Director Retrospective: David Lynch
On a sort of whim, I decided to do another retrospective this week — right when I ought to be busying myself with other, more practical things. And of course, it was a bit stupid on my part because this “whim” involved thinking about and writing about the films that comprise the career of one of America’s most enigmatic and most surrealistic directors: David Lynch — who has received a revival of interest (of sorts) because of the current Showtime reprisal of the iconic Twin Peaks universe. He’s not exactly a filmmaker whose work is suited for casual engagement but that is exactly what I tried to do here. So…we’ll see how it all works out.
The Big List
Thus far, I’ve seen all 10 feature-length films directed by David Lynch.
Here’s the list: Eraserhead (1977); The Elephant Man (1980); Dune (1984); Blue Velvet (1986); Wild at Heart (1990); Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992); Lost Highway (1997); The Straight Story (1999); Mulholland Drive (2001); Inland Empire (2006).
The Top Five
Below are my top-five picks for David Lynch’s films (ranked from #1-5 with a few comments on each)…
The Elephant Man (1980) – In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that David Lynch followed his enigmatic feature-length debut (Eraserhead) with what is a relatively straightforward biopic. The Elephant Man is, at its core, a story about human connection between two men: Joseph Merrick (or “John”) and Sir Frederick Treves. The former is a British man who suffered from numerous physical deformities, while the latter is a doctor who sought to understand his condition. The film is an absolutely GORGEOUS example of black-and-white filmmaking from Lynch. (Perhaps because of the surreality at work in most of his films, I think the temptation is to think that Lynch’s visual directing range is limited to gimmickry and/or gaudy 1950s Americana aesthetics; and while that may be true to an extent in some/most of his work, The Elephant Man shows that he can branch beyond those traditional “Lynchian” visuals as well, when desired.) Anthony Hopkins, Hannah Gordon, John Gielgud, Anne Bancroft, etc. are all very solid here, but John Hurt’s performance as Merrick is, simply, one of the best acting jobs ever. Aside from the obvious physical appearance and mannerisms in the role, Hurt’s voicework is stunning and he truly morphs into the role — if I wasn’t already aware that Merrick was being portrayed by the iconic Hurt, I can safely say that I never would’ve guessed it. Of special note here is John Morris’s fantastic score, which you should go listen to right now. Everyone points to the memorable “I am not an animal!” train-station scene, which is definitely memorable and affecting scene. But for my money, I actually prefer two other scenes from the film: an invitation to tea and Merrick’s death scene. A beautiful film — a masterpiece, in fact — and one that’s deeply, deeply moving.
Mulholland Drive (2001) – Whew…um…where to start with Mulholland Drive? Honestly, I’m at a bit of a loss on how to even approach this film. There is a lot (A LOT!) going on here: multiple — often untrustworthy — narratives, dream logics, unreliable characters, questionable motivations and unreasonable expectations, cryptic portents and strange messages, etc. etc. etc. As a fan of Twin Peaks, I initially watched Mulholland Drive because of its origins in connection to the show. [For those that don’t know, the plot of the film actually began as a television pilot for a show that Lynch was pitching as a sequel to Twin Peaks about Audre Horne as a sleuth of some sort in Hollywood.] There are many, many great performances here, especially from Laura Harring and Naomi Watts (in probably the best role of her career). I remember reading once — a long time ago — that Lynch had reportedly said that the opening scene of the film explained the rest of the film for those paying attention, i.e. that one could theoretically just watch those first few minutes and ascertain the rest. I’m not sure if I totally agree with that; however, in retrospect, the opening scene (like the first 4-5 minutes) does a lot of heavy-lifting for what follows in terms of providing some parameters on the lens through which the audience might ought to watch the film. Similar to his work in Eraserhead and Inland Empire but I think more successful in engaging with its ideas, Mulholland Drive is, at heart, a kind of “experience.” Oh, and it also features probably my favorite single scene in any Lynch film — one involving a man in a diner telling another man about a recurring dream. A brilliant movie and one that likely should’ve received the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2002, despite not even being nominated in one of the worst examples of the Academy’s snubs.
Blue Velvet (1986) – Personally my favorite film by David Lynch, Blue Velvet arguably could be listed (and would be listed by many others) much higher on this list. While I don’t think it’s quite as cinematically impressive as The Elephant Man or quite as creatively distinct as Mulholland Drive, I do think that Blue Velvet is — oddly enough — a bit easier to (re)watch than those other two films. Exploring the dark underbelly of small-town Americana in a world that, like Twin Peaks, feels somewhat trapped in the 1950s, the story revolves around a young man who returns from college to care for his sick father and who quickly discovers a severed human ear in a field. What follows is a noir-ish story of mystery, intrigue, violence, etc. and one where the main character’s curiosity is excitingly dangerous and also unnerving. Kyle MacLachlin — in only his second film role — and Laura Dern play our naive young detectives drawn into the disturbing world of drug dealers, kidnappers, dirty cops, extortioners, etc. Along with MacLachlin and Dern, the rest of the supporting cast also features a lot of other Lynch regulars like Jack Nance, Dean Stockwell, and Brad Dourif. But if you’re watching Blue Velvet, it’s for two performances: Isabelli Rosellini and Dennis Hopper. As the lounge-singer Dorothy Vallens, Rosellini really goes for it here and produces a BOLD performance that most actors would’ve been too terrified to do. And Hopper’s role as the violent, fetishistic, gas-huffing Frank is certainly one of the most memorable, frightening, and unpredictable villains in all of cinematic history. [Reading about Blue Velvet and watching interviews about the film, it seems that Hopper’s inspiration for Frank was mostly pulled from his own experiences and struggles.] While it’s certainly a difficult film for thematic and characterization reasons, Blue Velvet has nonetheless earned its reputation as one of the greatest mystery / thriller films of all time.
The Straight Story (1999) – This was the most difficult Lynch film for me to track down. It’s generally the one film (if there is one) that Lynch’s fans haven’t seen. After all, this was Lynch’s Disney film. Yep…you read that right. But with a little luck and some perseverance, I was finally able to secure a copy for this retrospective; and I’m very grateful that I did. The Straight Story tells the true story of Alvin Straight, a 73-year-old man who traveled 240(ish) miles over about 6 weeks from Iowa to Wisconsin — via riding lawmower!!! — to visit his sick and estranged brother. Written by longtime Lynch collaborator Mary Sweeney, Lynch has stated that he chose to direct The Straight Story because he was drawn to the emotions within the larger narrative. The film features a number of interesting acting performances from many characters who appear in the film for only a few minutes; and, really, it’s very reminiscent of Italian neo-realism in that the performances feel extremely naturalistic, as if the actors aren’t really actors at all. Of particular note is the work from Sissy Space and Richard Farnsworth. [The latter was rightfully recognized with an Academy Award Best Actor nomination for this film; sadly, Farnsworth was suffering from debilitating illnesses during this shoot and died shortly thereafter.] As one might expect, the narrative is framed like many “journeys” in highly episodic format, punctuated by the various individuals that Straight meets during his journey: the runaway pregnant teenager, the group of marathon cyclists, the woman who seems cursed with deer-related auto accidents, etc. The lesson learned, if there is one, is the kindness of strangers and the need for human reconciliation and for interpersonal responsibility. For anyone interested in Lynch’s directorial career — and given his age, we are surely seeing that career winding down — The Straight Story ought to be required viewing, as it is undoubtedly Lynch’s most “human” (and most “humanizing”) film and one that, as a result, greatly complicates his oeuvre.
Wild at Heart (1990) – I don’t have that much to say about this film; it’s definitely one that’s better to just watch than to talk/read about. Based on a novel by Barry Gifford, Wild at Heart follows two young people who are equal parts passionate and troubled: Sailor and Lula. (They have, let’s say, a “volatile” relationship — not for each other necessarily as much as for everyone else they come across.) There are a bevy of great performances here: Nicolas Cage, Laura Dern, Diane Ladd, Isabella Rossellini, Harry Dean Stanton, and Willem Dafoe (in one of the creepier villains in all of Lynch’s work, Bobby Peru). And let’s not forget all the road-trip motifs and Elvis Presley and The Wizard of Oz and snakeskin jackets, etc. etc. (Btw…Sailor’s snakeskin jacket results in one of my favorite lines in Lynch’s work, one that Sailor repeats several times in the movie: “This here jacket is a symbol of individuality and my belief in personal freedom!” Yes….yes it is.) Just a weird, incredibly memorable experience of a movie and one that you’re almost certain to enjoy on some level. To me, while it’s not quite up to the level of the first three movies listed above, Wild at Heart is squarely in “second-tier” Lynch.
The Underrated One
For the choice of “underrated” Lynch, I would venture to guess that, while they are very popular among critics (and deservedly so), a lot of Lynch fans may not have seen The Elephant Man or The Straight Story — perhaps because they’re the least overtly “Lynchian” films in his career. But I’ve already discussed those two great films above. So for my pick here, I’m going to go out on a limb and select arguably Lynch’s most despised film — and the only film that Lynch himself has called a failure — Dune (1984). Now…I’ve only ever heard terrible things about this movie; and, therefore, I was totally prepared to not care for this film. (I’ve not read Frank Herbert’s influential book upon which this is based so I can’t comment on the film as adaptation.) BUT…despite it not being a “great” movie, despite it not even necessarily being a “good” movie, I surprisingly didn’t hate Dune. (How’s that for a ringing endorsement?) As the movie progressed, I did sorta become invested in the world-building, the political intrigue, the ecological issues, and the religious aspects. Basically, by about the halfway point, I was genuinely interested to see how the film would play out. The special-effects are pretty solid, and the cast is very talented (e.g. Kyle MacLachlin, Patrick Stewart, Max von Sydow, Dean Stockwell, Virginia Madsen, Sean Young, Jose Ferrar, Brad Dourif, etc. etc. — even Sting works for his particular role). That said, there are some really unfortunate — and, honestly, pretty offensive — sexual politics at work here, particularly with Baron Harkonnen; and it’s obvious from some of the cinematic shortcuts used — notably, the terrible explanatory voiceovers (i.e. show vs. tell, right?) — that the film would’ve almost certainly benefited from having a longer runtime. It’s a bit of a trainwreck but a visually memorable one. Overall, it exceeded my (very low) expectations and is definitely not, in my estimation, Lynch’s worst film. [Btw…on a slightly unrelated note, if you get a chance, checkout the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which details another director’s efforts — Alejandro Jodorowsky — to make an adaptation of Herbert’s Dune. Somehow, Jodorowsky’s proposed version, which is often called the “greatest film never made,” is so bonkers that it makes Lynch’s version seem pedestrian by comparison.]
The One to Avoid
Alright…now to make some people angry: I absolutely LOATHE Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). I am a huge, HUGE fan of Twin Peaks (the show) and have watched Fire Walk with Me a few times. But the film — this is true especially for its second half — foregoes much of the “heart / levity” of the show for something that’s much more bloodthirsty, dark, and (to the film’s detriment) tonally monotonous. I am totally into the first 30(ish) minutes of the film, as I’m intrigued by the Teresa Banks investigation and generally like some of the new characters (performances from Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland, Harry Dean Stanton, etc.) that we meet during that part of the story. Moreover, the scene that immediately follows — involving a brief meeting between FBI Agents Dale Cooper, Albert Rosenfeld, Gordon Cole, and the long-missing Phillip Jeffries is absolutely one of my favorite scenes in the entire Twin Peaks mythos. But the film really falls apart for me once we move back to Twin Peaks and the last week of Laura Palmer’s life. Not only does it remove the mystery surrounding her death and, in the process, lessen the impact of the mystery for the show, the tone becomes very one-note and, to my mind, actually pretty misogynistic. Watching these films in conjunction with each other, I was struck by the fact that much of Lynch’s work seems to present a very problematic relationship with women — from absenteeism to masochism to idolization to objectification, etc. The extent to which these representations are a comment on society or a symptom of Lynch himself (as an artist) or some mixture of both is obviously up for debate. I do feel that, for better or worse, he’s largely sidestepped a lot of that critique due to the surrealist nature of his films. (And this doesn’t even begin to address the topic of race — or lack thereof — in Lynch’s oeuvre.) To be honest, I’m not totally sure how I feel about these issues within Lynch’s directorial work; however, it’s something I definitely become more aware of as I was watching said films. Personally, Fire Walk with Me (to return to the matter at hand) provides an overlong story that I don’t want / need and does so in a way that I find unpleasant in an artless way. And again…this is from the perspective of someone who loves the original shows, warts and all.
The Place to Start
Lynch’s brand of “1950s-inspired Americana” + “surrealism” + “noir / mystery” + “dream-logic” just isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. And that’s fine. If I was recommending somewhere to start, however, for those unfamiliar, I’d suggest starting with Blue Velvet. It’s not as in-your-face “Lynchian” as his films Eraserhead (1977), Mulholland Drive, or Inland Empire (2006); but it’s also stranger than the straightforward efforts like The Elephant Man or The Straight Story. It’s a bit in-between — a relatively typical murder-mystery but laced with some of Lynch’s unnerving visuals, strange dialogue, and quirky characterizations — so you get dip your proverbial toe into his aesthetic without diving immediately into the deep end of crazy.
The Final Word
I have an admittedly ambivalent relationship toward the work of David Lynch. For the better part of a decade — from about 2006-2013 (or so) when I was first watching and experiencing Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, etc. — he was one of my favorite directors. Really…he might’ve been my favorite director overall at that point in time. But as years have gone by, I’ve cooled a little on most of his work — to the point that I think that I’m more interested in the man himself (and his thoughts on “art”) rather than his actual products. As mentioned earlier, I’ve become more and more uncertain about his representations of women, race, technology, etc. and his fascination (some would call it an unhealthy obsession) for the 1950s, as well as his caricatures of both small-town life and city life. For a director with interesting imagery and an admirable willingness to sorta see where images/ideas take him, the ways in which those images are filmed / edited is remarkably formulaic. [Seriously…as you watch, for instance, Twin Peaks: The Return, pay attention to how often it relies upon long takes that last a beat or two too long. Pay attention to the instances in which we get cuts between an object and a character’s deadpan reaction to it and back-and-forth and back-and-forth. On their own, these can be used to great, unnerving effect. However, at what point does technique become creative tic? At what point does it become predictable, cliche, etc. and actually diffuse energy rather than provide it?] Truth be told, I’m almost certainly harder on Lynch’s films, though, because I do like them and, in fact, believe that he has three legitimate “masterpieces” (i.e. The Elephant Man, Mulholland Drive, and Blue Velvet) on his resume, which is especially impressive considering that, while a prolific artist, he’s not a particularly prolific filmmaker. At the very least, Lynch’s filmography stands as a testament — especially for those viewers not particularly interested in finding and watching more avant-garde work — that film can do more than simply tell a story.