Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Retrospective: David Lynch

   On my way to lunch today I ran across a small gallery filled with what appeared to be black and white photographs. Normally, I would have passed it without thinking twice but something from the small poster by the door caught my eye: it was the name David Lynch. The gallery wasn't open yet, but there was a man inside finishing up some installation. When I approached him to ask if this was indeed a David Lynch exhibit...well I can't really remember what happened next except for the fact that I turned around pretty soon after and stared straight into the face of Lynch himself. What followed was a typical star-struck encounter with me expressing admiration and wonder and Dave seemingly amused by it all. 

David Lynch looking amused

 In any case, this encounter, combined with the fact that Lynch currently has a big retrospective going on at the Cinematheque Francaise provides more than enough reason for me to write a bit about what I like about Lynch. And this can be pretty much summed up by my belief that David Lynch's movies are some of the most personal works from any director. But, I guess you can say something similar about any director who favors surrealist imagery above story, so I'll also add that I find Lynch's form of nightmarish imagery particularly entertaining. The only other big director whose films are as wacky as Lynch's that I can think of is Alejandro Jodorowsky, but his psychadelic trips don't carry the same emotional impact ( I don't really see Bunuel's films as wacky in the same way). Lynch's movies can be alienating, but they can also suck you in and make you part of a world that's darker and stranger than your own.
     Lynch's movies point out that we don't always let ourselves fully realize the weirdness in the world around us. I'm sure the suburban madness in Blue Velvet is not so far off from what many of us could find lurking beneath the surface of our own quiet towns. This said, I also think that what's going on in Lynch's mind is genuinely weirder than what we can see on our own. To take a quote from an interview in the book Lynch on Lynch, "My childhood was elegant homes...picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. But on the tree there's this pitch oozing out...and millions of ants crawling all over it." There's a lot more good stuff in those interviews that shows that Lynch is often deeply troubled by what he sees around him. He also gives a perfect explanation for why all of this needs to be put on film and why we need to see it, "I don't know why it's necessary that we get lost in the darkness and confusion, but part of it is really enjoyable."
     Indeed, Lynch's films can often be unsettling and extremely pleasurable to watch at the same time. This has as a lot to do with the fascinating beauty of his imagery and the masterful sound design as well as with the "paradox of horror" (we enjoy being scared). These contrasting feelings also say something about the importance of jarring contrast in Lynch's films. Of course, there's the savageness behind an idyllic facade in Blue Velvet, but there's also the juxtaposition of horror and love in Wild at Heart, the mundane and the epic in The Straight Story, the humane and the hideous in The Elephant Man, the comic and the bizarre in Eraserhead etc... Lynch's films work so well because they operate in two worlds; one we know and expect, and another that is entirely new.

Well, here's a list of my top ten Lynch movies.

1. Blue Velvet- Well the first thing I should mention since I didn't say anything about it in the post above is that Lynch can tell a damn good story. This is his movie that best combines Lynchian craziness with a linear coherent plot. And you can't argue with the amazing scenes in it that have now become classic. Roy Orbison's "In Dreams", Hopper's gas mask, "Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon."

2. Eraserhead- Lynch's first feature, started in 1971 and filmed intermittently until 1976. Apparently Jack Nance ages a number of years from one shot to the next at times. Despite this fact, it's still remarkably coherent and well made. It's also, I think, his strangest film even if Inland Empire or Lost Highway try deliberately to be as strange as possible. To me, Eraserhead is tonally perfect; dread, sadness, and comedy come together beautifully. 

3. Mullholland Drive- I haven't seen this since I was 12 or 13, but from what I can remember it was pretty much a masterpiece. It seemed enigmatic yet very deliberate and the two leads and the cinematography were gorgeous. The bum behind Winkie's scared me to death.

4. Elephant Man- His first film after Eraserhead, Elephant Man is one of Lynch's more commercially accepted works ( it was nominated for 8 Oscars) and remains one of his most moving. It's the real-life story of Joseph Merrick, a sideshow curiosity in Victorian England, who we find out is not a deformed freak, but "A HUMAN BEING....A MAN!" John Hurt as Merrick is excellent.

5. The Straight Story- Lynch's one and only movie distributed by Disney is also the only movie about a man who travels 240 miles on a riding lawn-mower to see his brother. On some level, it's very simple and straightforward, but it's also very unusual without resorting to disturbing imagery. And Richard Farnsworth, as Alvin Straight, elevates it to a higher level. 

6. Wild at Heart- On a level of pure enjoyment, I would put this one above Elephant Man. It's a road movie a la Lynch with a great love story going on between Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern. It has some truly evil bad guys, great sex scenes, trippy visuals, a lot of heart, and an ending that Lynch changed from the book and that seems to suit the story better.

7. Lost Highway- A lot of great scenes and some moments that are a little silly or self-indulgent. Which is not to say that I don't truly enjoy self-indulgent Lynch; cryptic hallucinations put on film always amuse me. But Mullholland Drive is the best of Lynch's recent works that are less coherent plot-wise, probably because films like Lost Highway and Inland Empire don't have the same suspense or feeling of urgency driving the them forwards. 

8. Inland Empire- A couple of great scenes with a lot that is self-indulgent. Basically, form matters to me as much as ideas. While there's a lot to think about here, I do hope that Lynch gets back to budgets and film cameras.

9. The Alphabet- Well, since I haven't seen Twin Peaks or Dune, I'm going to have to pad this list with Lynch's shorts, all of which seem to be pretty great. The Alphabet is an insightful commentary on the indoctrinary nature of didactic learning. Just's pretty much just creepy as hell.

10. The Amputee/ Six Figures Getting Sick (six times)/ The Frenchman and The Cowboy- Lotsa fun for any Lynch fan! Six Figures Getting Sick is his very first and was projected during an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art while he was a sophomore. The Frenchman and The Cowboy is a pretty hilarious later short (1988) and The Amputee is probably the best of the bunch. It's just one shot of a woman writing a letter while her a nurse bandages her leg stumps as they spurt liquid all over the place. It's at the same time calm and mundane and very discomfiting.

There's a lot about David Lynch that I didn't even mention... other shorts (The Grandmother is the most famous), art, music, transcendental meditation etc... Then again, Wikipedia is a more useful tool than I. But to finish it off, here's his comic strip, The Angriest Dog In The World, which ran from 1983 to 1992.


  1. Did you take the picture of Lynch?

  2. Nah, that was just a little joke...he really did seem to be in a pretty good mood. Now that I think of it though, it would have been good to get a picture of me and him together. But then he might have actually ended up looking like that.