All is not well. But we do not see that at first. The white house and the white picket fence are in perfect order. The sky is blue and bright. The flowers are red and yellow. The grass is green. We’re surrounded by primary colors and clarity.
- “David Lynch: The Unified Field” Through January 11, 2015. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
The man watering his lawn doesn’t notice the kink in the hose. The water pressure is building. The pressure in his neck builds, too. Suddenly, the man grabs his neck and falls to the ground. He is having a heart attack, or a stroke. The water from the hose shoots into the air as he falls. The man’s little dog bites ferociously at the stream. The camera pans down into the grass, into the muck of the soil and the writhing creatures beneath. Here, in the mud and the grime, nothing is primary in color. Nothing is clear or distinct. All is not well.
These are the opening shots of Blue Velvet, David Lynch’s now-classic film noir-ish offering from 1986. As the movie progresses, we find out that beneath the surface of Middle American banality, strange doings are afoot. A drug-sniffing maniac (Dennis Hopper) has kidnapped a local woman’s (Isabella Rosselini) husband and son. More disturbingly, the woman may actually enjoy the sexual torture her abductor puts her through. The two locals who get pulled into the drama (Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern) nearly succumb to the dark sexuality and violence themselves. All is very much not well.
But what is the point?
Blue Velvet seemed to interrogate Middle American blandness in order to reveal the disturbing violence and sexuality it hides. This has led some critics to complain that the movie amounts to rather ham-fisted satire. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the movie when it opened:
Indeed, the movie is pulled so violently in opposite directions that it pulls itself apart. If the sexual scenes are real, then why do we need the sendup of the “Donna Reed Show”? What are we being told? That beneath the surface of Small Town, U.S.A., passions run dark and dangerous? Don’t stop the presses.
Don’t stop the presses, indeed. If that is all David Lynch is showing us, an extended sendup of the “Donna Reed Show,” then Blue Velvet isn’t very interesting. To Ebert’s point, Blue Velvet is filled with silly jokes and Middle American set-pieces we all find it easy to laugh at. This bothered Roger Ebert, who felt that if Lynch wanted to show us a scene with Isabella Rossellini standing naked and humiliated on someone’s lawn, he shouldn’t do it in a movie whose main purpose is cheap laughs and distanced irony. Ebert wanted Lynch to earn his disturbing imagery. You can’t expose your audience to emotional abuse, Ebert objected, just for the fun of it.
Sometime after seeing the movie and writing his mostly negative review, Ebert did an interview with David Lynch. Ebert discovered what many have since confirmed. David Lynch is a nice guy, a sincere guy. He takes his films seriously. He films scenes of great emotional disturbance not as a game. He means it. When Ebert asked Lynch about that scene with a naked Isabella Rossellini, Lynch responded with a vignette from his childhood. Lynch told Ebert, “When I was little, my brother and I were outdoors late one night, and we saw a naked woman come walking down the street toward us in a dazed state, crying. I have never forgotten that moment.”
David Lynch’s paintings (currently on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, “David Lynch: The Unified Field”) are the visual opposite to most of his films, especially Blue Velvet. Blue Velvet gives us, at first, cheery scenes with bright colors and visual clarity. Later, we penetrate to the dark things hidden beneath. The paintings, by contrast, are openly disturbing; nothing is hidden. They are often gross and bodily. They are covered in smears and goop. They show people vomiting and shitting and otherwise having trouble with their bodies. The paintings are layered with paint, fabric, and other junk. They are often scrawled upon with words, written in a childlike hand, like something you might find in a drawing posted on a refrigerator. The grammar in these sentences is often lacking. “I Burn Pinecone and Throw in Your House” (2009), or “I Not Know Gun Was Loaded Sorry” (2005).
Lynch’s films are uncanny because seemingly straightforward situations are shown to be riddled with weirdness. Beneath the surface lurk cruel, animal drives. In the paintings, the cruelty, the disgust, the violence, is all right there. What gives the paintings their tension is the gentle and often bewildered tone of the sentences. That’s to say, the paintings wouldn’t work without the words. The sentences speak from a place of innocence and a lack of malicious intent. This childlike openness to the disgusting things we are being shown only serves to heighten our distress.
Take “Bob Loves Sally Until She is Blue in the Face” (2000). It shows a Francis Bacon-esque scene of entangled bodies in a dirty room. The splashes of red and meaty flesh let us know that bodies are being abused here, torn apart. The spot of blue in the middle of the painting suggests the necrotic. Human flesh is losing out here, dying. Then we look at the words again, scrawled at the top of the painting as if written on the wall: “Bob Loves Sally Until She is Blue in the Face.” It is the thing a child might say witnessing a scene of domestic violence. The child does not understand what is going on. Seeing the excess, but not having a context by which to explain it, the child makes a stab at explanation. The crucial word is the word “loves.” The child is both correct and terribly wrong. Bob did start out “loving” Sally. But there is a point at which love, and the desire wrapped inside it, spilled over into violence and hurt. This is the transformation that the child-voice can’t quite understand. So, the words both explain the painting and utterly fail to explain the painting. Their existence makes the scene of sexual violence that much more painful to witness.
Somehow, all of this has to do with Philadelphia. David Lynch moved to Philadelphia in 1965. He was just a kid at the time, nineteen years old. He attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) and got married to a young lady named Peggy Reavey. They had a child soon after, buying a house in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia where they could start a family. But this was 1965. Philadelphia was not in good shape. Outside the city, the steel mills and coal towns of Pennsylvania were closing down. People were drifting into Philadelphia with tattered lives trailing at their feet. The city had become a place of hopelessness and crime, of drugs and social dysfunction. It was in this milieu that David Lynch came into his own, artistically. It was amongst the crime and violence and fear that, as he put it, “Something clicked in Philly.”
The importance of confronting terrifying Philadelphia in the mid to late 1960s for David Lynch comes directly from the fact that he was not at all prepared for it. Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana in 1946. He grew up in a small town with a stable family, in a 1950s America that he found, as a young boy, nurturing and idyllic. Lynch is very clear about this. There was no childhood trauma. There were no terrible experiences from those early days in Missoula. At the same time, he was a precocious and sensitive kid. He looked closely at the well-tended and tree-lined streets of his childhood and noticed that this wasn’t the whole story. He would, for instance, spend time looking closely at a cherry tree on his block. It was a beautiful tree. “But on the cherry tree,” Lynch remembers, “there’s this pitch oozing out — some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.”
Perhaps the entirety of David Lynch’s artistic career can be summed up in that line, “there are always red ants underneath.” It took Philadelphia for Lynch to confront the full horror of what form those “ants” can take. In Philadelphia, the red ants became murder and rape and other forms of violent crime. A man was shot to death right outside his house. In Philadelphia, the red ants didn’t have to be discovered under the surface. They were the dominant motif. Lynch himself was the stage on which all this was played out. He was the piece of small-town normal life brought in to experience something shocking and difficult to synthesize. The images generated by the banging together of those two realities have been his obsession ever since.
In the year 1627, Nicolas Poussin painted a picture known today under the title “Arcadian Shepherds.” In the painting, a group of shepherds in an idyllic natural setting stand around a tomb. The shepherds seem shocked and saddened by what they’ve found. Amongst all this beauty, this Arcadian splendor, is the specter of death. It is along these lines that most people have translated the Latin inscription on the tomb, “Et in Arcadia ego.” The most straightforward translation of “et in Arcadia ego” is “even in Arcadia, I am.” The question is who the “I” refers to. According to most interpretations of the painting, the “I” is death. The inscription on the tomb is a warning and a reminder. “I am everywhere,” death is saying, “even here.”
Ten years later, in 1637, Poussin painted a second version of “Arcadian Shepherds.” This version of the painting, now hanging in The Louvre, portrays roughly the same scene. A similar group of shepherds. A similar tomb with the exact same inscription. But something is different. The shepherds, for one, are not as shocked and upset in the second picture. Everything is calmer, more contemplative. The entire scene is suffused with that poised classicism so typical of Poussin’s mature style.
The eminent art historian Erwin Panofsky wrote a famous essay about these two paintings: “‘Et in Arcadia ego’: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition.” Summing up the shift in mood from the first painting to the second painting, Panofsky wrote, “In short, Poussin’s Louvre picture no longer shows a dramatic encounter with Death but a contemplative absorption in the idea of mortality. We are confronted with a change from thinly veiled moralism to undisguised elegiac sentiment.”
As Panofsky shows, the change in mood between the two paintings produced, over time, a shift in how people translated the Latin phrase, “Et in Arcadia ego.” Since the Louvre picture does not seem to be so much about the shock of confronting death — as much as the pleasure of remembering — the translation “even in Arcadia, I (death) can be found,” no longer seemed appropriate. A number of later commentators, therefore, began to subtly shift their interpretation of the phrase. Over time, people stopped translating “et” as “even.” Instead, they started translating “et” as “too.” This renders the Latin of “Et in Arcadia ego” as something more like “I, too, was in Arcadia.”
With this change, the “I” is no longer death, the “I” is the person buried in the tomb. The dead person is saying, “I was here, I experienced all this just as you who stumble upon this tomb experience it now.” This new translation, while twisting the original Latin, makes much better sense as an interpretation of Poussin’s second shepherd painting. This shift in meaning culminated in Goethe, who translates the phrase from the painting as “Auch ich in Arkadien,” which, as Panofsky points out, is equivalent to the thought, “I, too, was in the land of joy and beauty.” All the shock, all the disequilibrium of the shepherds stumbling upon an image of death has been drained out.
The point of all this is that with these two paintings by Poussin (and shift in the translation of the phrase “Et in Arcadia ego”), we can trace a path by which art first reveals and expresses a fundamental shock in the face of death, and then slowly suppresses that sense of shock, transforming it into mournful elegy, nostalgia.
It is best to understand David Lynch as an artist moving in the opposite direction, from elegy back to shock. In many of Lynch’s films, we actually begin in elegy, with soft and sweet tracking shots that reveal a classical repose Poussin might have appreciated. But mournful elegy is not satisfying to Lynch. Whatever happened to him in Philadelphia in the 1960s, whatever childhood instinct to look for the swarming ants is in him compels Lynch to peel back the repose and replace the elegy with something viscerally disturbing.
Lynch does not want us to contemplate death with a distanced reserve, like the shepherds in Poussin’s second painting. He wants us to miss a heartbeat. He wants fear to jump up and grab us, more like it does in the first picture by Poussin. All is not well in that first picture by Poussin, and the shepherds must confront this fact. Finding the tomb has shocked and upset them. They aren’t ready to step away, to enter into a contemplative mode. They are in turmoil. The two experiences — one of Arcadian splendor, the other of actual physical death — cannot be reconciled in the moment Poussin immortalizes in that picture.
This helps to explain why there are so many stark dualities in Lynch’s films. The normalcy of the normal people in his films can seem exaggerated. Lynch desires to show us absolutely straight characters. This nerdy earnestness is perhaps best captured by the actor Kyle MacLachlan, though Naomi Watts also performs this role brilliantly in Mulholland Drive. MacLachlan and Watts serve the same purpose in Lynch’s movies as do the shepherds in Poussin’s first painting. The shock of death, the shock of the real is not shocking without characters who can actually be shocked. The shepherd-like Kyle MacLachlans of the world are just as necessary to Lynch’s vision as the swarming ants. You need both in order to produce the actual shock effect that is confrontation with death, with evil, with “the real.”
When you’re highly aware of the presence of death, violence, sexual weirdness, and the ants crawling on the underside of the beautiful, you are always living in a double world. You know that death can appear in any situation. That’s the whole point of the primary meaning of “Et in Arcadia ego.” “Even here,” which is to say, anywhere. There is no safe place. There is no relief from the fundamental traumas and mysteries of existence. The characters in most of Lynch’s films and paintings thus inhabit an unstable universe. They experience even their own subjectivity as unstable. In many of Lynch’s films, characters have doubles. They often meet or confront these doubles. Or they go through portals into alternate versions of reality. Or they re-experience events of their own lives in slightly changed versions. Or they find themselves onstage, performing versions of their own lives, or watching different versions performed by others.
Along these lines, David Foster Wallace once came up with a definition of “Lynchian.” He said it “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” That is the strangeness of Lynch’s vision that Roger Ebert could never fully wrap his head around. Ebert wanted Lynch to explore the depths of our psychic distress, to dig deeper into the layers of reality that make us who we are. But Lynch doesn’t work like that. As a painter and filmmaker, he is far more interested in the surface, in that one visual moment where the mundane and macabre come together and blast a hole in our experience. The naked, crying woman emerging out of the darkness to confront our bewildered childhood eyes. • 24 September 2014