When I was a kid, my older sister was obsessed with the TV show Twin Peaks. I was a little too young for it, though I remember being swept up into its emotional whirlwind world whenever I tried to watch it (without understanding exactly what was going on). I was scared when I was supposed to feel fear (that menacing Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack playing as a heavy wind tossed a red stoplight hung on a wire over some train tracks back and forth and the dark pines shook in the night). I was amused when I was supposed to be (Mr. Badalamenti playing up and down the xylophone as some waitress ran down the specials for some odd customer bellied up to the Formica).
I can’t remember exactly when, but at some point I saw the movie Fire Walk with Me.
Just typing that I got slight chills.
I must have been a couple years older when I saw it, since if I’d seen it when the TV show came out, I would have been traumatized (similar to the way I was debilitated with fear when my childhood friends, who knew I was afraid of clowns, thought it would be funny to show me Stephen King’s It).
I remember not just being terrified as I watched Fire Walk with Me, but feeling sickened and dirtied, as if I’d just been pulled into something evil and somehow made complicit. But it felt necessary to see it, even as the fear in the pit of my stomach increased and the disgust washed over me.
That’s actually a good way to describe the experience of watching that movie: necessary. It was necessary as a young man just entering puberty to see that movie, in order to understand that no matter what minor tortures sexual deprivation imposed on a young man (mostly humorous), sex (and boys, and later men) traumatized a lot of girls and women in sometimes permanent and horrible ways.
All drives have the capacity, if not controlled, for metastasizing into something truly evil. Fire Walk with Me was the first and maybe the only movie I’ve ever seen that made me feel what it was like to be a female, and even back then I knew it to be some kind of extended tone poem created to honor victims of sexual abuse. The movie forced me to experience how it feels to be a female in a world where men give their appetites primacy over female life. Considering that David Lynch was accused of being a misogynist around this time (I think an actress or two from the show refused to be in the film for that very reason), what he accomplished (or at least induced in me as a young viewer) seems incongruous with the charge.
I remember the movie pissed a lot of people off, especially at Cannes where it was supposedly booed and jeered by the audience. I know the critic Roger Ebert hated it. At one point in his career, Rog admitted (I think it was when reviewing Lost Highway) that something in him resisted David Lynch, that his critical faculties were somehow clouded by a personal distaste for something about the man’s aesthetic or his whole Weltanschauung that made it hard to review his movies.
The movie also pissed off a young Quentin Tarantino, the maverick director whose pop culture mashup films have pretty much rewired our collective synapses as cinemagoers, in a perhaps lower-brow but no less total manner than the celluloid worlds created by Kubrick or Scorsese.
Tarantino said words to the effect that, despite loving Lynch’s earlier films, he was done with the man for the foreseeable future, because he’d crawled so far up his own ass with Fire that it wasn’t worth wasting time on the man or his work.
But I still think Fire Walk with Me is incredible. Perhaps my opinion of the movie would change were I to watch it today, but that’s not happening because I never, ever want to see it again. I’m only even bringing it up now because as an object lesson it’s related to the subject I wanted to broach tonight, which is that perhaps there are worse things for an artist to do than crawl up their own ass.
To return to Kubrick, there’s a scene in a documentary about him in which the director Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) points out that during Clockwork Orange, in the scene at the record shop, a copy of the soundtrack for 2001 is clearly visible behind the droog Alex hitting on the girls (I think they’re underage in the Burgess novel, but it’s not specified or even implied in the film).
The gag of course is that Kubrick was both the director of Clockwork Orange and 2001, which meant, according to Cox, that this was a man who had become the primary influence on his own work.
Reflexive, sure. Solipsistic? Why not. But is this a creative dead-end? “Navel-gazing” is usually an insult, but I suppose it all depends on the quality of lint that one collects in their belly button. Before I hyper-extend the metaphor, I’ll just circle back around to the central question, which is: Is self-indulgence in itself a bad thing for an artist? Put another way: When one is in dialogue with oneself, is it always really a monologue, creative onanism mistaken for intercourse?
I was about to say that I don’t have an answer, except that I think I do. I think some artists who close off the outer world and work in a house of mirrors make as much or more of the reflections they see refracted in their fun-houses than anyone who’s out there in the real world reporting back from the front-lines or the knife-edge of reality.
Hell, look at Hölderlin. The German romantic poet had a nervous breakdown, hypochondrias, as I believe schizophrenia was then known, and responded by sequestering himself in a tower provided to him by a carpenter who had mercy on him and functioned as a lifelong patron. Herr Hölderlin would continue living and composing in his stone eyrie for the next thirty-five years or so, until his death. There’s some dispute among scholars and fans when he did his best work, but there’s no disputing he created some incredible stuff up there, stopping only occasionally to entertain guests and fans of his work who’d traveled from far-flung lands to visit the hermetic poet. And that was pre-internet and probably with only a couple of windows out of which he could gaze, when not composing his famed quatrains.
But then again, maybe I’m just seeking an excuse to close my mind and stay home as often as possible.