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David Lynch et al.

I can't seem to write a comment connected to Sara's question, so I'll just write another note here that's a response to the gist (I hope) of her inquiry.
There's a certain kind of story that plunges us into a set of mysteries and then does its best to explain those mysteries--Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineaux" is an example of that, as is Poe's "The Purloined Letter." Modern or contemporary examples might include Richard Bausch's "What Looks Like the World" or Grace Paley's "The Little Girl." The mystery I'm talking about is purely plot-related, i.e., what actually happened? Other kinds of mysteriousness need not be explained away: why does Greta Conroy go on loving Michael Furey long after he's dead in James Joyce's "The Dead"? This is the mystery of human emotions, which need not be explained.
But David Lynch does something else: he presents a milieu much of the time that seems familiar--Twin Peaks, Idaho, or Los Angeles, and then he proceeds to create situational peculiarities that seem to require some sort of explanation. How did the surveillance camera get in the house? Where is it? Why is the little dancing dwarf uttering prophecy? Most of the time, Lynch does not actually give you much or any explanation. The result--the switch from realism to quasi-fantasy--for me is often not mysterious, but mystifying. And I guess I'd argue that mystery is fine, but mystification (the apparent promise that a solution will be offered followed by no explanation at all) is ultimately frustrating and aesthetically unsatisfying. Sometimes it feels like cheating. If I sound like Uncle Grumpy again, it's because Lynch's films are often mind-haunting but finally achieve their effects through narrative short-cuts. _Inland Empire_ just comes across as a series of unconnected vignettes, brilliant though they are.
So I'm arguing for mystery but not mystification. There you go.

Comments

The mystification vs. mystery distinction seems an important one. Even though I am sure most people in the class are familiar with David Foster Wallace's essay on Lynch, it seems appropriate to mention as we are going to be reading Oblivion anyway.

In the essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head," David Foster Wallace devotes a whole section to defining "Lynchian." Also, it's a really long essay but one relevant part seems to be the last section, "WHAT EXACTLY DAVID LYNCH SEEMS TO WANT FROM YOU."

Reading the quote below reminded me of our Nightwood discussions,how some argued for the book as a "language experience" and that reading and expecting traditional plot is beside the point. DFW makes a sort of similar argument about Lynch. I haven't seen Inland Empire, so I can't comment on that, but perhaps, in his own way, Lynch is the Djuna Barnes of cinema?

From DFW's essay:

Most of Lynch's best films don't really have much of a point, and in lots of ways they seem to resist the film-interpretative process by which movies' (certainly avant-garde movies') central points are understood. This is something the British critic Paul Taylor seems to get at when he says that Lynch's movies are "to be experienced rather than explained."

It seems to me, Charlie, that the move to surrealism or fantasy becomes mystifying if you can't figure out why it's being employed. Why the story *needs* it. We workshopped a piece in my class in which time travel was being used as a cheap trick to get a man to reinvent himself over and over again in hopes of winning back the one woman he truly loves. As we discussed in class, and in a conference with the writer, people constantly reinvent themselves, and pine, and look to the past for answers in the short lifespan that we actually have! No need to add more time to that, and, in fact, it's helpful to the emotional center of the piece if the man doesn't have limitless time and attempts to get it right.

Then again, we discussed Saunders' "Sea Oak," which has all sorts of bizarre elements that could be realistic but *just* aren't. They're not so far, though. And because his world is filled with them, we're prepped for someone to come back from the dead. And this feels appropriate because it speaks directly to the earlier part, in a way that doesn't feel possible were the dead woman to stay dead.

My feeling about these fantastical elements is that they're great if the story cannot function any other way. If they're doing a job that cannot be done by realism alone. Then the work is terrific.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a David Lynch film, but I recall seeing Lost Highway three times, and twice forming comprehensive (but different) interpretations of what everything meant, and once (the last time, I think) deciding there was not supposed to be a workable interpretation. I felt frustrated and disappointed to be unable to interpret Lost Highway. I admired and was drawn to the eerie environments Lynch created, but I wanted those to be in the service of some heroic effort to make sense of the world, to get somewhere, to stand for something. Instead of just being weird, which, as a goal, felt silly.

As Jonah reminded me, David Foster Wallace defines “Lynchian” as referring “to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” This seems to me a fine definition and a worthy project for a story. But Lynch may employ a level of mystification and non-sense that goes beyond highlighting the macabre.

As long as I’m looking for “worthy projects,” we could speculate that Lynch employs mystification in part to assert the unknowability of the world. As much as it is good and useful for writers to articulate life in a clarifying, explanatory manner, it also seems helpful to draw attention to persistent mysteries for which no adequate explanation is available. Lynch depicts unknowabilities in a grotesque and exaggerated manner—but isn’t this the way the world feels sometimes? In sublime moments, my life does feel like a David Lynch movie at times.

And, it’s a weird mystery of psychology, but for me it’s pleasurable (in an unsettling, sick-to-my-stomach way) to have a David Lynch film remind me of this feeling.

But sometimes Lynch’s non-sense doesn’t feel true. And then some of my pleasure curdles to dissatisfaction. I had hoped to face an Enigma and I only faced Lynch being gratuitously weird.

This makes me think of the distinction between horror movies that I like and those I dislike. Even though vampires are probably imaginary, Let the Right One In (the Swedish vampire movie Charlie recommended) feels like a true depiction of human relationships, and I loved it. By contrast, when a horror movie relies on some cheesy and only vaguely-articulated Ancient Evil that seems to bear no relation to the real horrors of the world, I generally detest it.

Since I discussed “worthy projects” for stories, I feel I should ask as an open question, what makes a story’s goals worthy, and does a story need have any goal at all? And, is Lynch mimicking dreams? Is a dream enough to make a story?

Also, see my response to Sara’s question about rule-bending and rule breaking.

THIS COMMENT IS BY CHARLIE, POSTED BY JOSH:

Actually, the real filmmaker who is directly behind Lynch is Luis Buñuel, both the silent films straight out of the surrealist tradition like _Un Chien Andalou_ or the more recent ones like _The Discreet Charms of the Bourgeoisie_ or _Viridiana_ or _The Exterminating Angel_, where a bunch of guests at a dinner party discover that they cannot leave. I love his movies, but they don't really traffic around, as Lynch's do, with thriller conventions that ask you to fill in the blanks (true for _Lost Highways_).

Charlie, that makes sense. It seems that a movie like Un Chien Andalou actually has a higher ratio of dreamlike non-sense:sense than Lynch films, whereas my memory of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is that, as you say, it doesn't ask you to fill in the blanks-- in general the bizarre elements (like exploding cars or shame about eating) felt like they made sense in the narrative, did not feel mystifying to me. (In a similar way, the undead aunt in Saunders' Sea Oak did not feel mystifying either.) I haven't seen Viridiana or The Exterminating Angel yet.

Those exploding cars: as I recall, I felt like the point of them was that they were unexplained and had no direct connection to the narrative (unless I'm misremembering--it was a while ago). But I thought they illustrated a sensical background context of social turmoil, and were not mystifying.