I miss David Lynch—where’s he been? Hawking his TM book and his perfectly okay brand of coffee, shooting commercials in Japan, secreting out irrational little shorts onto his website, designing his own high-end Parisian hotel room? It’s perhaps no surprise that, in any era in which indie filmmakers from Spike Lee to Errol Morris lament the difficulties of getting even nominal financing for their film projects, Lynch would also be having a tough time. But then again, it seems phenomenally odd that he’s survived at all. Consider the first freakish arc: from superhermetic undergrounder Eraserhead to big-budget spectacular Dune in just three features? Those were the days, for Lynch and for us, and woe that they couldn’t last—like, forever; it was a heaven where David Lynch, perhaps among others, could make any film he wanted to. Reality, commercialism, production costs and anti-serendipity have certainly figured in. At various times, Lynch’s developed projects included a version of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis“ (a film stymied by Lynch’s dissatisfaction over the possible ways to solve “the beetle problem,” which would hardly pose a dilemma today), D.M. Thomas’s “The White Hotel,” the sequel Dune Messiah, James Clavell’s “Tai-Pan” (what?), a biography of Marilyn Monroe, Thomas Harris’s “Red Dragon” (which became Michael Mann’s Manhunter; Lynch dismissed the project as too violent), and an original, “very silly” script called The Dream of the Bovine, about two cows that change into men and go to L.A. And so on. The mind boggles.
There are two completed scripts I own and have talked about before (not long after I wrote a whole BFI book about Blue Velvet), the unrealized projects One Saliva Bubble and Ronnie Rocket that Lynch once held nearest and dearest to his heart. Without a new Lynch feature to stroke my neglected membranes, they’ll have to suffice in their purely imaginary form. Of course these two projects are ridiculously “Lynchian,” but it’s also a wonder how little clue that gives you about what the completed films might look like or have looked like, years ago.
Both films were projects Lynch seriously pushed toward preproduction, but neither ever got the greenlight. Ronnie Rocket, at least, is so essentially eccentric that it’s hardly shocking that executives and investors turned their shuddering backs on it. (As it is, some pining soul online has blessed the nonexistent film with its own faux-Criterion cover art.) At the same time, the script doesn’t suggest a film that would have been expensive to produce; only a few sequences demand scope and budget beyond the limits of, say, Eraserhead, to which Ronnie Rocket is some kind of harebrained cousin. In fact, Ronnie has been germinating in the Lynch brainpan since Eraserhead wrapped in 1977. At least as recently as 1996, he continued to mention it as a prospective project. (It had gone into development proper in 1987, with Twin Peaks’s mascot-midget Michael Anderson and virtually the entire cast of Blue Velvet set to star, but then the potential investor, Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope, went bankrupt.) The nature of Ronnie Rocket is difficult to invoke in synopsis, just as the script itself is a vague and evocative simulacrum of the film it would have been. Even so, when Lynch, in his characteristically unhelpful and cryptic way, says that the script/film is “about electricity,” and that is “an American-smokestack-industrial thing—it has to do with coal and oil and electricity,” he’s not just talking. Ronnie is wall-to-wall with recurring complete-circuit motifs and electrical symbology, and most of its jokes and nightmarish set-pieces are derived from misapplied electrical energy.
We’ll never see the film, so I’ll synopsize—an exercise as challenging and irrational as trying to eating 15 hot dogs in five minutes. The setting is a nutty-post-apocalyptic city not far from the outskirts of Eraserhead, plagued by the electrical mayhem of a mysterious figure named Hank Bartells, who is demonically altering the city’s power cycles, or something, and sending trucks of blackcoats and “Donut Men” around to assault bystanders with cattleprods. The result of these electrical upheavals is the wholesale upset of reality: people pulsate, have seizures, try to eat their hands, stand on their heads, hemorrhage, etc. The midget Ronnie, when we first meet him, is a burnt/mutilated mess in a hospital, from whose bedside The Detective plunges into the city to get to the bottom of the matter. Soon thereafter, Ronnie is kidnapped from his bed by two mad, bickering doctors, who recreate him (with red hair) in their laboratory and then apply too much electrical current to him in a wacky parody of a Frankenstein resurrection. (“Dan: ‘Bob, we made it… This is a specimen.’ Bob: ‘Let’s have a malted.’”) Ronnie, as a result, walks and talks but fitfully, and is immediately sent to high school, where he must plug himself into the wall every fifteen minutes to rejuvenate.
Meanwhile, the Detective meets with many obstacles: the train won’t take him into the city; his liaison, an old guy in a leg cast named Terry, is a crotchety puzzle. Eventually, the Detective steps innocently into the home of Ronnie’s parents, and the resulting melee is not unlike a thumbnail version of Eraserhead, including improper sexual advances (the script is filled with women offering their breasts to strange men), domestic madness, rooms that shouldn’t be there, doubling identities, dream transitions and, finally, a lavish ball scene that peaks when a killed pig comes back to life, stands on semi-human legs and proclaims, “Life is a donut!” before laughing maniacally. Then, black vans show up, and hell breaks loose.
Ronnie’s thread of the story involves the semi-charged midget falling in with a rock band, crossing electrical currents with their instruments and emanating bizarre wailing screams while thrashing about the stage. Of course, Ronnie quickly becomes a teen idol, and the band’s merciless managers do whatever they can to get Ronnie on stage, even at the cost of his electrocuted little life. Hank the evil electrical anarchist is climactically dispatched, the evil Donut Men burst into flame upon being informed that their shoelaces are untied (another broken current), and, in the end, “a blue woman with four arms who is doing a strange dance on a lily pad” (shades of Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element) bids us and Ronnie adieu.
Strange dance, indeed. Lynch is exclusively a visual artist, and the scripts for the astonishing Eraserhead and Blue Velvet were just as absurd, arbitrarily loopy and inconclusive. Lynch knows it, too, and seems to only write scripts for the purposes of securing funding; without that necessary interface with the real world, Lynch would probably happily wade into a film with a handful of notes. (Eraserhead’s “script” was a wholly unorthodox outline running 21 pages.)
“It’s not really a violent film,” Lynch has said about Ronnie, “but in some ways it’s completely abstract, like Eraserhead. I need to work with people on it who are not looking for a tremendous commercial return.” No kidding. Lynch is luckier than he’ll ever know that he’s been acquainted with commercial return at all; that our pop culture has found a place in itself for someone like Lynch remains an endearing mystery. Interfacing with TV stalwart Mark Frost has helped. Co-written with Frost in 1987, years before Twin Peaks blitzed its way across America’s television screens, One Saliva Bubble has been described by Lynch as an “out-and-out wacko dumb comedy,” and it is indeed a singularly, frivolously silly project. In fact, its anything-for-a-laugh lunacy smacks of Monty Python. “Mark and I were laughing like crazy when we wrote it,” Lynch said in an interview. “I thought of this idea on an airplane. Steve Martin and I had met and were interested in this particular project way back when… He loved it, and he still loves it. The only problem is, every time I get ready to commit to it, I think the problem for me is that there’s not enough meat to it. I feel like a lot of people could do it.”
True enough: Bubble’s script has the character-based non sequitur rhythm of a Coen Brothers movie, and is so thoroughly manic and absurd any comedy director with any chops at all could have a field day. In this way, the project seems beneath Lynch, as he himself suspected. Originally slated to star Steve Martin and Martin Short, Bubble begins like a falling-domino comedy of fate: a single saliva bubble floats from a laughing security guard’s mouth and onto a couple of exposed copper wires inside a Pentagon control panel. The ensuing micro-short activates a strangely shaped satellite in space, which begins counting down ominously. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the hyper-eccentric denizens of Newtonville, Kansas, a frequently-lightning-struck burg which serves as a locus for a corporate war involving absent-minded Swiss professors, cold-blooded assassins, a troupe of Chinese acrobats, a Heinz 57 convention, and the homecoming of the world’s stupidest man. Once the satellite’s clock ticks down to 0, it emits an undefined laser burst that hits the Newtonville airport just as all of the unrelated main characters are present, scrambling their personas—and clothes.
That no one seems to notice the berserk changes—assassin-as-car-salesman-milquetoast, black-jazz-musician-as-white-publicity-floozie, genius-scientist-as-village-idiot, etc.—is only part of the joke; Lynch and Frost have a high old time as well lampooning Pentagon generals as they attempt to resolve the situation. In part a lighter riff on the electrical mayhem of Ronnie Rocket, Bubble is a riot, and is also hilariously rife with Lynchian whatzits. I don’t know how exactly Lynch might’ve filmed the assassin character as possessing a “radioactively terrifying aura of twisted, homicidal power,” or a babbling doctor emitting what Lynch describes as a “small, vanilla chuckle,” but I would’ve been first in line to see.
All but the most whorish of Hollywood filmmakers have a long history of unrealized and/or abandoned projects; Lynch’s are merely the oddest. In fact, the deeper you look into David Lynch’s creative efforts, the more you realize how astonishing it is that his career has thrived, and found as many faithful benefactors as it has. Just when you think you have Hollywood pegged—as a brainless, soulless, risk-averse accountant’s ledger, say—a ghost in the machine appears, and churns the water. Bless him, and give him budgets.
Michael Atkinson writes regularly for The Village Voice, Sight & Sound, In These Times, Time Out Chicago, Fandor, Turner Classic Movies and LA Weekly. His latest books include FLICKIPEDIA and the novel HEMINGWAY CUTTHROAT.