Lynch, Time, and Comedy

© Janus Films

Humor has always been an important element in David Lynch’s work, whether generated by over-the-top performances like Dennis Hopper’s in Blue Velvet; understatements like Bill Pullman’s response to Robert Blake’s cool assertion of supernatural powers in Lost Highway (“That’s fucking crazy, man”); the surrealistic visual non sequiturs characteristic of the first two seasons of Twin Peaks; or the intrusion of oneiric imagery into banal scenarios, like the menstruating miniature chickens that enliven the family dinner in Eraserhead. Injecting incongruous notes of humor into scenes is, however, a different matter from exploring and experimenting with comedic techniques. Lynch starts the latter process in Mulholland Drive, and it has gone on to play a major role in Twin Peaks: The Return.

A glance at On the Airthe short-lived sitcom that was Lynch and Frost’s follow-up to Twin Peaks, shows just how far Lynch’s employment of comedic tropes and techniques has come. Some of the types are the same: Lynch and Frost’s interest in the dumb blonde/ditzy woman trope, first seen with Twin Peaks‘s Lucy, continues in On the Air with Betty Hudson; and in The Return (which also gives more screen time to Lucy than to many of the old series’ characters) with Candie, who’s so spaced out that she seems to be actually occupying a different dimension than her gangster employers, or possibly having out-of-body experiences. The Lynch-directed pilot of On the Air, however, is a step backward after the experiments with duration that characterize the opening and closing episodes of season two of Twin Peaks.

Lynch’s cinematic precursor in experimenting with duration in comedy is Jerry Lewis, who thereby gave American critics another reason to doubt his competence as both a performer and a director. It was my familiarity with Lewis’ work as an auteur, and the (not always favorable) attention that critics have paid to his use of duration, that made me take an interest in this element of Lynch’s work. Like Lewis, the self-described “total filmmaker,” Lynch is interested not only, maybe not primarily, in story, but in the material aspects of film and their effect on the viewer; in sound, space, and time, and in what happens when these aspects of the cinematic experience assert their materiality rather than subsuming themselves to realism.

With the first scene of the first episode of season two of Twin Peaks, “May the Giant Be with You,” Lynch announced the return of his auteurial presence by boldly breaking with standard, workmanlike network TV direction with an interminable scene of Cooper lying on the floor, bleeding to death, while the world’s most decrepit room service waiter (as Albert calls him in the next episode) shuffles around, delivering and having him sign for his milk, making small talk, failing to understand his request for a doctor, giving him a thumbs-up and wink, exiting, and returning to ensure that he receives a thumbs-up in return. Later in the episode, the investigation of Leo Johnson’s house is enlivened when Andy comes running toward it and steps on a loose board on the porch that conks him in the face, slapstick rake-style. The deadpan camera watches him stagger around, wobbling with arms and knees out like Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow, and at one point laughing deliriously with blood from his nose running down his chin.

The season two finale marks a further evolution in Lynch’s comedy direction by bringing space into play. The bank scene repeats the opening episode’s business with elderly men fetching beverages as the audience watches in real time, but this time in wide shot, so that the space the man must traverse becomes as much of a character in the scene as he is. Compare the tour-de-force ballroom gag in Lewis’ The Bellboy. Stanley (Lewis) has to set up the chairs for a movie showing in the massive ballroom of the hotel where he works. First, we get a gorgeous, static shot of the empty ballroom, all polished floor and swirling ceiling. Stanley enters the frame from the right and walks all the way across the space, getting smaller and smaller. Although he is young and energetic, Lewis has him falter and then jog a bit to emphasize the amount of space he is traversing and the physical effort involved. When he reaches the opposite wall, he rests against it a moment, then disappears around a corner. He reemerges with a couple of chairs, and when that proves too difficult, he grabs just one and runs with it to what will be the middle of the stage area in the front row, then sits on it to rest. At the point at which he sits down, almost unnoticed by the viewer, there is a cut to a closer shot, and the camera now moves with Stanley, following him as he fusses with this chair and then goes back for the other one.

We assume, like Stanley’s co-workers, that at this pace, he’ll be there for days. However, when in the next scene they check in on him, to their astonishment and our own, the room is entirely filled with chairs, while Stanley, still on the far side, is not tired at all, but rather briskly setting the final chair in place while whistling. In writing, this sounds like nothing. The effect of surprise is due entirely to the audience’s assumptions about how time works in cinema: that if two scenes are only seconds apart both in story time and in real time, only seconds will have passed for the offscreen character as well. Which is true, but we forget that any amount of time may have passed between the filming of one scene and the next. Lewis performs a simple but effective cinematic “magic trick” by making use of this gap between story time and filming time, rather than pretending that the two are the same.

Whereas in the Bellboy scene Lewis speeds up time, like Lynch, he much more commonly slows it down. To experiment with duration in this way in a television context always seemed especially perverse since, although TV audiences may want to waste their time with a show, they usually do not want the show to waste its time. In the prestige era, stylistic flourishes are permitted, but not scenes whose entire point is that nothing is happening, like the already-notorious floor-sweeping scene in Part 7 of Twin Peaks: The Return. The Return, entirely directed by Lynch, often gives the impression that Lynch relishes pissing the viewer’s time away. Like Lewis, Lynch is not as interested in comedy’s capacity to please the audience as in its capacity to irritate; both directors are interested in exploring the affective space beyond the point at which the gag has gone on long enough for the audience to cry “We get it!”

© Studio Canal

Thwarted Improv in Inland Empire

Duration is not the only way in which Lynch, in his later works, has incorporated a sense of stasis into the audience’s experience. Inland Empire often proceeds as if Laura Dern is participating in a series of improv scenes, but ones which religiously break the first rule of improv: Don’t refuse the scenario your partner has offered. If, for example, your partner begins the scene by saying, “Good morning, nurse, how’s the patient?” your response mustn’t be, “I’m not a nurse. Are you crazy?” The reason being that the scene can’t advance until both of you agree on what’s going on. However, this non-advancement seems to be precisely what Lynch is after.

This element crept into Lynch’s work long before Inland Empire, especially when the supernatural is involved. The early scene between Dern and Grace Zabriskie, for example, in which Zabriskie informs a puzzled Dern that the movie she’s going to be cast in involves a “Brutal fucking murder!” in many ways resembles the scene in Lost Highway in which Pullman meets Robert Blake. The fact that Pullman (our protagonist) is dealing with a supernatural being, and Dern (our protagonist again) with a woman who seems to be uttering prophecies, makes their skepticism understandable. Yet “realistic reactions” do not seem to be the only thing at stake here; there’s something going on at a deeper psychological and structural level. The protagonist believes that he or she is in one kind of movie, in which the things that happen will be nice or at least normal and not horrible, and an emissary of the supernatural arrives to inform them that no, that’s not how this is going to go at all.

The paradigmatic Lynch scene of this kind is, of course, the encounter between Justin Theroux’s Adam and Monty Montgomery’s Cowboy in Mulholland Drive. Adam has already been told by multiple people that he is not going to be able to cast his movie the way he wants to, but he’s so stubborn, so determined to exert artistic control, that he needs to be told in the liminal space of The Ranch, by a supernatural entity, before it takes. What do these emissaries from another world represent? At first glance, they seem to represent the auteur coming in and taking control of the direction of the film. Yet why would his protagonists challenge that? It makes more sense if the protagonists represent the author’s ego, delusionally believing, in the Cowboy’s words, that it’s driving the buggy. The supernatural beings, on the other hand, represent forces from a deeper level of consciousness. And from this deeper level issue irresistible, irrational dictates unrecognized by the ego, having to do with love and death, libidinal and murderous impulses, which come together in the repeated phrase: “This is the girl.”

This is psychological speculation, though. What matters for the viewer’s purposes is the effect it has on structure: the protagonist of a narrative is not normally in an antagonistic relationship with the narrative itself.

In Inland Empire, however, the moments of thwarted improv are not confined to encounters with the supernatural, and it’s not always the protagonist who does the thwarting. In this movie, Laura Dern often flashes from time/place/scenario to time/place/scenario, like a version of the TV show Quantum Leap in which Scott Bakula has no Dean Stockwell to orient him. In one scene, we discover her shrieking and hurtling herself at a man who keeps punching her to the ground, who then takes hold of her by the throat and informs her that he’s not who she thinks he is and he cannot father children. In the first disorienting and terrifying moments, one is tempted to interpret the scene as Dern defending herself—or unequally participating—in a domestic violence scenario (and the “cues,” largely class signifiers, were there in earlier scenes in this couple’s storyline). The man’s reaction, however, makes us rethink what we’re seeing: perhaps Dern is crazy and attacking him. An easy plot-level explanation is that she had an affair and she’s trying to lie to him, but that’s not at all how Dern plays the earlier scene in which the woman reveals her pregnancy to him. Rather, she seems baffled, hurt, and betrayed by his unenthusiastic, skeptical reaction. So which one of them is crazy?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the actors did improvise these husband-and-wife scenes, or that, given that the film is about an actress, they are supposed to be improv scenes in the story. The scenes do not function in any kind of a realistic way: Lynch’s writing, and the performances he elicits from the actors, work against that. This wife and this husband are archetypes, not characters, and their scenes together are bare-bones riffs on familiar soapy themes of domestic dreariness, adultery, and paternity, to which is added the equally archetypal domestic violence theme. The husband character, however, keeps refusing to behave as his archetype dictates. And in scene after scene in Inland Empire, someone, or everyone, resists the direction in which the protagonist tries to take the plot, creating a sense of stasis, stagnation, and frustration for the protagonist that’s shared by the audience.

Deadly Slapstick in Mulholland Drive

In Mulholland Drive, this resistance is the basis of the comedy, beginning with what is (in my opinion) Lynch’s best piece of conceptual comedy to date. The accident-prone hitman sequence shows how far Lynch had come as a comedy writer and director from the pilot of On the Air. The basic gag is a series of accidents that suggest that something has gone wrong in this universe with the act of completion, which can now, itself, never be completed. In the process of cleaning up after killing a fellow hit man, a man accidentally shoots the woman in the next office through the wall, which leads to more cleaning up: struggling with her, the hit man is seen by a janitor about to vacuum the hallway who, improbably, believes him that he’s trying to help the woman and follows them to the first office. There the janitor is shot by the hit man (who has just shot the woman), and in reacting accidentally turns on the vacuum cleaner that he’s responsibly or unthinkingly brought with him. The hit man shoots the vacuum cleaner to shut it up, which creates electrical feedback that sets off the fire alarm, and at that point, in disgust, he realizes that everything he does to stop the chain of events will only continue it. So he takes the thing he came for and flees through the window, having made the greatest mess of a hit in human history.

The domino effect gag is enhanced by the profession of its protagonist, since American movies have taught us that hit men are exemplars of competence. But this is not like that Kids in the Hall sketch, “Things to Do,” that riffed on the slick gangsters of Reservoir Dogs (as funny as that was); this hit man is not a moron. He’s plagued by the physical world surrounding him, both human and mechanical, and the human world (the large woman who works in the room next door) has all of the intractable materiality of a machine, while the mechanical world has the intentional quality of seemingly persecuting him.

Just as the act of cleaning up won’t end, neither will the scene. It should have ended when he accomplished his goal, but once the accident is introduced, an intrusion of contingency that has no plot meaning, we are moved sideways rather than forward. We are made aware of the things going on in this building that are not important to the plot, and that therefore we should never have known about, or that at least should never have become part of the action. The woman working in the adjacent office. (Her environment is delineated with care: The dingy sign on the door says Health+Plus Enzymes, which we also see signs for all over the office, and she and the hit man, struggling, fall past shelves full of bottles bearing the logo on their labels.) The janitor cleaning the hallway. All of these things that conventional writing suppresses have suddenly become obstacles with which the hit man must contend. He eventually brings things under control again, but it has been neither easy nor graceful. And just as our sense of the archetypal hit man’s murderous, elegant competence has been compromised by these events, so does the big woman absolutely refuse to act like the passive, frightened victim that we expect a woman in a movie confronted by a man with a gun to be. If she would only submit to her role, the hit man’s frustration would be over, and the audience, too, could get on with the plot.

Slapstick is absent from the main, Betty and Rita plot of Mulholland Drive, but all over the place in Adam’s plot. The hilarious scene where he returns home from his terrible day at work to find his wife in bed with Billy Ray Cyrus, the pool man, involves a reversal of expectations similar to the one in the hit man’s scene, where the office worker refuses to act like a good victim: once we understand the archetypal scenario, we expect the adulterous wife to be ashamed, or at least embarrassed. Instead, she greets him from the bed with the comment, “Now you’ve done it,” and proceeds to shout at him from the bed, acting as though by discovering her infidelity he’s the one who fucked up. When he retaliates by pouring paint all over her jewelry (giving us further information about exactly how shallow their relationship is), she attacks him ferociously, and when he fights back, Cyrus intervenes and Adam, bleeding, dishevelled, and covered in pink paint, is literally thrown out of his own house on his ass. There’s no conceptual comedy in this scene, but the one-note fury of the adulterous wife, Cyrus’s mournful gentleness (in contrast to his size), and Theroux’s awe-inspiring ability to exude entitled toolishness, combine to create a masterful comic set piece.

Later, a gangster of some kind turns up at Adam’s house, and the wife—still in a state of fury, or perhaps instantly triggered into one by the mention of Adam’s name and the continued presence of his problems in her home—attacks him, for more size-and-gender-based Lynchian comedy; small woman on enormous man, instead of man with gun attacking big woman. Cyrus enters, thinking he’s going to throw out another lout, but is as overmatched by the man-mountain as Adam was by him. The gangster punches them both out and then stands there as before, calling out “Adam Kesher” again. There’s the visual comedy of size, and also the reversal of gender-based expectations, but there’s also the existential situation of the man, like the hit man’s before: he has a job to do, and nothing and no one will prevent him from doing it. The structure is that of a comic strip in which the first and last panel are the same drawing, despite furious, intervening activity. In fact the man is very slightly dishevelled, but considering the amount of resistance he has encountered, he comes out a lot better than the hit man, the massive, solid fact of him offering some protection against the relentless hostility of the comic environment in this universe.

© Showtime

Dougie Time

In Jerry Lewis’ The Patsy, duration equals humiliation. Lewis’ films frequently split him into underdog comedian and suave star, and have him transform from one to the other. The Patsy, however, makes us anxious about whether the transformation will ever occur. As drawn as he is to the Pygmalion/Cinderella plot, here Lewis seems more ambivalent than ever about letting go of the underdog persona, and about what it means to want the mastery of the star. Isn’t the underdog the funny one? But if the underdog is too funny, doesn’t he cease to be the underdog? The scene in which Stanley (as he is named again) humiliates himself in front of a hostile audience by hopelessly mangling a stand-up routine that he doesn’t seem to know how to end is a microcosm of the film as a whole. The audience (of the film, that is) watches anxiously, not only wanting his humiliation to end, but also wanting the familiar narrative thrill of identifying with the loser who discovers and reveals the confident, competent person they always were inside.

Twin Peaks: The Return has embedded the Dale Cooper figure, Dougie Jones, in a kind of sitcom-of-duration that is an endurance test for fans waiting for the moronic Dougie to transform into the heroic figure that they know and love. Never mind that Dale Cooper failed to either find the killer in time to prevent a second murder or triumph over evil. He had a certain confident, optimistic, and stylish way of moving through the world, and he knew how to urinate, all of which is more than one can say for Dougie.

Not only do Dougie’s scenes defeat fans’ desire to see Dale Cooper by their mere existence, they try the viewer’s patience in their own right as well. Things we might see Dougie doing include: coming down to breakfast with a tie on his head; making the same childlike doodles on one insurance policy after another while struggling to hold a pencil; becoming so captivated by a statue outside of his workplace that he remains at the foot of it, forgetting to go home. The Man Child is a significant trope in American comedy, from Lewis through Tom Hanks in Big to Seth Rogen protagonists, but Lynch seems more interested in portraying Man Babies—starting with Eraserhead, in which the protagonist dreams that his head has fallen off and been replaced by the incessantly mewling head of his deformed baby.

The Return, however, has a more positive relationship to the qualities of infancy. After watching enough Dougie scenes, the viewer’s sense of pace and scale adjusts and the micro-events and micro-developments begin to seem like gripping drama, even if you can’t escape the feeling that watching paint dry would seem that way too if you did it long enough. But Dougie’s relationship to his son, whether he’s making him laugh by appearing with the tie on his head or insistently sharing a potato chip after discovering their deliciousness, is a locus of spontaneous joy and affection occasioned by tiny things, like the fir trees and cherry pie that kept Coop’s spirits up while surrounded by evil in the original series. In the original series, however, the focus was on Coop’s unusual personality: a cross between a Capra protagonist and a modern-day knight. In the new series, Coop’s personality is a blank, and the focus is on his relations with other. From Sonny-Jim pouring syrup on his pancakes for him (the boy, exhibiting the age-old connection between child and physical comedian, teaches us how to respond to this strange new manifestation of Coop by laughing at his silliness with convincing delight) to his new gangster friends, the Mitchum brothers, gently correcting him when they raise their champagne glasses in a toast and he reaches one (twice), Dougie’s helplessness and passivity inspires helpfulness and patience in others in-universe. “Passive” and “patient” come from the same root, after all, meaning “to suffer” and “to endure,” as do “sympathy” and “empathy.”

As The Return has gone on, a second node of duration comedy has turned up: Candie, a sort of cigarette girl/moll who, along with two other identically-costumed blondes, works for and hangs around the Mitchum brothers. At first simply loitering in the background while the Mitchums commit acts of violence, it develops that she can speak, after a fashion, although the Mitchums find it difficult to call her out of whatever world she occupies when not called upon to communicate. They even send her on errands, although to do so wastes an incredible amount of time, which they comment on in one scene, watching her incredulously on a security camera screen as she makes a long, animated speech to the man she’s simply supposed to bring upstairs to them. The world’s least efficient, gangster-errand girl; perhaps she’s related to the world’s most decrepit room service waiter.

But Candie, like the hit man’s accidentally firing gun in Mulholland Drive, is also a plot function gone awry. You send her to do a simple thing (bring a guy upstairs so they can find out what he wants, thus advancing the plot), and she does what she feels like instead. The Return, like Inland Empire, wants to dwell in the feeling of stasis, but in a comic rather than a dramatic mode, using comedy of duration rather than thwarted improv. There is no sharing of a protagonist’s frustration here, no grappling with a resistant reality or an elusive meaning. The only one who’s frustrated is the viewer, waiting for Dougie to do something interesting, or anything at all on his own initiative; or waiting for something decisive to happen in Dougie’s storyline, like turning into Coop, or taking steps in that direction, rather than more and more and more of the same. We are now lodged firmly in that unknown affective territory beyond the “We get it!” point. And unknown storytelling territory, because the Dougie gag has been extended, as of this date of writing, through 2/3 of the new season. Lately, the lack of development in the Dougie storyline has taken on a cartoon-like quality, as hit men begin to discover that he’s harder to kill than you might think. Between his unconscious retention of FBI training and guidance from helpful Lodge spirits who pop out of the sidewalk or appear in entrances to bakeries, Dougie may prove to be as unkillable as he is oblivious, a gag which, as we know from Looney Tunes, can be repeated indefinitely. Cartoons do not require character or scenario development. The cartoon universe is the opposite of the universe of Inland Empire: Rather than being constantly prevented from moving forward, the cartoon protagonist occupies a frictionless universe that exists outside of time, where there is no need for anything to change or (accordingly) to end.