Why Thomas Caldwell adores… DAVID LYNCH

17 Jun

It’s cold out there, isn’t it? Well, come on in, pull up a couch and grab a drink as we launch into a new edition of WHY I ADORE…! Apologies for the week’s absence, but I can assure you, this week’s issue is a bumper cinematic love letter that more than makes up for the week away!

This week’s adorer is film critic/academic/writer and all-round-man-about-town (“one suave fuck”, one might say) Thomas Caldwell, who delivers incisive, passionate and insightful reviews of motion pictures via his excellent Cinema Autopsy blog. He also pens reviews for The Big Issue and can be heard on both The Breakfasters & Film Buff’s Forecast on 3RRR 102.7 — not to mention, he spins movie-related tunes on the graveyard shift for that very station — as well as The Casting Couch on JOY 94.9. This week, Thomas goes into detail about his love for one of the greatest filmmakers alive…

…except he delivered it on a microcassette recorder. And he kept calling me “Diane”…!

My relationship with David Lynch started badly. I would have been maybe 8 or 9-years-old at the time when repeat viewings of the STAR WARS films had developed a taste for science fiction and fantasy. Being able to appreciate 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY certainly suggested that I was capable of digesting more serious cinema, so my parents and I figured we’d give DUNE, Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, a go.

Big mistake.

I wasn’t so much concerned with its significant narrative flaws and stylistic inconsistencies, as I was too busy being horrified at its grotesqueness. In particular, the scene where Baron Vladimir Harkonnen works himself up into an orgasmic frenzy and then rips out some poor attendants heart plug gave me nightmares for weeks.

It wasn’t until I was 17 that I would have my next encounter with Lynch and, although it was under very dubious circumstances, it was a defining moment in my film-going life. I was going through a phase where my growing love for cinema and petty teen rebelliousness meant that I saw as many transgressive and controversial films as I could sneak in to. During this time I was set up on a blind date that involved the poor girl, our mutual friends and me all going out together a couple of times to see films. I used the first occasion to see A CLOCKWORK ORANGE again and, on our second ‘date’, I decided we all had to check out a restored print of this strange cult film I’d been reading about called ERASERHEAD. Clearly the dates weren’t a success and I never saw that girl again, but seeing ERASERHEAD for the first time was amazing.

Never before had I experienced a film that was like a dream, or to be more precise – a nightmare that I could not wake up from. The strange acting, industrial wasteland setting, creepy soundtrack, moody cinematography and macabre story about a deformed baby culminated in a genuinely unique experience. It was funny, disgusting yet strangely beautiful, with a transfixing, dream-like power. Most importantly, it felt genuine. At the time of making ERASERHEAD, Lynch was freaking out about becoming a father and the film expresses those anxieties, plus a whole lot more to do with male sexuality, in a way that felt disturbingly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. ERASERHEAD is not a film that you can necessarily ‘get’ or ‘decode’ on a literal level (although I certainly tried in one or two undergraduate essays), but it is a film you understand on an emotional level.

And that’s the core to what I adore about Lynch – the emotional reality of his films. So very few directors craft their films so lovingly and expertly to generate something that resonates on such an emotional level as David Lynch. This emotional reality will always fulfil me more than any literal reality, and films with the ability to generate images and sounds to tap into something subconscious will always impress me over films that attempt to replicate objective reality. It is also for this reason that I get frustrated with the way so many other people respond to Lynch’s films, and I find that people who constantly carry on about how weird he is, or assume that he must be on drugs, are just as irritating as people who think he is being deliberately confusing just to annoy them.

My love affair with Lynch continued about a year later, when I finally got around to hiring all the episodes of TWIN PEAKS on VHS to watch over summer. I was aware of TWIN PEAKS from when it originally screened on television, but never gave it much thought, although I did love that distinctive theme song sung by Julee Cruise. I had never taken television seriously as an art form and, with the exception of the various Dennis Potter written miniseries and telemovies that I had seen, I regarded television somewhat snobbishly as a lesser medium. That all changed when I watched TWIN PEAKS, ploughing through episode after episode about the small town asking itself, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

The incredible blend of soap-opera, melodrama, murder mystery, police thriller, sit-com, horror and science fiction was unlike anything I had ever seen before and, honestly, unlike anything I have ever seen since. TWIN PEAKS both conformed to the traditional structure of conventional television narratives and completely messed with them. It was serious television, but also parody, and through watching TWIN PEAKS, I finally figured out what post-modernism was really all about! But most importantly, it was filled with wonderful characters that I just fell in love with. It was a show that had the ability to terrify me and move me to tears, often in the same episode. The second season did dip in quality midway through, but the first season is masterful and the very final episode is still the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen on television.

My love of TWIN PEAKS led to me seeking out the prequel film TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME and Lynch’s earlier film, the suburban-gothic film noir BLUE VELVET, which thematically and stylistically paved the wave for TWIN PEAKS. Like so many others I loved BLUE VELVET and when I had the privilege of interviewing Dennis Hopper I was thrilled to hear him talk about how much he loved playing the primal force that was the Frank Booth character. TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME was not a film I warmed to right away, because it was so different to the television series, but after subsequent viewings it has become one of my favourite films by Lynch, with its terrifying and upsetting portrayal of sexual violence within the family.

Years later, my undergraduate degree culminated in an honours thesis on Lynch, which incorporated all the work I had done on gender in both my Cinema Studies and Political Science majors to conclude that BLUE VELVET and the TWIN PEAKS film and television series were texts that very accurately reflected the horrors and destructiveness of physical and sexual violence within the family, and the social and cultural conditions that allow for such violence to occur. It was a pretty horrible thing to write considering the sort of research I had to read on actual domestic violence, but the resulting thesis, titled “Shadow Of A Twisted Hand Across My House”, is still something I am very proud of.

Before all this I also caught up on Lynch’s two other feature films to date, THE ELEPHANT MAN and WILD AT HEART. THE ELEPHANT MAN is still one of the most beautifully sad films I have ever seen, and it certainly demonstrates the sincere, sentimental and compassionate side of Lynch that is often overlooked when people focus too heavily on his ‘weird and dark’ side. Lynch would again express this side overtly with the very sweet THE STRAIGHT STORY. WILD AT HEART, on the other hand, is a mixed bag since overall it feels a little bit too self-aware and guilty of “Lynch doing Lynch”, but it also contains some of his best work. The strange and sad scene featuring Sherilyn Fenn playing a girl in a car accident, with Chris Isaak’s haunting “Wicked Game” on the soundtrack, is amazing. Sad, dark, violent and beautiful – it is a moment demonstrating Lynch at his best.

The final key film in my love affair with Lynch is LOST HIGHWAY; the first film of his I saw in the cinema during its original theatrical release. I saw it on opening day and had already negotiated with one of my lecturers that my finally essay for her film noir course would be on LOST HIGHWAY. I can’t remember being more excited at a screening than I was seeing LOST HIGHWAY for the first time. Even the people who sat behind me muttering, “Let’s see what misogynist Lynch does this time,” didn’t dampen my spirits. (For the record, accusing Lynch of being a misogynist for disturbingly portraying violence against women, is like accusing Steven Spielberg of being a Nazi for portraying the Holocaust).

From the opening image of hurtling down a highway at night, with David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” on the soundtrack, LOST HIGHWAY transfixed me with its mysterious and sexy story about a man whose irrational and destructive jealously makes him literally transform into another person. The resulting essay melded what had become my obsession with LOST HIGHWAY with my love of film noir and my recent studies in Lacanian psychoanalysis. “Lost in Darkness and Confusion: Lost Highway, Lacan and film noir” would eventually become the first article that I ever had published.

In later years, I have continued to adore David Lynch, but probably not so feverishly as I used to. I loved MULHOLLAND DR. and had a wonderful time when I first saw it, discussing it long into the night with some fellow Lynch enthusiasts whom I’d become firm friends with. I wrote the entry on David Lynch for Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors database, which I titled “The Evil That Men Do”, and after that I decided I had finished writing about him for the time being, and didn’t do so again until I wrote a short review of INLAND EMPIRE.

When I saw INLAND EMPIRE, I was living in France and was bemused at how differently people regarded Lynch, compared to how they did in Australia. In Australia, when I have been asked what sort of films I like, I often mention Lynch as my favourite living director. The response I get is either, “huh, who’s he?” or “oh, that weird guy who must be on drugs and deliberately makes films nobody understands”. In France, when I told people that Lynch was my favourite living director, the response was frequently a shrug with the reply that went something like, “But of course, everybody who loves cinema loves David Lynch, that is not a very original answer”.

I suspect my passion for David Lynch’s films will never quite reach the same heights as it has in the past and even after spending a day at the outstanding Lynch exhibition during my final week in France, I had a feeling that I was, perhaps, moving on. I will always love his films and I do revisit them frequently, but I’m not expecting to have the same giddy excitement over the release of anything new of his like I used to. But that’s OK, as I will always remember neglecting my date to surrender to the world of ERASERHEAD at a midnight screening, walking like a man possessed to the local shopping centre to buy the TWIN PEAKS soundtrack after having my mind blown apart by the final episode, and almost bursting into tears at the sheer joy of LOST HIGHWAY exceeding every possible expectation that I had for it. So… I guess I do still adore David Lynch.

– Thomas Caldwell

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3 Responses to “Why Thomas Caldwell adores… DAVID LYNCH”

  1. Simon Miraudo June 17, 2010 at 1:02 pm #

    Love it. Love him and love this.

    Also, nice shout out to the post-car crash scene in WILD AT HEART, easily one of the most disturbing moments in movie history.

  2. film is nothing June 21, 2010 at 12:30 am #

    As someone I once kinda knew said: ‘David Lynch is just a phase and you’ll grow out of it’.

    And I’m not surprised by that French remark … Lynch is perhaps more popular than he’ll probably like, or admit. But I still can’t help being incredibly moved by his films.

  3. Lee June 21, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    Finally got around to reading this, and it was worth the wait! Wonderful piece of writing. And as LOST HIGHWAY is in my top three films of all time, I particularly responded to your praise of it! Looking forward to checking out the essays you link to.

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