If Inland Empire, released in 2006, has proved one of the strangest films of the last decade, David Lynch’s activities since then have only increased the mystery surrounding its director. In recent years, Lynch has exhibited his art across the globe, created his own coffee brand, participated in promotional tours for Transcendental Mediation (with the likes of Donovan and Russell Brand as supporting acts), established a foundation dedicated to ‘Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace,’ released an album of pop and dance tracks, directed videos for Duran Duran and Christian Dior, opened a nightclub in Paris showcasing his own interior designs, and launched a range of bungalows. Another feature film seems increasingly unlikely – the extraordinary dance sequence that concludes Inland Empire now feels like a final goodbye to cinema, the ultimate wrap party.
Perhaps, though, some of these supra-cinematic endeavours – in particular, the interior design work and the bungalow plans – might be seen less as oddities and more like extensions of Lynch’s previous on-screen obsessions. For, as Justus Nieland’s superb new book demonstrates, David Lynch is best thought of as a sophisticated designer – ‘an engineer of atmosphere’ who has always been highly aware of developments in modern architecture and who has created ‘singular environments’ throughout his career (1). Indeed, Nieland initiates his study of Lynch with the intriguing question: ‘might we understand his films as themselves environments?’ (p. 4)
From the outset, Nieland’s emphasis on design offers a particularly useful way of explicating Lynch’s complex and much-misunderstood relationship with the 1950s. ‘The fifties are still here,’ Lynch has claimed. ‘They’re all around. They never went away’ (2). Conspicuous nods to this era – jukeboxes, diners, teenage bikers in leather jackets – profilerate throughout his work, which critics have often perceived as a kind of nostalgic regression or postmodern pastiche. However, Nieland’s clarification – ‘Lynch’s thing for the 1950s is a form of attentiveness to a transformed material environment’ (p. 3-4) – is a far more productive stance on the temporal ambiguities that characterise films such as Blue Velvet (1986). It is the peculiar combination of euphoria and unease generated by mid-century design that haunts Lynch’s environments. It would have been fascinating to hear more about the possible connections, briefly suggested by Nieland, between the interiors designed by Lynch and the growth in immersive, three-dimensional environments in installation art that began in the late 1950s.
In another sense, Nieland’s analysis of Lynch as a designer of moving environments continues a marked shift evident in recent scholarship on the director. While earlier critiques of Lynch tended to focus on questions of gender, sound and, in particular, his affiliation with postmodernism, critics in the last few years have begun to confront in various ways the unique spatial qualities of his cinema. In Todd McGowan’s influential schema, each of Lynch’s films is composed of two distinct spatial units – a sparse world of desire and a heightened world of fantasy. Akira Mizuta Lippit has explored the ubiquitous passages operating in Lynch’s films, while Tom McCarthy has focused on Lynch’s intricate networks (3). Notably, contemporary architects have for a long time been interested in the spaces Lynch has designed: in 2009, Frank Gehry incorporated images from Inland Empire in his plans for a cultural centre in Łódź; in 2000, Jean Nouvel, ‘impressed by David Lynch and his aesthetics,’ decorated a Swiss hotel room with a still from Lost Highway; while, as far back as 1991, Peter Eisenman highlighted how Lynch upsets our conventional expectations: ‘All our lives are spent learning how to get it: Lynch un-learns us’ (4). Learning from Lynch, then, might be considered to be foremost a lesson in counter-intuitive design.
Justus Nieland’s contribution to these debates pivots on ‘plastic’ – a term, as Dustin Hoffman learnt in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), with significant resonance in the post-war world. Nieland identifies plastic as both ‘the prime matter’ of Lynch’s work (p. 2) and ‘the ur-substance of modern experience’ (p. 7). Plastic, Nieland explains, is dynamic: it moves, moulds and manipulates. Lynch knows this is a material with a big future, the stuff of consumer fantasies, but he is also extremely conscious of its attendant anxieties and uncanny manifestations. Plastic’s ability to mutate is aligned with Lynch’s commitment to estrangement – to the idea that things are not quite themselves (and the impossibility and the undesirability for things to be any other way). Nieland’s book therefore explores in turn how the logic of plastic shapes Lynch’s interiors, his film’s unstable emotional registers, and their notion of life (intimately related with forms of media). It is a pity that this deeply suggestive term occasionally feels forgotten in the subsequent readings of Lynch’s work.
Interiority, with its multiple psychological, architectural and cinematic connotations, is the subject of the first section of Nieland’s book. Curtains and windows, tables and lamps, plants and radiators are all closely examined here. Henry’s apartment room in Eraserhead (1977) is described as ‘an avant-garde interior’ (p. 20), a domestic laboratory that challenges conventional notions of privacy, while John Merrick’s obsessive attention to home décor in The Elephant Man (1980) reflects his own ‘botched performance of bourgeois humanity’ (p. 28). Thus, from the beginning of his career, Lynch’s interiors have been imbued with a palpable sense of spectacle – they are theatrical environments where characters cannot escape the attentions of an audience. Here, in the words of the architect Richard Neutra, the home is ‘not a machine for living. Architecture is a stage for living’ (5). In his analysis of Blue Velvet, Nieland brilliantly demonstrates how Lynch’s ‘masterpiece’ (p. 28) is an index of broader changes in the modern interior brought about by the likes of Neutra – specifically, how in the post-war period modernist architects in the United States scrapped ‘avant-garde austerity for bourgeois pleasure’ (p. 32). In Lost Highway (1997), Nieland convincingly argues, Lynch’s ostentatious presentation of mid-century design icons, a kind of theatrical minimalism, is a key part of the film’s broader interest in pornographic spectacle.
The second section of the book attends to the plasticity of affect maintained by Lynch’s work – the way in which tone in his films changes so wildly and so quickly. Consider, for example, Betty’s audition at Paramount Studios in Mulholland Drive (2001) where a hilariously clichéd script is suddenly transformed into a compelling encounter. Why does Lynch insist on this strange blend of comedy and anxiety? How do scenes of overwhelming sadness in his work generate immense sincerity from such self-conscious artifice? What role do the tropes appropriated from genres such as melodrama play in these affective scenarios?
In approaching such questions, Nieland shows how, for Lynch, affect is shaped above all by media processes. Thus, the radio in Wild at Heart (1990), the vinyl records in Twin Peaks (1990-91), and the telephones and microphones used throughout Mulholland Drive are all subject to interrogation. Especially evocative is Nieland’s discussion of how the emotional extremities resulting from Lynch’s reanimation of Laura Palmer (who began the TV series ‘wrapped in plastic’) in Fire Walk With Me (1992) relate to the fantasies of a media community – namely, ‘the famously rabid fan culture of Twin Peaks’ (p. 87). At the end of this mournful prequel, we join Laura in the Red Room, perhaps Lynch’s most famous piece of design. Nieland describes this notoriously ambiguous space as ‘melodrama’s crypt, preserving eternally our pleasure in the fantasy structure of wishing’ (p. 94). Along similar lines, Nieland proposes that Mulholland Drive reveals how ‘the being of cinema and the being of a person in love’ are ‘somehow analogous to each other’ (p. 96).
The third and final section of the book, which feels less convincing, engages with the long-running debate concerning Lynch’s relationship with surrealism. For Nieland, Lynch follows a surrealist tradition in linking biological processes with media. To support this idea, he turns to two early Lynch works in which animation plays a key role – Six Men Getting Sick (1967) and The Grandmother (1970). The latter is particularly significant in anticipating a major feature of Lynch’s later films: the manner in which ‘the bourgeois home morphs into a kind of gestural theater’ (p. 121). While it is refreshing to encounter new readings of these formative pieces, they sit somewhat uneasily with the analysis of The Straight Story (1998) that follows. Nieland does, however, rightly point out that Lynch’s rather sentimental tale of redemption in the Mid-West, commonly lauded for its depiction of nature, is as much about technology, processed meat, bioengineering and agricultural machinery. In other words, The Straight Story is about human designs on this landscape.
Finally, we reach ‘the charged psycho-technical landscape of Inland Empire,’ a film which upsets the basic laws of organic life to embed its characters ‘in a vast digital combinatoire’ (p. 135-137). Many observers have balked at the grainy quality of Inland Empire’s images, longing for a return to the glorious clarity of Mulholland Drive, but as Nieland explains, the cheap digital equipment utilised by Lynch both ‘suits the film’s aesthetics of poverty, vulnerability, and indeterminacy,’ and aligns the director with ‘a long tradition of avant-garde artists captivated by the non-naturalistic image’ (p. 138-140). This is a film which still requires considerable unpacking; Nieland’s allusion to its ‘surprisingly feminist’ (p. 151) coding might be one productive avenue of future enquiry.
With the inclusion of a detailed filmography and two well-chosen interviews with the director, Nieland’s book clearly offers a great deal to those beginning their investigations into David Lynch, as well as providing a stream of new insights and critical angles for those more familiar with the director’s work. The design strategies used by Lynch in the creation of his unforgettable cinematic environments have never before received such sustained and intelligent assessment. In Lost Highway, Fred Madison famously asked the ghoulish Mystery Man: ‘how did you get inside my house?’ With this book, Justus Nieland has not only got inside David Lynch’s house: he has exposed its interior to expert interpretation.
Justus Nieland, David Lynch (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012).
- Justus Nieland, David Lynch (Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012), pp. 6-7. Subsequent page references are included in the main text.
- Lynch quoted in Chris Rodley (ed.), Lynch on Lynch (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), p. 4.
- Todd McGowan, The Impossible David Lynch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Akira Mizuta Lippit, ‘David Lynch’s Secret Passages’, FlowTV, 13 February 2012; Tom McCarthy, ‘His Dark Materials’, New Statesman, 11 January 2010.
- Nouvel quoted in Nobuyuki Yoshida and Ai Kitazawa (eds.), Jean Nouvel 1987-2006. Special Issue of Architecture and Urbanism (April 2006), p. 152; Eisenman quoted in ‘(Why) Is David Lynch Important? A Parkett Inquiry’, Parkett, No. 28 (1991), pp. 153-162.
- Neutra quoted in Sylvia Lavin, Form Follows Libido: Architecture and Richard Neutra in a Psychoanalytic Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), p. 56.