Fix Your Heart or Die: The Startling Empathy of David Lynch

Janus Films

A remarkable moment occurs during the fourth episode of the miraculous new season of Twin Peaks. David Lynch, returning to the role of FBI Deputy Director Gordon Cole after a quarter of a century, utters a line that is so perfectly calibrated to this current moment in history that he seems almost to be speaking directly to us watching at home.

While conversing with fellow agent Denise Bryan (David Duchovny), who, since we last saw her 27 years ago, has not only made a full transition into her proper gender identity, but has also, against the odds, risen to the position of Chief of Staff for the Bureau, Cole reminds her of his support throughout the years. It’s here that he speaks the line that, in a perfect world, would be adapted and taken up as a wide-ranging and unifying rallying cry:

“When you became Denise, I told all of your colleagues, those clown comics, to fix their hearts or die.”

If there is perhaps a trace of self-congratulation evident here, it’s not without merit. As reviewers of Twin Peaks: The Return have noted, the character of Denise during the show’s original run is all the more remarkable in hindsight. During a time in which LGBTQ characters were almost entirely absent from network television (especially those that fell under the “T” part of that acronym), excepting when they could be used as either the butt of a joke or a stand-in for catch-all deviancy, Denise stood out as a confident, capable, good character.

While there was certainly a measure of humor to her presentation, it never came off as mean spirited, and there was also a fair amount of grace to offset it, especially in how the hero of the show, Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), regarded her as an equal. While we should take care not to overstate any impact the show and character had (especially considering that such did not seem to be the intent) some recognition is due, if only so as to highlight one of the most constant, yet overlooked, qualities within the filmography of the man responsible. To wit: the deep and striking empathy of David Lynch.

Before diving in, it must first be noted that Twin Peaks is the brainchild of both David Lynch and Mark Frost. The latter is too-often passed over in discussions of the show, even though by all accounts the partnership, at least when it comes to writing and producing, is an equal one. It is entirely possible that Frost is the party responsible for crafting the character of Denise, just as it is likewise possible that it was he who came up with “fix their hearts or die.” If so, he deserves no shortage of individual praise. However, being that the line is so in tune with the overall moral perspective of Lynch’s oeuvre, and considering it is Lynch himself who utters it, it doesn’t seem unfair to credit him with it.

Clear as that moral perspective is, Lynch is not who one tends to think of when it comes to cinematic moralists—at least not to the degree of, say, Robert Bresson (the patron saint of Catholic transcendence) or The Coen Brothers (the demiurges of Old Testament wrath). Nor is “empathy” the first word that comes to mind when considering his films. That word would undoubtedly be “weird” or one of its many synonyms—strange, surreal, trippy, dreamlike. 

And David Lynch is a weird filmmaker. He makes films that are so singularly weird, in fact, that they can only adequately be categorized as “Lynchian.” The late David Foster Wallace, exploring his personal obsession with Lynch’s aesthetic in a 1996 article for Premiere, gave us what remains the go-to definition of Lynchian: “A particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”

As he’s progressed as an artist, Lynch has become less and less interested in the mechanics of traditional plot (not that he ever had much of an interest there to begin with) even as the structures of his narratives have become more and more fragmented. He seems to take increasing pleasure, equal parts innocent and perverse, in long, unbroken shots of minimal action. The performances he gets from his actors are usually stylized and off-kilter. And the lengths of his movies have increased along with their sense of experimentation: Inland Empire, his last feature, clocks in at a whopping 179 minutes, while the new season of Twin Peaks has been described as an 18-hour movie broken up into parts.

To many, all of this adds up to create a hypnotic and immersive experience, but it’s easy to see why others—dare I say the overwhelming majority of audiences—find it off-putting, even outright assaultive. Lynch’s particular brand of formalism, together with his fondness for grotesquerie and unflinching depictions of violence, often of a sexual nature, has given him a reputation as a cold, cerebral, emotionally detached filmmaker, not unlike Stanley Kubrick (for whom the reputation is also unfair).

While such designations are entirely understandable, they are also woefully inadequate. The films of David Lynch are strange creatures, not unlike the strange creatures that often appear within them, and to focus only on the most ungainly of their appendages is to willfully ignore their equally beautiful qualities. Even in the darkest and most terrifying of Lynch’s films, there are moments of profound beauty and warmth. Taken together, they call to mind the literary notion of “The Sublime,” defined by the eminent critic and scholar Harold Bloom as “a visible loftiness in nature and art alike, with aspects of power, freedom, wildness, intensity, and possibility of terror.”

When we think of Mulholland Drivewe’re just as likely to recall the heart-stopping revelation of the “Bum” Behind the Winkie’s as the heart-rending love between Diane and Rita. And we find the apotheosis of both during the second-act climax within Club Silencio, as we witness our protagonists brought to an existential reckoning by Rebekah Del Rio’s stunning rendition of “Llorando (Crying).”

Such examples appear all throughout Lynch’s movies. A character commits heinous atrocities in one scene, only to be moved to tears by a song, or a meal, or a picture of natural splendor in the next. Lynch presents such seeming contradictions in a way that shows them not to be contradictions at all, but rather the uneasy symbiosis of the dual (and dueling) forces of light and dark that coexist within every aspect of the universe, including—even especially—the human soul. Perhaps the darkness is the overwhelming force in these films, but that only serves to make the light within burn all the more bright. It brings to mind the chorus of “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen:

“There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

The resultant effect of this overall force is one of empathy, in that it combines all that is wondrous and awful into something that we understand on a deep emotional level, even if we don’t know how to put those emotions into words so as to cohesively explain or categorize them. Not that it is necessary to do so: The ability to understand something outside of our immediate experience via our range of feeling is the definition of empathy.

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If the films of David Lynch expressed empathy on purely an aesthetic level, that alone would not be enough to make the case for him as a deeply empathetic artist. But his well runs deeper than that, and he draws from it time and again by way of his characters.

The most obvious examples of this are found in two of the movies that, along with Dune, are usually considered outliers within his larger body of work: The Elephant Man and The Straight Story. Both of these films are exercises in pure empathy, using as they do the example of the social outcast or outsider (Joseph “The Elephant Man” Merrick and Alvin Straight, respectively) to show us how to better connect with our fellow human. There are few portraits of humanism throughout cinema more moving than in The Elephant Man, when Merrick proclaims to a hostile crowd of gawkers “I am not an animal! I am a human being!The same might be said for the ending of The Straight Story, as Alvin’s terminally ill brother Lyle (national treasure Harry Dean Stanton) stares tearfully up at the sky after acknowledging the immense lengths his brother has gone to in order to come and care for him.

Yet, because the narratives of these works are more recognizably traditional than most of Lynch’s other films, and because both are based on true stories, their obvious empathetic qualities tend to be looked at as somehow separate from his usual artistic concerns, just as the films themselves tend to be viewed as separate from the rest of his filmography.

This is nonsense, of course. Each film is entirely of a piece with all his others—save, arguably, Dune (for which he did not have final cut). Yet, even if we accept The Elephant Man and The Straight Story as lacking some essential element as to make them sufficiently Lynchian, the same cannot be said of Twin Peaks—both the show in its current and past iterations, as well as the feature-length prequel Fire Walk with Me. It is in the world of Twin Peaks, inarguably the property that Lynch is most immediately associated with, that we discover the strongest examples of his empathetic abilities.

During the show’s original run, these were most apparent in the actions of the characters. When homecoming queen Laura Palmer is discovered murdered, the wave of mourning that moves through the entire township is so pure an expression of collective grief that it does more to endear the viewer to these people and their community than any number of quirky personalities or folksy set-dressing. We dig these people because they talk to logs and wear multi-colored sunglasses and serve heaps of donuts and cherry pie and damn good coffee, but we love them because they love one another, so much so that the death of one is treated as the death of all.

Of course, within that loving community there lies a primordial evil, one that often finds expression through the actions of those same individuals. Even still, no character in Twin Peaks is shown as being inherently beyond salvation. Leland Palmer, who raped and murdered his own daughter, may have been ambiguously exonerated thanks to his being literally possessed by an interdimensional demon, but such is not the case for several other characters who start off as villains, only to make their way towards the light of goodness.

Take underworld boss Ben Horne for example: He willingly seeks to change his ways and make amends for a lifetime of sins. The same can be said of Bobby Briggs, weaselly jock and would-be criminal mastermind, who recognizes his moral descent and reverses course before it’s too late—though not before he commits murder. Even the hired killer/drug runner/arsonist/serial abuser Leo Johnson attempts to sacrifice himself in order to save the woman he’s long tormented.

Though the depiction of these redemptive arcs is, for the most part, awkward in presentation during the lackluster back half of the second season, the intent is nonetheless meaningful. And in the case of Ben and Bobby at least, the third season has shown that they did in fact make good on their efforts to change for the better.

In this regard, Twin Peaks continues to differentiate itself from the wave of prestige television dramas that followed its lead almost a decade after it went off the air. The template for those programs was that of The Sopranos (though it should be noted that creator David Chase has said that his show owes a great debt to Twin Peaks), and their general thematic arc was one of gradual moral entropy on both an individual and societal level.

The one show during this “Golden Age” of television that stood in contrast to this was Deadwood, which is almost certainly the most empathetic series of its era—if not all of American television. Deadwood showed how order and decency could grow from out of chaos and violence, if only individuals are able to disabuse themselves of the notion that they are separate spiritual entities. By doing so, they cast aside their immediate self-interest and work together in the name of the collective good. Though Deadwood more thoroughly mined this rich thematic terrain, Twin Peaks got there first.

Not that such exploration in Twin Peaks was necessarily tied to its characters’ willingness to change. Fan-favorite Albert Rosenfield begins the series as an outrageously cynical and even cruel figure, before revealing, in a show-stopping scene that never fails to surprise new viewers, the wellspring of pacifism that he’s been hiding all along. After berating the salt-of-the-earth sheriff of Twin Peaks, Harry S. Truman, for several episodes (and having already received one punch to the face for his troubles), he pushes things right to the point of violence before turning the tables and loudly declaims his true motivations:

“Now you listen to me! While I will admit to a certain cynicism, the fact is that I am a naysayer and hatchetman in the fight against violence. I pride myself in taking a punch and I’ll gladly take another because I choose to live my life in the company of Gandhi and King…I reject absolutely revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method…is love. I love you Sheriff Truman.”

In this respect, there is no mistaking the reflection of David Lynch’s personal values, being that he is perhaps the foremost proselytizer for the benefits of transcendental meditation (as well as an advocate for its wider accessibility). Twenty-seven years on, Cooper remains a walking beacon of empathy. Some of the most emotionally resonant moments from the third season show how, despite having been robbed of his mental faculties after 25 years of cosmic imprisonment, he still manages to act as a catalyst for positive change for those with whom he comes in contact.

While Cooper would seem to be the heart of Twin Peaks upon first glance, he is not. That designation belongs to Laura Palmer, Lynch’s most tragic, but also most tender, creation. Lynch is still finding new ways to revere Laura, revealing in the ground-breaking eighth episode of The Return that she is in fact a literal being of light, sent to earth in order to offset the amassing forces of darkness unleashed by nuclear proliferation. Hers is the example by which the true force of David Lynch’s empathy fully reveals itself.

It would have been easy to keep Laura as a simple MacGuffin, the beautiful, unknowable dead girl who serves as proxy for the men of the series to work through their own issues and exact justice on behalf of her ideal. Just as easy to present her as a metaphor: the smiling façade of Reagan-era America, the pristine surface masking a legacy of addiction, exploitation, and abuse.

Instead, Lynch devoted an entire movie to showing the true Laura Palmer, stripping away the air of quirkiness surrounding her community, the same which made the show’s darker aspects palatable for mainstream America. He spared no horrifying detail in the depiction of her torment, which came in the form of a passion play. Laura is, in the end, no less a martyr that Jesus himself, giving up her life rather than allowing evil to reside within her; her sacrifice ultimately resulting in spiritual salvation and ascension into heaven. In so doing, Lynch managed to alienate critics and audiences alike, causing outrage even among sections of the show’s most diehard fan base.

The critical and fan reception of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me—booed at Cannes, savaged in the press, and ultimately a box office flop even after taking into account its niche appeal—was one of the low points of Lynch’s career, an indignity that was all the more undeserved considering that the film is one of his absolute best, though only now is it receiving its proper acknowledgment as such. It is also one of the most harrowing depictions of familial sexual abuse ever captured on film. That is a bold claim indeed, and one that I am in no position to make without presenting evidence to back it up. That evidence does exist though, in the dozens of letters that Lynch received following the release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, from young girls and women who had been the victims of such abuse by their own fathers, asking him how he could have known so thoroughly the details of their individual traumas.

This astonishing anecdote is presented by Chris Rodley in the introduction to his collection of interviews with the man himself, Lynch on Lynch. He attempts to explains how the filmmaker was able to present so harrowing an ordeal, so far removed from his own, in such a way that it resonated as true to those who had experienced it:

“Lynch not only draws from his own inner life, he has the uncanny ability to empathize with the experience of others, whether they be male or female, young or old. He makes them his own.”

From even a cursory study of David Lynch’s process, it seems evident that he inhabits almost full-time the imaginative spaces that he conveys through his films and his art. Those spaces—often ugly, brutal, frightful; always strange and wonderful—are large enough to encapsulate the experiences of thousands of people that he has never even met. We should all strive to discover and inhabit such spaces within ourselves, even if, especially if, the price of admission is that we must either fix our hearts, or die.