Richard Martin’s The Architecture of David Lynch arrived just ahead of the director’s return to television. The reviews of Season 3 of Twin Peaks (2017) make much of the characters, the slowly unfolding mysteries, and the similarities between the new season and Lynch’s recent creative output (such as Mulholland Drive  and Inland Empire ). Following Martin’s research, one significant aspect that ties these comparisons together or, makes them possible, is Lynch’s sustained investment in place and space, areas of interest for the director since his youth. If the episodes of Twin Peaks, 25 years ago and now, are full of secrets to unravel, the clues are found in the very architecture of the scenes. Martin thus begins with a simple thesis, which also serves as his methodological approach: “Lynch guarantees architecture is the story.” (p. 13) His chapters tell the story of each of Lynch’s films through four “symbolic spaces” that cut across his entire oeuvre: Small Town and Big City, the Home, the Road, and the Stage. For Martin, however, Inland Empire is trickier than these four locations. In a fascinating final chapter, the author pulls together various insights made earlier in the book in order to assess the film’s settings of Łódź and Los Angeles.
The Architecture of David Lynch accomplishes very close readings of the physical appearance of large and small scale buildings, while also carefully detailing seemingly minor details of Lynch’s mise en scène, such as furnishings and home décor. Each element, reads Martin, contributes to the director’s cinematic universe. With his method of close reading, Martin will also place the writings, interviews, and designs of famous architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Adolf Loos, Richard Neutra, Le Corbusier, and Jean Nouvel side by side with the settings of Lynch’s films. Moreover, Martin finds much evidence for the importance of space in Lynch’s universe from statements made by the director himself. Without explicitly stating it, then, Architecture fully embraces the method of auteur theory.1 The book often wholeheartedly agrees with Lynch when he provides interpretive remarks on his films, the cinema, and the relationship between cinema and architecture. Additionally, cultural theory is employed by the author to bolster his close readings. Walter Benjamin, Gilles Deleuze, Slavoj Žižek, Gaston Bachelard, and Michel Foucault fill the pages, with the last figure perhaps overly relied upon in the the final two chapters. These theorists enable Martin’s production of highly original readings which demonstrate both his aspirations for rigorous scholarship and cinephilia. Indeed, Todd McGowan’s praise on the back of the volume is entirely apt: “[Martin] bombards us with insight and after insight.”
The introduction moves from film pioneers such as Dziga Vertov and Maya Deren to the reflections of Nouvel and Lynch to establish the relationship between architecture and cinema. Martin also highlights a number of scholars who have already made claims about Lynch’s spaces.2 The rest of the book is not structured chronologically through the director’s oeuvre but is broken into chapters via the symbolic locations. The chapters are then divided into subsections wherein Martin can review each film’s engagement with space and its relevance for narrative.
The first chapter, “Town and City,” begins with industrial design in The Elephant Man (1980) and Eraserhead (1977). The films show two cities producing monstrous forms: the industrial landscapes of London help generate the raging gawkers of the so-called Elephant Man, and Philadelphia’s decline is symbolised in the vast emptiness of its industrial architecture, the protagonist’s crumbling room, and Mary’s house, with its excessive piping. The next sections of the chapter assess the relationship between urban planning and competing notions of (American) neighborliness. Blue Velvet (1986) finds Lumberton, a pleasant, white-picket fence town, invaded by the criminal forces of city life. Martin outlines the urban planning of such small town developments and describes the rather unneighbourly attitudes hiding in plain sight in Lumberton. Indeed, while American small towns are explicitly designed such that neighbours may interact with one another, Blue Velvet’s narrative and its spaces reveal that these locales, despite existing a mere street apart, nevertheless develop clear separations between respectable streets and the ones inhabited by the likes of Dorothy Vallens and Frank (p. 38). Martin’s short reading of Twin Peaks covers similar ground: the town feels the threat of the nearby mythic woods and, as visualised in the show, is the zone “where the most unbounded behaviour takes place.” (p. 49)3 Finally, Martin reads the bending and twisting roads and spaces of Mulholland Drive as symbolic instances that indicate the twists and turns of the narrative. The film narrates a story of small town Betty who arrives in Los Angeles and is amazed by the wonders of the city and its architecture – this is the place where dreams are made. Biography comes into play here as Los Angeles immediately impressed the young, small-town Lynch as well. Martin provides insightful remarks about the historic significance of many of the spaces and buildings found in the film. The author, like much of auteur theory, therefore argues that the film achieves a fuller meaning once we are informed of the director’s intentions.
Beginning with Bachelard, Loos, and Neutra, chapter two turns to the home, both architecturally and its furnishings. Martin finds parallels between these architects’ designs and Lynch’s homes that add up to a sense of “not looking well”. From this loaded start, Martin then compares a number of Lynch’s films to Frantz Kafka’s writing and Francis Bacon’s paintings. As Martin argues, director, author and artist all “explore the alienation of a single urban room” as well as “the idea of entrapment” (pp. 68, 85). The home also largely figures in melodrama, a genre Lynch is no stranger to.4 Martin weaves in and out of a number of films to demonstrate the impact of “traumatic symbols” such as television sets, hallways, staircases, corridors, and windows on Lynch’s characters (pp. 78ff). Building upon theories of melodrama up to the point of his writing, Martin thus adds a compelling account to our understanding of the genre.
Both Bacon and Lynch set their figures and characters on or about a kind of stage. The second chapter thus speaks to the fourth chapter, titled “Stage”. For Martin, Kafka, Bacon, and Lynch need the platform and stage to allow their characters to overtly perform or become the object of interest, e.g., the Elephant Man in the film of the same name, the girl in the radiator in Eraserhead, Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive. The author draws upon Michel Foucault’s oft-discussed essay “Of Other Spaces” and demonstrates that it is not simply that all Lynch’s spaces are heterotopias; rather, in Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, and Inland Empire, among other works, a tension arises between the theatricality of a scene and the history of cinema (and the confrontation between incompatible spaces is one of the criteria for Foucault’s heterotopias). From the diegetic lighting, shooting in old cinemas, the frequent use of curtains, and diegetic Hollywood studios, the architecture of Lynch’s universes show characters (and viewers) the history of Hollywood, its fantasy spaces, and its unfulfilled promises (p. 150). When characters appear on stage or view a stage, these conflicts in heterotopic spaces become essential to the unfolding narrative.
The third chapter, “Road”, focuses on Wild at Heart (1990) and The Straight Story (1999) – a rarely discussed film in Lynch’s œuvre – and assesses their impact on the US highway system. For Martin, Lynch is a “car-oriented director” (p. 112). These two films take us on a journey through various states. Wild at Heart is as much about the characters as it is the story of the country: “interchanges and immense tunnels, […] garages and junkyards, billboards and parking lots, strip malls and big-box stores” (p. 109). Moreover, rather than the traffic of the famous scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Week End (1967), “Lynch’s roads are rarely […] gridlocked,” thus Lynch is able to fully explore Americana (p. 123). Similarly, in The Straight Story we see another side of the United States, namely, its agricultural architecture and machinery. We move at Alvin’s riding-lawnmower pace as the unseen helicopter provides aerial shots of vast landscapes, grain elevators, and machinery. As Alvin meanders through Iowa and Wisconsin, Martin also observes that the character’s “divine moments” have much to do with architecture: he finds grace while taking refuge in a barn and is later awed by a bridge over the Mississippi (p. 130). Indeed, in this short chapter, Martin makes it clear that Lynch’s road movies are first and foremost about the sides of the road and what characters find there.
Perhaps taking a cue from Manohla Dargis’s excellent review of the film,5 Martin’s fifth and final chapter, “Room”, walks readers through the challenging Inland Empire by way of the parallels between the “various unexplained spaces” of Łódź and Los Angeles (p 164). Following on the heels of the fourth chapter, here Martin again reads “the traces of cinematic history” (p. 178). From Hollywood Boulevard to the Museum of Cinematography in Łódź, each setting is rife with the culture of cinema. And yet, exterior architecture is not Lynch’s only recourse to a meta-commentary on cinema. “From radio and gramophones to CCTV monitors, Inland Empire is inhabited by competing media” (p. 177). Indeed, the film seems to be controlled by the Lost Girl in the Rubinstein Suite of the Hotel Grand in Łódź: the suite set in Poland seems to control Nikki’s drama in Hollywood. Thus when the narrative spirals out of control at the end, as the Lost Girl “sprints through the film’s various corridors, sets and rooms, all these locations are revealed to be simultaneously housed within the same structure: the marriage of Łódź and Los Angeles is complete.” (p. 180) Moreover, Martin argues that the difficult film has sense for us when positioned alongside Lynch’s past engagements with place and space: Łódź becomes Europe’s “Rust Belt,” i.e., another investigation of the effects of industry on a city’s architecture; the stages again pose problems for our strict boundaries between performer and spectator and the fantasies of each; and the enigmatic locale which concludes the film, “the alley behind the marketplace,” is actually located on the Paramount Studios lot and is Lynch’s attempt to self-reflexively “epitomize [his] artistic route that runs adjacent to the major sites of filmic production” (p. 181-182). Martin thus rescues a difficult film from complete obfuscation by reading its architecture.
Martin’s volume helps usher in a new era of Lynch scholarship, an era in which Lynch’s films are read as something other than dreams and fantasies.6 It should appeal to those interested in Lynch, especially at this pivotal moment in his career, as well as those interested in the broader fields of visual culture. At times Martin’s range of topics feels overly ambitious, especially when several themes do not quite sustain themselves over the course of a chapter nor provide the reader with enough background to fully understand the historical and political implications of the debate (e.g., U.S. geopolitics in chapter three). However, the wonderful final chapter could not exist without the previous ones. Chapter five consists of a sustained argument and builds upon prior Lynchian themes, such as industrial design and cinema history architecture, to craft a very compelling reading of Inland Empire.
Aside from a somewhat underwhelming discussion of cultural theory and its relative applicability to the arguments, Martin’s book is a valuable contribution to Lynch scholarship, particularly in its extremely close attention to detail. Martin’s observations and insights have transformed the way I view Lynch’s work. Watching Twin Peaks Season Three, I employ the vision of the the architecturally-inclined cinephile. The episodes are mysterious but the sets demand my immediate attention. In the first episode, Tracey and Sam Colby enter a concrete room filled with unopened cardboard boxes and a large glass box surrounded by cameras and other technologies, not unlike something we might see in Eraserhead. Tracey asks, “Whose place is this?” Sam is unsure – his task is to keep an eye on the always empty glass box from a platform. Both characters then place themselves on the stage’s loveseat. After a few brief moments spent gazing at the empty container (a metaphor for the screen and show: my TV screen consistently reveals little about the ongoing mysteries of the series), the characters begin a sexual performance. During their sexual escapade, a black fog slowly fills the box and a sickly figure appears. The monster breaks through the glass to mutilate the lovers. The answer to Tracey’s above question is simply, and undeniably, David Lynch’s. His settings allow for themes and genres and narratives to criss-cross in stimulating ways. This concrete room (and Lynch’s œuvre as a whole) is a space for science fiction, fantasy, romance, and horror.
Richard Martin, The Architecture of David Lynch (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014).
- Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1972). Andrew Sarris, “The Auteur Theory Revisited,” in Film and Authorship, ed. Virginia Wright Wexman (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2002), pp 21-29. ↩
- For earlier thoughts from Martin on Lynch’s architecture, see his “Designs for Life: David Lynch by Justin Nieland,” Senses of Cinema 64 (2012) <http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/book-reviews/designs-for-life-david-lynch-by-justus-nieland/>. ↩
- See also Martha P. Nochimson, “Desire under the Douglas Firs: Entering the Body of Reality in Twin Peaks,” Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to ‘Twin Peaks’, ed. David Lavery (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994), pp. 133-159. ↩
- For a recent treatment of Lynch and melodrama, see Stephen Lacey, ‘Just Plain Odd: Some Thoughts on Performance Styles in Twin Peaks’, Cinema Journal 55:3 (2016), pp. 126-131. ↩
- Manohla Dargis, “The Trippy Dream Factory of David Lynch,” New York Times, December 6, 2006. <http://movies2.nytimes.com/2006/12/06/movies/06empi.html?ref=movies> ↩
- For an overview of recent scholarship that moves away from dream and fantasy, see Martha P. Nochimson, David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013). ↩