When the dreamlike and the devastating collide, a specific term springs to mind: Lynchian. Since Eraserhead first thrust David Lynch into the cinematic spotlight four decades ago, the filmmaker’s penchant for painting the darkness of everyday life with surrealist strokes has continually proved worthy of its own adjective. As fan and Lynch’s one-time director Louie CK explains, “He’s just sharing his subconscious with people.”
Never failing to expose the bleakness lurking behind the veneer of mundanity and normality, while still revelling in the small joys, quirks, humour and affection that’s part of human existence, Lynch crafts movies and television series no one else could even envision. His five-years-in-the-making debut sparked a career that has constantly demonstrated that claim, from the suburban malaise and mania of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks to the experimental audio-visual assault that is Inland Empire.
This week's VICE Guide To Film takes viewers on a journey through Lynch’s filmography, impact and influence. We are run through the basics behind the man that gave the world a damn fine coffee and cherry pie addiction, as well as nightmares about ears in the grass and men leaping over couches.
You can watch the show now:
The Lynch essentials
Lynch describes himself as an Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana. It’s in his Twitter bio, it’s how he introduces himself when speaking to a crowd, it’s written in press kits and it’s how he shares his background in interviews. It may seem like the most straightforward thing about a filmmaker who routinely defies categorisation, but it’s also Lynch through and through. He willingly offers four simple words to explain who he is, but he also knows that’s only one way of putting it. Lynch is the driving force behind the likes of Wild at Heart and Lost Highway, after all, while also boasting the stately and warmhearted The Elephant Man and sci-fi space opera Dune on his resume.
Indeed, whether he’s stepping into a small town’s hidden depths in his iconic, recently resurrected television series Twin Peaks, exploring the other side of chasing stardom in his mid-career masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, or seemingly taking a more generic path in The Straight Story, interrogation and interpretation sit at the centre of Lynch’s body of work. And while Lynch hasn’t made a theatrically released film for 11 years, his output remains plentiful. To date, that includes not only three seasons of Twin Peaks, two other TV series, 10 features and a Duran Duran music documentary, but also a hefty body of visual art that continues to be the subject of exhibitions around the world, and an array of music videos, short films, commercials and web series. The list goes on, and includes several records and singles, a comic strip, furniture design, a small but significant collection of acting work and a book on his practice of transcendental meditation.
With each piece, Lynch encourages his audience to peer and probe — and, of course, to come up with their own conclusions. More than that, he famously won’t explain his creations when asked. Inspiring viewers, listeners and readers to wonder, ponder, and piece together thoughts and theories is as much a part of Lynch’s oeuvre as his recurrent filmmaking motifs, even if that evokes boos, as the Cannes Film Festival premiere of the then-maligned, now-celebrated Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me did. Each dream, doppelgänger and distorted noise echoing across his intricately constructed soundscapes; each glimpse of swaying red curtains, sultry singers onstage and the shimmering roadway seen through a car’s windscreen — they all invite intrigue and rumination, just as they all offer Lynch’s inimitable perspective on life.
Watch 'Lost Highway' at SBS On Demand
David Lynch explores possession and guilt in this mind-bending thriller about a jazz saxophonist, Fred, who, after a bizarre encounter at a party, is framed for the murder of his wife and sent to prison. As Fred sits on death row, he inexplicably morphs into a young mechanic and begins leading a new life. Stars Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty
Three things you mightn’t know
- His first project with Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost was a television biopic of Marilyn Monroe, but it never came to fruition.
- He wrote the lyrics for four music releases crafted with two key Twin Peaks figures — the first two albums released by Julee Cruise, who sang "Falling", the Twin Peaks theme song, and an album and five-track EP as part of a collaboration with Christa Bell, who plays Agent Tammy Preston in Twin Peaks’s third season.
- His 2007 short film, Lamp, features Lynch making a lamp. It’s that simple, but, as with everything Lynchian, it’s also hypnotic.
Five films — and a TV series — you really need to see
Eraserhead: After realising he wanted to make paintings that could move, Lynch stepped from the canvas to short films to making his feature directorial debut while studying at the American Film Institute. Eraserhead feels like the perfect evolution of his early filmmaking experiments, such as Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times), The Alphabet and The Grandmother, and the perfect existential nightmare. As well as sharing Lynch’s flair for towering hair, the film’s star — and Lynch’s friend — Jack Nance would go on to play Pete Martell in Twin Peaks’s first two seasons.
Blue Velvet: It’s easy to find common threads running through Lynch’s work, weaving them all together. With that in mind, Blue Velvet couldn’t be a better precursor to Twin Peaks, though it’s a memorable psychological horror effort on its own merits. Before he was Special Agent Dale Cooper, Kyle MacLachlan played a wholesome college student plunged into the seedy side of his logging hometown and forced to cross paths with Dennis Hopper’s terrifying mobster. Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the film, his second after The Elephant Man.
Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me: First, Twin Peaks was the must-watch, must-talk-about show of the early '90s. Then, it inspired a devisive prequel feature that ranks as one of the scariest movies ever made. In the years since, it was the series fans couldn’t stop revisiting, with its central murder mystery an entry point into a town, a case and a show like no other. Come 2017, and its 18-episode resurrection eclipsed all expectations — MacLachlan’s starring role, the enigma of Laura Palmer, a return visit to the Black Lodge and beyond, and the wonderful and strange titular location included.
Mulholland Drive: If Blue Velvet proved an ideal predecessor to Twin Peaks, then Mulholland Drive couldn’t be a more fitting post-Peaks effort — not that Lynch’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Wild at Heart doesn’t also fit the bill, or Lost Highway as well. Another blonde finds herself in a world of trouble here, another facade is shattered, and another blend of surreal dreams and grim reality arises in an entrancing and intriguing way. This time, Naomi Watts leads the way in a stunning, star-making turn, playing an aspiring actress freshly arrived in Hollywood.
Inland Empire: In his quest to campaign for an Academy Award nomination for Inland Empire’s lead actress, Laura Dern, Lynch took to Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard with a live cow. That’s perhaps the least strange thing about the film. Sprawling in its three-hour running time but claustrophobic in its contents, Lynch’s first feature shot entirely on standard definition digital video hits many of his beloved beats, but, as his work always proves, no two of his efforts are ever the same — including this account of an actress starring in a new movie.
Who’s sharing the Lynch love?
Mädchen Amick: Amick only had a handful of acting credits to her name when the then-19-year-old was cast in Twin Peaks. She reprised her role as Shelly Johnson in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and this year’s third season of the show.
Aliza Ma: Ma is the head of programming at New York’s Metrograph cinema. In the November/December 2017 issue of Film Comment, she analyses the recent season of Twin Peaks.
Isabella Rossellini: As well as featuring in Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart — the former comprising one of her first significant acting roles after coming to fame as a model — Rossellini dated the filmmaker in the late '80s and early '90s.
Dennis Lim: Director of programming at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, Lim wrote the book David Lynch: The Man From Another Place.
Louis CK: A fan of Lynch’s work, the (now disgraced) comedian, writer and director cast him in his television series, Louie. As CK explained to The New York Times, it took two months of emailing to convince him to play the part of Jack Dall, a late-night television producer, in the show’s third season.
Scott Coffey: A frequent Lynch collaborator, Coffey’s first acting role for the director came in Wild at Heart, but his scenes were deleted from the final cut. He would go on to appear in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Rabbits, Inland Empire and the third season of Twin Peaks.
What should I watch next?
Check out the SBS Movie Show review of what remains Lynch’s latest fictional feature, Inland Empire, at SBS On Demand:
Learn more about the worlds great filmmakers fromThe Vice Guide to Film. Previous episodes exploring the work of Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, Todd Haynes, and more can be found at SBS On Demand.