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The Film Paintings of David Lynch

Challenging Film Theory

 

Allister Mactaggart

 

Bristol: Intellect, 2010

Softcover. 203 pages. ISBN 978-1-84150-332-5. £16.00

 

Reviewed by Todd McGowan

University of Vermont

 

For much of his career, David Lynch’s reputation as a filmmaker outpaced the scholarly attention that he received. While there were a few popular introductions to his work, the only sustained scholarly analyses of his films were Michel Chion’s outstanding David Lynch and Martha Nochimson’s The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood. As Lynch’s own filmic output has become more sporadic (two films in the last ten years), the number of books devoted to him has greatly multiplied. One new and welcome entrant into the canon of Lynch scholarship is Allister Mactaggart’s The Film Paintings of David Lynch, which offers an impressionistic account of the encounter with Lynch that views his films in relation to painting.

As Mactaggart himself helpfully summarises in a footnote to the introduction [21-22], there are more or less five distinct approaches to Lynch. The first stresses his formal innovations and classifies him as a Modernist or Postmodernist filmmaker, while the second points out the conservative or even reactionary tendencies present in his films (including racist and sexist tropes, nostalgia for the 1950s, and so on). The third perspective, embodied best by Nochimson, sees a balanced and holistic universe in Lynch’s films. A fourth position directly takes on those who view Lynch as a conservative and sees feminism or leftist politics implicit in his vision. The final theoretical perspective is perhaps the most widespread: championed by theorists such as Michel Chion and Slavoj ˇi˛ek, it takes a psychoanalytic—most often Lacanian—approach to understanding Lynch.

If one had to group Mactaggart’s book,one would place it in the last group, and Mactaggart himself avows his affinity with psychoanalysis. When Mactaggart theorises what Lynch is doing in his films and on his website, he turns most often to psychoanalytic categories such as fantasy, jouissance, and the uncanny. The book is interested in how Lynch depicts moments of transcendence that exist outside of or challenge the structure of signification. However, The Film Paintings of David Lynch is distinct from earlier psychoanalytic approaches to Lynch. Mactaggart does not address Lynch’s films systematically or attempt to see how psychoanalysis might provide a foundation for his cinema. Instead, he moves from important moment to important moment within Lynch’s work, employing psychoanalytic tools to enable us to understand why these moments resonate as they do. The key moments in Lynch’s work that stimulate Mactaggart provide the engine for the book, which returns again and again to the enjoyment that he experiences while engaging with the films. (The exception is Dune, a film that Mactaggart does not include in his analysis and explicitly criticises as not really being a Lynch film.) Though the chapters of the book confine themselves to one or two specific texts, they are organised around a certain theoretical idea—failure, excess, distraction, trauma, and the uncanny. This organisational style leads the reader through a series of impressions about Lynch that have a cumulative effect. By the end, one has a sense of what gives Lynch his singularity as an artist.

Mactaggart places The Film Paintings of David Lynch within the context of the struggle between theory and post-theory in film studies, and given his debt to psychoanalysis, he is clearly a partisan of theory. But unlike other psychoanalytic theorists, Mactaggart is not vehemently partisan. He writes in order to open up Lynch’s cinema so that others will come to love it in the way that he does. This openness informs his interpretative style throughout the book. Rather than attempt to provide a master key for understanding each Lynch film, Mactaggart focuses drawing our attention to the moments, like the final scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me or the murder scene in Lost Highway, that give Lynch his resonance among so many fans. When reading his book, one is able to relive these moments and grasp why they offer the enjoyment that they do.

 

 

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