Return of the Naïve Genius: “David Lynch: The Art Life” and “Twin Peaks: The Return”

By Elsa CourtOctober 24, 2017

Return of the Naïve Genius: “David Lynch: The Art Life” and “Twin Peaks: The Return”
I liked the idea of a story in episodes that would go on for a long time.

— David Lynch (1997)


DAVID LYNCH AGES GRACEFULLY. Proof is in footage from the making of Eraserhead, confirming that Lynch was not born with his silver, pomaded hairstyle, and that the lines of maturity make him look less goofy than he did in his post-college years. Almost unfaltering critical success and international fame have made the concept of Lynch plausible: his once curious, shambolic persona has been a brand since the 1990s. In “Part 14” of the much-awaited — and one-year overdue — return of Twin Peaks, FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole (David Lynch) retells a fresh “Monica Bellucci dream,” in which Cole and Bellucci (as herself) have a terrace coffee in a Paris street. Asking who is “the dreamer [who dreams and then lives inside the dream],” Bellucci makes a sign for Cole to look over his shoulder. The dream cuts to a shot from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), showing Cole at his FBI headquarters desk, 25-odd years previous, brown-haired, full-cheeked, with an air of concern on his face. Present-day Cole recounts: “I saw myself. I saw myself from … long ago. In the old Philadelphia offices.” Philadelphia holds significance in Lynch’s personal mythology. It is the city where Lynch, as an art student, first started experimenting with animation and, soon after, film. The dreamer who Bellucci referenced a moment before, he who lives within his own dream, might very well be David Lynch looking back on himself as a cultural subject — one for whom thinking creatively accounts for such a great part in biography and idiosyncrasy.

From the moment he was given a platform to talk about his journey into cinema and television, Lynch has talked about life in Philadelphia — where he attended art school, got married, became a father — as a source of dread and inspiration in and of itself. The influence of his college education on his artistic development seems to pale in comparison to that of the city itself, and it has been suggested, whether in good faith or not, that Lynch’s primary sources are rooted in his perception of the physical and social environment rather than in aesthetic and theoretical teachings he received. Candidly, in a BBC documentary on the history of the Surrealists in film that he was asked to host in 1987, Lynch talked about Philadelphia as “one of the sickest, most corrupt, decadent, fear-ridden cities that exists.” The dramatic quote has followed him everywhere, but he has not, to my knowledge, nuanced it since. The memories from Philadelphia are so strong partly because they are always interpreted in contrast with an earlier, idyllic past in Lynch’s Midwestern childhood. Against this comparatively happy, easy, wholesome time and place, urban societies have always seemed — if only at first sight — toxic. (This is with the exception perhaps of Los Angeles, a city where the sun shines and where, Lynch claims, there is “something in the air.”) However, as his manifest attachment to past selves and identities suggests (see the persistence of his birthplace, Missoula, Montana, and of his Eagle Scout ranking on his Twitter bio), a preserved naïveté is an integral part of his mature artistic persona.

In the opening sequence of last year’s documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, a montage of Super 8 family film footage gives a glimpse of this “simple” and elated postwar American childhood. The film director’s voice retells fragments from a happy early life among a loving mother, father, brother, and sister, and each memory sounds sensorily close and relevant. On a hot summer day in Idaho, Lynch remembers having been placed in a man-made pool of muddied water in the garden of his parents’ house in the company of Dickie Smith, another toddler from the neighborhood who was his friend. The two boys had been sent there together for protection against the scorching heat, and Lynch remembers how this simple arrangement enabled him to enjoy the garden, the pleasantness of the mud forming under his fingers, and the proximity of a friend who was sharing in his excitement. The memory of this scene, today, is so palpable that it becomes a bit overwhelming: “Forget it,” Lynch concludes with a smile.

Much of Lynch’s artistic coming of age, as he retells it in the documentary, involves the thematic elements of this happy anecdote: the immediate excitement of creative experimentation and the joy of sharing this work, this lifestyle — the “art life.” Through the rest of the film, the director is pictured handling rust-colored paint, which he smears onto the flat surface of a canvas in his current Los Angeles studio. Though his hands are clad in surgical gloves, the idea of the mud of the opening memory is not distant. Viewers may feel far removed from the clean and remote technicality of film, the medium with which Lynch’s work is predominantly associated. Yet the documentary closely examines this other, enduring side of Lynch’s artistic process, one that relies on primary, unmediated experimentation with matter and texture. Lula, Lynch’s two-year-old daughter, is walking around the studio, grasping the look and feel of various objects from her own perspective. There is a shot of a furry gray moth fluttering against a window pane. Later, Lynch comments on the amazing textures hidden within the body of the smallest organic creatures: insects, fish, small animals.

The life and death of organic matter can be as curious and spectacular in Lynch’s aesthetic as the workings of technology. Such curiosity brings his work to tread a fine line between the sheer beauty of changing organic forms and the abject horror that bodies conventionally represent when they are subject to death and decay. Lynch recounts that as an art student in Philadelphia he kept a special room in his building’s basement for artistic “experimentations,” which consisted in gathering organic matter, animal or vegetal, and leaving it to rot while recording all the successive physical changes of these transformations. This experimental preoccupation anticipates the dead cat in Eraserhead, the ear in Blue Velvet, or even the fantastic “Children’s Fish Kit” Lynch assembled in a 1979 photo-based art piece, giving instructions to assemble a (dead) mackerel he had chopped up into three pieces, like the parts of a mechanic toy. The bloody mess around the pieces of this gory puzzle testified to either the idiocy or malevolence of the maker of the “kit.” As Lynch remembered it, his father’s reaction when he showed him the experimental basement room was, unsurprisingly perhaps, one of palpable sadness and concern. This impression was confirmed to him when his father advised him a moment later, à propos de rien, never to have any children.

There is, and always has been, a sustained critical interest in discovering, as David Foster Wallace once put it, “what David Lynch is really like.” A question that arises, for example, is whether the concept of Lynch as a sui generis figure in cinema is fair, or even plausible. Film critic Peter Bradshaw, in his review of The Art Life, notes that the documentary gives little to no indication that Lynch is aware of an experimental film tradition happening before him, and concomitantly with him, as he describes the way he came to the realization that there could be such a thing as a “moving painting.” This realization, which led him to apply for and obtain a grant from the American Film Institute, is presented by Lynch, like many of his artistic decisions, as a purely intuitive move. “What is so extraordinary about this film,” Bradshaw writes, “is that it doesn’t show Lynch as the cinephile or the movie brat or even someone with any great interest in art history […] It is as if Lynch was in a state of innocent primitivism, without ever knowing about anyone else doing the same thing.” In Chris Rodley’s book of interviews, Lynch on Lynch, the names of Fellini, Kubrick, or Wilder occasionally come up, but the comments that they inspire are always succinct and superficial. “Sunset Boulevard is in my top five movies for sure,” says Lynch, before claiming he is not sure it has anything to do with Eraserhead beyond perhaps the “experience of a certain mood.” Watching or reading any interview with Lynch since the release of Eraserhead leaves open the question of whether the director performs his innocent remoteness to such a film tradition, or whether this lack of awareness, which amounts to a form of phenomenal self-involvement, is genuine.

Wallace, among others, believes it is. The concept of a “primitive” or “infantile” approach to filmmaking has marked much of Lynch Studies since its ignition in the 1990s. Both Surrealism and the Freudian Uncanny, important intertexts for Lynch’s interpreters, identify regression into infantile or primitive states as a condition of their existence. The primitive self, or the child-like self, is the only aspect of human life that André Breton sees as artistically promising and liberating, and his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto promoted Surrealism as no less than a “second chance” to experience the freedom of childhood — free from the constraints of rational language and self-presentation. Though he readily admitted the limitations of his own tentative, preliminary theories on the subject, Freud, meanwhile, insisted on this notion of infantile primitivism as the return of animistic beliefs that should have been bypassed in psycho-sexual development, but which nonetheless return to create the specific experience of the uncanny. My favorite moment in the Art Life involves Lynch’s retelling of a hazy, ominous memory, of saying goodbye to a male neighbor named Mr. Smith (Dickie’s father?) before his family set off to leave Boise, Idaho. It is unclear whether the man, almost a stranger to the young boy, represents the loss of a happy past or, on the contrary, some kind of threat. Lynch pauses; his voice wavers; and the story is never completed. Trying to define that special brand of creepiness that would come to define the term “Lynchian,” Wallace suggested that Lynch seemed to be “one of these people with unusual access to their own unconscious,” suggesting that if these unconscious fixations are often too much for words, Lynch’s lack of emotional distance from them allows for their comparatively unfiltered expressions in his visual art and film.

Despite his unrelenting aesthetic interest in making the unconscious visible, Lynch claims to be ignorant of psychoanalytic theory, and Peter Bradshaw is not the first critic to have drawn a parallel between his quasi-contempt for theoretical knowledge and his seemingly innocent, unadulterated creative persona. His own contributions to interpretations of his work rarely take us further than autobiographical sources. For example, while hosting the history of Surrealism in film, he only admitted to feeling an affinity with “people who are interested in cinema as a means of experimentation,” whomever these people might be after the Surrealists. Jeff Johnson even identifies “an undercurrent of anti-intellectualism” in Lynch’s films, evident from the early shorts The Alphabet (1968) and The Grandmother (1970), where the movement from the intuitive to the symbolic, from pre-verbal freedom to the constraints of language, is represented as a trauma. Johnson thus interprets the streak of happy naïveté in Lynch’s work as the expression of intrinsically American values, pointing that the rationalist approach always fails in Twin Peaks, and that Voltaire, in Lynch’s work generally speaking, “always loses to Rousseau.” Agent Cooper, the iconic hero of the TV series, is one of the clearest and most sophisticated expressions of Lynch’s postlapsarian American ideal. Wholesome, empathetic, spontaneous, trusting in his own intuitions and honest appetites, nevertheless hard-working and ever-respectful of social hierarchy, Cooper is the alter ego of the “naïve genius” Pauline Kael saw in Lynch upon the release of Blue Velvet: a childish, solipsistic, albeit clairvoyant, man.


The return of Twin Peaks has given new life to Lynch’s “naïve genius” persona, which has lived through a number of variations in Lynch’s work, from awkward Henry in Eraserhead to Mulholland Drive’s ingénue heroine, Betty. In Season Three of Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper, already known as a naïve prodigy, is subjected to an interminably stretched-out “return” via catatonic Dougie Jones, a somewhat radical new incarnation in this genealogy of naïveté. Fifteen episodes into the much awaited Return of the 1990s cult TV show, Cooper, the hermeneutic force and spirit of Twin Peaks, had yet to recover the capacity to form sentences, or make willing decisions, a state that had led TV reviewers worldwide to compare the new Coop, or “Dougie,” with a robot, a simulacrum of himself, or even the eponymous Sims of the once-widely popular life-simulation video game (see, for example, Dougie’s helpless reaction when he needs to go to the toilet in “Part 5,” clasping his crotch with both hands, unable to relieve himself unless told to do so). Cooper’s 25-year sojourn in the remote time of the Black Lodge — a place where language is spoken backward but where even deceased people, like Laura Palmer, go on living and aging — comes to an end no sooner than three episodes into the new series. Even after this phenomenally delayed return, the transmission fails to restore Cooper to his terrestrial self. Perhaps as a result of his extended absence in between worlds, or as a consequence of the trauma for changing from one substance to another in his passage back from nowhere to Earth, Agent Cooper has then to go through a long and directionless process of restoration to the character he once was. I call it a process, but it is one that shows hardly encouraging, almost imperceptible, progress — an impossibly elongated delivery that will have resigned many viewers to accepting that perhaps this catatonic state was what the character Cooper was supposed to be for the whole series, that there would be no further “return” than this innocent, familiar body in a suit.

In line with Coop in the original series, the Cooper who has infiltrated the life of Dougie Jones in The Return is responsive to the simple, almost invariably sweet, food that his wife, Janey-E (Naomi Watts), feeds him as she would a child. The new, temporary Coop doesn’t dream, but he is guided by a good intuition (a.k.a. the Black Lodge) that helps him dodge the traps that his now almost nonexistent rational logic would fail to discern. Finally, Coop is still pure at heart to the point of taking an embarrassingly innocent approach to heterosexual relationships, which leads him to engage in a disturbing sex scene with Janey-E without previously having shown signs of consent. This is, up to this point, the only sex scene the show will put Cooper through, as if the character had to be stripped of agency to support — and perhaps accidentally enjoy — this less-than-pure experience of adult physicality. Coop, however, renews along with his old sensory memories. Through the comical, aphasic demands for coffee of Coop-as-Dougie-Jones, the longtime viewer can satisfy their knowledge that, doppelgängers and mind-bending dimension-crossing aside, this is the “real” Coop, in essence. In fact, Cooper’s initial rediscovery of coffee in “Part 4,” and of cherry pie in “Part 11,” tease the audience’s longing to see Cooper restored to his true self while failing to produce a suitable “trigger” for his return. So Coop, for the most part of The Return is reduced to a sort of Faulknerian man-child, but with added magic: he may be slowed down, incapacitated, limited to the feel of simple emotions and easily satiated hungers, but he is never angered by this condition, or shown to have become selfish in this disposition. He is fully dependent on the care of others but also flourishes under this care, seemingly blind to danger but actually blessed by protective intuition, good reflexes (as when attacked by Ike the Spike, the hitman sent to kill him), and the unfaltering guidance of mysterious protective forces.

And yet in the episode aired a week before the two-part finale, the show got Cooper back. Indulging in this subversive timeline, Lynch forces his audience to experience the world of Twin Peaks — which now comprises many more locations than the town of Twin Peaks itself and many new characters that draw, more or less closely, on the original series — beyond or before its movement toward narrative resolution. The “spirit” of this irresponsible timeline occasionally crystalizes through the wide, innocent, experimental eyes of Cooper-as-Dougie-Jones.

Twin Peaks has always affected a great innocence over the way it managed time and the release of information, a process that always privileged environmental components such as food, nature, technology, weather, and time. As Michel Chion noted in the mid-1990s, Twin Peaks was the first television series where the characters were seen interrupting the action altogether to enjoy simple physical gratifications such as fresh air, the taste of a good cup of coffee with a slice of pie, a “notion of ease” that was so completely new to the time-tight world of television series. Lynch was famously forced by ABC to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer early on in Season Two out of concern for the general longing for narrative resolution, a move that went against Lynch and Mark Frost’s initial plan to let the murder plot recede to the background, while savoring all the minor sub-narratives of the various characters and the atmosphere, in a word, of the show. This decision, he realized immediately, would “kill” the show, and it did, at least for a time.

The decision to make Fire Walk With Me in 1992 was, for Lynch, an opportunity to reexperience the world of the show, a universe that he had become obsessed with. Yet one of the reasons why the film was initially so badly received was that, due to new time constraints, the more light-hearted tone of the TV series had to be stripped away from the prequel narrative, leaving us with only the bleakest elements of the plot. It seems clear now that the show has taken complete liberty over the deliverance — and delivery — of Cooper, and therefore of time. It made the return of the hero not the beginning but almost the end of the Return’s plot and through this device, restored the show’s initial pace of suspended action, fruitful confusion, and slow, all-too-frequently pausing, dialogue. A bit like Gordon Cole’s deafness or Andy and Lucy’s heightened emotional sincerity, this is also a device to submit character interactions to a certain kind of experimental pace.

The extreme delay in restoring Cooper has enabled some of the greatest comedy the show has delivered yet, such as the gloriously incongruous casino scenes, the insurance company scenes in which Dougie behaves in a less-than-office-appropriate manner and gets away with it, and the desert rendezvous scene in which Dougie evades the Mitchum brothers’ plan to kill him by delivering them a $30 million check from his boss with a complementary cherry pie in a cardboard box. All of these scenes offer comically providential outcomes to seemingly desperate situations, deploying money and professional resources with a simplicity that only a child at play could come up with. Paradoxically then, the delayed recovery of Coop has enabled the return of the Twin Peaks spirit: a goofiness restored, rebooted. In Rodley’s book of interviews, to this day the most substantial collection of published words from the filmmaker, Lynch points out that he generally looks back to an era when filmmaking could take its time.

Things go so fast when you’re making a movie now that you’re not able to give the world enough — what it deserves. It wants to be lived in a little bit, it’s got so much to offer, and you’re going just a little too fast. It’s just sad.

In pure Lynch fashion, this statement fails to say whether it is referring to an actual era in film history or to Lynch’s own early experience of feature-filmmaking, a period when, for lack of funds, he stretched the making of Eraserhead over more than five years, a time that allowed him to create a vision and feel time within it — to explore it and believe in its reality. “Everything should be looked at,” is Lynch’s overall message. “There could be clues in it.” This is what the format of the television series certainly allowed him to do, which he found attractive from the beginning, in spite of the initial losses that TV would imply in terms of sound and image quality back in the 1990s.

A paradox remains in this scenario. For all its impossible delay, The Return is incredibly contemporary in its handling of media and sensitive to their evolution in time — from the ubiquitous radio in the enigmatic 1940s flashbacks of “Part 8,” to the new present day’s use of Skype, video blogging channels, smart phones, and geolocation. Many of these illustrations of hyper-connectivity are topped with representations of metaphorical and actual screens, at times futuristic or retro or both, as in the case of the mysterious glass box seen in “Part 1.” Only Sarah Palmer’s viewing of nature television programs and a boxing match seem resolutely from another time, the latter actually stuck in a terrifying time loop: a nod to the death of television as we once knew it. This, and a Roadhouse music listing that feels up-to-date, save for a few fan-serving callbacks (James Hurley, Audrey Horne’s ever-haunting dead-to-the-world dance, and to an extent, Rebekah Del Rio’s timely return), makes you think David Lynch is very much in tune with a contemporary cultural moment, which he consciously haunts. Meanwhile, the rarely interrupted continuum of an authorial vision is a place of indiscriminate duration, an elongated present moment prone to uncanny returns: mud, heat, hit songs, nuclear explosions, places where personal recollections eventually form the substance of the collective past.


Elsa Court’s monograph Émigré Representations of the American Roadside 1955-85: Explorations in Literature, Film, and Photography is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan. Court researches expat cultures for the Financial Times and reads fiction for Granta magazine.

LARB Contributor

Elsa Court is a French-born, London-based writer and academic. She is the author of The American Roadside in Émigré Literature, Film, and Photography 1955-85 (Palgrave, 2020), which examines the social spaces created in the margins of American mobility and the fascination these held for postwar European authors and theorists. Court is the fiction editor at Review 31 and she teaches English Literature and French Theory at Queen Mary, University of London.


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