Can David Lynch Resuscitate the Theater of the Absurd?

David Lynch’s “What Did Jack Do?” (Courtesy Netflix)

David Lynch’s short film released on Netflix, What Did Jack Do?, works as both a gift to Lynch fans and a troll on Netflix viewers. In the film, Lynch portrays a detective who diligently interrogates a monkey suspected of homicide. Shot in black and white, Lynch stages a minimal scenery: a table top illuminated by a small window. Lynch–dressed to the nines in his Gordon Cole black suit–compulsively smokes cigarettes, and projects the disciplined strength and steely reserve of Humphrey Bogart at his most leathery and film noir. The monkey Jack, who speaks in an uncanny, distorted tone, is nervous and disturbed. As the conversation moves through the interrogation, the language grows increasingly bizarre and absurd as it builds towards a climax that never really materializes:

Lynch: Don’t you ever wonder about anything?
Jack: The wonder was in my heart, but you wouldn’t understand something like that.
Lynch: There’s an elephant in the room. Now it’s time to start talking turkey.

Eventually, we learn that Jack’s crime was one of passion. He killed out of love and lust:

Lynch: What happened, Jack?
Jack: I don’t know. It’s all like a crazy nightmare to me now. But let me tell you, when you get your 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. She and I lit the flame of love.

Jack stands up as the camera focuses close on his profile, while he sings a heartbreaking love song: “Once upon a time we danced, once upon a time we took a chance, and fell in love.” And then, a white chicken emerges in the room, presumably Jack’s love interest and the inspiration for his crime. Jack chases after her: “my love.” Lynch announces he’s under arrest, while Hitchcockian climactic sound announces the credits. No resolution. No explanation.

Though the short is obviously far from Lynch’s best or most memorable contribution to cinema, it clarifies a connection between his body of work and one of his modernist forebears: Samuel Beckett. Like Lynch, Beckett’s literary and theatrical works were suffused with what Australian poet and literary critic David Musgrave calls an “abstract grotesque.” Much of this element is in the dialogue of his works. In his Notes on Beckett, Theodor Adorno remarks: “There is something absurd in the form of the dialogue itself; meaninglessness of the question-and-answer relationship; gibberish (connection with Ionesco); chatter as trivial reflex of the objective word, second language.” He continues: “The objective disintegration of language–that simultaneously stereotyped and faulty chatter of self-alienation, where word and sentence melt together in human mouths–penetrates the aesthetic arcanum.”

David Foster Wallace defined “Lynchian” as the extremely banal and the extremely macabre placed together side by side. “A husband who kills his wife isn’t Lynchian, but a man who kills his wife for repeatedly failing to buy his preferred brand of peanut butter is Lynchian,” he said. In What Did Jack Do?, Lynch achieves the Lynchian aesthetic solely through language. A monkey is questioned for homicide, and much of the language is extraneous and irrelevant to the plot. There is no relevance, for example, in knowing that Jack is a “plastic bag specialist.” Non sequiturs are a vital aspect of how Lynch develops his atmosphere, and this approach is pure Beckett.

Daddy Beckett

In Beckett’s work, language loses its surface meaning and unearths its characters’ deepest wells of psychosexual mania. Consider Beckett’s Not I: a stage play in which a female performer is onstage entirely washed-out in jet black save for the illumination of her mouth, which spews an oblique and fragmented tale of being abandoned by her parents after a traumatic birth. The language flummoxes, like the sensation of being in a group of little-known acquaintances all chatting over one another when you suddenly realize that no one is actually talking about the same thing, and a palpable loneliness and disconnection permeates the atmosphere. Dennis Cooper gave a name to this faux-sophisticated “uncommunication” in his most recent text novel The Marbled Swarm. Beckett’s language doesn’t inform or illuminate so much as it perplexes and distorts: 

“…out . . . into this world . . . this world . . . tiny little thing . . . before its time . . . in a godfor– . . . what? . . girl? . . yes . . . tiny little girl . . . into this . . . out into this . . . before her time . . . godforsaken hole called . . . called . . . no matter . . . parents unknown . . . unheard of . . . he having vanished . . . thin air . . . no sooner buttoned up his breeches . . . she similarly . . . eight months later . . . almost to the tick . . . so no love . . .”

Though Lynch does not shy away from a decidedly Boschian approach of depicting devils and ghouls haunting a hellish dreamscape of the guilty unconscious mind (Think of all those monstrous apparitions populating the haunted alternate realms of Twin Peaks: The Return), much of the unnerving atmosphere in his films is yielded from its dialogue. Its language. I am reminded of what Julia Kristeva wrote of Joyce: “The abject lies, beyond the themes, and for Joyce generally, in the way one speaks; it is verbal communication, it is the word that discloses the abject.”

Beckett too, perhaps even more so than Joyce, was a master of this verbal abjection. Editor Richard W. Seaver said that his syntax “threatens to bend and break.” It is language on a collision course to full implosion. It has a volatile and traumatic effect on its reader’s psyche:

I shall not be alone, in the beginning. I am of course alone. That is soon said. Things have to be soon said. And how can one be sure, in such darkness? I shall have company. In the beginning. A few puppets. Then I’ll scatter them. To the winds. If I can.” (From Beckett’s The Unnamable)

And Lynch is an inheritor of this legacy. From his earliest movies, the filmmaker has made use of jarring and nonsensical dialogue to disorient his viewers, suspending them in a state of psychosexual unease. Consider the infamous Eraserhead scene in which Henry meets his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, still unaware of the pregnancy that is about to be revealed to him:

Mrs. X: I thought I heard a stranger. We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they’re new. Hi, I’m Bill.
Henry Spencer: Hello, I’m Henry
Mrs. X: Henry works at LaPelle’s factory.
Mr. X: Oh, printing your business? Plumbing’s mine. For 30 years now. I’ve watched this neighborhood change from the pastures to the hell-hole it is now.
Mary X: Now!

Though nothing said at the dinner is, on its face, read as threatening or malign, an atmosphere of dread and alienation is endured by both Henry and the viewer.

My favorite art has always evoked that lingering, vague, haunted anxiety most often experienced when attempting to sleep with overly conscious effort. I recall those nights of light insomnia–bouts of sleeplessness that I experience frequently– in which I yawn and settle into the warmth of my body only to be jolted awake by a singular image formed within my mind’s eye. I experience heart palpitations, and my yawns are replaced by a facial sensation that can best be described as a kind of hardening of my features. I think about my mortality. My drug addictions of past and present. My future and its uncertainties. This is the horror of the “abstract grotesque” that few artists have been able to conjure to the extent that Samuel Beckett did in his works of literature and theater. But in his cinema, Lynch has developed a subtle and absurdist morbid quality that keeps the spirit of Samuel Beckett alive.

The aesthetic connections between Beckett and Lynch have been noted in passing by various critics in the past. In a review for The Guardian, Simon Hattenstone suggests that the bizarre and unsettling show within the film Inland Empire is a “non sequitur-spouting human rabbits starring sitcom that could have been scripted by Samuel Beckett.” Literary blogger Kenneth J Hickey notes that Beckett and Lynch both “attempt to find life within life – the internal.” But it’s become clear to me that Lynch fulfills a void within popular culture that was left vacant by the death of Beckett and the waning in the relevance of the Theater of the Absurd. Lynch’s films and shows are theaters of absurdity in and of themselves.

Lynch’s best works (let’s for a moment pretend Dune and The Elephant Man never happened) function as Rorschach tests. Even though we can communicate the information conveyed by the films’ plots, prodding them for deeper meaning can be a disorienting, troubling and elusive experience. On the interpretative legacy of Eraserhead, for instance, Lynch told New York Magazine: “no one, to my knowledge, has ever seen the film the way I see it. The interpretation of what it’s all about has never been my interpretation.”

In his essay The Theatre of the Absurd, dramatist and literary critic Martin Esslin writes, “The spectators see the happenings on the stage entirely from the outside, without every fully understanding the full meaning of these strange patterns of events, as newly arrived visitors might watch life in a country of which they have not yet mastered the language.” Lynch’s best work hints at its truest intentions without ever revealing to its audience clear descriptors of its plot. Consider the character transformations three-quarters into the plot of Mulholland Drive. Fresh-faced and on-the-rise actress Betty becomes Diane, a failing, bitter, pill-addled failing actress. Amnesiac Rita–who is cared for and falls in love with the innocent and pure Betty–becomes Camilla, a cruel, callous starlet who viciously breaks Diane’s heart to shack up with a stud director and work her way up the career chain. 

Countless interpretations have become a part of the Mulholland Drive discourse: the Betty/Rita plot line is merely a fantasy built as an infrastructure to support Diane’s burdened conscience, the film mediates on Hollywood itself as both a builder and destroyer of dreams, or the film is an incredibly complicated analysis of the fragmentation of identity. All of these interpretations work, and yet all fail to adequately convey a direct and singular meaning within the artwork. Slavoj Zizek has called this quality of Mulholland Drive a “senseless complexity” or “flawed synopsis”: “numerous crucial details and events do not make sense in terms of real life logic.” This unknowable logic, my friends, is the Theater of the Absurd.

Beckett’s texts are profoundly strange. To immerse yourself in the language of Beckett is almost a corporeal experience: it’s sensory, latently sexual, haunting. It’s like a glory hole: nefariously pleasurable and seductively unknowable. Beckett believed that failure was an essential component of the artist’s life. “Try again, fail again, fail better,” was an oft-repeated motto of his. It’s interesting then that while Beckett failed often to convey coherent narrative meaning, he succeeded in creating an atmosphere with a fascinatingly macabre aura. To read Beckett is to be buried in a void of the eerie. How It Is, a Samuel Beckett novel released in 1961 and once referred to by the English literary critic Michael Robinson as “the strangest novel ever written,” is a profound example of Beckett’s confounding strangeness. Some critics accused Beckett’s choice to eschew punctuation as an intention to “destroy the novel.” It’s difficult to read and find meaning within, but once a reader accustoms his or herself to the rhythms, meaning can follow. In the story, three creatures meet in a “primeval mud.”

“past moments old dreams back again or fresh like those that pass or things things always and memories I say them as I hear them murmur them in the mud” (from Samuel Beckett’s How It Is)

Lynch also uses language to similar enigmatic ends in a way that confuses his less committed viewers, but utterly fascinates his fans. Consider the extraneous Roadhouse scenes in Twin Peaks: The Return that often feature characters having conversations that have little or no connection to the primary plot of the series. To many television critics overly reliant on the typical television narrative arcs in which information is blasted into their skulls in an easy-to-discern manner, the scenes were fundamentally alienating and the dialogue was meandering and arguably. But it quickly became clear to me that these scenes were testament to the formal experimentalism and bold narrative deconstruction that makes Lynch a genius. The Roadhouse, in the original Twin Peaks series, functions as a kind of way station between plot points on the series; a place of reflection and contemplation on the show’s events. By focusing on unknown characters having these strange conversations in the Roadhouse, Lynch is most likely suggesting Twin Peaks as a universe that is far larger than the primary plot we are watching. We are watching one story in a world of infinite stories, Lynch alludes to. In one sequence in the ninth episode, a totally meth-freaked Sky Ferreira and an alcoholically worn Karolina Wydra discuss the inability to hold down jobs, remark that a “zebra” was out again, and make jokes about a penguin. “What? Why am I watching this?” you might ask. Because Lynch uses text to immerse the viewer in his absurd unlogic.

There is horror, addiction, despair, mental illness and unexplainable demonic apparitions, and every human within this world suffers these conditions. This language, while divorced from the show’s “plot,” serves a purpose in swallowing the viewer up into the show’s macabre spectacle.

Lynch’s best work is the highest profile example we have of a contemporary Theater of the Absurd. His work keeps the deranged legacy of Samuel Beckett alive. This particular brand of absurdism persists in certain sects of culture, of course: writers like Kathryn Davis, Dennis Cooper and Gary J. Shipley, and filmmakers like Bruno Dumont and Yorgos Lanthimos have all, to varying degrees, resuscitated this ghastly absurdism. But no one has kept the “abstract grotesque” visible to the extent that Lynch has within our mass culture. A casual viewer will watch What Did Jack Do? and possibly feel robbed, or annoyed, or aggravated that such a minor work by a major filmmaker would make it so high into their algorithm. But a true appreciator of Lynch, or the absurd, or the macabre sees it differently: “Rejoice yee! Thy theater of thine absurd lives! Absurdity shalt never die! Long live Lynch! Long live Beckett!”

Adam Lehrer is an artist, photographer and writer. Lehrer’s work consists of manipulated photography, collages made of mostly Internet sourced appropriated images, and video loops. He has had solo shows at Spring Break Art Show, Governor’s Island Art Fair, and has been featured in group shows. Lehrer is also a culture writer, and his art, film and music criticism has been featured in Autre Magazine, The Quietus, Forbes, VICE, Bedford & Bowery, Bullett Media, i-D, SSENSE, and more.

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