As anyone who’s seen one of his films can attest, David Lynch is one weird filmmaker. Perhaps more than any other director working today, he lets his subconscious do the heavy lifting when it comes to storytelling. Anthropomorphic talking rabbits? Check. A human baby that looks like a squid? Check. A homicidal maniac who is sexually obsessed with blue velvet? Yeah, Lynch has made movies about all these bizarre things. He’s a popular surrealist, infusing soap opera storytelling with liberal doses of uncanny madness. He’s also a great filmmaker, with a knack for atmosphere and getting under the skin of his viewers. Few directors are better able to depict the well of sin lurking beneath the wholesome exterior of Americana.
David Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana in 1946, but he spent most of childhood traveling around the United States to wherever the United States Department of Agriculture stationed his father. After grade school, Lynch spent a failed year at the School of the Museum of the Fine Arts, Boston. He then enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It’s there he first dabbled with film, making short experimental films that incorporated his paintings. Lynch famously hated Philadelphia and soon moved to Los Angeles to join the newly formed American Film Institute Conservatory. The AFI provided him with the financial backing to direct his first feature film, the experimental fatherhood drama Eraserhead (1977).
Eraserhead took Lynch five years to complete, being made piecemeal whenever Lynch had the money to afford the shooting days. The film follows a young man named Henry (Jack Fisk) who has a deformed baby with his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and attempts to survived the nightmarish aspects of new fatherhood and the industrial wasteland of a city he lives in. Eraserhead is full of dream imagery and makes little to no literal sense. Lynch has said numerous times that trying to decipher the meaning behind the film’s nightmarish imagery is a fool’s task. Despite this impenetrable surrealism, the viewer still can decipher the parental anxiety that drives the film, as well as the paranoid feeling of living in an oppressive world. Eraserhead would be the last film I’d recommend to an expecting parent, or anyone thinking of having kids in the near future. The sheer vileness of the baby in the film is enough to make one consider sterilization. When Eraserhead was finally released in 1977 it became a hit on the midnight movie circuit. Stanley Kubrick even called it one of his favourite films of all time.
The film’s cult success and critical status gave Lynch the artistic capital to transition to Hollywood for his next project, the historical drama The Elephant Man (1980). The film told the heartbreaking tale of the severely deformed John Merrick, who suffered from a rare degenerative disorder that made his limbs appear swollen and grotesque. The Elephant Man was a great success, garnering eight Academy Award nominations, including Lynch’s first Best Director nom. Despite its conventionality, it still bears Lynch’s unique stamp, highlighting the grotesquery of the carnival world and exploring the barbaric nature that lurks beneath bourgeois respectability. Lynch followed up The Elephant Man with another Hollywood picture, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece Dune. Despite the promise of the source material and the ample budget he was allowed to play with, Lynch’s Dune (1984) is his only unquestionable failure, a woefully miscalculated sci-fi epic that ups the novel’s grotesque aspects while completely ignoring its mystical and romantic appeal. Lynch’s ambivalence towards the source material is apparent in the film’s every frame.
Luckily, Lynch’s deal with Dino De Laurentiis to direct Dune also allowed him to make a smaller picture as its follow-up, the small town mystery Blue Velvet (1986). Blue Velvet is Lynch’s masterpiece. No film save Rear Window (1954) does a better job of equating the protagonist’s voyeurism with the voyeurism of the viewer. Of course, unlike Rear Window, Blue Velvet connects the voyeurism of its protagonist to the sexual violence of the villains he watches. It explores voyeurism as a way of exorcising the demons that lurk under the skin of even the best people.
The film follows Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a college student who finds an ear in the field of his small hometown and investigates who it could have belonged to. His investigation leads him to the apartment of a lounge singer, Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), where he discovers she lives as a thrall to a criminal named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper), who has kidnapped her husband and child in order to turn her into a sexual slave. Jeffrey’s investigation leads him down the rabbit hole of his cozy hometown, revealing its seedy underbelly and the psycho-sexual desires that exist within himself.
From the opening credits of Blue Velvet, set against a curtain of blue velvet with Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting score playing over top, Lynch’s tone and vision is apparent. The film’s opening scene, a montage of quiet life in the fictional American town, outlines everything you need to know about the film you’re about to see. The first shot is a tilt down on roses in front of a white picket fence, with Bobby Vinton singing “Blue Velvet” over top. This is the American ideal: wholesome, quiet, pretty, and dull. The frame cuts to a wide shot slowly panning right of a fireman riding a vintage firetruck down a suburban street, a dalmatian sitting patiently next to him. The fireman waves to the camera. The shot reinforces the suburban stereotypes of Blue Velvet’s setting, but it also subconsciously alerts the viewer to the film’s preoccupation with voyeurism. The fireman looking at the camera is subtly unnerving. Movie characters aren’t supposed to acknowledge the viewer, to watch us watching them. But Blue Velvet is all about watching and right from the second frame Lynch is signalling its importance.
The frame cuts to another brief shot of yellow tulips in front of a picket fence and a shot of a crossing guard waving children across the street. It then cuts to a wide shot of the Beaumont household. The next shot shows us Jeffrey’s dad watering the picturesque backyard. Inside the house, we cut to Jeffrey’s mom sitting on the couch watching a murder soap opera. When the shot cuts to the television screen, it shows a gloved hand holding a gun. It’s key that these wholesome characters would watch such a show. In their blissfully unaware world, violence is something that only happens on a TV show. The frame cuts back to a cowboy shot of Jeffrey’s dad outside. It then cuts to a closeup of the hose attached to the faucet on the side of the house. We hear an ominous rumble as the water fills the hose. Something’s not right. It cuts back to the cowboy shot of Jeffrey’s dad as he tugs on the hose caught on a branch. The frame cuts to a close-up of the hose constricting around the branch, not giving in to the tug. It goes back to Jeffrey’s dad before cutting back to the faucet. The rumble gets louder. It cuts to the constricting hose again. The knot gets tighter. It cuts back to the faucet about to burst then back to Jeffrey’s dad as he grasps his neck in pain. He falls into the mud. The hose is still blasting water. It cuts to a closeup tilting down as the water sprays about in circles, almost like a sprinkler. It then cuts to a wide shot of a dog biting at the water spraying out of the hose as Jeffrey’s dad lays helpless. It punches in closer to a medium wide shot and we notice that the hose is undeniably phallic. It goes even closer to a close-up of the dog biting in slow motion, its barks turning into malevolent growls.
The frame then cuts to a close-up of the grass and starts panning down to the ground, pushing in slowly. We can still hear the water, but the rumble starts to overpower the sound of the spraying hose. We cut closer to the ground and the camera pushes forward, parting the blades of grass as it moves deeper into the ground. Finally, as the last blades of grass part, we see bugs, festering, chomping on the grass, the sounds of their bites overpowering the soundtrack. Beneath this beautiful lawn with a white picket fence, there’s something evil and monstrous lurking. This opening scene lays out all of Blue Velvet’s themes in just over two minutes and without a word of dialogue. Such narrative economy and symbolic storytelling speaks to Lynch’s immense talent.
After Blue Velvet’s critical and modest commercial success, he partnered with Mark Frost to create a TV series for ABC. The resulting show was Twin Peaks (1990), following the investigation into the death of a high school prom queen in a town in the Pacific Northwest. The show would further the themes of American domesticity hiding perversion and corruption that Lynch explored in Blue Velvet. The series was a huge hit in its first season, but its second season alienated viewers by prematurely solving its central mystery and delving deeper into its bizarre mythology. It was cancelled after its second season, ending on an infuriating cliffhanger, although it was picked up earlier this month for a third season to air on Showtime in 2016. In 1992, Lynch released a companion film to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which failed to answer many of the questions left by the cliffhanger finale. However, the film did a great job of further exploring the malicious forces at work in the town of Twin Peaks.
In the midst of working on Twin Peaks, David Lynch also released Wild at Heart (1990), a road trip romance starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern that won him the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. After Twin Peak’s cancellation and Fire Walk with Me’s critical failure, Lynch returned to surreal storytelling with Lost Highway (1997), which started an unofficial trilogy of Lynch exploring moebius strip narratives. The trilogy also consisted of Mulholland Dr. (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006), which featured damaged characters caught up in fantasy realities they create to cope with their pasts. In the midst of these films, Lynch also released The Straight Story (1999), which, as the title suggests, was his most straightforward narrative: a touching tale of an elderly man driving his John Deere lawnmower over 300 miles to visit his estranged, ailing brother.
David Lynch is the man who made surreal filmmaking mainstream. He bridges the gap between experimental cinema and the wholesome soaps that beguile daytime TV viewers. The meaning of his films may often be inexplicable, but their power is undeniable. He gets under the skin of the viewer and reveals the festering psychoses that drive the viewer’s subconscious desires. He is a master at showing the best and the worst of humanity. He may seem insane, but his vision of what drives human beings is both startlingly sober and sadly accurate.