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Listeria: Top Ten Lynch for Lynch’s Sake Characters

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 21, 2007

Let’s rock

Though I was stupid and missed my opportunity to see Inland Empire in the theaters (considering I was living a few blocks from one of the probably half-dozen theaters in the country that was even showing it), I finally got a chance to see it on DVD a few nights ago (“Sorry, need to watch three-hour David Lynch movie” was the text I sent to my friends wondering if I was up for hanging out). Can’t say I enjoyed it too much per se–after one hour, any attempts to humor audiences with something resembling a plot went bye bye, leaving two remaining hours of total weirdness free-for-all. But these movies do require a minimum four or five viewings before proper judgement (I didn’t even really like Mulholland Drive that much the first time I saw it, now I’d rank it as my second favorite of his), and there were a predictable number of sublimely creepy moments, so I can’t say I was too disappointed.

At the very least, it maintained the proudest Lynch tradition of all–that of the weird, unexplained and almost entirely irrelevant supporting characters, of which there were at least a couple canon-worthies. These characters don’t necessarily advance the story much–as a matter of fact, they usually distract from it a whole lot–but they provide the lemongrass for the Tom Yum Goong that is a David Lynch work. Ten of ’em should do it:

10. Irene and Irene’s Companion (Jeanne Bates and Dan Birnbaum), Mulholland Drive. These two overly friendly Mulholland Drive octogenarians are best remembered for their performance in the final scene, as the two mini-old people that crawl out of Betty/Diane’s blue box and essentially terrorize her into killing herself–a scene so utterly horrific that they’d probably deserve inclusion on this list for it alone. But for my money, the more unsettling moment is in the movie’s beginning, after they part ways with Betty at the airport, excitedly sending her on her merry way. The expression on their faces in the cab afterwards–smiling, but in a way so creepily stilted and exaggerated that it can only be described as “Black Hole Sun”-esque–are permanently burned into my soul.

9. The Giant (Carel Struycken), Twin Peaks. Probably the second most outre character in the Twin Peaks universe (the first, obviously, is coming up later), the Giant appears to Special Agent Dale Cooper in a series of prophetic visions, which eventually lead to his capturing of Laura Palmer’s killer. He’s seven feet tall, yeah, but that’s not even his most memorable visual characteristic–that wiry, protruding jaw and shiny bald head, the ghostly eyes, hell, the bowtie–a Lynch dream actor if there ever was one. Voice ain’t bad either, as his best line was memorably sampled by DJ Shadow for “Transmission 3,” the closing interlude to his classic album Endtroducing (“It is happening…again.”)

8. Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), Wild At Heart. The character on this list with the most actual consequence on the movie’s storyline, but since the great majority of his character quirks are totally unnecessary, I figure he qualifies enough here. Bobby gets the movie’s most disturbing (and hott, in an expectedly bizarre way) scene, where he spends five minutes tricking/coaxing/threatening Lula into asking him to fuck her, only to respond “Someday honey, I will…but I got to be goin’ now” and leave. Smooth.

7. The Man From Another Place (Michael J. Anderson), Twin Peaks. Possibly the most famous Lynch-for-Lynch’s-sake character, and understandably so. The sashaying, backwards-talking midget essentially became the catch-all for Lynch weirdness, because well, dammit, most TV shows just don’t have sashaying, backwards-talking midget characters. Plus, he was parodied by The Simpsons, in one of their all-time funniest scenes (one which a generation of fans, including myself, probably didn’t even really get until they at least got to college).

6. The Rabbits (Uh, I think one of them was voiced by Naomi Watts), Inland Empire. Sometimes, movies have certain moments that just make you say to yourself, “Oh, so this is going to be that kind of movie.” Sometimes those moments involve a family of talking, anthropomorphic rabbitrs that appear to be starring in an alternate-universe sitcom (with viewers who laugh at inappropriate times, even though there really are no appropriate times to be laughing). And sometimes, three hours later, you think to yourself, “Well, I guess I can’t say I wasn’t warned.”

5. Bum (Bonnie Aarons), Mulholland Drive. When non-horror directors resort to horror freak-out tactics, it tends to be twice as scary because you’re legitimately not expecting it, and no one who’s ever seen Mulholland Drive could possibly forget the moment where Lynch went for the big one. Two Winkie’s (the Lynchverse Denny’s) patrons are talking about a dream one had, where there was some ridiculously scary dude behind a wall behind the restaurant. They go to look behind the wall, to confirm there’s no one there and clear the guy of his fear. As they slowly, slowly approach the wall, you think to yourself no way, no way there’s actually gonna be someone behind that wall, what movie is this again? And then the Bum slides out, and you have a heart attack and die (probably). The scariest thing of all? In real life, Bonnie Aarons looks like this:

I know, right.

4. Mrs. Tremont’s Grandson (Austin Jack Lynch), Twin Peaks. Just a one-episode character, and even though Lynch evidently didn’t even care enough about him to give him a proper name, he might be my favorite dude in the whole series. Investigating Laura Palmer’s death, best friend Donna picks up her Meals on Wheels route, meaning she has to visit Mrs. Tremont (played by the always awesome Frances Bay), as well as her bizarro grandson, who dresses in uncomfortable-looking suits, does magic tricks and talks like a funeral director. His gravely surreal summation of Donna after she leaves (“She seemed…like a nice girl…”) is a series highlight, and obviously ex-Boston lead singer Brad Delp was a fan, as he cribbed the kid’s signature phrase, “J’ai une ame solitaire” (I am a lonely soul) for his suicide note. And oh yeah, he also happens to be Lynch’s son.

3. Cowboy (Lafayette Montgomery), Mulholland Drive. “Now you will see me one more time…if you do good. You will see me two more times…if you do bad.” The Cowboy, whose actual status in the world of Mulholland Drive is never given anything resembling an explanation, is still intimidating enough to put arrogant director Adam Kessler (Justin Theroux) in his place, and to be a total fucking badass. And he’s the one part of Mulholland Drive that really delivers on its promise, as Adam does good, and Cowboy only shows up once more, at a completely random and unlikely moment as if only to confirm that he’s a man of his word. Class act.

2. Ben (Dean Stockwell), Blue Velvet. Frank Booth may have commanded more attention and screen time, but it’s prototypical LFLS character Ben who truly won my heart. The ghoulish, Orbison-synching, sexually ambiguous druggie freak that stores Dorothy Vallens’s kidnapped kid and husband, Ben doesn’t stay around long, but still takes the time to punch Jeffrey Beaumont in the stomach and then ruffle his hair for no reason, and to make the greatest toast in cinematic history (“Here’s to your fuck, Frank.“) But the best Ben moment is when he first remarks to his (ugly, overweight) wife “Oh look, darling…Frank’s here,” even though he has no evident way to know this, being unable to either see or hear Frank approaching. Like the man says, damn, he’s suave.

1. Mystery Man (Robert Blake), Lost Highway. I never saw In Cold Blood, don’t know a think about Baretta, and I couldn’t identify a member of Our Gang to save my life. For me, acting/murdering double-threat Robert Blake is, was, and always will be, the Mystery Man from Lost Highway. It’s hard to explain just the impact this character had on me and my friends during high school, where we probably watched Lost Highway close to a dozen times with a mix of awe, frustration and condescension, but goddamn, goddamn, goddamn did I love that guy. I still probably have his exchange with Bill Pullman in the freakiest scene of icebreaking chitchat ever memorized to the preposition, and I can’t quote some of it without doing the whole thing, so I’ll refrain, but suffice to say–this dude knows how to craft a good mindfuck. Petrifying, stupifying, and somehow thoroughly hilarious, easily an all-time top ten scene for me, and my favorite Lynch moment ever.

Honorable Mention:

The Yellow Man (Fred Pickler) from Blue Velvet
Cousin Dell (Crispin Glover) from Wild at Heart
Arnie (Richard Pryor) from Lost Highway
Gene (Billy Ray Cyrus) from Mulholland Drive
The “Loco-Motion” Prostitutes (numerous) from Inland Impire

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9 Responses to “Listeria: Top Ten Lynch for Lynch’s Sake Characters”

  1. Scott said

    I will always love The Cowboy. That scene brought out the best in Justin Theroux and is one of the greatest examples of Lynch deciding to make just enough sense that people didn’t get up and leave, but not enough for them to know what’s going on. God bless him.

  2. Scott said

    Oh, and I don’t know why Radiator Lady isn’t included on this list, but Radiator Lady is awesome.

  3. Andrew Unterberger said

    actually, I totally meant to put the baby in, but for some reason I mentally discounted pre-BV Lynch. I’ve only seen Eraserhead once anyway.

  4. Erick said

    I think the baby is too key to Eraserhead’s plot. The Lady in the Radiator or the near-catatonic grandma at the house would probably work though.

  5. Between 5 and 10, you’ve got me kind of wanting to never see Mulholland Drive.

  6. Scott said

    Ian, see it. I had to write a 20-page paper on it, so I watched it about 7 times while writing. Every time I saw it, my appreciation for it grew.

    But, those two parts (especially the bum scene) are some seriously scary shit. They work so well because it’s not a horror movie, so, like Andrew said, you’re never expecting something so frightening.

  7. Andrew Unterberger said

    And neither of those parts are the scariest thing in that movie, really

  8. Justin said

    Mulholland Drive is my favorite Lynch movie, though I haven’t seen Wild At Heart

  9. Very good list, I agree on every point!

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