I’ve watched almost all things David Lynch. Tonight I watched Dumbland, which was, well…. dumb. David Lynch describes it as “a crude, stupid, violent, absurd series. If it is funny, it’s because we see the absurdity of it all.”
Yesterday, I was doing a Google search on Camus and Solomon and came across an article entitled Sisyphus and Suburbia by David Durnell. Guess what it’s about? David Lynch’s Dumbland which just happened to be next up on my Netflix queue and arrived today. Nice timing!
It’s extremely crude so of course my 15 year old son loves it. It seems sort of meaningless, but there is always meaning in the seemingly weird and meaningless when it comes to Lynch. Lynch’s art is both absurd and surreal and follows in the tradition of the Absurd Theater inspired by Camus’s Absurdism. Durnell says Dumbland is “a skewering of the rotted and dysfunctional nature of the American nuclear family– a family immersed in banality, and drowning in absurdity –left only to violently self-destruct.”
It is way out of proportion, but I can definitely see the reflection of my neighborhood in Dumbland. Most families DO self-destruct in one form or other these days. Very few of my kids’ friends live with both of their parents. And of those that do, the mother very often plays the submissive, supportive role. The wife in Dumbland who seems forever in fear of what it is her husband is going to do, is not an uncommon scene. Lots of women take a back seat to their husband’s authority. I had a friend tell me that she knows it doesn’t work for everyone, but her marriage got so much better when she quit disagreeing with her husband. She lets him make all the rules and decisions and keeps her mouth shut and all is well. Another friend told me how she can barely believe that she used to read books by feminists! It’s a woman’s role to be submissive to her husband according to the Bible, after all. (The husband and the child have names in Dumbland, but the mother doesn’t. She doesn’t have an identity.) And it’s getting harder to ignore – especially with all of the suburban high school shootings. American suburbia is violent.
My neighbor has actually sold guns out of his garage during neighborhood garage sale days! I don’t know where he gets them. Being very vocal about disciplining your children by hitting them is not at all uncommon. In fact, you are somewhat suspect if you don’t believe in corporal punishment. We were one day shocked to see a little girl from down the street on television. She was telling the interviewer how she used to be evil but she wasn’t anymore – this was thanks to being spanked in front of the entire church congregation while they prayed for her. This wasn’t presented on the news as abusive, it was presented as loving and healing.
It is increasingly absurd. Why is everyone surprised to discover that students were planning a Columbine style attack at our neighborhood high school? The high school made national news for this last year and we parents didn’t know a thing about it until it made national news. They also tried to tell us nobody had ever been killed on the campus but that wasn’t true. Just the year before a student was knifed in the parking lot and he died. This year the school made national news for pulling an article out of a student news letter about the rampant drug abuse among teens. The article ended up published in major newspapers along with the story of how the principle pulled the article from the student newsletter. (That still cracks me up.) We’ve also made national news for canceling the homecoming dance because the students refused to quit dirty dancing (gasp)!
It may look pretty from the outside because people show you what they want you to see. But look a little closer, and what you see are a bunch of people whose lives are spiraling out of control trying to pretend that they have it all together. It gets harder to cover up all the time, too.
Durnell says you cannot understand Lynch without at least a little background on the development of Dadaism, of Absurdism, and a little Freud. Absurdist author Eugene Ionesco said that “People drowning in meaninglessness can only be grotesque.” Lynch is reflecting the crude, stupid and violent in his films – not creating it.
Summary from the history given by Durnell:
Dadaists believed humans were “inherently good” and could only be corrupted through a morally bankrupt society. Such a society should be radically altered for humanity to survive. The Dadaists created what they called anti-art to save humanity from the meaningless. Michel Janco writes, “We had lost confidence in our culture. Everything had to be demolished… [and] we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, educations, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.” It was an attack on convention meant to shock people out of their complacency. Most of the artists eventually broke off from Dadaism and became Surrealists.
Then, along came Sartre and Camus with the Absurd and the Absurdist Theater was founded on this idea, led primarily by Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus. The Absurdist Theater was more focused and had a better developed message than that of the Dadaists. Like Dadaism, it presented meaninglessness and alienation. But unlike Dadaism which was meant to “bewilder and shock” to save human nature, The Absurdist Theater was meant to shock people out of their false realities by providing an outline of human nature. Human nature was presented through meaningless plots, repetitive and inconsequential dialog, and dramatic non-sequiturs to create nightmarish and surreal worlds.
Today, attempts at Surrealism and Absurdism in film are quite rare even though it is still common in art and literature. It’s difficult to make work in film, but David Lynch continually returns to the surreal and Absurd in his films. What he gets criticized for – meaninglessness, weirdness, etc. is exactly what he means to do. But it isn’t weirdness for weirdness sake. There is a point to it, but you can’t get to the point by deconstructing his films.
According to Durnell, In Dumbland, Randy is cut off from the rest of the world on his little suburban plot of land. He never leaves that little plot of land. Never does anything meaningful, and is stuck in repetition, including the repetition of drinking, watching television (especially violent sports – football and boxing), farting and acting violently. He both acts and causes the absurdity for no reason other than the lack of reason itself. In the first Episode, when the helicopter flies overhead, all he can do is pathetically cuss at it. The doctor in the third Episode continually asks “Does that hurt you?” and Randy implies “no”. The doctor puts a knife in the side of Randy’s head and Randy says it doesn’t hurt, but then seems to realize that there is an outsider in his home and so hits the doctor. The doctor then determines that he is absolutely normal, indicating that Randy’s (eternal) numbness is normal. The episode ends with the wife screaming – it’s not just Randy who is affected by this “normality”, it’s his family and all of society.
Randy is apparently contemplating suicide when contemplating the broken lamp in Episode 3. Durnell compares this to Myth of Sisyphus. Like Sisyphus, Randy endures endless repetition. Camus considers Sisyphus the absurd hero. But Lynch sees nothing heroic about the absurdist repetition. Not committing suicide is itself absurd because as the doctor so casually states, the endless repetition and absurdism is “completely normal”.
In Episode 4, Randy has a beer with a Cowboy and they talk about how they like to kill things. Durnell says that the violence in sports and hunting are not separate joys isolated from everyday life, but actions that reveal the true nature of man. They long for a time when they could gore freely, but they are confined to a fenced-in suburban back yard. They are aware of their own boredom. Freud would say it is the repression of animal lusts in an enveloping society and this creates a double conflict: the banal meaninglessness of a mundane society and the inner urges of a man wanting to kill. (Durnell suggests that while Sisyphus was pushing the rock up the hill, he took some time to fart and dismember some poor creatures for libido expression.)
In Episode 5 a stick shows up in a man’s mouth and Sparky repeatedly tells Randy to “get the stick”. Randy gives no thought to how to get the stick and simply tries to pull it out of the man’s mouth, breaking his neck and beating him to a pulp before finally getting the stick. (And the fucker didn’t even say thank you!) This allegory could work for politics, war, etc. Durnell says that one could imagine a violent Bush administration tearing up Iraq and bombing it to a pulp leaving the country war-torn and demolished and being angered that “the fucker never even said thank you!”
In Episode 6, everyone is doing their own thing, the son’s teeth start to bleed, the wife starts to gurgle blood, but Randy notices nothing but what it is he is doing until a fly buzzes. Durnell says this is self-consumed ignorance and the ability to filter out reality. They are completely oblivious to all of the chaos and disorder going on around them.
In Episode 7, we meet Randy’s mother who is, of course, controlling and domineering. He has to take care of Uncle Bob who is sick and probably dying. Bob goes through a series of repetitive patterns, which includes repetitively hitting Randy. After a few hits, Randy hits Bob back and is caught by his mother. He hides outside away from his mother. His mother ends up having to take Bob to the hospital because he’s bitten off his own foot. As Durnell says, the doctor will probably pronounce this self-mutilation as perfectly normal. (Maybe like the repetitive bad eating habits we suburbanites are so fond of that create diabetes and the loss of limbs?)
In Episode 8, Randy is faced with ants he intends to kill with a can labled “KILL”. But he accidentally sprays himself instead and encounters dancing ants who let him know they think he is an ass hole, a shit face and a dumb turd. It’s as though he has started to reflect on his behavior in his hallucinatory state, but instead of coming to any self-discovery, he gets angry and continues to try and kill the ants. He breaks his neck and wakes up in the hospital in a body cast to ants crawling inside his cast. He can do nothing but scream in rage.
Durnell asks, is this really all we are? “An illogical, inescapable body-cast plagued by never-ending torrents of ants?” He says that Lynch is picking up where the Absurdists left off by modifying Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus.
For instead of a hero pushing up the boulder (that is life) up the hill (that is absurdity), we have Randy. And this time, the setting for this theory is not a post-war France, but a place that makes banality and mundane repetition, as well as hidden fetishized underbellies beneath moral façade, much more apparent: suburban America. But instead of merely pushing a rock up a hill for all of time, Sisyphus has got other concerns to aggravate him –such as dancing ants who, while singing, repeatedly refer to the ever diligent and ever absurd Sisyphus as a “shit face,” an “asshole,” and a “dumb turd.” Thus, in context, Lynch has, deliberately or otherwise, functionalized a new, modified Absurdism, far more pessimistic and far more hopeless than any of his predecessors, though rather appropriate and unsurprising, in light of Lynch’s cynically dark and comically hopeless oeuvre.
I’m not sure I agree that it is more pessimistic and hopeless than his predecessors. The only hope Camus gave us was to resign ourselves to our fate and scorn the Gods. I don’t think Lynch is pushing resignation because he’s far too involved in TM to do that. He’s got his own version of hope going on. I find his films to be far more compassionate than pessimistic. Perhaps, as Durnell suggested at the beginning of the essay, Lynch is merely reflecting our own pessimism back to us. I think there is good reason to do this. If we happen to catch our reflection and realize the absurdity of our situation, then perhaps we can pull ourselves out of it.