Why this might not seem so easy
Wild at heart, weird on top and even stranger if one starts to sink into his dreamlike fables, the cinema of David Lynch is not for the literal-minded or easily spooked. He’s one of the most distinctive, lauded filmmakers of the past 40 years, and his 10 features – and one revelatory TV series – encompass an uncompromising body of work. They are explorations of nature’s dark side that twist everyday sights and sounds – suburban picket fences and shimmering 1950s and 60s pop tunes – into disorientating terrains teeming with sudden, visceral violence, sexual menace, sneaky, off-kilter humour and thrumming, disquieting soundtracks.
Lynch’s fascination with Americana (all but two of his films are set in the US) and his own awkward blend of wholesome boy-scout persona and disquieting predilections, led comedian-producer Mel Brooks – who hired Lynch to helm his 1980 prestige biopic The Elephant Man on the strength of his singular, avant-garde debut Eraserhead (1977) – to famously dub him “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”. It’s a neat one-liner from a consummate gagman, but it’s also perhaps misleading. Rather than being some extra-terrestrial, Lynch is, if anything, an intra-terrestrial. His otherness doesn’t come from the outside, it comes from within.
Just as his longstanding advocacy for transcendental meditation (TM) is all about delving down into the subconscious and, creatively speaking, “catching the big fish” (the title of his personal TM guidebook), Lynch takes us on journeys deep inside ourselves, unearthing primal, often shocking fears and desires. It’s hard to think of another filmmaker capable of conjuring up such oneiric visions; films as haunted, liminal spaces where the real and surreal merge. And while his obtuse, often non-linear storylines attract those obsessively looking to ‘solve’ his mysteries, such amusing pastimes generally miss the point. Though one can, in fact, often eventually decipher the dislocated narrative puzzles, their true power comes from a more intangible place, where words and logic cede control to intuition and emotion.
Lynch himself is notorious for good-naturedly fending off attempts to define his films’ meanings. And if the term ‘Lynchian’ embodies an unmistakable audio-visual style (with rare outliers, detailed below), some have found his more uneven efforts verging on self-parody. Yet, at his best, Lynch is a visionary artist – one also active in painting, sculpture and music – tapping into cinema’s potential to linger with, and within, you long after the screen fades to black.
The best place to start – Twin Peaks
Is it simply wrong-headed to begin a primer into such a cinematic heavyweight as Lynch with a work of television? Perhaps, but the seemingly perverse choice of Twin Peaks (1990-91) has its benefits. The two-season series, set in a retro Washington state small-town and based around the mystery of a prom queen’s murder, exhibits many of Lynch’s trademarks: surrealist flourishes, quirky humour and genuine otherworldly danger, yet toned down enough (certainly in terms of explicit sex and violence) to help the show become a genuine pop-culture phenomenon.
Anchored by his then-regular leading man Kyle MacLachlan’s straight-arrow FBI agent Dale Cooper, the investigation into ‘Who Killed Laura Palmer?’ was gripping enough; but mainstream TV had never seen anything like Twin Peaks’ enveloping ‘oddness’ – the deliberately stilted, quotable dialogue (“Damn fine coffee!” etc), winningly oddball characters and the often overwhelming sense of malevolence beneath the picture-perfect façade. And besides, a ‘gentle’ immersion into Lynch is all relative. The episode where the killer is revealed, and then kills again, is arguably the single most terrifying scene in television history.
If you can handle your Lynch undiluted, then Twin Peaks’ roughhousing older brother Blue Velvet (1986) is also a good entry point. Another shape-shifting exposé of the sordid underbelly beneath Norman Rockwell-esque suburbia, it’s a coming-of-age story as Freudian nightmare (Oedipus wrecks?), with MacLachlan’s voyeuristic teen getting way more than he bargained for by intruding on Isabella Rossellini’s sado-masochistic chanteuse and Dennis Hopper’s unhinged, gas-inhaling gangster. Still shocking and subversive 30 years on, it’s an unqualified masterpiece whose bravura opening sequence presents a microcosm for the themes and imagery of Lynch’s entire career.
What to watch next
The generally ecstatic reception for Blue Velvet (and later Twin Peaks) seems to have emboldened Lynch to venture further into his singular style and obsessions. Wild at Heart (1990) is Lynch’s Wizard of Oz-infused road movie, with Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern’s wired, inspired lovers on the run from all manner of grotesques and dream illogic, blending discordant comic interludes with bursts of gruesome brutality. Lost Highway (1997) trips even further down the rabbit hole, with its blithe, matter-of-fact Möbius-strip narrative and haunting invasions of domestic space. And if you return to Lynch’s then defiantly sui generis first feature, Eraserhead (1977), its monochrome expressionism, menacing industrial sounds (co-authored by audio genius, the late Alan Splet), and flagrantly symbolic take on its central character’s paternal and sexual anxieties, now seem an obvious signpost to the later films. As with all of Lynch’s most personal work, each film has its passionate devotees and rewards, maybe demands, multiple viewings.
For this viewer though, the true inheritor to Blue Velvet (and Lynch’s crowning achievement) is the poisoned valentine to his adopted Los Angeles, Mulholland Dr. (2001). Salvaged and re-imagined from a cancelled TV pilot, it’s another mystery plot, here centred on an amnesiac femme fatale and a mysterious Hollywood production. It’s also an utterly tragic, occasionally utterly horrific, unrequited love story and an acute take on how the movies can distort our own desperate attempts to master the narratives of our lives.
Lynch has sometimes come in for criticism for certain exaggerated depictions of women, but few filmmakers have delivered a character as complex and enthralling (and brilliantly performed) as Naomi Watts’ ingénue Betty. And the centrepiece scene at Club Silencio – fascinating, too, how many times Lynch has returned to the notion of staged musical performance or lip-syncing as arbiters of emotional truth-telling – where Mulholland’s narrative fractures into its nightmarish denouement, ushers in one of the great modern filmmaking sequences.
Where not to start
Alone among his features, Lynch himself considers sci-fi epic Dune (1984) a failure, largely because its unwieldy size did not afford him creative control. Viewed from today, it’s still no classic but its inherent weirdness, particularly set alongside more conventional 80s blockbuster contemporaries, makes for a highly watchable oddity. The Elephant Man (1980) is a heartbreaking melodrama about the tortured ‘freak’ of Victorian London, with striking black-and-white visuals and outstanding lead actors Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt; it’s as distinctive a work-for-hire as has ever been realised by the studio system but the strangely literal fantasy sequences do sometimes jar. The Straight Story (1999) is equally literal – about an ageing man named Straight journeying across the Midwest on a lawnmower tractor to reconcile with his ailing brother – and its gentle, grounded narrative is, by Lynch’s outré standards, his most radical work.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), the big-screen companion to the TV show, and his last-to-date feature, INLAND EMPIRE (2006), on the other hand, are pure, distilled Lynch. The Twin Peaks movie, much derided at the time, has been reassessed to an extent, but its bleaker, nastier, ever more esoteric edges are unsettling and, for many, unsatisfactory. Similarly, INLAND EMPIRE’s three-hour length, grimy digital video look and even more splintered storyline make for a daunting prospect, despite Laura Dern’s astounding central performance. And if we’re mentioning ‘deep cuts’, a couple of short-lived TV projects – On the Air (1992) and Hotel Room (1993) – as well as web shorts like Rabbits (2002) are fun but only really worth tracking down for completists.
Many of these projects though, have moments – some much more than that – of sheer cinematic brilliance. But that’s the essence of David Lynch. His commitment to a particular way of life, perception and creative expression is one that seeks to move past words and beyond surfaces to get at more elemental, abstract sounds and visions. It may not always work but when he truly “catches the big fish”, he reels us in with it, to a space both disturbing and elating. If you’re willing to admit it – in both senses of the word – David Lynch opens up the subconscious level where great cinema and great art truly resonate. To paraphrase Roy Orbison’s swooningly romantic ballad, which Blue Velvet reconfigures into something both terrifying and transcendent: in dreams, he (fire) walks with you…
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