DFW on Lynchian violence in the new Twin Peaks

by Eddie Dzialo


I started watching David Lynch’s movies when I was too young. They didn’t ruin me, but I did see them before I was old enough to understand them—if they can be understood at all. When I was twelve, I saw Lost Highway for the first of many times and developed flu-like symptoms. 

Now, at thirty-three, I am a father in the middle of remodeling my kitchen but still manage to make time to watch Twin Peaks: The Return. And I do so with the same level of enthusiasm that I had for Lynch when I was in middle school, minus the uneasy nausea. Part of that, is accepting that good art is the successful transfer of emotion from artist to subject. And those emotions don’t have to make you feel good. David Lynch’s work becomes particularly interesting when studying his portrayal of violent subject matter—the material that sent my stomach reeling at twelve.

In his essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” David Foster Wallace wrote: “an act of violence in American film has, through repetition and desensitization, lost the ability to refer to anything but itself.” Watching Lynch’s films are so surreal (and nauseating) because the visual and narrative devices Lynch uses to portray violence are outside the desensitizing vernacular of popular media. As Wallace notes in his essay: “Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching someone’s ear get cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.” In Blue Velvet, when Lynch zooms in on a severed human ear that is resting in a neatly manicured lawn, he is taking everything out of the shot but the thing itself. The viewer’s attention has nowhere else to go; it needs to lock onto the severed ear. As one of Wallace’s own characters was fond of saying, “Never underestimate the power of objects.”

In a scene from “Part 10” (Lynch referred to them as “parts” rather than “episodes”), Richard Horne attacks Miriam, but Lynch obscures the violence from the audience. The scene begins with Richard Horne arriving at Miriam’s trailer. While Richard is standing in her yard, Miriam shouts through her locked glass door that she has told the police that Richard ran over the young child. Richard cracks his neck by tilting his head toward each ear, then charges the trailer, breaks the glass door with his knee, and goes inside.  For twenty-five seconds, the only thing the viewer sees is the outside of the trailer from a considerable distance away. What the viewer hears is Miriam screaming until she stops, presumably because Richard has killed her. Lynch never shows Richard hurting Miriam at all.

Wallace argues that Lynch’s violence finds a way to refer to something other than itself because “Lynch’s violence always tries to mean something.” Audiences ask for violence.  They ask to see the act itself out of morbid curiosity, something the entertainment industry has exploited in numbing volumes. When Lynch gives his viewers nothing more than screams, he makes the scene visceral, taps into a universal expression of pain while escaping the visual clichés that make its consumption less painful.

Because of Lynch, I can feel for Miriam when she locks herself inside the trailer, and because of Wallace, I understand why. I can’t help but watch and wonder what Wallace would have thought of the newest season of Twin Peaks . As violent as Lynch’s movies are, Twin Peaks: The Return is like watching Lynch’s dissertation on the depiction of violence. And he transfers raw emotion better than he ever has.