David Foster Wallace Explains How David Lynch’s Blue Velvet Taught Him the True Meaning of Avant Garde Art

Imagine you’re a “hypereducated avant-gardist in grad school learning to write.” But at your grad school, “all the teachers are realists. They’re not at all interested in postmodern avant-garde stuff.” They take a dim view of your writing, you assume because “they just don’t happen to like this kind of aesthetic,” but actually because your writing isn’t very good. Amid all this, with you “hating the teachers but hating them for exactly the wrong reasons,” David Lynch’s Blue Velvet comes out. Not only does it belong to “an entirely new and original kind of surrealism,” it shows you that “what the really great artists do is they’re entirely themselves. They’ve got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality, and that if it’s authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings.”

This happened to David Foster Wallace, as he says in the clip above from his 1997 appearance on Charlie Rose, one of his very few interviews on video. He went on the show, seemingly under duress, to promote his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which among its long-form essays on the cruise ship experience, the Illinois State Fair, and professional tennis contains a piece on the man who made Blue Velvet.

“Lynch has remained remarkably himself throughout his filmmaking career,” Wallace writes in the version of the article that first ran in Premiere. Whether “Lynch hasn’t compromised or sold out” or whether “he hasn’t grown all that much,” the fact remains that he has “held fast to his own intensely personal vision and approach to filmmaking, and that he’s made significant sacrifices in order to do so.”

Elsewhere in the piece, Wallace describes the adjective “Lynchian” as “referring to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” When Rose asks Wallace about the meaning of the word, Wallace explains that “a regular domestic murder is not Lynchian. But if the police come to the scene and see the man standing over the body and the woman’s 50s bouffant is undisturbed and the man and the cops have this conversation about the fact that the man killed the woman because she persistently refused to buy, say, for instance, Jif peanut butter rather than Skippy, and how very, very important that is, and if the cops found themselves somehow agreeing that there were major differences between the brands and that a wife who didn’t recognize those differences was deficient in her wifely duties, that would be Lynchian.”

A few years ago Youtube channel Dom’s Sketch Cast turned Wallace’s vision of an ideally Lynchian scene into the animation above. Lynch’s visions exist, Wallace says to Rose, at “this weird confluence of very dark, surreal, violent stuff and absolute, almost Norman Rockwell-banal American stuff, which is terrain he’s been working for quite a while — I mean, at least since Blue Velvet.” Though Lynch may owe certain stylistic debts — “to Hitchcock, to Cassavetes, to Robert Bresson and Maya Deren and Robert Wiene” — nothing like the Lynchian existed in any tradition before he came along. Lynch has his detractors, but “if you think about the outrageous kinds of moral manipulation we suffer at the hands of most contemporary directors, it will be easier to convince you that something in Lynch’s own clinically detached filmmaking is not only refreshing but redemptive” — and, as a young David Foster Wallace found in the theater that spring of 1986, revelatory.

The full Wallace-Rose interview appears below.

Related Content:

What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchian: A Video Essay

The Surreal Filmmaking of David Lynch Explained in 9 Video Essays

David Foster Wallace on What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: A Video Essay

David Foster Wallace’s Surprising List of His 10 Favorite Books, from C.S. Lewis to Tom Clancy

30 Free Essays & Stories by David Foster Wallace on the Web

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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