Heineken! Damn Fine Coffee! The Wry, Enduring Comedic Collaboration of David Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan

Blue Velvet celebrates its 25th anniversary tomorrow with a new Blu-Ray package including nearly an hour’s worth of unseen footage, but I can’t imagine any lines, even a quarter century later, matching the quotability and notoriety of these:

“What kind of beer do you like?” the thuggish character Frank (Dennis Hopper) asks outside a bar in Blue Velvet. “Heineken,” mutters young, innocent Jeffrey Beaumont (the soft-spoken Kyle MacLachlan), growing aware of the seediness hidden within his hometown of Lumberton. “Heineken!” gnarled, leather-clad Frank explodes as he grips the back of Beaumont’s head. “Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”

Beaumont accepts the PBR assertion and joins Frank among the whimsical thug Ben and his harem of chubby women, among the haunting “Candy-Colored Clown They Call the Sandman” song, and the darkness and sexuality that cuts so sharply against his ironic and curious sensibility that grounds the film. Such a simple exchange but such a memorable one, like so many small moments in the classic David Lynch offering.

The scene, like much of the movie, borders on so outrageous as to be humorous. Two David Lynch projects have mastered this comedically macabre tone, and you can thank the lead in both. Filmmaker David Lynch and actor Kyle MacLachlan have collaborated with one another three times in cinematic history: in 1984’s MacLachlan debut Dune, a serious science fiction epic savaged by critics; 1986’s Blue Velvet, a quirky, offbeat exploration of Americana; and the Mark Frost-Lynch television series Twin Peaks of 1990 and 1991, which continues what Blue Velvet started in the murder investigation of a remote town’s homecoming queen Laura Palmer. Yet the first bombastic effort, costing tens of millions of dollars, bombed. The second two were genius and endure as cinematic landmarks. Why?

What unifies Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, beyond thematic curiosities, is the way lead actor MacLachlan channels the weirdness of Lynch into a performance as innocent, open, and downright funny as the director himself often appears to be in his own life. Unlike in Dune, the characters he played were allowed to relax, smile, and project a casual meditative humor in tune with Lynch’s own beliefs. This charismatic MacLachlan persona is exactly what’s necessary in tales so eerily Manichean. These projects feature Lynch at perhaps his most lighthearted, and the resulting style inspires in his audience a fanatic love that moves beyond mere artistic appreciation. 2011 marks 25 years since Blue Velvet and 20 years since Twin Peaks concluded, and they remain the most accessible as well as exhilaratingly enjoyable Lynch dramas out there…in large part because Lynch realized he could truly tap his understated comedic talents in MacLachlan.

What’s first helpful to understand is the genuinely folksy manner that seems to underscore Lynch’s strangeness. David Foster Wallace identified this quality in his 1996 Premiere essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” On the set of Lost Highway, Lynch apparently muttered “Golly!” three times in five minutes. “This is a genius auteur whose vocabulary in person consists of things like okey-doke and marvy and terrif and gee,” Wallace wrote. He speaks of Lynch’s matching pants and socks, “suggesting an extremely nerdy costume that’s been chosen and coordinated with great care.” Yet in his criticism, Wallace zeroes in on what we would call the creepiness of Lynch’s films (and they are quite unsettling, from 1977’s Eraserhead to 2006’s INLAND EMPIRE) and defines the Lynchian essence as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Yes, Wallace nailed that Lynchian aesthetic accurately enough. But inherent in that mundanity is the potential for wry Lynchian humor, kitschy in the way it plays off those humdrum details and able to skillfully humanize and often deepen the characters as a result.

“I’m going to let you in on a little secret,” FBI agent Dale Cooper, brought to life by the perpetually smiling and steadfast MacLachlan, tells Twin Peaks Sheriff Harry Truman early on in the show. “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present — two cups of good, hot, black coffee.”

MacLachlan’s hair is slicked back and his movements oddly precise, much like all the character’s mannerisms. As he sips the coffee and grins, it’s telling how he focuses and exhales. It’s earnest, powerful, simple. When people recall Twin Peaks today, they think first to the lead’s enthusiasm for “damn fine coffee!” and cherry pie — a two-minute collection of these Twin Peaks coffee clips has clocked just under 300,000 views on YouTube.

In interviews from the early ’90s, Lynch and MacLachlan joke about hanging out. “We talk about the problems associated with getting a good cup of coffee,” Lynch told GQ in 1992, acknowledging the quality of his personal cappuccino machine the two enjoyed.

What happened next for Lynch and MacLachlan? Lynch went on to Lost Highway and the acclaim of 2001’s Mulholland Drive. MacLachlan starred in Showgirls and Sex and the City and guest stars on Portlandia. None of these subsequent projects combined innocent whimsy and humor contrasted with the macabre in quite the same way as Blue Velvet, which begins with a severed ear, and Twin Peaks, which begins with a dead teenage girl who lived a double life. In characters like Dale Cooper and Jeffrey Beaumont, the creative instinct veered toward honesty. “Why are there people like Frank?” Beaumont asks his small-town love interest played by Laura Dern, another Lynch regular. “Why is there so much trouble in the world?”

Their shared sensitivity to the world proved compelling. Through MacLachlan Lynch marches into unknown and distinctly American darkness, tinged with the Pacific Northwest upbringing that both lay claim to. Hence the kitschy genuine side, the Zen corniness, the love. Agent Cooper regularly flashes the thumb’s up, just as Jeffrey Beaumont sasses his older female relatives. You don’t see that playful behavior in other Lynchian productions, without MacLachlan there to channel the Golly and Gee of Lynch. Does Jack Nance, in all his wild-haired wonder, tap that in Eraserhead? Does Dern in her nuanced portrayals?

No, Lynch and MacLachlan achieved with their second and third projects together tonal singularity and utter synchronicity. Today, 20 and 25 years after finishing them, might there be hope of further collaboration? Lynch hasn’t released a film in a half decade, but MacLachlan is still acting. Frost and Lynch have discussed the possibility of reviving Twin Peaks over the years, according to a 2010 Los Angeles Times piece, which somehow seems as fitting as it would be odd. Any project would be welcome, though, and I do hope the world sees a third collaboration between the two peacefully disturbed souls. You better believe I’ll be there, front row with a Heineken and cup of coffee on deck.

John Hendel is a writer in Washington, D.C. who currently covers the toils of transit life.

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