By A.J. Serrano
I’m terrified of David Lynch films for the same reasons that my elementary school self was consistently reduced to a trembling mess of nerves in front of Big Bertha. Lynch is the wacky-haired visionary behind such movies as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet. Big Bertha is the subject of a children’s arcade game commonly found next to the skee ball machine at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Superficially, the two have nothing in common. However, as Lynch’s cinema repeatedly insists, superficial notions contain little value.
At those birthday bashes of my youth I would dart around Mr. Cheese’s colorful arcade palace in a sort of sugar-fueled delirium. Skee ball, whac-a-mole, the pinball machine- these games would divert my attention for hours on end with their innocent charm. That being said, even in my formative years I was able to come to the conclusion that Feed Big Bertha is an infinitely disturbing arcade game.
For starters, the game not only promotes obesity, it rewards it. The goal is to win the ticket jackpot by throwing enough colorful plastic balls into Bertha’s mouth that she expands to a tragic 800-lb blubbery mess. Sure, Big Bertha is a mechanical puppet, but I’ll be damned if this does not also sound like the premise to the type of deranged game involving real obese victims that will be played at dystopian carnivals after the zombie apocalypse.
Even if we dismiss the technicalities of the game, the fact cannot be ignored that mechanical puppets are almost always creepy. Bertha’s innocent schoolgirl dress did little to distract me from that slowly expanding gut, those gaping, blood-red jaws and those sinister giggles. As that behemoth of metal and polka dots lurked in the corner of Cheese’s, my imagination would run away from me. I would anxiously question if I saw her stomach move on its own and, when I turned away from the game, I would experience that stomach-churning feeling that someone was looking at me. My fear of her was only escalated by the completely irrational premise of the game: over-feed her, earn tickets. For something as ostensibly ordinary as an arcade game, I could only see its sinister underbelly.
Which leads me to the cinema of David Lynch.
- INLAND EMPIRE: The Subject of My Current Nightmares
From Blue Velvet to Mulholland Drive to INLAND EMPIRE, Lynch’s films peel back layers of shiny idealism to reveal a dream-like world that is both sinister and alluring. In Blue Velvet, the tranquility of a picturesque suburbia is disrupted by the discovery of a severed human ear. In Mulholland Drive and INLAND EMPIRE, Hollywood is depicted as a place where nightmares run just as rampant as dreams. And, in most of Lynch’s films, there is always that sense of lurking dread, that shadowy figure watching you in the dark.
I have seen Mulholland Drive numerous times, but even thinking about the reveal of the monster waiting behind Winkie’s still makes my skin crawl. Dennis Hopper’s psychotic, oxygen mask-wielding character in Blue Velvet left me deeply unsettled. The distorted reflection of Laura Dern’s sobbing appearance on the Phantom’s face (pictured above) at the end of INLAND EMPIRE caused me to literally gasp in fright.
Though their actions are violent and bloody, the monsters of most Hollywood horror movies operate under a somewhat rational code. Jason only attacks after witnessing youths engaged in “inappropriate” activity, such as premarital sex. Norman Bates kills to maintain his distorted dependence on his mother, even after her death. On the other hand, the monsters of David Lynch’s cinema navigate a surreal landscape, ungoverned by the rational. Their purpose and motives remain unclear and unpredictable.
Though I think my Feed Big Bertha playing days are over, I do still find myself continually returning to Lynch’s work. There is something quite thrilling about viewing the surreal and irrational, witnessing the stuff of your dreams and nightmares so expertly re-imagined on a movie screen. That is, just as long as they don’t involve an obese woman in a polka dot dress.
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