I learned that just beneath the surface there’s another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid, but I couldn’t find the proof. It was just a kind of feeling. There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force – a wild pain and decay – also accompanies everything.
To most filmgoers, the name “David Lynch” is likely to spark a few clichés: scenes of violence set to ironically light golden oldies, a perverse depiction of sexuality, haunting visuals, all of which are drenched in a confusing plot and casual surrealism. While these are not entirely incorrect, the way he tells stories is less about indulging various sexual or artistic fetishes than coming to terms with an intense, crazed world, one which refuses to be cowed to normal human logic. His villains may be sleazy, and his heroes possessing their own dark desires, but he has a real love for his characters and the frightening environs in which they dwell. For all his outsized weirdness, his surplus of empathy might almost be his weirdest element.
Lynch studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before attending the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies, and his works have been defined partially by a powerful, provocative visual style and strong motifs. It was at the latter school he produced his first and most extreme film, Eraserhead, in 1977. A deeply scary, strangely autobiographical horror story about a man’s struggle to take care of his sickly child, it’s replete with striking images: a “woman in the radiator” with cancerous cheeks, gargantuan factories dominating the film’s hapless protagonist (Jack Nance, who would work with Lynch consistently until his death in 1996), and more than anything else the hero’s horrifying, wailing, physically inhuman infant. The latter is one of the most disturbing special effects in all of cinema, and to this day the details of its creation have remained unexplained.
Eraserhead was beloved and influential among artists for its grimy, industrial horror; it also allowed him to make two more traditional pictures. Uncredited producer Mel Brooks hired him to direct the Elephant Man, a sumptuous 1980 biopic of Joseph Merrick whose makeup effects’ Oscar snub led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to create the award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Afterwards, Lynch worked on the troubled 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune (which he made over an offer to direct Return of the Jedi), one of the only times in which he went into a project without having control of the final cut. The latter was a bloated, deeply flawed mess that conquered him – he was young, inexperienced, and helming a massive undertaking that stymied multiple filmmakers before him – though it still has a visual splendor and intensity, with bizarre alien monsters and the depiction of the series’ iconic giant sandworms. It also introduced him to his second major collaborator, Kyle McLachlan, whose youthful face and earnestness would be put to great use in his next two major works.
While Lynch’s proclivities and interests have made him something of an acquired taste – Roger Ebert notably disliked his films other than the Straight Story and Mulholland Dr., the latter getting on his list of great movies – he also attracts a number of viewers who respond well to him. One of them, critic Pauline Kael, helped put him more in the spotlight than ever with his 1986 classic, Blue Velvet. McLachlan plays a college student whose discovery of a severed ear and a mysterious singer (Isabella Rossellini, who Lynch dated for five years afterwards) leads him down a dark path of voyeurism, sadomasochism, and a demented gangster played by Dennis Hopper. It also marked the point in which Laura Dern and composer Angelo Badalamenti would join the list of recurring Lynch collaborators, with the latter’s emotional and haunting themes providing an important counterpart to Lynch’s visual sense. It’s one of his best films, and also one of the more easily approachable, with its more conventional thriller setup and linear plot. This was about the point in which David Lynch became “David Lynch,” gonzo filmmaker with things to say about the dark heart of Reaganite America, and something of a known entity among the public.
If Blue Velvet was perhaps Lynch’s most iconic film, his next major project would be his most iconic work of all: Twin Peaks. He and co-creator Mark Frost’s television series, lasting from 1990 to 1991, is one of the most influential and iconic shows in the history of the medium. A returning McLachlan plays the ideal Lynch hero; a kindly, brilliant, and quirky FBI agent who uses East Asian philosophical techniques to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in a small Washington town. Its use of surrealism and serialization, a peculiar mix of comedy and drama, and focus on small town politics is almost incalculable in how influential it is; it can be seen in shows as diverse as the X-Files, LOST, the Sopranos, and Hannibal, and even video games like the Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Deadly Premonition. It’s a cliché by this point to say that, “there was nothing else like it on TV,” but that really was the case; most audiences at the time weren’t familiar with elaborate dream sequences awash in symbolism and backwards-talking dwarfs, or small towns filled with dark secrets – certainly not on primetime broadcast television. Its overly long second season faltered quickly after Lynch left, often failing to keep the mix of humor, horror, pathos, and surrealism aloft, though his return at the very end marked a dramatic improvement and one of the most disturbing television finales ever produced.
EDIT: I forgot to make note of this in the discussion, but the show got a film epilogue/sequel, Fire Walk with Me. Opinions on it are wildly mixed, but I rather like it. The film is really Peaks without Frost or network standards, and it’s far more difficult than the show as a whole but in content and form. However, that difficulty is part of how it gets at the tragedy at the heart of the series impeccably well, better than almost any of the episodes.
Peaks’s early runaway success allowed him freedom to make works like the excellent Wild at Heart, in which Dern and Nicolas Cage’s Elvis fanatic travel across the country to avoid crazed would-be assassins, the dark and difficult Bill Pullman neo-noir Lost Highway, and his uniquely “family friendly” (though no less Lynchian or affecting) turn for Disney with the Straight Story. However, his interests moved back to television, where he planned another mystery show for ABC. Though the project fell through, it was reanimated into what I would argue is his greatest film, Mulholland Dr. This, more than almost any other, propagates the notion of Lynch’s films as incomprehensible and full of false directions, but it’s so much more. It’s a labyrinthine puzzle box without a solution, a lesbian romance-mystery-adventure all set within Naomi Watts’ exploration of what Lynch describes as the “putrefaction of Hollywood.” It’s a haunting apotheosis of almost all his pet ideas, visual tropes, and storytelling methods, and the search for what it “means” is itself a compelling venture. And while all of that makes it sound like a punishing academic exercise, its excitement at setting up and working through these mysteries is palpable and infectious.
Despite the critical and commercial success of his prior work, he still struggled to get funding as the film industry changed throughout the 2000s. After his confused and difficult Inland Empire was released in 2006, he retired from filmmaking…until reuniting with Frost for a 25 years late revival of Twin Peaks, something the show itself prophesied. It’s set for a 2017 date, and the excitement of him writing and directing again is a tantalizing prospect, in some ways more than the return to that small town. While Lynch’s idiosyncrasies influenced many artists, many of whom have ripped his style off outright (among them his daughter, filmmaker Jennifer Lynch), there’s a specificity and a lack of self-consciousness that separates him. Anecdotes from the Blue Velvetproduction mention how he meticulously crawled on the floor during shoots, making sure the dust and debris most filmmakers would either ignore or remove were ordered in just the right way.
The man’s output extends far beyond his direction and writing: he’s been an actor on Louie and the Cleveland Show (along with Peaks, where he played goofy FBI boss Gordon Cole), a musician with albums like Crazy Clown Time, and creator of comic strip the Angriest Dog in the World. This also ignores his many shorts , such as Six Men Getting Sick and the Alphabet, his various paintings, or his fascination with transcendental meditation. However, all of this other work is secondary to his work as a director, a unique career of films that all hold a distinctive style and focus despite their different genres, tones, and subject matter.
While his works are almost universally dark in tone and subject matter (his least “adult” work by a country mile, the Straight Story, is still about dealing with mortality and age), there’s a kindness and affability at their heart. His characters are often known for their odd quirks and affects, like Twin Peaks’ Log Lady, who often “spoke” to a log she claimed contained the soul of her husband. His films are less interested in strict plots (though they’re far less convoluted than they appear) than presenting a sort of celluloid canvas of thoughts and ideas, which viewers interact with emotionally. A century-plus of western filmmaking and storytelling techniques has conditioned us to approach and understand films in a specific way, and this man throws much – though not all – of it out the window. For many viewers, most of whom would prefer something comforting and simple, that’s frequently scary. It is also captivating, even beautiful.
Within all of this, Lynch remains a uniquely American director, a small town boy who carries both a passion for and suspicion of the trappings of traditional Americana. The worlds his characters inhabit are equal parts idyllic nostalgia and perverse sexuality; one demands the existence of the other. His protagonists’ best qualities – be it drive, ambition, or curiosity – are often tied to their failings or potential for self-destruction. His plots are chimerical and mercurial, constantly shifting and reforming in both their plots and the viewer’s changing interpretation to them. And for all their overt “craziness” and off-putting subject matter, his films’ captivating aural and visual power allows them to reach people in a very scant few can. That’s a power art holds, a kind which few even dare to reach.
The Elephant Man
Wild at Heart
The Straight Story
For the Serious Fans:
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me