason and Lynch (Universal, opening Oct.12)
Early in the picture, a movie director with a teen-theme project is running auditions, dressing sophisticated, tough-as-nails stars up in chiffon to lip-synch to Connie Stevens’ 1960 “Sixteen Reasons” and Linda Scott’s 1961 “I’ve Told Every Little Star.” Though at this point Mulholland Dr. still seems like a regular story with different characters, you already get the feeling that there’s something off, that the pieces aren’t fitting together: that there’s more happening, more at stake, than what’s on the screen would seem to justify.How the pieces don’t fit together is the story the film tells. In an astonishingly controlled, extremist performance, Naomi Watts (previous credits include Children of the Corn IV) plays Betty Elms, a cute blonde from a small town in Ontario who arrives in Los Angeles with hopes of becoming an actress; how Elms leaves, or as who, if she leaves at all, is the mystery. At the start, she walks out of LAX with stars in her eyes. The shot is both iconic and clichéd, silly and scary, because the radiance in Watts’ face, communicating the depth of her character’s commitment, or insanity, pushes the shot almost into abstraction.
     That’s true for every scene Watts is in—most shockingly, her first reading. We’ve just seen her stumble through the dumb soap-style script with mystery woman-cum-roommate Rita, played by Laura Harring; they can barely get through the lines for laughing at them. Elms shows up at the studio and is paired with a bored, middle-aged actor; within seconds, with the crew standing around and trying to pretend their eyes aren’t bugging out of their sockets, Elms has taken the man to levels of sexual tension so delicate and intense you can barely stand to watch. Where did this come from? What’s next?It came from a cute blonde arriving at LAX with stars in her eyes and pages from Hollywood Babylon flying through her brain—and what’s next is a night at the Club Silencio. Rita wakes up at two in the morning speaking in Spanish; she wakes Betty, and insists they leave for what turns out to be an all-night lip-synch palace. The dank, rotting theater is pure Hollywood: street-level, scag Hollywood. A few junkies, alcoholics and other insomniacs dot the seats. A man appears and announces the concept—everything is taped. But he and another man move so convincingly to the sounds behind them it’s as if they’ve called them into being. The sense of displacement hits Elms like a disease: suddenly she is shaking in her seat like a spiritualist’s table, shaking as if her bones are about to come out of her mouth, her skinny body invaded, close to bursting. Rita holds her still, and then a honey-haired woman with yellow eye makeup comes onto the stage and begins to move her lips to Rebekah Del Rio’s “Llorando,” a transcendent Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” She will collapse before the song is over—it goes on—but by then the song has already done such damage to the women listening they don’t even notice that she’s on the floor. (Oct ’01)

8. David Lynch/Angelo Badalamenti, Mulholland Dr. (BMG/Milan) OST
This is not like the movie. There is no imperative to keep you interested, entertained, or following the story. Rather there is so much silence on this soundtrack album, or waiting, that you can forget the message of the movie: Stay away. (Nov ’01)

5. David Lynch and John Neff, BlueBob (Solitude/Ryko)
Lynch on words, drums, guitar, Neff on guitar, drums, vocals: Link Wray opening for Pere Ubu. “I Cannot Do That” is the musical equivalent of an outtake from Lost Highway, furiously sustained; out of the all-directions-at-once noise of “In the Pink Western Range” comes a dog, “barking like Robert Johnson.” But the hit is “Thank You, Judge,” an R&B divorce-court novelty. (Apr ’03)

1. David Lynch, Crazy Clown Time (Sunday Best)
Lynch has written songs before, most memorably for Julee Cruise. He’s recorded, notably with John Neff for the 2003 BlueBob. But he has never tried anything like this: singing and playing lead guitar on a full-out set of songs. By its end, he has mapped a version of America—an America bordered on one side by teenagers getting drunk and on the other by perverts insisting they’re just like anybody else, fuckhead—a picture of ordinary life as funny and unsettling as you can find in Mulholland Dr. or Lost Highway. There is terrific psychedelic Duane Eddy guitar—a slow, seductive rhythm, reverb as big as a house. Again and again, there is a talking voice playing with syllables, stretching them out, bending them, curling them, until you become altogether attuned to the musicality of every inflection. But most of all, there are scenes you can visualize as you listen. For “Football Game” there is dramatic, gonging guitar, and the feel of the Top 40 death ballad brought up to date. “I went down… to the football game,” says a beaten-down character missing half his teeth (he’s not that far from David Thomas in “Nowheresville,” telling a story about the guy who thought his wife was going to leave him, how he had this great idea to build a motel on the new interstate, but then they put the interstate on the other side of the valley…), and you don’t take him seriously until “I saw you I with another man,” and the stakes go up.
     “Good Day Today” plays with ’60s ye-ye, Hooverphonics’ synthesizer lounge ambience, cheesy French movie music, with tiny background synthesizer uh-uh-uh-uh-uhs, all so someone you do not want to meet can tell you, “I want to have a good day today,” which is to say he’ll do whatever he has to do to get it—don’t pedophile serial killers deserve one too? There is “Speed Roadster,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Stolen Car” as a stalker’s reverie, and “These Are My Friends,” where the singer tells you, “I got a truck,” that he’s “got two good ears, and my eye on you”—it’s a high-school love song, Marty Robbins’s 1957 “A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” crossed with Larry Clark’s Tulsa, a creepy, moving version of Rosie and the Originals’ 1960 “Angel Baby,” slowed down to a crawl: “These are my friends, the ones I see each day/I got a perscription fer a product, keep the hounds at bay.”These are rich, sometimes tricky studio assemblages; after a few listenings you’re only scratching the surface, but with “Crazy Clown Time” you might get everything the first time. It’s Lynch in his high, thin voice, the old man suddenly reinhabiting his teenage self, Frank from Blue Velvet stopping you on the street to tell you just how it was when “Susie, she ripped her shirt off, completely”—and it’s that completely that still has him shaking his head in wonder after all these years. “Calling Little Richard,” the song begins, and he’s right there, the parents are gone, and while the party gets increasingly out of control (“Then he poured beer all over Sally… Danny spit on Susie”), nothing really terrible happens. But the tempo slows, the atmosphere goes heavy and dark, as if the party has moved from Fred’s house to the roadhouse in Twin Peaks. “Susie had hers off completely,” the man keeps saying, as if he’s trying with everything he has to remember exactly what that looked like, and just can’t. It would have been interesting to hear this on the radio in 1965, a dank, gothic, blues version of “Double Shot (Of My Baby’s Love).” “It was really fun,” the old man says finally. (Nov ’11)

3. David Lynch, The Big Dream (Sacred Bones)
On Lynch’s first album, Crazy Clown Time, you were listening to an old man who never got over high school—who could never get his pornographic fantasies of Sue and Darlene and Diane out of his head. Here the voice is more that of an old codger unwilling to bring anything into too tight a focus, and the record rides on its music. “The most significant event of the twentieth century?” Kristine McKenna asked Lynch back in the twentieth century. “The birth of rock ‘n’ roll,” he said, and now, in a different language than he spoke in Blue Velvet or Wild at Heart or Twin Peaks, he’s taking his place in that story. Like Nina Simone and the Stooges before him, he goes up against Bob Dylan’s deadly “Ballad of Hollis Brown” as if it were a test, and from the first two words you know you’re hearing about a real person, even if Dylan made him up. (Oct ’13)

5. Brad Dukes, Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks (short/Tall press)
Until Dukes comes to the 1990 episode where Laura Palmer’s killer is revealed—when he murders Sheryl Lee’s Maddy Ferguson, Laura Palmer’s cousin, in a mirror version of the murder that began the show—this is pure Hollywood, everyone falling all over themselves to praise everyone else, not a hitch, a moment of rancor, jealousy, even difficulty. But in the chapter “Back to Missoula,” with, in one day over 12 hours, David Lynch shooting three different death scenes with three different killers—the developer Ben Horne, played by Richard Beymer, Laura Palmer’s father, played by Ray Wise, and “Bob,” played by Frank Silva—and Sheryl Lee dying over and over again, the story explodes on the page just as it did on the screen. “She gave everything she had, she gave more, she gave more than she could afford to give, and she spent years coming back,” says Grace Zabriskie, who played Laura Palmer’s mother. “The performance itself tells the story. No one walks away from work like that unscathed.” Lee is listed as part of the cast for the Twin Peaks series scheduled on Showtime for 2017. (May ’16)

7. Twin Peaks: The Return, Episode 2 (Showtime)
“James is still cool,” says Mädchen Amick’s Shelly as James Marshall’s James Hurley walks into the Bang Bang Bar, smiling as if he’s mildly surprised to find himself in the place. Why is it so affecting to see him? He was always the most decent person in town—is that why it’s a shock he’s still alive? Or, as Robert Fiore writes in, “Have you ever noticed that the Twin Peaks theme is basically ‘Telstar’ played really slowly?” Or that the device of almost every episode ending with an interesting indie band on the Bang Bang stage, which gives the show the only grounding it has—last Sunday with Marshall’s silencing version of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s “Just You” in a disturbing little-girl voice—is a tribute to the way Ricky Nelson and his band closed out so many episodes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet? (Aug ’17)

6. David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, Room to Dream (Penguin Random House)
As collected in her 2001 Book of Changes, in 1986, 1989, and 1992 McKenna, the unrivaled historian of the postwar Los Angeles avant-garde, published interviews with Lynch as heretical as they were hilarious: You couldn’t predict a word. For this all-new auto/biography–career survey she provides continuity while he talks into a tape recorder, and there doesn’t seem to be a line you haven’t heard before, even if there is. (Aug ’18)

Entries taken from Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns , 1986-2014.
For more on David Lynch by Greil Marcus see The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice.

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