Why Some Moments in Life Feel Like a David Lynch Movie

'Blue Velvet' screens at BAMPFA Saturday, Aug. 20 at 6pm.

'Blue Velvet' screens at BAMPFA Saturday, Aug. 20 at 6pm. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

Reading Dennis Lim’s excellent little book, David Lynch: The Man from Another Place, I began to notice how much I cite Lynch’s films in the ordinary run of internal life. Last week it was an electrical box droning in the midst an otherwise serene day; a week earlier it was two couples sitting knee-to-knee on a covered patio swing in suburban New Hampshire.

Dennis Lim's 'The Man From Another Place.'
Dennis Lim’s ‘The Man From Another Place.’ (Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

It turns out there is a whole category of experience that is somehow clarified, or at least rendered more vivid, by being approached as if it is happening in a David Lynch movie. Lim frequently returns to the idea of Lynch’s films as environments or worlds for the viewer to inhabit and linger, but it’s deliciously unobvious whether we are absorbing the films or they us.

Every bit the primer, David Lynch: The Man from Another Place serves as both an introduction to Lynch’s work and an inducement to return to the fold. Bay Area audiences can do just that when the critic visits the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) for a marathon weekend of screenings spanning the full sweep of Lynch’s career.

Lim’s book briskly recounts the production history of all this work, as well as charting Lynch’s constellation of collaborators (a deep bow for sound designer Alan Splet), influences (how’s Ronald Reagan, Francis Bacon, and the Maharishi for an unlikely trio?), and affectations (buttoned up, fiending for sugar). As for the psychological tie between life and work, how much more needs to be said once you know that a young Lynch himself slept in Eraserhead’s (1976) bedroom set?

'Eraserhead' screens at BAMPFA Saturday, Aug. 20 at 8:45pm.
‘Eraserhead’ screens at BAMPFA Saturday, Aug. 20 at 8:45pm. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

Lim peppers his descriptions of the films themselves with epigrammatic insights: “Sincerity can rip open a Lynch film as decisively as dread;” “All of [Lynch’s bad guys] wield knowledge they shouldn’t have as an instrument of fear;” “The very presence of mystery suggests realms of possibility, a transformative way of looking at the world.” Intelligent, honed criticism of this kind is always refreshing, but especially so when applied to this particular subject.

Lim perceptively notes how journalists tend to follow Lynch’s own script — and specifically Blue Velvet’s (1986) indelible opening — in searching out the seamy reality underlying Lynch’s bright exterior. The academic equivalent is to respond all too eagerly to the overabundant symbols and enigmas set like so many lures in Lynch’s work. By avoiding interpretive excess, Lim actually helps us to see Lynch’s singular position in film culture as a “populist experimental filmmaker, [who] has only grown freer and more radical with age.”

'A Shadow History of the Lynchian: Oddities and Marginalia' plays at BAMPFA Sunday, Aug. 21 at 4:30pm.
‘A Shadow History of the Lynchian: Oddities and Marginalia’ plays at BAMPFA Sunday, Aug. 21 at 4:30pm. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

While Lim mostly leaves cultural commentary to a minimum, he rightly pauses over Twin Peaks to emphasize just how out of the ordinary it seemed in 1990. “The TV terrain of the 1980s was a smaller, safer place,” he recalls — which was precisely the attraction for Lynch. “People are in their own homes and nobody’s bothering them,” he told an interviewer at the time. “They’re well placed for entering into the dream.”

We learn that Twin Peaks was the most recorded television show of its moment, a fact as revealing as it is anachronistic. Along with Mulholland Drive (2001), which also had its start in television, Twin Peaks remains the most fully inhabitable of Lynch’s work.

'Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,' screens at BAMPFA on Sunday, Aug. 21 Sunday, August 21 7pm.
‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,’ screens at BAMPFA on Sunday, Aug. 21 Sunday, August 21
7pm. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

The BAMPFA program includes a rare 35mm screening of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), the feature-length prequel that annulled any doubt that Lynch would be going his own way. “I happened to be in love with the world of Twin Peaks and the characters that exist there,” he told a press conference at the time. “I wanted to go back into the world before it started on the series and to see what was there, to actually see things that we had heard about.” It’s one of the more remarkable quotations in Lim’s book, suggesting not only that Lynch is comfortable working without a net — indeed, that he is perhaps only comfortable working this way — but that he might well find his own films as strange as the rest of us.

Dennis Lim introduces each screening in the series David Lynch: The Man from Another Place at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Aug. 19-21. For tickets and more information visit bampfa.org.

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