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Lynch’s World of Abstractions

“I feel most free onstage,” admitted Kim Gordon, member of the band Sonic Youth, “The audience, it’s an abstraction. You don’t really see anyone out there, but you feel the audience inside you.” [1] (emphasis mine)

When David Lynch called Bob, the demonic presence that had begun to permeate my nightmares since early in Twin Peaks first season, ‘an abstraction,’ (in some newspaper buzz piece at the time), I was both puzzled and strangely accepting of the description. By this point he’d had scant screen time, but the images that had played out at night on my TV screen via Cooper’s dream and Sarah’s visions, along with the intimations of what he had done to Laura, Ronette and Teresa Banks, were sufficient to build a base feeling of dread and fear inside me that I’d not really experienced before. Who was he? He seemed real but at the same time inhabited a corner of my mind reserved for primal fears passed down through DNA, from generation to generation.

By the time the end of the opening episode of Season 2 horrified me into claiming that I’d never watch another episode again*, I could no longer hazard a guess as to what Bob was. The visceral murder of Laura that night seemed to show a man — a deranged, animalistic killer that I hadn’t yet seen outside of visions and dreams — but there he was, seemingly the only one responsible for the graphic ending of a young girl’s life.

And then The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer hit the UK shores.

Bob became BOB, a voice seemingly inside Laura’s head, taunting her and driving her slowly insane. If I recall right, I could only read the book as I experienced the second season, and the events on screen tied into the disturbing reality that BOB was a spirit or demon, possessing his victims to carry out dark deeds as much as physically abusing and mentally torturing them directly, or through others.

“Maybe that’s all BOB is,” offered FBI Agent Albert Rosenfield, upon the death of Leland — BOB’s vessel, “the evil that men do.”

Lynch called BOB “an abstraction in a human form.”[2] Albert seemed to be suggesting something very similar. The show never cleared that up definitively and then Fire Walk With Me further complicated the character, making Leland appear much more culpable for his actions — but what of BOB?

Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch seemed to hold an answer. Or at least, confirmed more of what David Lynch’s intentions were towards the depiction of evil that seeped through that small Northwestern town. Not only did he comment on what he thought of BOB, “an abstraction in a human form,” but he also gave us an insight into another intriguing boogeyman in his work — the Mystery Man of Lost Highway.

A film that dealt more forcefully with the split personalities and evil that men do, Lost Highway had its fair share of dubious personalities and duplicitous sirens. In the centre of the storm was the Mystery Man, a seemingly flesh and blood character that interacted with Fred Madison and his ‘alter ego’ Pete Dayton at several points in the film. Featuring the creepy and foreboding absence of the previously-heard background party music when Fred meets this figure at the Andy’s get together, there is a brilliantly disturbing phone call Fred has whilst there, and with the same man simultaneously at Fred’s own house (disrupting all normal thoughts of time and space) — the Mystery Man then simply returns to the party once their encounter is over. When Fred questions Andy (and his own sanity) about the man, Andy confirms that he knows of him, and is a friend of a friend.

Later in the film, another phone conversation takes place, this time between the Mystery Man and Pete Dayton. Frightened for his life after his initial words with Mr Eddy, Pete is passed over to receive a vague threat from our friend in black. The lack of introduction aside from the repeated phrase “We’ve met before haven’t we?” places Pete into a panic and forces us, the viewer, to wonder who this person is and how he figures into the larger world that we have descended into.

As the film builds towards its Möbius strip ending, the Mystery Man appears again in the desert, to confront the recent reappearance of Fred. “What the fuck is your name?” he demands, mirroring not only our own thoughts on the Fred/Pete dichotomy (who is who?) but also throws confusion onto the origins and nature of this seemingly supernatural figure.

“He’s a hair of an abstraction,”[3] Lynch clarifies murkily in Lynch on Lynch.

So far we have two entities that are referred to in a very similar fashion, by the man who co-created them and committed them to the screen in his own particular style. It is open to interpretation as to what this may mean to us, the viewer.

Both BOB and the Mystery Man appear as real in terms of the characters or the physicality of the story. Laura, Leland and Sarah Palmer all have ‘seen’ BOB — in visions or in person (Leland said he invited BOB in after ‘meeting’ him at Pearl Lakes — was this real or a metaphor? Did he encounter him outside of a dream?). If we are to take this as  ‘dream logic’, that Leland did indeed meet BOB on a metaphysical plane, then we can begin to detect that BOB is not ‘real’ in a physical sense. Fire Walk With Me continues in this vein, with Leland perhaps seeming more responsible for his actions than previously depicted, and BOB becomes more of the “inhabiting spirit” that the One-Armed Man alluded to in the show.

So far so good. So BOB is a demon right?

Yes and no. For the sake of the story, perhaps (there are plenty of theories out there — and Twin Peaks: The Return adds to the possibilities); but for Lynch, he seems to be something more. Something not as clearly defined — after all, an abstraction is “the act of considering something as a general quality or characteristic, apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances” [4]. So to concretise BOB as a possessing demonic spirit may take away another interpretation — one that defies clear definition in the mind of the creator, or at least, in how he wants to present it to us on the screen.

The Mystery Man is even more interesting. He is apparently a physical being — not confined to dreams or nightmares — the impression is that he exists outside of the experiences of both Fred and Pete. He physically interacts with others at Andy’s party – and indeed is seen by Andy and not just Fred. Later, when speaking to Pete, Mr Eddy palpably passes the phone to the Mystery Man and says that there is someone there who wishes to talk to. And then towards the end of the film he appears to corporeally pass a gun to Fred at a key point in the narrative, in order to end the life of Mr Eddy/Dick Laurent. Yet he too is an abstraction according to Mr Lynch.

What are we to make of this?

“To me, a story can be both concrete and abstract, or a concrete story can hold abstractions. And abstractions are things that really can’t be said so well with words,” Mr Lynch explains.[5]

What then, is Lynch trying to say without words?

Turning, at this point, to perhaps Lynch’s purest expression of abstraction in his cinematic artistic output, Eraserhead possibly contains more examples of his thought process than any other work. Rather than attempt to unravel all of those elements, let’s look at one more character that exists more in dream logic and abstraction than any other – the Lady In The Radiator.

“The term abstract is sometimes used to refer to things that are not located in space or time,” – Encyclopedia Britannica [6]

It’s well known now that this important ingredient of the film was not present in the original script, nor early in the filming (so, much like BOB in Twin Peaks). It was during the production that she manifested in Lynch’s mind one day, and it is here that perhaps we have an insight into the abstractions that he talks about frequently. The radiator was “…an instrument for producing warmth…it made me sort of happy,” [7] and he drew a picture of the Lady in the Radiator as this feeling came over him. As filming continued, this image became an extremely important ‘spiritual’ embodiment of several key changes in his life at that time – the dissolution of his marriage and the constrictions it posed, now eased; the discovery of Transcendental Meditation and the happiness that ‘diving within’ brought about; and the satisfying experience of building the world of Eraserhead over several years, living and breathing his art in the most all-encompassing way possible — planning, rehearsing, filming, eating, and sleeping on set. (In fact, since writing this article, the book Room To Dream was released and there is a telling line that connects to a part of this hypothesis, that this mysterious saviour is the personification of a particular point in Lynch’s life.. “I’ve never really felt free. One time right after Peggy and I decided to split up, I had a euphoria of freedom.” [8]

The Lady in the Radiator can be seen as Henry’s saviour. She does not seem to exist physically so much as in Henry’s mind, his soul — an apparently imperfect person (with some sort of disfiguring skin complaint on her face) who is eternally smiling, bathed in white and waiting for him in the darkness. “Inside is where the happiness in her comes from. Her outward appearance is not the thing,” [9] Lynch explains. Can she therefore by the physical manifestation, the embodiment, of what Lynch himself was feeling towards the end of the film – all coming together in a blinding light and a welcoming embrace? The happiness within, found through meditation, here perceivably materialising as a young woman (it’s often women who are ‘the one’ in Lynch films), guiding Henry to the light?

If this is true, could further investigation into Lynch’s career — the accounts of his life, dialogues with reporters and refections on the themes of his oeuvre — concede more answers? After all, DKL has suggested we are all born into the role of a detective — and his movies oftentimes beckon us to fulfil this in the darkness of the movie theatre.

BOB, whilst visually frightening with his evil, maniacal laughter and his almost-bland, everyday workman-like denim attire also inspired a real back-of-the-neck dread and fear — a feeling made manifest. He barely ‘spoke’ until the very end of the series — he was simply a force of nature representing depravity and degradation — a corruption of innocence and a destruction of balance. If the angels sought to save Laura, they were in competition with the darkest of opponents. “I think it’s the scariest thing. To know someone, or suspect someone, that has a very intelligent mind — really nothing is wrong with them in any way — but who is possessed by evil and who has dedicated themselves to doing evil.“ [10] Within this interview with Lynch, a comment unrelated to just Twin Peaks in context, could provide the answer to the abstraction that BOB represented. Even though he was not doing so specifically, was David Lynch describing Laura’s father Leland? Can the cycle of life, the birth of both good and evil, actually exist in nature to the point where it is both demonstrably real but also of the soul itself?

“I think there is some disturbance — electrical or chemical — and some people might believe it is even beyond that. Some disturbance where they’re smiling at you, but something you see in their eyes gives you the willies. And your smile back to them doesn’t change their mind. The meals that you buy them, the schools they go to: None of that makes one bit of difference.” [11]

Lynch is describing something abstract, “some disturbance” that he cannot place but that causes a feeling of dread, a knowing of something beyond what you can see with your eyes alone. “..certain things are hidden — there are things you can’t see,” [12] he ventures in the same response. Was BOB therefore a tangible expression of that hidden force of nature — animalistic, consuming, unforgiving, unrepentant? Are we all born with that possibility — can we all succumb to it?

If BOB was that possibility, given human form — could the same apply to the Mystery Man?

“Abstract art is art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead use shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect.” – Tate Gallery [13]

We have, in the Mystery Man, a character who appears real, corporeal — he interacts with others outside of our main protagonist — so ostensibly a part of the physical realm. But his mere presence, his physical appearance, and his actions are unnatural — impossible feats such as being in two places at once — all are unnerving to Fred and the viewer. But is that, perhaps, the purpose? To unnerve? After all, as a painter does with brushes, paints, shade and shadow, Lynch utilises many artistic cinematic tools – narratives, visuals, sounds, dialogues — to unsettle, to ask us to journey into the unfamiliar and to make feeling as much a part of the experience as simply watching a story play out, beyond merely entertaining as it reaches its final destination. How does it make us feel — to witness this supernatural phone conversation with Fred, or later, to sit with Pete whilst a mysterious voice tells us that in the Far East, a person that is sentenced to death awaits death by bullet, to the back of the head, whilst trapped in a place they cannot escape from (intimating that this is Pete’s predicament)?

Narratively it makes some sense — Pete has just had Mr Eddy check that he’s ok — repeatedly and to the point of threatening absurdity — and knows that he could be in a great deal of trouble. The Mystery man confirms this with his sinister message, almost delivering the looming danger plainly compared to the vague meaning-laden positive affirmations of Mr Eddy. Is this Pete’s inner voice — Fred’s inner voice — recognising the danger?

Thematically the presence of the Mystery Man seems to materialise at key junctions of Fred/Pete’s story: the night of Renee’s murder; the night of the fumbled robbery of Andy; the murder of Mr Eddy/Dick Laurent. All of these are displaying his apparent physical presence at the time — Andy’s party; cohort of Mr Eddy; murderer of Dick Laurent.

Psychically the Mystery Man functions as part of Fred/Pete’s inner world — a ‘presence’ in his mind — perhaps something he/they refuse to acknowledge. For Fred it appears to be the dark thoughts and deeds he is capable of but withdraws from looking at directly (the Mystery Man forces him to reconcile these at points in the movie) — the sexual ego of Fred (and Pete) and the fear of being betrayed, of inhabiting the anger and violence that only comes out when he loses his inhibitions in his saxophone playing. For Pete it is also the sexual ego, the need to be wanted, desired, the lust for something unobtainable, and the excitement of leading a double life. If this secret life/affair is what Fred fears Renée is complicit in, it’s what his alternate-self (Pete) is matching in deed, with a woman (Alice) uncannily similar to the wife (Renée) that is betraying Fred.

The Mystery Man is more complicated than Lynch’s prior abstractions — perhaps that is why he describes him as “a hair of an abstraction” rather than a full-fledged idea, or feeling, given form (as with the previous examples we have looked at). He serves several purposes: with his camera he videos reality rather than filtered remembrances (contrary to the preference of the antagonist who likes to ‘remember things my own way’) and creates the anxiety of being watched; with his dialogue he bewilders and disturbs (creating a mood, a sense of something not quite right); with his actions he enables and confronts (questioning Fred ‘s reality at the cabin, or apparently carrying out the murder of Pete’s sexual competitor Mr Eddy): and with his mere presence he challenges our expectations and serves his purpose as literally a creator of mystery within the narrative.

“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes….Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” – Arshile Gorky, painter. [14]

When I first experience a David Lynch film I almost split into two different people (a theme in a lot of his work!). There is a part of me that does just that — experiences the film on a pure level without the complication and rumination of the intellect. The visuals, the sound design — the mood and feeling that these inspire captures me emotionally and in an abstract way deep within — touching on fears and dreams that occupy the unconscious. The other side of me loves to deliberate on the meaning behind the images, the characters, the dialogue. I seek to translate that experience into an understanding — to equate and assign, correlate and concretise. Art can excite all of these approaches — and David Lynch is an artist in the purest sense. His life’s passion is to create — for himself primarily — but to share it with an audience using all the tools he has to hand. Abstractions abound in all of his work — from painting through to movies.

Further into those movies we seem to find more of these abstractions – characters such as The Cowboy (Mulholland Drive), The Woodsman (Twin Peaks: The Return), The Jumping Man (Fire Walk With Me etc), The Blue-Haired Lady (Mulholland Drive), The Man in the Planet (Eraserhead), The Bum (Mulholland Drive) — all Lynch identifiers, characters with no actual, traditional names that intrigue, confound and seemingly exist ‘out there’. They are foreign to the realm of our reality yet a part of it in terms of the senses — of feeling — but also of psychic intuition and narrative drive. There’s more to them than simply meets the eye too…

But that’s possibly another article.


* I knew of Laura’s murder, but to see it like that undid what I understood of the series’ virtues so far – the grapefruit and little Elvis jokes; the soap opera storylines and the haunting, seemingly random, dreams; the implied and the inferred. I soon adjusted.

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/06/03/next-stage

[2] Lynch on Lynch – Chris Rodley, page 178

[3] Lynch on Lynch – Chris Rodely, page 229

[4] http://www.dictionary.com/browse/abstraction

[5] https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/david-lynch

[6] https://www.britannica.com/science/abstraction

[7] Lynch on Lynch – Chris Rodley, page 64

[8] Room To Dream – Kristine McKenna & David Lynch, page 268

[9] Lynch on Lynch – Chris Rodley, page 66

[10] http://davidbreskin.com/magazines/1-interviews/david-lynch-2/

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

[13] http://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/abstract-art

[14] http://www.theartstory.org/artist-gorky-arshile.htm



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Written by Paul Billington

25YL site Business Strategist, dabbling in Marketing and also a writer here too!

Lover of 'Twin Peaks', all things David Lynch, a big believer that 'Big Trouble in Little China' may possibly be better than 'Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey'.

Oh, and bacon is awesome and I miss Sherbet Dib Dabs.

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