By Aaron Hillis, Michelle Orange, Matt Singer, R. Emmet Sweeney and Alison Willmore
[Photo: “Eraserhead,” Absurda/ Subversive, 1977]
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David Lynch’s latest film, “Inland Empire,” may be the first film that greets the auteur of oddness’ legacy with a wink and a self-acknowledging nod. For years, Lynch has made a career of defying expectations with a determinations that’s lead him to make films that are startlingly opaque (see “Lost Highway”) or even more startlingly accessible (see the first entry below). Most memorable may be his characters beautiful freaks, larger-than-life ingénues and inexplicable entities that immediately lodge themselves in your memory. Below are some of our favorites from the Lynchian line-up.
“The Straight Story” (1999)
It’s hard for me to pick a favorite David Lynch character, not because there are so many to choose from but because so many of them are less characters and more squirming snippets of our subconscious made walking, talking flesh; it almost seems too revealing.
I considered Laura Palmer, the ubiquitous corpse of “Twin Peaks” fame, and though I can’t deny she’s right up there (has a plastic shroud ever worked so hard?), ultimately that choice seemed too cheeky, too Lynchian. In my heart of hearts, it’s Alvin Straight who’s my favorite, the cranky, proud, heartbreaking Iowa widower who rides his ’66 John Deere tractor across state lines to visit his dying brother and end their ten year feud. “The Straight Story” was released by Disney (!) in 1999, and Richard Farnsworth’s performance as Alvin Straight was hailed as a marvel of strength, understatement, and warmth of character; he almost managed to overshadow Lynch’s departure from form, a stylistic z-turn that almost zagged right back around to subversive (again: Disney!). 80-year-old Farnsworth was nominated for an Oscar for his role, and it came to light that he had been fighting terminal cancer all the way through the shoot; the poor man shot himself six months later. Michelle Orange
To this day, David Lynch refuses to describe how he created the monstrous infant that’s dropped unceremoniously into the dystopic bachelor life being led by Henry Spencer (Jack Nance). Embalmed cow fetus or not, the baby has always been for me the most indelibly Lynchian character, a nightmare vision of the perils of parenting, sex or maybe just human contact in general. The baby, at once a ridiculous phallic symbol and a parasitic mutant, appears after Mary’s (Charlotte Stewart) alarmingly brief pregnancy (“Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!”). Given that Henry greets the world through a fog of mild bemusement, it takes a lot to shake him out of his stupor, but his constantly crying, pustule-covered deformed child does eventually manage it, chasing Mary away and driving Henry to make the unfortunate discovery that the bandages in which it’s swaddled are actually holding its organs in. It’s a gruesome metaphor: parenting as both a hazard-filled path down which one must blindly make one’s way, and as a trap that leaves you hovering in a permanent purgatory of responsibility. “Eraserhead” was supposedly inspired in part by Lynch’s impending first-time fatherhood if that’s so, it’s amazing he managed any offspring at all. Alison Willmore
“Wild at Heart” (1990)
Sticking Elvis, “The Wizard of Oz,” and other Americana under the wheel of a road trip to Hell, Lynch’s underappreciated Palme d’Or winner (and in my opinion, his masterpiece!) begat nearly as many wonderfully warped characters as the whole “Twin Peaks” prime-time run. There’s snakeskin-tailored hound dog Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and his star-crossed trash kitten Lula (Laura Dern); her wicked mommie dearest (real-life mama Diane Ladd); the disturbingly sleazy yet funny sociopath Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe); Laura Palmer herself as the ethereal Good Witch (Sheryl Lee); and we’ll never know what the hell is up with Double-O Spool (the late Jack Nance), a twitchy fella who caustically proclaims a non-existent dog is always with him. So it’s a true feat to stand out as the most memorable in a cast this collectively outlandish, and cult-hero hellion Crispin Glover pulls it off with less than two minutes of screen time, one line of dialogue, and a whole lot of screaming. In bed with Sailor, Lula narrates a post-coital “story with a lesson about bad ideas,” prompting flashback snippets to her cousin “Jingle” Dell (Glover), first seen being escorted home in a filthy Santa suit by the police. When his mother tells him that it’s summer and nowhere near Christmastime, Dell twists his feet into the bathroom mat and shrieks like something alien. He squirms in awkwardly precise slow-motion after putting cockroaches in his underwear, gets caught squishing dozens of sandwiches in the middle of the night (when the light comes on, Dell double-pounds the counter: “I’M MAKING MY LUNCH!”), and cries from the living room corner while poking what he thinks is a sinister rubber glove with a yardstick. As Glover recalls in a vintage featurette on the DVD, “David said if I let that glove go, it would be really, really bad. And I understood what he meant by that.” Don’t let anyone convince you Glover’s nervous eccentricity is a Lynchian calculation; that guy’s the real deal. Aaron Hillis
“Mulholland Dr.” (2001)
“The Cowboy” (Monty Montgomery) is a straight shooter. Inviting hotshot director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) to join him for an intimate rendezvous at the local abandoned corral, he gently forces him to hire one Camilla Rhodes as his lead actress or else. Deathly pale, donning an oversized ten-gallon hat, and speaking in a disconnected monotone, he’s a ghost of Hollywood past, a shriveled (but still powerful) representative of old-time studio strong-arm tactics. Skewering Kesher’s “smart-aleck” attitude, he diplays the moral certitude of a Randolph Scott hero, here used to nightmarish effect as an agent of a shadowy producer’s cabal. Lynch then lifts his influence to the metaphysical, as The Cowboy’s whisper “Time to Wake Up” marks Naomi Watts’ identity swap of the gold-hearted Betty for the conniving jealousies of Diane. Interestingly, Montgomery was an associate producer for the “Twin Peaks” pilot as well as for “Wild at Heart,” so his character speaks with self-reflexive authority. R. Emmet Sweeney
“Blue Velvet” (1986)
Though he would later become one of Hollywood’s most sexually adventurous actors (not for nothing does he appear as the male lead in Paul Verhoeven’s “Showgirls”), there is something downright wholesome about Kyle MacLachlan when he arrives in Lumberton at the start of “Blue Velvet.” Like a Hardy Boy who doesn’t realize he’s in the middle of an adventure (possibly one guest written by the Marquis de Sade), he stumbles into town after his father’s collapse and finds the severed ear that turns the whole plot on its, er, ear. Every time I watch “Blue Velvet” I marvel at MacLachlan’s air of innocence: he not only seems impossibly pure of body and spirit, he seems (as we are) totally unaware of where the story is going. All actors are supposed to act as if they’ve never read the film’s screenplay; MacLachlan’s the rare one who convincingly pulls it off. When he’s hiding in Isabella Rossellini’s closet and he starts watching, really watching her, there’s no telling what will happen next. And Dennis Hopper hasn’t even showed up yet. Matt Singer