protect the mystery

Back in college, I took a video course. (My heart’s desire had been to go pro with the weekly newsletter thing, but it was the late 90s and I was ahead of my time. Now that there’s big money in newsletters, you can probably major in it.) For our final project, I made a short video about a milk addict being tormented by an enigmatic milkman that culminated in a choreographed sword fight. (The fight was symbolic but the swords were real.) It was a little weird.

Our professor, the cool kind who smokes pot with his students, had spent the semester screening some of the most abstract and outré avant-garde video art imaginable. Yet my little milkman video really threw him for a loop. He simply didn’t know what to make of it, and that angered him, which surprised me because I hadn’t known what to make of nearly anything he’d shown us and he’d seemed pleased about that. I’d gotten the impression that not immediately knowing what to make of a piece of art was an OK place for a viewer to be in this world. Apparently that only applied to students.

At a certain point, the prof asked me about something in my video that didn’t make obvious, cut-and-dried sense to him, as though that were somehow unacceptable. I paused, unsure how to respond. Then, because I’d been watching a bunch of David Lynch movies, I replied, “David Lynch does stuff like that all the time, doesn’t he?”

“He can do that,” the professor replied, getting irate, “because he’s David Lynch.”

This response seemed at odds with the philosophy of the class—and of the avant-garde in general—but liberal arts colleges are a great place for naïve young people to discover that there is no such thing as radical open-mindedness. We all tolerate different sets of things, but no one tolerates everything. I try to accept challenging new work when I see it, but there is no escaping my biases. I’ve found that those who trumpet their infinite openness and flexibility to new and difficult ideas can be among the most intolerant to anything outside their accepted forms and conventions. A corollary to Moldawer’s Law, I suppose.

Ironically, even David Lynch doesn’t get a pass because he’s David Lynch. Many intelligent and established people in the movie industry and the world at large treat Lynch like a fruitcake despite all of his fame and acclaim. Yet he persists. After all, he wasn’t David Lynch when he started out. When his family told him to give up on his student film and get a real job to support his wife and daughter, he started delivering The Wall Street Journal—and then he used that money to complete Eraserhead, a movie Stanley Kubrick later called his favorite. Lynch may be disappointed that so many people still haven’t tuned into his frequency, but he doesn’t let that slow him down from making work.

I recently completed a mesmerizing 4 hr 35 mn video purporting to explain Twin Peaks: The Return. (I didn’t entirely buy the theory, but it’s a fascinating and well-made argument.) The video features archival footage of Lynch both inside and outside his context. Among his people, he’s a genius of the highest order, his gnomic proclamations absorbed and interpreted like Biblical quotations. In the rest of the world—across the table from Charlie Rose, trying to direct Jim Belushi—he’s just being weird for the sake of it. Clearly. He probably just wants attention, amirite? (I would have thought Belushi would be more of a Lynch guy after starring in Wild Palms, but apparently not.) You can see it register on Lynch’s face when people roll their eyes at him in conversation, but he never seems to falter.

Marc Maron recently interviewed Ed Norton on his podcast. At one point in the interview, Norton praises Bob Dylan’s notorious unwillingness to discuss the meaning of his music or to step outside his constructed persona. Both Dylan and Lynch share a philosophy that a work of art should stand on its own. No artist’s statement. No director’s commentary. No behind-the-scenes bloopers. The artist has a sacred duty to let the work alone convey the intended meaning, even at the risk of being misunderstood, condemned, or ridiculed. 

This doesn’t mean the work has to be mysterious. It just means you have to know where the work ends and you begin.

It’s risky to leave the audience with unanswered questions, but that’s the job. We all have the instinct when sharing a piece of work with others to offer excuses or qualifications for what we’ve done. This is a creator’s most toxic instinct. We tell ourselves it’ll become easier to let the work be the work once we possess fame and reputation, but there is no award, academy, or audience that will ever insulate you from the scorn and dismissal of those uncomfortable with not understanding what you mean. You have to put your stuff out there and let it succeed or fail on its merits.

The Twin Peaks explainer video makes the case that the malignant entity “Judy” represents the audience’s toxic desire for closure, for answers, in Lynch’s encrypted cosmology. Judy’s dark influence is seen, for example, in ABC’s decision to force Lynch to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer in season 2, something he’d never intended to do. That reveal ultimately doomed the show. In art, too many answers are poisonous to art, artist, and audience alike. 

Your audience craves resolution, but they won’t thank you for it. Make your art from your gut, not your head, and resist the urge to explain its mysteries away. Let the work stand on its own and accept the work that it won’t be for everyone. Beware Judy.

p.s. None of this applies to Lost. Lost was bullshit.