The Oxford English Dictionary defines an “artist” as:
A person skilled in a practical art. (obsolete)
A person skilled in a learned art. (obsolete)
iii. A person skilled in one of the creative or fine arts.
According to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, even the last of these is obsolete. Hegel wrote, “Art expresses the spirit of particular cultures as well as that of individual artists and the general human spirit.” On the other hand, Hegel is also well known for the statement: “Art is dead!”
Hegel was not referring to the death of art as a product, but to the idea that art is devalued in the modern era and therefore dead to its potential in society. For Hegel, human self-knowledge (the knowledge human beings have about themselves) can be split into three sections: philosophy, religion and art. Hegel saw not just art but history itself as a process in which spirit (Geist), or consciousness, comes to self-realization. Art, which had been the main impetus for self-discovery in ancient Greece, is dead today in the sense that it has been superseded by religion and philosophy as vehicles of human knowledge—that is, of consciousness coming to self-realization.
Let’s collect our thoughts and listen carefully to Hegel’s concern that art is no longer responsible for conveying an essential portion of human self-knowledge. Art will continue to live and evolve but it is doomed to be confined to a narrow space. One way it has continued to exist in the twentieth century is by acting in service to commercialism. Today, artists use their imaginations to seduce and attract people as consumers. Much of modern art is decoration, advertisement or entertainment. If true art still exists, it would have to be more than simply attractive; it would have to mirror the life experience of its audience as well as challenge it.
This is a good moment to return to David Lynch and his work. Lynch’s work confronts its audience with their own sense of helplessness and victimization, and reflects back their fascination and obsession with violence. Throughout his life, Lynch has confronted the mysteries of the unknown. Solipsism and self-indulgent psychodrama are often problems for modern artists. By way of contrast, the deeper Lynch sinks into the well of his persona, the more effective and challenging his art becomes.
Lynch is a child of the dying father called “New Hollywood.” In Lynch’s formative years, the 1960s and ’70s, capitalism and the discovery of the “Self” were the dominant forces in the art world. As part of New Hollywood, or the American New Wave, directors such as Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas reached their creative peaks. Influenced by the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, Japanese New Wave and Classical Hollywood, New Hollywood films were characterized by their critical attitude toward society and a willingness to break moral laws and redefine genres.
When Lynch began making films of his own in the late 1970s, New Hollywood had mutated into socially acceptable popcorn-cinema. The prevailing attitude was that film was not an art form but a product that allowed its consumers the opportunity to forget their everyday troubles and have a good time. Like the porn industry, Hollywood began generating films that supported a narcissistic and distorted image of society, leading the audience away from self-discovery and encouraging the formation of damaging neuroses. Mainstream film was no longer a critical mirror for society’s higher ideals. We call this development commercialism.
Lynch’s first intention was to become a painter; however, his first artistic success came with his 1966 experimental film installation, Six Men Getting Sick. Like infants developing their faculties for concrete language, auteur filmmakers tend to move from the abstract to the narrative as they cultivate a mature vocabulary of words and imagery. A famous example is Roman Polanski, who began his career with abstract films like Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) and moved on to make more traditional narrative films like The Pianist (2002) and Oliver Twist (2005).
Lynch followed the same evolution up to a point, but the progression of his career was marked by a fundamental break. His first feature film, Eraserhead, about a man’s bizarre relationship to his deformed baby, was recognized as a masterpiece by highly respected directors Stanley Kubrick and Mel Brooks. Brooks was particularly impressed with Lynch’s talent and helped him produce his second feature, The Elephant Man. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and George Lucas was interested in having Lynch direct Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983). Lynch declined, choosing instead to bring Dune (1984), an epic science fiction drama, to the big screen.
Expectations were high following the critical and commercial success of Elephant Man as Lynch embarked on the ambitious production of Dune. But despite Lynch’s singular understanding of different worlds and proven ability to handle a narrative script and large crew, Dune was a failure in the eyes of both the masses and the critics.
In retrospect, Dune’s failure was a crucial turning point in Lynch’s life and career. In his future endeavors, Dune’s sprawling, fantasy-based macrocosm would give way to a more intimate focus. Moreover, although he lost a measure of audience interest with Dune, Lynch gathered creative partners from the project who would be key to his future success. Dune’s producer Dino De Laurentiis helped launch Blue Velvet (1986), and Kyle MacLachlan, Dune’s inimitable lead, became a long term collaborator.
If Dune had been a commercial success, Lynch may have become a vastly different filmmaker. But Lynch was preconditioned to fail in the Hollywood system. His preferred modes of exploration of the self were different, ultimately, from those favored by the studios. Moreover, Lynch’s improvisational method as a filmmaker required total creative control. Following Dune’s failure, Lynch delved back into the abyss of human behavior. His next two projects explored the secret lives of supposedly normal, small town people in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.
Many argue that Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, contains the very essence of his work. The images in Eraserhead are less about pushing the narrative forward than conveying to the viewer, with all the filmic tools available to a director, the subtext of the protagonist’s experience. At the very beginning of the movie, Lynch uses camera pans and dolly moves over dry soil, damaged concrete and destroyed nature. What marks this introduction as characteristic of Lynch’s work is that the visuals refer to Henry’s inner life. Once his environment is introduced to us, we understand its impact on Henry and we begin to search, as he does, for the sparkle of light in a dark place. The distinctive use of contrast and the nightmarish sound design locate the viewer not so much in the character’s physical space as in his frightening inner world.
Lynch’s later projects expand on his innovative artistic style as they continue to explore the themes common to his work: the struggle between violence and purity, and a fascination with crime, mystery and the metaphysical. Because of their consistent presence in this work, those themes became Lynch’s trademark. Since the success of Twin Peaks, the adjective “Lynchian” has entered our common vernacular. Lynchian describes works of art, especially films, that reach an aesthetic equilibrium between the macabre and the ordinary.
In the riddle-like Lost Highway, Lynch follows the mind of a murderer who maintains his innocence as he follows a mysterious woman who may be the same as the one he murdered. Mulholland Drive delves into the secretive world of Hollywood, California. It details the friendship of two women who, as in Lost Highway and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, may be the same person. Lynch’s films Wild at Heart— a road movie about a couple searching for stability—and The Straight Story—another road movie (which may be seen as a lyrical yet cynical response to Bergman’s Wild Strawberries)— were more linear narratives, which earned the director respect as a storyteller. However, even in these supposedly straightforward films one senses secret forces, unexplained coincidences and miracles at work.
Critics, fans and fledgling filmmakers have insisted on searching for patterns or formulas in Lynch’s films—their aspiration is to trace these patterns to the mind and intention of the artist. But it is possible and even likely that there is no pattern to Lynch’s films. Part of what attracts us to them is their refusal to impose sense where there is none.
Inland Empire may indicate that Lynch has disavowed his earlier commitment to perfection in terms of frame composition, lighting techniques and production design. Coming on the heels of the Oscar-nominated Mulholland Drive, Lynch has himself called Inland Empire an experimental project. During production, he worked scene by scene with no script, navigating through the film with nothing more than an inner certainty.
The common element in Inland Empire, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive is the theme of split or scattered identity, often explored via the externalization and embodiment of what may be different aspects of the same self. In Lost Highway we follow two sides of the protagonist’s personality; in Mulholland Drive we become enmeshed in the lives of two women who seem to be the same person. Inland Empire begins with the ominous prologue of a frightened Polish prostitute as she watches a sitcom featuring a family of humanoid rabbits speaking to each other in a liminal space resembling a TV room. Through their conversation, the rabbits strike a note of vulnerability or dread that translates into the main thread of the film: the protagonist Nikki Grace’s journey through different versions of her own identity. A well-respected actress married to a studio mogul, Nikki’s adventure begins when she starts having trouble distinguishing her own life from the life of the character she is playing in a big budget Hollywood romance.
Nikki vacillates between her own identity and the identities not only of the character she portrays, but also of a different actress who, it seems, played the same role in a previous version of the film-within-the-film. This actress was murdered in a hotel room. In another layer to the story, the original actress follows Nikki’s journey on television, her soul locked in the hotel room she was murdered in, waiting for Nikki to release it.
When Nikki learns that a man who looks exactly like her husband is involved in merchandising prostitutes— and possibly in the murder of the actress in the hotel room— she discovers that she herself is a prostitute and dies next to three bums on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But her death is certainly not the end. It is just a scene in her film and a doorway to a new corridor of secrets. Nikki’s confusion grows increasingly more profound the more she endeavors to make sense of her “reality.” Her consciousness is in constant flux, moving through relationships, locations and time periods. Just as for the viewer of Lynch’s film, the only constants for Nikki are uncertainty and a desire to find out what happens next.
A thread running through Lynch’s work is the image of a room—often a hotel room—where the main characters are caught in a limbo between worlds or layers of consciousness. In Eraserhead, Henry imagines a room behind the radiator. Wild at Heart follows Sailor and Lula from one hotel room to another. Twin Peaks is famous for “the red waiting room.” These rooms seem to serve a common function within Lynch’s filmic world; they bring the characters insights about themselves. After a visit to the room behind the radiator, Henry realizes that his deformed baby is “erasing” his identity. Sailor and Lula share moments and memories in hotel rooms. The town of Twin Peaks seems split between those waiting behind the red curtain and those living out in the town. An interpretation of what these waiting rooms for souls mean is impossible, but it is possible to say that, like Lynch’s films themselves, they seem to approximate or bring about that state of being between worlds. It is to the exploration of this state that almost the entirety of Inland Empire is devoted.
The characters in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire also follow a similar thread: the protagonists in each film are searching for their own sense of identity and purpose. Their identities are hidden, however, or embedded within interlocking narratives which involve them, inevitably, in confrontations with guilt, shame and regret. The protagonist’s knowledge that this will be the case accounts for their prevailing emotion, which is also the prevailing mood of Lynch’s films: fear.
The questions Lynch raises about form, time and structure, and the inner demons he visualizes, inspire a dialogue between his films and his audience. Lynch’s characters are driven to integrate internal aspects of their souls with their external personae as they search for self-realization. Perhaps Hegel’s theory of the self-realization of human consciousness is carried forward in films like Inland Empire through Lynch’s investigation of what still seems inexplicable in the depths of that consciousness. The seriousness and respect with which Lynch approaches the inner worlds of his characters awakens in his audience a desire to explore such dark places within themselves.
The repetitive nature of Lynch’s art may cause us to wonder whether there is anything progressive or useful in the “knowledge” offered by his films. Yet given the remarkable number of interpretations of Lynch’s work, we might also wonder at the persistence of our need to uncover his secrets. Like Luis Buñuel and Ingmar Bergman, Lynch refuses to provide demystifying interpretations of his films. Aside from one book (Lynch on Lynch) and a couple of interviews, Lynch replies to all questions with the same simple and laconic answers— answers which reveal little about his artistic process and decisions.
Lynch has suggested on more than one occasion that he is afraid he will “lose creativity” if he starts talking about “the unspeakable”; we should consider the possibility that his reticence is justified. “You have to hide your intelligence, otherwise it will be used against you,” says a stranger in Wild at Heart to Sailor, the protagonist. The danger is not merely that of commercial appropriation. Returning to the quest for human self-knowledge, hiding one’s intelligence is one way to describe the task for the modern artist attempting to challenge Hegel’s claim that art can no longer compete with philosophy. Lynch’s films take us to places not available in theory; the task is not to “explain” these places but to experience them. Lynch has said: “All my movies are about strange worlds that you can’t go into unless you build them and film them. That’s what’s so important about film to me. I just like going into strange worlds.”