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Summer of ’86: Top Gun

When I remember Top Gun, I always think of a pair of women’s shoes and a message from God.



Summer of ‘86: Top Gun

When I remember Top Gun, I always think of a pair of women’s shoes and a message from God.

In the spring of 1986, I was, in addition to my regular gig at Los Angeles City College, teaching a course at UCLA in the History of American Film. They needed somebody in a hurry, I was available, I did it, they never asked me back, and I never wanted to go back. The thing about teaching at UCLA is that you stand behind a wooden lectern that could repel Genghis Kahn and look out at 144 students. They are all 19 or 20, they all have perfect hair, perfect skin, perfect tans, perfect teeth, and are all very bright in very conventional ways. All you have to do is imply something will be on the final exam and 144 heads go down, even though the official notes are taken by one of the graduate student TA’s. To me that is not teaching but shooting fish in a barrel. I much prefer LACC, where you never know who or what is going to walk in the door. The UCLA students were all upper-middle or upper class, and were surprised to see Benjamin’s father in The Graduate (1967) cleaning his own swimming pool. Didn’t they have pool cleaning services way back in the ‘60s? The students bought into Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan from two years before: that it was morning in America, and we were building up our might to combat the evil empire. That attitude showed up in a number of movies of the period, especially Top Gun.

My wife had gone off to England for her mother’s 75th birthday, and a couple of my former students at LACC (one was a graduate of Stanford, the other a graduate of USC before they came to LACC) decided they could not bear the thought of me home alone. They figured I was probably starving to death, there with my VCR and my hot tub. So they arranged to bring over a dinner in return for which we would watch something on the VCR and get into the hot tub. One of their husbands came along, but I am not sure if he was there to protect their virtue or mine. While we were watching a film on the VCR the phone rang. It was the 3rd Woman who had been in the same class with the first two. She had come back to town and was trying to contact the first two. The first two told me to tell her to come on over. We all sat in the hot tub (no fondling as far as I knew), and they went home. But the 3rd Woman had left her shoes at my house. This is not surprising because she had a habit of leaving stuff everywhere.

I called her, and we made arrangements to make a shoe transfer. The screenplay she had been writing in my screenwriting class was a feature about a young man who learns to fly propeller-driven planes from an older woman. It would have been perfect for the young Tom Cruise. She was a big fan of airplanes and wanted to see Top Gun, so we agreed to meet in Westwood, see the film, and I would give her the shoes. She was bouncing up and down in her seat during the film, although we both realized that it made her script obsolete for Cruise. After Top Gun, nobody would believe he could not fly. I was not enchanted by the film. I had known a few naval aviators when I was in the Navy in the ‘60s, and the film captured the fliers’ self-serving romanticism. But it takes it at face value. I kept thinking of Jules Furthman’s great screenplay for Only Angels Have Wings (1939). That script not only captures the fliers’ bravado, but illuminates the emotions underneath. We know what they really feel in a way we never do in Top Gun. The other reaction I had to Top Gun was that if I had known it was going to turn out like this, I would have scheduled Dr. Strangelove (1964) in my class at UCLA so the students could have seen where that careless warmongering attitude could lead to. But it was too late in the quarter.

We did not manage a shoe exchange that day. She was getting a ride to somewhere else and did not want to lug the shoes around. So they came home with me. A few days later, we made arrangements for her to drop by my house. I told her she had to be there by a certain time, since I was leaving to pick up my wife from the airport. The 3rd Woman did not show up by the time I had to leave, so I left the shoes in my mailbox. I had a notepad that had printed on the top “A message from God,” and I wrote a note to her on that. When my wife and I got home later, the 3rd Woman had added a note: “I always knew I would get a message from God, but I did not think it would be about my shoes in a mailbox.” Years later she told me she had finally received a real message from God. She had gotten married and they spent their honeymoon in Hawaii. It did not go well. The groom spent most of his time flirting with an older woman at the hotel. The bride was frolicking in the surf by herself. A guy started paying attention to her, and she was seriously considering…then a giant wave picked her up and smashed her face down in the sand. Sounds to me like a real message from God.

When I began thinking about writing my 2001 book American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing, I made up a list of films as part of a questionnaire for moviegoers. I wanted them to write about their responses to the films, both when they first saw them and later if they saw them again. Given the cultural impact of Top Gun, I put it on the list. The people who answered the questionnaire had a lot to say about the film. What follows in the rest of this article is a slightly condensed version of the Top Gun section of the book. I had introduced the film as an example of a producer, Don Simpson in this case, controlling a film more than the director:

In the mid-‘80s, Simpson, with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, produced a number of large-scale commercial hits. Top Gun was the highest grossing film of 1986, but in it Simpson was so sloppy about the accuracy of the Naval Aviators Top Gun training program that the retired admiral assigned as the technical advisor said to one of the real instructors, “I’m just trying to keep them from turning Top Gun into a musical.” Given the amount of rock music on the soundtrack, he may have failed at that as well, although he did admit, “Most of the decisions they made, made the movie better than reality. They just knew how to make it work.”

Octavio Jimenez, who was in his teens at the time, seems to have been the audience Simpson and the retired admiral were both aiming at.

Top Gun really brings patriotism to its highest form in the sense that this movie was really done to promote the U.S. through the eyes of a hotshot pilot who happens to be the best in the world at what he does and shows it by defeating the communist threat to peace. I have to say that this movie did its job on me and because I am so drawn by planes this movie really knew where to hit me when it came out in theaters. I was amazed when the fighting scenes came out in Top Gun and was saddened when tragedy hit and Goose died in a plane accident, but what really made the movie great was the music associated with the movie, which in combination made the movie a classic in my mind.”

Virginia Keene “found the situations and relationships (especially the romance) to be contrived and unbelievable—probably because my father was a Naval Aviator. The only things that worked for me were the spectacular flying scenes and a good song. This didn’t work on any other level. I’ve seen parts of it since, on cable. I had forgotten that it launched the careers of Val Kilmer, Meg Ryan, and Tim Robbins, so I guess it had some value.” She thought it was so successful originally because of Tom Cruise. “This was a star vehicle if there ever was one.” Daniel Barr definitely responded to Cruise and the time period, calling the film “Pure ‘80s, Cruise was the young icon that inspired me as a young man and actor, as it did the rest of the world. It will always be his best performance for me, heroic, fresh, vulnerable. It is a corny film and looks dated now but it had an innocence and energy that transcended its political limitations. Perhaps because it was made before his ego and Scientology got hold of his soul.”

Jack Hollander was at the time “very disappointed in this film—I found the acting blasé (probably due to the weaknesses of the script), and the plots totally unbelievable, and the action sequences a bit hard to follow (although generally exciting). I suppose my initial reaction on viewing this had something to do with the unbelievability of the contrived combat between the good guys (red-blooded Americans) and the bad guys (those pesky red commies). Haven’t we beaten this horse to death yet?” Al Gonzalez “saw this at a theater when it first came out. I thought it was stupid. I saw it again on video. I liked it a little better. I don’t know why. But I still laughed at some of the heroic, formula aspects that made the movie what it was.” Dorian Wood “never really liked Top Gun. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I saw it in a cheap hotel room while on a cross-country trip to New York. I was pretty cranky and completely exhausted. Nevertheless, years later I saw it again, and I still hated it.”

A lot of people in the military responded to Top Gun. When Michael Sampson “first saw Top Gun it was a very enjoyable experience. At the time I was in the United States Navy assigned to an aircraft carrier. When I first saw the movie I literally felt that I was a part of that movie. It was a piece of art I could relate to. Strange enough I recently watched Top Gun for the second time and the experience was totally different than what it was like when I was in the military. I did not feel like a participant but more like a spectator.” Ervin Riggs was a jet mechanic in the Air Force when he first saw the film and “it seemed like I was right out there on the launch pad as the mechanics taxied out the aircraft. I could just feel what they were going through as they launched and recovered the jet fighter aircraft.”

For Blair Woodard, the “film holds a lot of high school memories. It came out my junior year and I saw it at least six times over the summer. Having seen parts of it recently on video I was not as impressed as I remember being at the time. I think that to really appreciate the flying sequences one needs to see it on a big screen but I was also not into the characters as much any more. I chalked it up to maturity on my part.” Paula Lampshire was in her late teens when she saw it and “really liked it because I always wanted to join the Navy and fly a fighter plane for the experience and the personal challenge. But I never did join. So, I experience the idea of it every time I see Top Gun.”

Lampshire was not the only girl who liked the film. As Mia Gyzander says, it was “Well, kind of nice for teenage girls.” And not just teenage girls. Stewardess Shaun Hill-Kret thought it was “the best adrenaline movie I’ve seen…. Wouldn’t want to see this movie if I was thinking of joining the Marines, cause they’d get me for sure.”

That is more or less what happened to Peter Albers. “I’m embarrassed to say I called the Marines the next day after seeing the film. Not that I didn’t have problems with the film—the whole last act of going to fight the commies disgusted me right at the time. Flying just looked like so much fun, and women dig you! When I think of how close I came to going to Platoon Leaders Camp because of that damn film, I get physically ill.” Edward Pina was also caught up the “great adrenaline rush of a movie. All those jets flying at top speeds, flying all over the sky blowing up other jets. After watching Top Gun you wanted to become an Air Force pilot and fly with Maverick, Keman and Viper.”

Kenneth Hughes saw the same connection that Peter Albers did. “What can I say? I like chicks and planes, etc…. Play me for the boy I am.” Bryan Cawthon also got the connection. “It had technology, it had big egos and it had the sex scene with the beautiful woman.” Dennis Wilkes, having heard rumors about the actors involved, had a little trouble with the sex scenes. “A closeted actor and a closeted actress playing lovers. But they clicked, unlike Richard Gere and Jodie Foster” [with Sommersby (1993), there were the same kinds of rumors about those actors as well]. For Arnold Quinlan, who either had not heard the rumors or did not care, “Kelly McGillis was yummy. Basically your adolescent nocturnal emission type of movie. Big bad plane, big bad motorcycle, and big bad Kelly McGillis.” (This perhaps shows the advantages of market research on a film like Top Gun. At early screenings of the film, test audiences demanded steamier love scenes between Cruise and McGillis, and they were shot and edited into the film.)

The people who saw the connections between sex and planes were not alone. And unlike Shaun Hill-Kret, Peter Albers, and Edward Pina, many male viewers knew it was not the Marines and Air Force the film was about, but Naval Aviation. Applicants for the program increased, and many of the Navy flyers who participated in the Tailhook scandal in 1991, where women were molested in a Las Vegas hotel, had been inspired by the movie. The official report noted that “the movie fueled misconceptions on the part of junior officers as to what was expected of them and also served to…glorify naval pilots in the eyes of many young women.”

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.



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.



Through the Years: Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” at 25

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.

Pepsi Commercial

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.

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.

Mad’House Cover

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.”

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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.



Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

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.

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
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?

Supporting Actor
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

Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk (WINNER)
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Adapted Screenplay
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

Original Screenplay
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
Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico) (WINNER)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Documentary Feature
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

Animated Feature
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

Film Editing
BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman (WINNER)
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Vice, Hank Corwin

Production Design
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

Original Score
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

Original Song
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

Costume Design
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

Visual Effects
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

Sound Mixing
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

Sound Editing
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)

Animated Short
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

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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.



Someone Is in My House

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.

Someone Is in My House

Photo: Prestel

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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