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.
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+
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-
The Elephant Man
Wild at Heart
The Straight Story
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
Just Plain Bad
Previous Director Profiles include:
Paul Thomas Anderson
the Coen Brothers
David O. Russell
Paul Thomas Anderson
the Coen Brothers
David O. Russell