By Justus Nieland
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Justus Nieland
All right reserved.
Chapter One Wrapped in Plastic
Wrapped in Plastic, as any fan of David Lynch will know, is the name of a long-running fanzine (1993–2005) devoted to the critical and cult phenomenon of Twin Peaks (1990–1992), one of the most innovative shows in the history of network television. The title refers to the state of Laura Palmer's dead body as a found object, waiting to be revived in the quirky fantasies of the living. The corpse of this high school homecoming queen and incest victim, enshrouded in semitranslucent synthetic sheeting, washes up on the shore of a river in a small, Pacific Northwest logging town. The body incarnates the inaugural secret—"Who Killed Laura Palmer?"—that spawns countless mysteries over the course of the series. Wrapped in plastic of the most everyday sort, beached as the unforeseen waste of a presumably more natural environment, Laura's embalmed body is rather like the synthetic environment of Twin Peaks itself: in its reanimations of absence, in its uncanny blurring of the quotidian and the strange, and in its perverse contaminations of the "nature" of small-town American "culture." Critic Andrew Ross had just this kind of plastic in mind when he referred to Twin Peaks as "one of our first examples of ecological camp."
David Lynch's corpus has undergone its own plastic embalming. The evolution of his filmmaking career—from the midnight-movie success of Eraserhead (1977), his astonishing first feature, to critical darlings like Blue Velvet (1986) and Wild at Heart (1990)—dovetailed with the academic consolidation of postmodernism, a cultural logic Lynch's films came to embody for the likes of Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, both of whom have written brilliantly about Lynch. The postmodern Lynch came prepackaged with its own theory of plastic, the ur-material in Lynch's aesthetic of depthlessness and superficiality, semiotic excess and cliché. Plastic named Lynch's detached emotional orientation—cold, ironic, and insincere. Plastic materialized Lynch's relationship to history and the political, at once nostalgic for a past that never was and shrink-wrapped against the realities of the present. And plastic was the medium of psychic reality, approached by Lynch chiefly through the malleable stuff of fantasy.
Rather than scrapping this story of plastic, since it accounts for much of Lynch's work, we might take plastic even more seriously as the prime matter of Lynch's filmmaking, essential to his understanding of cinema. This means understanding plastic not as a static substance—reified and hard, unchanging and resistant to history—but rather as pervaded by a mysterious dynamism. In 1957, for example, Roland Barthes described plastic as a properly alchemical substance, pulling off the "magical operation par excellence: the transmutation of matter." For Barthes, the fascination with plastic—evident in awed crowds lined up to witness new secular gods like Polystyrene—was doubly historical. It was both the latest stage in the evolution of bourgeois "imitation materials—"that is, their prosaic fall from the domain of appearance to actual use—and the by-product of France's rapid postwar modernization.
Materializing the "very idea of infinite transformation," French plastics marked the belated arrival of the United States' own postwar dream of consumption. This arrival led to a broader makeover of the domestic interior as modern that would be satirized in films like Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle (1958), one of Lynch's favorites. Of course, Lynch's obsessive returns to the styles, songs, and domestic environments of the 1950s are often read as part of his nostalgia. But Lynch's own remarks about the cheery decade suggest a more thoughtful reckoning with the utopian kernel of mid-century design and its promesse du bonheur:
It was a fantastic decade in a lot of ways. Cars were made by the right kind of people. Designers were really out there with fins and chrome and really amazing stuff ... They were like sculpture, you know, that moved ... The future was bright. Little did we know we were laying the groundwork for a disastrous future. All the problems were there, but it was somehow glossed over. And then the gloss broke, or rotted, and it all came oozing out ... pollution was really good and started [sic]. Plastics were coming in, weird studies of chemicals and co-polymers and a lot of medical experiments, the atomic bomb and a lot of, you know, testing. It was like the world was so huge you could dump a bunch of stuff and it's not gonna matter, right? It just kinda got out of control.
With typical gee-whiz enthusiasm, Lynch offers a rather shrewd micro-history of postwar material culture, which found itself catering to America's burgeoning middle-class consumers with all the outrageous, revolutionary new products and designs of cold war modernity. The excesses of this brave new built world—evident in Detroit's fins and chrome but also in fiberglass chairs, molded plywood, and the multifunctional furniture ensembles of mid-century modern designers—were the material fantasies of America's postwar, democratic futurity. As Lynch knows, the irrevocably changed substance of postwar material culture gave us not only the synthetic stuff of consumer fantasy—"Euphoric 1950s chrome optimism," he calls it elsewhere—but also the catastrophes of the built environment: environmental and ecological contamination, the atom bomb, and other kinds of scientific experimentation run amok.
Plastic, for Lynch, may be the future's happy medium, but it is also the stuff of inevitable disaster and chaos and the too-fragile gloss of fantasy's containment. If plastic has a dominant mood or tone, it is one that merges the soul of postwar utopian sincerity and domestic security and its retrospectively ironic rejoinder: "Little did we know ..." Positioned between the innocence and experience of America's material environment at mid-century, plastic is a fretful substance—uncanny anxiety materialized as kitsch. Epitomizing Lynch's ambivalence toward the lure of the mid-century, the promise of plastic is its material, affective, and temporal dynamism. Lynch's thing for the 1950s is a form of attentiveness to a transformed material environment. In it, nature is transfigured by technological second nature, homey euphoria is haunted by unease and intimations of disaster, and movement into a happy future is blocked by a nagging, still unprocessed trauma in the domain of human making. Given this, might we understand his films as themselves environments? They are as affectively unstable, as riddled with temporal ambiguities, as filled with hybrids of nature-culture as the postwar world that haunts his filmic imagination. In these atmospheres, spectators are wrapped in plastic.
It should not come as a surprise that Lynch would understand filmmaking as a way of shaping, plastically, a moving environment. He came to filmmaking, after all, following a failed European apprenticeship in painting with Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka (Lynch left Europe soon after arriving, before meeting the painter). And in 1965 he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia—then dominated by the prestige of American action painters like Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Jack Tworkov. By this time, the American art world had witnessed a series of attempts to rethink aesthetic production on the model of a more dynamic experience, an ongoing situation, or a contingent Happening. This began, perhaps, with Allan Kaprow's so-called Environments in New York in the late 1950s and continued through the development of installation art in the 1960s and '70s. In 1956, for example, Kaprow suggested that the artistic movement toward assemblages, three-dimensional spaces, and his own multimedia "Environments" was inaugurated by the enlarged "arena" of action painters like Pollock. Similarly, Lynch's first "film," Six Men Getting Sick (1967), was conceived as an attempt to extend the capacity of painting to move and, in moving, to frame a situation for an active viewer. Six Men is a thoughtful, multimedia investigation of cinema's relationship to the plastic arts—to materials that are capable of being shaped or molded in three dimensions. It is also the first of many of Lynch's films to understand cinema as theatrical in its orientation to the contingent situation and embodied experience of its viewer, anticipating the tendency of his films to turn into tableaux, or arenas of gestural intensity, or a proscenium for all manner of performances.
Many filmmakers have come to cinema from painting, of course, and Lynch is not the first to align processes of cinematic construction with the plastic arts. As part of its preoccupation with the ontology of the cinematic, classical film theory made similar comparisons. Take, for example, French art historian Élie Faure's 1923 essay "Cineplastics," which insists on cinema as "plastic first." By plastic, though, Faure means not "motionless, colorless forms called sculptural," but cinema as "moving architecture," one whose primary characteristic is "a living rhythm and its repetition in time." Because he understands cinema as an aesthetic whole, dynamic, moving in time, and thus producing a "sudden coming to life," Faure sees the product of cineplastics as an "autonomous organism" whose skeleton is a "web of feeling." In this way, cinema materializes "the plastic" in the obsolete sense of the word, as the creative or procreative principle, bringing into being a new, surrogate form of life.
Remarks like these may strike us today as dubiously animistic or vitalistic, but they need not be. Instead, they make a strong claim for the plastic materiality of cinema and its capacity to fashion moving aesthetic environments for experience. In Lynch's case, these transient situations are occasions for an experience of human life as itself plastic, shot through with kinds of media that are life's original supplement but that over the span of Lynch's lifetime have estranged life irrevocably from itself. This, the plastic excess lodged at the very heart of life, everywhere energizes Lynch's filmmaking.
This book explores three nodal points in Lynch's plastic environments. "Interior Design" takes up plasticity's capacity for infinite transformation as an architectural and design dynamic, a feature of mise-enscne, and a mode of fashioning, and psychologizing, cinematic space. Lynch's films imbue rooms with the erratic force of organic nature. They produce atmosphere in the fashion of unforeseen weather patterns, incipient environmental disturbances, or ecological disasters. As well-wrought climates, Lynch's interiors are made more lovely through their systematic deformations of habit and habitat—the failed boundaries of intimate life, the incursion of foreign bodies, unaccountable behavior, or eccentric textures and objects that, by not fitting the scene, further volatize it for the spectator. Discussing Eraserhead, The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway (1997), I turn to Lynch's various ways of giving us a sense of an interior, both domestic and psychic. This aesthetic preoccupation has recently turned entrepreneurial in Lynch's collaboration in the fall 2011 opening of Club Silencio, a Rue Montmarte nightclub combining concert hall, restaurant, library, and cinema with moody interiors designed by Lynch himself and modeled on Mulholland Dr.'s mysterious venue of the same name. Exploring how Lynch's films stage interiority, for he shows insides to be emphatically theatrical, I consider how his films have always bespoken a familiarity with the cultural history and iconography of a broad range of modern design idioms, especially the mid-century domestication of modernism and its attempts to supplant avant-garde austerity with bourgeois pleasure. Lynch is a kind of constructivist, an engineer of atmosphere, and the mysteries of the inside—to which so much of his work is devote—dare plastic.
"The Art of Being Moved" explores the emotional registers of plasticity, attempting to explain a key affective paradox in Lynch's work: the way it seems both so manifestly insincere and so emotionally powerful, so impersonal and so intense. Plastic's instability as a substance raises the problem of Lynch's famously unstable tone and the nature of his artistic knowingness or sophistication. Attempting to distinguish the melodramatic sincerity of Blue Velvet from the forms of ironic cruelty so common in 1980s cinema, Lynch once described the film's curious sentimentalism as an attempt to capture the way "radiation had become an emotion." Thus do historical mutations of the biosphere of the 1950s find their way into the unstable affective environments of Lynch's films, energizing their plastic arrangements of culture. Marked by a high degree of medial self-consciousness, Lynch's work is an archive of some of the most esteemed emotional strategies of aesthetic modernity—combining and oscillating between modes such as the lyric, the grotesque, irony, the emotional vicariousness of kitsch, the uncanny, black humor, romantic passion, trauma, melodrama, and the sensational, voyeuristic, or pornographic. But in films like Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and Mulholland Dr. (2001), Lynch offers particular canny meditations on mediated affect. In these films, which are some of his most emotionally complex, Lynch explores the contours of feeling as it is shaped, deformed, and conditioned by particular media environments, protocols, and technologies. Exploring the problem of affect is one way Lynch performs media history.
"Organism" takes up Lynch's persistent tendency to think of forms of media and forms of life as related species. Here, plastic is useful for conceptualizing his picture of the human organism as malleable and heterogeneous. Lynch's unruly understanding of human biology, its tendency to exceed its own mortal limits and the boundaries of time and space, is often engendered through forms of media—whether cel animation, slow-moving lawn mowers, or low-grade digital images—which themselves become monstrously vital. Lynch wants art, and cinema, to animate aesthetic environments that are life-like; however, for Lynch, life is productive mostly for its capacity to never be simply itself but rather to spawn the unaccountable and the unforeseen. What this amounts to in films like Six Men Getting Sick (1967), The Grandmother (1970), The Straight Story (1999), and Inland Empire (2006) is a version of human nature and human culture as productive assemblages, sites of relentless activity and transformation made even more dynamic by organic nature's original contamination by the inorganic. Here, Lynch reveals himself to be a surrealist in anthropology—sharing with the historical surrealists both a sense of the organism as living in uncanny hybridity with technology and mediation and a subversive awareness of culture as a basically incoherent arrangement of norms, rules, and limits on human freedoms.
These ways of asking what it means, in Lynch's art, to be wrapped in plastic assume that in some fundamental ways plastic is the ur-substance of modern experience. And this means taking seriously the category of "experience" itself—a category some of the most compelling recent treatments of Lynch tend to dismiss as the hallmark of a retrograde myth of fullness, a form of New Age mysticism, or an anything-goes mode of aesthetic evaluation. Lynch is, of course, always insisting on cinema as a kind of unfathomable, qualitative experience—a ritual, a thing to be suffered, or a passion to be undergone. And perhaps unsurprisingly, he has increasingly linked this endeavor to his stumping for Transcendental Meditation, which, we are told, will be the subject of his next film. This does not mean we are to take his word on his art; rather, it should at least remind us that "experience" has been an indispensable category in twentieth- and twenty-first-century art and in theories of the strange vitality of the moving image in particular—as Walter Benjamin, André Breton, André Bazin, and Roland Barthes knew well. To think about the kinds of exemplary experience that Lynch's works, as singular environments, offer to their spectators is essential to any reckoning with his experimentalism and to understanding what, if anything, it offers as a way of thinking about cinema and its digital afterlife.
Excerpted from David Lynch by Justus Nieland Copyright © 2012 by Justus Nieland. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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