Episode 8 remains one of the main landmarks of The Return – it might be Lynch at his most experimental, flirting with non-narrative cinema as well as with complex metaphysical and esoteric issues. One of the most impressive moments of the episode is of course the one when the camera dives into the atomic mushroom over New Mexico, leading to cosmic imagery (and cosmic consciousness), worthy of the Stargate sequence in 2001: a Space Odyssey.
The reference to Stanley Kubrick, though pertinent to some extent, might nevertheless lead us to overlook another possible source for this sequence. I believe that the various (micro & macro)cosmic explosions we witness in this episode might have been influenced by the work of another American filmmaker: Jordan Belson (1926-2011), much of which predates Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece.
From 1947 to 2005, Belson created a series of abstract and spiritually oriented films of extreme beauty. Like Lynch, he started as a painter before moving on to filmmaking, and he was also strongly influenced by Eastern theologies, notably by Buddhism and the Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead).
Gene Youblood writes about Belson’s films in his book Expanded Cinema and says that “Belson’s work seems to reside equally in the physical and the metaphysical… He regards the films not as exterior entities, but literally as extensions of his own consciousness”, which is something one could also say about Lynch’s work. He goes on: “The films are litlerally superempirical – that is, actual experiences of a transcendental nature”. Also, like Lynch, he always maintained the illusion of his magic by not divulging his methods.
You can watch Belson’s film Samadhi (1967) – that state of consciousness in which the individual soul merges with the universal soul, when the physical world of sangsara and the spiritual world of nirvana become one -, a good starting base for his filmography, by clicking on the link below the image.
Interestingly when one discusses the similarities between Belson’s films and Lynch’s work on episode 8, Youngblood writes about his film Re-Entry (1964 – based on the Bardo Thodol’s intermediate state between death and rebirth): “The image in Belson’s film is somewhat like slow-motion movies of atomic blasts in Nevada with the desert floor swept across by a tremendous shock wave”. The cosmogonic experience of episode 8 finds a parallel in a quote by Belson himself who said of his film Momentum (1968): “I realized that the film doesn’t stop at the sun, it goes to the center of the sun and into the atom… The end shows the paradoxical realm in which subatomic phenomena and the cosmologically vast are identical”.