A Fortnightly Review.
Directed by Alexandre O. Phillipe.
1 h 48 mins l Documentary l UK first screening at London Film Festival 7 October 2022.
By SIMON COLLINGS.
Alexandre O. Philippe’s Lynch/Oz claims that The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939) is the key to understanding the work of acclaimed auteur David Lynch. The documentary consists of six short film-essays in which a film critic and a group of filmmakers take turns to expound on this central thesis. Thus Amy Nicholson, who presents the opening chapter, sees Dorothy’s nightmarish adventure in Oz as ‘the David Lynch story about everything.’ Rodney Ascher, who fronts chapter 2, also makes big claims about the significance of Oz for Lynch, though he concedes he ‘personally has no idea how far that influence really goes’. John Waters in chapter 3 tells us Oz is his personal ‘ultimate’ film, and speculates that ‘it was maybe a film [Lynch] saw early on too’. The fourth contributor, Karyn Kusama, asserts that The Wizard of Oz has ‘buried its way into Lynch’s creative brain’.
There’s no doubt that The Wizard of Oz is a touchstone for Lynch. The director has spoken on many occasions about the significance of Oz in his work, as any Lynch fan knows. Allusions to Oz crop up in several Lynch films, and Oz is extensively referenced both visually and in the dialogue in Wild at Heart (1990). In a discussion about Wild at Heart, published in Lynch on Lynch, Chris Rodley asks Lynch what exactly it is about Oz that appeals to him. Lynch replies: ‘There’s a certain amount of fear in the picture, as well as things to dream about. So it seems truthful in some way. It must have got inside me when I first saw it, like it did with a million other people.’1
Some of Lynch’s comments and filmic references are quoted by Philippe’s contributors. But Lynch/Oz goes beyond pointing to connections between Oz and Lynch’s films, it proposes Oz as the essential lens for understanding Lynch. This is a surprising claim given the huge body of critical commentary which has grown up around Lynch’s work, ranging from scholarly academic studies, through to chat forums and fan websites devoted to the appreciation of his films.
Lynch draws on a range of other directors’ work, and the tracing of intertextual references in his movies and TV series has received considerable attention from fans and critics alike. The parallels between Wild at Heart and Sidney Lumet’s The Fugitive Kind, to give just one example, are widely recognised. The snakeskin jacket Sailor (Nicholas Cage) wears in Lynch’s film is identical to that worn by Valentine Xavier (Marlon Brando) in Lumet’s movie. In both films fire plays a key role in murders which haunt the characters.
Lynch’s list of ‘top ten’ movies appears on the streaming platform MUBI. Heading the list is Federico Fellini’s 8½, followed by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. The Wizard of Oz is in at number 9.2 Lynch says he feels a strong affinity with Fellini’s work: La Strada is also in his top ten at number 7, and he met the Italian director twice. It’s easy to see why 8½, a film about the making of a film which is itself the subject of the film being made, appeals to Lynch. The fantastical elements in Fellini, the shifts between dream, imagination, memory and the present, and the distinctive atmosphere of his films have all left their mark.
The events in 8½ take place largely in the mind of the film director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), who is in the middle of a personal trauma, and there are obvious parallels with the structures of Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire.3 As Lynch has said of 8½:
Fellini manages to accomplish with film what mostly abstract painters do – namely, to communicate an emotion without ever saying or showing anything in a direct manner, without ever explaining anything, just by a sort of sheer magic.’4
Several contributors to Lynch/Oz suggest Lynch’s work conforms to a genre of films which are journeys of self-discovery. Thus the key message of Lynch’s work, according to Amy Nicholson, is that ‘we all contain within ourselves the deep truth of who we are and the power to be the person we want to be.’ Karyn Kusama agrees, saying there are multitudes in each of us and we’re capable of more than we give ourselves credit for: ‘We have all the characters of Oz within us.’
But in what sense does Fred Madison (played by Bill Pullman) enter on a journey of self-discovery in Lost Highway, or Diane Selwyn (Naomi Watts) in Mulholland Drive? Kusama describes the latter as a kind of ‘reverse Oz’, a film in which she sees ‘a tremendous amount of hope’. This assertion seems to be based on her belief in Lynch being ‘a kind of optimist’, rather than on anything which happens in the film. Selwyn, for whom Hollywood has been anything but a dream come true, dies in squalor. Fred Madison appears psychotic, the film perhaps deliberately not ‘making sense’, and ending where it began. Blue Velvet, with its ambiguous and much-discussed ending featuring a mechanical robin with a beetle in its mouth, is also a problematic fit with this kind of narrative. Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) certainly sets out on an arduous trip in The Straight Story, but it’s as a gesture of reconciliation towards his estranged brother rather than a journey of self-discovery.
There’s a general thrust within Lynch/Oz to portray Lynch’s films as versions of standard Hollywood tropes, however ‘confounding’ they might at first appear. Lynch’s work is cast as exposing the dark underside of the American dream while at the same timing showing that, as David Lowery says, ‘goodness will prevail’ or as Benson and Moorhead declare: ‘The badness is what gives the good meaning.’ Scratch the surface and a Lynch film is no more threatening, it seems, than the most hackneyed commercial entertainment picture.
David Foster Wallace, in his essay ‘David Lynch keeps his head’, argues that Lynch’s films are anything but comfortable. In his analysis, the director’s movies are ‘essentially about evil’. ‘Lynch’s explorations of human beings’ various relationships to evil are,’ he says, ‘if idiosyncratic and Expressionistic, nevertheless sensitive and insightful and true.’ This makes the films morally ambiguous, and a source of discomfort for viewers and critics alike. Evil in Lynch’s work, Foster Wallace says, is a force which takes over people and is constantly present, contained within the banality of the everyday. Light, love, redemption are also present, as these co-exist with evil. ‘It’s not just that evil is “implied by” good or Darkness by Light or whatever,’ he argues, ‘but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it.’5
What makes Lynch unusual as a director, according to Foster Wallace, is his ability to access his unconscious and bring this directly to the screen, with a minimum of ‘art’ getting in the way; Lynch, he says, taught him that ‘the very most important artistic communications took place at a level that not only wasn’t intellectual but wasn’t even fully conscious’. Whether he does this ‘naively or pathologically or ultra-pomo-sophisticatedly’ is of little importance, Foster Wallace says. What counts is that the films ring ‘psychic cherries in the communicatee’. Lynch’s films are, he says, quoting the British critic Paul Taylor, ‘to be experienced rather than explained.’
The ethical ambiguity of much of Lynch’s work clearly leaves some viewers and critics uneasy. ‘We Americans,’ Foster Wallace says, ‘like our art’s moral world to be cleanly limned and clearly demarcated, neat and tidy’. Faced with something which does not offer a clear moral viewpoint viewers either attack the film (and filmmaker) or try to find ways to ‘explain’ it.6 ‘It seems we need our art to be morally comfortable,’ Foster Wallace says, ‘and the intellectual gymnastics we’ll go through to extract a black-and-white ethics from a piece of art we like are shocking if you stop and look closely at them.’
It would be easy to go on and dismantle other assertions made by the various contributors to Lynch/Oz. As one critic posting on the IMBD page for the film observes: ‘I’ve seen far better, more watchable analysis of David Lynch films in homemade videos on YouTube’. But rather than critique more of Lynch/Oz, I propose to spend the rest of this essay looking at a topic raised by Philippe’s documentary, and more widely by commentary on Lynch.
All of the contributors to Philippe’s film refer to Lynch’s work as ‘surrealist’, by which they mean simply that the films are ‘odd’ or ‘weird’. This is a common enough use of the term ‘surreal’. Lynch himself uses the word in this manner, as does Foster Wallace. But what does this have to do with Surrealism proper, a body of ideas shared by a number of artists and thinkers from the 1920s on? Surrealism was not a visual style, nor a literary or artistic school, but, as it’s described by Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson in their Surrealism: Key Concepts, ‘a revolution in the understanding of thought’. The artists and thinkers who took part in the movement wanted to provoke a ‘reorientation of life away from the stagnant existence the structures of contemporary society give it, towards the promises of desire, freedom and the overcoming of debilitating forces’.
Given the frequent use of the term ‘surreal’ in relation to Lynch’s movies, it’s worth asking in what way, if at all, his work has affinities with the central ideas of the surrealist movement. And if such a connection could be made, how that might influence our reading of Lynch’s films. The challenge with attempting such an analysis, as Richardson argues in Surrealism and Cinema, is that surrealism has entered the public domain to such an extent that any director can now pick elements derived from surrealism to add to their repertoire of cinematic effects. ‘The common currency surrealism has become,’ Richardson says, ‘makes the evaluation of the surrealist experience of film even more difficult than it was in the past.’
Richardson recognizes Lynch’s films as ‘visually striking’ but he goes on to describe the work as ‘essentially mystifcatory rather than revelatory’, lacking the ‘limpidity’ he encounters in surrealist work. He says:
It is apparent that Lynch has learnt a lot from viewing of Un Chien Andalou and surrealist paintings, which have provided him with his essential building blocks, based upon the use of bizarre juxtapositions and details. But this is not evidence of a surrealist sensibility at work; in many ways it is the reverse. The hallmark of surrealist work – the will to change life and transform the world – seems absent and Lynch’s pronouncements on surrealism make it clear he has little real understanding of it.
Richardson acknowledges this may be a personal blind spot and that Lynch’s films might legitimately be linked to surrealism ‘if this could help to illuminate either one or the other’. But any such analysis would have to go beyond the visual style of his work.
Lynch’s understanding of surrealism, based on his public statements, certainly seems tenuous. The documentary he fronted for the BBC Arena slot in 1987 on ‘surrealist cinema’ is a case in point. Lynch presented excerpts from nine films made by ‘some of the greatest artists of this century – the surrealists’. Four of the excerpts actually come from the same film, Dreams that Money Can Buy, directed by the Dada film-theorist Hans Richter in 1947, in collaboration with other artists. This is not made clear in the Arena programme. Lynch screens the sections in this film made with input from Man Ray, Ferdinand Leger, Max Ernst, and Marcel Duchamp as ‘films’ by these artists. Only the last two artists can really be described as surrealists. Other works featured in Lynch’s documentary are by Richter himself, René Clair, Dziga Vertov, Jean Cocteau, and a second piece by Man Ray. None of these artists were surrealists.
Lynch describes himself in the Arena documentary as a ‘fellow traveller’ with the artists featured, and that’s probably a good characterization of his relationship with these various representatives of European Modernism, surrealism included. But Lynch’s identification with these films, I believe, goes beyond mere visual effects, and a case can be made for Lynch sharing some of the perspectives of surrealism. He has, for example, a strong affinity with works which are indeterminate and resist closure.
One of the factors which drew Lynch to the TV series format was the potential to avoid, or at least indefinitely delay, a final denouement where everything gets explained. This is more than ‘mystification’. It clearly comes from Lynch’s visceral discomfort with conclusions, something he shares with the surrealists who, as Fijlakowski and Richardson observe, ‘in general appear to be antithetical to any closure or finality of thought’. Lynch started out as a painter and this is relevant to the way he treats filmmaking as the construction of a visual and sonic experience which has its own logic. Lynch aims to affect the viewer at a level beyond the purely intellectual.
Black humour is another feature of Lynch’s work which has a parallel in surrealist practice. Lynch uses it to disconcert the viewer – think of the opening of Blue Velvet and the blocked garden hose, or Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe) accidentally shooting his own head off in Wild at Heart, or the violent haranguing by Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia) of a tailgater he’s just run off the road in Lost Highway. The violence here isn’t gratuitous but symptomatic of the world the characters inhabit. It’s all the more shocking because it horrifies us at the same time as making us want to laugh. There’s a similar grotesque humour in Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930).
The surrealists loved early comedy films, slapstick and the anarchic humour of the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields. The insubordination of these comic artists, and, as Richardson says, the idea that the ‘rational and conventional world was there to be devastated,’ held a strong appeal for the surrealists. Lynch seems to respond to these early comedies in a similar way. W. C. Fields’ It’s a Gift (McCleod, 1934) is number 5 in his top-ten films.
Comedy is one of three genres Richardson mentions in a discussion of early Hollywood directors who exhibit something like a surrealist sensibility. The others are horror and romance. The horror film, he says: ‘opens up the wounds of society, forcing it to face realities it would prefer to ignore.’ The surrealists, he argues, recognized ‘the way the horror film enables hidden desires and repressed thoughts to emerge into the light of day.’ Horror stories, Richardson says: ‘take us to the extreme of the problem of our mortality, confronting us with death and dissolution, and often uncovering the more persistent fears and desires which lie buried within our unconscious.’ Lynch’s films mix genres, but horror plays a significant part in several of his films, and of course in Twin Peaks, and can be read as exposing the ‘fears and desires’ embedded in the banality of the everyday, in the way Foster Wallace describes.
Romance is the genre in which Richardson finds ‘the most remarkable configuration of Hollywood film and surrealism.’ André Breton referred to Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935), in which the lovers meet every day in a shared dream, as ‘a triumph of surrealist thought’. Richardson mentions Tay Garnet’s One Way Passage as another ‘particularly remarkable’ film, and he discusses at some length the work of Frank Borzage and Josef von Sternberg, ‘the two great poets of love in Hollywood’s golden age’.
Richardson quotes the Mexican Surrealist Octavio Paz saying of love:
It is a choice…perhaps a free choosing of our destiny, a sudden discovery of the most secret and fateful part of our being. But the choosing of love is impossible in our society. To realise itself, love must violate the laws of the world. It is scandalous and disorderly, a transgression that is committed by two stars that break out of their predestined orbits and rush together in the midst of space…Wherever it succeeds in realising itself, it breaks up a marriage and transforms it into what society does not want it to be: a revelation of two solitary beings who create their own world, a world that rejects society’s lies, abolishes time and work, and declares itself to be self-sufficient.7
Lynch’s Wild at Heart might be viewed as aligned with such a perspective, possibly because Lynch is himself drawing on classic Hollywood film. Sailor and Lula’s love for each other survives her mother’s attempts to separate them, including the hiring of a hit man to kill Sailor. The Oz references in the film serve to give the story a magical quality, Sailor finally realising his destiny lies with Lula and their son after experiencing a vision of a Glinda-like fairy-godmother figure. Some critics have felt the film is too close to parody to work as a story of love. But in surrealism the union of two people in a supreme love is something to aspire to rather than ever be achieved. Lynch’s movie has a similar kind of unreality to Peter Ibbetson.
Wild at Heart is unusual in Lynch’s oeuvre in ending so positively. Sex is more usually linked to anxiety (Eraserhead) or to the corrupting effects of the sex industry and porn (Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive). The sex scenes in Lynch are scarcely erotic as Foster Wallace observes. There’s a possible affinity here with the surrealist rejection of libertinism.
With some proper research, a wider range of contributors, and the presentation of alternative readings, Lynch/Oz might have been a useful addition to the array of critical analysis on Lynch. As it is, the documentary offers little, if any, insight into Lynch’s work, and contains nothing new. There are far more persuasive commentaries out there, representing a wide divergence of views and approaches. Over his career Lynch’s output has been erratic, moving from the midnight movie hit Eraserhead, to commercial films (The Elephant Man and Dune – the latter a huge flop), on to the Cannes success with Blue Velvet, and the first series of Twin Peaks. From there his popularity dived as audiences deserted the bewildering TV series, and viewed with outrage the revelations of Fire Walk With Me. His reputation, at least in the art cinema world, picked up again with Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive. Lynch has a strong following in Europe and the financing of his later films came from there. But his late output also included the folksy, homespun philosophy of The Straight Story, and a return to TV with a third Twin Peaks series. His work doesn’t follow a single trajectory and generalising about it is problematic.
Lynch has clearly taken something from surrealism, and not just elements of visual style. But it would be hard to describe him as consistently exhibiting a ‘surrealist sensibility’ in the sense that Fijlakowski and Richardson define it. Lynch’s own description of himself as a fellow traveller is probably most apt. The degree to which Lynch has absorbed influences from surrealism directly, and how far he is tuned into a more general cultural appropriation of surrealist ideas is nearly impossible to unravel, illustrating the point Richardson makes about the challenge of evaluating surrealism in contemporary cinema.
SIMON COLLINGS lives in Oxford. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including Stride, Fortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, Junction Box, The Long Poem Magazine, Ink Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics Research. Why are you here?, a collection of his prose poems and short fiction, was published by Odd Volumes in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. For more information, visit his webpage.
- Lynch on Lynch, edited by Chris Rodley, second ed., Faber, 2005.
- Colin Marshall, ‘David Lynch Lists His Favorite Films & Directors, Including Fellini, Wilder, Tati & Hitchcock‘, Open Culture, September 8, 2013.
- In her book Devil’s Advocates – Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Auteur Press, 2018), film scholar Lindsay Hallam draws on Janet Walker’s notion of ‘trauma cinema’ to argue that in Lynch’s work ‘the experience of trauma is articulated in a way that does not so much “look real” as express in visual and aural terms how trauma is felt as it occurs’. Quoted from Hallam’s essay ‘Women’s Films: Melodrama and Women’s Trauma in the Films of David Lynch’ in The Women of David Lynch: A Collection of Essays, edited by Scott Ryan, Fayetteville Mafia Press, 2019) in which she analyses Lynch’s work in relation to classic Hollywood melodrama.
- Lynch on Fellini quoted in Open Culture. Op cit.
- Foster Wallace’s essay, first published in 1996 in Premiere magazine, is included in his essay collection, A Supposedly Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again, Little Brown, 1997.
- Anthony Todd, in Authorship and the Films of David Lynch, provides an interesting account of the way the construction of the auteur has become a significant aspect of the way contemporary cinema is promoted and received by spectators. Todd gives a compelling account of the creation of Lynch’s identity as an auteur, and how this has evolved over the course of his career.
- O. Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, translated by Lysander Kemp, Grove Press, 1961.