Two Faces of David Lynch By Mike White. A few weeks before the release of Lost Highway, I was fiending for David Lynch. I re-watched Eraserhead and Dune and picked up David Lynch by Kenneth C...

A few weeks before the release of Lost Highway, I was fiending for David Lynch. I re-watched Eraserhead and Dune and picked up David Lynch by Kenneth C. Kaleta (ISBN: 0805793232) at my local used-book store. Thank goodness I didn’t pay full cover price.

Kaleta’s book covers Lynch’s career from his student films to Wild at Heart. That said, one might think that it would discuss similar themes explored in the expanse of Lynch’s career and possibly relate them to Lynch’s real life. Nope. One might think that we would get a glimpse into some of the behind-the-scenes action that occurred during the making of each of his films. Nope. One might think that this book would have to be more in-depth and better written than a high school senior’s English term paper. Nope.

Each chapter deals with one of Lynch’s films wherein Kaleta uses a simple and repetitive form for the "discussion" of Lynch’s work. Ninety-percent of the chapter is a literal re-telling of everything that happens in the film and the other ten-percent is made up of quotes from film critics. There’s no insightful analysis of motifs, symbolism or thematics—just cursory, off-the-cuff, armchair criticism and bland plot synopses. The only time Kaleta interjects his own opinion of Lynch’s films is when he gets the kooky idea in the second chapter to begin comparing Lynch to Stanley Kubrick. He drawls parallels between The Elephant Man and Barry Lyndon because they’re both historical pieces. Allow me to clarify; that’s the extent of the depth of his assessment. Without offering further comprehension, he simply says that The Elephant Man is historically accurate in its hairstyles just as Barry Lyndon was accurate in its candlelit mise en scène.

Each subsequent comparison between the two directors is increasingly outrageous and simplistic. Kaleta even begins to quote notorious Lynch-basher Roger Ebert to support his "theories." "The direction by Lynch is competent," Ebert writes of The Elephant Man, "although he gives us an inexcusable opening scene in which John Merrick’s mother is trampled or scared by elephants or raped—who knows?—and an equally idiotic closing scene in which Merrick becomes the star child from 2001, or something." Astounding critical arguments abound!

By simply presenting this knee-jerk critical quote the reader is supposed to hold that Kaleta’s Lynch-Kubrick connection is incontrovertible. Yet, the fun has just begun! When Kaleta gives his long-winded plot synopsis of Dune where he really goes off the deep end. He proposes that there are two types of science fiction films; "new world order" films, those that are based on what we know to be reality (films like The Omega Man and Logan’s Run are set in Earth’s possible future) and those who create a new world (Star Wars). He contends that A Clockwork Orange and 2001 are successful "new-world creation" films while Dune isn’t. What Kaleta doesn’t seem to realize is that, under his guidelines of two different "types" of Sci-Fi films, both of Kubrick’s should be classified as "new world order." Thus, invalidating his entire...I hesitate to say "argument" and I think even the word "observation" is too strong, "blabbering" might be the word of choice I seek.

Kaleta holds that Dune’s script, while approved by Frank Herbert (he feels compelled to point this out four times in one chapter!), is muddy, confusing, and bogged down by an excessive amount of plot. In regards to the apparently "overabundant plot," and the audience’s reaction to it, Kaleta proceeds to give one of the most asinine observations I’ve ever read: "In Kubrick’s film (2001), HAL the computer, not the film’s audience, shuts down with an overload of information."

I had to put the book down when I read yet another Kubrick comparison; it was his opinion that the use of telethapy worked in The Shining but not in Dune. I just couldn’t go on. I’ve seen the films, I’ve read the reviews, and he wasn’t telling me anything that I couldn’t learn in an afternoon. The only "new material" was Kaleta barely grasping at straws to make a weak connection between two filmmakers. No attempt at analysis, no study of motifs, Kaleta didn’t even interview Lynch for this book and I wouldn’t be surprised if Kaleta had never seen any of these films at the theater: only on video or TV! This book was so irritating that, like HAL, I just shutdown and put the book aside.

Despite the experience I had with Kaleta’s tome, I braved the critical waters again a few months later, picking up Michel Chion’s book, David Lynch (ISBN: 0851704573). My blood ran cold when I found Chion taking the same tact by chronologically scrutiny of Lynch’s oeuvre, providing punctilious plot descriptions along the way. However, that is the extent of the similarity between the two books. I soon discovered that this was the book that I had wanted Kaleta’s shoddy work to be.

Instead of dealing with Lynch’s work strictly film by film, Chion attempts to consider the director’s work as a whole, revisiting past works and enriching the discussion of each film. This method of consideration evidences the magnitude of the multifaceted work, allowing proper examination of the ideas recurring throughout Lynch’s forays into various genres (science fiction, historical melodrama, TV surrealism, etc).

Not only does Chion provide cross-referencing while in the chronological discussion; he also includes an arrant appendix of Lynchian motifs. This "Lynch Kit" takes its name referring to Lynch’s penchant for dissection of animals, such as the "fish kit" that appears in his book Images (ISBN: 078686060X). In this "kit," however, it is Lynch who is being dissected. It appears this is the only section of the book susceptible to suffering from translation as Chion organized the "kit" alphabetically with a logical succession that is compromised by rearrangement. However, the original French terms are indicated parenthetically to indicate their original order.

Chion, like Kaleta, quotes from film reviews in his book. However, Chion is often humbly reassessing the opinions he expressed in the pages of Cahier du Cinema, contrasting his initial experiences with his retrospective view of Lynch’s work as a whole. That is not to say that Chion is a gushing sycophant, his criticism feels evenhanded and perceptive.

David Lynch by Michel Chion is probably not the be-all, end-all Lynch book but it’s far superior to David Lynch by Ken Kaleta.

Back to Issue 9