Back to top

The Passion of David Lynch

The Passion of David Lynch
Wild at Heart in Hollywood

Close readings of Lynch's films, informed by unprecedented, in-depth interviews with Lynch himself.

November 1997
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
288 pages | 6 x 9 | 68 b&w photos |

Filmmaker David Lynch asserts that when he is directing, ninety percent of the time he doesn't know what he is doing. To understand Lynch's films, Martha Nochimson believes, requires a similar method of being open to the subconscious, of resisting the logical reductiveness of language. In this innovative book, she draws on these strategies to offer close readings of Lynch's films, informed by unprecedented, in-depth interviews with Lynch himself.

Nochimson begins with a look at Lynch's visual influences—Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, and Edward Hopper—and his links to Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, then moves into the heart of her study, in-depth analyses of Lynch's films and television productions. These include Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Dune, The Elephant Man, Eraserhead, The Grandmother, The Alphabet, and Lynch's most recent, Lost Highway.

Nochimson's interpretations explode previous misconceptions of Lynch as a deviant filmmaker and misogynist. Instead, she shows how he subverts traditional Hollywood gender roles to offer an optimistic view that love and human connection are really possible.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. David Lynch at a (Feminine) Glance, or Her Eyes Were Moving, but She Didn't Know It
  • 1. Portrait of the Director as a Surfer in the Waves of the Collective Unconscious
  • 2. "I Just Met the Good Witch": Wild at Heart
  • 3. "The Magician Longs to See": Twin Peaks
  • 4. "Seeing Something That Was Always Hidden": Blue Velvet
  • 5. "The Stream Flows, the Wind Blows": Dune, The Elephant Man
  • 6. "Please Remember, You Are Dealing with a Human Form": Six Men Getting Sick, Eraserhead, The Grandmother, and The Alphabet
  • 7. "If You Are Falling in Space": Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
  • Coda. The Passion of David Lynch: The Lady or the Highway
  • Appendix. Industrial Symphony No. 1: The Dream of the Broken Hearted
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Credits for Illustrations

Martha P. Nochimson is Professor of Film and Literature at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York. She also has taught for ten years at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.


Browse the book with Google Preview »

The comedy of hollow sounds derives
From truth and not from satire on our lives.
—Wallace Stevens

When I began writing this book, I thought I knew my direction, but much changed after a series of encounters with David Lynch. These meetings started with an intense half-hour phone call on January 31, 1992. A year later, March 29-April 1, 1993, I made a series of daily visits to his studio offices in Los Angeles to interview him. In 1996, I observed him directing on the set of Lost Highway (January 15-18) and subsequently met him in New York on March 13, and again in Los Angeles on April 12, to hold the conversations for which there had been no time in the hurly-burly of production. Our early meetings confounded many of my expectations, especially of what Lynch would clarify for me about his manner of representing reality in movies. Our later meetings brought both more finely detailed nuances to the revelations of our first encounters and still more revelations.

Before I met Lynch, the prospect of speaking with him filled me with the anticipation of acquiring knowledge. I would fill in the gaps of a picture already sketched in my mind. I would get an enormously precious something, which I would transmit in my book. As it turned out, much of the value of my time with David Lynch came as a result of letting go. The core of my vision as a film critic is a distinctly feminist dissatisfaction with what Hollywood films generally present as reality, particularly regarding the representation of masculinity and femininity. I have in no way surrendered my dissatisfaction, but I have relinquished some old conceptions about gender issues, Lynch's work, and Hollywood's potential for realism.

First, I had to let go of the customary identification of Lynch's work with that of Joel and Ethan Coen (Barton Fink, 1991), Peter Greenaway (Drowning by Numbers, 1988), David Mamet (House of Games, 1987), Neil Jordan (Mona Lisa, 1986), and David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch, 1991). All of these filmmakers reveal the labyrinthine self-referentiality of narrative; all despair, in varying ways, of representing any reality beyond that of structure. They may share with Lynch a vibrant distrust of the mimetic illusions of conventional Hollywood realism, but, as my time with Lynch revealed, seminal differences exist that make comparisons relatively trivial.

I also had to let go of some of my presuppositions about realism in Lynch's representation of women. I had thought that, for the most part, Lynch had eliminated realism from his films in a way that deconstructs Hollywood's images of women and men and thus intersects with some feminist attitudes. So I was prepared to talk with Lynch about the deconstruction of sadism and fetishism in Blue Velvet, and about the gendered implication of a particular shot-reverse shot in Wild at Heart where the camera holds a toilet bowl within the unspecified gaze of perhaps Marietta Fortune, perhaps Sailor Ripley. I had been expecting Lynch to confirm my feeling--in his own terms of course--that his use of this shot pattern subverts Hollywood's use of the shot-reverse shot to establish the controlling male gaze as a biological "reality." But how does one venture this kind of analytic statement with a director who has already declined to pass judgment on whether, in the final cut of his own Wild at Heart, Marietta was represented as loving her daughter Lula? "Diane [Ladd, portraying Marietta] thought she did," he said. Don't film directors control these details? I wondered, as my argument about gender representation floated away.

Letting go became the theme of my early visits with Lynch. Much of my preparation turned out to be an obstacle to seeing what was right in front of me. I began to see that what I had come for was to watch (and listen to) Lynch let go. He had no intention of nailing down any truths for me by asserting himself through language. At his most direct, Lynch explained that, when he is directing, ninety percent of the time he doesn't know, intellectually, what he is doing. However, there is nothing uncertain in him about the powerful rightness of his artistic choices. His insistence on letting things happen to him while he works is part of his faith that film is a place where reality enters when something other than willfully applied reason does the talking.

I remain astonished both by the seamlessness of his faith and by its contagiousness. Few of his current and former associates whom I interviewed have any overall grasp of the films on which they have worked, and most were baffled by their zest for working on films about which they were frankly confused. But lack of clarity hadn't affected the quality of their work. Lynch had made them feel comfortable about jumping in and moving with the process, and they had come up with beautiful results. The most theoretical illumination of what Lynch is about came from his first wife, Peggy Reavey, who told me that he has always been intensely wary of how we are "dictated to by language and things like language." This sounds like the description of a constructionist/relativist, who theorizes on the insufficiency of words to connect with an out-there reality. But the schism that Lynch intuits between the rational logic of language and existence has led him in quite a different direction.

During my first meetings with Lynch, he created a situation in which I felt I was bumping up against an invisible force field surrounding meaning. God knows what he felt. I believe I was sometimes cranky with him, and he was sometimes bored with me. But we came back day after day while the tape rolled in the recorder that he permitted, indeed encouraged, me to use. After hours of sending out verbal probes that bounced off an elastic surface instead of engaging him, as I thought they would, within a linguistic grid--self-referential though it might be--I began to feel that he was talking to me. However, our conversation took an unforeseen form, generating in me a feeling for which I find a visual analogue in the delighted surprise of Laura Palmer at her discovery of the angel in the Red Room at the end of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. It is this feeling that has led me to follow Lynch into an augmented understanding of reality, meaning, and order in cinema.

In some ways, Lynch is part of a cultural ferment that has been building since the beginning of the century, when assumptions about order and meaning began to unravel. His suspicion of language interfaces with the twentieth-century attack on our assumption of a connection between language and an external reality. But if Lynch perceives that language creates its own self-referential reality, he does not imagine that civilization is utterly dependent on it. He does play with the ironic contrasts between the essential in substantiality of words and the power we grant them. However, unlike most linguistic relativists, Lynch has instinctively shifted to a narrative practice that is essentially optimistic.


The development of Lynch's body of work is informed by a realist's optimism that there is an exit from the linguistic labyrinth and that this exit is richly available to us. In our later meetings, Lynch told me this, in so many words, confirming the interpretations of his films that I had evolved in the intervening years. His use of language--and of cinematic vocabulary--suggests that, once we understand that we ourselves have created cultural forms and that they only have the meaning we give them, we are free to understand the forces in the universe that are truly larger than we are and how they connect us to a greater reality.

Lynch intuitively seizes upon logocentrism as the paradigm of cultural imbalances, but he deeply believes that they are not fatal cultural malfunctions. The Lynchian seeker, as either artist or detective--or filmmaker--can always get us out of the labyrinth. We only have to let it happen. Coming in his own way to conclusions that have been formulated by a number of phenomenologists--Maurice Merleau-Ponty and the early Jean-François Lyotard, for example--Lynch acts upon a faith that the illusion of control that language and other cultural structures give us is not as rewarding as losing that illusion and gaining larger, less contingent truths. These truths are always present for us, unless we insist on the fantasy of control and thereby doom ourselves to the sense of disconnectedness we feel if we fool ourselves into believing only in the control that we exert over our own creations.

Lynch's art is the art of removing the blockage to larger truths by deglamorizing and denaturalizing our priorities of remaining in control. Different moments from my interviews with Lynch merge in retrospect as maps routing me past logical impediments to perception. I now see how bound up Lynch's vision of making meaning is with the freedom to respond through the subconscious, by playfully losing control instead of stridently taking charge. One moment of our 1993 conversation made this especially clear, one during which we both looked at the textured surface of Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952, a painting by Jackson Pollock full of patches, slashes, lines, drippings, and blobs, with barely a hint of blue (see figure 1). "I don't understand this," I said. "Yes you do," Lynch said. "Your eyes are moving." They must have been, but I had not paid any attention. I had automatically experienced a lack of meaning because I could not stand at the prescribed, controlling viewing distance and read the painting as a rationally controlled system of shapes. Lynch had spontaneously identified the painting as a meaningful representation for me because it had released my moving eye from conventional viewer expectations. I saw that I could not contain the painting in some theoretical framework; he saw me performing with the painting. He saw as crucial that part of me that my education had taught me is inconsequential to my grasp of meaning.

Looking back on this experience, I have come to the conclusion that Lynch was talking about a balance between reason and direct subconscious engagement with the materiality of the paint, not about an abandonment of reason. The movement of the eye that Lynch focused on is only possible if it occurs within an intelligence that possesses reason to suspend. The experience is not dependent on a pure form of body or on irrationalism; rather it is dependent on a tension that denotes powerful connectedness. Indeed, for Lynch connectedness is what emerges from the tension between reason and the subconscious.

In encouraging my ability to see with a part of me that precedes my education, Lynch suggested a possible relationship with Jungian thought, and I would say that the label developed by Carl Jung, "the collective unconscious," roughly evokes the kind of connectedness Lynch referred me to as I looked at Blue Poles. In fact, on occasion Lynch resorts to this term, as I do in this study, because it is a convenient handle offered by an established cultural vocabulary. However, if I understand him, he would rewrite the term as "collective subconscious." As he says, he is representing a level of nonrational energy on which all kinds of meaningful activity takes place, and for him the word unconscious means "nothing is going on." Furthermore, in referring to this painting, Lynch clearly did not have the universal repertoire of images that Jung catalogued. Thus, I am implying no overall "Jungianism" on Lynch's part when I refer now and then to the collective unconscious. With this exception, I consistently refer to the operation of the nonrational faculties in Lynch's work using his term, the subconscious.

A Lynchian subconscious, but pervasive, connectedness is also suggested by another moment I recall from our conversations. Early in our series of discussions, Lynch emotionally drew back from continuing a point he was making, frustrated by his sense that his words were insufficient because they were ugly; his goal was, he said, to speak to me through the beauty and meaning of the poetic word. Despite his exuberance about the found beauty of the nonverbal, he expressed in this sudden conversational caesura a passionate feeling for verbal form but not for one that stands remote from the materials of verbal sounds and rhythms. Lynch wanted to use language in a way usually associated with plastic artists who discover structure in materiality as they work. In a mere conversation, he keenly felt the impossibility of discovering that form in his words.

I imagine that Lynch might put it this way: there was no time to get out of the way and let that nonrational aspect of words as sensory texture tell him about their poetry. Here is a crucial distinction between his realism and the constructionism of the linguistic relativist. The relativist increases control over language to reveal its tendency toward self-referentiality. Relativist filmmakers like Cronenberg, Greenaway, Mamet, the Coen brothers, Jordan, and Bergman approach their films like watchmakers; they are known for the exquisite micromanagement of each frame. Thus the constructionist seeks to represent at least the reality of his selfreferentiality as a thinker even if he cannot force cultural structures to open out onto a reality more enduring. As a matter of course, Cronenberg's films, for example, encourage spectators to go through the usual narrative process as if it were pointing toward some meaning despite the constant presence of dark undertones. They then impress on the audience that this process has been one of disconnection from reality. By contrast, although also exquisite in visual detail, Lynch's films encourage spectators to perceive the hollowness of linguistic structure and then discover a more complex form of connection through the subconscious.


Lynch's desire to represent meaning by balancing the energy of the subconscious and the logic of the linguistic informs his narratives. His models for this balance were initially the paintings of Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock, and Edward Hopper, as well as The Art Spirit, a theoretical tract by Robert Henri. Of this influence there will be much more in Chapter 1, because to understand Lynch's powerful sense of the benign role of the subconscious in art, we must trace the lessons he learned from the painters he admires for their part in the pleasure he takes in storytelling.

Here, I will lay the foundation for examining the influence of the painters on David Lynch the director by cautioning against the usual comparisons between art and film. Ordinarily, we concentrate on similarities of color, themes, and particular images. However, my conversations with Lynch have led me to believe that such an analysis will mire us in secondary considerations. Lynch has been less affected by the surfaces of his painter ancestors than by the way he understands the role of the subconscious in their work. Indeed, what struck me so forcefully about his response when I appealed to him for help in understanding Pollock was that he said absolutely nothing about the painting's surface but directed me toward my subconscious engagement solely through my eyes. However, since artists--particularly Lynch--rarely articulate their underlying definitions, to understand their artistic legacy we will need to determine where Lynch falls within available frameworks of discussing the subconscious.

Understanding Lynch's collaboration with the subconscious hinges on the definition of the subconscious that we adopt, and there are a number in circulation. Although the subconscious is always evoked as distinct from voluntary and rational processes, there is much controversy surrounding this crucial relationship. Lynch's response to the paintings we viewed together, the totality of the time we spent together, his work, and everything he has said publicly all suggest to me that his stance vis à vis the alogical diverges significantly from the dominant understanding of its influence. That is, when he refers to the subconscious, he does not mean what is meant by the logocentric Freudian tradition. The short version of the difference between Lynch's attitude toward the subconscious and the Freudian attitude is that he trusts it and Freudians don't. For those readers versed in psychological theory, a more nuanced discussion follows. (Other readers may not wish to engage in this kind of theoretical discussion and should feel free to skip directly to my application of the lessons from his art education to his films on p. 10).

The Freudian tradition has been utilized by film critics primarily through the lens of Freud's intellectual descendant Jacques Lacan, particularly in reference to Lacan's well-known theory of the mirror stage, which he tells us occurs at the age of roughly eighteen months. Lacan's mirror stage--currently the dominant paradigm of the relations among subconscious, conscious, and image--will not serve us when we talk about David Lynch. In the Lacanian paradigm, the image--our contact with which is initiated by early childhood glimpses of ourselves as a whole shape reflected in the mirror--divorces us from the real. According to Lacan, the seductiveness of the mirror image's alluring wholeness directs our desires toward an illusion of totality and away from the erratic surges of energy that are our innate experience of the self. This experience imprints on us our lifelong relationship with the beautiful image and becomes in turn the analogue of our relationship with language and with the primary illusion of inherent meaning. To summarize in a generalization simplified for the purpose of clarity in this discussion, the artist's image, according to the Lacanian view, seduces us, directing our desires toward a consuming passion for our "ego ideal," dooming us to solipsism while we yearn for the illusion of wholeness.

Viewed within this framework, art traps the conscious mind in a net of hopeless desire, and the world of the beautiful object is naught but illusion. As Lacan writes in "The Split between the Eye and the Gaze," "The picture certainly is in my eye, but I am not in the picture" (p. 96). This view of the relationship between the subconscious and narrative suffuses the works of Cronenberg, Greenaway, Jordan, and the Coens, who all keenly feel the enchantment of the illusionist image as well as its despair. They portray in their films the intense pleasures experienced by a spectator in the beauty and coherence of the ideal form that he or she first saw in infancy as Lacan's mirror image. Inevitably, these pleasures lead us to impossible yearnings.

Lynch's responses to Pollock, Bacon, and Hopper tell a different story. Eye and picture are in each other as they move together. Lynch has internalized through his experience of their art a sense of narrative image that holds the possibility, not of the doomed quest for an illusory holy grail, but of empathy-among people, and between people and the universe. His belief in the image as a possible bridge to the real does not depend on any abstract framework but rather on a visceral sense of the essential truth of an empathetic--not solipsistic--relationship with art. (In the Lynchian world, solipsism occurs in a relationship with bad art.) To clarify this discussion of Lynch, I suggest that the phenomenological model of our conscious and subconscious relationships with the mirror, and the image--as articulated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty--may be quite helpful.

I offer Merleau-Ponty's method, knowing that some readers will find it a credible model but others will not. However, I contend that belief is not the issue. Merleau-Ponty is useful as a clear analogy of how Lynch's imagination seizes on narrative, not as a vain quest for the impossible ideal, but as an empathetic bridge. In "The Child's Relation with Others," Merleau-Ponty theorizes that when children first recognize a mirror reflection they gain the capacity to see a similarity between themselves and others that is less possible before the mirror grants them a sense of wholeness. At that point, an evolved sense of connection--a mature sense of bondedness with the universe--becomes a possibility (pp. 96155). Here, Merleau-Ponty suggests an alternate, non-Freudian relationship between the beautiful image and the subconscious, one that goes beyond the limitations of language. Lynch has seen this kind of empathy and this kind of hope in the narrative image via his painter influences.

When Lynch told me that my eyes were moving, he was invoking the subconscious as the basis for a sympathetic bond between me and the picture, a bond that would, if I let it, permit the image to become a bridge between me and the world. This is not to say that he sees the subconscious as purely benign. In his work he always seizes upon false dreams and upon the kind of art that divorces the characters from reality and torments them, but he inevitably reveals them to be lesser aspects of the subconscious. During my later meetings with Lynch, he began to talk more directly than he had previously, clearly defining the way these destructive aspects of the subconscious fit into his worldview. There is, he says, a base element in our involuntary energies. It tends to erupt in his work as a danger, but as one that must be encountered before we are released into the productions of the finer levels of the subconscious that are our major connections to the real. By the productions of the finer aspect of subconscious energies Lynch does not mean mimetic surfaces but rather the way such energies in art work to conform us to the life-affirming energies of nature.

The beautiful and true image has the power to join culture and nature. This bond is Lynch's deepest artistic pleasure, found in art that moves him, for example the work of Francis Bacon. Indeed, Lynch's affinity for Bacon offers an opportunity for exploring the former's idea of the beautiful and the image, since Bacon's painting is not beautiful in any ordinary way. It is tempting to look for the connection between Lynch and Bacon in perversity, not loveliness, such as in specific images of open mouths and in the presence of violence in both of their narratives. These resemblances, while present, are almost a homage to the primary influence Lynch has received from Bacon, but they are certainly not the seminal influences. Concentrating on surface resemblances is the trap of illusionist realism which restricts us to its notion of the real in film as solely a matter of surfaces. What is beautiful and true for Lynch about Bacon is what was most important to Bacon about Bacon--his struggle to engage the viewer in the paint first through the "nerves," in Bacon's words, and only belatedly through thought. Bacons paintings contain important narrative elements, and Bacon insists on the urgent nature of narrative as a part of his work. But his conscious desire to subordinate the logic of narrative to the subconscious event and to explosive feeling shows how narrative can teach us empathy with the larger forces in the subconscious and the world (see Chapter 1).

In film narrative this has translated for Lynch into a heroic ideal opposed to the prevalent Hollywood understanding of the hero as one who takes control by means of violent domination strategies. For Lynch, a hero tends to be one who can unlearn that absurd cultural lesson, one who can become receptive to life. The Lynchian hero must learn to let go, even though such suspension of the will often leads to the initial terrors of the baser aspects of the involuntary within him or her. We, too, as spectators, must endure the pain, but the faith of the Lynch film is that, inevitably, the hero and the spectator will reach the centering energies of the higher and beautiful element in the human subconscious.

As we shall see in Chapters 2-7, letting go is the form and substance of the Lynch narrative. The spectator is invited to suspend the desire for control by engaging in an empathetic relationship with a protagonist who, as a matter of survival, must learn to permit a channel to the subconscious in order to open the self to the universe. This emphasis obviously challenges numerous cultural priorities. "Take control" is whispered into our cradles by those who wish us well. A problematic aggressiveness is nurtured by this cultural bias; it is also one of the most powerful allies of sexism. The imbalance of value on force to the exclusion of receptivity--often equated with weakness--biases the culture and the movies against much that is associated with women's wisdom. Lynch's belief that the real requires a balance between force and receptivity suspends the usual exclusion of women from the centers of cultural and narrative importance. In his films, the hero must get in touch with--or be--what has been excluded when the conventional Hollywood hero "takes control." Thus Lynch's lessons from his painter influence have led directly to a narrative valuation of femininity and to fresh and encouraging relationships between male and female identity.

In a David Lynch narrative, when the audience feels that it or the protagonists are of "out of control"--a state of being traditionally associated with the perils of femininity and the subconscious--the attitude toward this release bears little resemblance to standard images of losing one's grip. In the Lynchian concept of realism, "being out of control" promotes a connection through the subconscious that leads us beyond the tyranny of the rational illusionism of the real-seeming Lacanian mirror image. The issue of whether one can operate well while "out of control" is central to Lynch's protagonists. For both men and women, this Lynchian practice means a refreshing realism that does away with Hollywood's straightjacketing of gender identity. Lynch denaturalizes and deglamorizes the usual Hollywood definition of control over the individual female and over everything associated with femininity--a definition that presents such control as both a natural good and a healthy masculine prerogative.

In fact, Lynch's vision of the connection between women and the subconscious causes him to portray his female characters as paradigms of connection--generally hard-won--with forces beyond rational control. Frequently, they are models for his male characters to emulate in their need to break their social conditioning. In his films, the character who puts too much faith in will or logic is frequently male and inevitably destructive--the night porter in The Elephant Man, the Harkonnen in Dune, the police in any Lynch film. (I will suggest in the individual chapters on these films that it is not coincidental that all of these cast in a narcissistic/solipsistic light the conventionally validated "masculine" desire to dominate, what I shall call the will-to-control.)

By contrast, in the chapters to follow we shall see that the Lynchian protagonists who engage our affections and move in positive ways also move in abidingly successful ways that are often associated with, affiliated with, or embodied by women. In The Elephant Man, Frederick Treves purportedly uses the sanctuary of medical science to save John Merrick, but it is Merrick with his receptive masculine identity, closely associated in the film with women, who has the capacity for moving Treves beyond the constricting logic of his profession. In some ways, Treves's development, leading him past the narrow confines of scientific applications of control, is the real event of the film. Paul Atreides in Dune gets his real power from reaching out beyond logic to vision through his subconscious, emulating and connecting with his mother and sister. In Twin Peaks, Dale Cooper solves the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder through the modification of his standard FBI procedures by his dreams of Laura and through his crucial affiliation with the Log Lady. Marietta Fortune in Wild at Heart is the deviation that proves the rule. Here, it is a woman's catastrophic rejection of her own empathy that threatens the bond with the real. As a result, Lula and Sailor can find release from the downward spiral of the logic of their social entanglements only through their capacity to be receptive to the maternal-like energy of the collective unconscious of society in the form of images from The Wizard of Oz and popular music.

The delight in and gratitude to the better energies in popular culture that are expressed in Wild at Heart are crucial to Lynch's filmmaking, for, while he runs somewhat against the Hollywood grain, he is at the same time filled with a faith in the extraordinary possibilities within popular culture/Hollywood that he can use for his own vision. Film, for him, contains the potential to truly instill hope in the masses through pleasure, and it is that potential that impels him to be a Hollywood filmmaker. Lynch's works, which consistently recognize clichés for what they are, find the hope for a real offer of something of more permanent value. In a time in which we are bombarded with a sense of meaninglessness and fragmentation, his films are an assertion that this fragmentation is only a surface phenomenon. Lynchian narrative images promoting empathy reveal a fundamental connectedness among people and with the universe. Lynch seeks to avoid the Hollywood trap of creating substitutes for life. Rather, he seeks to use the power of Hollywood to make film narrative a subconscious bridge to real perceptions of life.


The analyses of Lynch's films in the chapters that follow will explore how he uses his aesthetic of the connective image, an image purified of illusions of its own transparency--that is, of the illusion that the image is realistic because it resembles our idea of reality. As we examine his empathetic image, we will find that he uses the images, both visual and aural, of Hollywood culture, with their mass appeal, to bring the greatest consolation to the greatest number of people. Lynch reopens the Hollywood image; he does not merely repeat it. His methods, derived from painters who impressed him as a young student, give him the insight to represent both the mirror-image ideals of the filmic image and the wild energies that disturb it. In this balance, we find that he taps into the vitality of Hollywood and is often a corrective to the lies and repressions involved in Hollywood's pretense of a rationalist form of realism.

In his methods, Lynch is foreshadowed and influenced by a significant number of great films made in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system. In these prefigurations, there is an important narrative relationship with both the formulae of Hollywood genres and with the subconscious as an integral part of the film's realism. Such divergence from, but affiliation with, Hollywood film production occurs in the films of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, two of Lynch's major Hollywood ancestors. Both Welles and Hitchcock were constrained by the studio system. Nevertheless, each altered Hollywood by arriving at a form of realism that, like Lynch's, finds it necessary to incorporate the collision of the subconscious's unmediated energies with Hollywood's. In Chapter 1, I shall explore Welles and Hitchcock as antecedents of the type of Hollywood filmmaking that continues to evolve in Lynch's films. I shall elaborate on Lynch's kinship with his great precursors regarding the role of the subconscious in commercial film and the crafting of the consoling vision demanded by the mass audience so that the vision is real.

By refraining from engaging me within the conventions of the interview, Lynch might have appeared perverse to me if I had not let go of my conventional expectations. This book will suggest the same about the enjoyment of a Lynch film--that the perversity enters when we try to interpret it in the normal manner; simply stated, our eyes are moving, but we don't know it. The general cultural tendency to disregard responses that don't fit the parameters of social control mechanisms--e.g., highly aggressive linguistic structures, logical frameworks, and force-is reflected in the way repetition of conventional responses blocks perception of Lynch's originality.


In the chapters on Lynch's filmworks to follow, I invite the reader to join me in looking closely at the way his narrative appeals to both the authority of cultural clichés and the authority of a reality that is larger and wilder than society. In this way I hope to rescue Lynch's films from being overwhelmed, not only by untenable hostile readings founded on an implacable Lacanian definition of the narrative image, but also by Lynch's "cooler than thou" reputation. Too many who aspire to "do the Lynch thing" for hip thrills also betray the empathy his art promotes by turning it into a static (Lacanian) illusion.

By contrast, Lynch struggles to use the eloquent tools of popular culture to portray unspeakable reality for a mass audience. This is a struggle from which I have much to gain since so much about me as a woman has been unspeakable in cultural discourse. However, all moviegoers have a stake in Lynch's filmmaking, for nothing is so prevalent--or so I judge from private conversation and from the media--as the feeling of being invisible in some important respect. Lynch puts us in touch, as a social community, with many longings that we simultaneously resist and yearn to share publicly. He has achieved an impressive fluency in moving toward an inclusive realism that both releases us from being overwhelmed completely by the seductively estranging ideals of culture and binds us to an inherent, complex order in the universe.

The comedy of hollow sounds derives
From truth and not from satire on our lives.



“This is the best book on David Lynch that has yet been published. Nochimson's book is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary cinema.”
Brian Henderson, Professor, State University of New York at Buffalo


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca