David Lynch as Weatherman

On Weather, Numbers, and Secrets

It’s commonplace to regard weather-talk as the lowest form of small talk. As anthropologist Michael Taussig writes in My Cocaine Museum (2004), we “talk about the weather as a way of avoiding talking about anything else…like wind rustling through our bodies as acknowledgment of sociality.” Weather talk is sociality, in degraded form; sociality as a site of both anxiety and boredom, something we weather through with the help of triteness, white lies, pleasantries. Taussig contrasts this with weather’s ancient affects, wonder, fear, and awe, dating back to when the weather was an unpredictable phenomenon largely outside the yoke of scientific understanding—when the weather was enchanted, and our vocabulary for weather talk was enchanted too. The distance separating 21st-century experiences of weather from historical predecessors is vast, consonant with the exponential growth of meteorology as a discipline. In a typically light-footed 2017 essay, “Meteomedia: Or, Why London’s Weather Is In the Middle of Everything,” Tom McCarthy notes how “rings of satellites from five networked programs—GOES-E and GOES-W (both American), EUMETSAT (European), INSAT (Indian) and GMS (Japanese)—constantly map the entire planet’s climate, sensing the earth’s atmosphere and climate at infrared wavelengths.” The names of these satellites, as of other meteorological institutions and apparati, are not incidentally cryptic. The letters link up in a chain of efficient acronymization that confounds scientific nomenclature with the protocols of CIA cryptonyms—secret letters that suggest an ongoing mystery. McCarthy, himself a sophisticated writer of secrets and conspiracies, intuits that the weather operates in our lives like a code. Like code, it presents a surface that conceals meaning inside itself, a connection he traces via etymological residues (he points out that the Oxford English Dictionary lists “air,” “ether,” and “environment” as acceptable definitions of “medium”) to the idea of weather-as-media. 

While the scale and sophistication of meteorology now easily exceed a lay understanding (where once it had been the domain of hobbyists), weather-talk enters the living room as domestic routine. The animated weather chart, comfortable, familiar, and punctual, beams into the home with all the domesticated surety of TVs, desktops, and cellphones. The reading of the daily (hourly, weekly) weather forecast is norm-governed and orderly. And it is ruled by numbers, by degrees of heat and amounts of precipitation, a triumph of numerical weather prediction which has slowly shifted the genre from descriptive language to numerical data points. This might well be taken as the final step in the decay of weather-talk, the logical consequence of a trend of steadily waning linguistic intensity. Taussig sees in modern weather-talk the workings of reification, “the habitual response in modern culture to abstract and then quantify even lived experience as if it were money,” i.e. to take all that is visceral about lived experience and render it distant and absolutely unmysterious by converting it into a series of mere quantities. It’s a mode of conceptualizing weather carefully evacuated of the weird linkups and mysterious potentials that comprise global weather systems in more literary depictions such as McCarthy’s.

David Lynch’s Weather Report YouTube series, daily home-brewed videos of Lynch supplying the forecast, has more in common with McCarthy’s take on weather-talk than Taussig’s—it treats the lingo as coded, surreptitious, sneaking in under the skin. In these video experiments, which he began in 2005, ended in 2010, and revived as the pandemic was kicking off last year, Lynch deploys numerical weatherspeak in a way that points up other potentials inherent in the numerology of weather and the weirdness of our relations to it.

David Lynch began the Weather Report in 2005, which at that time took the form of a daily phone call to Joe Escalante’s (drummer for The Vandals) morning show on LA radio station INDIE 103.1. When Escalante’s show folded Lynch switched over to his now-defunct personal website, at which point the Weather Report was properly born as the audiovisual phenomenon now essential to its identity. In 2010 it went on seemingly permanent hiatus, only to be revived in March of last year as a YouTube show, where it now airs daily and in tandem with a radio version broadcast by KCRW. As others have noted, the brief history of David Lynch’s Weather Report offers no shortage of opportunities to be read as a performance of Lynchian tropes. In the break between the first version of Weather Report and its current iteration, Lynch has switched his on-camera attire from a white shirt to a black one (leading writer Cody Shafer to brilliantly wonder whether Lynch is “playing his own doppelganger” in the revived Weather Report). The long gap between “seasons” of the Weather Report is resonant of Twin Peaks’ mystical twenty-five-year pause that made extra-diegetically real Laura Palmer’s diegetic whisper, “I’ll see you in twenty-five years.”  The daisy-chain of media—radio, internet, silence, back to radio and internet—within which the Weather Report is inscribed, is reminiscent of Lynch’s career-long obsession with haunted media (consider the talismanic repeats of the phrase “I have a radio” in the 2014 short film I Have a Radio, or the circulation of tapes and phone calls in Twin Peaks, to take two very brief examples). The two versions of the Weather Report speak to each other in playfully self-referential ways, made all the more playful by the fact that so few of the original videos are available today. But the single most striking change between the 2005-2010 run and the current Weather Report is the addition, in these latter videos, of the emphatic benediction with which almost every video closes (more on this below).

In each of Lynch’s roughly one-minute-long weather reports the filmmaker repeats an identical template. He says good morning, states the date and day, then turns to the window and, starting with “Here in LA…”, recites the forecast in terms of temperature, visibility, and wind conditions. He uses both Celsius and Fahrenheit measurements for temperature. His vocabulary for describing visibility is rudimentary: the rich and calibrated language of cloud cover and so on is reduced to a polar scale with “fog” on one end and “clear blue skies” on the other. The videos offer themselves as a performance of reification, their flat and unchanging structure mirroring the weatherman’s pat delivery, his determined lack of embellishment. And this is what they would be—a registering of the weather as background, an index of its unremarkability—if the weatherman were not David Lynch. Instead, performed by Lynch, these videos suggest a world in which the weather recovers its enchantment. Rather than the ossification of sense implied by reification, Lynch’s readings of the weather re-invoke the possibilities of a world rife with unknowns. He does this partly through the sheer force of his personality and partly through the talismanic use of language which runs through his work. Lost Highway (1997) opens with a spoken sentence—“Dick Laurent is dead,”—that sucks the world of the film into itself like a portal; the decryption of that quote’s code destroys its code-breaker. The Alphabet, an early short, hinges around the declaration by an off-screen voice, “Please remember, you are dealing with the human form.” Weather Report continues Lynch’s interest in fragmentary and coded speech via the director’s peculiar meteorological idiolect: his repetition, in as many videos as possible, of the phrase “Blue skies, golden sunshine all along the way. Everyone, have a great day!” These simple words have an obvious mysticism to them, seeming to describe a spiritual state as much as the weather. It evokes a weather of the soul / enchantment all over again.

One watches David Lynch’s Weather Report not to learn about the weather but to watch Lynch perform—even though, precisely because, he doesn’t perform in any actorly way. Instead, he performs himself. Sociologist Erving Goffman famously described personality as a dramaturgical effect, the self as a performance in which subject merges with object. Even in one’s off time, behind the curtain and offstage, the performance continues as rehearsal, preparation, perfection. Watching Lynch in these YouTube videos, one can have the sense of becoming privy to these off-stage moments (all the more fitting, then, that his YouTube channel is called “David Lynch Theater”). In his unperformative performance one is at leisure to scan his surface for its aura and try, as it were, to read the tea leaves: to read off his posture, cadence, body language, fidgets, the secret to the person. And no one invites such a reading more than David Lynch, whose work is laden with intimations of secrets, of conspiracies lurking beneath the surface: the zoom into underbrush in the opening shot of Blue Velvet that reveals ferocious insect violence within the apparent calm of suburban yards, Rita/Camilla suggestively murmuring “a secret path” into Betty/Diane’s ear as she leads her up a hidden shortcut to her Mulholland Drive house. The unassuming, prankish Weather Report effects a generic bait-and-switch, flipping the positions of fore and background: instead of the weather, it’s the weatherman we’re interested in. 

Despite a recent increase in the wordiness of these videos, Lynch’s weather reports are inherently numerological events. Thus the clear statement of the day, month, and year which opens each video and the reading of the temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. The staging of the videos in a bunker-like space divorces these weather-numbers from their referents. The camera never follows Lynch’s gaze outside the window; all we ever see is the man and his surroundings, almost unchanged from the day before, though as of late he has changed the position in which he shoots the videos (these are the minor details to which the videos invite us to attach outsized significance) so that a portion of window is visible on the edge of screen, a brilliance of light. The numbers become, in these videos, just numbers, things-in-themselves. No animated weather chart swirls in the background to attach drama to them. They feel instead like digits in a lottery, pure and abstract. If reification is the term we use for the tendency of numbers to void weather-talk of its human content, what then should we call the opposing tendency? The potential of these numbers to signify something other than the weather, to deepen its mystery? Because this is what seems to be going on in the Weather Report and, even more forcefully, in the more recent video series Today’s Number. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the Weather Report; the two ask to be watched together, a single split message. It’s in this complement to the Weather Report that the full force of the mystic, conspiratorial energies that buzz through Lynch’s oeuvre explode exuberantly onto the surface. 

Today’s Number, which Lynch introduced in August 2020, is decidedly cheeky, playful, purposeless. Lynch stands outside his workspace holding in his hands a large, red-lidded plastic jar. The bottom two-thirds of the jar is blacked out by a marker, capped by a thick white dividing line that runs around the circumference. Again, these videos are formulaic; as with Weather Report, the force of these videos resides not in any formal surprise but in the interplay between an algorithm and its human execution. The reliability and structure of a formal law is enlivened by its interpretation. Lynch delivers an identical patter and set of maneuvers in each of these daily uploads. He inverts the jar so that the white ping-pong balls inside tip into the clear portion and brings the jar closer to the camera. “Ten balls,” he announces. “Each ball has a number.” The jar is straightened and brought back away from the camera, balls falling out of view behind the blacked-out plastic: “Numbers one through ten.” Lynch unscrews the lid and, dipping in a hand, continues the narration, “Swirl the numbers.” He does this for a few seconds. “Pick a number.” He pulls out a ping pong ball, looks at it, then brings it up close to the camera to reveal the underlined number as he states, “Today’s number is [x].” David Lynch/the random number generator signs off with a benediction familiar from the Weather Report: “Everyone, have a great day!” The screen fades to black. Cheeky white text tries to leave us with a cliffhanger, as if something very mysterious were being performed in these videos: “What will tomorrow’s number be?” Hard cut to black.

Lynch offers these videos without context or frame, yet the form is a familiar one. It’s the spin of the roulette wheel, the revolving wheel of fortune, a card player’s dice throw. It’s pure stochastic process. Today’s Number begs the question of significance—what does it mean for a day to have a number?—but the joke, of course, is that the question is moot. As with the weather reports, performance supersedes referent. Vanna White draws more attention than the tiles she taps—she, and not the word game, is the show. When Samsung ran an ad showing a robot turning letter tiles on a gameshow, Vanna White (and not Wheel of Fortune) was right in suing for damages—she is in no way a robot, she brings to the show things a robot never could—and in so doing revealed the extent of her identity with the gameshow. The algorithm is changed by its execution, is born anew in every execution. These are the ideas Lynch puts into play with his innocuous, low-fi, home-made Today’s Numbers. Today’s number is without significance, thus filled with every possible significance. The precise theater of laws and rules hides a playground of randomness within itself—which is of course the ground zero of meteorology, all over again.

The presumption that outside events somehow reflect our inner lives, that the weather mirrors (rather than shapes) our emotions, is an old one. It’s this suspicion that the world subtly responds to our internal, secret lives that has for so long provided the scaffold against which amateur meteorologists logged the weather or contemporary data analysts use weather charts to read the stock market. The attraction of both is the discovery of impossible patterns—a secret rhythm that lies behind ordinary things. It’s this desire, too, that the Today’s Number videos exude. The videos invite private numerology. What was the number on your birthday? How does the day’s number relate to the temperature readings in the Weather Report? One user leaves a detailed comment on each video, listing every number picked, the number of times each has been picked, the average of the string, and so on. A small mystery evolves over the identity and cryptic commentary of the user “Wes W.” This is precisely the kind of search for secrets and desire for intrigue that drives so many of Lynch’s characters, that enchants his world and which, in the form of a random number generator, his YouTube channel ports into ours. And 2020 was an apt year for investigations into enchanted numerology, into the potential of numbers to have moral valence. Should we have predicted this from its very shape, 2-0-2-0, a symmetry meant to deceive? Lynch’s videos register the elapsing of this year in a state of emergency via formal deviations. On June 2, 2020, which was #BlackOutTuesday, the camera filmed an empty room (this blank video has since been taken off the channel). On June 3, Lynch reappeared in his seat but with a sign behind him, handmade, simply painted, bearing seven words: BLACK LIVES MATTER, PEACE, JUSTICE, NO FEAR. Lynch walked offscreen after completing the day’s weather report as the camera kept rolling, logging over a minute of the protest sign—reading us a different kind of weather. The same with the 2020 California wildfires, which spilled pollution into the blue skies and golden sunshine and had to be registered in speech. “If this smoke would clear…which I don’t know if it will, but if it did,” Lynch says, forced into a hesitant subjunctive, “We’d be having blue skies and golden sunshine.” Just like that, the affect of the sentence changes. It’s no longer a benediction. It’s a wistful, desperate wish. The desperate inclemency of the weather—meteorological, social, local, global, medical, personal—forces a break in the spiritual weatherman’s daily routine. We saw it again last month, on the weather report for July 11, when Lynch delivered his most weatherman-like performance yet. Chagrined by the cloudiness of the LA sky, he launches into a description of the phenomenon of desert rain, linking LA’s humidity clouds to the presence of desert storms in places like Arizona or Nevada. “That’s why these clouds keep coming in,” he complains. “When it’s supposed to be blue clouds and golden sunshine!” Lynch re-tools the absence of his beloved beautiful blue skies and golden sunshine as mere effects of something very beautiful happening somewhere far away: “If you see some wispy clouds in LA today, chances are the desert is blooming somewhere. It’s a beautiful thought.”

Donna Haraway’s concept of the Chtulhucene, which uses H.P. Lovecraft’s monstrous, cosmic entity as its ideological basis, likewise emphasises intersystems continuity as a way of thinking through the alarming transformations of the planetary weather systems, shifting the valence of a term like the Anthropocene into something more actionable and precisely descriptive. Lovecraft offers other weirdly useful monster-concepts too. In his 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space,” the very air turns poisonous, a vapor that sickens all who breathe. Horror is ambient. No boundary divides ordinary meteorological phenomena from the workings of the evil that, not coincidentally, made its arrival via a meteor. Vegetation rots. Water glows. Burrowed deep into the earth, the color/thing from outer space mixes itself up with the water table and plant roots. It merges with the system, is the system. Such a situation seems to not only metaphorically describe the present; it is becoming an ever-more literal statement of fact at a moment when the air is suspect, invisible non-living particles ravage human bodies and social systems, and reactionary social forces gain momentum everywhere. It’s no surprise, then, for the very concept of connectivity, of ambience, to have come under fire, for 5G wireless towers to be attacked by mobs as the cause of COVID-19. The problem, these mobs rightly intuit, lives in the very air. A frame from Fire Walk With Me (1992), Lynch’s cinematic prequel to the TV show—and which takes its title from another talismanic fragment of speech—renders this blurring of weather as passive surround as well as active (horrific) agent. Walking out of her seemingly ordinary suburban home, Laura Palmer looks up at the sky and finds it distorted. The “clear blue sky” behind the telephone wires snaps and crackles like a glitched-out CRT TV screen. Another glance and it dissolves completely into noise.

In this image of the sky becoming a TV screen, static-filled, we have something like a manifesto for David Lynch’s YouTube experiments. Weather as medium. Media as weather, ambience, surround, an abnormal normal. Weather as vital—animate and animating—a force we ignore at our very great risk and which will always, like numbers, carry within itself shades of its own secret, hidden, and true resonance.

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