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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