Film

I Want My Later Career To Be A Vaudeville Act With A Monkey Like David Lynch’s “What Did Jack Do?”

What Did Jack Do? (Courtesy Netflix)

David Lynch has never sold out. I know using the term “sell out” makes me sound like an angry Goth kid furiously smoking behind the school dumpsters yelling “POSEURS” at anyone who walks by in the wrong band T-shirt. Hey, if the shoe fits. But when we live in a time when outsiders desperately want to be insiders, artists strive for the approval of institutions funded by weapons manufacturers and private prison owners, estates expose late artists’ works to the whims of fashion lines, and our preeminent filth elder John Waters embodies the ultimate cautionary tale for when trash transgression strives for the mainstream, Lynch’s enduring commitment to his unwaveringly bizarre aesthetic is more than a breath of fresh air. It’s a moving testament to maintaining the art life–a monomaniacal focus on a creative vision, even if nobody understands it. It can be done!

Now, Lynch isn’t exactly underground. He filmed commercials for Calvin Klein’s Obsession and my personal favorite, a PSA about rats for New York City in the 1990s. And he just held a show Squeaky Flies in the Mud at chi-chi-poo-poo gallery Sperone Westwater in New York. But, that exhibition was also filled with paintings covered in coagulated mounds of Band-Aids, which was sure to nauseate snooty art patrons even if his name recognition helped garner a positive response. It’s hard not to dry heave at paintings that look as if the materials were discovered after snaking your shower drain.

Like his recent exhibition, Lynch, throughout the long highway of his career, has remained true to his deranged dreamscape. He’s ever striving for that beautiful mood–the darkness behind the thinly veiled façade of the American dream–whether the white picket fenced suburbs of Blue Velvet, the logging town Northwest of Twin Peaks or the unseemliness of Hollywood in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. 

And the latest turn in this winding road, past the transcendental meditation promotion, is perhaps one of his most amusing, most creatively inspiring and certainly most batshit. Of course, I’m referencing his recently released short film What Did Jack Do? Filmed in 2016, though discussed previously in an interview in 2014 as “a monkey film,” What Did Jack Do?, written and directed by Lynch, was surprised released on Netflix on Lynch’s 74th birthday (January 20), after premiering first at Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain and at his Festival of Disruption in New York in 2018.

Career inspiration (courtesy Netflix)

Rather than an out-of-left-field shock, somehow seeing Lynch collaborating on a film noir with a Capuchin monkey named Jack Cruz makes sense. Accustomed to fighting uphill battles in order to achieve minutes-long scenes of sweeping in his epic film (yes, film–not episodic television show) Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch has somehow strayed farther and farther from audience-pleasing as his career has progressed. There’s no Hairspray in his curriculum vitae. Who would have thought Blue Velvet, complete with nitrous gas-huffing, disembodied ears, and sultry yet dangerous nightclub singers, would be one of his most accessible films, certainly when compared with later nonlinear impenetrable journeys like Inland Empire? This isn’t to say What Did Jack Do? isn’t it’s own form of crowd pleaser–America loves monkey acts! Only the crowd it’s pleasing is the mentally unstable.

The 17-minute film is set in a diner (furnished with odd circular-backed wooden chairs made by Lynch himself, one of which was on view recently at Sperone Westwater) inside a locked-down train station with a murderer on the loose. Given the setting, a train whistle blows throughout the film, recalling the whistles that call out throughout Lynch’s oeuvre, from his previous short Rabbits to the beginning of his song “We Rolled Together” off his second album The Big Dream. Explained simply, the plot centers around Lynch, who plays a hard-boiled, chain-smoking, silver-coiffed “strong-armed man” Detective” that has been clearly schooled in other hard-boiled detective film noirs like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity and The Thin Man, interrogating besuited monkey Jack Cruz. While credited only as “Himself,” Jack’s superimposed human lips and voice are clearly Lynch’s own. The Capuchin monkey/crooner/plastic bag specialist/jack of all trades isn’t quite as adorable as he looks, surly and obstinate about being questioned by the Detective about being “seen with birds. Farm birds.” Cruz is accused of murdering his romantic rival Max (species unspecified) in a jealous rage after being found with his true love Toototabon, who is also a chicken (also playing herself). The only other human in the film is Emily Stofle who appears briefly as the Waitress to deliver some, you guessed it, black coffee.

Although there’s certainly something to be said for the sheer uncanniness of a monkey in a suit speaking with the distorted voice of David Lynch, that distinctive Missoula, Montana twang unmistakable even through any vocal manipulation, I’m more interested in the film in the context of Lynch’s entire career. Not only does it feature themes that traverse his previous works–doomed love affairs, cold-blooded murder, coffee, cigarettes, hallucinatory visions of lost loves and of course, torch songs, it’s a prime example of an unshakable urge to satisfy not producers, consumers of media or critics, but solely his own creative vision. That’s a risk, one that Lynch has been consistently willing to take, which is both affirming and just alienating enough to allow Lynch to reign supreme as one of our preeminent filth elders.

Of course, being Lynch, the film isn’t exactly as simplistic as my description. In particular, the Detective and Cruz’s tense dialogue is astoundingly vague and indiscernibly opaque, only lending viewers small glimpses at Cruz’s alleged crime. Mostly though, the Detective and Cruz trade barbs like this:

The Detective: “Well, there is no Santa Claus.”
Jack: “I won’t be here for Christmas.
The Detective: “But the ladies have been talking, Jack.”
Jack: “What? Right. With the Easter Bunny I suppose. Is that what you want me to believe?”
The Detective: “You’ll not get a free lunch around here.”

Huh?

In Lynch on Lynch, the filmmaker discusses with Chris Rodley his impulse to obfuscate in reference to his prior noir-ish Lost Highway: “Some things in life are not that understandable, but when things in films are that way, people become worried. And yet, they are, in some way, understandable. Most films are specifically designed to be understood by many, many, many, many people. So there’s not a lot of room to dream and wonder.” With its confounding dialogue, reminiscent to the similarly meandering sitcom Rabbits (and it’s not just the animals), What Did Jack Do? certainly leaves room for dreaming.

However, there are repeated themes that crop up in the dialogue. There’s a wide range of animal-themed puns. For example, Lynch’s Detective says, “I know why the chicken crossed the road “ (to which Jack responds, “This conversation just came to a screeching halt”), as well as later the Detective asserts, “There’s an elephant in the room. I’d like you to start talking turkey.” Beyond the animalistic, the interrogation is also chock-full of film noir clichés, namely the poker-like bluffing between the assertive, skeptical Detective and his surly and reluctant suspect. “I’ll see you and raise you five,” says Jack. “I don’t bluff,” responds the Detective. “Yeah and you don’t smoke,” snarls back Jack. Even with Jack’s warning that the Detective is “brewing a poisonous batch. This thing is bigger than the both of us,” the Detective queries if Jack has ever been “a card-carrying member of the Communist Party,” referencing the mid-20th century McCarthyism that runs rampant through those vintage noir films.

This playful dialogue not only works to draws viewers in, but it also lends the film an oddball sense of humor. Now, critics have pointed out the humor in What Did Jack Do? while questioning its intentionality. Yet, humor has always been imbued in Lynch’s work, even if it hasn’t always been obvious. I mean, you can’t have a Dumpster monster in Mulholland Drive without at least a bit of a camp perspective. What Did Jack Do? may be more overt in its humor than in many of Lynch’s previous offerings. Just the premise of a monkey interrogation is funny. Not to mention lines about Jack’s overwhelming love for Toototabon: “You get those hands up under those feathers and feel those full breasts, there’s nothing like it in this world. She was the love of my life. I’m not shitting you.” Hot.

The absurd humor, though, disappears toward the end of the film as Jack delivers a heartfelt torch song about his lost love (“True love’s flame burns so bright. It’s love’s delight. Once upon a time we danced, once upon a time we took a chance. And fell…in love”) against the circular backdrop of Lynch’s handmade chair that, in the flickering light, resembles a moon. Transported by his crooning ode to love, Jack screams with his simian mouth distorting into a garish, howling holler, and runs off to chase a hallucination of his poultry paramour (“Toototabon! My love! My love!”). Lynch’s Detective leaps out of his chair, gun blazing, and subsequently arrests Jack for the murder of Max Clegg (we presume since all the action takes place offscreen). The murder and Jack’s psychotic, guilt-ridden, heart-sick break seems to reflect the regretful lyrics of Tim Rose’s “Long Time Man,” which details the narrator shooting his wife and brother (“I can’t even remember the reason why”). Covered twenty years after its 1967 release by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, the song details: “Sometimes I hear you call my name in the dead of the night. It sure makes a long time man feel bad.” Who would have thought a monkey film could be so haunting?

Now, a film featuring a singing, dancing, talking and killing monkey could be a hokey mess, a shark-jumping shameful mistake marring Lynch’s career. And yet, in his hands, it’s just as deliciously disturbed and distressing as the rest. Even lines like: “Before that mess, I’d only seen a red rabbit in a dream,” “The wonder was in my heart, but you wouldn’t understand that,” or “They say real life is a banana, sweet with a golden hue” are pure, unadulterated Lynch.

But it’s not just the writing. The short film resonates aesthetically and cinematically with many of Lynch’s other works too, even beyond just the close-up of a cup of black coffee with a train whistle blowing in the background, which could be dictionary definition of “Lynchian” (Eat your heart out, David Foster Wallace!). Within the flickering black-and-white purgatory of the halted train station, the film is reminiscent of both the industrial wasteland of Eraserhead and the liminal space in which the tea-kettle incarnation of Phillip Jeffries existed in Twin Peaks: The Return. I half expected to see Jeffries belching out the infinity symbol somewhere in the background. The diner in which Jack and the Detective sit reminded me of Mulholland Drive (when have you ever seen a diner in a train station?). And even Jack’s exaggerated shriek resembled the pancake makeup horror of Lynch’s early short film The Grandmother.

But I know what you’re thinking: skipping the obsessive, rabid, unhinged fan girl joy of pointing out cross-references in Lynch’s creative output, what is the meaning of What Did Jack Do? Who the hell knows. When searching the film in Google, one of the first suggested terms I received was “What Did Jack Do meaning.” The truth is, though, there may not be a singular meaning. And thank god. Who wants just one way to interpret something anyway?

Certainly not Lynch. In a twist on Marshall McLuhan’s much-repeated journalism major-terrorizing quote: “The medium is the message,” to Lynch, the meaning is the mystery. In Lynch on Lynch, he explains the importance of maintaining mystery even in the face of desire for easy categorization: “To me, a mystery is like a magnet. Whenever there is something that’s unknown, it has a pull to it. If you were in a room and there was an open doorway, and stairs going down and the light just fell away, you’d be very tempted to go down there. When you only see a part, it’s even stronger than seeing the whole. The whole might have a logic, but out of its context, the fragment takes on a tremendous value of abstraction. It can become an obsession.”

And at a time when visual art and cinema wants to award one-liner messages (*cough* Joker) or easy political kudos points (*cough* every institution with an identity politics-based show that is also funded by ethically dubious donors), there’s something exhilarating and affirming about escaping into a mystery and refusing accessibility, even if it involves a monkey singing about love. It signals a return–not necessarily for Lynch who has always achieved this particular and peculiar opacity–but for popular cinema. It’s an opportunity to question, to be baffled, to not know, to ruminate, to wonder, and yes, to dream (even if the wondering is if, in fact, Lynch has finally lost his mind).

This is not to say viewers should avoid coming to their own conclusions about the film. What’s thrilling about Lynch is he presents the audience with multiple angles with which to discover these meanings. For me, the film becomes more expansive once understood through the lens of vaudeville. Naturally, this is best illustrated by Jack’s slick, suave and schmaltzy musical number, created by Lynch and his frequent musical collaborator Dean Hurley, which wouldn’t be out of place at a depressed, nearly abandoned Vegas lounge.

Belt it, Jack! (courtesy Netflix)

This is further cemented when looking at the subsequently released EP The Flame of Love featuring two songs by Jack, a love ballad songbird in the key of Tom Jones. The description on the Bandcamp website reads: “Not much is known about Cruz’s career prior to his involvement with Lynch, but fortunately, we have not just one song, but two: ’Dancin’ in the World of Love’ is the B-side to the short’s single…uncovered recently and an excellent example of Cruz’s emotional prowess and magical, gold-dipped vocal cords.” This promoted second track is a sweet piano-drenched jazzy number, which starts out “I’m the luckiest guy in the land” and continues, “I’m walking with you I’m walking with you I’m walking in the world of love. I’m dancing in the world of love.”

The Flame of Love also has maybe the best album cover I’ve ever seen. Just look at it:

It’s everything we want to be here at Filthy Dreams.

In the penultimate episode of Twin Peaks: The Return, Agent Dale Cooper turns to his fellow FBI agent Gordon Cole, played by David Lynch, before returning to the Red Room and the Black Lodge and says, “See you at the curtain call.” While Lynch’s aesthetic has always veered toward the vaudevillian, from the Lady in the Radiator’s grotesque tap dance routine in Eraserhead to the lip-synched club Silencio in Mulholland Drive to the gaggle of sex workers doing “The Locomotion in Inland Empire, never before this moment in The Return had I seen it so clearly articulated. That the red curtain that pervades Lynch’s film and television represents a continuous sense of performance, of theatricality, of showmanship, amidst the ominousness, the danger and the violence. This line was a tip of the hat, revealing how his penchant for the vaudevillian, like Jack’s in What Did Jack Do?, is more than just an aesthetic choice that perfects the ever-elusive yet always attained mood, it’s a philosophical one as well. It’s an overture, a dedication to persisting through and within the chaotic, absurd and beautiful mysteries of life and love. Yes, things can be horrible, inexplicable, uncanny and downright terrifying, but they always inevitably end with a song and dance.

This is what makes Lynch’s later career turn to a vaudeville act with a monkey so strangely motivating. In particular, artists, filmmakers and other creative types have a tendency to become enamored with their own legacies as they age. I’ve seen many respected and respectable artists rest on their laurels while receiving career retrospectives, cushy speaking engagements, and relying on their former creations garnering Criterion Collection rereleases. And on some level, this is understandable. Creation is challenging, frustrating, enraging and quite often endures significant pushback from people trying to corral a subversive and genre-upsetting vision into a more marketable box. Lynch, however, doesn’t seem at all interested in this–instead, continuing his legacy, as he always has, with a torch song.

In his Red Hand Files #79, Nick Cave answers a question about his opinions on Yeezy Jim Jones, I mean Kanye West: “Making art is a form of madness–we slip deep within our own singular vision and become lost to it. There is no musician on Earth that is as committed to their own derangement as Kanye, and in that respect, at this point in time, he is our greatest artist.”

In this respect, Lynch is–and has always been–our greatest filmmaker.

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