David Lynch and the Nature of the Surreal

The cinema of David Lynch, true to the spirit of its Surrealist predecessors in art and film, has always resisted conventional characterization or description.

Take Lost Highway, a film in which to attempt even a straightforward plot summary makes one sound unhinged: “A guy murders his wife and then turns into another person. No, literally transforms into a completely different human being … and then his murdered wife turns up as a different character. No, the same person, different character. I think?”

Surrealist art glories in this imperviousness to convention, in its ability to thwart our impulses for narrative, causality, and cohesion. In substance it tries to render in the context of everyday life the immediacy of the unseen, the unconscious, to depict reality “unfiltered” by the frameworks we usually deploy without thinking. Surrealist pioneer André Breton articulated this ideal as “psychic automatism,” in which the artist by means of a medium expresses the “real functioning of the mind.” Surrealism’s formal aspects are structured to achieve this psychic revolution—for example, the juxtaposition of disparate or illogical elements that are at the same time familiar and absurd, even disturbing when taken together.

But where these external trappings would seem to elude rational explicability, surrealism’s mode often serves to single out and intensify a particular feeling, a concealed but visceral emotional landscape that does, in fact, have a traceable contour. David Lynch excels in this art and proves himself to be not only a brilliant surrealist but still one of the most interesting filmmakers working today. His work suggests, it seems to me, that he does not start with a story and ask, “How can I incorporate this feeling into the story?”

Rather, he begins with an idea, the substance of a feeling, and asks, “What can I create that is true to that idea, that evokes the fullness of that feeling?” It is for this reason that I am usually able to recall moments of Lynch more accurately by how they made me feel rather than by what happened in them. (I think it is also for this reason that David Lynch seems to have a hard time talking about the process of making his own movies; for him, they just sort of happen.)

As anyone knows who is at all familiar with Lynch, the particular feeling that recurs most often throughout his work is dread. Lynch’s signature cinematic techniques—a passive, “disinterested” lens which forces us to behold depraved and violent acts; excruciatingly long and apprehensive takes of mundane settings; the constant presence of slightly-too-loud, industrial-esque white noise; disorienting characters doing disorienting things—all these function together to create a kind of emotional mise en scène, one which orients the viewer toward fear as a tangible reality. No matter what kind of external action or setting may present itself to us, whether it be in Lumberton, Twin Peaks, or Los Angeles, it is this invisible world which asserts itself as truth, as the “real functioning of the mind.”

And what is taken as the real functioning of the mind seems quickly to become an implied assertion about the nature of reality as such: that darkness and evil stalk behind every banal appearance, that fear and dread are to be found at the very core of existence. But there is more yet: that evil is; that evil exists as substance, as will, as a Nothing which is Something. In contrast to the doctrine of Augustine, for whom evil is not but can only be described as a lack of being, this is a conception of evil that originates outside of human experience. Here we are closer than anything to Melville’s white whale, a symbol larger than allegory which looms behind all human action, a transcendent, inarticulable, and malevolent force.

There have been many notable portrayals of this transcendent evil throughout Lynch’s work, including Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and the Mystery Man in Lost Highway. But the quintessential portrayal for me remains Bob, the demonic entity in Twin Peaks who possesses characters and drives them to horrific acts. Like the Mystery Man, Bob has to be “invited in” by a character before he can exercise his power. Although later in the show, Dale Cooper, Harry Truman, and Albert Rosenfield decide that Bob must be a particular instance of “the evil that men do,” the show presents him as more than this. He is other, a denizen of the Black Lodge who crosses planes of reality in pursuit of destruction.

At the time of my writing this, Twin Peaks: The Return has not been fully released. But its eighth episode is sure to become a staple of Lynch’s career. The episode features a prolonged, highly experimental sequence that depicts the entrance of Bob into the world. Watching it, I could not help but think of a similar sequence in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life which seems to portray the birth and unfolding of the cosmos; but while that film sang the mystery and wonder of the universe, Lynch’s version, accompanied by Krzysztof Penderecki’s haunting Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, again offers a vision of dread at the heart of all things.

Given Penderecki’s score and the fact that the sequence begins with the detonation of an atomic bomb, it would seem that the show is again asking us to consider Bob as “the evil that men do.” But also again, there is more: Bob is “invited into” the world through human action, but he proves to be some kind of transcendent force, a thing which we can’t control or understand.

However, Twin Peaks: The Return also posits—more so than much of Lynch’s work—the existence of an equally transcendent, radically-other force of good, and this is why I have come to interpret Lynch’s surrealistic worlds as essentially Manichaean, a testing ground for the cosmic forces of good and evil. By relegating the powers of light and dark to their own separate and legitimate spheres, Manichaeism avoids the problem of theodicy. But it also leaves open the question of which force will prevail in the end.