Below is a snippet from Dreams from My Father, in which Barack Obama describes watching Black Orpheus, the first foreign-language film his mother, Ann Dunham, had ever seen.
We took a cab to the revival theater where the movie was playing. The film, a groundbreaker of sorts due to its mostly black, Brazilian cast, had been made in the fifties. The story line was simple: the myth of the ill-fated lovers Orpheus and Eurydice set in the favelas of Rio during Carnival. In Technicolor splendor, set against scenic green hills, the black and brown Brazilians sang and danced and strummed guitars like carefree birds in colorful plumage. About halfway through the movie, I decided that I’d seen enough, and turned to my mother to see if she might be ready to go. But her face, lit by the blue glow of the screen, was set in a wistful gaze. At that moment, I felt as if I were being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth. I suddenly realized that the depiction of childlike blacks I was now seeing on the screen, the reverse image of Conrad’s dark savages, was what my mother had carried with her to Hawaii all those years before, a reflection of the simple fantasies that had been forbidden to a white middle-class girl from Kansas, the promise of another life: warm, sensual, exotic, different.
I post this not only as an example of how profoundly and compassionately Barack Obama grapples with racial identity but as a reminder of how people of color see race (mis)represented in art and, more selfishly, the estrangement I sometimes feel as a film critic of mixed-race heritage. “I turned away, embarrassed for her, irritated with the people around me.” Those are Obama’s words, about his mother and the crowd at the revival theater, but they could just as easily be mine, describing what I often feel whenever I see predominantly white audiences swoon for obscene films like Crash, Blood Diamond, and Under the Same Moon, wishing they could see how those films pander to white prejudices by condescending to non-white experience, and how that’s a symbiotic relationship worth affronting.
When I flip through Dreams from My Father, I marvel at the way Obama discusses race, an integral part of his being, and I find camaraderie in his passion, his rage, his frustrations, his curiosity, his understanding, and most of all his conviction. I read Obama and I ponder the way critics like Armond White discuss racial identity and critics like Amy Taubin discuss sexuality, sometimes with deliberate calculation and desire to provoke but always as a natural expression of their distinctive being and as a fearless extension of their life experience, and I am reminded of the hate mail that filters into my inbox, almost regularly since the jejune days of this site, in which I am called a faggot, a spic, a wetback, sometimes worse, at which point I wonder and sometimes laugh at the pain that has nearly provoked me at times over the years to cover my mouth and hang up the skates.
There are many critics who I admire who are white, who are white and who are men, who are white and who are men and who are straight, but I admit to feeling a closer kinship to critics who are not white, critics who are women, and critics who don’t treat their homosexuality as a dirty secret. Some are more radical than others, strident in their desire to level the playing field, but most speak naturally from the gut about the meaning of the flickering images they absorb with their own eyes, a know-how informed by what they have lived as persons who are not white, persons without dicks swinging between their legs, persons who worry if they’ll be reprimanded for expressing desire for a celebrity of their own sex. Rather than toe a hegemonic line, they keep it real, braving the wrath of persons unused to a certain frankness and diversity of discourse, scaring us by asking us to look, acknowledge, confront the dangers that are explicitly there, sometimes dormant, in popular art.
People asking critics to keep their sexual, racial, and gender politics out of their reviews is as insulting to me as asking America to pretend Hillary Clinton doesn’t have a vagina or Barack Obama’s face ain’t white. “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” said Geraldine Ferraro earlier this month about Obama. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” Obama supporters cried foul, calling Ferraro a racist, as if they hadn’t seen the poll numbers that reveal Obama’s support among blacks, as if they never read his books or heard his speeches; if they had, they might understand that Obama’s race is exactly what makes him so special.
Ferraro’s comments may have been superficial and resentful but they weren’t racist, and the shrill reaction to her statement only confirmed that most Americans don’t know how to talk about race, and the fact that Slant Magazine’s Sal Cinquemani felt that I would incur less wrath (if any) for voicing anything resembling sympathy for Ferraro because he is white and I am not also shows that there are those who know how but censor themselves nonetheless because there are unspoken rules about how race should be talked about and who should do the talking. Joe Scarborough, earlier this month, braved such conversation on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher about how the language people often use to describe and praise Obama (like “articulate”) denotes racism, that we seem to prefer our black politicians to behave a certain way, a bitter truth amusingly touched upon in a recent SNL cartoon that bitingly depicted Obama subjugating Jesse Jackson and Al Shapton’s roles in his political campaign.
However knee-jerk and unpolished, Ferraro’s words acknowledge a mystique surrounding Obama that, in some ways, is not unlike the support Brokeback Mountain received a few years ago, when the film was perceived by gay rights activists posing as critics as a first-of-its-kind: the first mainstream gay-themed film to make money, and one to ostensibly turn the heat down on the nation’s homophobic temper. It didn’t seem to matter that Brokeback was about as aesthetically radical as a Bob Ross painting, only that it was a coup for gay representation on the big screen, and when it lost to Crash for Best Picture, the enraged chalked it up to homophobia, never considering that Crash, infinitely worse than Ang Lee’s prestige picture, simply appealed more strongly to a different, more insular, more topical sort of political bias. Of course, where the Obama-Brokeback analogy diverges is that while Obama does seem to inspire a certain degree of blind, therefore disingenuous, devotion from his base, I can’t say it’s unfair.
Ferraro’s resentment for the Obama mystique becomes laughable when you consider that she was a booster for Hillary Clinton, whose viability as a presidential candidate wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for her sex (or nepotism). If there was a time when I was hesitant to rally behind Obama, specifically around the time I cast my vote for Clinton in the New Jersey primary (there, I admit it!), it was because I had a difficult time (still do, actually) associating with Obama supporters (essentially all my friends) and how their stokedom for Obama hinges, in part, on sexually humiliating Clinton. (They are the same people raging against SNL for its supposed bias against Obama, people like Joshua Alston of Newsweek who’ve misrepresented Fred Armisen’s racial background, failing to recognize that the comedian’s mixed heritage actually makes him the best choice to play the role of Obama in the show’s political sketches.) For proof, just listen to the way the belligerent Chris Matthews or Keith Olbermann, no longer my favorite news guy, talk about the woman on MSNBC—though I’m sure Amy Taubin would say I sound the same way when I talk about Asia Argento (thanks, Nathan, for making me lose sleep this week!).
As evidenced by Dreams from My Father, talking about race comes naturally and forcefully to Obama, a point the media, Obama himself, or his campaign hasn’t really been upfront about, no doubt because the Obama campaign, like Scarborough, understands that the perceived antagonism of Sharpton, who some think gave the most important speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, is not something they want to come close to evoking. In Dreams from My Father, I get a sense of a tougher, more vigilant and conflicted Obama, one who thought about and lashed out against the cruelty of racism in its many manifestations (like the people who would traipse into his Harlem neighborhood so their dogs could shit on his sidewalk, like the white lady in the elevator of his grandparents’ Hawaii apartment building who thought he was stalking her), one who has struggled to understand, sometimes defy the stereotypes of black experience, an Obama I have rarely seen on television. Until this week.
When the insidious FOX began to smear Obama by drudging up Reverend Wright’s presumably controversial opinions about 9/11, the liberal media played dumb, “parroting” (to quote MoveOn.org’s Political Action Team) FOX’s hate speech and pretending as if the seven years since 9/11 never happened—all that death, all those walking wounded, all that political discourse we’ve had about cause and effect (why 9/11 happened, then why Iraq happened—or, rather, why it shouldn’t have happened). The world suddenly became stupider—and then Obama gave the single greatest speech of this entire political season, one delivered with close to the same ardor and ballsiness with which Obama once described his weary flight as an embittered black man throughout his youth, the devil nipping at his heels.
This is the Obama who once wrote: “Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you. They were such simple points, homilies I had heard a thousand times before, in all their variations, from TV sitcoms and philosophy books, from my grandparents and from my mother. I had stopped listening at a certain point, I now realized, so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that white spoke about black.”
It was probably too much for Obama to argue that Wright was more right than he was wrong, ceding not so much to the white world as to a political machine wary of too much gumption, but he still risked plenty for a presidential hopeful wanting to remain electable, renouncing the Reverend’s words if not the man himself, showing the world his backbone, getting philosophical on us without condescension, acknowledging the legacy of slavery, that racism is a problem, that race should be a topic of discussion in our everyday lives, recognizing our unique needs, our common hopes, giving us the context for Wright’s speech that the media did not, referencing the conversations people have inside churches and barbershops, loci of male identity for men of all races, intimating throughout that while he may not have been in public office for as many years as Clinton or John McCain, his experience is of a greater sort, rooted in his genes, the know-how of having lived abroad, having seen racism and colonialism in action, having contemplated the causes and effects of hate, and having struggled, desperately and painfully, to translate vision into action.
Obama’s political courage should be studied, and though his speech was generally well-received, he has been declining in polls (against both Clinton and McCain) since the Wright scandal, and one wonders if he’ll fully recover, having dared to go where few, if any, politicians ever go, having suggested that race should be kept on the table, having shown that his smoldering desire to cultivate conversation about how people are split along racial and ideological lines is not only essential to healing our nation but reaching out and brokering peaceful relations with the non-white leaders of nations abroad. It appears that he will be the Democratic candidate for president, and though I worry for the mental health of anyone who would opt for McCain over Obama, if Obama were to lose in November, he always has a career as a film critic.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.
Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 30
To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.
This week Madonna’s iconic hit “Like a Prayer” turns 30. The song is, by all accounts, her most broadly beloved contribution to the pop-music canon, landing at #7 on our list of the Best Singles of the 1980s. Even the singer’s most ardent critics can’t help but bow at the altar of this gospel-infused conflation of spiritual and sexual ecstasy, a song that helped transform Madge from ‘80s pop tart to bona fide icon. To celebrate this sacred anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the single’s evolution over the last three decades.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 3, 2014.
Following a teaser that aired during the 31st Annual Grammy Awards in January of 1989, Madonna premiered “Like a Prayer” in a Pepsi commercial during The Cosby Show, the #1 rated series on U.S. television at the time. Part of a $5 million sponsorship deal with the soft-drink company, the ad, titled “Make a Wish,” was an innocuous bit of nostalgia that would soon be eclipsed by the scandal surrounding the single’s forthcoming music video.
Madonna dances in front of burning crosses and kisses a black saint in a church pew in this modern morality tale about racial profiling and pious guilt, prompting both the religious right and cultural critics, like bell hooks, to cry foul. Eventually, the mounting outrage caused Pepsi to pull out of their multi-million dollar deal with the Queen of Pop. The singer’s response was coyly defiant.
Blond Ambition Tour
Madonna’s first live incarnation of “Like a Prayer” was also her best. Sure, her voice was raw and unrefined (“Life is a misstaree, eve’one mus stan alone,” she heaves), but her 1990 tour performances of the song displayed a rapturous, almost possessed quality that she’s never been able to recapture.
Dutch Eurotrash group Mad’House’s claim to fame is their blasphemous take on “Like a Prayer” from 2002. The glorified Madonna cover band’s version is stripped of the original’s nuance and soul, a tacky, mechanical shell of a dance track. Regrettably, this is the version you’re most likely to hear on Top 40 radio today. (Only slightly less heretical, the cast of Glee’s rendition of the song peaked at #27 in 2010.)
MTV On Stage & On the Record
Then notorious for forsaking her older material, Madonna dusted off “Like a Prayer” in 2003 during the promotion of her album American Life. Thirteen years after her last live performance of the song, even Madonna’s comparatively reedier voice and noticeably more limited range couldn’t diminish its enduring magic.
Sticky & Sweet Tour
After performing crowd-pleasing but relatively anemic versions of “Like a Prayer” during her Re-Invention Tour in 2004 and Live 8 in 2005, Madonna reinvented the song for her Sticky & Sweet Tour in 2008, using elements of Mack’s “Feels Like Home” for an amped-up techno mash-up.
Super Bowl XLVI
Madonna closed her record-breaking Super Bowl XLVI halftime show in 2012 with “Like a Prayer,” and though she wasn’t singing live, it was the closest she’s ever gotten to her ecstatic Blond Ambition performances. (For those lamenting the lip-synching, she would go on to reprise this version of the song, completely live, during her MDNA Tour later that year.) And if there were any doubt, a stadium of nearly 70,000 football fans waving flashlights and singing along is a testament to the song’s transcendent, all-encompassing appeal. The performance’s final message of “World Peace” seemed attainable, if only for a brief moment.
Met Gala 2018
Last year, Madonna dusted off her old chestnut for an epic performance at Vogue magazine’s annual Met Gala. The event’s theme was “Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” which seemed tailor-made for both the Queen of Pop and “Like a Prayer.” Madonna slowly descended the steps of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in a shroud, flanked on both sides by a choir of monks, as she sang a Gregorian-inspired rendition of the pop classic. The performance also featured a portion of a new song, “Beautiful Game,” and a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Oscars 2019: Complete Winners List
The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS.
The 91st Academy Awards are now behind us, and the telecast told us just about nothing that we don’t already know about AMPAS. Which isn’t to say that the ceremony wasn’t without its surprises. For one, whoever decided to capture Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performance of “Shallow” from A Star Is Born in one single take that would end with the pair sitting side by side, rapt in each other and framed in Bergman-esque repose, should hereby be responsible for every Oscar ceremony moving forward.
For some, though not us, Green Book’s victory for best picture came as surprise. As our own Eric Henderson put it in his prediction: “Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.”
In the end, the awards went down more or less as expected, with the only real shock of the evening being Oliva Colman’s stunning upset over Glenn Close in the best actress race. (Glenn, we hope you are on the phone right now trying to get that Sunset Boulevard remake to finally happen.) Black Panther proved more indomitable than expected, winning in three categories (none of which we predicted), and Free Solo pulling a victory over RBG that was the first big sign of the evening that, then and now, AMPAS members vote above all else with their guts.
See below for the full list of winners from the 2019 Oscars.
Green Book (WINNER)
A Star Is Born
Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma (WINNER)
Adam McKay, Vice
Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody (WINNER)
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite (WINNER)
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Mahershala Ali, Green Book (WINNER)
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (WINNER)
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters
The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Peter Farrelly (WINNER)
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay
Foreign Language Film
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (WINNER)
Hale County This Morning, This Evening, RaMell Ross
Minding the Gap, Bing Liu
Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki
RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Incredibles 2, Brad Bird
Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson
Mirai, Mamoru Hosoda
Ralph Breaks the Internet, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman (WINNER)
Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón (WINNER)
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin
Black Panther, Hannah Beachler (WINNER)
First Man, Nathan Crowley and Kathy Lucas
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie and Alice Felton
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre and Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero and Bárbara Enrı́quez
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson (WINNER)
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman
All The Stars from Black Panther by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
I’ll Fight from RBG by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
The Place Where Lost Things Go from Mary Poppins Returns by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
Shallow from A Star Is Born by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice (WINNER)
When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter (WINNER)
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne
Avengers: Infinity War, Dan DeLeeuw, Kelly Port, Russell Earl, and Daniel Sudick
Christopher Robin, Chris Lawrence, Mike Eames, Theo Jones, and Chris Corbould
First Man, Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, and J.D. Schwalm (WINNER)
Ready Player One, Roger Guyett, Grady Cofer, Matthew E. Butler, and David Shirk
Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rob Bredow, Patrick Tubach, Neal Scanlan, and Dominic Tuohy
Black Panther, Steve Boeddeker, Brandon Proctor, and Peter Devlin
Bohemian Rhapsody, Paul Massey, Tim Cavagin, and John Casali (WINNER)
First Man, Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Ai-Ling Lee, and Mary H. Ellis
Roma, Skip Lievsay, Craig Henighan, and José Antonio García
A Star Is Born, Tom Ozanich, Dean Zupancic, Jason Ruder, and Steve Morrow
Black Panther, Benjamin A. Burtt and Steve Boeddeker
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Warhurst (WINNER)
First Man, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
A Quiet Place, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl
Roma, Sergio Diaz and Skip Lievsay
Makeup and Hairstyling
Border, Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher, and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe, and Patricia Dehaney (WINNER)
Live Action Short Film
Detainment, Vincent Lambe
Fauve, Jeremy Comte
Marguerite, Marianne Farley
Mother, Rodrigo Sorogoyen
Skin, Guy Nattiv (WINNER)
Documentary Short Subject
Black Sheep, Ed Perkins
End Game, Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
Lifeboat, Skye Fitzgerald
A Night at the Garden, Marshall Curry
Period. End of Sentence., Rayka Zehtabchi (WINNER)
Animal Behaviour, Alison Snowden and David Fine
Bao, Domee Shi (WINNER)
Late Afternoon, Louise Bagnall
One Small Step, Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas
Weekends, Trevor Jimenez
Review: Someone Is in My House Showcases the Reach of David Lynch’s Obsessions
Lynch’s paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
Though famous for being a filmmaker and co-creator of the TV series Twin Peaks, David Lynch works in many other mediums, including music, sculpture, photography, furniture-making, and painting, the last of which is the wellspring of his creativity. Lynch has painted since the 1960s, finding his voice among the ruinous squalor of a once-rough Philadelphia. Inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon, Lynch developed a style that’s rich in the irreconcilable contradictions that would drive his cinema. His paintings are beautiful yet macabre, mysterious and rich in the tactility of the methods of their creation.
At times, Lynch has been dismissed as a “celebrity painter” who nets prestigious exhibitions based on his fame as a filmmaker, as well as on the urge to utilize his other art as a kind of decoder ring for his films. These claims may be partially true, but this doesn’t mean that the art itself isn’t extraordinary, and there’s a concentrated effort underway to recalibrate Lynch’s reputation within pop culture. The documentary David Lynch: The Art Life featured hypnotic footage of Lynch in the studio of his Los Angeles home, smoking and creating new canvases. Last year, the book David Lynch: Nudes collected his empathetic, erotic, and astonishingly subjective photography of nude women. Now there’s David Lynch: Someone Is in My House, a gorgeous volume of Lynch’s painting, photography, sculpture, and short-film stills.
Someone Is in My House impresses one with the reach of Lynch’s ambitions and obsessions, affirming yet another contradiction of his art: that it’s vast yet repetitive and insular. Across the spectrum of over 250 stills, this volume spotlights the many techniques that Lynch utilizes. After perceptive essays by Lynch biographer Kristine McKenna, who places Lynch’s work in the context of legendary art at large, and Michael Chabon, who emphasizes Lynch’s grasp of the uncanny truth of the everyday, among others, Someone Is in My House offers a tour of Lynch’s work that’s divided by medium, starting with “Works on Paper” and continuing with “Painting/Mixed Media,” “Photography,” “Lamps,” and “Film and Video Stills.”
Each section is structured in chronological order, spanning five decades, so as to subtly assert Lynch’s ongoing evolution as an artist. The book ends with a brief biography, which will probably be well-known by anyone driven to buy it, and a list of Lynch’s exhibitions. If Someone Is in My House has one disappointment, it pertains to this structure, as a straightforward chronological organization of Lynch’s art might’ve more vividly emphasized the wild multi-pronged simultaneousness of his imagination. But this is a small issue, as this volume offers the gift of relative accessibility, allowing cinephiles and other aesthetes the opportunity to access a major and generally rarefied mine of Lynch’s workload.
To open Someone Is in My House is to plunge into landscapes of darkness inhabited by deformed humans and other creatures, who have distended, shrunken, or extended appendages, heads that are animalistic or brutalized, and bodies that are often either a collection of tumorous protuberances or are merely composed of a few lines like primitive stick figures. Among this darkness is bright color, usually red, which offers beautiful illumination that’s understood to exist at the cost of atrocity. Among darkness there’s a light of injury in other words, as Lynch is obsessed by the idea of people coming in contact with nightmarish entities and being destroyed or severely hurt in a manner that suggests enlightenment to be a kind of state of higher confusion.
In Lynch’s art, blood and other substances gush out of heads like geysers, and people’s faces are often twisted in knots of anxiety. As in his films, Lynch’s paintings are obsessed by the home as a symbol of our illusions of stability and how easily they can be violated. This art is surreal, in that it conforms to no requirements of literal representation, but it’s also overwhelmingly docudramatic in its emphasis on its own DNA. The lithographs on Japanese paper, for instance, which are some of the most starkly memorable of this book’s many unforgettable images, are driven in part by their sense of fragility. The ink appears to have been applied to the canvases in a frenzy, and seems as if it could quite easily be wiped away. Lynch’s multimedia work, particularly his mixtures of sculptures and paintings, are populated by lumpy figures that show the imprint of the artist’s fingerprints and are built from globs of materials, suggesting how easily they could be morphed again by another god. (Or by us, who could in turn by victimized by other gods such as Mr. Redman, a quasi-corporeal explosion of carnage that haunts Lynch’s oil and mixed media canvas of the same name.)
Lynch’s art is also driven by the preludes and aftermaths of events. In This Man Was Shot 0.9502 Seconds Ago, a phallic string of guts explodes out of a man with a characteristically vague and misshapen face—a Bacon-ish image that occurs against a symmetrical interior backdrop that would be at home in an Edward Hopper canvas. Acknowledging these influences, McKenna goes on to write one of the most profound things I’ve read about Lynch’s paintings: “They have a clumsy, accidental quality and come across as thwarted attempts to make oneself understood; they feel wrought rather than painted.” Rendering characters in the face of impending or concluding cataclysm, Lynch adapts techniques that mirror their awkwardness and alienation, and this chameleonic—at once assertive and self-effacing—style has probably been part of the reason for Lynch being taken somewhat for granted as an artist.
However, Lynch’s primitivism communicates robust emotional quandaries, especially an earnest yearning for a return to a normalcy that’s been shattered—a normalcy that never existed and which is embodied by houses that are composed of only a few skewed lines. These houses might be harbingers of nostalgia for Lynch’s characters, but they’re hollow or—in the case of Lynch’s lonely and forbiddingly poignant black-and-white photographs of snowmen—closed off and ridden with secrets that are impossible to know. Many Lynch characters also face their brutal reckonings with a becoming and majestic dignity, such as the nose-headed subject of an untitled 1971 pencil sketch.
Though Someone Is in My House is adamant that we take Lynch’s artwork on its own terms, without always connecting it to his films and TV, such an exercise isn’t entirely resistible. Lynch’s art clarifies to an extent what his films are also doing: valuing moments of privatized emotional experience, and often suspending plots in time so as to show how individual epiphanies can knock us off the course of our own “narrative”—that is to say, our lives.
Twin Peaks: The Return, which is clearly on Lynch’s mind in the art that’s included in this book from 2010 forward, is a collection of scenes and images that bind the existential cosmic with the domestic rituals of our lives. For most of us, finally connecting with a lost love at a coffee shop means more than considerations of the unknowable evil that may or may not pull the strings behind the curtains of eternity. Kyle MacLachlan’s Agent Cooper became unstuck in time because he took for granted the heaven of his kinship with the townsfolk of the hellish yet pastoral Twin Peaks. He failed to recognize what the subjects of many of Lynch’s paintings discover: that, to quote McKenna again, “Life happens through us, not because of us.” Throughout his career, Lynch has mined a vein of ecstatic powerlessness.
David Lynch: Someone Is in My House is now available from Prestel.
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