In Harry Dean Stanton’s last film, released posthumously, David Lynch plays a small-town eccentric distraught over the disappearance of his pet tortoise. A tortoise isn’t quite a bug, but it’s getting there. Lynch had a ‘bug man’ as a friend once. The guy regularly delivered him specimens. Lynch has kept them all. They aren’t labelled or neatly organised. After returning to the USA after shooting The Elephant Man, Lynch collected six dead mice for a project he called the ‘Mouse Kit’, but whatever this was going to be, he never made it. Are mice closer to bugs than tortoises? They’re vermin after all. In 2002 he put together Rabbits, a sequence of nine shorts about three rabbits in a middle-class American living room, including ironing board and settee. The rabbits speak in mannered haikus. With occasional soundtracks of passing train whistles and sitcom laugh-tracks, life-size rabbit suits with actors inside, the nine shorts were incorporated into Inland Empire. Being gigantic converted them into bug-like things, as if in a distorted Kafka routine.
He did a sequence of paintings in the 80s: One was called A Bug Dreams of Heaven. It’s a bug dreaming of heaven and, when asked whether he thinks bugs have souls, he says he doesn’t know. But then he paints this. So now we don’t know. It’s a picture he takes from his childhood neighbourhood, Boise, Idaho, a place he loved. He says his memories are ‘Euphoric chrome optimism’. He says: ‘A lot of times you’ll see houses as you go by, slowly by, and you wonder what goes on in them in the daytime or what goes on in them in the night-time’. This is familiar. In the sequence are these pictures: ‘Ow, God, Mom, the Dog He Bited Me’, ‘Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House’, ‘Here I Am, Me as a House’, ‘She was Crying Just Outside the House’, ‘Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores’, ‘She Wasn’t Fooling Anyone. She Was Hurt and She Was Hurt Bad’, ‘Billy Finds a Book of Riddles Right in His Own Backyard’.
He did a bee board where the bees all have names. He said he got the idea from Isabella Rossellini. The names were Don, Bing, Steve, Bob, Chuck, Ed, Chris, Eric, Ronnie, Hank, Dave, Jack, Doogie, Harry, Jim, Ralph, Joe, Riley, Garth and Sid. After a while, however, the bees ‘all came apart’, is what Lynch says happened and they are now lying at the bottom of the frame.
Lynch reported the killing of sheep. ‘Once I saw a row of sheep in a film being slaughtered and they all looked basically the same, one sheep after another, and I’m sure there’s beings that look at all of us and we’re pretty much basically the same, but when you put a name to them they kind of separate out and it’s true, you could look at a bee called Riley and the bee would take on a certain character. A bee named Bob would suddenly be unique’.
When asked about his favourite bug, he says: ‘Well, I kinda like ‘em all. The stink bug I sometimes draw, I don’t know why; but they’ve got six legs, and ants to me are fascinating because they work, night and day, and I used to think… I think killing an ant is, you know, kind of a traumatic thing, but then I started thinking that they might just be like cells of a body (that doesn’t mean it’s good, you know, to kill a cell of your body) and that there might be one ant soul and all the individual ants are part of that one body. I’m not sure about that’. His angriest dog in the world is so angry it can’t move, cannot eat, cannot sleep, can barely growl, ‘…Bound so tightly with tension and anger he approaches the state of rigor mortis’.
In the third series of Twin Peaks, we have the famous scene of the amphibian bug crawling into the open mouth of the 50s teenage dream-girl. It’s a reimaging of a sketch he made for the short early film, The Grandmother, although the bug element there is more vole or shrew than frog-moth. Apparently, the frog-moth image grew out of a journey on the Orient Express through Yugoslavia. Lynch writes in Room to Dream: ‘At a certain point, the train came to a stop and there was no station, but we could see people getting off the train. They were going over to these canvas stalls with dim little lights, where they had these coloured drinks – purple, green, yellow, blue, red – but it was just sugar water. When I got off the train, I stepped into this soft dust that was like eight inches deep and it was blowing, and out of the earth these huge moths, like frogs, were leaping up, and they’d fly and flip and go back down again’.
What are we to make of this? I think it’s a matter of evoking a world of which we have no understanding, but which is euphorically real and actual. Of the picture titledOw God, Mom, the Dig He Bited Me, Lynch says ‘…it’s a kid, you know, on his way quickly home’. Lynch sees his films and his paintings and drawings as presenting the other world we don’t understand, but which is nevertheless there, and we feel it. It can be perverse and frightening, but Lynch is enchanted and full of wonder. That’s his attitude in everything he says. His summary of the dark sequence of his childhood memory is as quoted above, ‘euphoric’. He likes to talk about the process of making stuff, and the materials and such. I don’t think he’s being obtuse or deflecting. I think he knows that to grasp the inner life of things, you need to just know how to make the films, pictures, paintings, kits and so forth. The making is the way that directs you to the other world. When he talks about the influence of Francis Bacon, for example, the thing he emphasises most is the framing Bacon uses. ‘They were all framed with wide gold frames with glass. I’ve always wanted to frame stuff that way’, he says.
When pushed to say something about the neighbourhood sequence Lynch says: ‘I love ‘em and streets with houses and trees and figures… Everyone lives in some kind of neighbourhood… Neighbourhoods have changed. And that’s the thing; you can catch a feeling and a time in your neighbourhood when you’re young and it can be a beautiful memory… There can be hellish memories’. When it’s pointed out that his images in the sequence seem frightened Lynch doesn’t agree:
‘Well, you know, they’re again based on ideas not necessarily my story…’ and then he goes on to a new picture. He’s recorded a song that links to it, ‘Crazy Clown Town’. He explains: ‘This is “On A Windy Night a Figure Walks to Jumbo’s Klown Room.” Jumbo’s Clown Room is a real place in LA. It’s a strip bar. And so, this came out of, you know, that… it’s a good place’.
Lynch is reluctant to read into his nightmares anything that might detract from the euphoria that drives his imagination. In euphoria there’s the idea of shock and sensation and beauty and magic. The very word ‘bug’ resonates with these elements. ‘Crawling’ and ‘dirt’ are other words that Lynch admits move him in this way. The bug that crawls into the open mouth of the teenage girl in the third series of Twin Peaksis pure euphoria. It’s a scene that conjures disgust, perversion, delight and horror, a magical surplus to any narrative you may try and construe. It is a jump into something that is sensational and perhaps a little bit dangerous. In this sense, Lynch’s bugs are erotic. They carry the duality of Lynch’s sensibility: An exciting aroused state and the comfort of home life, that suburban neighbourhood thing.