Director David Lynch: a Retrospective


Why David Lynch?

David Lynch first appeared on the movie scene with his debut feature Eraserhead in 1977. Since then his reputation as a rather strange filmmaker has been cemented through his body of work that spans ten feature films, one television show, and more than 40 years. He’s won the Palme d’Or at Cannes once while nominated four times, been nominated for the Best Director Oscar three times, and has become a critical darling. However, larger mass audiences resist his films.

 

And it makes total sense.

 

Lynch is not a filmmaker for everyone. Not in the least. I would never, ever try to push anyone I didn’t think was predisposed to liking Lynch into trying to watch anything he’s made outside of a couple of exceptions (I’ll get to those). His movies do not follow traditional filmmaking grammar and vocabulary, eschewing most of what audiences come to expect from how a story is presented to them. I say something similar about Terrence Malick’s films, but I’m convinced most people can get through his stylistic differences and discover the gold that’s there. I cannot say the same about Lynch. I love him, but it’s almost like being genetically predisposed to thinking that cilantro tastes like soap. Somethings are not getting worked around.

 

So how can we tell if you’re ready to give Lynch a try? Well, let’s dig in a bit to talk about how he tells his stories.

 

Why, David Lynch?

 

David Lynch is interested in telling stories, but he’s not terribly interested in telling stories the same way that everyone else does. He refers to a way of watching movies that he calls “feel-think” about how to take in and interpret the combination of images and sounds that are unique to cinema. Cinema is a different artform from literature, theater, sculpture, and painting. The succession of images and use of sound allows the artist new tools from which to communicate meaning to an audience. Instead of just actors on a stage who need to communicate emotions through dialogue, cinema communicate through shot selection, editing, and less conventional uses of soundtracks. It becomes not about taking in a story as you would in any other medium, but about using the unique tools of cinema to create something purely cinematic.

 

What this all boils down to is that it gets really hard to talk about David Lynch movies.

 

 

However, this mass of gobbledygook isn’t without meaning. He’s far less of an experimental filmmaker in his feature length films that the above explanation would imply. For all of his pretensions about using cinema in a different way, his base concern, telling stories, is still primary in his mind. He’ll come up with new images to include in whatever he’s working on, but he doesn’t insert them randomly and without consideration. He finds the meaning for himself before he inserts it into the larger work.

 

What makes him more frustrating for some people is that, on top of everything above, he simply refuses to explain his work to people. I’ve read a lot of interviews with Lynch, and even the interviewers who understand Lynch best will occasionally drop a question that gets too close to asking for meaning of something in a film they’re discussing. In those instances, Lynch simply stops talking. He doesn’t dance around the subject, he just clams up completely. He feels that if he were to provide a key to the work then the magical element of cinema would begin to fall apart for audiences. He wants the discussions of what the strange sights and sounds means to happen without his involvement beyond the initial creation of the film.

 

Why David, Lynch?

 

What does that mean in terms of how the movies play? Well, let’s look at something like Lost Highway.

 

Lost Highway is the story of a man who murders his wife and cannot deal with his actions so he goes into a fugue state, creating an alternate identity for himself in a dream where he can save a woman who looks just like his wife and murder the man he creates that is oppressing her in his own mind, absolving him of the guilt he holds for her murder.

 

Explained like that, it seems mundane. I don’t think it’s that hard to figure out from the movie while watching it. I came up with that explanation without reading anything about the film before or afterwards aside from Roger Ebert’s review (who kind of hated the film and didn’t get it at all, providing me with no insight). The movie itself is opaque about almost all of this from traditional storytelling standards, though.

 

Bill Pullman plays the central character for the first half of the movie. In jail, he has a massive headache one night. The next morning he’s gone, replaced by Balthazar Getty. What does this mean? Who could this new person be? He just goes to another house when he’s released from prison and starts leading a different life. Is it Bill Pullman or not? He doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Bill Pullman from before? And suddenly he meets another woman played by the same actress as Bill Pullman’s wife (Patricia Arquette)? Is she the same woman or a different one? There are a host of questions (these and others) that spring to mind when trying to dissect the movie from a more traditional and literal point of view, however that’s not how to watch a David Lynch movie. That’s not “feel-thinking”, that’s just thinking.

 

What I do when watching one of these is to look for the core of the film, the story’s central point, and the point of Lost Highway was always pretty obvious to me. The central character killed his wife. He suddenly becomes another person in the middle of the night after an earlier conversation with his wife where he had described seeing her face on someone else. He suddenly reappears much later in the film, taking back over the role from Getty, and following through on a revenge of a person responsible for harming his wife (in his mind). If all of this is connected and not random, how many explanations can there be for these seemingly random images and events? Understanding that you’re at the hands of someone in complete command of what’s happening on screen is the opening thought, and then letting the images play out without needing to pick apart each one at that moment for meaning, waiting for meaning to come when it will, is how I would describe how I watch a David Lynch movie.

 

Why, David, Lynch?

 

So, if you read that last section and just feel like punching me in the mouth, let’s just say that you are not going to be open to David Lynch’s entire filmography. It takes a bit of work and a different way of watching movies. I find it worthwhile, others (including Ebert who didn’t write a positive review for a Lynch film until 1998) do not.

 

However, I would recommend two of his films to pretty much anyone. How can that be? Well, Lynch is a very good filmmaker. He knows how to make movies really well. The issue is that for most of his work, he’s producing things differently, but he’s made two movies that are very straightforward films that any other talented independent filmmaker would be happy to include in their filmographies. Those are The Elephant Man and The Straight Story.

 

The Elephant Man is the story of Joseph (John) Merrick, the deformed young man from England in the 1880s, taken in by the London Hospital and Doctor Frederick Treves. Played by John Hurt (who was nominated for Best Actor) under a mountain of makeup made from molds of the real Merrick’s body and face, it’s a portrait of a perpetual outcast and his inability to ever be accepted as a normal member of society, no matter the efforts that people made to make that happen. Produced by Mel Brooks, it’s also the source for one of the great memos to studio executives ever. When they presented him and Lynch with a series of notes on the film, Brooks wrote back saying, “We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you, to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives.”

 

The Straight Story is the story of Alvin Straight, the Iowa farmer who rode his lawnmower over two hundred miles to meet his estranged brother in Wisconsin. Straight is played by Richard Farnsworth, also in an Academy Award nominated performance, and the movie is a quiet, reflective piece of Americana as Straight putters along the side of small highways, meeting strangers along the way and providing his homespun wisdom while revealing some deep hurts and regrets himself. It’s also my favorite of Lynch’s movies.

 

These two are the movies that I would recommend to anyone, even if you read the last section and got violent tendencies. These are accessible and emotionally engaging works well worth your time.

 

Lynch, David, Why?

 

For the rest of you who read my explanation of how I figured out a meaning to Lost Highway, haven’t seen a Lynch film, and are interested (hopefully there are a few), where would I begin? I think the best place to begin really is the obvious place, the beginning, with Eraserhead. Filmed over five years as he struggled to secure funding from different sources (including the American Film Institute and Sissy Spacek’s husband, Jack Fisk the production designer), it’s Lynch operating without any kind of commercial concerns, telling a story in his own unique way that was close to his heart (it’s about being unprepared for fatherhood and adulthood in a sick, industrialized world).

 

From there, I’d suggest to go to Blue Velvet, and I’d also suggest to leave both Wild at Heart and Inland Empire to last, assuming you get that far.

 

Now, it’s kind of impossible to talk about Lynch without talking about Twin Peaks. It was harder before Lynch made the revival show on Showtime because authorship on Network television is much harder to pin down than the imperfect method used for movies. He co-created the show with Mark Frost who ran the show most of the time while Lynch directed six episodes and had a guest role as Gordon Cole, a regional bureau chief for the FBI. The movie Fire Walk With Me is an extension of the show and cannot operate without it. The Revival is eighteen episodes long, cowritten by both Frost and Lynch, and every episode is directed by Lynch. Considering the cohesiveness of the creative team and production schedule, I consider it an eighteen hour long movie.

 

The thing about Twin Peaks though is that it starts as a primetime soap opera (that may be a parody, but it’s hard to tell) and turns into pure Lynch by the end. TheDolleyMadison watched all of it with me, hooked by the beginning and just trudging through by the end, wanting it to just end. However, I had the opposite reaction, feeling tolerable in the beginning and becoming more enthralled with the show as we got into the Revival.

 

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Long story short: Probably don’t try Lynch’s movies, but maybe do. Just make sure you listen to the little person in the Black Lodge. Your future may depend on it.

 

 

Originally published here.


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David Vining

I am a fiction writer living in Charleston, SC. I've had a variety of jobs, but nothing compared to what Heinlein had. I don't think that time I got hired to slay the wild and terrifying jack rabbit of Surrey counts since I actually only took out the mild mannered hedgehog of Suffolk. Let's just say that it doesn't go on the resume. Lover (but not, you know...lover) of movies. Married to the single most beautiful woman on Earth with a single son who shall rule after my death. If that didn't deter you, check out my blog or browse some of the books I've written.

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