The following is a brief, artistically unsatisfying essay on identity and dream in some of Lynch’s films, that I wrote during Winter Break 2016 as an attempt at a straightforward essay. I’ve contemplated revising it in a more abrupt, brutal, mysterious, dreamlike style, but with the new Twin Peaks season now concluded, I’ve dug it up and thrown it here.
In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks the identity of the self is closely connected to the identity of place—the small towns of Lumberton and Twin Peaks, respectively. At times place and self so vividly mirror each other it is as if the exterior is merely a projection of the interior—and indeed it is, for in Lynch, the world is ever the world of dream. In these towns we wander through the sheen of the apparent world, a world placid and prosperous and good, and here into the fog of the place hidden, yet always there. Once revealed this place seems to be everything, and all things and lives now seem corrupted by rot and murder, when in fact they always were. In both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks these worlds are sometimes indistinguishable, and sometimes they are quite distinct, as they shimmer about each other, overlapping, intruding, and clouding each other. The interaction of these worlds works to simultaneously reveal and obscure the characters of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet and Laura Palmer, Leland Palmer, and Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, often splintering them, or mutating them into persons previously unrecognizable.
We see the connection between the interior of the individual and the exterior projection of place clearly in the opening sequences of Blue Velvet. Here the sleepy town of Lumberton is introduced in slow motion and bursting colors: rose beds and pristine white picket fences and firemen waving from trucks. Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet” plays on the soundtrack while the world drifts past. It is the ideal suburban world; it is also an artificial world, told in exaggerated color and expression, for it is the world of a dream. So it is this world Jeffrey Beaumont carries with him through his opening sequences—his polite, quiet manners, his neat clothes and necktie, as if transported from 1950s television. He has returned from college after his father’s heart attack, and here he will remain while his father recovers, resuming now his old position in his father’s store—for Jeffrey, of course, is upright, responsible, respectful. He is a product of his town and his town is the product of him, for the world is but what we perceive, and until his father’s heart attack Jeffrey is incapable of perceiving any other world.
For it is in Blue Velvet and then Twin Peaks (and more obviously in the later identity films Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive) that the revelation of self is found in the fracturing of worlds, when the veneer of habit, the safe and familiar, is lifted through the shock of the unfamiliar. In Lynch the unfamiliar is often found in images of the grotesque and violent, but then any removal from the ordinary, any shift in the routine and familiar, is a kind of violence. We can then appreciate the precipitating event of Jeffrey’s fracturing is his father’s heart attack, rather than the more obvious incident: the ear in the field Jeffrey discovers shortly after leaving his father’s hospital bedside. Yes, the ear provides a gateway to still greater horrors, but before his father’s illness, before leaving for college, Jeffrey would not have noticed the ear—for Jeffrey the ear would not have existed. The ants that walked about the ear would have seemed to wander the earth. An everyday violence, a father’s illness, provokes a tear in the world, and so then a greater tear follows, just as a dream, once tranquil can soon lead to corridors increasingly malevolent and strange. Now the horror is obvious and the bright world replaced with the world of the night: now blackened lawns, gangsters and seething alleyways hanging with dead bodies, corrupt cops and “men like Frank,” eyes bursting and inhaling gas, are unavoidable.
In this way identity in Lynch is linked perception—to be able to perceive Frank Booth one must acknowledge their capacity for Booth within oneself, that is to say, to perceive Frank Booth is to become him. Jeffrey’s introduction to the possibility of Frank comes from the closet of Dorothy Vallens, the lounge singer Frank has made his prisoner. Jeffrey watches as Frank shift between the personality of a child calling Dorothy “mommy” and a man who must be called “Daddy,” while sucking on a piece of blue velvet. He watches as Frank strikes Dorothy repeatedly, and then rapes her. Later that night, Dorothy begs Jeffrey to hit her, and he cannot. After he leaves her apartment, Jeffrey disappears suddenly as he is dissolved into light, subsequently replaced on the screen by images of his father and Frank Booth, distorted grotesquely like the men in Francis Bacon’s portraits, before those images too dissolve into shimmering flame and industrial droning. Now Dorothy Vallens, her red lips and desperate commandment: “Hit me.” Jeffrey wakes in bed after seeing Frank again, snarling; it is if Frank Booth has infiltrated Jeffrey, a virus already spreading. During a later meeting, Dorothy again begs Jeffrey to strike her, and now he does. Immediately he is physically and audibly transformed—his body blurring with Dorothy’s, mirroring the earlier distortions of his father and Frank Booth. Any sound of their sex replaced by industrial droning, inhuman sounds. Later, in such films as Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway, the opposite is true—the inability to accept the evil within results in becoming an entirely new person, wiped completely clean of memory and past and—in Lost Highway—transported into a completely new body.
Yet what is remarkable about Blue Velvet is that Jeffery is allowed to step back from his transformation. By making Frank Booth an exterior evil, an “other,” rather than an explicit extension of himself, Lynch implies that Jeffrey absolves himself when he kills Frank. Perhaps the virus of Frank Booth had not fully integrated itself into Jeffrey’s system. Perhaps he has and that is the point of the conclusion of the film: after killing Frank, Jeffrey wakes on a lawn chair in the midst of the opening world of the placid dream—we have again blue skies, chirping birds, bright red roses. Comically and abruptly Jeffrey’s father calls out from across the yard, “Feeling much better now, “Jeff,” as if not only Frank Booth has been defeated, but all evil, the mortality of fathers included.
This dream is a false dream, of course. It is the moment before some greater horror. The point of Blue Velvet is not that sleepy towns like Lumberton contain darkness and complexity, but that sleepy towns like Lumberton are created and maintained to allow their creators and inhabitants to survive and forget darkness and complexity, to pretend that “men like Frank” are anomalies or completely unlike themselves and the people they know. Such towns then are the manifestation of willful amnesia against strange longings and hidden atrocities. But they do not remove the atrocities once committed nor do they remove our inclination to commit them.
There is no greater example of this than the town of Twin Peaks, where “a yellow light still means slow down not speed up.” We see this town through Special Agent Dale Cooper’s eyes—an FBI agent sent to investigate a brutal murder, as he is charmed by the simplicity of this town, its coffee and pie. It is the kind of town where everybody eats at the same dinner and the police force is so unaccustomed to violent crime that one of the deputies weeps to see a dead body. There is a town doctor and a town psychiatrist and everybody knows who the prom king and queen are. Yet the sleepy town of Twin Peaks is not a town—it is actually, as the opening credits illustrates, a city of 51,000 people—a population at total odds with image represented. Perhaps the town we are shown is not the actual Twin Peaks, but only a dream version of Twin Peaks fallen over the actual city like a fog somehow made substantial. The inhabitants of Twin Peaks know the dream is a false one, but as when we dream, our understanding is slippery—we understand one moment that we inhabit a dream, and the next we wander fully believing the reality we have invented for ourselves.
As with Blue Velvet, the tear in the veneer comes through an act of violence—in Twin Peaks, the murdered body of prom queen Laura Palmer is famously discovered dead, wrapped in plastic. The fracture is twofold—there is the murder of a young woman, previously impossible in such a quiet town, and there is the ensuing unraveling of the image of Laura Palmer. It is this unraveling, and the police investigation behind it, that eventually forces each character to admit what must be well known to most members of the community—that the innocence of their town, their neighbors, their own lives, is a facade. As the character of Laura Palmer is revealed—her sins, her wildness, her torment—so too are the sins of the town. No character is untouched by misdeed; no character could have been unaware that Twin Peaks is not a haven from crime and horror, but is actually infested throughout. Their friends sell cocaine, or they have found bloodstains on their husband’s laundry, and now they cannot die it.
Much the same is the character of Laura Palmer herself. Few actually knew her, we are told, and yet the deeper we move into the series the more characters we meet who claim to know the true Laura—a person entirely independent of the false Laura, the pristine image she cultivated for the world. These characters are each in their way dependent upon Laura, although we are told she was “wild,” she was “troubled,” she was “into drugs.” So many versions of Laura, each winding deeper toward the truth, and yet, perhaps each version equally false, equally constructed. These seemingly endless variations on Laura Palmer only further cloud and obscure her identity. Each new revelation becomes a new Laura, a new complication.
Even Laura’s identical cousin Maddy is less a new character than she is another iteration of Laura. Not a doppelganger, but a Laura defined by others as a lesser Laura, a “not Laura” or a Laura that is “Laura’s cousin,” the Laura that is neither vivacious or wild or troubled, but quiet, meek, shy. Maddy quickly submerges into Laura. There is her relationship with Laura’s boyfriend, James, whose attraction to Maddy is less to Maddy herself as it is to the idea of Laura, each then replicating some new version of Laura atop what was once Maddy. Maddy even physically transforms into one of the many versions of Laura, as Laura so often did—taking on her hair, her voice, her pet phrases—to manipulate Dr. Jacoby.
As with the fracturing of Laura Palmer, the evolution of BOB from Season One to Season Two of Twin Peaks marks a radical transition in Lynch’s narratives, preparing the way for his later films of fractured identity: Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire. While BOB in Season One is the embodiment of evil, appearing in dreams and hallucinations, creeping across the floor, trembling and seething with malevolence, his role is similar to Frank Booth’s in Blue Velvet—an exterior evil of impossible depravity that obscures and essentially absolves the lesser sins of the other characters. The revelation in Season Two that Leland Palmer is BOB establishes two Leland Palmers in the mind of the audience—the Leland driven mad with grief at the death of his daughter, and the Leland possessed by BOB. The audience must question then where the line between these Leland Palmers falls—to what extent is Leland absolved of the abuse and murder of his daughter, and to what extent is he culpable? Is his grief the profound grief of a loving father, or the grief of a man who on some level knows, and is torn by guilt? We are confronted by a new image of Leland—hooting maniacally, his wild eyes leering, deranged. Somewhere within, perhaps a true Leland cowers in the darkness. Perhaps BOB is both the evil that imprisons him within his own flesh and the amnesia that allows Leland to continue living with his sins. There is no doubt that Leland dies immediately after the possession is lifted and his full memory is returned.
After Twin Peaks we increasingly see the separation between the physical self and identity in Lynch’s work. It is not accidental that the Twin Peaks series concluded with Dale Cooper split into two Coopers—the actual Cooper trapped within the Black Lodge and a second Cooper, BOB guised as Cooper, having taken his place on earth. Again and again in the later films like Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway identity is fogged, broken, lost. Characters retain their physical selves while taking on entirely new personalities, names, memories, and experiences. In this way then the loss of self-identity is a form of doubling and one then becomes his or her own doppelganger. Furthermore, Twin Peaks concludes Lynch’s investment in linear narrative—now Lynch’s films from Fire Walk With Me on assume non-linear and fragmented forms to match the psyches of his protagonists. Finally, his films will also become less concerned with the relationship between character and place—the small town narratives conclude with Twin Peaks—and more and more the works seem less concerned with characters inhabiting an actual world (even a dream representation of one), and instead navigate an interior universe.