David Lynch: Master of Expressionist Surrealism (Part III)

This article is the third and final entry in my short series dedicated to understanding the hybridization of the German Expressionist and Surrealist artistic/cinematic styles in the work of David Lynch in general and in Twin Peaks: The Return in particular. In Part I, I provided some definitions and historical contexts for an understanding of German Expressionism. In Part II, I did the same for Surrealism. In this article, I will explore how Lynch combines these two styles in order to create the unsettling atmospheres we experience in his works of cinematic art.

No doubt, images from either one of these movements can create unsettling atmospheres on their own. One of the great cinematic masters of German Expressionism, F.W. Murnau, proved the truth of this in almost any given frame of his 1920s films. We see the menace implied by Murnau’s use of chiaroscuro (the stark contrast of light and shadow) in his great vampire epic, Nosferatu (1922).

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The silhouette as approaching menace in Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922).

A related technique of Expressionism is used to express a character’s inner state of darkness in Murnau’s equally masterful Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

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Light and shadow help to externalize inner darkness in Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

Surrealist imagery can also create disturbing, standalone images, of course. Some of the best examples in cinema prior to the time of Lynch come from early experimental and avant-garde filmmakers such as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and Maya Deren, but even closer equivalents to Lynch’s works may be seen in films by Alfred Hitchcock, yet another director whose work often draws upon both German Expressionism and Surrealism. One of the most representative examples of Surrealism in Hitchcock’s work is Spellbound (1945), for which the Master of Suspense collaborated with artist Salvador Dali to design a key dream sequence:

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Surrealist imagery from the Unconscious in the Dali sequence of Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).

As explained in Part II of this series, Dali and other masters of Surrealism sought to mainline dream imagery, unfiltered, directly from the Unconscious–the same source used by the human mind to generate nightmares that reflect our sublimated fears, desires, and socially unacceptable ideas. Among others of his films, Vertigo (1958) also features remarkable examples of Hitchcock’s expert deployment of Surrealist imagery.

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Unresolved guilt as Surrealist imagery in Dali’s sequence from Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945).

So, how does Lynch combine these two styles so effectively? Granted, as artistic and cinematic movements, German Expressionism and Surrealism share similar goals (externalization of inner experience), and they emerged at roughly the same time and place (Europe in the 1920s); even so, combining the two into a single hybrid style I call Expressionist Surrealism would seem to be a difficult task. Still, Lynch does so seamlessly, and in a manner that creates the disorienting and unsettling atmospheres we recognize so well from his films.

I argue that the key to Lynch’s success with Expressionist Surrealism is Postmodernism. Fascinated with temporal distortions, intertextuality (references in a given artwork to other, preceding artworks), and pastiche (a kind of collage of genre and/or styles), Postmodernism is the glue that holds Lynch’s tributes to German Expressionism and Surrealism together as an integrated whole.

As one might imagine, the greatest examples of Postmodernism at work as a bonding agent between two artistic/cinematic styles in Twin Peaks: The Return occur in spaces beyond the recognizable surfaces of everyday reality: the Waiting Room; the Purple World; the Fireman’s home; the Convenience Store; the Dutchman’s, etc. Of course, the question of what constitutes “everyday reality” is very much up for grabs in Twin Peaks; and yet, this instability–both in terms of time and space–is what makes a hybrid style such as Expressionist Surrealism possible. Lynch’s imagined spaces make sense amidst the narrative chaos and the competing alternate realities because they serve as spaces of consistency (however strange and dream-like) that acknowledge, and amplify, the inner states and forbidden desires of the characters. We long for our visits to these strange spaces because, they are spaces of infinite possibility–they promise what Postmodernism holds dearest–a never-ending font of interpretations and meanings that can help us to parse, handle, and survive the more prosaic, everyday world.

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The Dutchman’s motel in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) is the very model of the Uncanny: a place both familiar and alien.

The above image of the Dutchman’s motel, for example, features elements of both Expressionism (dark, foreboding, and stark contrasts of light and shadow) and Surrealism (dream imagery, the stuff of nightmares). At the same time, the images hints at a location familiar from any number of small towns–the decrepit, wayside motel, a onetime symbol of American spatial mobility and economic growth that has since seen better days. Postmodernism, then, would describe the ways in which Lynch is able to combine all these elements together in one image through pastiche and intertextuality.

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As many have suggested, the superimposition of the face of Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) over the clock suggests a dream or alternate reality in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

Similarly, during Part 17 of The Return, Lynch chooses to superimpose the face of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) over the face of the clock (and the rest of the sequence during which BOB is defeated). The image evokes not only Surrealist fascinations with clocks (as in Dali’s 1931 painting, The Persistence of Time, which features images of several flaccid timepieces), but also German Expressionist concerns with externalizing an inner emotional state (in this case, as others have argued, Cooper’s understanding and concern that the events playing out in this sequence amount to only one possible outcome of many along an infinite number of alternate timelines).

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Expressionist cinematography in service of a Surrealist narrative: Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017).

As one final example, we can look at the gathering of the Woodsmen at the Convenience Store in Part 8. The circumstances here are everything Surrealist–horrific, inexplicable imagery straight out of a dream and/or the Unconscious. The cinematography, however, is explicitly Expressionist, featuring stark contrasts of shadow and light that recall the externalized darkness of the characters’ inner emotional states in The Return. The overall combination of these two styles creates an atmosphere of mystery and dread that infuses not just this sequence, but the rest of The Return from that point forward.

The genius of Lynch’s films–or at least part of it–is that, rather than feeling he must adhere to a single artistic/cinematic style, he recognizes that Postmodernism champions pastiche, temporal instability, and intertextuality as tools to push further innovation, creativity, and mystery.  For this reason (among others), Lynch has been able to forge a phenomenally successful film career that reflects a hybrid style uniquely his own.

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