20 August 2008

DF Wallace on D Lynch

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 6:16 am

Here are some excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s 1995 journalistic essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” based on his experiences on location during the filming of Lynch’s Lost Highway.


You almost never in a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to ‘entertain’ you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: you don’t feel like you’re entering into any of the standard unspoken/unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish (we’re defenseless in our dreams, too).

This may, in fact, be Lynch’s only agenda: just to get inside your head. He sure seems to care more about penetrating your head than about what he does once he’s in there. Is this ‘good’ art? It’s hard to say. It seems — once again — either ingenious or psychopathic.


It’s already been observed that Lynch brings to his art the sensibility of a very bright child immersed in the minutiae of his own fantasies. This kind of approach has disadvantages: his films are not especially sophisticated or intelligent; there is little critical judgment or quality-control-type checks on ideas that do not work; things tend to be hit-or-miss. Plus the films are, like a fantasy-prone little kid, self-involved to the extent that’s pretty much solipsistic. Hence their coldness.

But part of their involution and coldness derives from the fact that David Lynch seems truly to possess the capacity for detachment from response that most artists only pay lip-service to: he does pretty much what he wants and appears not to give much of a shit whether you like it or even get it. His loyalties are fierce and passionate and almost entirely to himself.

I don’t mean to make it sound like this kind of thing is wholly good or that Lynch is some kind of paragon of integrity. His passionate inwardness is refreshingly childlike, but I notice that very few of us choose to make very small children our friends.


Lynch’s movies, for all their unsubtle archetypes and symbols and intertextual references and c., have about them the remarkable unself-consciousness that’s kind of the hallmark of Expressionist art — nobody in Lynch’s movies analyzes or metacriticizes or hermeneuticizes or anything, including Lynch himself. This set of restrictions makes Lynch’s movies fundamentally unironic… What he is is a weird hybrid blend of classical Expressionist and contemporary postmodernist.


I’m going to claim that evil is what David Lynch’s movies are essentially about, and that Lynch’s explorations of human beings’ various relationships to evil are, if idiosyncratic and Expressionistic, nevertheless sensitive and insightful and true. I’m going to submit that the real ‘moral problem’ a lot of us cineastes have with Lynch is that we find his truths morally uncomfortable, and that we do not like, when watching movies, to be made uncomfortable…

The fact is that David Lynch treats the subject of evil better than just about anybody else making movies today — better and also differently. His movies aren’t anti-moral, but they are definitely anti-formulaic. Evil-ridden though his filmic world is, please notice that responsibility for evil never in his films devolves easily onto greedy corporations or corrupt politicians or faceless serial kooks. Lynch is not interested in the devolution of responsibility, and he’s not interested in moral judgments of characters. Rather, he’s interested in the psychic spaces in which people are capable of evil. He is interested in Darkness. And Darkness, in David Lynch’s movies, always wears more than one face.

…Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e., people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of noirish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movies’ world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed… The bad guys in Lynch movies are always exultant, orgasmic, most fully present at their evilest moments, and this in turn is because they are not only actuated by evil but literally inspired; they have yielded themselves up to a Darkness way bigger than any one person…

Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are — at least potentially — everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time — not ‘lurking below’ or ‘lying in wait’ or ‘hovering on the horizon’: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, love, redemption (since these phenomena are also, in Lynch’s work, forces and spirits), etc. In fact, in a Lynchian moral scheme it doesn’t make much sense to talk about either Darkness or about Light in isolation from its opposite. It’s not just that evil is ‘implied by’ good or Darkness by Light or whatever, but that the evil stuff is contained within the good stuff, encoded in it. You could call this idea of evil Gnostic, or Taoist, or even neo-Hegelian, but it’s also Lynchian, because what Lynch’s movies are all about is creating a narrative space where this idea can be worked out in its fullest detain and to its most uncomfortable consequences.



  1. Pretty nicely put. The reason I love love Lynch is his theology, his cosmogony, his spiritual Weltaanschauunung; a French observer of his Paris exhibition put it so wonderfully – your images conjure up a whole COSMOS…

    Comment by parodycenter — 21 August 2008 @ 9:22 am

  2. Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally, possessed… The bad guys in Lynch movies are always exultant, orgasmic, most fully present at their evilest moments, and this in turn is because they are not only actuated by evil but literally inspired; they have yielded themselves up to a Darkness way bigger than any one person

    This observation is related to recent discussions of acting. Wallace here has in mind especially the over-the-top performances like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet or Diane Ladd smearing lipstick all over her face in Wild at Heart. But the Hollywood whores in your clip have this sense of being possessed, of being moved by forces not under their own control. And flat-affect characters in Lynch are like zombies waiting for some spirit to animate them.

    Comment by ktismatics — 21 August 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  3. In his essay, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” DFW ruminates on his experience on a luxury cruise, a cruise paid for by the New Yorker (I think that’s the one) simply to have DFW write the essay. One of the things DFW mentions is his discomfort with the professional smile, a smile that “never reaches the eyes,” a programmed smile. It creeps him out. He goes so far as to talk about mass shootings, in malls and in fast food restaurants. Any coincidence, any connection, or any causation, perhaps, between these acts of terrific violence and the fact that the venue for these mass murders are in places profuse with professional smiles?

    Is such a shooter seized by forces beyond his control, as a David Lynch character might be portrayed? Or is there something more causal? Is he raging against a machine that churns out fake happy faces? Maybe it’s not an either-or. Or maybe it’s something else altogether.

    Ted Kaczynski armed himself with a purpose. Jihadist attacks are at least partially inspired by a desire to wipe the smiles off of the American’s faces.

    Comment by erdman31 — 8 January 2017 @ 1:45 pm

  4. Lynch’s movies aren’t about people doing evil; it’s more like evil is the main character. As DFW observes, it’s an expressionistic style rather than a realistic one: abstract and detached, like those expressionist paintings where the “subject” is light or linearity rather than a portrait or a landscape. That said, it’s hard to escape the gnosticism in those movies, the sense that people are being maneuvered by forces in which they’re immersed and which impel them from within, forces over which they have no control and of which they remain largely unaware. There’s good reason to accept this sense of the limits of human consciousness and intentionality: more often than not humans respond unconsciously to their environments. Even conscious intentions are caused by these uncontrolled forces in my view. But do those uncontrolled forces themselves act with intent and something like consciousness as they cause people to do things? Does gravity intend to cause water to flow downhill? That said, I don’t believe that human intentionality is an illusion. If that guy who shot up the airport in Florida hadn’t packed his bag with a gun and ammo, if he hadn’t bought an airplane ticket out of Alaska and managed to get himself to the gate in time to board, he wouldn’t have been able to wreak his mayhem upon arrival. But can we understand his motivation for forming those intentions and acting on them? Can he? Or would he just be offering a speculative rationale after the fact for motivations that he couldn’t comprehend or control while under their sway?

    As for the fake smiles, certainly they are formed and sustained with intent by the cruise ship staff members, even if that intent is caused by management directives. Maybe the fake smiles convey the sense that it’s a fake world, such that shooting people in such a world isn’t real, as if the smiling people being shot aren’t real (see Westworld). Or maybe the act of shooting will re-establish the sovereignty of the real.

    Comment by ktismatics — 8 January 2017 @ 5:07 pm

  5. Thanks. Yeah, I think I latched on, mentally, to the gnostic element….of course, it’s murky in the mind, so who knows?

    Comment by erdman31 — 8 January 2017 @ 5:23 pm

  6. Speaking of suicided writers, I see that Mark Fisher killed himself two days ago. Fisher, blogging as k-punk, was integral to that collection of theory bloggers who used to comment on each other’s posts back in the blogging heyday when you were writing Theos Project. Here’s the one case I know of where he quoted and linked directly to ktismatics. There’s a tie-in to our exchange here about “fake smiles,” where k-punk and I acknowledge “the nearly universal demand for presenting a facade of relentless optimism” as a societal-economic cause of depression.

    Comment by ktismatics — 15 January 2017 @ 8:32 am

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