December 21, 2022

Christmas Dreams with David Lynch

By Stuart Mitchner

I love Christmas tree bulbs.

—David Lynch

You can’t fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause.

—Chico Marx

Say you’re watching the classic routine from A Night at the Opera (1935), wherein Groucho Marx and his brother Chico are going over a contract and literally ripping out every clause until they get to a single shred of paper containing the provision requiring that the signatories be in their right minds, at which Chico delivers a punch line for the ages.

The first time I laughed along with my parents at that scene I was still a secret believer in the fantasy of St. Nick driving his reindeer team across the mysterious Christmas Eve sky with a gift for every child in the universe. While it was easy enough to laugh at a childish dream and move on, I’ve never really given up on the Christmas mystery, with its tree of many colors, its Dickensian coziness, and its music, and I’m pleased that David Lynch loves Christmas tree bulbs. It makes some kind of twisted sense that the Eagle Scout of the Darkly Strange and Weirdly Wonderful has a weakness for holiday customs and American icons. He didn’t invent “damn fine coffee and cherry pie,” but fans of Twin Peaks have reason to think so since he invented Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan), the only FBI agent on the planet who employs Tibetan rituals in his work. Lynch is the Kilroy of American culture, he’s everywhere, giving daily YouTube weather reports in L.A., designing videos for Moby, and lending himself to a travesty of Santa in Family Guy (“How David Lynch Stole Christmas”), coming down the chimney to present a little boy with a human thumb in a box (à la the ear in Blue Velvet) while reminding him to leave a plate of black coffee under the tree next Christmas Eve.

Two Big Losses

“There’s something about stopping something before it’s finished that leaves you wanting it, and Twin Peaks wasn’t finished. In music you hear a theme and then it goes away, then the song goes along for a while, then you sort of hear the theme again, then it goes away again. It feels so good and then it goes and you can’t get it out of your mind.”

So begins the final chapter of Lynch’s hybrid biography/memoir Room to Dream (Random House 2018, with Kristine McKenna). Although Lynch is talking about the making of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), it’s hard to read the paragraph without feeling the presence of Angelo Badalamenti (1937-2022), the composer who created Lynch’s musical universe, and Julee Cruise (1956-2022), the singer who gave it a voice. Lynch announced Cruise’s June 9 death in the manner of his weather reports, facing the camera medium close-up, masked by huge sunglasses, every word somberly matter of fact, as if he were reporting “heavy fog over L.A.” On the weather report for this past December 12, the day after Badalamenti died, Lynch doesn’t mention the composer by name or even that he had died. Like some masked Big Brother of Fate, in the voice he used when playing Dale Cooper’s superior, Gordon Cole of the FBI., Lynch makes the declaration, sternly, decisively, emphatically: “Today no music.”

You can hear Badalamenti’s music any time on YouTube: first and foremost, his theme for the show’s opening credits, two deeply spaced, ambient electric guitar bass notes evoking Twin Peak’s world of love, grief, and death, followed by “Laura’s Theme,” a deeper, darker. more despairing chord progression with an undertone portending murder and madness. You can also see Cruise singing variations on both themes in her eerie, yearning, otherworldly voice.

The Twin Peaks Family

Among the photographs illustrating Room to Dream are numerous two-page spreads like the image of casual, affectionate solidarity showing McLachlan as a smiling pajama-clad Dale Cooper in bed cozily encircled by a brooding Deputy Andy (Harry Goaz), the Log Lady (Catherine Coulson), the Man from Another Place who says everything backwards (Michael Anderson), a stuffed owl “who knows not what it seems” peering over the shoulder of Catherine Martell/Mr. Tojamura (Piper Laurie), who is lounging on the bed like Cooper’s devoted big sister, one hand on his shoulder. 

Of the numerous actors who spoke with Lynch’s co-author Kristine McKenna, each with piquant memories of his approach to them individually (“It’s kind of magical what he gets from actors”), the person offering the most perceptive impression of the show was Wendy Robie, who steals every scene she’s in as Nadine, the one-eyed inventor of absolutely-silent-running drapes. “Before Twin Peaks,” she said, “you didn’t see work that was multi-layered on television. It would be a comedy or drama or a thriller, but it would never be all those things at once.” While the humor could be seen right away, “David would also show you the pain and fear and sexuality without losing what was funny.”

For Michael Ontkean, who plays sheriff Harry Truman, “David is some kind of ancient alchemist, and out of thin air he creates a palpable, enduring atmosphere …. it’s always soulful, and it’s always some form of homemade circus transformed into an offbeat pagan ritual.”

Lynch and Moby

I associated Moby’s 2009 album Wait for Me with that “soulful” dynamic even before I found out that Lynch had crafted a graphic video for the grinding instrumental, “Shot in the Back of the Head,” which was released as a single. Like Badalamenti, Moby could set a starry sky to music, as he does in “A Seated Evening” from the same album, using, in his words, “a bunch of equipment set up in a small bedroom.” He credits a speech by Lynch for his focus “on making something that I loved, without really being concerned about how it might be received by the marketplace. As a result, it’s a quieter and more melodic and more mournful and more personal record than some of the records I’ve made in the past.”

The Christmas Mystery

There’s a Badalamentian grandeur about Moby’s “A Seated Evening” that reminds me of the Christmas mystery I still feel and found in my teens in the poetry of John Keats, lines like “Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance” from the sonnet “When I have fears that I may cease to be,” and “little town, thy streets forever more will silent be” from “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Years later I recognized that phrase as an echo of childhood Christmases singing “And in thy dark streets shineth an everlasting light,” from “Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“The Whole Show”

In Room to Dream, Lynch ends the first chapter about Twin Peaks by observing that although “most people’s lives are filled with mystery, … things move superfast nowadays and there’s not much time to sit and daydream and notice the mystery. There are fewer and fewer places in the world now where you can see the stars in the night sky, and you’ve got to go a long way out of L.A., to the dry lake beds, to see them now. One time we were out there shooting, … and at two in the morning we turned off the lights and lay down on the desert floor and just looked up. Trillions of stars. Trillions. It’s so powerful. And because we’re not seeing those stars we’re forgetting how grand the whole show is.”


Happy holidays to our readers and to my favorite sources, The Princeton Record Exchange, Labyrinth Books, and the Princeton Public Library, where you can find David Lynch’s Room to Dream and the original Twin Peaks on DVD as well as Twin Peaks: The Return.