Why I adore David Lynch

12 July 2010

My relationship with David Lynch started badly. I would have been maybe 8 or 9-years-old at the time when repeat viewings of the Star Wars films had developed a taste for science fiction and fantasy. Being able to appreciate 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly suggested that I was capable of digesting more serious cinema so my parents and I figured we’d give Dune, Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel, a go. Big mistake. I wasn’t so much concerned with its significant narrative flaws and stylistic inconsistencies as I was too busy being horrified at its grotesqueness. In particular, the scene where Baron Vladimir Harkonnen works himself up into an orgasmic frenzy and then rips out some poor attendants heart plug gave me nightmares for weeks

It wasn’t until I was 17 that I would have my next encounter with Lynch and although it was under very dubious circumstances it was a defining moment in my film-going life. I was going through a phase where my growing love for cinema and petty teen rebelliousness meant that I saw as many transgressive and controversial films that I could sneak in to. During this time I was set up on a blind date that involved the poor girl, our mutual friends and me all going out together a couple of times to see films. I used the first occasion to see A Clockwork Orange again and on our second ‘date’ I decided we all had to check out a restored print of this strange cult film I’d been reading about called Eraserhead. Clearly the dates weren’t a success and I never saw that girl again, but seeing Eraserhead for the first time was amazing.

Eraserhead

Eraserhead

Never before had I experienced a film that was like a dream, or to be more precise – a nightmare that I could not wake up from. The strange acting, industrial wasteland setting, creepy soundtrack, moody cinematography and macabre story about a deformed baby culminated in a genuinely unique experience. It was funny, disgusting and strangely beautiful with a transfixing dream-like power. Most importantly, it felt genuine. At the time of making Eraserhead Lynch was freaking out about becoming a father and the film expresses those anxieties, plus a whole lot more to do with male sexuality, in a way that felt disturbingly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Eraserhead is not a film that you can necessarily ‘get’ or ‘decode’ on a literal level (although I certainly tried in one or two undergraduate essays) but it is a film you understand on an emotional level.

And that’s the core to what I adore about Lynch – the emotional reality of his films. So very few directors craft their films so lovingly and expertly to generate something that resonates on such an emotional level as David Lynch. This emotional reality will always fulfil me more than any literal reality and films with the ability to generate images and sounds to tap into something subconscious will always impress me over films that attempt to replicate objective reality. It is also for this reason that I get frustrated with the way so many other people respond to Lynch’s films and I find that people who constantly carry on about how weird he is or assume that he must be on drugs are just as irritating as people who think he is being deliberately confusing just to annoy them.

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks

My love affair with Lynch continued about a year later when I finally got around to hiring all the episodes of Twin Peaks on VHS to watch over summer. I was aware of Twin Peaks from when it originally screened on television but never gave it much thought, although I did love that distinctive theme song sung by Julee Cruise. I had never taken television seriously as an art form and with the exception of the various Dennis Potter written miniseries and telemovies that I had seen I regarded television somewhat snobbishly as a lesser medium. That all changed when I watched Twin Peaks, ploughing through episode after episode about the small town asking itself, “Who killed Laura Palmer?”

The incredible blend of soap-opera, melodrama, murder mystery, police thriller, sit-com, horror and science fiction was unlike anything I had ever seen before and honestly unlike anything I have ever seen since. Twin Peaks both conformed to the traditional structure of conventional television narratives and completely messed with them. It was serious television but also parody and through watching Twin Peaks I finally figured out what post-modernism was really all about! But most importantly, it was filled with wonderful characters that I just fell in love with. It was a show that had the ability to terrify me and move me to tears, often in the same episode. The second season did dip in quality midway through but the first season is masterful and the very final episode is still the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen on television.

Blue Velvet

Blue Velvet

My love of Twin Peaks led to me seeking out the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lynch’s earlier film the suburban-gothic film noir Blue Velvet, which thematically and stylistically paved the wave for Twin Peaks. Like so many others I loved Blue Velvet and when I had the privilege of interviewing Dennis Hopper I was thrilled to hear him talk about how much he loved playing the primal force that was the Frank Booth character. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was not a film I warmed to right away because it was so different to the television series but after subsequent viewings it has become one of my favourite films by Lynch with its terrifying and upsetting portrayal of sexual violence within the family.

Years later my undergraduate degree culminated in an honours thesis on Lynch, which incorporated all the work I had done on gender in both my Cinema Studies and Political Science majors to conclude that Blue Velvet and the Twin Peaks film and television series were texts that very accurately reflected the horrors and destructiveness of physical and sexual violence within the family, and the social and cultural conditions that allow for such violence to occur. It was a pretty horrible thing to write considering the sort of research I had to read on actual domestic violence but the resulting thesis, titled “Shadow Of A Twisted Hand Across My House”, is still something I am very proud of.

Wild at Heart

Wild at Heart

Before all this I also caught up on Lynch’s two other feature films to date, The Elephant Man and Wild at Heart. The Elephant Man is still one of the most beautifully sad films I have ever seen and it certainly demonstrates the sincere, sentimental and compassionate side of Lynch that is often overlooked when people focus too heavily on his ‘weird and dark’ side. Lynch would again express this side overtly with the very sweet The Straight Story. Wild at Heart on the other hand is a mixed bag since overall it feels a little bit too self-aware and guilty of “Lynch doing Lynch” but it also contains some of his best work. The strange and sad scene featuring Sherilyn Fenn playing a girl in a car accident, with Chris Isaak’s haunting “Wicked Game” on the soundtrack, is amazing. Sad, dark, violent and beautiful – it is a moment demonstrating Lynch at his best.

The final key film in my love affair with Lynch is Lost Highway; the first film of his I saw in the cinema during its original theatrical release. I saw it on opening day and had already negotiated with one of my lecturers that my finally essay for her film noir course would be on Lost Highway. I can’t remember being more excited at a screening than I was seeing Lost Highway for the first time. Even the people who sat behind me muttering, “Let’s see what misogynist Lynch does this time” didn’t dampen my spirits. (For the record, accusing Lynch of being a misogynist for disturbingly portraying violence against women is like accusing Steven Spielberg of being a Nazi for portraying the Holocaust).

Lost Highway

Lost Highway

From the opening image of hurtling down a highway at night with David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” on the soundtrack, Lost Highway transfixed me with its mysterious and sexy story about a man whose irrational and destructive jealously makes him literally transform into another person. The resulting essay melded what had become my obsession with Lost Highway with my love of film noir and my recent studies in Lacanian psychoanalysis. “Lost in Darkness and Confusion: Lost Highway, Lacan and film noir would eventually become the first article that I ever had published.

In later years I have continued to adore David Lynch but probably not so feverishly as I used to. I loved Mulholland Dr. and had a wonderful time when I first saw it, discussing it long into the night with some fellow Lynch enthusiasts whom I’d become firm friends with. I wrote the entry on David Lynch for Senses of Cinema’s Great Directors database, which I titled “The Evil That Men Do”, and after that I decided I had finished writing about him for the time being and I didn’t do so again until I wrote a short review of INLAND EMPIRE.

David Lynch at the Air is on Fire exhibition, Paris, 2007

David Lynch at the Air is on Fire exhibition, Paris, 2007

When I saw INLAND EMPIRE I was living in France and was bemused at how differently people regarded Lynch compared to how they did in Australia. In Australia when I have been asked what sort of films I like I often mention Lynch as my favourite living director. The response I get is either “huh, who’s he?” or “oh, that weird guy who must be on drugs and deliberately makes films nobody understands”. In France when I told people that Lynch was my favourite living director the response was frequently a shrug with the reply that went something like “But of course, everybody who loves cinema loves David Lynch, that is not a very original answer”.

I suspect my passion for David Lynch’s films will never quite reach the same heights as it has in the past and even after spending a day at the outstanding Air is on Fire exhibition during my final week in France, I had a feeling that I was perhaps moving on. I will always love his films and I do revisit them frequently but I’m not expecting to have the same giddy excitement over the release of anything new of his like I used to. But, that’s OK as I will always remember neglecting my date to surrender to the world of Eraserhead at a midnight screening, walking like a man possessed to the local shopping centre to buy the Twin Peaks soundtrack after having my mind blown apart by the final episode and almost bursting into tears at the sheer joy of Lost Highway exceeding every possible expectation that I had for it. So I guess I do still adore David Lynch.

Originally published here on Why I Adore…

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Top Twenty Films of the 2000s

25 March 2010

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I’ve been wanting to put together a best films of the 2000s list for a while now but felt it was appropriate to allow some distance before doing so (plus I’ve been a bit slack). I also wanted to catch up on many of the important films that I had missed over the past decade but I quickly came to my senses and realised that was an almost impossible task as the list of films that I must see is forever getting longer rather than shorter. After creating a short list of 100 possible films I was able to get down to a list of my personal favourite twenty films from the past decade.

My methodology was to simply list all the films that I’d given 5 or 4½ stars to and go from there. I tried not to pay too much attention to how I preferentially ordered films in my yearly best-of lists as my feelings about films do change upon reflection and repeat viewings. In the end the films that I included are the films that have long continued to linger in my mind, compelled me to watch them again or simply get me excited just by thinking about them.

Mulholland Dr.

Apart from one or two left-field selections I am aware that my list is hardly revolutionary but in the end I went with personal choices rather than attempt to make an all encompassing list of the most significant, important or influential films, which has been done very impressively elsewhere. So here are my top twenty films from the 2000s:

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)
2. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
3. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
4. Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002)
5. The Proposition (John Hillcoat, 2005)
6. Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2000)
7. Balibo (Robert Connolly, 2009)
8. Hero (Ying xiong, Zhang Yimou 2002)
9. Lost In Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)
10. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
11. No Country for Old Men (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2007)

12. Russian Ark (Russkiy kovcheg, Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
13. Punch-Drunk Love (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
14. Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001)
15. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg, 2007)
16, Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
17. Conversations with Other Women (Hans Canosa, 2005)
18. Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004)
19. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)
20. Waltz with Bashir (Vals Im Bashir, Ari Folman, 2008)


Kill Bill: Vol. 1

Even though in 2004 I originally listed Irréversible above Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Irréversible was released late in Australia) subsequent repeat viewings of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind established it for me as a masterpiece of modern cinema. It’s a film that I can engage with on a deeply emotional and critical level as well as being able to appreciate just how well crafted a film it is.  To an extent the same can be said of all films on this list.

Mulholland Dr, Kill Bill: Vol.1, No Country for Old Men and Eastern Promises aren’t the best films by their respective directors but nevertheless reflect the incredible ongoing contribution that those directors have made to modern cinema. Unexpectedly Paul Thomas Anderson is the only director to appear twice with Punch-Drunk Love that, along with Lost in Translation, Donnie Darko and Mysterious Skin, represents the remnants of the 1990s American indi at its best while There Will Be Blood reflects a bold throw back to the grand narratives of classical Hollywood cinema.

Irréversible

Australian cinema peaked twice in the 2000s with The Proposition representing the middle spike and Balibo representing the incredible spike right at the end of the decade. Dancer in the Dark is von Trier’s masterpiece, Hero was the pinnacle of the ‘art house martial arts’ films and Control is the best musical biopic ever made (although I will admit to my heavy bias due to my love of Joy Division). Finally, some of the most distinctive cinema from the 2000s are the films that successfully did something original and daring with film form and style and they are represented on this list with Irréversible, Russian Ark, Conversations with Other Women, Hunger and Waltz with Bashir.

Here are the remaining 80 films from my shortlist, ordered alphabetically:

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile, Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002)
28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Amelie (Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003)
Antichrist (Lars von Trier, 2009)
Artificial Intelligence: AI (Steven Spielberg, 2001)
Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004)
The Bourne Ultimatum (Paul Greengrass, 2007)
Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore, 2002)
Bridge to Terabithia (Gabor Csupo, 2007)
Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
Broken Flowers (Jim Jarmusch, 2005)
Café Lumière (Kôhî jikô, Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2003)
Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)

Capturing The Friedmans (Andrew Jarecki 2003)
Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)
Closer (Mike Nichols, 2004)
Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
Code Unknown (Code inconnu, Michael Haneke, 2000)
The Counterfeiters (Die Fälscher, Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2007)
The Cremaster Cycle (Matthew Barney 1995-2002)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, (Wo hu cang long, Ang Lee, 2000)
Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)
The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Downfall (Der Untergang, Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004)
Elephant (Gus Van Sant 2003)
Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern, 2008)
Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002)
Flags of our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
Forgiveness (Ian Gabriel, 2004)
Genova (Michael Winterbottom, 2008)
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts (Scott Hicks, 2007)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (Alex Gibney, 2008)
High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002)
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam, 2009)
In My Father’s Den (Brad McGann 2004)
INLAND EMPIRE (David Lynch, 2006)
Inside Man (Spike Lee, 2006)
The Jammed (Dee McLachlan, 2007)
Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003)
Jindabyne (Ray Lawrence, 2006)
The Last King of Scotland (Kevin Macdonald, 2006)
Last Life in the Universe (Ruang rak noi nid mahasan, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang 2003)
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006)
The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
Love Exposure (Ai no mukidashi, Shion Sono, 2008)
Lust, Caution (Se, jie, Ang Lee, 2007)

Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000)
Men’s Group (Michael Joy, 2008)

Monster (Patty Jenkins 2003)
Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)
Nightwatching (Peter Greenaway, 2007)
Not Quite Hollywood (Mark Hartley, 2008)

OldBoy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)
Once (John Carney, 2006)
Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003)
Pan’s Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
The Piano Teacher (La pianiste, Michael Haneke, 2001)
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
The Rules of Attraction (Roger Avary, 2002)
Samson and Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009)
Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004)
Silmido (Kang Woo-suk 2003)
The Spanish Apartment (L’auberge espagnole, Cédric Klapisch, 2002)
Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring (Bom yeoreum gaeul gyeoul geurigo bom, Kim Ki-duk 2003)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)
Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot, Park Chan-wook, 2002)
The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002)
Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
Two Lovers (James Gray, 2008)
Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
WALL·E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

[EDIT 8/1/11 and 2/10/11: Since creating this top twenty and shortlist I have seen several films that in retrospect I would have included. Rather than re-editing the lists and running the risk of endless tweaking, I’ll simply list those new films here:

Enter The Void (Gaspar Noé, 2009)
I Love You Phillip Morris (Glenn Ficarra and John Reque, 2009)
The Secret in Their Eyes (El secreto de sus ojos, Juan José Campanella, 2009)
Son of Babylon (Mohamed Al Daradji, 2009)
Still Walking (Aruitemo aruitemo, Hirokazu Koreeda, 2008)

Enter the Void would have probably made the top twenty.]

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – INLAND EMPIRE (2006)

20 November 2007

Laura Dern (Blue Velvet, Jurassic Park) plays an actress making a comeback in Hollywood by appearing in a cursed film. Her identity begins to blur with her onscreen persona and that of a poor housewife who turns tricks on the side. But the whole thing is possibly the mental projection of a distressed Polish girl who has been forced into prostitution. Then there are the three people dressed as rabbits who seem to exist in a bizarre sit-com. This is definitively a film by David Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.) filled with his trademark evocative music, industrial sound scapes, stylised dialogue and arresting visuals created simply through creative lighting and editing.

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The Evil That Men Do

11 May 2002

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.

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