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David Lynch Revisited: Why We Need His Genius Now More Than Ever — Critics Debate

With a documentary on Lynch in theaters alongside a NYC retrospective, and the new season of "Twin Peaks" right around the corner, we debate the continuing relevance of a great American filmmaker.

David Lynch David Lynch speaks during a press preview of David Lynch: The Unified Field, at his former school The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. The show is schedule to be on view from Sept. 13, 2014 to Jan. 11, 2015, and is the first major U.S. museum exhibition of the filmmaker and PAFA alumnus' workArt David Lynch, Philadelphia, USA

David Lynch

Matt Rourke/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Editor’s note: On the heels of David Lynch’s imminent return to the small screen with Showtime’s much-anticipated “Twin Peaks” continuation, the singular filmmaker is also the subject of a brand new documentary — “David Lynch: The Art Life” — and a full-scale IFC retrospective. With Lynch poised to rocket back to the cultural consciousness, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, David Ehrlich, Kate Erbland and Anne Thompson traded emails about the mysterious auteur’s talent and its continuing relevance today. 

ERIC: I love David Lynch, but find the source of his popularity questionable, and am concerned about his imminent return with “Twin Peaks.” He’s one of the best-known American filmmakers of our time and probably the least understood. When “Eraserhead” became a midnight movie phenomenon in 1977, it wasn’t because people flocked to the theaters in the hopes of understanding the literal meaning of Lynch’s nightmarish black-and-white debut. Instead, it was the inscrutable qualities of a terrible place dictated by unconscious fears and desires that left such an indelible impact on American film culture.

The very notion of a “Lynchian” aesthetic has less to do with puzzle pieces than puzzling experiences. Lynch traffics in astonishing images and bizarre exchanges, usually against the backdrop of an American landscape repurposed in eerie, dreamlike ways. “Blue Velvet” is probably the purest expression of a Lynchian conceits — it’s an astonishing cauldron of suburbia, sensuality, visceral horror and noir.

READ MORE: ‘Twin Peaks’: How David Lynch Kept Details of the Year’s Biggest Revival a Secret Even From His Own Cast

And yet it’s also pretty easy to follow, at least for the most part, which is another key attribute of Lynch’s artistic identity: He exploits the rules of conventional storytelling. The first act of “Mulholland Drive” is downright classical before things go bonkers. He knows exactly what he’s doing. But the utterly baffling “Inland Empire,” the last completed Lynch movie, suggests that he has lost patience with the challenge of guiding audiences down his customized rabbit hole of oddities. That makes me worry about his currency in this day and age, for two reasons: The prevalence of random humor and non sequiturs in our online age makes Lynch’s weirdness stand out less than it did a decade ago. Plus, every mystery now gets analyzed to death on Reddit, and the solutions to Lynch’s mysteries are usually beside the point.


So I’m wary of “Twin Peaks” being anything more than a satisfying asterisk that will appeal to fans of the original, and also wonder if it’s even possible for someone like David Lynch to be such a powerful cultural force in today’s market for moving images. Where do you all come down on this?

DAVID: Reflecting on Lynch’s body of work, and reading Eric’s contextualization of Lynch as something of an analog artist in the digital age — the pixelated dementia of “Inland Empire” notwithstanding — I’m struck by a feeling that I’ve been waiting to have for way too long: I’m finally excited for the return of “Twin Peaks.”

I think there are a few reasons why it took me a little while to get here. The first is that the show simply didn’t feel real until the teaser trailers and whatnot started popping up — at the same time, the recent rash of Netflix reboots (besides “Gilmore Girls”) made the reality of a “Twin Peaks” continuation, however tenuous that reality might be, feel far more mundane than it should. Beyond that, I worried that it might be a golden opportunity for Lynch to cheapen his legend, to hitch himself back to the brilliant, baffling runaway train at the center of his career and prove to those in power that his unique brand of deeply unnerving kitsch didn’t have a place in a culture that’s consumed by recaps and fan theories.

“Inland Empire”

But that’s precisely why we need him. I can’t speak to what the new season of “Twin Peaks” will have to offer, or the ways in which it might reflect how the world has changed since “Fire Walk With Me” faded from theaters in 1992, but it’s extremely safe to assume that Lynch won’t have abandoned his core ethos at this point in his life, that he won’t have delivered these episodes to Showtime with a neat little ribbon on top. If modern times have taught us anything, it’s that 70-year-old men don’t change, even if they promise that they will. So, no matter how this shakes out, we’re in store for what Don Draper would call “the antidote to the modern television show. It won’t go full “Inland Empire,” but season 3 will still be a real shock to the system. It will offer a mystery that can’t be solved by trawling for clues, and — if the first two seasons (and “Mulholland Drive”) were any indication — it will tease viewers down a rabbit hole where there’s no light, but plenty of fine discoveries to see.

If all goes well, it will remind us of the joys of getting lost inside ourselves.

READ MORE: ‘Eraserhead’ 40th Anniversary: Watch David Lynch Explain His Movie Over Four Decades of Interviews

KATE: While I’m as cautious as the next gal when it comes to the possibilities of what modern-day reboots/reimaginings/requels have to offer up in an industry hellbent on chewing up everything the past has had to offer, I think David’s assertion that Lynch will be as Lynchian as ever in this new take on “Twin Peaks” is compelling. Or, gosh, I hope so. We’ve all seen what can happen when Lynch’s creativity and vision is restrained, or at least pushed into a seemingly more consumable box (hi, second season of “Twin Peaks,” what’s up, Laura Palmer’s killers?), and if he’s back for more in this new take on his beloved tale, there’s gotta be something there that’s got him hopped up.

Kyle Maclachlan and Michael Ontkean in "Twin Peaks."

Kyle Maclachlan and Michael Ontkean in “Twin Peaks.”


That’s really the most exciting element of this next chapter in Lynch’s indelible, always-evolving career: If he can stay himself in a changing industry and continue to create the way he wants to while also being backed by a massive corporation like Showtime, there’s more hope for other auteurs of his ilk. At the very least, a whole new season of “Twin Peaks” will only further his legacy and open up his wholly unique charms to a new audience who are eager to see what all the fuss is about.

More people watching “Eraserhead” or “Blue Velvet”? Sign me up.

ANNE: “Twin Peaks” was a television extension of Lynch’s quintessentially American dreamscape: seemingly normal on the surface, but teeming with oddities and surreal flourishes and unsettling secrets coming to light. His casting, as always, was impeccable. And he knew how to extend the story across multiple episodes. Haven’t we all been waiting for Lynch’s return? With “The Elephant Man” long in the rearview mirror, Lynch is no longer interested in reaching the mainstream. Who would make that movie today? Thus the director has been victim, like so many talented auteurs, to the increasingly banal limitations of even the specialty marketplace.

Cable television — and a reliable brand — offer him refuge, as it has everyone from Steven Soderbergh to Paolo Sorrentino. And as shows from “Legion” and “The Knick” to “The Young Pope” and “Sense8” attest, there’s room in today’s cable universe for him to indulge his weird European artfulness. Lynch is free to play around with offbeat casting, myriad crazy details in his production design and costumes, and off-kilter camera angles.

I’ll never forget the gang of diehards watching the “Twin Peaks” finale back in 1991 at the American Pavilion at Cannes. We’ll have to arrange something again: The new show’s May 21 Showtime debut is smack in the middle of the festival.

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