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.
1. Rodley, Chris (ed.), Lynch On Lynch, Faber and Faber, London, 1997, pp. 9-10
2. Godwin, K. George, “Eraserhead”, Film Quarterly, 39, 1, Fall, 1985, pp. 37-43
3. Mulvey, Laura, “Netherworlds and the Unconscious: Oedipus and Blue Velvet”, Fetishism And Curiosity, British Film Institute, Suffolk, 1996, pp. 137-154
4. Atkinson, Michael, BFI Modern Classics: Blue Velvet, British Film Institute, London, 1997
Maxfield, James F., ” ‘Now It’s Dark’: The Child’s Dream in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet”, The Fatal Woman: Sources Of Male Anxiety In American Film Noir, 1941-1991, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, Madison, 1996, pp. 144-155
5. Caldwell, Thomas, “Lost in Darkness and Confusion: Lost Highway, Lacan, and film noir“, Metro, no. 118, 1999, pp. 46-50
Originally appeared here on Senses of Cinema, Issue No. 20, May – June 2002
Great article; as a Lynch fan I read this some time ago on the Senses of Cinema site. When Lost Highway screened at Melbourne Cinémathèque a couple of years ago, I submitted my review to Senses of Cinema, but they already had one.
Thanks Paul, although I really must get in touch with Senses of Cinema and update this piece to include INLAND EMPIRE and some of the other work that Lynch has done since.
I spend most of my undergraduate years writing about Lynch, as I was somewhat obsessed, so I’ve still got unpublished articles on Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and Wild At Heart that I intend to upload one day when I get the time. I especially want to upload my honours thesis, which focused on Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. I’ll get to that one day…
By the way – your article on Lost Highway is great! I’ve done one too where I (perhaps foolishly) tried to make sense of it all. It’s pretty academic but you can find it here.
Yes, that Lost Highway review is fairly academic, and deconstructs the film to a greater degree than I have allowed myself. I came to my own conclusions, not dissimilar to yours, but didn’t go into too deep an analysis. The Lacanian stuff is interesting, but I have too little understanding of it to make more sense of it.
I can’t even begin to go into detail of your critique, but maybe we can discuss further over a coffee next time we meet.
Lost Highway is my favourite Lynch film. Up until a year or so ago, it was my all-time favourite film and Lynch my favourite director. No film has ever affected me like this did, and I don’t expect that any film could ever match that effect.
Since the Kieslowski season at Melbourne Cinémathèque in 2007, Three Colours: Blue now equals Lost Highway as equal favourite film, and Kieslowski as equal favourite director.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is one of my favourite Lynch works, and one that I also consider under-rated. It was mis-understood, because the TV series created false expectations. If you look at the episodes that Lynch was actively involved with, you get a clue as to what Fire Walk With Me would be.
I didn’t address Inland Empire, which I saw at MIFF last year. I have the DVD, but haven’t watched it yet. I suspect it might look better on DVD than the big screen. I thought it was an important film, for a number of reasons, but not among my favourite Lynch films.
Important because it stretches the medium (digital camera), taking elements of the visuals that might be considered ugly, but using them to their best advantage. Important also because it pushes the abstraction to a greater degree than we’re accustomed. In a sense, Inland Empire, Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr. form a trilogy of films that explore the same theme of identity in the form of film noir/mystery. For me, Lost Highway did it best, because by the time Mulholland Dr. came along, I knew what it was about. The significance of Mulholland Dr. is that it took the same themes but dressed it up in a more easily digestible form, and was consequently seen by a wider audience. In Inland Empire, we see Lynch going back to his roots as an experimental film-maker, using the same themes as the previous two films, but pushing the narrative to the max, a maximum of abstraction.
I haven’t cared to analyse the later two films to too much a degree, as I’m happy not to have an explanation to every detail.
Hi Paul – I think I agree with pretty much everything you have written in the above two posts.
My article on Lost Highway is very academic as it was the culmination of my work on Lacan before I decided to start using more accessible methodology. I won’t even pretend to claim that I now still understand it all myself as far too much time has passed!
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is absolutely Lynch’s most under-appreciated film and one of his masterpieces – for the reasons that you state.
I also agree with you about Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE forming a thematic ‘trilogy’. Mulholland Dr. is actually very easy to get your head around if you’ve already tackled Lost Highway. INLAND EMPIRE is the weakest of the three but a second viewing is rewarding and it does work better on DVD due to it being shot digitally.
Likewise, I’m with you in not wanting to explore those two last films too deeply. Partly because I am very much done writing about Lynch and partly because I’m happy just to immerse myself in the films without feeling the need to ‘explain’ it.
I’m happy just to immerse myself in the films without feeling the need to ‘explain’ it.
My feeling entirely. While Lynch has stated that he’s done with shooting on film, I hope his future films improve visually, because I don’t know if I could handle another film looking like Inland Empire. It was OK as an experimental film, but the raw look loses much of the appeal of the rich visuals that his films are renowned for. A film can be shot on digital but transferred to 35mm print for screening.
Again, I am in complete agreement. The bad news is that Lynch did widely state that he loves the versatility of digital filmmaking so will not ever return to using film again. Let’s hope that is not the case because I do miss the beauty of his films.
I accept that Lynch is unlikely to shoot with 35mm again, and talking to directors who have used both, I understand why. What I’m saying is that using DV doesn’t have to look like it was. The majority of European films distributed here are shot on DV but are usually transferred to 35mm post-production. In most cases, you can’t easily detect it.
OK, I’m with you now and you are absolutely right.
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