The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Kubrick, Lynch, the Bardo

David Lynch seems like someone who gets possessed by a question and won’t let up until he tires of the question (not, that is, until he answers it—the questions he asks aren’t answerable, probably). The question in his recent films, at least, seems to be: What is Woman made of? Or maybe it is some version of the old “What does woman want?” Now, Inland Empire, Lynch’s most sprawling and, in some ways, astonishing work to date, he returns again to this question. In this film, we again have a troubled actress, and also follow the intertwining stories of the character she plays, a poor housewife, and other intermediate personas who might be her doppelgangers or facets of her unconscious, or both.

Near the beginning of the film, Lynch uses a shot that confirmed for me something I had already suspected: that Lynch is obsessed with Kubrick, specifically the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The shot is this: Laura Dern’s character, having an uncomfortable conversation with a strange Polish woman, looks across the living room and sees herself sitting on the couch looking back at her. Then, it is just her across the room, and there is no other “her” there with her. (I got chills when I saw this, and had to pause the DVD.) A variant of this same transition also occurs near the end.

Lynch has used this trick before, but it was first used (to my knowledge) at the end of 2001. Dave Bowman’s final transformation—or perhaps, transmigration—takes place in a white, vaguely Rococo hotel suite that could be on an alien world, in another dimension, or in Dave Bowman’s own mind. First, moving slow, as in a dream, Dave looks into a room and sees an older version of himself, in a bathrobe, sitting at a table. The older Dave hears a sound, looks up where the astronaut Dave was standing, and sees nothing. Now we are “with” this older Dave—he has, through this magical and uncanny transition, become the Dave of the story. This Dave then turns and sees an elderly version of himself lying in a deathbed. And then, just as before, we are “with” this elderly Dave and it is as if there was never any younger one sitting at the table. Lastly the dying Dave raises his hand toward the “Star Child” that we will lastly see hovering over the earth.

Many quintessentially Lynchian scenes recall the end of 2001. Lynch loves strange rooms—they are always curtained, usually in red or blue—and they seem to be either a dream space or some place of transition between life and death, or between death and rebirth. It could be something like the “bardo” of Tibetan religion. Lynch directly borrows the “transmigration shot” from 2001 and uses it near the end of Mulholland Drive: Naomi Watts sees herself making coffee in the kitchen, and then is herself making coffee in the kitchen. (Coffee, of course, is an important symbol for Lynch. Could it mean “waking up”?)

Lynch’s obsession with what could be called the “transmigration of the soul” goes back at least to Twin Peaks—an obsession with inhabiting spirits and multiple fragmented personas. Lost Highway is obviously another exploration of this idea, in which a man escapes into a completely other, alternate life (which might be a kind of dream fantasy or unconscious alternate reality), to fall in love with a dangerous double of his wife.

To feel palpably the occult connection between Kubrick and Lynch, watch Dale Cooper’s famous dancing dwarf dream in Episode 2 of Twin Peaks. The long shots on Dale sitting expressionless, experiencing something slowly, unsure, as though paralyzed (the way one is paralyzed in sleep). Like the middle-aged Dave Bowman, Dale is aged, covered with tiny wrinkes.

Kubrick’s The Shining is perhaps a relevant parallel/source here. The film is about a “possessing spirit” and ends with the uncanny shot of a photo in the Overlook Hotel of Jack Torrance amid revelers at a 1920s ball. Like Twin Peaks’ transmigrating evil spirit Bob, the murderous evil that takes over Jack Torrance’s mind subsists through time, inhabiting different bodies. The bar and bathroom where Jack meets the satanic bartender and his murderous predecessor are also distinctly reminiscent of the “bardo” in 2001, not to mention Lynch’s curtained rooms, esp. the Red Room in Twin Peaks. Could Lynch’s Red Room (the black lodge) be something like, or be a sort of (perhaps unconscious) reference to, “Redrum”?

Postscript: Around the time I saw Inland Empire I also happened to re-watch Kieslowski’s Double Life of Veronique, and was struck by the parallels. Double lives, obviously—an actress playing different versions of the same person, with separate (yet connected) fates. But also there’s that strange aspect of Poland. Kieslowski’s two Veronicas are connected to his own two lives, his first life in Eastern Europe (one that, perhaps, has died because it has gotten worn out, like an overused marionette) and his new life in France. (Veronica, of course, means “true picture”—representing the filmmaker? Film itself?) In Lynch’s film, the actress and at least one of her doubles is married to a jealous, possibly violent Pole, and we keep returning to this Polish girl watching a strange television program somewhere in Poland. It is almost as if Poland is, in this film, a kind of symbol of the unconscious. Which makes sense—Eastern Europe has always played the role of the “unconscious” of the West, a place of dark dreams, seething desires, fear, and repression.


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

One Response to “Kubrick, Lynch, the Bardo”

  • THE SHOT:also used in the ‘scene 35’ rehearsal, when NIKKI falls under the ‘curse’ and begins living the life of SUE.
    THE BARDO ( and related Tibetan Book of the Dead crap): It is tempting to see JANEK and the other old Poles at the Seance as the judges of reincarnation. Still, they seem to have a rather more vested interest.
    Who would be the Phantom in a bhuddist interpretation?