He is our treasured resident alien, visiting from a dimension where shadows are rooms and movies are bad dreams that change reality. That’s one kind of way to think about David Lynch, and there are thousands more. For most observers, characterizations of the artist often begin and end with the idea of Lynch being merely a spontaneous subconscious on legs, a savage “Surrealist” (oh, the misuse of that word) burped out of the heartland. The reason for this seems from any distance to be barely repressed bafflement—the word “Lynchian” has emerged and served its purpose eloquently because, from many perspectives, no other existing word does the job.
But “Lynchian” has become such a commonplace outside of discussions of the man’s corpus, and that should tip us off that there is something larger going on. How much of what and who we already are is Lynchian? Perhaps more than we can swallow, and so here’s another way to look at Lynch: as the modern age’s most distinctive and uncompromising anatomist of the American marrow. Cubbyholing Lynch as a freak only unleashing his id can conveniently ignore his psychocultural relevance. Lynch’s national vision is by now iconic: a soulless painscape of innocence raped and annihilated, of vestigial mutations and radioactive sexual psychopathy, of twisted power figures, errant electrical charges, hidden homunculi, blood-painted outposts, inexplicable wavelengths, deranged undergrounds, an LA haunted by doppelgangers, a Northwest stalked by man-beasts, a Cosmic-Kitsch Hotel Lobby of the Dead. As a composite canvas of American psychoses, violence and strangeness, from The Grandmother and Eraserhead to Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, to Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, to Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire and Twin Peaks: The Return, his oeuvre is unrivaled in its original and strange modern congruity.
This sociocultural tack may be the best way to approach DumbLand, Lynch’s scabrous and assaultive 2002 cartoon mini-series, initially concocted solely for exhibition at DavidLynch.com but now playing on the Criterion Channel. A little-seen, conscientiously marginal, even ephemeral work in Lynch’s exploding corpus, made during the four-year span, between Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, when he made nothing but shorts, mostly as gouts of website experimentation, DumbLand is a shrill j’accuse disguised as a confrontational goof. The eight episodes, three to four minutes each, are drawn in the brutally expressive and childishly crude, bare black-and-white Sharpie style of Lynch’s famous alt-weekly comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World (1983–92), and exist in a world as stripped of details, context, and narrative logic.
DumbLand’s America is an empty suburban shack near a hazardously busy highway, occupied by a fuming ogre of a father, a battered wife barely capable of speech, and a young child (essentially a shuddering, wide-eyed scrawl). Violence radiates from the father, whose black, snaggle-toothed crater of a mouth never closes, even in moments of shivering stasis. Spare story fragments and thumbnail characters present themselves—a one-armed neighbor, a stranger with a stick stuck in his mouth, an invasion of ants, a cowboy friend talking of killing animals—sometimes generating howling conflict for the father, and sometimes merely reflecting back onto his gaping incomprehension.
Lynch’s whatzit brand of non sequitur-ness dominates, but DumbLand doesn’t feel terribly comic—even given the vicious fart jokes and the father’s guttural eruptions of “WHAT THE FUCK,” it’s hard to say that Lynch was amusing even himself. Rather, the shorts feel like college-humor rawness weaponized, as if something like South Park had turned rabid and vengeful. This is maybe the nakedest portrait Lynch ever made of Middle America, and of the mouth-breathing Middle American Man, so irredeemably toxic and bestial he comes off as a kind of quintessential Moloch, while still hyperbolically epitomizing a certain kind of very real American male we’ve all encountered.
The shorts hinge, like some sitcoms, on spare, single confrontations—with an errant exercise treadmill, an influx of nightmarish in-laws, an invasion of ants—with little care for progression or development. What you see is what you get: DumbLand’s seething splats don’t seem to be intended to be more than hellacious punctuation for statements about American life we don’t hear but can’t help but take as read. Yet, as we well know, trying to seriously second-guess Lynch’s intentions, in nearly any instance, is a sucker’s game. It is an integral part of his work’s sorcerous force that Lynch’s outward-intending motives are often inscrutable, if they even ever exist, and that his films’ materials and moments can almost always be read as simultaneously ironic and screamingly earnest, farcical and enraged, incendiary and whimsical. DumbLand, as minimal as it is in every respect, like a lone exposed nerve, is all of these at once, a thing pulsing with feelings we can take as comical or horrifying or both.
What does David Lynch fear, or hate? It’s not a question I think he’s ever been asked in an interview, and yet his work is virtually built out of phobic tension, social horror (always, always emanating from White Men), and paranoid anxiety. It seems we can say this much for certain, reading his audiovisual tea leaves: as an artist he bleeds for the decimation of innocence, he is driven by the almost transcendental belief in a layered human reality sick beneath the skin with secrets, and, up on the surface, he casts a very cold eye on the American male of the species, without whom as a vexing subject Lynch might not have art to make.