Greil Marcus on David Lynch

A wonderful description of David Lynch in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice by Greil Marcus—notable in particular for the reference to Natty Bumppo, invoked by Leslie Fiedler to describe the sort mythical figure that arises in the Westward direction:

…for thirty years Lynch has been as much a frontiersman as Natty Bumppo or Davy Crockett: an extremist, autonomous filmmaker who has been both a subject and an audience, and who, working in Los Angeles, has been neither worn down by Hollywood nor marginalized by it. Wearing his shirts buttoned to the neck without a tie, he posits a moral and social wilderness and plunges into it; the rest of the country may turn away or pretend it doesn’t notice, but Lynch’s bet is that the rest of the country is already there, ahead of him. “Neat”, he might say. “Nifty”. 

Lynch’s great subject is instability and displacement: what happens when the ground disappears from beneath your feet, when you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I like the nowhere part of America”, he has said, but in his films nowhere is where you find it, or make it. Lynch was born in 1946 in Montana, the least populated and least governed state in the U.S.A.; his family moved to Idaho when he was two months old, but Montana remains his touchstone. When anyone asks him where he’s from, Montana is what he says. For Lynch the state stands in for an original America, where you can do what you want and no one can tell you different. Lynch admired Ronald Reagan as an Old West anarchist, a libertarian cowboy, the kind of man who’d do what a man’s gotta do, like the hero of Owen Wister’s 1902 novel The Virginian, the source of so many Western shoot-outs and stone faces… 

Lynch was a guest at the White House during Reagan’s presidency; stories have circulated about his ties to operatives on the far right. “It would be beautiful to have a great leader who inspires people from the top down”, Lynch told journalist Kristine McKenna in 1992. “Not some goody-goody guy either”. For many years he has supported the Natural Law Party, a creation of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, onetime guru to George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon, which advocates the precepts of Transcendental Meditation as the solution to all problems (“One change of attitude, Lynch has said, “would change everything”)….

Lynch’s politics, such as they may be, seem to have to do with his movies, unless it’s politics as Sinclair Lewis defined it for Buzz Windrip: not FDR’s “integrity and reason”, addressing questions of “monetary systems and taxation rates”, but a leader communicating the sensations of “baptism by immersion in the creek, young love under the elms, straight whiskey, angelic orchestras heard soaring down from the full moon, fear of death when an automobile teeters above a canyon”. “I don’t know what I want to say to people”, Lynch said in 1986. “I get ideas and I put them on film because they thrill me”. There is no sense that as an artistic he tells his characters what to do, or that they would hold still if he did. “I used to think that the president of the United States had some sort of control over what happened over my neighborhood but now I know that isn’t true”, he said to McKenna. “We’re in a time when you can picture these really tall, evil things running at night, just racing. The more freedom you give them, the more they come out and just race, and they’re running in every direction now”. At their strongest his characters are those creatures, in flight both from the country and from themselves, they never escape, but the noise churned up by the suspense they generate is deafening. “It’s like being locked in a building with ten maniacs. You know there’s a door somewhere and there’s a police station across the street where they’ll take care of you, but you’re still in the building. It doesn’t matter what you know about the other places if you’re still stuck in the building”. 

Lynch grew up in Boise, Idaho, the factory town of Spokane, Washington, the college town of Durham, North Carolina, and in Alexandria, Virginia. He started out as a painter, which he still is; he began working in film at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1965. By 1970 he was in Los Angeles, with a grant from the American Film Institute. Places send messages, Lynch says, but you can find the country he mapped anywhere. “I want to make films that occur in America”, he told the documentary filmmaker Chris Rodley, “but that take people to worlds where they may never go; into the very depths of their being”. This is pure art speech; Lynch’s movies rarely speak the language. Despite behind-the-veil-of-illusion effects that go back to 1930s radio plays—”Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” shock-horror of an unreadable boogeyman face, characters replaced by doubles or characters of who double themselves, the camera eye disappearing into holes where all the secrets are, holes in the ground or holes in a head—often what is most alive in Lynch’s films, what’s most compelling, the scene or the image you can never get out of your mind, is right there on the surface. 

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