A Circuit Board of Worlds: Electricity in the Works of David Lynch
Written by Zach Green
An advocate for Transcendental Meditation, one of David Lynch’s favourite metaphors to support his theory of embodied consciousness is that of a lightbulb. Evoking a steady stream of vibrant consciousness, it is no wonder that electricity plays such a central role in his films. However, the light in Lynch’s work rarely shines with the serene radiance that inspires his creative flow. Electricity is a frantic, affective motif that frequently acts as a bridge to “incompossible worlds” at play in Lynch’s films.[i] Thematically, sequences of flashing lights often have a strong connection to domestic abuse and patriarchy, as the play of light and dark evokes the conflict of male and female, abuser and survivor. Using a Deluzian framework, this paper will chart the use of electricity across three distinct areas of Lynch’s filmography. In Eraserhead (1977), Lynch sparks his application of electricity as an affective device with a connection to the home and incompossible worlds. In the Hollywood Trilogy, the motif of flashing lights becomes an essential force by organizing its various realities. Finally, electricity is a vital element in the world(s) of Twin Peaks, becoming more prevalent with each iteration of the series.
Eraserhead: Sparking Incompossibility
Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead, sets a foundation for his relationship with electricity, incompossible worlds, and domestic abuse. Henry, cramped in an oppressively dark and small apartment with his mutated newborn and its mother, receives comfort through the strikingly bright light that shines behind the radiator. Revealing Lynch’s fascination with electricity and television, Nieland states “Henry watches like a virtual window – a television set or, better, a movie screen placed under his room’s actual window, which frames only the claustrophobic view of a brick wall.”[ii] When the Lady in the Radiator is revealed, the camera tracks right, following light bulbs that surround her stage as they illuminate one-by-one. This implies that Lynch’s spiritual admiration for the lightbulb translates to Henry, as his focus on the steady stream of light summoned by the Lady in the Radiator literally transports him to another world. This flow is disrupted in the film’s conclusion, where Henry’s infanticide provokes the apartment’s total electrical meltdown. As the baby’s guts grotesquely erupt from its torso, the apartment’s single lamp begins to flicker erratically. Alongside the sick imagery and horrendous buzzing noise, the visual of a flashing light creates an affective intensity that begins to overload the senses. An emotive close-up of Henry paired with strobing lights is an image that Lynch remediates time-and-time again after this sequence. As the baby’s now giant head relocates around the frame with each flash, there’s a sense that the dead infant’s soul has become fused with the electrical chaos, eventually flying into the lamp in a point-of-view shot. Following the death, the Man in the Planet, another otherworldly figure, struggles to pull a lever as sparks fly. His success leads to Henry’s reunion with the Lady in the Radiator, as he becomes enveloped by her light. In comparison to his later films, the presence of electricity in Eraserhead is somewhat simple, as it acts as an affective conduit between Henry’s world and the otherworldly realms of the Lady in the Radiator and the Man in the Planet.
The Hollywood Trilogy: Worlds, Time, and Media
20 years after Eraserhead, Lynch infuses electricity into the Hollywood Trilogy in a much more convoluted manner. Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) use electricity to order their ever-shifting worlds while also complicating filmic time. Due to this complexity, these films are highly compatible with Deleuze’s concepts of incompossible worlds and time explored in Cinema 2: The Time-Image.
Lost Highway’s worldly shifts are accompanied by electrical disruptions during the transformation of Fred to Pete, and from Pete back to Fred. Moments of electrical disruption indicate the bends in Lost Highway’s “Mobius Strip” structure.[iii] After a sequence in which Fred metaphysically witnesses the reverse-explosion of a desert cabin from his prison cell, a blue light shimmers onto him from above, followed by a shot of the ceiling light going out. Bright strobing overwhelms the senses as a medium close-up of Pete is superimposed over a shot of his parents and girlfriend chasing after him. Sporadic flashes persist as Fred convulses in an affective medium close-up, becoming Pete. In the final act of the film, Pete reverts to Fred at the same desert cabin that appears prior to the initial transformation. The reversion occurs as Pete stands in front of car headlights, which fade immediately after takes his place. These moments also provide a point to ponder the question posed by Patricia Arquette in David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Lynch Keeps His Head”:
The question for Bill and Balthazar is what kind of woman hater is Fred [-dash-Pete]? Is he the kind of woman-hater who goes out with a woman and fucks her and then never calls her again, or is he the kind who goes out with a woman and fucks her and then kills her? And the real question to explore is: how different are these kinds?[iv]
The shifts in incompossible worlds illustrate a shift between these two different versions of patriarchy, presenting them as two sides of a crystal-image for the spectator to compare for themselves.[v]
Electricity similarly governs and recircuits the structure of Mulholland Drive. The deceivingly ordinary first half of the film does not use electric imagery until Betty and Rita arrive at Club Silencio, when the appearance of the flashing light causes Betty to convulse uncontrollably, as if her body is torn between the actual and virtual worlds of Betty and Diane. The split of these two worlds is implied by shot of lights flickering on the “Mulholland Dr.” sign that appears at both the beginning is repeated in the final act of the film. A scene where Rita sits in the back seat of a car and asks “What are you doing? We don’t stop here,” is replicated with Diane taking her place. The effect of flashing lights in these repeated shots suggests the splitting between the film’s two incompossible worlds and establishes what Beckman describes as the film’s “temporal loop,” where the actual and virtual worlds of the film “haunt each other.”[vi] Lynch’s lights create an enormous sense of terror in the final scene as Diane is driven to suicide by the terrifyingly gleeful old couple who intrude her house. The scene is yet another example of Lynch using strobe lights to inspire affective terror, rendering Diane’s screaming face all the more impactful. The supernatural nature of the event suggests that greater forces are attempting to converge the two worlds established by the film, causing Diane’s suicide to account for the corpse found by Betty and Rita earlier in the film. The Blue Haired Woman’s utterance of “Silencio” following the calming of a blue shimmer on the stage suggests a metaphysical resolution of the film’s divergent worlds. Much like Lost Highway, Lynch uses electric visuals as an affective motif that reveals the seams that unite the film’s incompossible worlds.
As Lynch’s first film shot on digital, Inland Empire establishes its incompossible worlds with a self-consciousness of the medium. Beyond the narrative loops that divide the other two films of the Hollywood Trilogy, Inland Empire diverges, according to Nieland, as “a network of fractal worlds that open onto each other through electricity.”[vii] Unlike Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, the film barely provides the spectator with any kind of narrative foothold before completely decentering itself. Consequently, although the motif of flashing lights occurs at several points throughout the film, it does not easily reveal the separations between ruptured worlds. The series of images provided by the film produces what Deleuze describes as an “indiscernibility of the real and the imaginary, or of the present and the past, of the actual and the virtual.”[viii] Nieland describes the film as a “multimedia event,”[ix] with its inclusion of Rabbits (2002), an online sitcom released on davidlynch.com, and “AXXon N” an unrealized webseries developed by Lynch. A loose framing device that anchors the film emerges from the Lost Girl, a character who watches television with a desperation that evokes Henry’s infatuation with the radiator in Eraserhead. The film frequently returns to close-ups of the Lost Girl tearfully watching TV as its light softly illuminates her face, creating a sense that what the spectator is watching is akin to a constant switching of channels as the editing becomes more erratic. The Lost Girl’s involvement with the action on the TV suggests that media has an affective power to transport characters across worlds. Nieland argues that domestic abuse is a central concern of the film, as it links the Lost Girl and Nikki/Sue through their violent pasts.[x] Scenes of the characters being battered by their partners mirror each other, both accompanied by an unnatural white light. The Lost Girl’s scene demonstrates a Lynchian close-up of a screaming face accompanied by strobing lights, whereas Sue’s scene presents an intense light that remains consistent, but unhomelike due to its radiation from low angle. Nikki/Sue creates an opening between the multimedia worlds of these “Women in Trouble” in the film’s final act. After she destroys the Phantom, the door into the Rabbits set opens. The lights in the living room immediately turn off, and a flashing light shines through the door, once again signaling a worldly transformation. Nikki/Sue walks backwards into the room, which is now empty. She appears confused, until the scene cuts to a bright blue light. When we return to the Lost Girl, a strong white light now strikes her face as she now watches herself in the moment on the television, in front of the television, creating an endless fractal of media worlds. Nikki/Sue walks into the room, finally motivating the Lost Girl to stand up as she kisses her in the spotlight before fading away. In this scene, the Lost Girl confronts a mirror-image of herself on the television, and the media worlds begin to fold over each other. The Lynch’s reflexive approach to digital filmmaking utilizes “vital media through which passes a pervasive feeling of relatedness, of a sensual community that happens through and across the unbounded situations of the digital image.”[xi] Inland Empire’s end-credits sequence is a surprisingly feminist summation of this unifying potential of fractal worlds. A brigade abused women dance to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” reclaiming the motif of strobe lights in a rare instance of joy where Lynch fully indulges in a merging of the film’s incompossible digital worlds.
The World(s) of Twin Peaks: A Grid of Garmonbozia
A sprawling franchise rather than a contained film, the use of electricity becomes increasingly complex across the three iterations of Twin Peaks . This analysis requires some historical backtracking, as Twin Peaks (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) release prior to the Hollywood Trilogy, but Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) illustrates Lynch’s most current use of electricity.
Electricity is the medium that connects the “real” world to the cosmic otherworld of the Black Lodge, where the motif of flashing lights recurs frequently to create an atmosphere of affective intensity. Electric disruption plagues the life of Laura Palmer, appearing frequently within her home. Lynch makes the worldly otherworldly with his focus on the Palmer home’s ceiling fan, defamiliarized in the pilot from eerie low-angle shots up the stairs. The fan acts as an identifiable source of the flashing lights motif. In a deleted scene from Fire Walk with Me, BOB speaks to Laura through the fan. An extreme close-up of Laura illustrates a slow, unnerving shift in expression from a hypnotic entrancement to a manic smile as light flashes across her face and the distinct whooshing of the fan oppresses the sound design. This eerie whooshing returns in the scene where Laura is murdered by Leland/BOB, accompanied by the brighter, otherworldly strobe lights that appear in the Black Lodge. This not only suggests the fan as the connector between the two worlds but reminds the viewer that this evil stems from the home. Laura Palmer’s murder is accompanied by these formal elements, enhancing the pure terror of the scene as her father forces her to watch her own death in the mirror. When Laura looks at herself, her image is replaced with BOB’s, and her scream triggers television static that dissolves to a shot the Man from Another Place laughing. The static evokes a self-consciousness of the medium comparable to Inland Empire, suggesting that the otherworldly figures of the Black Lodge influence the film’s construction. Laura’s confrontation with herself causes an upset in the world’s circuitry. Deleuze states that this kind of confrontation with the mirror-image “is virtual in relation to the actual character that the mirror catches, but it is only actual in the mirror which now leaves the character with only a virtuality that pushes him back out-of-field.”[xii] The moment foreshadows the virtual Laura who remains trapped in the Black Lodge following her death.
In the final two episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return, Dale Cooper uses the series’ electric materiality to rescue Laura from her murder, while revoking her of her agency and disrupting the series’ metaphysical stability. In “Part 17” Cooper travels back in time with the help of the One-Armed Man, whose exclamation of “Electricity” triggers an electrical storm, followed by the too-familiar whooshing of the Palmer home’s ceiling fan. The fan transports the viewer back to the evening of Laura’s death, where Cooper meddles with the past as he effectively saves Laura but removes her from the world of Twin Peaks. “Part 18” reveals that there are more incompossible worlds in Twin Peaks than expected. Cooper uses powerlines transports himself to a reality where Laura Palmer is now an adult woman named Carrie Page who lives in Odessa and unsurprisingly lives next to a loudly buzzing telephone pole. In The Return’s final scene, Cooper brings Carrie to the Palmer house to reunite Laura with Sarah Palmer, but it is not Sarah who answers. Instead, a woman named Alice Tremond opens the door, and informs them that they purchased the home from a “Mrs. Chalfont.” Tremond and Chalfont are both names that have been taken by the enigmatic old woman connected to the Black Lodge who Laura encounters in Fire Walk with Me. Furthermore, the woman who plays Alice Tremond is the woman who owns the Palmer house in real life, suggesting a radical possibility that Cooper may have transported to the spectator’s world. An unnerving silence resounds as Cooper and Carrie slowly walk back to the car. Cooper walks forward a few steps and asks, “What year is this?” Carrie’s face become slowly horrified as she looks up at the house and Sarah Palmer’s distorted voice calls “Laura,” a sound clip from the pilot. Carrie releases out a shattering scream, which reverbs on top of itself, and the Palmer house lights black out completely in one final white flash. The concluding moment of The Return evokes Deleuze’s discussion of “peaks of present,” in which past, present and future no longer follow a sequential order.[xiii] Instead, “a present of the future, a present of the present, and a present of the past” are rolled up together within the event, rendering a present that is both simultaneous and inexplicable. Carrie’s scream summons a choir of screams from Laura’s past(s). Laura can never be rescued, as her “garmobozia,” her pain and sorrow, resounds across all dimensions and times. Laura is dead, but she is alive as Carrie Page. A virtual Laura, Carrie’s very existence is a paradox. The blurring of past, present and future in this final moment triggers a blackout in the electrical multiverses of Twin Peaks. The world affectively responds to Carrie scream, leading to a breakdown of worlds rather than an electrical transition into another. The end credits show Laura whispering to Cooper’s ear in the Black Lodge as he appears disturbed. The image echoes the Lodge’s first appearance in “Episode 2” of the original Twin Peaks, but the 2018 iteration does without the sexy jazz and flashing lights of the original. Trapped in a dark, virtual world, it is with the absence of electricity that Lynch concludes the multi-generational saga of Twin Peaks.
The infusion of electricity in the works of David Lynch informs the formal, narrative and thematic dimensions of his films. On the surface, moments of electrical upset such as flashing lights are an affective motif that enhances the sense of horror, particularly when combined with emotive close-ups. A Deluzian approach also reveals electricity as a key element that assembles, dissembles, bridges and shifts the incompossible worlds and unstable timelines that make up the narratives of his films. Finally, Lynch’s thematic explorations of domestic abuse frequently portray a relationship with electrical upset. Although electrical imagery, particularly the use of strobe lights, recurs abundantly across Lynch’s work, it resists becoming a trope. Electrical intensities shape his films, working on multiple levels to create a sense of worldly disruption. Presenting various effects and affects across Lynch’s filmography, electricity is an essential component of the Lynchian.
[i] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. High Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 131.
[ii] Justus Nieland, David Lynch (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012), 16.
[iii] Warren Buckland, “Making Sense of Lost Highway,” in Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, ed. Warren Buckland (New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 56.
[iv] David Foster Wallace, “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” in Supposedly Funny Things I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Columbus: Little, Brown and Company, 1995), 158-59.
[v] Deleuze, 68.
[vi] Frida Beckman, “From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 42.
[vii] Nieland, 137.
[viii] Deleuze, 69.
[ix] Nieland, 141.
[x] Nieland, 151.
[xi] Nieland, 153.
[xii] Deleuze, 70.
[xiii] Deleuze, 100.
Beckman, Frida. “From Irony to Narrative Crisis: Reconsidering the Femme Fatale in the Films of David Lynch.” Cinema Journal 52, no. 1 (Fall 2012): 25-44.
Buckland, Warren. “Making Sense of Lost Highway.” In Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, edited by Warren Buckland, 42-61. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Nieland, Justus. David Lynch. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
Wallace, David Foster. “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” In Supposedly Funny Things I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, 131-170. Columbus: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.