Thursday, March 14, 2013

the Directors: David Lynch


For all intents and purposes, David Lynch is a seemingly normal guy. Bear with me here, but really, think about it. He’s said he grew up in picturesque Middle America, with “milkmen, backyard forts, blue skies, picket fences, green grass,” and so on. And today, to paint a very surface picture, Lynch creates, he smokes, he makes coffee, talks about the weather – normal things people do. And that is precisely what makes David Lynch so captivating: somewhere along the way, whether through experience or interest, he became… David Lynch. Our most popular living surrealist, a cultural icon, a man who will forever have a type of art dedicated to his name. That of Lynchian art.

Or look at it another way. Throughout his nearly 50 years as an artist, David Lynch has made just 10 feature films. That’s it. Sure, he’s had great success in television and has created a number of short films, paintings and pieces of music, but in terms of film, Lynch made his mark with just 10 pictures. Much like contemporaries such as Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan (who all cite Lynch as an influence), those filmmakers have asserted their unique craft in such a small number of films. Simply put, when you watch a David Lynch film, you know exactly what you’re watching. There’s no denying his style, tone or warped vision. Travel with me, if you will, down the obscure rabbit hole that is David Lynch’s oeuvre.

Eraserhead (1977)
Lynch spent several years making his cult classic Eraserhead. Instead of assembling a budget and shooting in one bulk, he shot as he went, hoping for donations from his good friend Jack Fisk (husband of Sissy Spacek, who has acted as production designer for films by Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Paul Thomas Anderson) and wherever else he could scrape together cash. The result produced what may be the definitive cult classic of cinema. Eerie, crude, profane, and completely unique, Eraserhead is unlike any film made before or since. What’s it all about? Hell, you tell me.

After Henry Spencer (played by Lynch regular Jack Nance) discovers that his girlfriend Mary X (Twin Peaks’ Charlotte Stewart) has had their child, they move into his barren, one bedroom apartment to raise it. Yes… it. From here on, well, we simply don’t have enough space in this post to discuss in detail the events of Eraserhead. But it’s important to note that from the onset of Lynch’s career, he wasn’t interested in telling familiar stories in familiar ways. He took a massive risk in letting Eraserhead, and all its eccentricities, be the initial proclamation of his career. I can’t say I enjoy this film, but I certainly do appreciate the hell out of. It not only launched a new cinematic voice, it sprung a cultural phenomenon. A-

The Elephant Man (1980)
The Elephant Man is a film that should have never been made. With legendary funnyman Mel Brooks producing, he gave Lynch the chance to direct based on the creative strength of Eraserhead. Basically, Brooks and Lynch had no business whatsoever bringing the true story of severely deformed man to life in such an earnest, noble way.

The Elephant Man is one of the most gut wrenching films I’ve ever seen. No easy feat for a PG-rated feature. It tells the story of John Merrick (John Hurt) who was a literal circus freak before being discovered by an understanding surgeon. Doctor Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) wanted nothing more than to help Merrick, but, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. With Treves’ help came unwanted publicity, and, in effect, Merrick was still treated as a freak, only now for British royalty as opposed to carnival ticket holders.

The film is patient, tedious, and ungodly aware of its humility. Although it ranks among the most baffling career choices of Lynch’s career, it remains one of the very best as well. A+

Dune (1984)
I’m not the right person to review a movie like Dune. Science fiction is a genre I continually battle with and for me to assert that Dune is or is not a worthy film simply isn’t fair. All I can lend in the way of film criticism is that I find Dune to be mind-numbingly dull and a complete waste of the talents of everyone involved. I’ve given it two attempts and have yet to take away a shred of positive reinforcement. I have nothing to add to the argument, for better or worse. D

Blue Velvet (1986)
Blue Velvet was the film David Lynch was born to make. In the movie’s opening sequence, in which we see an idyllic version of Middle America not unlike the one Lynch grew up in, we are witnessing the world through Lynch’s uncorrupt eyes. Before complexity and human degradation set in. This montage is Lynch before he discovered the horrors of the world. And then subtly, almost humorously, everything shifts. One heart attack and decomposing ear later, Lynch makes it acutely aware that from here on out, everything we see will be through the filter of his twisted mind. Which can be said for much of his film career as well.

But that’s just Blue Velvet’s tone. Plot wise, the film is no less engaging. It tells the story of a college kid (Kyle MacLachlan) who by chance falls into a web of kidnapping, rape and murder, and claws desperately to get out. Everything about the film – from Angelo Badalamenti’s unnerving score, to Frederick Elmes’ dark cinematography, to Patricia Norris’ bleak production design – suits the overall mood seamlessly. Everytime I watch Blue Velvet, I become engulfed in the world in which Lynch has created. There really is nothing quite like it. A+

Wild at Heart (1990)
In the very first scene of Lynch’s Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart, southern bad boy Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) is attacked at knifepoint and eventually, gruesomely, beats his attacker to death with his bare hands.  He’s sent to prison for a brief stint, and when he’s released, his passionate lover, Lula (Laura Dern) is waiting to hit the road with him. The two take off on an impromptu trip of self-discovery, encountering some unmistakably Lynchian characters along the way.

But don’t worry, Wild at Heart is far from the clichéd lover’s road trip film I’ve painted it to be. Instead, Lynch gives us a look at unadulterated love the Lynch way. There is extreme violence, abundant sex, and plenty of macabre dealings to sustain any 10 films. It’s a weird, off the cuff, absurdist film that I absolutely adore. Really though, it’s for die-hard Lynch fans only. A

Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Twin Peaks was a television sensation. No one had made anything remotely like it, let alone for network television. In dissecting the hot button question, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” Lynch was given full reign to flesh out his standard complex characters, while immersing his viewers in whatever ambiguous and experimental doors he wanted to open. It’s impossible for me to pick a favorite character(s) or story arc to make specific mention of here – Twin Peaks was that expansive. And although it hit a peak in the middle of its second season that it never reached again, Twin Peaks redefined what could be done with television. The medium hasn’t been the same since. A-

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Because Twin Peaks’ ratings fell so quickly, Lynch felt he had loose ends to tie up and attempted what is rarely executed well: making a spin off movie. Fire Walk with Me chronicles the final week of Laura Palmer’s life, and makes clear the fates of a few of the characters from the television series. So, in essence, the film is a prequel and a sequel of sorts.

Part of the problem for me is that this movie leads to a punch line that we’ve all heard. We all know Laura is going to die, and who is going to do it (and how and why), but the movie seems hell bent on acting on its own, almost denying that dedicated viewers of the show are aware. But that’s a tricky argument. Knowing how a film is going to end doesn’t necessarily take away from its ingenuity. Which is a kind way of saying that much of Fire Walk with Me works. For Lynch fans, it has everything you could ask for – the strobing lights, the off-kilter performances, the iconic music – it’s all here, and more. Some have called Fire Walk with Me Lynch’s biggest failure, others have hailed it as his masterpiece. I personally could’ve done without an expansion of the story, but so it goes. B-

Lost Highway (1997)
Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and his suspecting wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) begin receiving videotapes at their home. At first, the tapes are extended exterior shots of their lavish LA pad. But as more tapes arrive, its clear that someone is letting themselves in at night and recording whatever they see fit. The cops are called, an investigation is started and before long, Fred is booked for a murder he has no recollection of committing.

And then it happens.

David Lynch reminds us we are indeed watching a David Lynch film by putting a new character in Fred’s cell. Not a new actor playing Fred –  a new person entirely. Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) has no idea how he got in the cell. The guards are clueless, the warden is stunned, and eventually, Pete is released. From there, Lost Highway opens itself up to twists, turns, double backs and hula-hoops. There’s really no telling exactly what is going on here, but, again, if you’re willing to accept the scenario, then you’re bound to be absorbed by Lynch’s vision. A

The Straight Story (1999)
Yesterday, I wrote about the restraint of David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner and The Winslow Boy. Those films were a sort of bitchslap to Mamet’s critics who argued that he was a one-stop shop of male-dominated profanity. Wrong. Instead, Mamet proved he can work in any genre, with the limits of any rating. He proved that in order to make a good film, you need to be a good filmmaker, material be damned.

Same applies for Lynch’s The Straight Story, the G-rated feature he made for Disney. The film is exactly what the title suggests, a straight (true) tale of a man longing to see his estranged brother. After Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth, in his final and very perfect role) gets word that his brother Lyle has suffered a stroke, he makes every effort to visit him. But because Alvin is sick himself and unable to drive, he deems that a lawnmower is his best mode of transportation, so off he goes, leaving Lynch to tell an open, rich story of lost brotherly love. Much like the sentiment rooted within The Elephant Man, it’s initially difficult to grasp why Lynch was so drawn to The Straight Story. But alas, the answer is simple: David Lynch is a filmmaker, and all that comes with it. A-

Mulholland Dr. (2001)
So far, I’ve detailed the ways in which David Lynch has changed film. I’ve talked about his cult status, his delicate sensibilities, and his revelatory techniques. Taking all that into account, and sticking with the notion that Blue Velvet was the film Lynch was born to make, Mulholland Dr. is the David Lynch film we were all born to see. The movie is a perfect encapsulation of the best that Lynch has to offer. Through its subtle humor, jumbled narrative, terrifying set pieces, stark photography and ideal soundtrack, Lynch orchestrated a tale of such glorious complex means.

Everyone involved, both in front of and behind the camera go all in here. Whether it’s Naomi Watts’ star making performance(s), Laura Harring’s appropriately absent confusion, or Justin Theroux’s latent arrogance (not to mention the perfect supporting performances), everything in Mulholland Dr. works to fulfill the vision of its maker. Say what you want about all of the other films David Lynch has made, but for me, Mulholland Dr. is and will forever remain the man’s masterpiece. A+

Inland Empire (2006)
“A woman in trouble.” That’s what the stupefied marketing team in charge of publicizing Inland Empire could come up with. And the fact that Lynch himself fed the line to them makes it all the more clear that Inland Empire is uncharted territory. It is 180 minutes of bleak confusion, executed with grainy digital photography, obscure music, and a lead performance that is unparalleled. When we first meet Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), she’s just landed a role that will certainly jumpstart her rather dormant acting career. She meets the director (Jeremy Irons) and her main costar (Justin Theroux), and filming begins shortly thereafter. And then everything goes mindfuck wild.

I rewatched Inland Empire just three days ago (and paid damn close attention, too), and am still having troubling articulating its “plot” in print. When the story so drastically shifts, we’re introduced to infidelity, silent psychoanalysts, Polish prostitutes, one-legged women, talking life size rabbits, and whatever the hell else popped into Lynch’s mind as he filmed. For the first and only time in his career, Lynch shot without a script, opting to give actors scenes the day he filmed them. Few people knew what to expect and fewer knew what was happening in the moment. The result, some might argue, is a muddled mess. A waste of talent and resource. Others, like myself, find Inland Empire to be a transformative experience. One that, anchored by Dern’s fearless and flawless performance, forces us to bend our perceptions of what film can do, while graciously allowing for the unknown. A-

In Summation
Masterful
The Elephant Man
Blue Velvet
Mulholland Dr.

Great
Eraserhead
Wild at Heart
Twin Peaks
Lost Highway
The Straight Story
Inland Empire

Good
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Eh
None

Just Plain Bad
Dune

Previous Director Profiles include:

36 comments:

  1. Excellent post man, I need to see more Lynch films after reading this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks dude! I highly recommend many of his films. He's a mad ass crazy genius.

      Delete
  2. I am kind of scared of David Lynch's movies. I was properly freaked out after Mulholland Drive, and that is supposed to be one of his more accessible works. Having said that, I have been thinking about dedicating a month to Lynchian movies and just get them over with (I will inevitably have to call that month "Crazy Nikhat Month" but whatevs).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do it! You will never be the same...

      Delete
    2. I agree with Teddy, "Crazy Nikhat Month" will change your life! I'd say Mulholland Dr. is average in terms of Lynch accessibility. In fact, Eraserhead, Lost Highway and Inland Empire are his only flicks that are really out there. Good luck!

      Delete
  3. Literally fangirling irl right now. The man is my favorite director of all time. Mulholland Drive is what made me fall in love with movies. Thank you for doing a Lynchian feature!
    How I would rank and rate his films:
    1) Mulholland Drive, A+
    2) Blue Velvet, A+
    3) Inland Empire, A+
    4) Eraserhead, A+
    5) Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, B+
    6) Lost Highway, C+
    7) Dune, D

    Twin Peaks series, A-

    I still need to see Elephant, Wild and Straight.

    Great job, man. Really!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love hearing that! Had no idea you loved Mulholland Dr. that much. One of my all time faves.

      Good rankings there. With the exception of Lost Highway, we're pretty much in line.

      Definitely check out Elephant Man and The Straight Story... so interesting to be exposed to the sentimental side of Lynch.

      Delete
  4. Here's my ranking of the works of David Lynch that I've seen so far:

    1. Mulholland Dr.
    2. Eraserhead
    3. Blue Velvet
    4. The Elephant Man
    5. Lost Highway
    6. Inland Empire
    7. Wild at Heart
    8. To Each His Own Cinema-Absurda
    9. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

    I need to see the entire Twin Peaks series as well as Dune (though I'm aware of how much Lynch despises the film no matter what cut it's in), some various shorts and TV projects, and The Straight Story before I can do a proper piece on Lynch very, very soon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We more or less agree in full here. Love that Mulholland Dr. tops your list. Can't wait for your Lynch piece.

      Delete
  5. "we’re introduced to infidelity, silent psychoanalysts, Polish prostitutes, one-legged women, talking life size rabbits, and whatever the hell else popped into Lynch’s mind as he filmed" ... O.K., well I just HAVE to see that film. Just because.

    I've only seen 2 of these movies, and one I haven't watched in over 25 years. I should definitely delve into more Lynch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Inland Empire is NUTS. It really does not make conventional sense... at all, but that's kind of Lynch's intention. I think.

      Hope you enjoy his films!

      Delete
  6. So glad you did this. I'm not sure if you know this but Mulholland Dr. is actually my all time favorite film. Despite this I've only seen two other Lynch films (Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart). I've got to work on this.
    -Dan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh that's awesome, I had no idea you loved Mulholland Dr. that much. What a perfect and unique film. Hope you like the rest of his films that you check out.

      Delete
  7. Alex, it's great to see you covering Lynch, who's such an interesting director. I really need to check out Blue Velvet again; I wasn't a huge fan in my first viewing. That was probably 10 years ago, however.

    I love Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, Inland Empire, and Wild at Heart. Eraserhead is baffling yet still intriguing. I'm with you on Fire Walk with Me. There are some amazing moments, yet it feels incomplete and missing something. Part of the issue is the fact that we know the resolution like you mention. I still need to check out The Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story. Great work!

    Here are my rankings of Lynch's work that I have seen:

    1. Mulholland Drive
    2. Twin Peaks (TV series)
    3. Wild at Heart
    4. Lost Highway
    5. Eraserhead
    6. Inland Empire
    7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
    8. Blue Velvet

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Dan! Blue Velvet is a movie that gets better everytime I watch it, which, for me, is true of Lynch's best films. Definitely recommend checking out The Elephant Man and The Straight Story when you can.

      Delete
  8. Tough to rank a director I consider my favorite.

    Lynch has said in interviews he's actually satisfied with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). I agree that I could’ve done without an expansion of the story. Only memorable to me for the subtitles during the disco scene.

    1. Lost Highway
    2. Mulholland Dr (used to be no 1 - I think I watched it too many times!)
    3. Blue Velvet
    4. The Elephant Man
    5. Twin Peaks (TV series)
    6. Eraserhead
    7. Wild at Heart
    8. Inland Empire
    10. The Straight Story
    11. Rabbits (2002)
    12. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
    13. Dune

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. He's your favorite?! That's awesome. Yeah, I do know he likes the Twin Peaks film, and fair enough. He felt there was more that needed to be said, so he said it. Can't argue with that.

      I love that Lost Highway is your favorite. Whatta mind bender that one is.

      Delete
  9. I saw you'd posted this article and literally said out loud, to nobody;

    "Ah! Good stuff."

    What a great filmmaker. 'Mulholland Dr.' was one of the first 'arty' films I watched, and is still probably the one that's most impressed and enthralled me. He has no rules. 'Inland Empire' and 'Blue Velvet' and 'Wild At Heart' and all these strange masterpieces are mind-bending. Have you heard his album, Crazy Clown Time?

    By the way, you misspelled "Nicolas" (as in Cage, of course). Amateur mistake!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice to hear you're such a Lynch fan. One of the things I love about him is that he indeed does not have any rules.

      Crazy Clown Time is wild shit. I can't say I listen to it on the regular, but it's definitely what I would imagine David Lynch music to sound like.

      In regards to the Cage typo: How. Fucking. Dare. I.

      Will you forgive me?

      Delete
    2. I forgive you. While you're at it, another typo to fix. Jack Fist=Jack Fisk

      Delete
    3. Let's all hound Alex about typos!

      Yeah, "wild shit" basically encapsulates Crazy Clown Time. I can't say I listen to it much either, but there's some nice grooves on there. Freaky grooves.

      Delete
  10. Fantastic post. I think the Twin Peaks film deserves a little more respect than it gets, for the most part I agree with you completely. I am about due a rewatch of Inland Empire, just trying to squeeze it in somewhere.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man! My initial opinion of Fire Walk with Me was not a good one, so I gave it a second watch for this post and liked it better. I know your man Mark Kermode considers it Lynch's masterpiece. By no means bad... I do love the final act, for sure.

      Delete
  11. "Fear is the Mind Killer"

    Had a great time reading this post. Now I want to go and get my Lynch on.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks dude! I fell into a Lynch spell last week. Once I started, I couldn't stop. Made for a damn fun weekend. Enjoy!

      Delete
  12. Damn, I still have so much to see from Lynch. Loved Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. I still don't know what to make of Lost Highway though. Didn't really enjoy it much on my first viewing, but I did have a lot of fun reading about it afterward. I'll have to give it another shot someday.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm right there with you on Lost Highway. It was too out there for me when I first watched it. But in my subsequent viewings, I think it fits perfectly well into overall tone of Lynch's work.

      Thanks so much for reading/commenting, Eric!

      Delete
  13. Man, I should finish off Lynch's filmography. I've only seen Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr., all of which I loved. Though, it does look like I've seen most of high points.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. In my opinion, you've covered Lynch at his most masterful. And that is a very good balance of what he has to offer as well. Still, I think you'll enjoy some of the others!

      Delete
  14. Really great stuff here, Lynch is one of my chief inspirations but I'm sure all indie filmmakers say that at one point or another. It's a shame you didn't include some of Lynch's short works like The Alphabet or The Cowboy and The Frenchman or his superb Hotel Rooms or hell, his hardly watchable Up in the Air.

    It makes me smile that once upon a time someone was willing to let David Lynch and Mark Frost handle a comedy show. Where a art house director like Lynch was shooting commercials for Giorgio Armani, Gucci and YvesSaintLaurent. Those were the days!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks man, glad you dig it. You know, I used to track down EVERYTHING a director had ever done for these posts - shorts, television episodes - everything. And that frankly made researching these posts into a chore. So now I just stick with features. I may occasionally throw in a short for good measure, but features is more or less where it plays.

      With that said, I have seen most all of Lynch's short films. Some are great, others are meh. They would make for a great post by themselves.

      Lynch doing a comedy show is just awesome.

      Delete
    2. I meant On the Air, up in the air is a Jason Reitman flick if I'm not mistaken.

      Delete
    3. Yeah that's the one. Actually don't know if I've seen On the Air. Gotta track it down.

      Delete
  15. One of the most intriguing directors/artists around. I've never had such varying opinions about a director's work than David Lynch's. One of his films I love - Mulholland Dr, others I admire - The Elephant Man, Twin Peaks series (and movie to some extent), The Straight Story, others I find intriguing but not great as a whole - Eraserhead, Lost Highway, others that had their moments but just weren't all that good - Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Inland Empire and one that as you said had no positive qualities at all - Dune (and I'm a sci-fi fan!).
    But overall I love his dreamlike aesthetic - the look and tone of his films (apart from Inland Empire, I didn't like the look of that one), how weirdly unsettling it is at times but still hugely intriguing and interesting. Certainly one of a kind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Totally one of a kind. Interesting to hear your thoughts on Inland Empire. I actually hated that movie the first time I saw it. Just too... much. But after forcing myself through a repeat viewing, I grew to appreciate it. Still, I can't argue with anyone who takes faults in any of his films. He simply doesn't make "easy" movies, you know? Really appreciate your comment though!

      Delete