David Lynch: We Understand, We Just Don’t Know

Mulholland Drive is probably not about my divorce, but sometimes I find that difficult to believe. It was the last movie my ex-wife and I watched together before our separation. The film ended and I promptly excused myself to cry alone in the bathroom, feeling the movie reflected my own relationship, minus all the murder and Billy Ray Cyrus.

Our marriage was a beautiful dream, where things were mysterious, adventurous, and we were passionately in love. Then one day I woke up and realized it was all in my head, we were broke, stagnant, and despised each other.

It took courage for my ex-wife to leave, she was terrified of falling on her face, but leaving me was the only moral option left. Divorce destroyed me and crushed my ex-wife, yet as I was feeling this anger and abandonment, I was empathizing with her. She was lonely before we met. I’d somehow made her feel more alone, and now she was standing before the prospect of a more literal and intimidating loneliness. These kinds of conflicting feelings, lacking any clear answer or desirable resolution, leave most people perplexed and fundamentally altered. Moreover, we begin the futile effort of searching for answers.

For me, there was no pivotal moment. Scary, new situations slowly became ordinary ones. Wonderful people slowly morphed into strange ones, and people I once regarded as strangers, became wonderful. Maybe once or twice I had dramatic realizations, but usually changes were subtle and responses nuanced. My first healthy hobby as a divorced man was losing track of time under the guise of cardio fitness, going for long strolls at a local park, and generally tying to forget where I was or what I should be doing. Sedentary no more, the next logical step was to immerse myself in the work of David Lynch. Mulholland Drive, after all, was clearly profound. Lynch and I must be kindred spirits for him to just “get me”. After the split, I viewed the movie as a kind of omen. Once the depression stopped being quite so overwhelming, I began watching Lynch’s films and Twin Peaks a lot, his work became a borderline obsession. I associated Lynch’s films with realization and healing. Losing 120 pounds isn’t easy, getting in shape and trying to be ok again isn’t easy, but there I was, improving. Lynch’s work gave me what I was looking for, but it happened because I was looking for it.

David Lynch is a muggle, just like everyone else, but his work is magical. It’s magical because it challenges viewers to explore their potential, and when you take him up on the challenge, you realize how amazing you are.

If you look past the abstract presentation, Eraserhead is basically the story of a lonely man named Henry Spencer. There isn’t much anyone can say definitively about themes  in Eraserhead, but I think one can almost objectively say Henry Spencer is depicted as being lonely. Maybe he loves Mary, maybe not especially so, but he’s looking for some kind of human connection. Maybe he would have gotten a better connection with the woman across the hall, but it doesn’t matter, because he gets Mary pregnant, so he’s giving it a go with her. He finds his own baby off-putting, but seems to, at least half-assedly try to give the family thing a shot, failing. Either because he didn’t try hard enough, because Mary never loved him in the first place, or some combination of the two. Whatever the case, Mary leaves Henry. He attempts a relationship with the woman across the hall, the baby scares her off, he decides the baby is screwing up his life for one reason or another, and then he kills the baby.

There may still be some conjecture in my synopsis, but that’s about as objective and bare-bones as I feel this plot can really get. Providing a point-by-point breakdown of Eraserhead does not paint an accurate image of what it’s like to watch Eraserhead. As well you casually describe a monologue in Jaws as: “Quint tells Hooper and Sheriff Brody he once encountered sharks while waiting to be rescued from the ocean, and he finds sharks to be really, really scary.” Sure, that’s technically correct, but that is not how one experiences watching Jaws.

The magic of Eraserhead isn’t found in story itself. Personally, I think most of Lynch’s stories are pretty simple and deal with relatively common themes. The magic lies in Lynch’s approach to storytelling, his ability to make you feel exactly what he wants you to feel, and most importantly, what you do with those feelings.

It’s my personal theory Lynch wants us to feel repulsed by the baby in Eraserhead. Then, right before Henry kills it, Lynch wants us to feel the vulnerability of the baby. Most importantly, I think the viewer is also feeling a little repulsed by themselves for being put off by what is, ostensibly just a deformed child. It’s easy to say “God, I wish someone would just kill that” as an off handed remark.

Then Henry reaches for the scissors.

You realize how abhorrent a thing it is for someone to murder the innocent child they were supposed to protect. Maybe the thought of Eraserhead disturbs you for the rest of your life and you never watch it again, swearing it’s the worst thing ever made. But like the movie or not, in some way, the movie reminded you, when it comes down to it, you’re a good person. The things you contemplate and the things you actually want in practice are not always the same.

You are not your negative thoughts.

Yes, I’m projecting, because everyone projects their own morals and philosophies onto the art they love. Eraserhead could be argued as a pro-choice piece, depending on how you look at it. For that matter, it could be twisted to fit the narrative of a pro-life proponent, if they were looking for that kind of message, and that is pretty much the end of the parallels between Eraserhead and Horton Hears a Who.

When my ex-wife and I reconciled post-divorce, the first thing I wanted to do was share two things with her: my newfound love for losing track of time at the walking park, and my newfound love of David Lynch.

When we got back together last Summer, I caught her up on all of Twin Peaks. One day after a particularly long walk, I noticed some out-of-the-blue waves of dizziness, which I ignored. We watched episodes six and seven of Twin Peaks: The Return that night, and then the following Sunday we’d be officially at the same spot, and we could watch the mystery unfold together.

Unbeknownst to both of us, a rather tenacious bit of pneumonia was making itself at home in my personal, private body.

Sporadic dizziness occurred on a Wednesday, by Friday I was coughing every few minutes, and by Sunday I was soaking the bed with sweat in my sleep. I came home early from work on Sunday, around 5PM, and told my ex-wife/girlfriend to make sure she woke me up for Twin Peaks, which she did. Coughing, sweating profusely, and quite delirious, I stumbled into the living room and watched Episode 8 unfold. I remember thinking something like “David Lynch movies are weird, but not this weird” and “I think I’m going insane.” The gravity of my illness just hadn’t registered with me, and my brain was hot. Confused and upset by what I’d just seen, I went to bed after it ended and proceeded to have the most ungodly nightmares I’ve ever experienced, waking up over and over throughout the night. The next morning I decided I was no longer watching Twin Peaks, because it was disturbing me.

Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return is actually fairly simple, in my opinion. It’s just an origin story for how The Black Lodge, Judy, and Bob came spilling into our world. Plot-wise, I don’t feel there’s much to discuss. Philosophically, aesthetically, tonally… Episode 8 is perhaps my favorite moment in television history, but I’m biased, because I was sick when I watched it and it quite literally made me think I had lost my mind.

Of all the times to experience Lynch as his most surreal, that was the worst possible one, for me. Or was it the best? How about the timing for when I saw Mulholland Drive? Was it perfect or terrible?

One of the most interesting things about Lynch’s art is that the line between beauty and ugliness is blurred to the point where, at times, it’s difficult to discern whether or not you’re looking at something happy or sad, comforting or terrifying, inspiring or depressing. Much like the image of Henry killing his baby, divorce is upsetting, but it brought about some imperative realizations. Initially I felt like I got a raw deal on episode eight. In retrospect, that was a unique experience, and caused a stronger reaction to the episode.

Where we are in life has a profound impact on how we perceive art. Lynch isn’t going to explain or even acknowledge any deeper meanings within his work. We have to look inward to figure out the morals to his stories, and those morals may change as life changes. We’re already in possession of wonderful, insightful answers.

What clarification could possibly be provided, to compete with such a beautiful notion?

Written by Josh Lami


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  1. This is amazing, I can’t wait to link someone to this next time I need… well, to show someone exactly this :). Also, I think this is the only time I’ve ever cried while I read an essay. And I’m not even divorced or anything like that.

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