"He was one of my best friends," says Lynch. "Jack had a quality . . . it's hard to put into words, but in my mind, Jack was a real Kafka character, Gregor Samsa [the man transformed into a cockroach in The Metamorphosis], which means to me: He understands trouble. He's trying to do the right thing, but he's also sensing the darkness and confusion of the world. That was pretty much Jack. He really had a pretty rough life, and it was rougher because he was a thinking person. Sometimes when you don't worry so much about stuff, you're actually kinder to yourself." Nance's death bears close relation to Lynch's work. Clearly, this is a dangerous world – death and destruction are often closer than we would like to believe – and this is one of the major themes of Lynch's movies. But it is also Lynch's powerful treatment of this theme – especially the way he presents the caprices of violence – that has turned many critics against him. Some reviewers found Wild at Heart's impassioned scenes of brain bashing and decapitation all but unbearable, and Fire Walk With Me was excoriated for its depictions of father-daughter incest and murder (which, actually, were quite heart-rending). Other critics have expressed outrage at Lynch's portrayal of female characters as either victims or malicious seductresses (particularly Dorothy in Blue Velvet). Lost Highway likely won't be immune to these protests. In the preview screenings I saw, several viewers audibly gagged at the scene where Alice's slimy fuck-for-money customer is killed (I think it's the sound effect, which is astonishing). More troubling is the scene where Alice is forced to strip at gunpoint for Mr. Eddy. She is terrified at first, but her body starts to undulate in movements of pleasure, as if she's turned on by being forced into this act. Then she puts her head between Mr. Eddy's legs, smiling the perfect smile.
These are moments that will drive some viewers nuts – particularly those who think that depictions of explicit violence and chancy sex threaten the moral or cultural sanity of our times. Lynch has been hearing these arguments for years. "I'm not sure what these people are saying," he says. "Is it that if you depicted no graphic violence, the world would calm down and there would be less violence? Or is it that if you sense certain things about violence and then portray those things in a film, does that make the violence go to another level? Or is the violence in films a way to experience something without having to do it in real life?
"It's a tricky thing," he continues. "When you're an artist, you pick up on certain things that are in the air. You just feel it. It's not like you're sitting down, thinking, 'What can I do to really mess things up?' You're getting ideas, and then the ideas feed into a story, and the story takes shape. And if you're honest about it and you're thinking about characters and what they do, you now see that your ideas are about trouble. You're feeling more depth, and you're describing something that is going on in some way. "In film, life-and-death struggles make you sit up, lean forward a little bit. They amplify things happening, in smaller ways, in all of us. These things show up in relationships. They show up in struggles and bring them to a critical point.
"I don't know where to break this thing," he says. "Are we in the business of falling in love with stories? What if every movie had to have a positive message at the end? If we only put out pleasant films, nothing would really stop, except that people would stop going to the movies."
In some of his earlier work, David Lynch would deliver something magnificent and terrible only to creep back from its implications. At the end of Blue Velvet, after a night of mayhem and death, pretty birds come out to sing (though they hold worms in their beaks). In Twin Peaks, after Leland Palmer confesses to killing his own child, we learn that he had actually been occupied by an otherworldly presence – something that FBI Agent Dale Cooper found more comforting than the idea that "a man would rape and murder his own daughter." In these moments, some semblance of order is restored after all the horror. "Once you're exposed to fearful things. . . ." he once told Rolling Stone, "you begin to worry that the peaceful, happy life could vanish or be threatened."
In Lost Highway, Lynch does not pull back. The plot delivers you to no easy place. Order is not restored, and not all the guilty are clearly punished. (After all, who isn't guilty in this story?) Instead, the movie's final moments are nothing but chaos and fear.
This may sound strange, but there is something heartening about witnessing one of America's most inventive artists allowing his art to grow darker, more difficult – especially at a point where he has everything to lose and at a time when there are loud voices in our culture who can stand no more admissions of darkness into the popular arts. Lynch has decided to put his vision up on the screen and protect neither himself nor us from it. Maybe he's saying that life's fractures aren't always easily comprehended or corrected. Or maybe he's saying that art shouldn't be reduced to something that, in the end, serves mainly to allay our anxieties or reinforce a fiction of order. Either way, it's a hell of a treat to see a brave artist working again at full strength. There's something about it that, truly, thrills the soul.
This story is from the March 6th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.
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