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Retrospective: The Films Of David Lynch

Retrospective: The Films Of David Lynch

If cinema is a drug, then in the special section of its pharmacological spectrum reserved for the hallucinogens, sit the movies of David Lynch. Perched in pride of place among those is “Mulholland Drive,” his glorious 2001 mindfuck that comes this week to the Criterion Collection (surprisingly only his second title to find a home there after “Eraserhead.”) Perfectly in time for Halloween, the film is the sublimation of many of the different impulses that Lynch’s filmography embodies: it’s creepy to the point of uncanny (and it did it take the top spot on our 25 Best Horror Films of the Century list) but it’s also oddly melancholic, beautiful and terrible, unfolding like a dream you can’t wake up from, whose logic impels you forward, and further inward, even though you can’t explain why.

Despite padding his resume with myriad short films, videos, installations, and, erm, nightclubs, Lynch’s reputation as the reigning King of Cult is founded on just ten feature films and one TV show. The latter, the endlessly adored, fascinating, epochal “Twin Peaks” which he co-created with Mark Frost, will return with Lynch writing and directing, for an anticipated third season in 2017 via Showtime. But as for Lynch and movies, well, only time can tell, but nothing he’s said recently indicates any sort of serious desire or intention to return to the medium.

Perhaps that’s the cleverest way that Lynch has made junkies of us all: by throttling down the supply of his “product.” Because they’re not just mind-addling psychotropic substances, his movies are highly addictive, in that once you’ve found your gateway title (for many it was “Twin Peaks” though for the more cinematically inclined it was often “Blue Velvet”) you find yourself quickly jonesing for more. Having made so relatively few features across the four decades of his career, Lynch has more or less guaranteed that the only option for the hooked is to go back and revisit them time and again: thankfully, his is one of the rare catalogues that rewards that practice. Somehow, Lynch’s output seems to continually expand in meaning and character, despite the fact that it remains stubbornly enumerated, since 2006, at an uncharacteristically round, decimal ten titles. Here’s our assessment of those films: administer intravenously.

“Eraserhead” (1977)

Here it is, folks. One of the seminal Midnight Movies, the film that launched David Lynch’s career and gave thousands of horror-happy movie kids nightmares for years, “Eraserhead” remains one of the director’s purest, most playful and vital works. But like many of Lynch’s better films, this one can’t be superficially described in terms of its plot. It must be experienced: you must drink in the inky, alien vibes of Lynch’s otherworldly landscape for yourself, and absorb the movie’s rich, intoxicating allure firsthand. With this, his first feature, Lynch reveals himself as an authentic heir to the throne of cinematic surrealism, alongside filmmakers ranging from Luis Bunuel (“Un Chien Andalou”) to Alejandro Jodorowsky (“El Topo”). The movie also marked the beginning of several relationships with what would turn out to be long-term collaborations, like with “Blue Velvet” D.P. Frederick Elmes, famed production designer Jack Fisk and actor Jack Nance, who also appeared in Lynch’s landmark T.V. series “Twin Peaks.” The plot involves a lonely, withdrawn man’s efforts to care for a mutant offspring – a hissing, horrific thing with an eerily blank face and wriggling tentacles – in a harsh, imposing industrial cityscape, but story is the last thing on Lynch’s mind with “Eraserhead”. Through the film’s murky black and white cinematography and the haunting organ songs by Fats Waller that are peppered throughout the soundtrack, Lynch evokes the feeling of being trapped in a world between the real and the uncanny. His later films are more fleshed out, and go deeper in their penetration of unconscious fears, but “Eraserhead” is still a remarkable feat: it is an artful elegy for the freaks we all harbor, a nighttime tone poem to the darker sides of our psyches and the introduction of one of cinema’s most radical and uncompromising directors to the world.

“The Elephant Man” (1980)

Lynch’s second film is one of the most surprising in his filmography because it is not surprising at all, but rather elegant, classical, emotive to the point of sentimental, and immensely accessible. Featuring a gorgeous central performance from John Hurt who somehow manages to be the very definition of heartbreaking despite acting beneath seven hours’ worth of make-up and prosthetic effects, it’s based on the real-life story of Joseph Merrick (called John in the film). Merrick is a circus freak who is treated as a sub-human possession by his employer, before surgeon Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins), motivated as much by ambition and curiosity as by altruism, brings him to live among high society. Once there, Merrick’s innate intelligence makes itself felt, but while he is treated better, it is still with intense condescension and, at best, pity, despite the fact that his personal grace and dignity set him far above the gawping crowds. That Freddie Francis‘ luxuriant photography is in black and white is really the only avant-garde choice made here aside from a couple of hazy flashbacks, although Lynch’s intense, penetrating sympathy for the grotesque, which had already been on display in much more perverse and surreal fashion in “Eraserhead” does color every single moment with Merrick. Mostly though, this is a triumph within Lynch’s canon because it shows just how skilfully he could, if he wanted, turn in a “traditional” film — not for nothing is “The Elephant Man” also one of his most traditionally lauded, picking up eight Oscar nominations, among them Lynch’s first as Best Director. A little like a Picasso who mastered the “rules” of classical representation only to transcend them into the realm of the abstract, “The Elephant Man” is the straightforward, instantly comprehensible, emotionally available film that immunizes Lynch against accusations that he is obscure only because he doesn’t know how to be linear.

“Dune” (1984)

In the book of interviews “Lynch on Lynch” the filmmaker, notoriously reticent on the subject of his biggest folly, had this to say about his stumbling version of Frank Herbert‘s science fiction opus ““[it] was a kind of studio film. I didn’t have final cut. And, little by little, I was subconsciously making compromises.” While the truth of this vague assessment is inarguable to anyone who has seen the unmistakably compromised film, in any of its versions (some of which were even “Alan Smithee”-ed by Lynch), this quote is a real marker of what a different world we lived in 30 years ago — one in which Lynch’s subconscious urges were to capitulate to outside pressure and to try and normalize his personal vision into something a major studio could accept. The result is a mess, but a strangely lovable one, in overall form resembling as grotesque a mutant as ever took up residence behind Jack Nance‘s radiator, but one that has occasional flashes of wild, dazzling inspiration, and the kind of sincere heart that Lynch would arguably never even attempt to display again. The complex epic tale of Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) who turns out to be the messiah-like Kwisatz Haderach of the planet Arrakis aka Dune, sent to lead the oppressed indigenous people in rebellion against a corrupt power structure that sees the planet exploited for its mineral wealth, Lynch only ever has the tiger of Herbert’s unwieldy, populous plot by the very tip of its tail. But the production design, especially that of the repulsive “floating fatman” Baron Vladmir Harkonnen, is unforgettable, the universe’s darkness is often well-achieved, despite campiness elsewhere and even when the film is at its most incoherent, it’s never less than (compulsively) watchable, especially for those with any kind of nostalgic attachment to sci-fi filmmaking in the mid 1980s.

“Blue Velvet” (1986)

In some ways, David Lynch was a hard man to pin down in the early part of his career — he went from bold experimentalism, to a quieter, more mainstream (by his standards, at least) period picture for “The Elephant Man,” to the big-budget sci-fi misfire of “Dune.” He’s remained a hard man to pin down, but in a different way, because “Blue Velvet” marked different sort of turning point: it was the movie that saw him refine, define and confirm his own voice, picking up where “Eraserhead” left off in the Lynchian universe. An entirely distinctive neo-noir blended with a horror film, it seems ordinary enough in the early stages: college boy Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) returns to his picture-perfect small-town home, only to be brought into the orbit of a mysterious woman, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), and gangster Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper). You’ve seen something like that a dozen times before, probably. But as Jeffrey and clean-cut love interest Sandy (Laura Dern), are drawn further and further into Frank’s world, caused by finding a severed ear, it becomes progressively clearer that Lynch’s thrust is anything but generic. Right from the first appearance of Hopper’s legendarily terrifying Frank, at once impotent and powerful, as glimpsed peeping-tom style by Jeffrey, “Blue Velvet” is a film that feels legitimately dangerous, a deep dig into the seedy desires and sexual violence that lingers below the surface not just of suburbia, but of the all-American boy as well, with almost everyone involved are giving their best-ever performances. Even more so than “Eraserhead,” this defining title informs everything that came after, from the dark-side-of-ordinary-life themes to the nightmarish surrealism to the music of Angelo Badalamenti (hired for the film initially only as Rossellini’s singing coach, he and Lynch have gone on to work together countless times). So not just for the magnificent film it is, but for creating the Lynch we know and love, “Blue Velvet” might just be his finest achievement.

“Wild at Heart” (1990)

A furious shot through the heart, brimming with movie-movieness and gleeful perversion, “Wild at Heart” sees the director perhaps having the most fun he’s ever had making a movie. The film also sees Lynch, not surprisingly, at his most romantic. Granted, Mr. Lynch’s version of romance involves murderous in-laws, a lot of dead bodies and scenes of awful violence juxtaposed with the melodies of Elvis Presley. But the campy, hot-and-heavy mood of “Wild at Heart” is just window dressing: in Lynch’s mind, the movie’s two star-crossed lovers truly do care for one another, and are willing to outrun any son of a bitch who might think about putting a stop to their passionate rendezvous. Nicolas Cage turns in one of his brilliantly hammy 90’s turns as Sailor Ripley, a savage, oversexed bad boy who seems to have borrowed his greaser outfits and permanent sneer from his hero, Mr. Presley. Laura Dern, the director’s longtime collaborator and friend, plays Lula, a young woman fueled by insatiable lust who longs to flee with Sailor far from the reaches of her terrible, tyrannical family Along their corpse-littered trek through the rotten roads of Americana, (it must be said too, that while “Wild at Heart” is superficially similar to Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” it’s ultimately a less self-conscious and more focused film) our two lovers encounter seedy cowboy types, rocket scientists, John Lurie and a sadistic assassin named Bobby Peru. Peru, played by the great Willem Dafoe with rotting teeth and the pencil mustache of a silent movie actor, is a creepy, hilarious turn: undeniable evidence that Lynch knows how to get great work out of actors. To be sure, “Wild at Heart” is rough and nasty and doesn’t play nice, and those expecting restraint or a conventional narrative might want to look elsewhere. But for those who are curious as to what David Lynch’s vision of young love might look like, look no further: “Wild at Heart” is just that, plus weird on top.

“Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992)

The sleepy, entirely fictional Washington town of Twin Peaks appears to haunt Lynch: nearly 30 years after it first appeared on screen, he’s returning there in 2017 for a new Showtime TV series, currently filming the long-awaited successor to the original series. And back in ’92 soon after the show was cancelled, Lynch took the show to the big screen for prequel “Fire Walk With Me.” The result was hugely divisive: to some (and increasing number nowadays it seems), it’s one of Lynch’s best, to others, like those who booed and panned it at Cannes, his worst (after seeing it at Cannes Quentin Tarantino said “David Lynch had disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie until I hear something different. And I loved him. I loved him”). Announced barely a month after the series was cancelled (and that itself after a second season which had been poorly received by fans and featured less involvement from Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost) it reunited most of the show’s cast, and a few new additions — Moira Kelly (stepping in for Lara Flynn Boyle), Chris Isaak, Kiefer Sutherland, David Bowie — to tell the story of the investigation of the murder of Teresa Banks, and the final living days of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). As a continuation of the show for those who were most interested in its mysteries, it’s probably not very satisfying — Agent Cooper’s barely involved, the mythology of Bob is expanded but not by much. You can sometimes feel the strain on the movie, trying to tick all the right boxes and include the right people, and the opening section with Isaak and Sutherland is a disappointment. But as a sad, deeply weird riff on Lynch’s self-created Twin Peaks universe the film’s a triumph, adding real tragedy to a character who might have been the show’s most iconic, despite being dead when it began.

“Lost Highway” (1997)

In a career full of confounding and inscrutable moments – juxtaposing Roy Orbison with ghoulish violence in “Blue Velvet,” the infamous dumpster monster from “Mulholland Drive,” all of “Inland Empire” – “Lost Highway” stands as a whopping 134 minutes of just that: relentless inscrutability. Its evocation of a shadowy Los Angeles borne from the minds of noir writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett is potent, and Lynch’s preference for dream logic takes on a seductive horror-movie tinge here. But “Lost Highway” never really comes together as a story, and more importantly, it never, not once, makes a lick of goddamn sense. The story of one man’s identity split nastily in two is reflected in the film’s bifurcated story structure. It’s a bold move by the director, but unfortunately as the teasing, moody menace of the film’s first half eventually dissolves into head-scratching histrionics of the second, for once Lynch has not given us enough reason to care about puzzling it out. Bill Pullman plays Fred Madison, a tortured jazz musician whose wife (Patricia Arquette) is constantly elsewhere, even when they’re making love. A series of sinister coincidences then unfurls, including a premonition courtesy of a pasty-faced ghoul at a Hollywood party (this scene, featuring a terrifying turn from accused murderer and former “Bonanza” star Robert Blake, is the film’s highlight, and one of the most blood-curdling things Lynch ever put on film) along with some increasingly brutal video tapes that showcase footage of Fred’s home in the Hollywood Hills. It’s clear enough “Lost Highway” is punch-drunk on atmosphere and dread, but it’s curiously light on some of the other factors that have made Lynch’s work so memorable in the past. It’s an off-putting, stilted film that occasionally gets under the skin, but too often lacks the full-bore commitment of something like “Mulholland Drive” or “Eraserhead”. It’s a fascinating film to revisit, however and constantly plays in different registers upon each new viewing.

“The Straight Story” (1999)

Famous for being the only Lynch film distributed by Walt Disney with a G-rating, and not written or co-written by him, the pilgrim story of Alvin Straight (soulfully portrayed by Richard Farnsworth) and his journey from Laurens, Iowa to Mount Zion, Wisconsin on a 1966 John Deere lawnmower is propelled by a deep-seeded emotional core. Anchored by the central, Oscar-nominated, performance from Farnsworth (who was suffering from a painful cancer during the shoot), the immersive nature of “The Straight Story” is felt in the way it’s gradually peeled back, revealing, in small doses, the traces of a man strung together by a lifetime’s worth of pain, regret, and bottomless guilt. Alvin’s disabled daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) sees him off after he finds out his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) had a stroke, and throughout the 240-mile journey the people he meets — a young teenager running away from home, a frazzled woman sick of hitting deer on the road, a fellow WWII vet, etc. — are like fragments that reflect a piece of the person he used to be. There’s a distinct sense of an order at work in his encounters, and on more than one occasion (when he loses control of his mower, for example, and the fear on his face is juxtaposed with a burning building), the unmistakable sense of ingrained symbolism is overwhelming. Edited with dream-like fades by Lynch’s then-girlfriend and collaborator Mary Sweeney (who co-wrote the script with John Roach), under the sun-licked fields of Middle America shot by Freddie Francis, everything about “The Straight Story” feels meticulously straightforward — right down to the shoot, which happened on location and in chronological order prompting Lynch to call it his “most experimental film” at the time. But, there’s a tremendous, ambiguous, power at work underneath its plain, peaceful, and poignant surface, making it straightforward in a deliciously Lynchian kind of way.

“Mulholland Drive” (2001)

Wake up and smell David Lynch’s signature coffee blend because we’ve arrived at “Mulholland Drive,” a picture submerged in some hidden crevasse of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly, highlighting the man’s greatest strengths as director, writer, and abstract dreamer. “I just came from Deep River, Ontario, and now I’m in this… dream place!” exclaims ingenue Betty (Naomi Watts‘ virtuoso breakthrough role), and the deeper the film burrows into its central mystery, the more hypnotized the viewer becomes, our gaze succumbing to what quickly turns into the quintessential Lynchian reverie. Narrative threads converge around aspiring star Betty and an amnesic brunette (Laura Harring, enchanting) who is a person of great interest for many shady characters, while director Adam (Justin Theroux) is forced for reasons altogether ambiguous and strange to cast a very specific girl as the lead for his next film. “This is the girl” is an oft-repeated line, and when it comes Lynch’s regular collaborators Angelo Badalamenti (making an unforgettable cameo as a disturbingly awkward casting agent), Mary Sweeney, and Jack Fisk, this is the film. This is the film where composition, editing, and production design converge like a symphony from an artistic subconscious, to reveal David Lynch as one of the greatest masters of illusion, a grand ventriloquist of the senses, and a supreme maestro of disturbing, deep emotion. “No hay banda,” right? Whether it’s through blue keys, frightening figures behind Winky’s restaurants, albino cowboys, little black books, or Lynch’s favorite little person (Michael J. Anderson), “Mulholland Drive” is a dream place where all sense of self dissipates in an atmosphere sprinkled by the soul-corrupting dark glitter of Tinseltown. One pines for what could’ve been with “Mulholland Drive” the TV show, as it was original conceived, but we should all do the jitterbug for having the finished film as it is, a beautiful neo-noir mystery wrapped in psychosexual garments of horror and romance.

“Inland Empire” (2006)

No one thought Lynch could go deeper into the ether of his own unhinged consciousness after “Mulholland Drive.” That film had eschewed formal narrative entirely in favor of something that felt like a living, malleable nightmare. How much further down the rabbit hole could he possibly go? Turns out he hadn’t even scratched the surface yet. Instead of a return to semi-recognizable movie narratives spiked with his own bizarre fetishes and motifs, “Inland Empire” is the director’s boldest, most provocative and puzzling film to date. Opening with a series of dreamy non-sequiturs – a snippet from “Axxon N”, a family of rabbits enacting sitcom scenarios – “Inland Empire” becomes the story of Nikki, (Laura Dern) an actress starring in a movie called “On High in Blue Tomorrows” who practically loses herself in her character, all while slowly, awfully, inextricably losing her grip on her sanity. If that sounds like a bare-bones description, there really isn’t any way to sensibly describe it through text – it plays like music, not linear but atmospheric and dense. As Nikki, Dern proves again that she’s the perfect muse for this director, while Jeremy Irons gives a bracing turn as Nikki’s meretricious director and Justin Theroux certainly makes an impression as her co-star. No one gives an “actor-y” performance per se: they are all dabs of paint on the filmmaker’s canvas, working in service of his vision. In fact, “Inland Empire” might be evidence enough of why Lynch hasn’t directed a theatrically released feature in almost ten years: if all his potential pitches were as unapologetically weird as this one, who exactly would fund another risky roll of the dice on his ever-more-arcane vision? But even though lacking in coherence, “Inland Empire” is filled with dreamlike passages that burn their way into your mind and your dreams: it is a true, uncompromising Los Angeles nightmare, and a terrifying glimpse of what can happen when the everyday mind loses its grip on the subconscious one.

That’s it as far as features go for Lynch, but if you’ve already worked your way through his back catalog a couple of times, there’s more out there. Many of Lynch’s short films, which he’s made fairly prolifically, are available on DVD and Blu-Ray, either paired with a feature (“Eraserhead” and “Lost Highway” Blu-ray sets are well-stocked), or in a collection like “The Short Films Of David Lynch,” “The Lime Green Set” or “Dynamic 1.” Some are online too, like Idem Paris,” his love-letter to a Paris printshop. .

Beyond that, there’s his TV work. With Mark Frost, he created a short-lived documentary show called “American Chronicles,” fronted by Richard Dreyfuss and airing for a few months on Fox in late 1990, just a few months after “Twin Peaks” had started. Lynch directed six episodes of the latter, cult show, and one episodes of “On The Air,” a 1992 sitcom he created with Frost about the crew of a 1950s TV station, that was cancelled after just three outings. There was also “Hotel Room,” a 1993 three-episode anthology series for HBO that he created and produced with “Wild At Heart” author Barry Gifford. He directed two of the episodes — “Tricks,” starring Harry Dean Stanton, and “Blackout” with Crispin Glover and Alicia Witt. He was also, oddly, a regular voice actor on Seth MacFarlane’s “The Cleveland Show,” and appeared in a memorable three-episode run of “Louie” too.

There were also a few music videos including ones for Sparks, Moby, Interpol and Nine Inch Nails, and a Playstation 2 commercial. And, of course, his painting (he’s had retrospectives in Paris and Pennsylvania), photography, recent music career, with two studio albums, design work, and recently-announced memoir. Even if he hasn’t made a movie in nearly a decade, Lynch has been a busy man…

– Jessica Kiang, Nicholas Laskin, Oliver Lyttelton, Nikola Grozdanovic

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