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One Day, One Class: Delving into the Mind of David Lynch

Exploring one filmmaker’s take on good, evil, and perversity


Class by class, lecture by lecture, question asked by question answered, an education is built. This is one of a series of visits to one class, on one day, in search of those building blocks at BU.

You won’t find students texting during EN 596. Not when the topic is rape in a David Lynch film.

Leland Monk, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of English, is alarmed that students were snickering during a disturbing and violent episode in Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet two days earlier. Mondays the class screens a Lynch movie, Wednesdays they discuss it.

In the film, the psychopathic nitrous addict Frank Booth, played by Dennis Hopper, sexually assaults lounge singer Dorothy Vallens, depicted by Isabella Rossellini, while sleuthing college student Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) hides in the apartment’s closet. “Have we become so postmodern, we’ll laugh at anything?” asks Monk, who has been teaching literature at BU for 20 years.

The 25 students taking The Cinema of David Lynch in CAS Room 224 don’t say a word. They swivel in their chairs, sipping Gatorades and coffee. One picks at the corners of a green copy of Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula. Another stares at his laptop screen. Monk worries that camp appreciation of monstrous evil can desensitize, “even make us crave it.”

“When people first saw Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs they weren’t laughing,” he says. “When they first saw Frank Booth in that scene, they were terrified. Please don’t be so damned ironic that you can’t feel something. I want to pop your bubble of insularity.”

In the course, Monk and his students examine the filmmaker’s singular work through the prism of literature. The novels Dune and Wild at Heart, which Lynch adapted for the screen, The Selected Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, and Sigmund Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams are among the texts on the syllabus. Students write papers and fill out exam booklets that elucidate “the logic of dreams, forms of evil, the death drive, and small-town America.”

“I’m not sure if people were laughing because it was evil camp or because it was Dennis Hopper,” a student says. One suggests it was the dialogue, which Lynch wrote; another sees it as a defense mechanism. A fourth notes that Hopper doesn’t remove his pants during the assault.

“I thought he just didn’t take his pants off because he was so weird and perverted,” says Anne Loughman (CAS’11). “When you put horror and comedy together, it’s not clear what your reaction should be. Maybe Lynch is trying to horrify us with our own laughter.”

More than two decades after its release, Blue Velvet, which earned Lynch a best director Oscar nomination, has acquired a camp patina, with moviegoers dressing as characters at midnight showings and the expletive-laden dialogue serving as fodder for drinking games.

“I think it’s totally subjective what you find funny, and that’s my favorite part of Lynch movies,” says Anis Hoffman (CAS’11). “Laughter really shouldn’t be monitored.”

“In some places I think the humor is intended, and in other places it’s up to you,” Monk agrees. “But whether he’s out of his pants or not, that scene is still not funny.”

Monk asks students in the back row to pull the blinds so he can show the movie’s final sequence. “I want you to notice what’s going on in the soundtrack,” he says. “You may not have noticed because of the imagery, but listen closely.”

MacLachlan, again hiding in Rossellini’s closet, fires a bullet between Hopper’s crazed eyes. Beneath the music, a strangled wail enters the upper frequency.

“When Frank is shot, there’s a demon scream,” Monk says. “It’s not human, suggesting that Frank isn’t just a nasty, evil human being, but a supernatural monster. The reason I’m pointing this out is the supernatural element shows up in Poe stories.”

“It was almost like his brain was full of this weird gas and then it came rushing out of him,” says John Gawarecki-Maxwell (CAS’10) from the back row.

Monk likes this and smiles. On the screen behind him, the scene continues. MacLachlan’s character wakes up on a lounge chair in the yard of his home, his dad chatting with a neighbor in the background. “This is all about the restoration of the father,” Monk says. “Jeffrey’s going through the Oedipal adventure, into adulthood. He kills the bad father and aligns with the good father.”

The clip ends and there’s some final talk about Lynch’s bug imagery. Then it’s off to New Orleans, Big Tuna, Tex., Bobby Peru, and those road-tripping, head-banging lovebirds Sailor and Lula.

Wild at Heart
This 1990 movie stars Nicolas Cage as parolee Sailor Ripley and Laura Dern as his soulmate, Lula Pace Fortune. The pair is on the run from Lula’s mother, the witchy Marietta (played by Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd), who has dispatched henchmen to keep them apart. Dreamy and violent, with heavy allusions to the Wizard of Oz and Elvis, the film won the Palme d’Or at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival and Ladd was nominated for an Oscar. Lynch has described the story as “finding love in hell.”

The picture is based on Gifford’s eponymous 1989 pulp novel, thick with dialogue and peppered with pop culture. “There’s very little plot, just gradual movement west,” Monk says. “You get to know the characters not through physical descriptions, but by the way they speak and what they do … The way we get to know how monstrous Bobby Peru is is by the way Lula responds to him, when she says, ‘If there’s a heaven with Bobby Peru in it, then I don’t want to go.’”

The slicked-back, dentally challenged Peru is played with mesmerizing menace by Willem Dafoe. (Dafoe’s papers, incidentally, reside at BU’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, including some of his Wild at Heart materials.)

Hoffman, who hails from North Carolina, takes issue with the portrayal of Southerners, adding, “The one thing that was really successful in balancing that out, though, was how original Lula’s thoughts were, even though they don’t really relate to anything.”

“Even the first page,” Monk says, “when Lula says, ‘You’re about as thick as a string of unwaxed dental floss.’ That’s part of what makes her interesting. The action is in how they talk to each other, the cigarettes they smoke, the sex they have, and especially the stories they tell.”

The class parses the differences between the endings of the novel and of the movie. Gifford’s wraps up tragically, the couple splitting up. Lynch delivers the polar opposite, but Amanda Legee (CAS’10) isn’t buying it.

“It was unbelievable to me that they’d put their life on hold and be the exact same people 10 years later after Sailor is released from prison,” she says. “Lynch can’t leave it where evil forces triumph, so it’s this overblown cheesy ending — like Blue Velvet, where you get back to the status quo and there’s hope.”

Monk dims the lights to show the scene where Bobby Peru visits Lula in her motel room while Sailor is working on their broken-down car. Peru quickly swamps a pregnant Lula with his presence, forcing her to say she wants him. Lynch zooms in on their mouths, hers painted ruby red and his housing stubby, decayed teeth behind curled lips. It’s a difficult scene to watch and ends with an unsettling blast of humor. “That’s a rape,” Monk says. “He rapes her verbally, and he does so by taking over her will.”

Discussion leads one student to wonder whether Lynch likes women. Another suggests there are no normal, well-adjusted female characters in his films. A third says he has no normal characters, period.

“But all of Lynch’s really evil characters are men,” Legee says. “Marietta is crazy, but in some twisted way she really loves her daughter and there’s some possibility for redeeming qualities. Whereas, with Bobby Peru and Frank Booth, there’s nothing in them you can point to that could make them good. And a lot of the heroes are flawed men.”

Before you know it, two and a half hours have passed, and the sun is sinking. While Monk packs up his papers, several students are still chatting about how Lynch plays with stereotypes and archetypes.

Not a cell phone in sight.

Next up: Twin Peaks. More uncomfortable laughter to come.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.


One Comment on One Day, One Class: Delving into the Mind of David Lynch

  • Anonymous on 11.06.2009 at 10:41 am

    I’m in this class and it is by far one of the most interesting courses I’ve taken at BU. I also think this is a very well-written piece. However, I do take exception to the fact that so much is made about people laughing during the rape scene in Blue Velvet. During the screening of the movie, only two or three people laughed and these are the same two or three people who laugh through every disturbing scene. This is not true of the entire class: most people are quiet, probably even sickened. These movies are definitely unsettling experiences, and I think the majority of the class reacts properly to them.

    The experience is somewhat ruined, though, when the person behind you laughs so obnoxiously that you miss dialogue. At the same time, its interesting to think about why those two or three people laugh as they do, which this article touches on. Is it a defense mechanism? Do they not want to accept what they are seeing on screen for what it is, so they reduce it to something laugh-worthy? Are they desensitized to such violence, and if so, what (if anything) could they be shown that would elicit the proper response of disgust? All of these are interesting questions that are worth exploring.

    Now that I think about it, when such a scene like the rape in Blue Velvet comes on screen and the person next to you laughs hysterically, it definitely adds to the mood. The scene becomes that much more unsettling because someone – someone you know – finds it humorous. Your disgust builds, not only for the characters in the movie, but the people in the seats next to you. The horror depicted on the screen is no longer relegated to the screen; you understand that this disturbing behavior is not a creation of fiction, but a reflection of real human nature. And maybe thats what Lynch was trying to do.

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