- Please Remember, You Are Dealing with a Spatial Form
David Lynch’s filmography has been the subject of exhaustive academic and critical attention for the past two decades, so much so that those of us who analyze his oeuvre often find it necessary to acknowledge from the beginning that we might be treading familiar ground as we work toward our central claims. The alternative, of course, is to lay claim to some ostentatiously novel critical lens and establish total originality from the outset. London-based film and architecture scholar Richard Martin’s incisive and highly readable The Architecture of David Lynch seems at first to embrace the latter option, inviting the reader to wonder how a focus on architecture could possibly sustain a book-length discussion of one of the most enigmatic and prolific American filmmakers of all time. Yet, ultimately, Martin finds solid rhetorical ground and a plethora of interdisciplinary source material from which to articulate astonishingly deep, intricate, and, yes, original readings of Lynch’s work.
The title is misleading. It seems initially to assume a highly specialized audience of experts in drafting and urban planning who might also happen to be film buffs. Yet, while the book makes several references to well-known architects (Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright are fairly heavily represented), it turns out to be less a study of architecture per se than of Lynch’s use of perhaps the most elemental aspect of filmmaking: spatial relationships. And rather than foreground Lynch’s notorious trope of weirdness tempered by forced suburban [End Page 417] normativity, as is typical in many readings of his most iconic films, Martin allows this aspect room to breathe as he focuses on the cities, neighborhoods, and structures within which Lynch’s trademark strangeness recurringly plays out.
Martin begins with a pair of bold claims: that “the worlds built and filmed by Lynch . . . are among the most remarkable locations in contemporary culture” (1) and that “to examine Lynch’s cinematic architecture . . . is to encounter familiar spatial forms reworked in radical new ways” (6). This latter premise, of course, is essentially Lynch’s standard thematic project. Just as his films typically present familiar scenarios and characters with enough of a skewed, abjected undercurrent to render them deeply off-putting or transgressive—consider, for instance, the stock scenario of a man meeting his girlfriend’s parents at their home for dinner in any romantic comedy, then consider Lynch’s treatment of this plot development in Eraserhead1—Martin finds a trend of familiar environs reshaped to sinister, uncanny effect.
His first chapter, “Town and City,” takes a decidedly ideological tack as it challenges the well-engrained maxim, popularized by Sarah Palin’s insipid 2008 campaign speeches, that rural and small-town communities are somehow more authentically American than cities are. Martin delves deeply into this belief, tracing it back well beyond sloppy political rhetoric to luminaries like Wright and Henry Ford. This historical background transitions seamlessly to a careful reading of two of Lynch’s most urban-centric (as well as, not coincidentally, his first two and most radically dissimilar) films, Eraserhead and Elephant Man. Plotting his argument alongside discussions of nineteenth-century London at its most vibrant and industrious, and Philadelphia at its most blighted, Martin makes a deeply convincing case for Eraserhead’s setting to be read as “the spatial descendant of the Victorian city” (18). In an especially sharp reading that builds on this premise, he explains Lynch’s thesis in Elephant Man, that London’s industrial machines are producing “monstrous forms,” and connects this, inevitably, to the “reproductive failure, dysfunctional labor, and manufacturing stasis” so apparent in Eraserhead and embodied by Henry Spencer’s notorious “baby.” This densely packed chapter also provides a surprisingly fresh reading of Blue Velvet, incited by Frank Booth’s mocking of Jeffrey—his insistence on calling him “neighbor,” a pleasantry turned sinister with obvious analogues to the chapter’s concern with town and city—before transitioning into an exploration of suburban sprawl as represented in Mulholland...