Last year saw the long-awaited return of Twin Peaks. What amounted to an eighteen hour film seemed to relish punishing the cherry pie-snarfing fans who were only after a resolution of the cancelled series, but even the most sympathetic Lynch fan found reason to bristle at some of the septuagenarian director's detours and indulgences.
Perhaps the greatest example of perceived sadism comes at the end of the seventh episode. For two-and-a-half minutes, an employee of the local biker bar sweeps up peanut shells after close. In a sprawling work where the audience is eager to move on and find out what happened to characters they've been wondering about for twenty-five years, David Lynch holds for what seems like an eternity on a single shot of tidying up.
In a series--and a filmography--so replete with loaded images, this sweeping is so unmysterious that it can feel like the most mysterious thing Lynch has put to film. What could it mean?
When asked if mystery was something that's intrinsic to human nature, Lynch said "Absolutely. We are all detectives walking around with our flashlights and notepads. We all feel that there is more going on than meets the eye. We can’t shake that feeling because it is part of our nature, and there’s a point where people just can’t look the other way but must find out. Solving the mystery becomes an obsession."
Indeed, most of us harbour this little detective, an inner dick determined to swat away whatever mists roll into our lives. This is the impulse--maybe inserted into us in school, maybe hardwired--that seeks to solve a work of art, explain what, why, and how it is. What's unique about Lynch's work is that this desire to solve and uncover is as encouraged as much as it is discouraged. We're all equipped with the desire to find out, with an inabililty to look the other way. Knowing what to do with our findings, however, is another thing entirely.
The detective and the obsession with mystery has been a constant presence in Lynch's work since Blue Velvet. Whose severed ear is this in the field? Who killed Laura Palmer? Who is Dick Laurent and why is he dead? Who is the naked amnesiac in Aunt Ruth's apartment? What year is this? But like the writhing insect world that's revealed once one looks closer at a suburban lawn, these easily answered questions are entry points to something far more confounding, they are the lures that draw us into mysteries that are unsolveable in any conventional sense. This is one of the reasons some might find Lynch's films so frustrating. The desire to solve is aroused and then immediately challenged. The detectives in the films can only get so far before the viewer has to take over and provide their own solutions.
For much of his career, the enigma of Lynch's films--gloomy, violent, psychosexual nightmares like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and Lost Highway--were only increased by their enigmatic progenitor. In the halcyon, pre-internet days, few knew what Lynch looked or was like. Based on his work, fans imaged a brooding, weird artiste. Instead, what they got when they finally did meet him was a warm, charming man, a lifelong sporter of khakis and top-buttoned shirts (Lynch doesn't like wind on his collarbone) who still described things as "peachy-keen." The idea that these films come out of this Eagle Scout to those films only cranks up the fog machine.
It's only been in the past few years that Lynch's biography has gotten out there. Of course there's a danger in that exposure. Especially with a filmmaker like Lynch, our inner detectives start to share an office with psychoanalysts and we start rooting through the maker's life as a way to ground their work, to solve it. There's a lot of opportunity in Room to Dream, a hybrid biography-autobiography, which finds David Lynch in conversation with his worthy biographer, Kristine McKenna.
For instance, when Lynch describes going deer hunting with his dad, driving along a winding two-lane highway, it's hard not to read this incident as the source of one of the most common images in Lynch's films. "The only light is from the headlights of the car and it's pitch black. It's hard for people today to imagine this, because there are no roads that are pitch black, hardly ever. Not in America, anyway."
And when young Lynch and his little brother encounter a woman naked, bloodied woman at the end of the street, you wouldn't be alone imagining Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens: "Maybe it was something about the light and the way she came out of the darkness, but it seemed to me that her skin was the color of milk, and she has a bloodied mouth. She couldn't walk very well and she was in bad shape, and she was completely naked. I'd never seen that, and she was coming toward us but not really seeing us... But she didn't say anything. She was scared and beat up, but even though she was traumatized, she was beautiful."
Knowing the source of an imagine or idea, however, does little to explain what makes it compelling, what elevates it. Room to Dream does an admirable job of describing, both objectively and subjectively, the room in which Lynch creates and the materials he creates with, but won't be of much use to your inner dick. It's illuminating without being diffusing.
Perhaps the closest that a detail of Lynch's lived life comes to explaining his art comes when a series of lost jobs finally finds a young Lynch employed as a janitor in a frame shop. Lynch's lifelong friend, collaborator, and, briefly, brother-in-law, Jack Fisk recalls finding Lynch cleaning up. "'At some point I went home to Alexandria and found David working in an art store--David's a great sweeper,' said Fisk. 'He still likes to sweep, and takes great pride in it.'"
Looking back on the commercial failure of his most commercial film, the G rated The Straight Story (the true story of Alvin Straight, who in 1994 travelled across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawn mower to see his estranged brother), Lynch recalls running into the inventor of the blockbuster. "I was at this party once and Spielberg was there and I said to him, 'You're so lucky because the things you love millions of people love, and the things I love thousands of people love.'"
It's been a year since Twin Peaks returned and the detectives are still at work. Articles are being written and videos are being made trying to grasp the larger meaning behind Episode 7's jarring, uncomfortable, meditative two-and-a-half minutes of janitorial respite. But it might be enough to know that David Lynch loves sweeping.
Not a lot of people love sweeping.