A Somewhat “Lynchian” Post

You ever want to make a room go silent?  You ever want to weird out a group of people who claim they “can’t be weirded out?”

Okay, then here’s what you do.  Put on the chicken dinner scene from David Lynch’s Eraserhead.  No one will ever look at you the same way again…or talk to you, for that matter.  Oops.

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Unless…

Unless they get it.  And if you get it – if you get David Lynch, if you can on some level identify with what he’s doing, with the weirdly earnest yet deeply disturbed nature of his work…then it’s hard not to be absolutely enthralled by his films, even if one doesn’t necessarily like them.   It’s also hard not to deeply respect David Lynch as an artist, a true auteur who never makes a movie without getting the final cut, doesn’t care what the reviews say,  doesn’t even care if his films are successful or popular.  David Lynch is a man who makes exactly the movies he wants to make, no matter how much those movies might unsettle his audience.

Everyone remembers their first David Lynch experience.  For me, it was a late night showing of what I now know to be Lost Highway, many years ago.  At the time, I only saw a couple scenes, got confused and changed to something else.  Yeah, I’ll admit it, I was totally one of those people who didn’t understand what the the appeal was.  Seeing those several scenes out of context, Lost Highway at first seemed like it was just trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, and that notion didn’t appeal to me.

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Later on, I saw The Elephant Man, and my opinion slowly started changing.  Then, finally, I watched Eraserheard. 

It didn’t hit me so hard at first.  After 109 minutes of surreal visions, uneasiness, ghastly moments involving “the baby,” uncomfortable laughter, nausea, heads rolling around and—finally, at the end—being overcome with a feeling of sheer horror, I’ll admit I had no idea what exactly to think about it.  But what snagged me, what finally made me a Lynch fan, was the fact that days after seeing Eraserhead for the first time…well, it stayed with me.  The movie is a bit like a grievous injury to the brain—it lingers in your mind for days, maybe even weeks before it finally heals into a scar.

See, what became clear to me after Eraserhead was that Lynch doesn’t just try to be weird for the sake of being weird, and when his critics claim this, they’re missing the whole point; really, making this accusation is much like staring at a living, breathing tree and yelling that it’s a dead tower of dead.  Lynch’s films operate in a surreal, dreamlike landscape, highly influenced by Dadaism, Eastern mysticism and Franz Kafka.  Like Kafka, Lynch’s greatest talent is the way that he presents utterly bizarre events without emphasizing them, the same way that one would experience these events in real life.  Even in a movie like The Straight Story – which despite its utter lack of darkness, is one of his best films – he makes the odd storyline of an old man driving through the US on a lawnmower actually seem unbelievably mundane, amazingly normal.  Lynch’s films  are like waking dreams, more so than they are movies.

But how so?

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Put it this way.  Have you ever had a truly ugly nightmare, the kind that leaves you trembling on and off throughout the day?  Okay, now, that’s all well and good.  But have you ever noticed that as soon as you try to describe that nightmare to someone – as soon as you try to really analyze it yourself – it doesn’t sound scary anymore?  No, actually, it seems absolutely ridiculous.  No matter how hard you try to tell Bob that the nightmare you had about being eaten by a giant pink Pac-Man with lollipop ears was the scariest experience of your life, your actual description makes it seem utterly laughable.  Bob can’t understand.  Even you can’t understand, not in retrospect.  You need to have been there.

That’s what David Lynch’s work accomplishes.  As bizarre as his movies are – from the awkward expressions, to gas masks, to dancing midgets and crude cartoon characters – and as ridiculous as they sound in retrospect, that moment when you’re watching a David Lynch movie is unsettling, mystifying and confusing…and the feeling you get from watching it lingers on, never truly going away.

-Nicholas Conley

Why David Lynch’s “Dumbland” is Smarter than it Looks

I’ll admit, about two minutes into Dumbland—the 2002 web series/”cartoon” by David Lynch—I almost turned it off.

Of course, I was already wary of the series before even starting; it’s a bit difficult to watch something with a ridiculous title like “Dumbland” without at least some trepidation.  I mean, Dumbland?  Seriously?

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However, I’ve always been fascinated by the work of Dumbland creator David Lynch, as I stated in my coffee blog.  From Eraserhead to The Straight Story, Lynch is a remarkably unique filmmaker; his meditative, Dada-influenced approach to films is compellingly absurd, and his work—while often highly uncomfortable to watch—has a way of carving a permanent scar upon the viewer’s subconscious, branding the viewer’s memories in a way that resembles the lingering discomfort we experience after an especially bad nightmare.  In fact, Lynch’s films operate much on the same level as a nightmare; his perverse creations seem laughable at first glance, but the actual experience of watching those creations is inexplicably disturbing.

Though some might resist labeling Lynch’s work as “horror,” Lynch’s twisted sensibilities get right to the essence of what horror is supposed to be.  His films are frightening.  They’re unnerving.  They make the viewer uncomfortable, sometimes for days on end.  While many horror films might give you a couple jump scares, Lynch’s horror is the kind that never leaves you.

As an artist, I admire Lynch.  I admire his approach, his unflinching honesty, his darkly sincere voice.

So despite my apprehensions—and despite my immediate disdain for “Randy,” the unlikable main character—I  gave Dumbland a chance.   I stuck it out.  I stuck it out through all of the coarseness, all of the crude animation, all of the nauseating repetition, all of the (seemingly) exploitative profanity…and in the end, I was surprised to realize that despite its crudity, Dumbland proved to be a highly worthwhile viewing experience.

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Watching Dumbland certainly isn’t enjoyable, but that’s the entire point; Dumbland is a razor-sharp, darkly satirical commentary on the perversity of contemporary suburbia.  It’s a critique of Western culture.  A critique so harsh and so relentlessly vicious that it would make South Park blush—and it gets away with all of this by carefully cloaking itself in the masterful disguise of “just another stupid internet cartoon.”

“It is of course, however, no surprise that most critics –ranging from Lynch cult fans to structuralist cinephiles– totally miss the point of the series’ much necessary raison d’être. While structuralists attack the “crudeness” and alleged “pointlessness” of the series, using the infamous accusation of “weirdness for weirdness’ sake,” supposed Lynch fans simply relish in that alleged “reasonless weirdness,” without care or respect to any sort of real artistry or social commentary. Both camps of critical reception seem to be oblivious to the true brilliance and intensity at work here, and even more oblivious to the message, as well as Lynch’s origins: the Camus-inspired Theatre of the Absurd, the movements of Dada and Anti-Art, and the overall surrealism Lynch is perfecting, following of course in the footsteps of Buñuel and Dali. There is a lot of progression, sincerity, satire, and stark beauty in Lynch’s work –all of which impatiently ignored by critics, under the pretense of “incomprehensibility.””

– David Durnell, Sisyphus and Suburbia: A Contextual Study of David Lynch’s Dumbland

The “perversity of contemporary suburbia” is one of Lynch’s most recurring themes, especially in both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, but the quirky filmmaker has never tackled it in quite so scathing a manner as he does here. The setting of Dumbland‘s eight episodes is simple; in the armpit of suburbia there lives a bald, violent, idiotic man named Randy, who seemingly never leaves the confines of his front lawn.  As a result, Randy’s life is hopelessly boring.  He spends most of his time throwing around his son and wife; on the rare instances when “intruders” from the outside world enter Randy’s domain, he responds to them with violence.  The only exception to this is when his “friend” – a character resembling the cowboy from Mulholland Drive – comes over, and the two of them have a “friendly” conversation how much they enjoy hunting and killing things.

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The result of this is that even though Dumbland bombards the audience with a slew of irritating burp, fart and violence jokes – jokes which at first seem characteristic of a bad Adult Swim cartoon – it soon becomes clear that these “jokes” aren’t supposed to be funny.  Once the bleakness of Randy’s world becomes fully visible, Dumbland quickly becomes a terribly depressing, even nauseating series to watch.

Randy is hopelessly stupid.  He possesses no ambition, no drive and no motivation to improve himself. His attraction to violence is so great that, in the absence of victims, he even becomes violent toward himself.  Randy frequently hurts people.  He’s constantly confused, disoriented and angry.  He passively watches his child’s gums bleeding, torments his wife and generally shows little understanding of anything around him.  He abuses everyone near him, and is utterly oblivious to the damage he causes; in the world of Dumbland, it appears that Randy’s behavior  has been tolerated and accepted for so long that he sees nothing wrong with it.

His narcissism is best displayed in the episode “Get the Stick!”, when a nameless man choking on a stick in his mouth suddenly breaks into Randy’s yard.  At the desperate urging of his son, Randy tries to “help” the man – but instead of simply removing the stick or cutting it in half, he instead effectively pulverizes the man into oblivion, at which point the ruined man wanders into the road and is run over.  The only reply to this that Randy can muster up – his barbaric feelings on the horrible murder he’s just committed – is to be irritated, because in his words, “The fucker never even said thank you.”

But Randy, despite his ignorance, isn’t happy with his life; he’s intensely miserable, frustrated and angry, with no outlet to express his feelings other than his frequent acts of violence.  He’s a pathetic man, and the disturbing hopelessness of his character – and his isolation from the world surrounding him – demonstrates what Dumbland is really all about; when a doctor inspects Randy in the third episode, the doctor revealingly diagnoses the sociopathic man as being “perfectly normal.”

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Randy is symbolic of the overall infantilization of society.  He’s the gruesome portrait of a puerile, solipsistic contemporary man; a burping, farting, shallow character, a character who truly believes himself to be the center of the world.  His absurd fate at the end of the series – which is illustrated with Lynch’s usual unflinching eye toward the darker and more bizarre areas of our psyche – brings the series full circle, as Randy’s violent tendencies finally catch up to him.

I don’t believe that David Lynch is a cynic.  The giddy idealism buried within such movies as Blue Velvet is fairly evident, once one looks past the dark surface.  However, I do believe that Lynch is a creator who isn’t afraid to open up the most evil parts of his own mind and display them to the world, which is why much of his work is so uncomfortable; we recognize the truth in it.  Dumbland, despite its cartoony appearance, is possibly one of the darkest works that Lynch has ever created.  It’s certainly not the best introduction to Lynch – for that, I suggest something more like Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive – but for those of us who already understand Lynch’s work, Dumbland is an absolute must-see.

-Nicholas Conley