Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Lynch’s Affinity for Laura Palmer

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Lynch’s Affinity for Laura Palmer

by Tony Dayoub

This is the fourth post in a four-part series. Catch up on parts one, two, and three.


David Lynch hasn’t released a full-length theatrical feature since 2006’s Inland Empire. This offers us some perspective on his filmography and Fire Walk with Me’s place in it. It’s but the first of a series of films depicting a woman whose dual nature is a signal of internal dissonance. What most intrigues me is how jarring it feels compared with his work up until then, a considerable achievement given the almost mischievous disdain Lynch has for traditional narratives. Even though he started his career with Eraserhead, a stubbornly surreal work, his next two films–The Elephant Man and Dune–both strike me as stabs at legitimacy, a director bringing his unique vision to projects which might allow him mainstream success. Blue Velvet, which looks at the frighteningly dark underbelly of shiny, wholesome small-town America, is the first work that truly feels Lynchian. Then comes TV’s Twin Peaks, which continues along those lines. And right before Fire Walk with Me, Lynch directs Wild at Heart, a noir romance that hints at Lynch’s penchant for the surreal intruding on reality, this time in the form of characters from the movie The Wizard of Oz.

What all of these have in common is a male protagonist coming to see the world around him as more corrupt and strange than he could ever have anticipated. It’s a personal trajectory that Lynch himself experienced. Growing up, occasional trips to Brooklyn to visit his mother’s family disturb the young Lynch. “In the subway I remember a wind from the approaching train, then a smell and a sound. I had a taste of horror every time I went to New York City,” he tells interviewer Chris Rodley in the book Lynch on Lynch. “I could just feel fear in the air. It was great fuel for future fires.” In the same way, leaving his idyllic, nature-filled childhood behind to study in the very industrial Philadelphia seems to have left an impact. There the economic burden of marriage and fatherhood forced Lynch and his new family to live in a crime-ridden neighborhood, an experience that clearly informed the grim, mechanized nightmare of Eraserhead. The introspective films preceding Fire Walk with Me were made by a man still coming to terms with adulthood in a world where he felt out of his depth.

Fire Walk with Me is a pivot point in Lynch’s oeuvre and certainly of a piece with Lynch’s subsequent movies. (Only The Straight Story is an anomaly; it bears many of his hallmarks but feels more like a director-for-hire project.) In explaining why he chose to shift the focus away from Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper to Laura Palmer Lynch justified his attraction to the character. “I wanted to see her live, move and talk,” he says in a quote from your first piece, describing her as as “radiant on the surface, dying inside.” It’s immediately apparent from the performance he coaxed from Sheryl Lee how much he empathizes with Laura.

Lynch’s previous female protagonists were sympathetic characters whose plights were eroticized. In Blue Velvet, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) is forced to perform perverse acts for Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), a man who has kidnapped her husband and child. But her plight is obfuscated by her own moans of pleasure. Lynch frames her seductively, even when she’s acting out the frightening sadomasochistic fantasies she’s been blackmailed into by Frank for her new lover, Jeffrey (Lynch’s alter ego, MacLachlan). Her lips fill the screen as she sighs and begs Jeffrey to slap her as they make love.

In Wild at Heart Lula Fortune (Laura Dern) is similarly victimized by the oily Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe). While Lula’s boyfriend, Sailor (Nicolas Cage), is out on an errand, Bobby barges into her motel room to find her in only a lace teddy. Ostensibly there to use the bathroom, he lingers. Lula demands he leave but he assaults her. Lynch cuts to a close-up of their mouths: Bobby’s twisted and ugly, Lula’s decorated with bright red lipstick. The camera follows his hands as he strokes her breasts and between her legs, and he whispers, “Say ‘Fuck Me,’” over and over, until Lula becomes aroused (signaled by her hand contorting as it did after an orgasm with Sailor earlier in the film) and gives in to what he wants. The ambiguity in the way Lynch approaches each film’s respective heroine is disturbing because of the reprehensible sex acts on display.

Laura, on the other hand, is a fully fleshed-out human being. Had Fire Walk with Me been a different kind of film, not a horror film burdened with living up to the expectations of fickle fans (like myself, admittedly), perhaps Lee might have even been in contention for a more prominent award than the Independent Spirit she was justifiably nominated for. Lynch depicts the incandescent Laura in various harrowing ordeals. Some start from an erotic standpoint, but Lynch then subverts our expectations. For instance, in the Pink Room scene, where Laura is forced to allow her naïve friend Donna (Moira Kelly) to tag along on what is essentially an out-call at the Road House, the lurid promise of nudity and eroticism is immediately sabotaged by the squalor of the noisy bar. Percussive industrial music plays so loudly over the scene that it’s subtitled, while the men who solicit Laura look like grimy lumberjacks. The club’s strobe lighting aptly transforms Laura’s seductive dancing into the herky-jerky movements of a marionette. And Lynch tops it all off with an insert of the disgusting barroom floor strewn with cigarette stubs and ash. Each time we’re made privy to Laura’s circumstances, Lynch and Lee remind us Laura is not the shallow Madonna/Whore cipher she was on TV. She’s an active participant her own murder mystery, laying all the groundwork for Cooper’s case in her diary. She protects relative innocents like her two lovers, Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and James (James Marshall), and her best friend Donna from getting mired in the same existential quicksand she finds herself in. Because of how Lee performs them, scenes previously only spoken about on the TV series gain new dimensions when we finally see them for ourselves. High on coke during a drug deal gone bad, Laura’s initial shock at Bobby murdering the dealer gives way to an unstoppable case of the giggles as she confuses the dead man with Bobby’s best friend Mike, whom he bears not the slightest resemblance to. And the disgust with which Laura treats the kind James at the intersection of Sparkwood and 21 speaks to her resentment that even this rebellious biker has managed to preserve more of his virtue than she ever had the opportunity to in herself.

For the most part, Lynch’s subsequent films would continue to revolve around this new affinity he felt for his female protagonists. Lost Highway would see him regress a bit, sexualizing Patricia Arquette’s dual roles and falling back on his tendency to depict women as manipulative temptresses. But at least he doesn’t lay the culpability for his hero’s misfortunes on her characters as much as on the tortured man himself.
Mulholland Dr. sees Lynch using a female/female relationship and its ultimate self-destruction as the creepy crux in an examination on the nature of identity. And finally, we come full circle to Inland Empire, the movie which reteams Lynch with Laura Dern, an actress so central to much of the director’s work. Here, Dern also plays a woman with a ruptured identity, one similar to what Laura Palmer was trying to suppress when she allows herself to be killed rather than succumb to the evil BOB. That Laura is the only one of these women whose exit can be viewed as redemptive–the only one who takes control of the manner in which she’ll go–indicates how strongly Lynch loved her and the dark, quirky world he created for her.

1 comment:

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, what do you have planned for the blu-ray release later this year? I assume you'll be covering it some capacity (and look forward to your take) but wondering if you'll be doing several posts on different features or aspects since it's such a behemoth of a package.