Nightlies: David Lynch and the Abstract Face


Hello to “you” out there, in the darkness…shapeless and indiscernable, abstract and beautiful. I won’t put names on you, I won’t diagnose or decipher you. I’ll let that camera of the mind roll until the film is exhausted; and even, after looking over the dailies (when my sun has risen and I duck into the photo lab to avoid exposure), I’ll restrain myself from cutting you out.

David Lynch likes faces and flesh of all kinds. —I suppose, putting it like that, it sounds creepy; and Lynch has been known to do that on occasion: creep people out. (Or be weird and get heckled for it.) During an interview with film critic Chris Auty from 1985, Lynch was (politely) asked by a audience member to speak on the recurrence of “deformity” in his early films (i.e,. those up to 1985, including Eraserhead [1977], The Elephant Man [1980], and Dune [1984]). He explained that these images reflect his belief that humans in general are “twisted beings going about in darkness doing strange things, bumping around in confusion.” So, whatever your take on Eraserhead, it could be viewed as a metaphor for the human condition (cue Jack Nance’s beautifully wild, coiffed hair and ever-active eyebrows).

But Lynch also makes the point that “as soon as you put a name on” the deformity, “it stops you…from seeing it.” The elephant man, the “Lady in the Radiator” from Eraserhead (who has unusual bulging cheeks), and, we could add, the odd-looking characters in later productions like Twin Peaks, are “deformed” only inasmuchas we differentiate them from ourselves. Lynch prefers to call them “beautiful,” and he argues that maintaining their “abstract” status retains that beauty.

It is interesting to see how Lynch has sometimes reversed that scenario: as he puts it in another part of the interview with Chris Auty, Blue Velvet (1985) is a “story of almost an idyllic wolrd or a neighborhood, but underneath the surface there’s a sickness.” So, we have the situation of beautiful people with deformed souls—and isn’t Laura Palmer an example of this? (Watch the Twin Peaks prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me [1992], to see what I mean.)

But regardless of whether the deformity exists on the surface or below it, Lynch rarely offers judgement… and I suppose that brings me back to a point from my second “Why We Love…” post: he’s an abstract artist, so the interpretation (and judgement) is left to the reader. Critics and audiences are often frustrated by the ambiguity, but I find it beautiful.

The characters who reside within Lynch’s abstract worlds often strive for a transcendence beyond the material, beyond the tangible… And as the beautiful “Lady in the Radiator” says (in one of two notable black-and-white Lynch films from the early period), “In heaven, everything is fine…”



  1. I haven’t seen much by David Lynch (maybe just parts of Mulholland Drive), but I know that Moby has worked with him some and I *love* Moby. But, anyway, your description of him being abstract and what he says about deformity is really intriguing to me. I should check him out more.

    I think this whole topic of deformity and abstraction is so interesting and complex. A middle-of-the-night-over-a-glass-of-wine discussion. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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