Muted Golden Sunshine: David Lynch’s Los Angeles




The following is a feature article from the new intern issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books: The Magazine. The issue, which our interns produced as part of this past summer’s LARB Publishing Course, comes off the press at the end of the month and will be mailed to subscribing LARB members. Click here to get your subscription today.

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I ONCE MET A USC student from Montana who told me he didn’t like Los Angeles because it’s “a place people end up, not somewhere they plan on going.” I wonder if David Lynch — who happens to be from Missoula, Montana — would agree. Three of his last four films (Lost Highway [1997], Mulholland Drive [2001], and Inland Empire [2006]) have been set in and around the city, and each reflects a distinctive outsider’s perspective of it. If you believe the director’s repeated insistence that he’s done making movies, Los Angeles is thus where he ended his cinematic career. Counting the beginning of that career as 1977, when Eraserhead was released, means it took Lynch 20 years to arrive here.

In his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (2006), Lynch describes that arrival; it was “at night, so it wasn’t until the next morning, when I stepped out of a small apartment on San Vicente Boulevard, that I saw this light. And it thrilled my soul. I feel lucky to live with that light.” Lynch uses this light sparingly in his Los Angeles triptych, which is more notable for its crepuscular goings on than any sun-kissed views of the City of Angels. This tension is epitomized in Mulholland Drive when a character describes a prophetic dream as having taken place during “half-night.” However much his characters may disagree — not least the women hoping to make it in Hollywood — Lynch himself quite likes it here. He continues:

I love Los Angeles. I know a lot of people go there and they see just a huge sprawl of sameness. But when you’re there for a while, you realize that each section has its own mood. The golden age of cinema is still alive there, in the smell of jasmine at night and the beautiful weather. And the light is inspiring and energizing. Even with smog, there’s something about that light that’s not harsh, but bright and smooth. It fills me with the feeling that all possibilities are available. I don’t know why. It’s different from the light in other places. The light in Philadelphia, even in the summer, is not nearly as bright. It was the light that brought everybody to L.A. to make films in the early days. It’s still a beautiful place.

Not that it should surprise anyone who’s seen how Lynch depicts ostensibly idyllic small-town America, but the director’s avowed love for his adoptive hometown is hardly reflected in his work. Lynch was making nightmarish dreamscapes of all manner of places long before Lost Highway; such was one of the primary appeals of Blue Velvet (1986) and Twin Peaks (1990-91). But due to the obvious fact that Hollywood is home to the film industry, with which Lynch has an inconsistent relationship, it feels more cutting and even personal in these latter films — a “poisonous valentine to Hollywood,” as J. Hoberman famously described Mulholland Drive in his Village Voice review. In his 1998 The New Yorker essay “L.A. Glows,” Lawrence Weschler suggested that “… if you’re an astronomer you want your star — or for that matter, your sun — to be distortion-free: solid as a rock. And that’s what you get here. The stars don’t twinkle in L.A.” They may not twinkle, but Lynch’s films suggest that they certainly burn out.

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In between the release of Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Lynch began a different venture: daily weather reports. Originally an exclusive feature of his website dating back to at least May 2005, the reports were also featured on their own YouTube channel under the acronymic username of DLDWR until June 2010. Visiting that page now returns the message “This channel does not exist.” The section of his website where it used to be found, www.davidlynch.com/dailyreport, is similarly dormant. Back when they were still ongoing, a typical report began with Lynch looking into the camera and saying, “Good morning. It’s March 12, 2009, and it’s a Thursday.” He then looks up toward either a window or skylight and adds, “Here in L.A., mostly blue skies, some white clouds floating by, muted golden sunshine, very still. 52 degrees Fahrenheit, 11 Celsius.”

Some three years earlier, he recorded a nearly identical one: “Good morning. It’s April 17, 2006, and it’s a Monday. Here in L.A., beautiful blue skies, some puffy white clouds, golden sunshine, a slight breeze. 55 degrees Fahrenheit, 11 Celsius.” Whether this daily ritual was ironic or completely sincere remains unknown; few areas of the world have such consistent weather as Los Angeles, which would appear to render the whole exercise moot from a meteorological perspective. Lynch once tweeted that “60 hours between 9AM and 6PM would be great,” so perhaps these reports had more to do with taking a moment to reflect, so to speak, than with a commitment to accurate forecasts.

Most videos ran 30 seconds or so, but a few stand out as different. In one 13-second clip, Lynch’s own visage is obscured by a balloon with a face resembling the “baby” from Eraserhead crudely drawn on it. He says nothing while industrial noise drones in the background. There are several others of similar strangeness, each of which are hard to classify as anything more than further proof of Lynch’s nonpareil approach to everything he does. The reports are archived less comprehensively than you might expect of an eccentric, web-only affair from someone as famous as Lynch.

Lynch’s thoughts on light, which he discusses behind-the-scenes featurette included on the UK Blu-ray of the film, are explicit when considering the weather report:

Los Angeles, I’ve discovered, you go one place — but it’s like every city — you go over here, you get a certain feeling. You go over here, you get another feeling. L.A., from people who come here for a visit or think about it from afar, they see it as one thing. But it’s many, many, many things. So as you go around, you catch these different moods, as you do when you go around anywhere. And sometimes these moods can feed into a film and give you ideas. The light is what brought people here: the good weather and the light. But the light is magical, because for me, it is like a happiness — a light that gives you energy and an indication that anything is possible. It’s, I think, critical for me to feel that light.

Los Angeles is an especially nebulous and drawn-out place, so maybe that is why only Lynch and other artists who embrace, rather than tone down, that nebulousness — Bret Easton Ellis in Less Than Zero (1985), Alex Cox in Repo Man (1984), Robert Altman in Short Cuts (1993) — are able to cut to the core of this city’s underlying strangeness. Lynch underscores the odd and ridiculous as strikingly as anyone, projecting a distorted image of Hollywood and the surrounding desert. You may have to wade through some talking rabbits to get to that truth, but it’s still there.

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Lost Highway Hotel

The script for Lost Highway introduces it as a “21st Century Noir Horror Film,” so perhaps it was the genre that led to the city rather than the other way around. The movie begins with typically hypnotic footage of a dotted yellow line dividing a two-lane highway at night; Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) likewise begins in the desert before arriving in Los Angeles. Lost Highway  about a saxophonist named Fred (Bill Pullman) who murders his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) and subconsciously crafts a separate persona to dissociate himself from the irrevocability of his actions — is the least accomplished of Lynch’s unofficial Los Angeles trilogy, but also an important thematic precursor to the later installments.

Lynch acclimates us to the film’s particular brand of unreality in its most memorably frightful scene, which finds Robert Blake’s Mystery Man telling Fred that they’ve met before. Deathly pale and lacking eyebrows, he looks like a vampire from horror flicks of yore — yet somehow even more unsettling, as he’s at a party somewhere in Los Angeles circa 1997. Nonplussed, Fred says he doesn’t believe they’ve met but decides to humor the stranger by asking where it is he thinks this prior introduction occurred. “At your house,” replies the Mystery Man matter-of-factly. “Don’t you remember?” Then he says that he’s in his house right now and, as proof, tells Fred to call him. When he does, he’s greeted by the Mystery Man’s voice on the other end of the line.

Terrifying though moments like this one are, Lost Highway’s unease wouldn’t appear to be particularly site-specific. Fred and Renee live in a luxe home in the Hollywood Hills, but that detail is more incidental than integral. The exterior shots of perhaps its most notable location, the Lost Highway Hotel, were filmed at the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, which is located off Route 127 in Death Valley Junction. (It’s also said to be haunted, having been featured in two ghost-hunting shows on television in the last four years.)

The most specific Los Angeles tie-in may be, of all things, the O.J. Simpson case. While he was collaborating on the screenplay with Barry Gifford — whom he approached about the project after he encountered the phrase “lost highway” in Gifford’s Night People and thought it a good title for a movie — Lynch was “sort of obsessed” with the trial. “Barry and I never talked about it this way,” he writes in Catching the Big Fish, “but I think the film is somehow related to that.” In this demystified context, the image of Fred barreling down the highway to escape himself and what he’s done is even more frightful: the supernatural may evoke its own sort of fear, but real-life atrocities are always more horrific in their banality. (For further proof, consider how Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me [1992] recontextualized the television series as being more about a father abusing his daughter than the mythic entity compelling him to do so.) Lynch continues:

What struck me about O.J. Simpson was that he was able to smile and laugh. He was able to go golfing with seemingly very few problems about the whole thing. I wondered how, if a person did these deeds, he could go on living. And we found this great psychology term — “psychogenic fugue” — describing an event where the mind tricks itself to escape some horror. So, in a way, Lost Highway is about that. And the fact that nothing can stay hidden forever.

That Blake would eventually be tried and acquitted for murdering his wife is an unfortunate parallel that only deepens this sense of mystery. Lynch has always worked elements of horror into his narratives, but not until he came to Los Angeles and upped his runtimes (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire run 134, 147, and 179 minutes, respectively) did they begin to feel like durational descents down the proverbial rabbit hole. You get the feeling, especially in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, of having entered an environment that’s nightmarishly cruel to women.

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“I had a dream about this place

Mulholland Drive also begins in a car, this one on the eponymous road. A woman whose name we’ve yet to learn (played by Laura Elena Harring) is in the back of a limousine when it unexpectedly comes to a stop; another vehicle crashes into the limo just as her drivers threaten her with a loaded gun. We next see her wander all the way down to Franklin Avenue, then Sunset Boulevard, then the fictional address of 1612 Havenhurst. It’s late and the woman is clearly in a daze. There’s no one else out save for a police cruiser and a drunken couple ambling down the sidewalk. Finally she takes refuge in some shrubs, where she falls asleep.

The next morning, bright-eyed Betty (Naomi Watts) arrives at LAX from Deep River, Ontario. A stranger to Los Angeles, she’s here to make it big in the pictures: “I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star,” she’ll say later, “But, of course, some people end up being both.” Mulholland Drive is deeply informed by, and in some sense about, the process by which one ingratiates oneself in the film industry. There are the similarities, both superficial and deep-seated, to Sunset Boulevard (the respective films’ titles, the murder mysteries, and so on and so forth). In one of the film’s more subtly disturbing scenes, Harring’s amnesiac sees a Gilda poster on the wall and decides to take on the name of its star, Rita Hayworth.

During an audition, Betty reads a sexually charged scene with a male partner, whom the script notes is “old enough to be her father.” He tells the director that he wants to “play this one close,” as he did with another actress whose name he can’t remember. “That felt good,” he adds. The run-through quickly gets hot and heavy and, sensing the direction it’s taking, Betty goes along with it. Her acting is genuinely impressive, but it’s her ability to amplify the scene’s inherent sexuality that seems to earn her such rave reviews from everyone gathered in the room. (If this is an indictment of Hollywood’s treatment of aspiring female stars, it seems downright tame compared to what awaits Laura Dern’s character in Inland Empire.)

On a more literal level, Mulholland Drive also features explicit references to the geography that’s such a vital part of its narrative: a “Welcome to Los Angeles” sign at LAX; helicopter shots of the skyline in daytime unaccompanied by music that take on a vaguely menacing quality; a slow pan of the Hollywood sign accompanied by a quiet droning sound; and, of course, Mulholland Drive itself. As for the fixation on this admittedly evocative stretch of pavement, Lynch also discusses it briefly on the Blu-ray featurette, calling it “a road that is locked sort of back in time — a lot of it is, anyway.” He adds that it’s “all by itself on the crest of the mountains, and there’s many places where you can overlook either the Valley or Los Angeles, you know, Hollywood down below. It’s very dark there at night, and it’s curving, so it just gives you a feeling. It’s kind of a dream road.”

A dream road for a dream movie, perhaps, one with an equal number of dangerous twists and turns. One must be especially cautious when traveling on Mulholland Drive, as the film’s first scene and a real-life “auto graveyard” known as Dead Man’s Curve amply demonstrate. Located below a deadly hairpin curve near Laurel Canyon, Dead Man’s Curve is home to numerous wrecks, dating back to the 1950s, that have never been removed — perhaps that’s what Lynch means by “locked back in time,” regressive gender politics and all.

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On High and Blue Tomorrows

Inland Empire is a three-hour movie that features exactly one reference to the east-of-LA region from which it takes its name. The film wasn’t shot in the Inland Empire, nor is it set there. It’s hard to tell whether or not this conspicuous-in-its-absence locale is an improvement over IE’s usual treatment; a Los Angeles Times article once proclaimed that, for some, the area is “less a geographic boundary than a state of being — one often portrayed in unflattering ways.”

Even more directly than Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire is about the film industry’s dark underbelly — how people are used and rejected by it. Lynch’s treatment of Hollywood is even more excoriating, its descent darker and more surreal.

The film stars Laura Dern as Nikki, an actress on the cusp of getting a big part. Early on, an elderly neighbor pays her a strange visit. After telling her that she’s certain Nikki got the part she’s up for, the woman tells this story: “A little boy went out to play. When he opened his door, he saw the world. As he passed through the doorway, he caused a reflection. Evil was born. Evil was born, and followed the boy.” She describes this as “an old tale, and a variation” on a similar story, which she recounts immediately thereafter: “A little girl went out to play. Lost in the marketplace, as if half-born. Then, not through the marketplace — you see that, don’t you? — but through the alley behind the marketplace. This is the way to the palace. But it isn’t something you remember.”

Inland Empire requires more work on the part of the viewer to decipher its goings on than either of its two predecessors, dealing as it does in vague dialogue like this, but in some ways it’s also the most rewarding. We know almost instantly, just from the tone set by this largely one-sided conversation, that there’s something sinister about the role that Nikki has apparently gotten — even if what that is never fully reveals itself in a conventional way.

Neighbor: Is there a murder in your film?
Nikki: Uh, no. It’s not part of the story.
Neighbor: No, I think you are wrong about that.
Nikki: No.
Neighbor: Brutal fucking murder!

Evil was indeed born, and Nikki is the one it’s now following. Famously tight-lipped about his films’ meanings and even their precise happenings, Lynch described Inland Empire as simply being about “a woman in trouble,” and this is first confirmed as it relates to the mysterious role in the alluringly titled On High and Blue Tomorrows. The first table-read for the film, which occurs on a sound stage not long after the above exchange, is interrupted by a loud knocking sound somewhere in the dimly-lit distance. Nikki’s co-star Devon — played, like the director Adam Kesher from Mulholland Drive, by Justin Theroux — unsuccessfully investigates the source of the noise. “Disappeared where it’s hard to disappear to,” he says by way of explanation upon his return.

When Devon gets back, the director (Jeremy Irons) informs the two of a terrible secret: On High and Blue Tomorrows is a remake of sorts — or, rather, a second attempt at making an unfinished film. “Something happened before the film was finished,” the director says enigmatically. Pressed for more detail by Nikki, he explains that the leads “discovered something inside the story,” finally admitting after yet more pressure that the movie, based on a “Polish Gypsy folk tale,” is said to be cursed and that two leads in the prior incarnation were murdered.

In part due to its exhaustive runtime and the horror-movie atmosphere it gradually takes on, Inland Empire is incredibly moving and transportive, even if the places it takes us are very frequently unpleasant and/or horrific. As much of it is set in Poland, the film has little to do with Los Angeles’s specific geography; it focuses instead on the city as a state of mind and the locus of an industry with which Lynch has had an uneven relationship. But it does return home when it matters.

What might be considered Inland Empire’s climax occurs when Nikki is essentially warped to a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame late one night — later in the evening, perhaps, than the time of Rita’s arrival in Mulholland Drive or Lynch’s in Los Angeles itself. After being stabbed with a screwdriver, Nikki sits down near three homeless people in front of a row of businesses now closed for the night. The three regard her silently before continuing their conversation: “What’d you say about Pomona?” one of them asks. The two then discuss how one could conceivably get to Pomona by bus if they first take a subway. The conversation goes on for several minutes, Nikki bleeding out between them all the while.

“My friend Nico, who lives in Pomona, has a blonde wig,” a woman explains. “She wears it at parties, but she’s on hard drugs and turning tricks now. She looks very good in her blonde wig, just like a movie star. Even girls fall in love with her. When she’s looking so good in her blonde star wig she blows kisses and love.” Rita wears what might be called a “blonde star wig” in Mulholland Drive, a defense mechanism that makes her appear more at home in celebrity-obsessed Hollywood.

At the end of this bizarre conversation, Nikki vomits blood and is calmly told she’s dying. We see the camera and hear the director’s voice say“cut.” It isn’t Lynch’s voice, but Irons’s. We’ve been watching a scene from On High and Blue Tomorrows, but how much of this has been a film-within-a-film is never made clear. Nikki later walks into a movie theater and sees herself onscreen, an experience that causes her to recoil in horror. Is this really her, and how much of a person’s essence can be captured in such a way?

Other than the natural light, Lynch loves something else about Los Angeles: what he calls, again in the Blu-ray interview, “this business of a sort of a creativity in the air, you know, where everybody’s willing to go for broke and take a chance. It’s a modern town in that way.” Betty and Nikki certainly fit that description, and Lynch is sympathetic toward them, but he doesn’t seem to harbor much affection for the executives pulling the strings. In one of the main subplots of Mulholland Drive, director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is pressured by mysterious figures to cast an actress he’s never heard of as the lead in his new film. He has no idea why this is happening, but eventually he relents. Everyone in Hollywood has a boss, and Lynch’s focus on the lower-level pawns is telling: does he feel as exploited by the higher-ups as his female characters do?

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Michael Nordine is a Los Angeles–based film critic.


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