Great Directors – a critical database: David Lynch
In 1988 David Lynch painted “Shadow of a Twisted Hand Across My House” and in 1990 “Suddenly My House Became a Tree of Sores”. They are simple childlike images painted over a dark background, reflecting the darkness and fear a child can experience within their home. When asked about the recurring theme of the house in his paintings and films, Lynch replied that rather than being concerned with global issues, he is more interested in what happens in the surrounding neighbourhood.He portrays houses so threateningly because “the home is a place where things can go wrong”. (1) Lynch uses surreal, non-traditional narrative, and symbolism, to portray communities that represent a dysfunctional society at large.
After a happy childhood despite a lot of moving around, Lynch at age 19 enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia, to study art. One of his projects was to combine visual arts with cinema to make Six Figures Getting Sick (1966), a looped animation projected onto one of his sculptures. On the strength of this ‘moving painting’ Lynch was able to secure funding to make his first two short films The Alphabet (1968) and The Grandmother (1970). The critical success of these films, followed by a move to Los Angeles with his new wife and child, inspired Lynch to spend the next six years making his first feature, the sublime Eraserhead (1977). Partly inspired by his disgust of industrial and violent Philadelphia, and expressing many of his anxieties over having just become a father, Eraserhead remains Lynch’s most personal film.
Eraserhead is a nightmare vision of a world where men control all aspects of reproduction, turning sex into a mechanised process. The result is a world of industrial decay where life is more morbid than death itself. The infamous baby in Eraserhead is not naturally conceived but created by The Man on the Planet (Jack Fisk), a deformed monster who unnaturally creates life by pulling levers. Without love, life is an artificially created abomination.
At the centre of this mechanical world is Henry (Jack Nance), one of Lynch’s many alter egos, who is a mixture of innocence and dark desires. Henry is forced to look after his deformed baby who constantly traps and enslaves him in the automated world of death-like existence. In this world, the baby, resembling an overgrown penis, both represents male sexuality and symbolises Henry’s own sexuality. Similar to uncontrollable sexual urges, the baby-penis constantly demands attention from Henry who becomes its slave. Henry realises that he must kill the baby-penis in an act of self-castration to rid himself of his loathed sexuality. The baby-penis is the centre of the world created by unnatural sexuality, hence its destruction obliterates the world of Eraserhead. (2)
One of Eraserhead‘s biggest fans was comic writer/director Mel Brooks who famously once described Lynch as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”. Brooks introduced Lynch to Hollywood by having him direct The Elephant Man (1980), the beautifully sad true story of grotesquely deformed John Merrick (John Hurt). The Elephant Man was the first film to combine Lynch’s unique industrial and organic visuals with a truly moving story about inner beauty and familial love. It was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.
Lynch’s second Hollywood film, however, was his last. Adapted from the cult science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert, Dune (1984) was a commercial and critical disaster. Although there are visuals that reflect Lynch’s fascination with the body and its mutability, Lynch was denied the final cut and it was ultimately the studio’s film.
Part of the deal Lynch made with producer Dino De Laurentiis when making Dune was that Laurentiis would fund his next film and give Lynch free reign. What resulted was the revisionist film noir classic that brought Lynch into the critical spotlight. The tale of misogynist violence hidden beneath the veneer of idealised small town middle America gained Lynch his second Academy Award Nomination for Best Director.
Blue Velvet (1986) is an exaggerated depiction of patriarchal society and a parable about domestic violence. It establishes a metaphorical family – Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), the ‘child’, and his ‘parents’ Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) – through deliberate references to film noir and its underlying Oedipal theme. (3) The resulting violence can be read as symbolic of domestic violence within ‘real’ families. Frank’s violent acts reflect the different types of abuse within families, and the control he has over Dorothy represents the hold an abusive husband has over his wife. Jeffrey is an innocent youth who is both horrified by the violence inflicted by Frank, but also tempted by it as the means of possessing Dorothy for himself. (4)
The commercial success of Blue Velvet, which also began Lynch’s on-going collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti, then allowed Lynch to join forces with renowned television writer Mark Frost to develop the television series Twin Peaks (1990-91). Continuing themes established in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks is an exploration of a small town whose dark secrets are revealed during the murder investigation of high-school prom queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). Combining characters and storylines straight out of soap operas, sit-coms, detective stories, science fiction, and horror, Twin Peaks was a huge hit with its intertexuality, post-modern humour, and supernatural themes.
During the second series of Twin Peaks Lynch directed Wild At Heart (1990), adapted from the novel by Barry Gifford, which won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes. This ultra-stylised road movie tells the story of two lovers on the run whose hopes of romantic union are constantly thwarted by the violence around and within them. Similar to Blue Velvet, the sudden idealistic ending of perfect happiness is so drenched in irony that ultimately Lynch seems to be suggesting that people who have the potential for violence cannot find true happiness.
When Lynch returned to Twin Peaks he found that not only had it been announced that a third series would not happen, but that many of his ideas had been lost and replaced with more conventional narratives. The supernatural characters that had originally been enigmatically used to symbolise violence within the town had become more personified into beings who possessed men and caused them to inflict sexually violent crimes. It steered towards the dangerous waters of suggesting that men cannot be held responsible for their violent actions. Lynch’s alter-ego character Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) had also become less the spiritual and intuitive detective, and more the romantic leading man. Lynch wrote and directed the final episode where he ‘punished’ the show by either killing off favourite characters or placing them in a personal hell.
Although the series had finished, Lynch was not ready to leave the town of Twin Peaks. He returned by making the prequel film, with production company CIBY-2000, about the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). The film was a commercial and critical flop hated by fans who missed the humour of the series and were expecting explanations to the mysteries left behind by the series, and incomprehensible to the rest of the general public. Lynch’s purpose was not to clear up narrative threads but to reveal the true nature of the themes of domestic violence and child sexual abuse that had taken a back seat in the second series of the television show. When viewed as a film detached from the television series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a brilliant exploration of the ugliness and horrific consequences of violence in the home.
By totally abandoning realism in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch succeeded in showing what the series could only hint at due to restraints of format and censorship guidelines of prime time television. The horrors of domestic violence are amplified by having a narrative about incest and by depicting the experience through the eyes of the incest victim, Laura Palmer. Laura’s world is a nightmare; her psychological defence mechanism is to project her abuser as the demonic figure, BOB (Frank Silva) rather than accept the reality that her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), is the perpetrator. Lynch deliberately makes it difficult for the viewer to watch Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me so that they can experience the same confusion, terror and betrayal that Laura suffers. Lynch creates sensations that cannot be easily forgotten, so that abuse cannot be witnessed at a safe distance.
After various other short-lived television projects, Lynch’s next project was a writing collaboration with Barry Gifford, to be directed by Lynch. The result was “A 21st Century Noir Horror Film”, Lost Highway (1997). Similar to Eraserhead and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway was a surreal nightmare from the perspective of its lead character, Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). Unlike Lynch’s previous work, the setting was Los Angeles and the lead character, Fred, was anything but sympathetic. For the first time Lynch showed a view of the world, not through the eyes of an innocent, but through the eyes of an abusive male character. Fred is a paranoid misogynist who suffers a complete reality breakdown through his self-denial of the fact he has murdered his wife in a jealous rage.
The first part of Lost Highway shows us the relationship between Fred and his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette). Later in the film Fred suddenly changes into the young Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who can be seen as his idealised counterpart , an innocent led astray by femme fatale Alice Wakefield (also Patricia Arquette). Wakefield embodies all the promiscuity and threat of which Fred had previously falsely accused Renee. Lynch suggests that the traditional image of the assertive women as a dangerous femme fatale who threatens society is a patriarchal construction. It is in fact misogynist men like Fred viewing women in this way who are a threat to civilisation. The film ends with Fred physically in his cell, but mentally hurtling down the dark highway of lost identity. (5)
Now backed by French companies Canal+ and Les Films Alain Sarde, Lynch made The Straight Story (1999). It puzzled many fans with its nostalgic story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) travelling across America on a ride-on lawn mower to reconcile with his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). The themes of family and tradition, however, have always been present in Lynch’s previous work, and sentimentality has always been prominent, especially in episodes of Twin Peaks. The Straight Story remains Lynch’s most hopeful film with the male character actively working towards preserving the sanctity of the bonds between family members.
Lynch attempted to return to television with a series about the artificiality and violence surrounding Hollywood and its connections to organised crime. However, nervous television executives shelved the project after the Colorado shootings redefined what was acceptable on television. The loss for the small screen became a gain for the large screen as Lynch reworked the material, shot extra footage and released the astonishing, Mulholland Dr. (2001), winning himself the Best Director award at Cannes, and gaining another Academy Award Best Director nomination.
Similar to Lost Highway, the non-linear narrative of Mulholland Dr. combines actual events that happen to struggling actress Diane (Naomi Watts) and her imagined idealised interpretation of events. For the first time Lynch portrays violence in a relationship as something that does not only happen between heterosexual characters, but also between homosexual ones. Mulholland Dr. is also an attack on the artificiality of male-dominated Hollywood where everybody has a hidden agenda, people are used up and then discarded, and anything that appears to be beautiful or genuine is simply an illusion that will eventually collapse.
Lynch’s films are tragedies about the overwhelming tendency for people to condemn themselves to a world of darkness and confusion, by succumbing to violence and the desire to control others. The characters in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. create fragile illusions to escape from reality; find happiness only through death in Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me; or are cynically portrayed as finding improbable contrived happiness in Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart. However, the search for true love and beauty is a dominant theme in all of Lynch’s work, and The Straight Story suggests that it is possible for people to repair the mistakes of their past and find peace. Moments of humour and joy are expressed in Lynch’s films and he truly believes in the powerful bonds of friendship and family. By abandoning objective realism, and making visuals and music dominant over narrative, Lynch has generated a body of work that captures a unique emotional reality, reflecting dread, sorrow, and, sometimes, hope.