David Lynch Across the Sea

David Lynch. (Gabriel Marchi, Creative Commons)

We’re all living in Amerika, Amerika is wunderbar

The chant by German heavy metal band Rammstein is the kind of car music that will get you weird looks at the traffic light. It’s an ironically triumphal celebration of anti-Americanism that could’ve just been written in the aftermath of the Bush presidency. Despite what you may expect from such premise, the song doesn’t celebrate some sort of European superiority; heavens know we’ve provoked enough bloodshed in the last centuries to make any artist think twice before claiming anything similar. “Amerika”, however, does reject perceived US cultural colonialism, an ancient European anxiety about being gobbled down whole by the American entertainment industry. There’s something peculiarly continental in being scared about being deprived of our own stories. Moral panic about kids who can perfectly recite the Miranda warning seems a bit out of place when the global climate catastrophe and our imperial legacies are coming back to bite our bottoms with the migrant crisis.

However, those same Rammstein who so pointedly rejected Americanization (let’s stick to this esoteric term for a bit) are the same who in the 1990s asked David Lynch to direct their first music video. According to the sacred Rammstein lore, the Midwestern director refused, but he was so fascinated by the punk/techno/metal/fascism-subverting sound that he used the album to set the mood for the actors on the set of his film Lost Highway. The inclusion of two songs in the final soundtrack catapulted the band to global fame. There evidently was something linking the tense German sound with the unsettling Lynchian universe. This is already a tad bizarre in its own right.

David Lynch is, to use a long-abused epitaph, a quintessential American director. Known for his surrealism and unsettling, non-linear storylines, Lynch first started as a painter. In 1977, he shot his first movie, Eraserhead, which together with Elephant Man turned him into a critical darling. His disheveled, soft-spoken demeanor also earned him a place in the hearts of the audiences, who love when cinematography matches the person behind the camera. Who else could be the mind behind a grossly bizarre nightmare baby if not an introspective man who practices transcendental meditation?

Patrica Arquette in Lost Highway (© Ciby 2000/Asymmetrical Productions)

His later movies are unmistakably set in places that could only exist in the US of A. Just think about the sleepy suburbs of Blue Velvet, the great northern forests of Twin Peaks, the Californian extravaganzas of Mulholland Drive. Even Dunes, that heartless box office bomb hated even by the man himself, couldn’t have been possible outside the opulence of Hollywood and its culture of production overreach. A common assessment of Lynch’s filmography is that it mainly focus is that of extolling the everyday horrors, the abyss on whose edge the American way of life is built.

I suspect that the popularity of Lynch among many European (read: French) intellectuals may be due to an image of Lynch as some sort of grand inquisitor of US culture. Especially in those years when Americanization seemed inevitable, he was probably perceived as the man with enough of a stomach to show that the American Dream is nothing but a factory of alienation and nightmares. “[Nothing] is ever a document of culture, without being also one of barbarism”, that kind of jazz.

I think that this kind of reading misses the deeply naturalistic approach Lynch has in his world-view. David Foster Wallace puts it this way: “Evil for Lynch […] moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time – not ‘lurking below'[…] evil is here, right now […]. You could call this idea of evil gnostic, or Taoist, or neo-Hegelian, but it is 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 detail and to its most uncomfortable consequences”.

Wendy Robie as the follower of an Alex Jones-like conspiracy theorist in Twin Peaks (© Showtime)

Lynch is deeply uninterested in America (the idea), beyond the fact that his twisted visions are set in America (the continent). This seems plausible when we think about how little place and identity impact the stories he creates. Or better said – they do count, but as breeding grounds for the very intimate nightmares he projects on the big screen. The socioeconomic fabric of L.A. matters to the degree that it affects the viewer’s expectations of what the failed actress played by Naomi Watts has to face in Mulholland Drive. This is, in a way, the wonder of films: they distill complex human thoughts and networks into finite objects. Or less fancily: there’s no need to understand atomic fission to be scared by a movie about nuclear war.

It’s exactly this detachment from America that makes Lynch’s movies so relatable across the Atlantic. Of course, most Europeans are well-versed in American tropes, and this knowledge of the US as a mythical construct makes the country a narrative playground of sorts, a land that by virtue of existing in the viewer’s imagination is free of all those more immediate considerations affecting “real citizens” from “real countries”. This means that, to a degree, Europeans (or any other non-American for that matter) share with Lynch a dreamy-slash-feverish vision of the US, which translates to the same detachment that fascinates and irritates Americans.

Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive are metaphysical stages to us foreigners, but for Americans, they’re actual places. The consequence is twofold: Lynch’s “sickness” is far more bearable, but only because we tend to confuse his trips into the rotten underbelly of existence for merciless, matter-of-fact social criticism. Oh sure, Isabella Rossellini is being raped on screen and Agent Cooper has transformed into a magical autistic casino-goer with debts and the owner of Club Silencio is undoing the fabric of space and time, but hey – it’s all happening in a made-up land. You know, America

An important set of Mulholland Drive (© Asymmetrical Productions). What’s more American than drive-ins?

And yet, it’s because Lynch is such a quintessential American director that we should be equally freaked out. We may share a kind of detachment from the object of his nightmares, but the immense terror of existence he presents is something common to the whole of humanity. It’s as if we found out that the alien being dissected beyond the one-way mirror was suddenly standing right beside us. Why the lack of dread, then? Maybe as human beings, we’re irremediably stuck to appearances, or maybe living on a continent-wide graveyard makes us more insensitive.

If I may speak for myself, I love David Lynch for the same reasons I love Rammstein. What scares me about both are not the twisted fables about Americana, or the Nazi aesthetics, or the cosmic horror; those are just evident expressions of evil. What I’m scared about is everything fermenting behind the curtain, those dark desires, the repressed sexuality, a lust for domination and blood and annihilation encoded in the very concept of existence. It is to discover that the core of being alive is as put by Lost Highway‘s soundtrack: “By day I long for the night, For the second time you slip away from me”.

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