The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
Mystery of the Two Davids

Mystery of the Two Davids

Christopher Sharrett

USA Today Magazine, Vol. 126, July 1, 1997
Dr. Sharrett, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, is associate professor of communication, Seton Hall University, South Orange, N.J.

THIS YEAR WITNESSED the reappearance of two of the motion picture industry's most contentious and provocative directors, David Lynch and David Cronenberg. The two Davids came from the margins of cinema, where they built large cult followings, and later made significant inroads within the mainstream, only to have firmly entrenched positions in the industry pantheon elude them.

The career of David Lynch has been an increasing concern for his fans and chroniclers. He made an impact in 1976 with his small-budget, surrealist masterpiece, "Eraserhead," an eerie black-and-white meditation on post-industrial civilization that established him as a true visionary while Hollywood was busy swooning over George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Major projects soon came Lynch's way, some complementing his sensibility ("The Elephant Man"), some out of sync with his obsessions ("Dune" ).

In 1986, Lynch scored a major coup with "Blue Velvet." The film's perverse vision skewers the American small town of white picket fences and smiling neighbors made popular by TV sitcoms of the 1950s, a vision that the Reagan-era culture seemed to reinstitute. Lynch was off and running. In 1989, he developed "Twin Peaks," a television series ballyhooed as the beginning of a new "radical TV" that would push the envelope of commercial broadcasting. At the same time, Lynch made another studio film, "Wild at Heart," a kinky road picture that enjoyed neither solid critical reception nor box office receipts.

Meanwhile, the public fascination with "Twin Peaks" waned as Lynch seemed to show little interest in the project. A movie "prequel" to the series, "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me," left audiences cold. The motion picture gave the impression that Lynch merely was recycling the obscure fixations he had traded on through most of the 1980s.

This year, Lynch produced "Lost Highway," his first film in five years. The pre-release publicity clearly suggested that Lynch felt himself in a somewhat desperate situation, with this picture his attempt at regaining the momentum he clearly had in the 1980s, when his work seemed to intuit so easily the political/cultural moment. "Lost Highway" certainly is his most abstract work since "Eraserhead," with very obscure plots merging and dissolving.

It has many features of film noir, particularly with the central narrative of a paranoid jazzman accused of killing his femme fatale wife. Much of the movie seems to suggest that Lynch has given up on storytelling, adopting fully the postmodernist sensibility that all narrative is cliché, that it has all been said before.

"Lost Highway" is indeed a challenge, as well as a respite from action- hero dross. Lynch has stated that it is the document of a nightmare, the dream of an artist who has allowed reason to go to sleep. One hopes the film might gain a real audience on the home video market since, to the dismay of Lynch aficionados, "Lost Highway" vanished from the multiplexes after a couple of weeks.

David Cronenberg's case is perhaps less complicated since he never has enjoyed the same celebrity spotlight once focused on Lynch. Nevertheless, he is one of the few directors not quite of the mainstream whose films actually are anticipated by many viewers.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, Cronenberg built a large following with "Scanners," "Rabid," "Videodrome," "Dead Ringers," and a remake of the classic science fiction thriller, "The Fly." His films always are attempts to use the horror genre as a vehicle for meditations on the current landscape of mass media, drugs, incurable diseases (AIDS becomes a background metaphor in "The Fly"), and psychopathology. Several years ago, he loosely adapted "Naked Lunch," the seminal Beat novel by William Burroughs, long a Cronenberg influence.

This year, Cronenberg offers "Crash," based on a 1973 novel by J.G. Ballard about a well-heeled group of suburbanites who get sexual kicks from watching and participating in car crashes. Both the book and the film have been subject of more than a little opprobrium. When released in 1973, Ballard's novel was castigated by many reviewers in terms like "the sickest book ever written." When Cronenberg's cinematic adaptation was about to go into release in 1996, Ted Turner single- handedly tried to ban it, and but for a fortuitous corporate maneuver, was well-nigh successful (which says a great deal about the power of our current media monopolies).

"Crash" seems incredibly prescient, yet rather naive. The film is a stunning document of our alienated civilization, all the more compelling with its dolorous, almost liturgical tones. People long since have enjoyed rubbernecking on the highway to get a good look at crash victims, and Fox TV features "disaster shows" showcasing calamitous high-speed chases and plane crashes during sweeps months.

Our society indeed is redolent of ancient Rome, where the infliction of pain, especially on one's self, is the only proof that one is still capable of feeling anything. That Cronenberg captures this in such a deadpan, almost documentary-like quality is a tribute to his instincts. "Crash" reveals him as moralist, but this is the area where he looks most naive. In a landscape as jam-packed with sex and violence as our own, with media commentators offering bromides on our condition, a moralist looks hopelessly dated. "Crash" too soon vanished from local cinemas, but it's a near-certainty that the film will find a place among cult movies.

Lynch, at heart a graphic artist who has lost his interest in narrative conventions, may have a hard time reconnecting with audiences. Cronenberg, a more clear-eyed and skilled narrator, nevertheless is becoming too off-putting for both financiers and the popcorn crowd. The biggest mysterysurrounding the two Davids is whether or not there is any room left and any tolerance for the truly marginal and contentious.

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