Art and Anxiety in David Lynch’s Small Town America
For most people who grew up in smaller towns — whether they be suburban or rural — those towns were there in order for you to leave them. Sure, they’re safe and have a stronger sense of community, to a degree, but they’re also boring and overwrought with sameness. For families that seem to “end up” in suburbia or the middle of nowhere, children grow up asking themselves, “How did this happen?” and “How can I escape?”
Or maybe I’m just projecting.
I’ve written about Redlands a lot for this paper, as my own small town in the Inland Empire, just beyond Los Angeles’s reach and on the lips of the desert, and we have a complicated relationship. One guiding force in my early adulthood, when trying to navigate how I feel about Redlands, has been filmmaker David Lynch.
Lynch also spent his childhood in small towns, following his dad across the country as he was transferred for various jobs with the Department of Agriculture. In the trailer for an upcoming documentary “The Art of Life,” Lynch describes that his childhood world consisted of two blocks. It was up to him to develop entire worlds within those two blocks.
See, Lynch grew up during the eruption of suburbia. Born in 1946, the 1950s’ idyllic dreams of white middle-class America, safe from racial antagonism and communism and atomic bomb attacks was Lynch’s norm. In “The Art of Life,” out for wide release March 31, Lynch reflects on his childhood and how it forced him to be imaginative. For Lynch, that imagination usually stemmed from the surreal, the creepy.
I watched the first season of “Twin Peaks” with my mom and sister early in high school, as soon as we got Netflix streaming. We watched, captivated, with my mom telling stories about how crazy this show was when it first was released, but I didn’t have a clue who David Lynch was and didn’t really pay attention to his directing/creation credits.
The connection between “the guy who made ‘Twin Peaks’” and David Lynch formulated even more when I was 17 and saw the Dennis Hopper film “River’s Edge,” which came out the same year as Lynch’s seminal “Blue Velvet.” Both films star Hopper as terrifying men in terrifying small towns. While watching “River’s Edge,” my mom explained to me that most of Lynch’s work centers around this idea of taking a small town that seems so perfect, so peaceful, and twisting it by making one little change that removes the whole veneer.
In “Twin Peaks,” this change was the dead body of a young girl; in “Blue Velvet,” it was the severed ear Kyle MacLachlan’s character finds in a field. My mom went on to say that the fears Lynch had about suburbia paralleled my dad’s fears of our Inland Empire. Spending most of his adolescence in Los Angeles, the family move to Redlands left him bitter and fearful. We couldn’t walk to school by ourselves, couldn’t just hang out in the neighborhood without a parent on the porch. Redlands was a space of danger, because it was a space that could not accept the “other.”
When Lynch explores the horrors that constitute the stability of suburbia, he really taps into the small-mindedness that creates safety. Whether it’s a racial or sexual other, or an economic other, or, in many instances, a spiritual other, what suburbs seek to achieve is an elimination of anything they can’t or don’t want to understand. Sure, Los Angeles may have higher crime rates than Redlands, but there, you can be different and still blend in. From my family’s point of view, blending in is a blessing.
I’m not really sure why, but there’s a human desire to have pride in where you are from. You see it as an extension of yourself, I guess: If you can’t honor where you were raised, does that mean your self-honor is at risk? When I learned that David Lynch had a film called “Inland Empire,” I remember swimming in a certain kind of pride. And I know the movie has nothing to do with my pocket of Southern California, but it still meant something to me. It meant that my upbringing has a value. Which means I have a value, since Redlands, whether I liked it or not, raised me.