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

  7. I’m sorry to hear that.

    I followed the link, where he cites your post. Of course I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the use of the word “faith.” This is from the other blogger that K-Punk cites:

    That the global economy is in such tatters because of a lack of “confidence”, a lack of faith in other words, is astonishing proof of the validity of Marx’s theory of reification, but beyond that shows that a profound irrationality sits at the heart of the global social system. A social system that claims it can never be bettered or changed or destroyed is, it clearly turns out, based almost entirely on our faith in it! The astonishing amount of energy — and money — being mobilised by governments, politicians and journalists to try to keep us keeping the faith shows clearly that it is time for us all to dream again of better worlds.

    I’ve recently been reading Yuval Harari, his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He attributes our success as a species (if you can call it “success”) to our ability to believe in (i.e., to have faith in) fictions. It’s our fictions that allow us to mass mobilize and cooperate in groups larger than hunter-gatherer bands. Two of the “fictions” that have been crucial to this mobilization have been religion and money. But the efficacy of religion and of economics depends on the confidence and faith that people invest in them.

    The public’s optimism seems at a low point, at least as compared to the last several decades. Things are starting to feel a little more like the 1970s every day. Many young people have a hard time seeing how their lives will be as good (economically) as their parents. Perhaps our faith is shaken. Perhaps it is merely a correction before we again dive back into the neoliberal fiction of infinite growth. Or perhaps the shake up will result in the creation of new narratives, of new fictions, of new myths and of new faith. What do you think?


    Comment by erdman31 — 31 March 2017 @ 12:38 pm

    • K-punk’s post and those to which he links were written in 2008, at the depths of the recession that’s arguably still happening. K-punk echoes 3 other bloggers who assert that people are less likely to revolt during bad times, when they’re just trying to survive, than in good, when rising expectations encourage them to imagine even better possibilities. The recession didn’t generate much in the way of an alternative: Obama succeeded GW, but perpetuated the bank bailout policies of his predecessor; the strongest political movement emerging from that economic crisis has come from the right. The implication is that low optimism would suppress the creation of new narratives. Admittedly that argument sounds awfully mechanistic, but a sense of learned helplessness does tend to kick in when whatever you try to get yourself out of a trap seems to fail. Maybe that’s part of the psychology of the so-called left accelerationists. Instead of resisting or slowing things down, they try to catapult the successes/excesses of neoliberalism into a more egalitarian and creative future. Automation is taking jobs away? Great! Let’s accelerate automation, get rid of jobs altogether, replace work for pay with universal basic income. I’m skeptical, but maybe that’s just symptomatic of me.

      “Things are starting to feel a little more like the 1970s every day.”

      Arguably the 70s were still the good old days, before the gap between the 1% and everyone else shot through the roof. That didn’t start happening until the early 80s, when Reagan pushed trickle-down economics and cut income taxes drastically for the top tiers. Growth isn’t any faster than it was under Carter, but since then real wages have stagnated for everybody but the corporate supermanagers and the big investors.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by ktismatics — 31 March 2017 @ 3:25 pm

      • The implication is that low optimism would suppress the creation of new narratives. Admittedly that argument sounds awfully mechanistic, but a sense of learned helplessness does tend to kick in when whatever you try to get yourself out of a trap seems to fail.

        Every era has a resistance, great or small. Times of crisis intensify the resistance. The Tea Party saw themselves as a resistance. They saw themselves as an alternative to the dominant culture, which they viewed as having taken a strong liberal and secular turn. They took for granted that Obama was a “socialist” with a hidden, hard left agenda. Part of this is simply semantic confusion about what “socialism” and “left” actually mean, but the point is that they were “mad as hell.”

        The left was strong a hundred years ago. The suppression and exploitation of workers by an oligarchic capitalist regime gave birth to socialist parties, wide-spread unionization, and worker strikes that pressured FDR to institute landmark reforms and social change.

        Exploitation of African-Americans eventually led to mid-century resistances, from the non-violent King movement to the violent Black Panthers.

        I’m not denying that learned helplessness does tend to kick in, but I do think that this is not pre-determined as a set course. If history is moved along by a myriad forces, all of them ever-changing, then, frankly, it’s hard to say with any kind of certainty what’s going to happen next. The numbers and energy on the left have been growing, I do know that. Occupy was a national activist campaign, and I would have never guessed fifteen years ago that a “Democratic Socialist” would be able to make a legitimate Presidential run. Hell, back then, I didn’t even know what a “Democratic Socialist” was.

        My sense from online conversations is that conservatives as well as Clinton supporters are both losing motivation and momentum. I can put up brazen, blatantly socialist Facebook posts these days, and people don’t automatically ridicule the notion. They hardly put up any resistance at all. I mean, there’s some, but my sense of things is that people are beginning to open to possibilities they would never have considered, perhaps because all other options seem to have been exhausted.


        Comment by erdman31 — 31 March 2017 @ 3:59 pm

  8. Looking at the Tea Party, it’s hard to parse apart the groundswell of desperate resistance vis-a-vis the well-orchestrated, heavily financed interventions of the Koch brothers and their well-heeled associates. Trump’s victory was just the crowning achievement: over the ten years since the financial meltdown the Republicans have taken majority positions in both houses of Congress, in most state governorships, and in most state legislatures. It’s been a masterful effort — one that the left could learn from — but it’s also a masterful act of duplicity, getting the “deplorables” to vote against their own self-interests. I just read an NYT editorial by Paul Krugman about West Virginia. That state has benefited greatly from Obamacare, with the percentage of uninsured dropping from 14% to 6%. Also, 16% of the WV population works in healthcare — a growth industry there due to Obamacare. Contrast that with coal mining, an industry that for a generation has employed less than 5% of West Virginians, a number that won’t rise much if at all anytime soon. Still, West Virginia went huge for Trump, 69% to 27% for Clinton. Krugman’s conclusion:

    Coal country” residents weren’t voting to preserve what they have, or had until recently; they were voting on behalf of a story their region tells about itself, a story that hasn’t been true for a generation or more. Their Trump votes weren’t even about the region’s interests; they were about cultural symbolism. Now, regional cultures that invoke a long-gone past are hardly unique to Appalachia; think of Texans wearing 10-gallon hats and cowboy boots as they stroll through air-conditioned malls. And there’s nothing wrong with that! But when it comes to energy and environmental policy, we’re not talking about mere cultural affectations. Going backward on the environment will sicken and kill thousands in the near future; over the longer term, failing to act on climate change could, all too plausibly, lead to civilizational collapse. So it’s incredible, and terrifying, to think that we may really be about to do all of that because Donald Trump successfully pandered to cultural nostalgia, to a longing for a vanished past when men were men and miners dug deep.

    So that fits with Harari’s “faith in fictions” idea. Maybe it’s no coincidence that Trump and the Tea Party gets its strongest support from self-identified evangelicals, who arguably prize faith above all other virtues, even if that faith conflicts with evidence and reason. Maybe especially if it conflicts.

    “Times of crisis intensify the resistance.” How is that not a faith-based narrative you’re telling yourself? Others I cited contend the opposite: that times of crisis suppress resistance. I’m not sure whether either story would stand up to empirical scrutiny. The story that’s often told in the how-to books is that a movement needs to be in a position to take advantage of crises whenever they happen to arise. Capitalism works that way; e.g., Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine” — “the exploitation of national crises to push through controversial policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters or upheavals to mount an effective resistance.” Maybe that’s what’s happening now: people are so distracted by the Trump circus that they aren’t mounting any sort of meaningful resistance to the Congress’s rapid pace of dismantling regulations, lowering taxes for the rich, etc.

    Regarding FDR, it seems that the biggest crisis, not just in the US but also in Western Europe, was World War Two. Government needed to crank up the war effort, which meant hiring a lot of government workers and raising taxes on the rich to pay for it. That period of relatively high growth and decreased gap between rich and poor lasted for 30 years. Since Reagan the government has continued to spend, but instead of hiring workers has used the money to pay for private-sector contractors, and instead of financing the spending with taxes it has borrowed money. And who does the government borrow from? People with money to lend: the rich. So instead of taxing the rich, the government now pays interest to the rich.

    “My sense from online conversations is that conservatives as well as Clinton supporters are both losing motivation and momentum. I can put up brazen, blatantly socialist Facebook posts these days, and people don’t automatically ridicule the notion. They hardly put up any resistance at all.”

    So there you go: no motivation or momentum, no resistance. You could probably put up blatantly fascistic posts and get a similar non-response. Learned helplessness or openness to possibilities?

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by ktismatics — 1 April 2017 @ 7:15 am

    • To further complicate things, the Koch Conglomerate is at war with Trump. They are global capitalists who benefit from free trade. Trump is a threat to that. Maybe more to the point, Trump is also a thorn in their side because he’s so unpredictable. He has no intellectual or moral compass. Trump’s primary interest is Trump. He can be bought, but only on a case by case basis. He won’t be strongarmed or owned by the Koch brothers.

      I would describe the con job on America as more of a bait-and-switch. Let’s not forget that most people didn’t want Trump. In the general election, many simply voted against Hillary Clinton. Obama probably would have won a third term, were he to go head-to-head with Trump. Clinton was establishment, so people were baited into an anti-Clinton vote but what they got was yet another crony capitalist, one who could, in fact, be the worst crony that we’ve seen in a while, but since Trump was an unknown and since he was so brash and brazen, people assumed he would “shake things up” in Washington.

      Even on the right, Trump wasn’t the first choice, he was sort of the default in a confused and chaotic Republican primary. Of course, I think that’s Trump’s m.o., namely that he creates chaos (lying or stretching the truth, making outlandish claims about Mexican rapists and Mexico paying for a wall, etc.), Trump shakes things up and then when everything is chaotic, Trump finds his advantage. This worked very well during the campaign, not sure if it will work as he actually tries to run a country. So far he has had only moderate success.

      I think Krugman reflects sort of the view of the liberal establishment which wants to deflect any and all criticism away from establishment Democrats. For a liberal establishment that has no capacity for introspection or self-analysis, the election of Trump is explained completely and entirely as a failure on the part of the ignorance and maliciousness of the electorate: they are racists, they were duped by cultural nostalgia, they are sexist, or (as I’ve often heard), they are just “stupid.” All of that may be true, but what the liberal establishment can’t stomach is that they ran a bonafide crony capitalist during a time when our nation desperately needed reform.

      In reaction, there has been a rally from the grassroots of the left. Bernie, Warren, and other progressives have challenged the existing paradigm by saying that the Dems need to build from the grassroots. As the momentum gets going, the establishment is predictable in their desire to take the new energy and bring it into the establishment but render it impotent to make the kind of change that is needed. Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently said that the Democrats have always been a grassroots party, so the Bernie factor is nothing new. Schultz, of course, is the very same crony that colluded with the Clinton campaign to burn Bernie’s movement, to discredit his candidacy and/or do whatever was necessary to push Clinton through the primary.

      The essential “stumbling block” for establishment Dems is that their politicians are funded by the exact same lobbyists who fund Republicans. That in itself is the reason Bernie is a threat. Were he to drop the demand that the party dissociate with Big Money and billionaires, then he’d be welcome, no matter what else he might say. The DNC is fine with railing against the 1%, so long as the 1% are still allowed to donate to the campaign.

      I’m just not sure “learned helplessness” is the most helpful term in this context. People on the right and left are tired and stressed, from the political chaos that’s been going pretty strong for over a year now, and you could be right, maybe some form of helplessness is being felt.

      By saying that times of crisis intensify resistance, I’m not saying that the resistance is always successful or that it is always widespread. As you say, I don’t know that we can empirically settle the matter, and perhaps I’m being a touch oversimplistic, to begin with.


      Comment by erdman31 — 3 April 2017 @ 2:34 pm

  9. I agree that Krugman is defending the mainstream Democratic program. It’s not surprising that Obamacare is already being heralded as a progressive cornerstone, even though it’s always been a program that benefits corporate healthcare interests and is paid for (again) not by higher taxes on the rich but by borrowing from them. This is the seemingly inexorable drift to the right, where what once was middle of the road is now labeled socialism. Be that as it may, a lot of people are getting healthcare now that didn’t have it before Obamacare, people who are in danger of losing it again in the Republican regime. Krugman points out that they’re being suckers, trying to recapture a nostalgic golden era that probably never existed but that the rich are able to exploit for their self-interest. I think it’s an accurate assessment, but the cynicism of it is hard for people to swallow. The Republicans are able to sell a positive Randian self-sufficiency narrative: get government out of the way and your savvy and grit and good old hard work will pull you through. In that story, benefiting from a government-financed healthcare initiative makes you feel bad about yourself, like you’re taking a handout, which is of course ridiculous because the private sector isn’t hiring enough people or providing enough benefits to its workers while the health sector keeps jacking up its prices.

    I’d say we’re in strong agreement that both the Republican and the Democratic mainstream are sellouts to big capital. The right has a compelling positive story centered on self-sufficiency. In your Facebook posts do you counter that positive right-wing narrative with a compelling positive left-leaning one?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 April 2017 @ 8:00 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply to erdman31 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: