Course: The American Uncanny: The World of David Lynch in Film and Theory

HC 421H

Professor: Casey Shoop

“This whole world is wild at heart and weird on top.”  This seminar will devote itself to exploring the uncanny cinematic works of film and television director David Lynch. What are the contours, affects and meanings of this world called “Lynchian” in which the mundane life of small-town America suddenly reveals an unmitigated horror at its heart? 

In which the world of appearance is subtended by a darker, malevolent reality? Where does dream end and reality begin if characters do not know or cannot recognize the nature of their own desire? What does it mean for an image to look back at you in the dark and confront you with the evidence of your own voyeurism?  Such discomfiting questions are made even more difficult by the elusive power of Lynch’s work, which refuses categorically to explain itself or normalize its meanings. Our task in this course will be to consider how to make sense of these cinematic works—to interpret them without domesticating or reducing their peculiar power. To this end, we will draw upon various theoretical languages—psychoanalysis, affect theory, feminism, genre studies, disability studies, media and film theory, transcendental meditation, among many others—in order to supplement and extend our engagement with the films’ often difficult motifs of violence, perversity, and the nature of evil. Please note that this course will be reading intensive as we bring these often demanding theoretical texts into critical conversation with the films. Lynch’s work will also make us confront the problem of our own interpretive activity directly: what do these films want from us, and what do we want as we compulsively watch them?  We will discuss Lynch’s major works, from Eraserhead (1977) through the television series Twin Peaks (1990-1) to the trio of Hollywood films Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006), as well as some of his shorter experimental films and writings.

**Please note that this course deals with graphic representations of violence and sexuality. All of Lynch’s films are provocative and disturbing. Viewer discretion (and course participation) is strongly advised if you find the viewing and discussion of these topics difficult. Although we will critically interrogate the nature of this imagery as a primary component of our academic discussion of the films, please choose another course if this subject matter is too difficult to encounter.