Nothing Like Lynch

One of the most subversive directors of all-time, David Lynch has left plenty of audiences flooded with confusion. It made me laugh, so was it a comedy? It also made my fearful, so was it horror? His sharp juxtapositions between the horrendous and the humorous, the satirical and the original, the simple and the complex is what makes his films a paradigm for modern surrealism. Focusing on his life, his work and his legacy, will we be a bit closer to understanding how David Lynch became David Lynch.

Born in Missoula, Missouri, young Lynch found his early suburban life nothing out of the ordinary. Traveling constantly, for his father was a leading scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lynch found that most of his American living rather monotonous but still privileged. As he put it in Lynch on Lynch, “My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there's this pitch oozing out – some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath. Because I grew up in a perfect world, other things were a contrast.” This ideology is what later infamously embodies Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks mythos.

In his high school years, Lynch was not a scholar but popular among classmates. He began a history of painting that continues today. He later was enrolled at the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston but soon left finding it of no inspiration for him. Instead he began planning a 3 year trip in Europe with close friend Jack Fisk in search of something new but the trip ended up dwindling down to 15 days. He returned to America and began painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which he found far more inspiring than his experience in Boston.

It was here that Lynch put together his first short film Six Men Getting Sick in 1966. It was Lynch’s wish to see his paintings move, that drew him to this short film. It was this short film, that drew people to Lynch. As he began receiving independent finance, Lynch released a string of short films that led to his first feature Eraserhead, that Lynch filmed at the American Film Institute Conservatory and eventually released after five years in development hell. Bringing audiences to a world untapped in the film industry, Eraserhead became a critical success and a cult favorite. One of the best parts about Eraserhead is that no one has yet to fully understand it, according to Lynch. His sophomore piece, The Elephant Man, received mainstream success and Lynch soon became common talk in film circles.

After opting out of a chance to direct George Lucas’ Return of the Jedi, which Lynch regarded as a film only Lucas should direct, began work on Dune, an alternative sci-fi film that hoped to achieve similar success to Star Wars. It became a critical and commercial dud, one that Lynch personally stated as a “glaring failure” but also an example of when a director does not have final say in his own creation. With a sharp return to form, Lynch released Blue Velvet, hailed by many critics as a modern American classic, and really began to shape the common perceptions of a “Lynch” film.

His next film would be the flawed road movie Wild at Heart which not only won the prestigious Golden Palm award at Cannes Film Festival, but received many boos for its win. Around this same time Lynch began exploring television. He eventually released Twin Peaks, a cultural phenomenon that changed the face of soap operas forever. It is also my favorite work by Lynch, the possibilities the show had were endless but ABC castrated the existential neonoir before it could really take off. Lynch released the prequel/sequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me to potentially help complete the series ABC axed, which received mixed reviews but any fan of the series should not miss it. Oddly enough, it was a big hit in France and Japan.

Lynch went on to direct a pleasing biography for Disney called The Straight Story and later the mystery Lost Highway at the end of the 90s. Two films that generated very little buzz, Lynch did not return to the spotlight until he released Mulholland Drive in 2001. The film had originally been planned as a television drama for his best friends at ABC but they rejected his work. By editing the feature down and getting financial support by French production company, Studio Canal, Lynch churned out what became a universal success and arguably his best work to date. Looking at the future of filmmaking, Lynch has continuously been toying with the internet, seeing it as the replacement for television. He also released Inland Empire in 2006 with digital cameras and an extremely low-budget to marginal success. David Lynch’s sometimes arbitrary but always abstract content and form is what makes him one of the most distinguished auteurs in contemporary filmmaking. By looking intensively at Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, will we know what makes up a Lynch film.

An up cranked camera opens up with a close-up of a white picket fence, fire fighters waving at the suburbanites as they zip down the street. A man smiles as he gracefully waters his front lawn. The camera travels underneath the surface, literally, to rushing bugs burrowing just below him. The man has a heart attack. That man’s son is Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Mclachlan) and when Jeffrey enters Lumbertown, USA to visit his father after his scare, Jeffrey finds out that even a wholesome town like this has darker elements under the surface. During the day, the town is the happiest of sitcoms, with sugarcoated acting from the leads and a Leave it to Beaver atmosphere. At night, the acting is no longer superficial and the film is engulfed in the shadows making it a chilling neonoir. By placing us in the most conventional of settings that anyone familiar with American culture will recognize, it allows Lynch to let loose the surrealistic chaos when these two contrasting worlds collide. Frank (Dennis Hopper) was the life of the party though as a maniac who flooded the moonlit streets of Lumbertown with his cronies, unbeknown to everyone but Jeffrey. In an interview with Hopper, he said, “its very difficult to think that he has such a twisted sick mind, our dear David” and follows the statement with a boisterous laugh. A strong statement for a man who used to be coked out during the early films of his career. By ending the plot on a light note, with a clearly artificial bird, Lynch continues to poke fun at the traditional happy ending and the overplayed archetypes who embody his piece during the day.

Lynch has many consistent actors in his body of work. Laura Dern would return right after Blue Velvet to star in Wild at Heart opposite Nicholas Cage. Where to start? This fractured fairytale of two hormonally wired “rebels” satirizes the road movie genre while attempting to pull off an allegory to The Wizard of Oz. First off, its very frustrating watching characters you cant relate to. Where as in Blue Velvet, Jeffrey enters Lumbertown as an outsider and a constantly moral protagonist, in Wild at Heart, Lula (Laura Dern) and Sailor (Nicholas Cage) are two that you could care less about. It didn’t help that they were getting constantly upstaged, by the supporting cast (Diane Ladd, Willem Dafoe) either. I believe that if David Lynch had actually been more driven to turn this impressive mess into a straight-lined neonoir than we would have seen a much more effective work like Mulholland Drive. During many action sequences, the violence in Wild at Heart comes off as sloppy and forced exploitation (if there is such a thing) that doesn’t quite fit the picture. Ironically, I would not doubt that this film influenced fellow auteur Quentin Tarantino who has mastered the art of exploitation, seeing as some of his work emulates Wild at Heart’s mise-en-scene. As muddled as this film is, however like mentioned earlier, there are those scenes with Diane Ladd and Willem Dafoe that haunt your dreams like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. David Lynch creates some very memorable psychotic characters, another parallel to Tarantino.

Lynch might have had his hands full with Twin Peaks, produced at the same time. Twin Peaks is a town that touches Canadian borders up in Washington, where murder, adultery, drug trafficking and betrayal lie right under its suburban surface. Much like the rest of his repertoire, one is always questioning the people, their motives and the reality of the world. The viewer runs around with idiosyncratic special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLachlan) who comes into the phantasmagoric suburb of Twin Peaks to solve the perplexing murder of Laura Palmer. In a succession of dreams, apparitions and a plethora of premonitions, Cooper and the joyful, sadistic and wildly enticing townspeople of Twin Peaks get closer to Laura Palmer’s murderer by the minute. Exploring ideas of the afterlife, Tibetan Buddhism, string theory, transcendental meditation and the power of positive thinking, Lynch by all means put a lot into this short-lived ABC series.

Directed with suspense of Alfred Hitchcock’s caliber, Lynch establishes characters who are very misleading, besides Cooper, who constantly reminds the viewer to pay close attention. With the best score from long time collaborator Angelo Badalamenti, the jazzy melodies never leave your eardrums. The composed number Dance of the Dream Man, which played alongside one of the most talked about scenes in television history, will put you in a trance unlike any other. Lynch toys with his fan base in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, another Cannes nominee, that has many moments of tongue in cheek to fans expecting something with as much deep meaning as the series. Though it still reaches some of the darkest layers of Lynch’s filmography, it wouldn’t be for another decade until Lynch swings the pendulum of modern surrealism in yet another daring direction.

Mulholland Drive is such an enthralling enigma, transcending different levels of consciousness to reveal a masterpiece. A car crash, leads an amnesiac to a Hollywood hopeful actress who plans on making it big on Sunset Boulevard someday. Its setting is very fitting because the film provides rich escapism, where audiences leave their seat and enter the film right from the start. It plays with film fans too as its to leads are clear parallels to classic film archetypes. With Betty (Naomi Watts) we have a Hitchcock heroine and with Rita (Laura Elena Harring) we have a femme fatale bursting with sexuality. The two are a cocktail mix of mischief and mistaken identity. Scene after scene, things appear to not add up. It is non-linear but is it all a dream? Dreams never quite add up to the some of their parts but in Mulholland Drive, much like Twin Peaks, there is common interpretation to those willing to take the time to wrap it all up. Film critic Roger Ebert explained Mulholland Drive in a very thoughtful analysis, “Mulholland Drive works directly on the emotions, like music. Individual scenes play well by themselves, as they do in dreams, but they don't connect in a way that makes sense–again, like dreams. The way you know the movie is over is that it ends. And then you tell a friend, ‘I saw the weirdest movie last night.’ Just like you tell them you had the weirdest dream.” Ebert who typically does not enjoy Lynch quickly announced this as a modern masterpiece.

It is exciting when many people interpret films the same way. Some think otherwise but it shows that the intended message the artist was trying to address to the audience was well received. There will always be those who simply attempt to turn a profit in the film industry but auteurs like David Lynch create elaborate pieces that need to be thought out. His multi-faceted talent includes not only painting and filmmaking but photography and music, layering each with what is now known as “Lynchian” appeal. He even has his own coffee brand. If Lynch becomes curious, he is known to explore different outlets all the time.

In an interview for the AFI channel on YouTube, where one can find plenty of David Lynch, on the subject of communicating with film he had this to say, “sometimes like dreams, you have a hard time telling your friends, words just don’t quite do it.” It seems for Lynch that abstractions are worth bringing onto the screen as long as you have the initiative to do it because it is his way of expression, which brings him peace. In one passage of his book Catching the Big Fish, Lynch says that Van Gogh “would have been even more prolific and even greater if he wasn't so restricted by the things tormenting him. I don't think it was pain that made him so great–I think his painting brought him whatever happiness he had.” Lynch feels that in the heart of any troubled artist lies tranquility, as with any troubled human too. Whether you enjoy to delve in the unknown or dabble in the downright disturbing, David Lynch has crafted a look unlike anything out there that demands close observation and an open mind.

By Drew Perkins

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