Quantum Mechanics, Walk With Me: On Interpreting David Lynch

David LynchBooks about film directors fall broadly into three categories: biographical, industrial (behind the scenes), and theoretical. David Lynch, an artist whose experiments in popular surrealism have seen him move in and out of public favour and critical acclaim, is a director whose oeuvre repays thoughtful work in all three. Two new books — Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, by Brad Dukes (short/Tall Press, 2014), and David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty from Lost Highway to Inland Empire, by Martha P. Nochimson (University of Texas Press, 2013, recently out in paperback) — are cases in point.

Reflections is a dogged book, a remarkable example of what fanatical devotion to research can produce. Dukes tells the story of Lynch and Mark Frost’s game-changing television show (“this sublime mayhem” in Michael Ontkean’s phrase) from the first kernel of an idea through its initial runaway success to its cancellation and the critical savaging received by prequel movie Fire Walk With Me (1992). He’s interviewed dozens of actors, directors and production team members, including almost all the main cast (though Lynch himself is silent). The attention to detail is extraordinary. Casting sessions and individual days of filming are recalled. There’s an interview with the co-founder of COOP (Citizens Opposed to the Offing of Peaks), a grassroots organization that helped keep Twin Peaks going in its darkest hour. Richard Beymer talks us through his outrageous brie baguette-eating scene in Episode 2. Angelo Badalamenti has a great story about the Queen of England not having time to talk to Paul McCartney because she was worried she’d miss an episode. There’s even a whole chapter on Invitation to Love, the mock soap opera that some of the show’s characters follow in Season 1.

But for all the fond recollections, the value of Reflections is in its behind-the-scenes revelations. As one executive commented when he saw the pilot, after Twin Peaks, “tried and true was dead and buried”. What made the show so original — its flights into Tibetan mysticism, dreams and transcendentalism; its emotional intensity; its complex narrative arcs — is commonly attributed to Lynch, despite the fact that he directed only six of its thirty episodes. But his authority was compromised in other ways too. Network television could never permit the freedoms afforded to him while making movies like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Dr. The resolution of Twin Peaks’s central enigma, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”, was coerced out of the show’s makers by ABC. A storyline that might have seen a romantic relationship develop between Agent Cooper and Audrey Horne was vetoed by Kyle MacLachlan. The final episode, one of the strangest ever seen on network television, was directed by Lynch in the knowledge that the show was unlikely to be renewed for a third season. Any comprehensive reading of Twin Peaks must surely be affected by all this information — and much else that fills Dukes’s comprehensive volume. But to what extent?

Of course, Lynch has often turned industrial pressures to his advantage. Mulholland Dr. was an aborted TV pilot that became one of his best-received movies, earning him a best director award at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination. Inland Empire, his most challenging film, was only really made possible by the advent of cheap digital video, which facilitated the piecemeal, experimental techniques that produced it. Just as Reflections allows us to consider the possible impact of industrial considerations on the narrative arc of Twin Peaks, so what we know of the making of Lynch’s two most recent movies must surely affect how we interpret them.

But, as Agent Cooper would say, “the shortest distance between two points is not always a straight line.”

“The character of the external world in Lynch’s filmic universes has all but eluded criticism so far. It’s time for a change.” Martha P. Nochimson’s book, which takes a much more theoretical approach to Lynch’s work, is the most disruptive work of Lynch criticism I’ve yet read. Her excellent 1997 book The Passion of David Lynch used the work of Carl Jung as an interpretative paradigm. Acknowledging, though, that the increased complexity of his work from Lost Highway onward demands methodological refinement for successful analysis, in David Lynch Swerves Nochimson interrogates the existing literature before moving on to her own — incredible — new conclusions. She has no compunction about taking on the giants of Lynch criticism, suggesting that Slavoj Žižek’s ideas about Lost Highway “shed more heat than light” and roundly dismissing Todd McGowan’s The Impossible David Lynch, a book I’d always held in pretty high regard. She also explodes the existing critical (near-)consensus on the structures of Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., stating plainly, “These characters are not dreaming.”

What’s the big idea? Well, unexpectedly, quantum mechanics. Borrowing physical concepts including entanglement (“in which multiple particles respond to stimuli as if they were one as well as many”) and superposition (which “allows for one particle to be in two places at exactly the same time”), Nochimson develops a strong case for adopting a totally new framework for understanding Lynch’s second-phase work. This framework avoids the reductiveness of the “dream” reading of Mulholland Dr. or the standard interpretation of Lost Highway, in which Pete is a mere phantasm of Fred. As Nochimson points out, most critics ignore what actually happens onscreen in order to reach these conclusions. Alice and Renee (as played by Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway) don’t entirely not co-exist, for instance, but instead — she argues — behave like particles in superposition, as both “she” and “they.” Similarly, Betty and Diane in Mulholland Dr. are both the same and different: Betty and Betty/Diane rather than simply Betty and Diane.

“Boundlessness” is a key concept for Nochimson and one that’s connected to Lynch’s own fascination with transcendental meditation (see Catching the Big Fish and the David Lynch Foundation). Quantum mechanics, with its openness to a physical world of improbable possibility, turns out to be the perfect metaphor for exploring this boundlessness. Lynch’s work depicts what lies beyond what Nochimson calls the “marketplace”, an oppressive place that seeks to limit individuals through its definition of a fictional “reality”. For Fred and Fred/Pete, and Betty and Betty/Diane, breaking through into a joyous boundlessness is too difficult. That is their tragedy. But the limitless expanses outside the marketplace can be a source of bliss. This is certainly the case for Lynch’s most recent heroine, Nikki Grace (Laura Dern, in Inland Empire), who emerges from the film’s labyrinth into a state of pure joy in the film’s raucous end credits, set to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”.

The richness of Nochimson’s writing, the thoroughness of her interpretation, and her assured stance in opposition to the canon of Lynch criticism to date all make David Lynch Swerves a must-read for anyone interested in his films. Or, for that matter, the state of film criticism in American culture. If criticism at its best is a form of revelation, then this is practically a new gospel.

You can buy David Lynch Swerves: Uncertainty From Lost Highway to Inland Empire and Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks at McNally Jackson. For an exhaustive biography of Lynch, check out Greg Olson’s excellent David Lynch: Beautiful Dark (Scarecrow Press, 2008).

Now and Then: Time in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Prefatory note: strongly recommend you watch Boyhood without seeing the trailer or doing a Google Image search or anything like that. Probably don’t read this yet either. But the bottom line is, do see it.

Blue sky, white clouds, the opening chords of Coldplay’s “Yellow”, the handwritten title (in black): Boyhood. Reverse shot: Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), aged six, lying flat on the grass, his right arm thrust straight up above him, his left hand behind his head, staring up at the sky. What’s in his mind is a mystery, though it becomes clear that he enjoys the incidental pleasures of childhood like any other boy — computer games, graffiti, underwear catalogues, biking through the suburbs, Harry Potter at bedtime. Chris Martin starts to sing: “Look at the stars / Look how they shine for you / And everything you do.” It’s a song about unrequited love, here repurposed, perhaps, as a hymn from director Richard Linklater to his unconventional muse. When I saw Boyhood at BAM, Linklater and Coltrane spoke briefly beforehand, and the director compared casting Mason Jr. to selecting the next Dalai Lama. “What I liked about Ellar,” he said, “was that he kinda didn’t give a shit what you thought. This kid was gonna go his own way.”

Watching him go his own way is the remarkable content of Linklater’s film. Filming began in Austin in 2002 and ended in fall 2013. (Huge kudos to IFC Films for funding such a project, especially in the current — dire — climate for experimental film-making.) In the intervening period, the cast and crew reconvened annually to shoot more scenes. Coltrane is in virtually every one of them, and we have the astonishing, emotional privilege of seeing him grow up before us. Most critics have been name-checking Michael Apted’s Seven Up series; some have mentioned Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films; the children of the Harry Potter films are another obvious point of comparison. But Linklater’s achievement is singular. There simply isn’t anything like it in the history of cinema. No other film comes close to representing with such resonance or tenderness cinema’s unique ability to capture the ineffable sadness of time passing. To experience Boyhood is to experience life at an accelerated pace; its unstoppability is devastating.

Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play Mason Jr.’s parents, Olivia and Mason; Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, is his sister Sam. All are superb. And as with Coltrane, time sculpts them over the course of the movie. They change shape, they gain and lose weight, hair changes colour and length. Twenty-first-century American life happens around them: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama v McCain, Facebook, the financial crisis. But Boyhood‘s use of the conventions surrounding time gives old tropes new flavour. Musical referents — Britney Spears, Vampire Weekend, High School Musical, Arcade Fire — are seemingly used in the same way that filmmakers play KC and the Sunshine Band or ABBA in a film set in the ’70s. A scene in 2008 with Mason and Sam erecting Obama placards in suburban gardens is, likewise, an obvious signpost of time and place. But knowing how the film was made gives these signifiers a different, strange, uncanny power. When they were shot, they were not the kitsch markers they seem now; rather almost documentary. It’s the cinema of nostalgia but with a heightened sense of ephemerality. Like Arquette’s Olivia, who declares that she will spend the rest of her life getting rid of the stuff she spent the first half acquiring, we see that the only things that last — that really matter — are our relationships with the people we love.

Manohla Dargis observed that the film is “set to the rhythm of life“, and this isn’t just critical poetry: the nature of the project dictated it. Detractors, currently almost entirely absent on both Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes, will argue that the final product is kind of plotless and meandering. They will say that Boyhood presents a series of narrative clichés borrowed from soap opera and other realist dramas; that its concept cannot mask the imaginative poverty evident in its parade of alcoholic stepdads, mumblecore pop-culture ramblings, and scene-by-scene inconsequentiality. The shooting and editorial styles are unremarkable, the dialogue contains few surprises, the supporting performances are variable.

But Boyhood transcends cliché, both through its audacious concept and by making a sort of virtue of its low-key approach. Who hasn’t been at a party where someone’s picked up a guitar and started to sing “Wish You Were Here”? There are very few scenes that won’t be immediately familiar to viewers from their own lives: overheard parental arguments, parties, birthday presents, the violence of school life, the tyranny of adults, haircuts, petty disappointments and mindless exuberance. Boyhood isn’t shaped like art and sometimes it doesn’t look like it. But it achieves something that only great art can. It makes one feel intensely, and it’s capable of changing the way one sees both the medium of cinema and the world outside.

One of the great achievements of Boyhood is that it genuinely feels like a careful selection of moments from a much larger story. As Terrence Malick did in The Tree of Life (2011), Linklater discovers the profound in the quotidian. That Mason develops an interest in photography is a neat correlative of Linklater’s ability to take the inconsequential and, by the mere act of selection, elevate it into meaning. And there are many lovely moments to remember. A passed note from a girl in his class that reassures Mason that his new buzzcut (at the hands of his brutal stepfather) looks “kewl.” A fifteen-year old Mason returning home a little drunk, a little high, unashamed to confess his state to his mother. The evident, seemingly unacted affection Coltrane and Linklater have for their onscreen parents. Arquette’s spontaneous and heartbreaking sob the day Mason leaves for college: “I just thought there would be more,” she says.

Boyhood ends with Mason’s first day at college. He, his new roommate and two girls decide to skip the orientation mixer and take a hike in the desert. Mason and one of the girls hit it off, and in the film’s final dialogue they flirtingly discuss seizing the moment. “It’s like it’s always right now,” rambles Mason, delaying the moment of contact. To an extent this is a sort of “meta” statement, for moments captured on film do indeed retain the power to reproduce a now that’s now then. In Boyhood, though, we see cinema exhibiting a power we’ve never seen before. Linklater’s unique filmmaking process effaces the line between fiction and reality, lending his characters a new level of realism. This is partly because ageing simply cannot be acted as well as proved. But it’s also because the actors have shaped the material as much as time has shaped them. The filmmakers are fortunate that in Coltrane they found a boy who’d grow up to be the beautiful, gentle free-thinker we see at the end of the movie. They’re also tremendously blessed by the intelligence, humility and sensitivity of Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who, in an understated way, give the best performances of their careers.

Cut to black, and Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue”. Lyrically, it’s a thoughtful answer to “Yellow”: “Here, in my place and time / And here in my own skin / I can finally begin.” Is this Mason, a boy on the brink of adulthood, discovering freedom for the first time? Or Coltrane, breaking through the fourth wall of a twelve-year performance?

If you’ve already seen it, watching the trailer will likely make you want to see it all over again. But anyway: