His dark materials

David Lynch’s films are hymns to bodily mutilation and dysfunction, in which prosthetic props threat

There's an early David Lynch film called The Amputee (1974). Two films, in fact: he made it twice, with the same script, same shots, same everything. Explaining the duplication years later, he told an interviewer that the American Film Foundation wanted to test two types of video stock, so he used the opportunity to produce a short, recording it on both types for comparison. He did this not without misgivings: that the American Film Foundation should be consorting with a format that might turn out to be film's nemesis "gave me a sadness".

In the film itself, a woman with two stumps instead of legs is seen writing a letter, while a voice-over renders the content of this silent process. The content itself is pretty conventional, involving some interpersonal psychological entanglement or other. But this is relegated to the background. The film's prime action, what we actually see, is a nurse dressing the stumps: unravelling bandages, pumping liquid over mounds of malformed scar tissue, letting it drain and dribble out of cavities and craters. It's pure Lynch already, a ghoulish fascination with traumatised flesh and its contortions, set against a backdrop of anxiety about the medium, the very material, in which the drama is being rendered. Try to count the instances of deformity in Lynch's work, or of people being deformed on camera, and you'll lose count pretty quickly.

To interpret his repeated featuring of disability as a liberal, "equal opportunity"-type gesture would be wildly wide of the mark; yet seeing it as a kind of shorthand for moral perversity, like Richard III's hunched back in Shakespeare's play, would be just as mistaken. Deformity, for Lynch, is not simply thematic: it is instrumental. In his films, what the continual, almost systematic replacement of body parts and faculties by instruments - crutches, wheelchairs, hearing aids and ever weirder apparatuses sometimes as large as rooms - produces is a whole prosthetic order, a world of which prosthesis is not just a feature, but a fundamental term, an ontological condition. And the implications of this world, this order, are, as Lynch himself might put it, big.

For Freud, prosthesis is the essence of technology. "With all his tools," he writes in Civilisation and its Discontents, "man improves his own organs, both motor and sensory, or clears away the barriers to their functioning." Ships, aeroplanes, telescopes and cameras, gramophones and telephones - all these afford man the omnipotence and omniscience he attributes to his gods, thus making him "ein Prothesengott", a kind of god with artificial limbs, a prosthetic god. "When he puts on all his aux­iliary organs he is truly magnificent," Freud writes, "but those organs have not grown onto him and they still give him much trouble at times." Man's technological appendages both enhance and diminish him. It's what Hal Foster, in his book Prosthetic Gods, calls "the double logic of the prosthesis": an addition that threatens, or marks, a subtraction.

This double logic is writ large in Lynch's films. That the father of Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), the central character in Blue Velvet (1986), is strapped up, astronaut-like, to apparatuses of the highest order is due not to some heroic cosmic voyaging, but rather to having been struck down by a heart attack, immobilised, made pathetic; meeting Jeffrey's gaze with his, all he can do is cry. As Jeffrey returns from visiting him in hospital, this same logic is expanded to provide the film's inciting incident - his discovery, in an open field, of a severed ear heralds the onset of a world of amplified, recorded and transmitted sound, where Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) sings into trademark Lynchean microphones, Frank (Dennis Hopper) and his entourage mime to tape cassettes and crackling walkie-talkies hold the key to life and death. This world is both exhilarating and threatening. And it has been present in Lynch's oeuvre since the opening seconds of Eraserhead (1977), where, to the sound of loudspeaker static and industrial noise, we see a sweaty, tar-coated figure "operating" the abject hero, Henry (Jack Nance), by cranking a lever in a signal box.

There is another way to think about prosthesis - as a form of puppetry. In his 1810 story-cum-essay "On the Marionette Theatre", the German Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist recounts a meeting, at a fairground, with a choreographer who, watching marionettes being manipulated, marvelled at the way in which dance "could be entirely transferred to the realm of mechanical forces" and "controlled by a crank". "Have you heard," the choreographer asks the narrator, "of the artificial legs designed by English craftsmen for those unfortunates who have lost their limbs?" The implication is clear: prosthetic-clad man is like a puppet - which invites the question: who's the puppeteer?

This question is a central one for Lynch. His films abound in instances of control, in scenes in which control itself is dramatised. "I can make him do anything I please!" Frank boasts after he has captured Jeffrey. His other captive, Dorothy, he manipulates night after night, telling her: "Sit down!"; "Open your legs!"; "Don't look at me!" Dorothy then does the same to Jeffrey, holding a knife to his throat and hissing at him "Undress!" or, later, "Hit me!" - both of which he does.

In The Elephant Man (1980) - which, like Kleist's text, opens in a 19th-century fairground where puppets are displayed - John Merrick (John Hurt) is alternately bullied into standing up and turning round to order for the paying public, and more kindly but no less decisively prompted to perform the same manoeuvres by his doctor, who then teaches him to speak and tells him what to say.

Telling people what to say or how to move their body is part and parcel of making films, but there's a metaphysical dimension to it, too. For Kleist, puppetry lays bare a complex process through which man, robbed of the pure, naive grace of a puppet by self-consciousness, might regain it by advancing so far into knowledge that he re-emerges on the other side to "appear most pure in that human form which either has no consciousness at all or possesses infinite consciousness - that is, either in a marionette or in a god" - an event, the choreographer informs the narrator, that would constitute "the last chapter in the history of the world".

Likewise, the network of control in Wild at Heart (1990), in which Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lulu (Laura Dern) flee Lulu's overbearing mother (Diane Ladd), also has a metaphysical dimension: divine and supernatural forces, voo­doo priestesses and witches. The mother, summoning her diabolical cohorts on the telephone, watches the progress of Cage and Dern in her glass ball, as though she were Athena gazing down on Odysseus's troubled journey home.

Wild at Heart's main template is the ultimate cinematic fable of divinity and puppetry: the Wizard of Oz, who controls everything and can make all things happen, turns out, at the end of the Technicolor rainbow, to be no more than a feeble man cranking a crappy, low-tech, fairground-type contraption. Incredibly, mainstream commercial cinema managed to enact in 1939 the subversive fantasy that William Burroughs would spend decades toiling in the underground and avant-garde to formulate - the fantasy that the Control Room or Reality Studio that maintains the illusion that in turn conserves repressive order can be revealed for what it is, rumbled and blown open. For Burroughs, this day, when it arrives, will not only prompt panicked cries that "the director is on set", but also herald the end of the film - the end of time, perhaps, and certainly the death
of God (who, after all, is no more than a hack director, a degenerate crank-operator whose power over us makes "ventriloquist dummies" of us). Here, again, we come back to prosthesis: for Burroughs, God is like an irksome and unnecessary limb or organ.

With all this in mind, consider the trium­virate of what, if Lynch receives his full critical due in future years, will probably come to be referred to, à la Shakespeare, as his "problem films": the ones that, lacking a stable reality field, are fraught with ontological discrepancies - seemingly unconnected plot-lines, characters who switch from one persona to another, settings that shift from house to house, continent to continent, era to era.

The first of these, Lost Highway (1997), is an orgy of deformity and bodily shutdown. Fred (Bill Pullman), the central character of the first half, doesn't simply murder his wife, he dismembers her; Richard Pryor makes a final film appearance, all decrepit in his wheelchair; and there's the dwarfish Mystery Man (Robert Blake) with his telephone, another big prosthetic ear. The Mystery Man, with his illuminated face, is also a kind of angel: here, too, human beings mix with gods - and do so through a technologically enabled interface of videos and sound equipment, fine-tuned (and not so fine-tuned) car engines, and wireless sets. Lost Highway's supernatural realm of technology is blighted, too, glitch-ridden: burglar alarms disabled, tapes peppered with white noise, radios prone to interference from the other channel.

What's this film about? The same as all of Lynch's films: the outsourcing of the self and of reality to their prostheses - and the outsourcing of what is at once the triumph and catastrophe of God's death to the prosthetic realm as well. God dies in Lost Highway, make no mistake: Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), the patriarchal gangster who makes porno movies running on a loop in the control room of desire, is butchered gruesomely in front of the Mystery Man's camera. Time, at this point, reaches the end of its reel, comes full circle, and the film ends with the same Nietzschean announcement that it began with: "Dick Laurent is dead."

The same state of affairs persists in Mulholland Drive (2001). Beginning with a car crash, it loops round on itself just like Lost Highway, seeding confusion as it progresses. People who try to work out what's "really" going on in it are wasting their time, as the whole drama of the film is that of a reality field trying to hold itself together after its sovereign guarantor (in this case, not the Godlike father figure, but rather the female object of obsessive love, played by Laura Harring) has been assassinated. It tries to do this through the medium of film - the narratives, scripts and personae of Hollywood. Only the reel is real. The man in the Control Room this time - Mr Roque (Michael J Anderson), who listens in on studio meetings by audio relay and dispenses his commands via intercom - is almost pure prosthesis, his already tiny, crippled body dwarfed yet further by the spacious, hi-tech chamber from which he calls the shots.

By Inland Empire (2006), it's no longer even tiny human beings occupying the central chamber, but rabbits, moving robotically to canned laughter. In the Control Room, the marionettes: the puppets operate us. Opening with a close-up of speeding gramophone grooves overlaid with a crackling announcement for a radio play, then cutting straight to closed-circuit images of people with blanked-out faces, then to a woman watching television, the film announces from the outset that its subject will be mediation itself. What follows is all glitch, all interference, as lines, situations and identities morph into and out of one another. "There's a vast network," says one character, "an ocean of possibilities."

It is this network that Nikki (Laura Dern again) navigates as she rushes through a series of quasi-connected rooms, streets, film sets and screens, encountering an architecture that is best understood as "digital" - in the strict computing sense of information storage, relay and configuration. Like a gamer, she must find her way towards the inner chamber, negotiating levels that regress and embed each other; like a hacker, she must crack its source code, break the game's own system, bring it crashing down.

To put it in Kleist's terms, she must come to the point where no consciousness and infinite consciousness coincide, gods and marionettes become one, the world's last chapter. It is not only the logic that's digital; so is the medium in which it takes place, the very matter on which Lynch shot it. What's been amputated, cut, removed from this film is the film itself, replaced not by video, but by virtual technology.

The world's last chapter, cinema's prosthesis. This, perhaps, is what we are witnessing at the end of Inland Empire. Against the agonised, apocalyptic ecstasy of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman", a song that tells of what happens at time's end, "all on them day", a girl who, with a car-stick for a leg, embodies all the amputees and car-crash victims, all the dwarves, puppets and freaks in Lynch's oeuvre, hobbles on to a stage on which all the film's players, revels ended, are gathered - and, surveying the scene with a smile, she murmurs: "Sweet."

This is an edited version of "The Prosthetic Imagination of David Lynch", a talk given during the recent conference on Lynch's films
at Tate Modern

Tom McCarthy's third novel, "C", will be published by Jonathan Cape in August

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously