Lynch & Gifford’s American Dreams

Wednesday was David Lynch’s 70th birthday.  Popular culture’s favorite scary oddball is a senior citizen and hipper than ever.  Due to popular demand, more than anything else, Lynch and original co-creator Mark Frost will be reviving Twin Peaks as a new series in the 21st century.  This highly anticipated event, along with Lynch’s birthday last Wednesday, have spurred an abundance of write-ups about Lynch’s films, focusing predominantly upon the show Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and his films Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and Mulholland Drive (2001).  But in all of this Lynchmania there has yet to be any considerable recognition of his collaboration with author Barry Gifford; a collaboration that, for David Lynch, dominated the mid-1990s.

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula

Laura Dern & Nicolas Cage as Sailor and Lula in Wild At Heart

Barry Gifford’s first forray into the “world” of David Lynch came when Lynch adapted Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart into a feature film in 1990.  Though Gifford did not participate in Lynch’s adaptation of Wild At Heart, there is a clear syncopation of preoccupations between these two artists.  If Lynch’s Blue Velvet is a synthesis of “coming-of-age” story with noir thriller then Gifford’s novel Wild At Heart similarly transplants the Romeo & Juliet archetypes into a post-modernist Beat context.  Lynch and Gifford’s works both thrive on their mutual insistence that their narratives take place in a timeless America; an America that is both All That Heaven Allows (1955) and the nihilist present, whilst neither being truly here nor there.   What is in my mind the most significant of the numerous similarities between these artists is their desire to subvert every expectation established by the genres from which they draw upon.  Blue Velvet clearly gives evidence to this, but in Gifford’s case I would site Night People or Sailor’s Holiday over Wild At Heart.

Oddly enough, the trends cited above as being the defining aesthetic concerns of Gifford and Lynch do not actually apply to Lynch’s version of the climax to Wild At Heart.  It has become one of those famous anecdotes about the director considering that it flies in the face of his usually morbid sadomasochistic sex operas that he should rewrite the ending as a happy one.  In Gifford’s novel Sailor and Lula do not come together in the end, rather they diverge paths, each too unfamiliar with the other to truly confront their would-be status as a family unit.  However Lynch’s “happy ending” is not derived from the filmmakers own personal desire for narrative closure or reassurance.  Instead it seems to originate in the film’s concern with the mythology of mid-twentieth century American popular culture and coinciding signifiers born out of Hollywood in the form of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley (a pantheon of Gods and legends not dissimilar to that of Andy Warhol, Jack Smith or Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train).  This subtext of Lynch’s Wild At Heart exists in the novel, though the legends that formulate Gifford’s allusions are almost exclusively literary, born out of the works of Kerouac, Burroughs and Mailer.  For each artist this retrospective catalogue of America’s shared consciousness provides a historical context into which Sailor and Lula are thrust forward, sensual monoliths of late 80s culture.

This mutual desire to employ their aesthetics as a means of contextualizing a fictional interpretation of the present through the guise of mass culture American history is at the heart of Hotel Room, a three episode miniseries Lynch and Gifford collaborated on that aired on HBO in 1993 (in actuality Gifford only wrote two episodes, the same two Lynch directed).   The premise of the show is born out of No Exit, restricting all of the episodes to the confines of a single hotel room.  Gifford’s off the wall idea of narrative reflexivity as well as the premise’s inherent necessities of space all seem to have influenced Lynch’s much later web-series Rabbits (2002).   Like Hotel Room, Rabbits again finds Lynch jettisoning contextual signifiers into the “world” of his fantasy, though without the contemporary dressings of Hotel Room, preferring a Dadaist sensibility manifest in unorthodox lighting, blocking, and gigantic humanoid bunnies.  Gifford’s contribution is almost singular to his career if the influence of these teleplays weren’t to be found in his novel Perdita Durango.  As is often the case with self-aware stage/television writing (remember Paddy Chayefsky?) the author often finds themselves emboldened by the physical restrictions of the medium to explore more subtle, if not existential, qualities in human nature.  In turn, this direction in Gifford’s writing of Hotel Room returns Lynch to the singular “nightmare” spaces of his earlier The Alphabet (1968), The Amputee (1974), and Henry’s bedroom sequences in Eraserhead, though with an intentional coloring of post-modernist irony.

The personal artistic innovations of Hotel Room marks a departure for Gifford in that, unlike Sailor and Lula, these characters exist in a single space, abandoning Gifford’s Romantic metaphor of car travel along American highways.  In fact the forward motion of Hotel Room is one of time.  The presence at the heart of the series is one hotel room, but this room’s journey through time serves as the testament of a silent observer, an observer that remains within the confines of Gifford’s two episodes apparently objective.  This complicates things immeasurably for Lynch in terms of the histrionic signifiers discussed above which he employs so readily in his visual designs, whose very use is born out of the filmmaker’s highly stylized and subjective world view.  Remarkably it would be this particular anomaly that marks the “tormented genius” of Lost Highway (1997).

pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Lost Highway: pornography and voyeurism in the hands of David Lynch

Could it be more telling that Lost Highway should open with David Bowie’s ferociously schizophrenic song I’m Deranged?  Or that the song should be married to an image that is the absolute visual summation of Gifford’s literary stylings?  I think not.  Nor should it be surprising that Barry Gifford and David Lynch’s only outing as co-screenwriters should also be the most brazen celebration of American Film Noir’s hyper-hetero culture.

And yet Lost Highway suggests the unorthodox narratives to come in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire (2007).  It presages a subtlety of characterization, a sort of minimalism, that would flavor Gifford’s Night People.  But superficially, if one were to watch Lost Highway for the first time, one would invariably be struck by the film’s obvious preoccupation with other filmic devices, primarily those best represented by Brian DePalma and Jacques Rivette.  In the case of Brian DePalma one finds the duality of the film’s female protagonist, once brunette and then blonde, or should I say housewife and then femme fatale.  From Dressed To Kill (1980) to Snake Eyes (1998) DePalma has been dramatizing the incongruities and polarities of the female as signifier in his often Freudian world of masculinity in jeopardy.  This device is implemented by Gifford and Lynch within the Balthazar Getty portion of Lost Highway to color the audience’s reading of the Fred/Pete character and the duality it represents as opposed to dwelling on the female duality which, to DePalma, functions as a potential means for masculine castration.

Jacques Rivette’s influence is, like Depalma’s, entirely conceptual as well as totally focused again upon the duality of two psychoses in the process of a merger (Fred/Pete).  But where Rivette is concerned with the philosophical from a similar vein as Robert Bresson, Lynch and Gifford implement a strategy that moves the device into the reflexive world of heightened genre mechanics (Film Noir).  Where Celine & Julie Go Boating (1974) tackles the breadth of cinematic humanism in all of its potential Lost Highway prefers a harrowing journey into a genre familiar to mass audiences with the intention of exploring why it is audiences feel comfortable, if not fulfilled, by the sexual politics of Film Noir.

That is not to say that Lynch and Gifford are at all plagiarists, on the contrary, the addition of these motifs or concepts to the amalgamation of interests and devices that already compromise their recognizable style serve to better equip Lost Highway.  Consider Lost Highway as the polar opposite of Wild At Heart.  Wild At Heart championed a visual language of allusions that drew upon the Hollywood of Lynch and Gifford’s youth to articulate their own nightmare version of the American Dream.  Wild At Heart is akin to Norman Mailer’s An American Dream in this fashion.  But if this referential dialect represents a chic nihilism that has remained in constant vogue, then Lost Highway is most certainly a singular case for Lynch and Gifford.  The dialect of Lost Highway reprises the voyeurism of Blue Velvet, but thrusts it into the wider popular consumer context of the still taboo porn industry.  Wild At Heart had it’s yellow brick road, Lost Highway has its back room casting couch.

It is the porn industry that ultimately unites the dissimilar narratives and dual identities of Lost Highway.  Likewise, the pornographers are the villains (Mr. Eddy, a surrogate Frank Booth) as well as the whores with the heart of gold (femme fatale Alice Wakefield).  Here is perhaps where Lost Highway loses a good percent of its audience.  The cinema has proven time and again that an audience uncomfortable with the narrative environment cannot see the forest from the trees, so to speak.  For Lynch and Gifford this is clearly intentional.  Once the pornographic element of the narrative reaches its fever pitch the film breaks into a reprisal of the Fred narrative, a narrative that has, at this point, lost all tangible relation to how the audience understood it at the films outset.

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles

Patricia Arquette in her dual roles in Lost Highway

The sum of all of these disparate elements couched in the familiar facade of Film Noir bring a closure to Lynch’s recent work.  1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me sought in vain to define the paradox of a girl like Laura Palmer in a town like Twin Peaks.  However Lost Highway gives the worlds of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet their antithesis which is no less than the dramatized duality of our ability to order and recognize images within a ready-made context whose aesthetic divisions are so intertwined, along with the narrative, that they contradict one another.  Lost Highway brings us the first Lynch film that works as a cycle, ending as it began.  This narrative trope clearly comes from Gifford’s early novels, offering audiences an ambiguous understanding of Film Noir precisely because Lost Highway contradicts every other mandate of the genre’s narrative conventions.  Therefore Lost Highway represents a maturity of the aesthetics that popularized Blue Velvet as well as a more sophisticated approach to surrealist narrative represented by Eraserhead and suggested by Hotel Room.

The first time I saw Lost Highway I was fourteen.  I had not read any of Gifford’s novels, but I had seen Wild At Heart, The Elephant Man (1980), Eraserhead, Dune (1984), Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks.  I remember being struck that Lost Highway did not feel very much like Lynch’s other works.  Upon reflection this is perhaps due to the fact that Lost Highway was photographed by Peter Deming and not Frederick Elmes or Freddie Francis.  Lost Highway, more than any other Lynch film in my mind, makes better use of wide tracking shots and blocking.  Overall the visuals are more formal, more like something by Michael Mann.  It was at a time that I was very much impressed by long takes with subtle camera moves, which explains my passion for Werner Herzog’s Woyzeck (1979).  The opposite was true about my interest in Barry Gifford.  It was two years later that I finally got around to reading him, and it wasn’t even Wild At Heart, it was Sailor’s Holiday.  The novel is composed of three parts, each moving quickly with a vicious gallows humor and a strong penchant for sexual violence.  Yet, for my angst ridden teenage self, Sailor’s Holiday was reassuring, if not hopeful.  In my mind Sailor and Lula represented a classical manifestation of “true love”.  And it was this love that they shared that saw them through the violence and sleaze that is Gifford’s American dream.

This is what both David Lynch and Barry Gifford are about; the American dream.  They see its pitfalls, its contradictions and its ugliness for what it is (no matter in what genre it is expressed).  They know that the dream cannot survive without the good nor the bad.  The American dream is just a good narrative after all, with all of the grandeur, posturing and truth of fairy tales and myths.

-Robert Curry

 

 

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