David Lynch: A “Cinema of Emotional Extreme”

By Dan Clendenin

Back in January of this year 2016, the film maker David Lynch turned seventy-years-old. And a few weeks from now, cinephiles will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the most notorious of the ten feature films that he’s made in forty years — Blue Velvet, originally released on September 19, 1986.

I’ll always remember where and when I was emotionally blind-sided by Blue Velvet. It was in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. With all my psychic circuit breakers blown, I walked out before the movie was over. I was going to re-watch Blue Velvet for this essay, but decided against it. It’s just too much like a “red hot poker to the brain,” as one reviewer put it.

I took some consolation in learning that critics were deeply divided about the movie. “Lynch should be shot!” said one reviewer. Rex Reed of The New York Observer called Blue Velvet “one of the sickest films ever made.” Even Roger Ebert didn’t like Blue Velvet, and had a “deep antipathy” toward Lynch’s work. When the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael left the theater, she overheard someone say, “I may be sick, but I want to see that again!”

Today Blue Velvet is routinely listed as one of the greatest films ever made. It turned Lynch “from an intriguing oddball director into a brand-name auteur,” says David Lim. Blue Velvet, he says, was “one of the decade’s touchstone works of art.” Another reviewer called it “the last real earthquake to hit cinema.”

I’ve also been flummoxed by other Lynch films, like Mulholland Drive (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006) — Lynch insists on the capital letters, although no one knows why. Five minutes into the latter story, life-sized rabbits appear in a living room dressed in suits and ties. Prostitutes dance the 60’s Locomotion. The film lasts three hours, and has no linear plot. Time morphs back and forth between past, present and future. Place moves between Poland and Hollywood. In David Foster Wallace’s article about visiting the set of Lost Highway (1997), he admits that “it’s hard to tell if Lynch is a genius or an idiot.”

I’ve concluded that it’s best to feel a David Lynch movie rather than to try to interpret it. After all, his background is that of a painter. The British critic Paul Taylor says that Lynch’s movies are best “experienced not explained.” They are best understood visually rather than verbally, as the stuff of the subconscious or the unconscious. “Lynch’s use of irrational material,” says Kale, “works the way it’s supposed to: we read his images at some not fully conscious level.”

Watching life-sized rabbits appear in a living room dressed in suits and ties, or having time and space fragment into unrelated bits rather than progress in a linear narrative (as in real life), looks and feels very much like our dream life. Just last night I had a dream that was way weird enough for any Lynch movie.

Dream content varies from person to person, of course, but their formal properties are virtually identical in everyone — emotional salience, perceptual or visual vividness, bizarre logic and cognition, and difficulty in recall. And that’s what David Lynch movies are like — disturbing dreams rather than safe stories. They explore the mysterious realm of our “deep-brain core.”

So, asks Lim, exactly what is the “Lynchian sensibility?” And how are you supposed to feel about it?

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Lynch’s aesthetic is “easy to recognize and hard to define,” says Wallace. His characters are like people at a bus station in the middle of the night: “a good 65% of the people in metropolitan bus terminals between the hours of midnight and 6:00 A.M. tend to qualify as Lynchian figures — flamboyantly unattractive, enfeebled, grotesque, freighted with a woe out of all proportion to evident circumstances.” These are people on the fringe of society who reveal what’s lurking underneath our “facade of normalcy.”

Lim calls this a “cinema of emotional extreme,” or “consciousness out of control.” No other film maker has had his movies so carefully psychoanalyzed, he says, except perhaps Alfred Hitchcock. That’s because “his characters exhibit symptoms that might have come from psychiatric manuals.” Like the sadomasochist Frank, the college-age voyeur Jeffrey, or the badly abused Dorothy in Blue Velvet.

I’ve had exactly one dream in which I laughed out loud — a “nice” dream, if you will. Most of my dreams dwell in the land of darkness and anxiety. Like our dreams, Lynch’s films are full of “grotesquerie and depravity.” But they aren’t merely or only dark; that would be way too simplistic for Lynch. Nor would that portray our real human condition.

A signature aspect of Lynch’s films is his ability to hold together dualities and opposites. These contradictory impulses co-exist in a very uncomfortable mixture: beauty and terror, repulsion and fascination, dread and desire, understanding and incomprehension, innocence and corruption, the ordinary and the bizarre, sincerity and irony, reality and fantasy, absurdity and banality, humor and hallucination. In a Lynch movie, says Kael, mystery and madness express themselves in the everyday and the normal.

The result of this is what Lim calls a “hall of mirrors effect.” Lynch’s movies “can be seen as charged environments that allow parallel planes, multiple selves, and wildly conflicting moods and emotions to co-exist.” A classically Lynchian theme is that of “multiple/ambiguous identity,” says Wallace, a conflicted self in which “Respectable Surfaces and Seamy Undersides are mingled, integrated, literally, mixed up.”

The power of great art is its ability to articulate the experience of the observer. A Lynch movie is sick and creepy, says Wallace, precisely because it is “disturbingly personal.” It’s very threatening, he observes, “when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see part of ourselves. . . Nothing sickens me like seeing on-screen some of the very parts of myself I’ve gone to the movies to try to forget about.” Lynch’s movies thus “tend to derive a lot of their emotional power from their ability to make us feel complicit in their sickness.”

Lynch’s movies function like mirrors that reflect back to us some of the deepest and dream-like aspects of our conflicted selves. And that, Thomas Merton once observed, is one of the most complicated and important aspects of a mature Christian life, “this acceptance of our hidden and dark self.”

Although some Christians try to live by pious platitudes and superficial cliches, the Biblical witness is much more brutally realistic — which is to say, it’s also more liberating, for it acknowledges rather than ignores our darkness. We are imperfect human beings, not angels.

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” confessed Peter.

And Paul: “I don’t know what I’m doing. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep doing.”

And, most memorably, the Gerasene: “My name is legion.”

The early ascetics fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the remote desert. They sought what John Cassian (360–430) called “integrity of heart” or “integral wholeness.” But what they found was far different.

With remarkable candor, unconditional empathy, and wry humor, they describe how they experienced in the vast nothingness of the Egyptian desert a cacophony of voices in the interior geography of the heart. They sought wholeness but discovered brokenness. Their field reports from the front lines of spiritual battle reveal a disarming transparency, “without any obfuscating embarrassment,” and that never “despises anyone in belittling fashion.”

As I review what I underlined in Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences, here’s a sampling of their self-diagnosis — lethargy, sleeplessness, unsettling dreams, impulsive urges, self-justification, seething emotions, sexual fantasies, pious pretense that masked as virtue, self-deception, clerical ambition and the desire to dominate, crushing despair, confusion, wild mood swings, flattery, and the dreaded “noonday demon” of acedia (“a wearied or anxious heart” that suggests close parallels to clinical depression).

And that’s not all. Cassian further admits that “there are [also] many things that lie hidden in my conscience which are known and manifest to God, even though they may be unknown and obscure to me.” So, it’s even worse than you can know.

Cassian gives many examples. He wondered why a monk who joyfully renounced great wealth later succumbed to intense possessiveness or irascibility over a tiny pen knife, needle, book, or pen. He observed monks giving each other the “silent treatment.” What provoked a brother’s anger at a dull stylus?

Or why is it, Cassian’s friend Germanus wondered, “that superfluous thoughts insinuate themselves into us so subtly and hiddenly when we do not even want them, and indeed do not even know of them, that it is very difficult not only to cast them out but even to understand them and to catch hold of them?” Where, in other words, was the off-switch for a psyche in overdrive? Why all the involuntary internal garbage?

If you updated the language, this is the stuff of contemporary psychotherapy. Or a David Lynch movie.

Despite their unsparing realism about the human heart, the desert mothers and fathers didn’t live like helpless or hopeless victims. Far from it. They exuded confidence in God’s unconditional love, they exhibited tenderness and patience toward one another and to their own selves, they steadfastly avoided the faintest hint of judgementalism, they rejected every manifestation of extremist zeal, and they chose not to compare themselves with others or even to be overly anxious about their progress.

At my church I’ve come to love our introductory prayer: “Lord, before you, all my thoughts are known, and known of my secrets are hidden.” My Lynchian dark dreams. The spiritual diagnosis of Cassian. All of it.

This isn’t a prayer of shame and exposure, but one of liberation and consolation. That’s because, before our heavenly Father, as David Foster Wallace put it in his novel Infinite Jest, “the supplicant feels both nakedly revealed and sheltered, somehow, from all possible judgment.”


J. Allan Hobson, Dreaming; An Introduction to the Science of Sleep (2002).

David Lim, David Lynch: The Man From Another Place (2015).

David Foster Wallace, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997).

Scott Young, “Culture Connection,” https://culturevulturereport.wordpress.com/

Image credits: Wikipedia.org.

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